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To what extent does the unilateral declaration of the so-called Nagorno-Karabakh Republic and its secession from Azerbaijan fit the provisions of the Soviet Law of April 3, 1990?

One of the complicated legal aspect of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is the Soviet law entitled “On the Procedures for Resolving Questions Related to the Secession of Union Republics from the USSR” dated April 3, 1990, which is mainly cited by the Armenian side to justify its separatist claims from a legal perspective. Armenia believes that the Soviet law of April 3, 1990, especially “Articles 1, 3, 4, 6, 7, 8, 12 and 19, provided that the secession of a Soviet Republic from the body of the USSR allows an autonomous region within the territory of the same republic to trigger its own process of independence”.[1]

As a matter of fact, the law was drawn up and passed without discussion within the Union republics on the eve of the collapse of the Soviet Union, when the leaders of failing states were trying to work out a strategy that would prevent the dissolution of the empire, and suggested the legislature that would make secession more difficult to achieve.[2] Moreover, the law should be considered illegal because it contravenes Articles 72 and 78 in the USSR Constitution, which was adopted in 1977 and was still the supreme law of the country at that time. According to Article 78, “the territory of a Union Republic may not be altered without its consent. The boundaries between Union Republics may be altered by mutual agreement of the Republics concerned, subject to ratification by the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics”.[3] Obviously, the Soviet law of April 3, 1990 directly contravenes Article 78 in the Constitution, since there was not any consent from Azerbaijan side for the secession of Nagorno-Karabakh.

Additionally, by declaring their independence, the Armenians of the NKAO breached Articles 6 and 7 in the Soviet Law of April 3, 1990, which stated that two thirds of the region’s population must participate in a referendum, and after the referendum the result must be approved by the Union republic and sent to Moscow for further deliberations.[4] In fact, the Azerbaijani population of the NKAO did not take part in the referendum, and the results were not sent for Azerbaijan’s approval.

Taking all the abovementioned issues into account, it may be concluded that the Soviet law “On the Procedures for Resolving Questions Related to the Secession of Union Republics from the USSR” of April 3, 1990 was unconstitutional and must be considered illegal. Therefore, the occupation of Azerbaijani territories by Armenia and the proclamation of independence of the so-called Nagorno-Karabakh Republic were illegitimate.

[1] Avakian, Shahen, Nagorno-Karabakh: Legal Aspect (TIGRAN METS Publishing House, 2010), p. 33.

[2] Baguirov, Adil, “Nagorno-Karabakh: Basis and Reality of Soviet-era Legal and Economic Claims used to Justify the Armenia-Azerbaijan War”, Caucasian Review of International Affairs, Vol. 2, No. 1, 2008, p. 10.

[3] “Article 78”, The Constitution of USSR, 1977.

[4] “Article 6-7”, Soviet Law “on the Procedures for Resolving Questions Related to the Secession of Union Republics from the USSR”, April 3, 1990.