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What was the implication of Article 78 in the USSR Constitution for Nagorno-Karabakh?

Article 78 in the USSR Constitution, which was adopted in 1977, stated that “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”.[1] This article means that it was the sovereign right of Union republics to determine their borders, and without their permission their territorial integrity could not be changed. Accordingly, territorial claims by neighboring Union republics on any other Union republic and secession movements by autonomous regions were considered illegal. In addition to Article 79, which established that “a Union Republic shall determine its division into territories, regions, areas, and districts, and decide other matters relating to its administrative and territorial structure”[2], the Constitution also strengthened the position of the Union republic over its autonomous regions.

Armenia breached Article 78 in the USSR Constitution when it put the claim on the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan and adopted a parliamentary resolution on the annexation of NKAO to its territory. In 1991, when Nagorno-Karabakh Armenians held a referendum and subsequently declared their independence, they ignored and failed to respect Article 78 in the Constitution. However, the so-called Republic insists that its independence was legal according to the Soviet legislature.[3] As a way of justifying its aggression policy, the Armenian side cited the Soviet law, “On the Procedures for Resolving Questions Related to the Secession of Union Republics from the USSR” of 3 April 1990[4], which allowed autonomous regions to determine their status within or out of the borders of the union state but contradicted the articles of the Constitution of USSR adopted in 1977, especially article 78. Since, the Constitution is regarded as a supreme legislature in comparison to others, Article 78 must be considered a determining factor regarding regulation of the status of autonomous regions in the former Soviet Union.

Consequently, it should be stated that the independence of the so-called ‘Nagorno-Karabakh Republic’ is illegal according to Soviet Law, and the occupation of the territories of the Azerbaijan Republic by Armenia is an act of aggression by one neighboring state against another.

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

[2] “Article 79”, The Constitution of USSR, 1977.

[3] Avakian, Shahen, Nagorno-Karabakh: Legal Aspect (TIGRAN METS Publishing House, 2010), p. 13.

[4] Avakian, Nagorno-Karabakh: Legal Aspect, p. 33