Why self-determination is the underdog, but essential

Posted on March. 2. 2022

BY STEPAN PILIGIAN | The Armenian Weekly

There are times in our sophisticated society that we layer so much procedural and bureaucratic material on fundamental concepts that we tend to lose sight of the original intent. For over 30 years, the Artsakh conflict has been articulated by each side as a battle of “territorial integrity” versus “self-determination.” Each concept is included in the fabric of the European Union, its affiliates and the United Nations (UN). Artsakh obviously is committed to the concept of the right of self-determination as an oppressed minority. They have consistently stated from the earliest days of the Karabakh movement in the late 80s to their current status as an unrecognized democratic republic that they are simply advocating their right to determine their future as a distinct group living as an indigenous people in a defined territory. The Azerbaijanis, for their part, consider Artsakh an integral part of Azerbaijan and oppose any attempt at autonomy, independence or full sovereignty. Of course, the facts clearly indicate that Artsakh was never an integral part of Azerbaijan. After the “award” by Stalin in the early 1920s defining Karabakh as an “autonomous oblast” in Azerbaijan, the Azeris have manipulated this unjust move into full-scale oppression. Essentially, when the Armenians exercised their legal and peaceful rights of self-determination in the final days of the Soviet Union, the Azerbaijanis responded with violence and war. Since that time, the so-called “frozen conflict” has been a standoff of these two diplomatic and legal positions. Military actions have altered the territorial balance, but the conflict remains unresolved.

One of the reasons for the stalemate has been the lack of good faith negotiations by Azerbaijan. They have essentially failed to honor every agreement starting with the ceasefire they requested in 1994. Another contributor to the failure has been the inherent conflict between these two concepts. The OSCE Minsk Group, chartered with the settlement process, has consistently embraced both ideals by stating that the resolution must be consistent with the concepts of “self -determination” AND “territorial integrity.” They have maintained a position of no accountability even when violence and aggression have clearly been initiated by one party. Azerbaijan has extended its intransigence further by refusing to cooperate with the OSCE claiming that its 2020 criminal aggression resolved the Karabakh conflict. In a rare move of disagreement, all participating parties from the individual OSCE co-chairs (Russia, France, US) as well as all European bodies and numerous European nations, have officially stated that the conflict is not resolved. For a nation known for violence and criminal action, Azerbaijan takes the weak responses as a green light for their aggression.

A closer review of the negotiating history indicates that the two concepts have had a neutralizing impact and enabled the “frozen” status. Aliyev has actually used the lack of progress as justification for unilateral military action. Putting the legal aspects of this aside for a moment, a practical look may have some value. Historically those who advocate “self-determination” are typically the oppressed party that either for ethnic, cultural or survival reasons seek to determine their future. It is no coincidence that the vast majority of parties aligning with”territorial integrity” are insisting on the maintenance of the status quo despite the gross injustice that may have created that status quo. Kosovo was created as a sovereign enclave for Muslim ethnic Albanians based on their vulnerability from the former Yugoslavian ethnic wars. Others, such as the Serbs, claim the territory based on “territorial integrity,” but self-determination prevailed because the very existence of these people was at risk based on the atrocities and incompatibility experienced. The best solution for humanity was self-determination. It remains a partially recognized state since 2008. This should sound familiar to Armenians. The situation in Artsakh is unique but follows many of the same threads. The Armenians of Artsakh have sought their rights for over 100 years since the demise of the First Republic. The unfortunate decision of Stalin had a devastating impact on the presence of Armenians living in both Nakhichevan and Karabakh. The population of Armenians in Nakhichevan in the 1920s of over 50 percent became essentially zero by the 70s. The Azeris continued their racist policies with cultural genocide by destroying the artifacts of Armenian  civilization such as cemeteries, churches, monasteries and monuments. The people of Artsakh witnessed a forced decline from a super majority and took responsibility to prevent another Nakhichevan. As we have witnessed from Azeri policies, the lives of the Armenians of Artsakh depend on the resolution of the conflict.

In a practical sense, there is an inconsistency in the application of human rights when it comes to the oppressed and the oppressor. How can “territorial integrity” prevail in a conflict when the advocate has a decades long record of racism, violence and criminal behavior? Azerbaijan has offered the international community the greatest hard evidence why “self-determination” must prevail in the case of Artsakh. Many years ago, I attended a lecture on the Karabakh conflict at Harvard University. In the audience were several Tavitian scholars from Tufts University. This program, which has been in existence for several years, brings government service individuals from Armenia and Artsakh to study at the renowned Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts. I will never forget the words of this young diplomat who stood and stated that the declaration of self-determination in Artsakh was to “prevent a second genocide.” It’s a profound statement that I have quoted many times and is at the core of the resolution. Azerbaijan does not have a legal hold on Artsakh and therefore their claim of “territorial integrity” is invalid. However, perhaps more importantly, their criminal and human rights record clearly indicates that any governance relationship with the Armenians of Artsakh would result in continued cultural genocide and atrocities. It would become the next Nakhichevan. At the end of the day, organizations like the UN, the OSCE and the European community all claim that human rights is the foundation of their charter. Any attempt to resolve the conflict by establishing a governance relationship between Azerbaijan and Artsakh would be completely inconsistent with their mission.

Another important factor to consider is the impact of the world order. Despite the rhetoric of the major nations, they are all advocates of the status quo. Change can be unpredictable and can appear in their backyard or in their domain. Investments in oil and gas have either neutralized many nations or created political advocates for Azerbaijan. The reality has been that most established nations, even those with adversarial relations, do not overtly support the advocates of “self determination” if they have defined self-interest. The oppressed usually have no recourse but to defend their rights from the oppressor. The isolation of Artsakh is not all due to the negotiating skills of the Armenians. Dictators are not optics for the image of organizations, like the UN, that claim to be vanguards of freedom and human rights, but they provide the stability that the world order craves. The dictator Tito kept the lid on the artificial nation called Yugoslavia for decades. The void after his reign led to the horrific conflict between Serbs, Croats and Bosnian Muslims. They are all distinct peoples seeking “self-determination,” but they were forced into a terrible conflict because there was no effective mechanism in this world to negotiate their needs and prevent conflict. Prevention should always be the objective, not damage control. What has the UN done for the people of Artsakh in the last 35 years other than pass a few resolutions that are actually anti-Armenian in content because they advocate the “territorial integrity” of the oppressor? Azerbaijan is then enabled to reference these “UN documents” to legitimize their terror campaign against the basic human rights of the people of Artsakh. Essentially the deck is stacked against the advocates of “self-determination.” It is not a balanced approach as the peace institutions, such as the OSCE claim, because there are no consequences to unilateral violence, and the “establishment” values the status quo despite the foundation of injustice in that current state. Unfortunately, the international bodies have become so politicized that effective peace management has become impossible. The Europeans were motivated to resolve the former Yugoslavian conflicts because their self interests on the continent were threatened. Only the most visionary can see the threat created by pan-Turkic expansion in the Caucasus. If self-interest prevailed in the Artsakh conflict, then the West and Russia would see that Turkish expansion is a direct threat to their interests. The Europeans have always naively viewed Turkey as their buffer and Russia made tradeoffs for their influence in Syria. As a result, the Armenians of Artsakh receive self-determination patronizing while the Turks have a Caucasus sandbox.

We need to sustain focus on the fact that all of these international bodies and western nations were founded on the principles of self determination, freedom and respect. These core values which are the essence of a civilized society are the polar opposite of what Turkey and Azerbaijan advocate in both spirit and practice. At one point in history, the greatest democracy, the United States of America, was the oppressed advocate of “self determination.” There were 13 colonies that demanded the right to determine their future. They had to fight for it, and the rest is history. England claiming that the colonies were the “king’s colonies” was essentially the role for “territorial integrity.” At one point, most of the great large and small nations in this world were advocating “self-determination.” It has been the source of many great examples of human rights advances. Where would this world be today if every campaign of “self-determination” was subordinated to the politics of injustice? There is no comparison. When a distinct ethnic group or culture in a defined geography is subject to continuous oppression and denied the right to experience their culture in freedom, then self-determination must prevail. The alternative is preventable atrocities. The UN, the major powers and the OSCE must re-examine their sacred responsibility to end oppression and enable peaceful, freedom loving people to prosper. We must end the use of territorial integrity as an excuse to continue racism, discrimination and cultural genocide in places like Artsakh. This is a cause not only for Armenians but for the foundation of humanity.

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