„The conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh will be settled, as soon as Russia wants it to be settled”

Heiko Langner. Photo: private.

Heiko Langner. Photo: private.

Heiko Langner on the question of why Azerbaijan is in the right under international law, what consequences the elections in Nagorno-Karabakh in May 2015 might have and on the question of why, currently, Russia as well as the US, do not favor conflict settlement.

Mr. Langner, why did you devote yourself to this conflict?

At the end of the 1980s there was a lot of coverage on the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh in the GDR. It helped the GDR leaders to point to the disadvantages they expected from Soviet Union’s Perestroika and Glasnost. Negative outcomes, like the erupting conflicts between different nations, were emphasized. This strategy was meant to help legitimize the GDR’s rejection of a similar policy towards democracy. Nevertheless, the media of the GDR followed the same strategy as the Muscovite Center and propagated a pro-Azerbaijani view since the conflict was threatening the Soviet Union as a whole. Gorbachev, as well as Honecker, were trying to avoid the breaking apart of the Soviet Union through conflicts between different nations. That united the two leaders while they kept their ideological differences regarding the future of social realism.

When Germany was reunited, the media shifted towards a pro-Armenian position. That made me think “Well, the GDR had probably lied to us”. But later, at the end of the 1990s, the news coverage once again presented the pro-Azerbaijani side. I became suspicious and started to do more in depth research on the issue.

The conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh appears to be multilayered: what is the focus of your work?

What you have to do is to find categories according to which you can research and evaluate conflicts such as this one. I chose international law because it is a politically neutral category.

International law is used to justify arguments of both parties. Armenia emphasizes the right of a people to self-determination, Azerbaijan refers to the right to territorial integrity. Is this a deadlock or will it be possible to reach a compromise?

International law does not complicate the conflict. On the contrary, it offers an appropriate frame because it aims at reconciliation of interests. However, the varying principles of international law are equally important, thus compromises are going to be necessary. Though, international law is in favor of Azerbaijan. This was confirmed by four resolutions of the UN Security Council in 1993, by the UN General Assembly in 2008 and several times by the Council of Europe and the EU. After decolonization, territorial integrity was given priority over the right to self-determination. Secession is generally not allowed. Only in particular, clearly defined exceptional situations, where the physical existence of a whole population is threatened – then, perhaps, one could claim the right to secession under international law. But there is no causality. Thus, territorial integrity has priority in practice! As this has been an affirmative practice, it has more or less become customary international law, over the years. According to Soviet law Nagorno-Karabakh cannot justify its independence. All of the Soviet republics did declare their independence in accordance with article 72 of the Soviet Union’s constitution. According to this article it was only possible to pull out as a whole nation state. Article 78 also regulated that a reorganization of borders within the Soviet Union was only legitimate as long as all parties agreed. Thus, at that time and under those conditions, Nagorno-Karabakh could not have secede from Soviet-Azerbaijan lawfully. Hence, when the Soviet Union collapsed, the formerly autonomous region was still an integral part of the then independent republic of Azerbaijan. After independence, the former administrative boundaries of the Soviet Union were upgraded to internationally recognized borders.

Thus, you are saying that according to international law, Azerbaijan is in the right?

Yes, according to international law, Azerbaijan is definitely in the right. In fact, Armenia has exhausted its right to national self-determination by the act of founding the republic Armenia. Armenians only belong to a nation when being inside of the republic Armenia. Those Armenians who live outside of Armenia belong to different titular nations; they belong to an “ethnic” minority or to a religious minority and thus, according to international law, they are entitled to internal self-determination but they are not entitled to form their own state. The right to external self-determination, in the form of secession, does not exist in international law. Those, who argue the converse, are “Voodoo experts of international law” who in fact hold reactionary and nationalistic views on self-determination. If this form of secession existed, the international system of states would collapse. Because almost any state has some kind of autochthonous or immigrated minorities who, according to this view, could claim the right to an own state. For example, the tiny minority of Danish people in Schleswig-Holstein could then lawfully claim a state and join Denmark. That is nonsense. That is not what self-determination in international law was meant for.

If, according to international law, the situation is obvious, why then does Armenia hold on to its strong position? What are important domestic factors?

Military victory had claimed many victims. Thus, in the eyes of Armenians, compromises were considered to worsen the situation. If the conquered territories had to be returned, all would have been for nothing and in a way Armenia’s victory would then be annihilated. The conflict is of great importance for national identity. The perception of the nation’s importance is directly connected with state territory. Not by chance did the Soviet system debate the possibility of Nagorno-Karabakh joining Armenia. On the one hand, Armenians wanted to extend their “national” territory and on the other hand, Azerbaijan wanted to keep “its” territory at any cost. It wasn’t until much later, when Nagorno-Karabakh started to refer to the right to “national self-determination”. This was a new strategy after the attempt to join Armenia had failed legally. This is exacerbated by the fact that not only the formerly autonomous region of Armenia was militarily occupied as a consequence of the war but in addition seven more regions were occupied in the area which had been inhabited by Azerbaijani population before. The conflict can only be solved permanently, if the populations and elites free themselves of their nationalistic heritage. But at the moment I don’t see any intention for that. On the contrary, the conflict leads to stronger nationalistic emotions on both sides. That’s why it is so difficult to reach a compromise.

The de facto parliament of Nagorno-Karabakh will be reelected in May 2015. What role will these elections have for a potential conflict settlement?

The elections do not have any practical implications. Not a single country will recognize these elections. In the conflict, internal political developments in Nagorno-Karabakh are of minor importance. It is rather a conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan. The parties to the conflict are Armenia and Azerbaijan, not Nagorno-Karabakh and Azerbaijan.

Speaking of recognition: What role does the conflict have for Europe and how is Europe involved in the conflict settlement?

When the war started at the beginning of the 1990s, the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh faded from the spotlight and the war in the Balkans gained more attention. In addition, the lack of knowledge of the situation was certainly another factor. The news coverage on the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh was reluctant and pro-Armenian positions dominated. Undeniably, political solidarity and empathy as well as cultural proximity were both important; there was deep empathy with the oldest Christian people and its difficult and moving history, Armenia. But in my view, these feelings should not influence the debate on the conflict. Existing conflicts can only be solved by a fair settlement of interests. You cannot settle a conflict by considering what the parties to the conflict consider to be “historical justice”.

The lack of interest in this region, in the media as well as in research, had to do with the fact that for a long time, German and European politics considered the conflict as one that was happening in the realm of Russia and thus an intervention was not desired. Although France and Germany joined the Minsk Group of the OSCE and took part in the mediation of the conflict, it stays unclear whether that was only for show. After more than 20 years, the mediation has barely produced any results.

At any rate, the conflict is debated among experts, recently.

Indeed, the entire region has been reevaluated after Europe and especially Germany had realized its geo-strategic significance for their energy politics. In addition, the armed conflict during ceasefire has raised international attention.

Nevertheless, more attention is needed; in the post-Soviet region this is the most dangerous conflict, since it has most potential for internationalization. In this regard, it is in fact more explosive than the war in Georgia in 2008.

Hence, you would not name it a “frozen conflict” as it is labeled in the literature?

On no account; it is an unresolved conflict. The term “frozen conflict” suggests that nothing is happening. But that is not the case. Even during ceasefire there are shooting almost every day. Soldiers are dying frequently on both sides and sometimes even civilians.

Indeed, a bilateral conflict settlement seems to be a pie in the sky at the moment. Why do you think Russia is so important? And is it rather a neutral actor or does Russia pursue interests of its own?

Russia’s role is crucial for the conflict. First, one has to consider that the interests of external actors might change over time. That was the case for Russia. Therefore, today, Russia is most likely to represent the interests of both parties to the conflict. Since Russia has an interest in keeping both countries in its sphere of influence, Armenia will not succeed in enforcing the maximum of its interests. Russia will neither agree on the independence of Nagorno-Karabakh, nor on Nagorno-Karabakh joining Armenia. On the one hand, if Russia agreed, it would give away one of the most important leverages which are used to pressure Azerbaijan. On the other hand, Russia is militarily allied with Armenia and hence will not allow Azerbaijan to take over Nagorno-Karabakh or other region.

Many think the axis (editor’s note: Armenia and Russia vs. Azerbaijan and the US), which evolved in the 1990s, is still relevant today. But over the course of the last ten years, the relationship between Russia and Azerbaijan improved considerably. The two countries approached one another on all levels. Today, the economic as well as the political relationship is very positive. On top of that, Russia is not only supplying arms for Armenia but is also Azerbaijan’s biggest supplier of arms. That would not be the case, if Russia considered Azerbaijan a danger to its own interests.

Nevertheless, Armenia is significantly more dependent on Russia than Azerbaijan is…

That’s true, indeed. 97 percent of Armenia’s arms and armament are delivered by Russia. For Azerbaijan it is 85 percent. The significant difference lies in the fact that Russian entrepreneurs can practically control Armenia’s economy as they hold the market-dominating position. However, Armenia is not unilaterally loyal to Russia and Azerbaijan is also not unilaterally loyal to the United States. For example, Armenia had a great interest in reaching an association agreement with the EU. It was never ratified because Russia raised objection. Armenia would probably already run into difficulties if they replaced the head of one of the state’s key enterprises. Armenia’s sovereignty is very much perforated. The situation looks different in Azerbaijan. Regarding the degree of sovereignty, it comes off best when compared to the three republics of South Caucasus.

This can be explained by the economic importance of the country. 80 percent of the economic output of all of South Caucasus is produced by Azerbaijan. In addition, the country pursues a smart foreign policy, which carefully maneuvers between different major and regional powers.

What do you think about the assumption that Russia has an interest in a “controlled instability” at its borders? If that was the case, status quo will be upheld in Nagorno-Karabakh and no settlement of the conflict would be intended.

I would agree. The conflict will not be settled until Russia wants it to be settled. At the moment, that does not seem to be the case. But, of course, that could change. Recently, Russia has started to campaign for Azerbaijan’s accession to the Eurasian Union. Here, the conflict could work as a bait; Russia could offer Azerbaijan a restitution of the occupied territories. Vice versa, Azerbaijan has widely met Russia’s demands. In contrast to Georgia, it waived the prospect of NATO membership and joined the movement of non-aligned states in 2011, instead.

Considering these circumstances, what leverage do other external actors still have?

So far, the EU has basically been of no importance for the conflict. Also, the Minsk Group of the OSCE appeared to be rather an alibi event than an expedient format. It is an informal group without a staff of its own, without an own budget and without and efficient structure. In order to seriously intensify the conflict mediation of the OSCE, a lot would have to change. Currently, Russia is the “first among equals” among three co-chairs (editor’s note: Russia, US, France). The U.S. leaves its options open, too. The U.S. has established some influence in the region through Georgia, but due to Russia’s strong position, the influence on the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh is pretty limited. The U.S.’s position rests to be an ambivalent one: Regardless of their good relationship with Azerbaijan, the U.S. rests to be the sole country in the world, which gives development aid to the de facto regime of Nagorno-Karabakh even though the U.S. has not recognized the republic, itself. Hence, Washington, as a mediator in the conflict, that’s out of question. Moscow would never agree. Officially, Moscow only supports Armenia, the country it has a military treaty of alliance with.

What is your conclusion? What potential for development do you see in the conflict?

I see legitimate interests of both parties. Of course, the population of Armenia has the right to live in Nagorno-Karabakh in peace and security. But this right does not entitle the people to an independent state. And above all, it cannot be based on the mass expulsion of other ethnic groups. The mass expulsion of the Azerbaijani population is completely unfounded. Internally Displaced People do most definitely have the right to return to their home countries. That means that at least seven of the occupied areas outside of Azerbaijan must be returned. That is a minimum requirement. Both populations should be able to vote on the definite political status of Nagorno-Karabakh through a democratic process under international surveillance. I, personally, would be happy with any solution that would possibly be negotiated by the two parties to the conflict.


This interview was conducted by Elena Ammel, Paul Toetzke and Lisa Westphal. It was translated to English by Julia Scheurer.