“A new war would take on a completely different dimension”


Uwe Halbach in his office. Photo: ©David Ruge

Armenians and Azerbaijanis have been fighting over Nagorno-Karabakh for years. This year the situation is worsening. Uwe Halbach, researcher in Eastern European and Eaurasian Studies at the German Foundation for Science and Politics (SWP) in Berlin, has been to Nagorno-Karabakh. In the interview he talks about the roots and perspectives for the conflict.

Mr. Halbach, you have been doing research on the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh for over 20 years. What is the current situation like?

In 2014, the conflict has been escalating like never before. Between the end of July and the beginning of August, two-dozen people lost their lives during gunfights at the ceasefire line. That was the most severe incident since 2008. Some even say that it was the most severe incident since the end of the war over Nagorno-Karabakh in 1994. More incidents followed in the first quarter of 2015. That was very unusual for a winter season. Assessments of the current situation vary tremendously. Azerbaijan is saying over and over again that it is going to regain power over Nagorno-Karabakh and the surrounding areas. Still, many analysts think that an intended war is unlikely to happen and the question whether this situation is likely to escalate, remains open. For 20 years, incidents like those in 2014 have not turned into military intervention. But that is no guarantee. Analysts warn of a “war by accident”. That is why the conflict has to remain on the international political agenda. For the last 20 years, the issue has been secondary. If there were another war, it would be very different from what happened between 1992-1994. Back then the war over Nagorno-Karabakh was fought by unorganized troops on both sides. Today, both sides have heavy armaments. Thousands of snipers are facing one another at the ceasefire line. A new war would acquire an essentially new dimension. It would be way worse.

You just said that the conflict has been secondary in international contexts and especially in German media. Do you have any idea why that’s the case?

On the one hand, many have become used to the term “frozen conflict” which suggests that there is no acute danger. In reality, it is an unresolved conflict. On the other hand, the conflict appears to be further away than it actually is. That was already a problem during the war over Nagorno-Karabakh between 1991 and 1994. One explanation for it is that many of the refugees never made it to Europe but stayed in the CIS region. In order to gain attention it has to be made clear that the conflict is happening close to Europe. It is localized in the region of EU’s Eastern Partnership. Thus, it does concern us and one can never fully rely on the term “frozen” in “frozen conflict”. In 2008, the war in Georgia has shown that unresolved conflicts can easily lead to another war. The conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh is certainly one of these conflicts. Conflict mediation is stagnating but the ever-reoccurring violence shows the great urgency to settle the conflict. Unfortunately, trust building takes a lot of time and a lot of patience. It is difficult to be patient when violence keeps happening at the ceasefire line.

Eastern Ukraine is said to be developing into a “frozen conflict” as well. Do you see parallels with the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh?

Yes, I do. For example, the involvement of Russia plays a role in both conflicts. Although Russia is not directly involved in the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh, it is a very important actor when it comes to conflict mediation. And Russia’s strategy is very dubious: it wants to establish controlled instability. Russia wants to avoid that the conflict develops into war, but it does not have an interest in the settlement of the conflicts. Russia only then had an interest in a resolved conflict, if it were to resolve the conflicts alone. Because then, all parties would rest to be dependent on Russia. In the long run, this strategy is going to fail.

Hence, do you think Karabakh is a playball of geopolitical interests?

That is a popular thesis but I would disagree. Of course, the Karabakh conflict, as well as all of the conflicts in the South Caucasus region, has constraining effects when it comes to the land bridge that the Caucasus is forming between Europe and Asia. On the other hand, relationships regarding the trade of oil did develop nevertheless. In my regard, the role of external actors is overvalued. External actors have to be involved and work as mediators. But in the end it is a conflict between Armenians and Azerbaijanis. The change has to be within the parties to the conflict themselves. Otherwise it will be impossible to resolve the conflict permanently.

Why have the conflict parties failed to settle the conflict?

On the one hand, Armenia has to announce what it expects as a condition for pulling its troops out of Karabakh and the surrounding areas. Several UN resolutions and declarations of international organizations have already demanded that in the past. On the other hand, you cannot expect Armenia to pull out its troops, when Baku keeps announcing that it will resolve the conflict with military means if necessary. The question remains: What about the Madrid protocol? It has been several years since it was ratified. International politics, especially the Minsk group, need to put pressure on both parties. Armenia must pull out their troops and Azerbaijan needs to end their threats of violence. Some of the external actors, like the European Union would pursue the strategy of “what would you like?” In the context of neighborhood politics, the accords stress the importance of Armenia’s right to self-determination and Azerbaijan’s right to territorial integrity. Another reason why rapprochement between Armenia and Azerbaijan is not happening is the psychological boundaries, which exist between the two countries. These boundaries also play an important role in other conflicts. But in the case of the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh, nearly insurmountable bogeymen have been established. On the Armenian side, violence in the context of the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh has been connected with the genocide in 1915. Both parties are convinced that they are the victims, and the other party to the conflict is the aggressor. But such a conflict does not exist. In Armenia, as well as in Azerbaijan, people took me to graveyards where their people are buried as heroes. I always said: I saw the same graveyards on the other side. People did not like this comment. They don’t even try to understand the other party’s side. But it is about mutual violence – everybody has to be aware of that fact.

In your opinion, what is the best way to counter these bogymen?

That is a very difficult task. I, for my part, am trying to criticize both sides of the conflict. In Armenia, I am telling people that they cannot consider the occupied areas surrounding Karabakh as their territory (Armenians call it “liberated territories”). Today, there are Armenian nationalists who consider all of the seven Azerbaijani provinces to be Armenian territory. There are rumors about these areas; people are saying that Armenian people are starting to populate these. But then the OSCE Observer Mission has negated this rumor.

When I am in Azerbaijan, I point out that by pushing Armenia as their bogyman, which has become an almost racist image, they harm their nations image. The reactions to that have been rather positive: Azerbaijan has become the first democratic, parliamentary state in the Islamic world, in 1918. Until today, it is one of the few countries where Sunnites and Shiites peacefully co-exist. Even Jewish communities feel at home there. Of all places, this open minded and secular country has hardened tremendously in consequence of the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh.

In Armenia and in Karabakh, the majority of people are Christian; in Azerbaijan there are more Muslims. What role does religion play in the conflict?

Religion is not a decisive component of the conflict. In the past, in Armenia, the church had blessed arms. All in all, the conflict is of ethnic and territorial and not of religious nature. Muslim Azerbaijanis have not connected the conflict with Jihad. That is remarkable. Other conflicts over secession, where an Islamist party was involved, were directly connected to Jihad; for example Palestine, Chechnya and Kashmir.

What else is different about this conflict in comparison to other conflicts over secession?

The role of the occupied territories is very different: The humanitarian catastrophe in Azerbaijan is not so much rooted in Karabakh but more in the seven surrounding provinces, which are occupied by Armenia. The majority of the 700.000 – 800.000 displaced Azerbaijanis are from these areas. That’s why I consider these territories the actual hotspot of the conflict. Second, the situation at the ceasefire line is very different. It is a ceasefire line, which is not monitored internationally. Regarding the confrontation between the armed parties to the conflict, in a way, it reminds of the trenches of World War I.

And what is characteristic of the conflict?

It is a regional conflict which is inherited by the Soviet Union which had been made of many different ethnicities – that’s characteristic for this conflict. Like no other region, the Caucasus, characterized by a complicated ethno-program, was affected by what I call the “Matrioshka Model”: convoluted national territories, which were turned into Soviet republics, autonomous (sub-)republics and autonomous regions. When the Soviet Union collapsed, the sub groups rose against the bigger entities. There are three unresolved conflicts over secession in the South Caucasus today. In addition, the conflict over Chechnya occurred in the North Caucasus. National units organized by the Soviet Union were especially prone to conflict in the Caucasus. The conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh became the first ethno-political incidence during the Gorbachev era.

So far, we only talked about Armenians and Azerbaijanis. But these do only represent two sides. Would it make sense to include Karabakh-Armenians directly? So far, that hasn’t happened.

True, one of the primary parties to the conflict is excluded from the negotiations. That is a sore point. Initially, it has been included. It was only in 1997/1998, that Azerbaijan prompted to exclude Karabakh-Armenians from the negotiations. Ever since, of course, they are putting emphasis on the fact that they don’t have any obligation to accept the outcome of the negotiations. It is very unlikely that Karabakh will return to the negotiation table. Azerbaijan is absolutely against their participation and threatens to leave the negotiations if this would change. Armenia has also only supported the demands half-heartedly and has established itself as the representative for Nagorno-Karabakh. Despite that fact it is a legitimate demand.

All in all, how big are the differences between the leadership in Karabakh and in Armenia?

In fact, large parts of the political elite in Armenia are from Karabakh; for instance the two presidents Kocharyan and Sargsyan. Their predecessor, Ter-Petrosyan, has compromised on the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh and that had serious consequences for him. He met fierce resistance. Afterwards, Karabakh became more and more important for Armenia. Today, the Karabakh-clan is governing. 20 years after the war, Armenia is still keeping Karabakh alive. Without Armenia, Karabakh couldn’t survive.

In this point, Azerbaijanis disagree and argue that Karabakh is financed by its role as a drugs sale place.

That is an exaggeration. It is true that de facto states are likely to become areas for border crossing criminality. Transnistria was also assumed to function as such an area. But the EU Border Mission refuted the accusations. The same applies for Azerbaijan. I, at least, am not aware of the fact that Karabakh’s economic activity is based on crime.

Azerbaijan itself has had problems in the past because it is located on the southern route for drugs coming out of Afghanistan. But Karabakh does not have any significant resources. Every day life is financed by support of Armenia and the world wide Armenian diaspora. When I first entered a hotel in Karabakh, they had a prepared and stuffed kangaroo at their entrance. How does a Kangaroo end up in Karabakh? An Australian Karabakhian had brought it to Karabakh, when he opened the hotel.

General elections in Karabakh in May might support the legitimacy of the state. What do you expect from these elections?

Among the de facto states, Karabakh is in fact one of the most democratic ones. Of course, the leadership does also try hard to present the country as a democratic polity in order to distinguish itself from Azerbaijan. The latter hasn’t moved towards democracy recently. During the last two years, once again, the political situation has worsened considerably. In 2014, there was one of the biggest waves of arrest. Civil society groups who had left behind the dominant bogeymen in the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh, were targeted, too. Bottom line, there are no real opposition parties and there is no real political controversy in Karabakh. Karabakh considers itself as a zone of conflict in defense alert. This perception is so strong that any other political strategy has become nearly impossible.


Dr. Phil. Uwe Halbach is an associated researcher at the “Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik” and part of their research group on Eastern Europe and Eurasia. He has traveled to Nagorno-Karabakh several times. Together with Franziska Smolnik, he published the study “Der Streit um Berg-Karabach. Spezifische Merkmale und die Konfliktparteien”. Currently, he is also doing research on the conflict over the North Caucasus. From 1970 until 1976, Halbach studied Slavic Studies and Eastern European history in Cologne. He wrote his dissertation on Russia’s medieval history.


David Ruge and Lina Verschwele conducted the interview and Julia Scheurer translated it into English. The interview was first published in a slightly different version on boell. de.