The Washington Review of Turkish & Eurasian Affairs

Mediating the Conflict Over Naghorno-Karabakh: Give It Another Try?

E-mail Print

Last month Armenian President Serge Sarkisian and Azerbaijani Presi­dent Ilham Aliyev came to Kazan, a Russian city lying on the Volga River, to negotiate under the auspices of the Russian president Dmitry Medvedev a settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.

Ever since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, different representatives of the international community have been making attempts to mediate this conflict. Before that, or at least until Gorbachev’s perestroika, the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh was latent, although it did exist even at that point; in fact, when the Bolsheviks came into power, the region was already quite troubled. When faced at the beginning of their rule with the task of organ­ising the administrative-territorial structure, the Soviet leaders had several options for Nagorno-Karabakh, a region, populated primarily by Armenians, but surrounded by Azerbaijani territories: a) assign it to the Azerbaijan SSR b) assign it to the Armenian SSR c) grant it autonomy (from both of those SSRs).

Tatiana Rudneva recently graduated from Moscow State Linguistic University with a degree in Political Science and specialises in post-Soviet conflicts. Her current research interests are security studies, minority issues, ethnic conflicts and conflict resolution.


It is worth noting that in the Soviet Union, there had never existed a fundamental principle on which the administrative-territorial division was based. Beside rather obvious territorial, economic and ethnic factors, the decision-makers were often guided by various other reasons, which in some cases motivated them to completely ignore certain traditional borders or to create artificial ones. As long as these were internal borders, it did not re­ally matter, and, if it offers any kind of explanation as to the Soviet leaders’ rationale for their decisions, the implications of certain territorial arrange­ments in the case of the country’s untimely demise, are indeed not something politicians usually consider when making those arrangements. Be that as it may, what once had been internal borders in a country of ‘fraternal’ peoples turned to sources of interethnic conflict after the country collapsed.

The conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh followed practically the same scenario. Under the Soviet rule, for reasons more speculated than actually known and to the Armenians’ great displeasure Nagorno-Karabakh became a part of the Azerbaijan SSR. Since it was utterly and completely Moscow’s decision, all that Armenians could do was try to make a special point of their dissatis­faction to Moscow, which in its turn made a point of ignoring it. With the begin of Gorbachev’s era of Glasnost, which introduced much greater free­dom of expression, the Armenian rhetoric became louder and fiercer, causing the conflict to escalate.

When the Soviet Union collapsed, a wave of independence declarations swept over the territory of the former USSR. Whilst most of the newly estab­lished states were celebrating their not being a part of the USSR and having nothing to do with Russia any more, Nagorno-Karabakh was declaring its independence from Azerbaijan. With no Moscow as a deterrent power, noth­ing could stop the two enemies from finally clashing, and the conflict soon escalated into a full-blown war.

As it was no longer an internal conflict within the USSR borders, other members of international community could act as mediators now, which they had not been able to do before. There have been quite a few attempts to mediate the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, with the most successful one resulting in a rather long-lasting cease-fire. But after that, negotiations reached an impasse.

The main method that has been used to try to resolve the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is a quite customary method of mediation, when a third party acts as a mediator between the disputants. It is usually rather arguable whether the disputing parties are incapable of negotiating a settlement by themselves, but in the case of Nagorno-Karabakh that the two warring parties would initiate direct negotiations was indeed extremely unlikely. Azerbaijan has been clearly unwilling to hold negotiations with Karabakh Armenians be­cause doing so would mean admitting that Nagorno-Karabakh constitutes a separate entity capable of acting as a negotiating party. Armenia, in its turn, fears that negotiating from the position of the second party in a two-party dispute may get it bogged down in a conflict in which it is not directly in­volved. In such circumstances, the mediation efforts are indeed well-founded and justified. But if so, why are they getting nowhere?

Scholars tend to accentuate the following problems that may have ham­pered the overall conflict resolution process: third parties are supposed to be impartial, but most of the actors are in fact motivated by their own interests and do not do try to mediate a conflict just for the sake of it. It is not necessarily a problem if a third party is still interested in resolving the con­flict (even if it is motivated by, for example, its own safety) in general, and not in favour of either of the conflicting parties. Since Nagorno-Karabakh is situated in a rather important from the geopolitical perspective region of Caucasus, lots of states could do with gaining more influence in the region. That said, the degree of motivation and commitment between them differed dramatically and some had only half a mind to act as mediators, which re­sulted in a high degree of ‘third party’ turnover. Thus, the efforts to mediate the conflict were far from coherent. In addition, the abundance of mediators crippled their usual leverage for pushing the disputants towards a (proposed) agreement: the disputants are less inclined to turn down a settlement pro­posal if they realise that another opportunity to settle the dispute may not present itself in the near future, but with a wide selection of mediators and multiple proposals advocated by them, the disputants were able to reject those proposals quite painlessly (Betts 1999).

Whilst these arguments are surely not devoid of sense and these problems could indeed have undermined the efficiency of the mediating process, it is worth noting that a long-lasting ceasefire was achieved despite the aforemen­tioned flaws, and all that the mediators have achieved after overcoming the flaws is a stalemate.

There are certain traditionally accepted preconditions for holding success­ful negotiations in such circumstances: (i) the stalemate should be ‘mutually hurting’ (ii) the disputants should realise that a zero-sum outcome is not the only possible one.

The concept of a mutually hurting stalemate was initially proposed by Zartman (1985, 2000). The idea behind this concept is that the conflicting parties are ready for a negotiated settlement when a peace settlement is a better option than continuing the conflict; for example, when the disputing parties are waging a costly war at which neither side seems to preponder­ate. Unfortunately, it is very unclear what constitutes a ‘mutually hurting stalemate’ after the violence has ceased: both sides accept the status quo and neither wants to change it unless in its own favour, and such a situation may continue for quite a long time. Still, the ending of direct violence does not represent the end of the conflict. As the root cause of conflict, a source which had led to violence in the first place, is not eliminated, violence may return. Thus, it may be inexcusable to stop all mediating efforts until the right moment of mutually hurting stalemate, which may in fact come and go unnoticed. At the same time, it is rather arguable whether the media­tors can deliberately create the right moment by convincing the disputants of a hurting stalemate (see Druckman 1986), and, even more importantly, whether it is safe to do so.

Another goal for mediators beside either finding or creating the right moment for negotiations is to convince the disputants to adopt a positive-sum (where the parties can reach a mutually agreeable consensus) rather than a zero-sum approach (where one party gains only if the other loses).

Here it is important to realise that the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh is one of those centuries-long disputes over who was the first to occupy the territory. Because all of the parties in such conflicts want no less than for historical justice to be served, the confrontation between them may drag on for generations as ideological battles replace armed ones when a bunch of historians from both sides, driven by what appears to be an irrepressible sense of patriotism, manipulate historical facts to the point of absurdity in another futile attempt to answer this ever-important question of who indeed was the first.

Remarkably, the answer to this question, if ever found, will be of no practical consequene anyway because changing the existing borders in ac­cordance to where they used to be hundreds or even thousands years ago would mean redrawing the whole world map, which is both impossible and unreasonable. Nevertheless, although there is nothing in the international law suggesting that matters of distant past are to be taken into account (nor that they should be completely ignored either, it if comes to that), there are still the two conflicting principles of territorial integrity and the right to self-determination, which represent basically the same dispute between those who want things as they used to be an inordinate number of years ago and those who want things remain as they are.

Although there is no panacea solution, even for such cases there is a number of possible compomise-based solutions which include power-sharing agreements, autonomies, federalism, consociationalism etc (see Ramsbotham et al. 2005). In the case of Kosovo, the international community even went so far as to recognise Kosovo’s independence. The question is: do these ‘solutions’, even if they are negotiated, accepted and implemented, put an end to a conflict? Do they ever?

Last month Armenian President Serge Sarkisian and Azerbaijani Presi­dent Ilham Aliyev came to Kazan, a Russian city lying on the Volga River, to negotiate under the auspices of the Russian president Dmitry Medvedev a settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. But they never did.


Betts, W.: 1999, Third Party Mediation: An Obstacle to Peace in Nagorno Karabakh, SAIS Review pp. 161–183.

Druckman, D.: 1986, Four cases of conflict management: lessons learned, in D. Be­hdamane and J. MacDonald (eds), Perspectives on Negotiation: Four Case Stud­ies and Interpretations, Centre for the Study of Foreign Affairs, Washington, DC.

Ramsbotham, O., Woodhouse, T. and Miall, H.: 2005, Contemporary conflict resolution, Polity Press, Cambridge.

Zartman, I.: 1985, Ripe for Resolution: Conflict and Intervention in Africa, Ox­ford University Press, New York.

Zartman, I.: 2000, Ripeness: The Hurting Stalemate and Beyond, in P. Stern and D. Druckman (eds), International Conflict Resolution after the Cold War, National Academy Press, Washington.

You are here: Home Mediating the Conflict Over Naghorno-Karabakh: Give It Another Try?


Conference: Russia and Eurasia: 20 Years After The Soviet Union Conference: Russia and Eurasia: 20 Years After The Soviet Union CONFERENCE: RUSSIA AND EURASIA: 20 YEARS AFTER THE SOVIET UNION  April 14, 2011, Washington DC   Twenty years after the fall of the Soviet Union, Russia's geopolitical environment has changed dramatically. The emergence of new states in Eastern Europe and Central Asia, the widening of European integration, and the rise of China have all transformed Russia's rela... Read more...
Conference on Turkish & Eurasian Affairs Conference on Turkish & Eurasian Affairs The Washington Review of Turkish & Eurasian Affairs, in partnership with The Center for the Study of Democracy at St. Mary's College of Maryland, held a a one-day conference at Historic St. Mary's City, Maryland, November 23, 2010. The goal of the conference was to address critical issues affecting Turkey and Eurasian societies. The conference brought together scholars from across the socia... Read more...
Reception at APSA 2010 Reception at APSA 2010 The Washington Review  held a reception at the annual meeting of the American Political Science Association, in Washington, DC, on September 4, 2010. The event provided a friendly venue for political scientists who work on Turkey and Eurasia to meet and network.      Read more...