Could the Kosovo case be a precedent for Nagorno-Karabakh?

On February 17, 2008, Kosovo, the territory in Serbia that ethnic Albanians mostly populated, declared its independence and, shortly after that, was recognized by most western countries. More than 100 UN member states have already recognized the independence of Kosovo. This recognition encouraged other unrecognized states, whose officials expressed hope that this case would set a precedent and enable their territory to be recognized.[1] Armenia also welcomed the recognition of Kosovo and stated that it would provide a boost for the possible recognition of the so-called Nagorno-Karabakh Republic.[2]

“Precedent,” as a notion, is understood differently from legal and political perspectives. According to Borgen, “political scientists usually use it to refer to a past event that could be politically persuasive or may be used in diplomatic dialogue, lawyers have a stricter understanding of the word and use it when a past event states a rule of law that is to be applied in the current case. As a technical matter, in international law as opposed to domestic law, precedent is not binding.”[3] It should be noted that none of the states that recognized the independence of Kosovo insisted that the territory had gained its independence as a legal right.[4] Indeed, International law justifies self-determination in the sense of external dimensions that results in full independence only for colonial people. Clearly, the Kosovars were not colonial people but lived in that territory under the control of Serbia and were faced with ethnic cleansing by the authorities of it.[5] Since the situation in Kosovo was considered to be violent, UN Resolution 1244 internationalized the Kosovo situation and brought it under international administration.[6] Later, that international administration considered Kosovar coexistence under Serbia impossible and therefore recognized their independence. It was nevertheless stressed that this case would not be a precedent for other cases.[7]

From the legal perspective, Kosovo’s independence was justified because there was a “grave humanitarian situation” and a “threat to international security and peace.”[8] Moreover, it was insisted that as Kosovo was transferred from Serbian control and brought under international administration, this made it possible to recognize this territory’s independence without the parent state’s permission.[9]

Thus, based on the above-mentioned facts, it is possible to highlight that the Kosovo case could not be deemed a precedent for the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. First, it is essential to mention that Kosovo is an intrastate conflict, whereas the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict was flamed up because of Armenia’s territorial claims against Azerbaijan. Additionally, it was not Azerbaijan but Armenia that committed ethnic cleansing against Azerbaijanis during the war. Khojaly massacre is a clearcut example of this assumption, which finds its reflection also in bear testimonies of the Armenian political and military leadership of that time.

Secondly, Kosovo was under international administration in the form of the UN and KFOR (the Kosovo Force) international force led by NATO, in accordance with UN Security Council Resolution 1244, which confirmed the territorial integrity of Yugoslavia but also included the decision on the final status of the territory.[10] However, Nagorno-Karabakh has never been under any international administration, and the international community was not involved in the conflict during the war. The UN Security Council has four resolutions on the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. However, these resolutions relate to the withdrawal of forces from the occupied territories of Azerbaijan rather than to any decision on the region’s final status.

Thirdly, the so-called Nagorno-Karabakh Republic was not recognized by any independent states, not even by Armenia. Additionally, the states that recognized the independence of Kosovo indicated that this case was unique and would not be a precedent. There was, therefore, no prospect of Nagorno-Karabakh being recognized by these states. The international community accepted that Kosovo was a sui generis case; hence it should be neither a legal nor a political precedent for the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.

[1] Borgen, Christopher J., “Is Kosovo a precedent? Secession, Self-determination, and Conflict Resolution,” Wilson Center; Accessed on December 5, 2022.

[2] Antidze, Margarita and Mkrtchyan, Hasmik, “Kosovo “will boost Karabakh recognition drive,” Reuters, February 16, 2008; Accessed on December 5, 2022.

[3] Borgen, “Is Kosovo a precedent?”.

[4] Borgen, “Is Kosovo a precedent?”.

[5] Cooley, Alexander, “Kosovo’s Precedents: The Politics of Sovereign Emergence and its Alternatives,” PONARS Eurasia Policy Memo, No. 7, 2008, pp. 2-3.

[6] United Nations Security Council, “Resolution 1244”, s/RES/1244, 1999.

[7] “US says Kosovo no precedent for Nagorno-Karabakh,” Reuters, 5 March 2008; Accessed on December 5, 2022.

[8] Borgen, “Is Kosovo a precedent?”.

[9] Zeynalov, Mahir, “Nagorno-Karabakh and Kosovo: Politically Precedent, Legally Different,” Caucasian Edition: Journal of Conflict Transformation, September 15, 2010.

[10] “Resolution 1244”.