Was Nagorno-Karabakh a frozen or an intractable conflict?

Scholars mainly use the term “frozen” for conflicts that “haven’t been solved yet, resolution is delayed for another, more hopeful time, relations between conflict parties are regulated by ceasefire or other agreements and at the same time the peace attempts are continuing.”[1] The Abkhazian and South Ossetian conflicts in Georgia, the Azerbaijan-Armenia conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh (prior the Second Karabakh War), and the Transnistria conflict in Moldova are generally considered examples of frozen conflicts, which have neither been solved nor are active but remain fragile and are prone to flare up again. Another significant feature of frozen conflicts is that the negotiation process seems to continue, not to solve the existing problem, but rather to keep a status quo that was achieved after the first phase of the conflict. This situation can be defined as imitating peace negotiations so as not to start a war. When this happens, one or both sides, and maybe a third officially not visible side (external factor), are interested in having neither peace nor war situation until an unknown appropriate time.

Alternatively, the following terms are also used to describe these types of disputes: unresolved, protracted, stagnant, enduring, gridlocked, or prolonged conflicts. Edward Azar was one of the first authors who systematically developed theories about prolonged conflicts and used the term “protracted” to refer to what he identified as “new types of conflict.” According to Azar, protracted conflicts occur between communal groups but quickly transcend national boundaries. They are usually linked to some intangible needs and tend to generate or reinforce a high level of violence.[2] Other scholars, such as Burton, have defined these “new types of conflicts” as deeply rooted.[3]

Recent research carried out by scholars and analysts has shown that using the term “intractable” to describe this type of conflict defines the real nature of the conflict better than other terms do. According to specialists at the United States Institute of Peace, “intractable conflicts are persisted over time to yield to efforts-through either direct negotiation by the parties or mediation with third-party assistance to arrive at a political settlement.”[4] In short, an intractable conflict is irresolvable rather than one that resists resolution. Moreover, Coleman characterized intractable conflicts as recalcitrant, intense, deadlocked, and extremely difficult to resolve.[5]

In this regard, practitioners described the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict prior to the Second Karabakh War as a “frozen” conflict. Besides, mass media worldwide also used that term while publishing information about the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. So, which term was correct to use in the Nagorno-Karabakh case, “frozen” or “intractable”? After analyzing these two approaches, “frozen” mainly focuses on prolonging the conflict and keeping it on ice until there is a more suitable time for a resolution. At the same time, “intractable” explains and stresses on incurability of the solution. The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict had been waiting for approximately three decades to be resolved. However, there had been no steps forward, regardless of the involvement of third parties in the negotiation process. In “frozen” conflicts, attempts by third parties are expected to guarantee a ceasefire, suspend violence and continue negotiations toward a political settlement. However, the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict was active, the ceasefire was periodically broken, and the negotiation process was deadlocked. From the ceasefire agreement of 1994 to the Second Karabakh War, thousands of soldiers and civilians from both parties died, regardless of the mediation activity by the OSCE Minsk Group Co-chairs, and from time to time, deadly clashes happened between the parties. There were no achievements in the resolution process. Therefore, describing the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict until the Second Karabakh War as “intractable” rather than “frozen” was more appropriate.

[1] Morar, Fillon, “The Myth of Frozen Conflicts: Transcending Illusive Dilemmas,” Concordiam: The Journal of European Security and Defense Issues, Vol. 1, No. 2, 2010, p. 11.

[2] Azar, Edward, “Protracted International Conflicts: Ten Prepositions,” in Azar, Edward and Bruton, John W., (eds.), International Conflict Resolution Theory and Practice (London Wheatsheaf Books, 1986).

[3] Burton, John W., Resolving deep-rooted conflict: A handbook (University Press of America, 1987).

[4] Crocker, Chester A., Hampson, Fen Osler and Aall, Pamela, “Introduction: Mapping the Nettle Field,” in Crocker, Chester A., Hampson, Fen Osler and Aall, Pamela (eds.), Grasping the Nettle: Analyzing Cases of Intractable Conflict (US Institute of Peace Press, 2007), p. 13.

[5] Coleman, Peter T., “Intractable Conflict,” in Coleman, Peter T., Deutsch, Morton and Marcus, Eric C., (eds.), The Handbook of Conflict Resolution: Theory and Practice (Jossey-Bass, 2000), pp. 708-744.