Was Nagorno-Karabakh an ethnic or a territorial conflict?

An ethnic conflict may occur when hostility between ethnic groups, especially titular and minority groups, increases and, in most cases, turns violent. A problem rooted in coexistence difficulties may also lead to an ethnic conflict. Organized political movements, mass arrests, separatist actions, and civil war are often part of ethnic conflict.[1] Conflicts that are categorized as ethnic conflicts have a more complex nature. Various cases have been described as ethnic conflicts but are, in fact, political rather than ethnic.[2] According to the theory of Political Entrepreneurs, politicians in these conflicts “exploit ethnic differences by drawing upon historical memories of grievances and “whip up” hatred in order to gain to strengthen their power.”[3] Conflicts rooted in political ambitions may be, in reality, camouflaged as ethnic. In most cases, the political mobilization of ethnic groups to control resources, especially territories, with the engagement of external factors may be defined as “territorial conflicts.”

Generally speaking, territorial conflicts are disputes based on territorial claims by one party to the conflict, and in most cases, they are followed by war. Territorial conflicts generally occur when one state’s hegemonic ambitions, for varying reasons and with different interests, escalate and are followed by an occupation of the lands of others. International law forbids and regulates “aggression” and threats against the “territorial integrity of one nation by another.”[4] The international community does not tolerate conflicts due to one nation’s territorial claims against another. Recognition of the conflict as a territorial one challenges the interest of the ambitious part, which has territorial claims over another state. Using force due to its ambitions leads to recognizing that state as an aggressor. Therefore, to justify its aggression, the aggressor state misinterprets the conflict’s character and uses different concepts, such as “ethnic,” to camouflage the real nature of the dispute.

Azerbaijan claims that the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict was not an ethnic but a territorial dispute. In this regard, the Republic of Armenia had not only supported but also initiated the secessionist movement by an Armenian minority in Nagorno-Karabakh, which violated international law and occupied 20 percent of Azerbaijani territories. Armenia rejects these accusations and explains that its intervention in the conflict was because it believes it has a right to defend Armenians facing “discrimination and violence” in Azerbaijan. According to its justification, the Republic of Armenia had no direct territorial demands on Azerbaijan, and its involvement was restricted only to the protection of Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh. However, it is widely known that the Armenian population of NKAO within the Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republic enjoyed a higher social status than Azerbaijanis, both inside and outside the territory.[5] Discrimination of the Armenian population of NKAO by the government of Azerbaijan was not a subject of discussion. Even though they were the majority population in the NKAO and controlled important political and economic institutions, it is essential to mention that from the beginning of the conflict, the Republic of Armenia was using so-called discrimination as a pretext to involve the process for carrying out a policy aimed at annexing Nagorno-Karabakh to its territory. That is why the parliament of the Armenian Soviet Socialist Republic, in the first step of the conflict, adopted a resolution for the annexation of Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia.[6] It should be mentioned that, Armenia did not recognize the independence of the so-called Nagorno-Karabakh Republic. Even though the Armenian government explained this situation as a goodwill attempt during the negotiation process, it is also possible to interpret this condition as the intention of Armenia to annex the occupied territories in the future.

Armenia’s position in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict prior the Second Karabakh War may be best explained through the irredentism theory. According to the generally-accepted definition, “irredentism is a political movement to unite the territory of an ethnic group with the territories of other segments.”[7] The Nagorno-Karabakh case was a triadic model of irredentism, which might be a better way of looking at the conflict. The triadic model of irredentism consists of three parties to the conflict: an irredentist state, an anti-irredentist state, and the ethnic minority of the latter state.[8] In the Nagorno-Karabakh case, the irredentist state was Armenia, the anti-irredentist state was Azerbaijan, and the ethnic minority living in the anti-irredentist state was the Nagorno-Karabakh Armenians. However, an analysis of the negotiation process reveals that there were only two parties to the conflict, namely the Republic of Armenia and the Republic of Azerbaijan. Nagorno-Karabakh Armenians had never been part of the negotiations, and it seems that this situation did not worry the Armenian side. Thus, negotiations between Azerbaijan and Armenia meant that the parties negotiated a territorial conflict. From this perspective, it can be claimed that the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict was not ethnic but territorial conflict and not only Azerbaijan but also Armenia recognizes this concept. In this situation, the ethnic minority involved in the irredentist movement was not the main initiator of the conflict but a supporting source for the irredentist state.

Hence, it is impossible to describe a conflict as ethnic when it arose due to a dispute between two states. From this perspective, the conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh should be defined as an interstate dispute occurred because of a territorial dispute. In addition, scholars such as Crocker, Hampson, and all defined the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict as an interstate conflict, while the Abkhazian and South Ossetian conflicts in Georgia as intrastate conflicts.[9]

[1] Tishkov, Valery, “Ethnic Conflict in the Context of Social Science Theories,” in Rupesinghe, Kumar and Tishkov, Valery (eds.), Ethnicity and power in the contemporary world (Tokyo: United Nations University Press, 1996), pp. 52-68.

[2] Tishkov, “Ethnic Conflict in the Context of Social Science Theories”.

[3] Blagojevic, Bojana, “Causes of Ethnic Conflicts: A Conceptual Framework,” Journal of Global Change and Governance, Vol. 3, N. 1, 2009.

[4] Charter of UN, Chapter I, Article 2.

[5] Yamskov, A., “Ethnic Conflict in Transcaucasus: The Case of Nagorno Karabakh,” Theory and Society, Vol. 20, No. 5, 1991.

[6] Keller, Bill, “Armenian Legislature Bakcs Calls for Annexing Disputed Territory,” New York Times, June 16, 1988; https://www.nytimes.com/1988/06/16/world/armenian-legislature-bakcs-calls-for-annexing-disputed-territory.html?scp=15&sq=armenia&st=nyt. Accessed on December 4, 2022.

[7] Saideman, Stephen M. and Ayres, R. William, “Determining the Causes of Irredentism: Logit Analyses of Minorities at Risk Data from the1980s and 1990s,” The Journal of Politics, Vol. 62, No. 4, 2000.

[8] Weiner, Myron, “The Macedonian Syndrome: An Historical Model of International Relations and Political Development,” World Politics, Vol. 23, No. 4, 1971, pp. 665-683.

[9] 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.