Was Nagorno-Karabakh an interstate or an intrastate conflict?

Armenia describes the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict as an ethnic dispute between Azerbaijan and Nagorno-Karabakh Armenians that appeared as a result of the ethnic discrimination of Armenians living in the NKAO by Azerbaijan. In this sense, Armenia believes the conflict had an intrastate nature.[1] On the other hand, Azerbaijan identifies the issue as an interstate dispute because of the territorial claims of a neighboring state (Armenian Republic) on Nagorno-Karabakh, a historical and legitimate territory of the Azerbaijan Republic.[2]

Generally, an interstate conflict is a conflict that develops between two states as a result of any disputed issues, such as territorial claims. On the other hand, an intrastate conflict means that the dispute occurs within the borders of a sovereign nation or state.[3] In order to find out whether a conflict is interstate or intrastate, the parties to the conflict and the level of their involvement in the conflict have to be determined. The fact that the recognition of the two states, Azerbaijan and Armenia, as the primary parties in the peace talks over the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict was concrete evidence that proves the interstate nature of the conflict.[4] Moreover, the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict was defined as an interstate dispute in academic literature. It was included in this category of conflicts, together with the Israel-Palestine conflict, Kashmir, and Western Sahara.[5] In addition to the legal recognition of Armenia as a primary party to the conflict, various facts support the idea that Armenia had been directly involved in the conflict to gain control over territories belonging to its neighboring state.

Firstly, it should be noted that the dispute erupted due to the demand of the Armenian population of NKAO to secede from Soviet Azerbaijan and to be annexed into Soviet Armenia.[6] Officials in Yerevan welcomed the idea and immediately adopted a parliamentary resolution on annexing Nagorno-Karabakh to Soviet Armenia.[7] Furthermore, the population of the Armenian Republic supported the idea as well and expressed their wish to be involved in the dispute as a party to the conflict when they organized demonstrations in their capital city.[8] All this shows that Armenia was not only involved in the dispute as a third party but was the main initiator of the conflict, which identifies it as a primary party.

Secondly, during the war, Armenian troops directly participated in the battles. They played a crucial role in the occupation not only of Nagorno-Karabakh but also of seven other surrounding regions of Azerbaijan.[9] Moreover, even after the ceasefire agreements, Armenian troops remained in the occupied territories until the Second Karabakh War in order to provide security for the region.[10] However, there was no international mandate that allows Armenia to engage in this military activity. The only reason for Armenia’s presence in the region was to defend its national interests by guaranteeing the security of the occupied territories. Moreover, it is evident that the so-called Nagorno-Karabakh Republic was highly integrated with the Republic of Armenia and it would not be able to survive as an administrative entity without its direct economic, social, and political support.[11] Besides, Nagorno-Karabakh Armenians were a dominant political group in Armenia’s political structure and were represented in leading official posts in the state.[12] Indeed, it can be argued that the so-called Nagorno-Karabakh Republic was functioning as a region of the Armenian Republic rather than as an independent entity.

In academic literature, the involvement of ethnic groups in interstate conflicts is explained with the help of the irredentist theory.[13] According to this theory, “irredentist movements usually lay claim to the territory of an entity – almost invariably an independent state in which their in-group is concentrated, perhaps even forming some local majorities.”[14] Indeed, ethnic Armenian issues in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict do not change the interstate character of the dispute because the state attempting to annex the lands of another country uses its ethnic group to justify its aggression policy.[15]

[1] “Armenia,” USDP Conflict encyclopedia, Upsala University; https://www.ucdp.uu.se/gpdatabase/gpcountry.php?id=6&id=6. Accessed on December 4, 2022.

[2] Svensoon, Isak, “The Nagorno Karabakh Conflict, Lessons From The Mediation Effort,” Initiative for Peacebuilding, 2009.

[3] Açıkalın, Şuay Nihan, “Intra-state Conflicts as a Security Threat in a Globalized World with the Case of Cyprus,” Humanity and Social Sciences Journal, Vol. 6, No. 1, 2011, p. 23.

[4] Baguirov, Adil, “Nagorno-Karabakh: Basis and Reality of Soviet-era Legal and Economic Claims used to Justify the Armenia-Azerbaijan War,” Caucasian Review of International Affairs, Vol. 2, No. 1, 2008, p. 10.

[5] 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.

[6] Cornell, Svante E., The Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict (Report no. 46, Department of East European Studies, Uppsala University, 1999), p. 13.

[7] Fraser, Niall M., Hipel, Keith W., Jaworsky, John, and Zuljan, Ralph, “A Conflict Analysis of the Armenian-Azerbaijani Dispute,” The Journal of Conflict Resolution, Vol. 34, No. 4, 1990, p. 659.

[8] Cornell, Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict, p. 13.

[9] Huseynov, Tabib, “Mountainous Karabakh: Conflict Resolution through Power-sharing and Regional Integration,” Peace, Conflict and Development: An Interdisciplinary Journal, Issue 6, 2005.

[10] “Foreign ministry: Armenian troops in occupied Azerbaijani territories biggest obstacle to settlement,” Trend, June 6, 2013; https://en.trend.az/azerbaijan/karabakh/2158538.html. Accessed on December 4, 2022.

[11] “Kocharyan: Armenia should not recognize NKR’s independence at this stage,” Panaroma | Armenian News, 12 November 2013; https://www.panorama.am/en/news/2013/11/12/shavarsh-qocharyan/406743. Accessed on December 4, 2022.

[12] De Waal, Thomas, “Nagorny Karbakh: Closer To War Than Peace,” Chatham House: Russia and Eurasia Summary, 25 July 2013; https://www.chathamhouse.org/events/view/193195. Accessed on December 4, 2022.

[13] Carment, David and James, Patrick, “Internal Constraints and Interstate Ethnic Conflict: Toward a Crisis-Based Assessment of Irredentism,” The Journal of Conflict Resolution, Vol. 39, No. 1, 1995, p. 84.

[14] Carment and James, “Internal Constraints and Interstate Ethnic Conflict,” p. 95.

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