What was Heydar Aliyev’s role in the process of regulating the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict?

As president of the Republic of Azerbaijan, Heydar Aliyev played a crucial role in the regulation process of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Through his efforts, the conflict became one of the issues most discussed by international organizations in the 1990s. Heydar Aliyev managed to neutralize the international community’s position towards the conflict, which had mainly supported the Armenian version of the dispute in the early stages of the mediation process. During his presidency, Heydar Aliyev welcomed all peace-building initiatives in multilateral and unilateral forms because he considered the settlement of the conflict to be his principal challenge. Heydar Aliyev’s key position when trying to resolve the conflict was the principle of territorial integrity of the state. In this regard, he always stated that the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan would never be compromised.

In 1993, when Heydar Aliyev came to power in Azerbaijan, the country was in political turmoil and was threatened with civil war.[1] The economic and social conditions were difficult. Additionally, the country was at a disadvantage in the war with Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh, which later resulted in the loss of 20 percent of its territory and the forced displacement of one million citizens from Nagorno-Karabakh and the surrounding regions. Azerbaijan was introduced as an aggressor by the Armenian Diaspora, while the Nagorno-Karabakh Armenians as the victims of this aggression.[2]

The Azerbaijan government of the time was not able to present its position regarding the conflict in international media outlets because it was incapable of breaking the information blockade created by the Armenian Diaspora.[3] Heydar Aliyev was aware of the actual conflict situation and began to reshape his policies accordingly. In this regard, he started to implement a multifaceted strategy based on neutralizing the positions of pro-Armenian states, gaining support from previously impartial states, strengthening relationships with states and international organizations whose position was closer to Azerbaijan’s position, and pressuring Armenia through multi-vectored diplomacy.[4] Initially, he tried to pursue a balanced policy among the regional states and establish bilateral relations with the US and EU countries.[5]

To neutralize Russia’s position in the conflict, Aliyev made his first official visit to Moscow and restored Azerbaijan’s membership of the CIS. However, he did not allow Moscow to reinstate its military base in Azerbaijan.[6] This attempt by Heydar Aliyev resulted in the signing of a ceasefire agreement with Armenia in Bishkek in 1994.[7] Heydar Aliyev acknowledged that the strengthening of the relations with the US was significant for the protection of independence and in the solution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Although the US recognized the independence of Azerbaijan in 1992, due to the anti-Azerbaijan activity by the Armenian Diaspora in the US, effective bilateral relations based on mutual interest could not be established. Moreover, the adoption of Section 907 of the Freedom Support Act restricted US governmental support to Azerbaijan, which consequently affected the relationship between the two states.[8] Heydar Aliyev’s policy to attract more US private interest in the country’s energy resources enabled him to change the approaches. As a result of the establishment of a positive attitude between the states, the US energy companies could hold 40% of the shares of the exploitation of Azerbaijan oil by the contract “Deal of Century” signed in 1994.[9] It was clear that regional conflicts were an essential factor threatening regional stability and energy projects. The US, therefore, began to get involved more actively in the mediation process and, in 1997, became one of the co-chairs of the OSCE Minsk Group with the claim of Azerbaijan.[10]

In 1997, during his official visit to the US, where he met with President Bill Clinton, President Aliyev stressed the importance of repealing Section 907, preventing relationships between the two countries from strengthening. Unfortunately, the strong resistance of the American Armenian lobby in Congress prevented to decline of Section 907 until 2002. However, Bill Clinton also emphasized the need to repeal Section 907. In 2002, due to the necessity of the involvement of Azerbaijan in the anti-terror coalition, by the decision of President George Bush the implementation of Section 907 was temporally suspended.[11] Without any doubt, the previous attempts by Heydar Aliyev to have Section 907 repealed played a crucial role in preparing the ground for the Section to be suspended.

Heydar Aliyev recognized the mediation role of the OSCE and took an active part in this organization’s summits. He also accepted the organization as a platform for him to stress Azerbaijan’s position in the dispute.[12]

In particular, the 1996 OSCE Summit in Lisbon played a crucial role in Heydar Aliyev’s Nagorno-Karabakh conflict diplomacy. Although the principles offered by Azerbaijan for the solution to the conflict were not included in the summit’s final document due to the protest of the Armenian side, the principle of the solution to the conflict within the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan was accepted by most of the participating states.[13]

Later, the OSCE Minsk group proposed such peace projects as a “Package deal,” a “Step-by-step deal,” and a “Common state.” While Heydar Aliyev accepted the “Package deal” and the “Step-by-step deal” proposal, he rejected the “Common state” proposal because it challenged Azerbaijan’s national interest. In 1999 and 2001, bilateral meetings between Heydar Aliyev and Robert Kocharyan were organized in Washington, Paris, and Key West. However, those meetings, unfortunately, did not make any contribution to resolving the conflict.[14]

During his presidency, Heydar Aliyev managed to get the international community to understand Azerbaijan’s position. He promoted factual arguments about the war, achieved a ceasefire agreement that stopped the violence, helped convince international organizations to include the issue in their agendas, and participated in several multilateral and unilateral initiatives to resolve the conflict.

[1] Gadimova, Nazrin, “Azerbaijan honors Haydar Aliyev’s memory,” Azernews, December 12, 2013; https://www.azernews.az/nation/62474.html. Accessed on December 3, 2022.

[2] Heather, Gregg, “Divided They Conquer: The Success of Armenian Ethnic Lobbies in the United States,” Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Political Science Association, Boston Marriott Copley Place, Sheraton Boston & Hynes Convention Center, Boston, Massachusetts, August 28, 2002, p. 36.

[3] Shain, Yossi and Barth, Aharon, “Diasporas and International Relations Theory,” International Organization, Vol. 57, No. 3, 2003, p. 469.

[4] Mammedova, Havva, “Haydar Aliyev’s Diplomacy in The Resolution of Nagorno Karbakh Conflict,” Journal of Central Asia and South Caucasus, Vol. 7, 2009, p. 169.

[5] Cornell, Svante E., The Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict (Report no. 46, Department of East European Studies, Uppsala University, 1999), p. 56.

[6] Mammedova, “Haydar Aliyev’s Diplomacy,” p. 183.

[7] Mammedova, “Haydar Aliyev’s Diplomacy,” p. 170.

[8] Heather, “Divided They Conquer,” p. 36.

[9] Human Rights Watch, Azerbaijan: Seven years of conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh (USA: Human Rights Watch, December 1994), p. 136.

[10] McDougall, James, “A New Stage in US Caspian Sea Basin Relations,” Central Asia, Vol. 5, No. 11, 1997.

[11] Blua, Antoine, “Azerbaijan: U.S. Lifts Restrictions On Aid,” Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, January 29, 2002; http://www.rferl.org/content/article/1098626.html. Accessed on December 2, 2022.

[12] Mammedova, “Haydar Aliyev’s Diplomacy,” p. 177.

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

[14] Huseynov, “Mountainous Karabakh”.