What was the highest possible autonomy status for Nagorno-Karabakh proposed by Azerbaijan before the Second Karabakh War?

The status of Nagorno-Karabakh had been one of the most critical issues in the negotiation process between the parties to the conflict before the Second Karabakh War. While Armenia and the so-called Nagorno-Karabakh Republic claimed full independence, Azerbaijan insisted on the conflict being settled within the country’s territorial border. In this regard, Azerbaijan stated on various occasions that if Armenia abandoned its independence claim for Nagorno-Karabakh, it might have granted the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh the highest possible autonomy status that existed in practice.[1]

The Constitution of the Azerbaijan Republic should be considered the main legal framework for the possible autonomy of Nagorno-Karabakh. Indeed, the Constitution of the Azerbaijan Republic provides all its citizens with equal opportunities, regardless of their ethnic, religious, and political standing, and[2] guarantees freedom of religion and the use of a minority language.[3] Indeed, the Constitution of the Azerbaijan Republic is proof of the legislative framework that exists for protecting the rights of ethnic minority groups. It also regulates the status of the Autonomous Republic of Nakhchivan, which forms a fundamental part of Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity. Chapter VIII in the Constitution of Azerbaijan covers the status of the Autonomous Republic and identifies its relationship with Baku.[4] According to the Constitution, Nakhchivan is an integral part of Azerbaijan, the legislation of Azerbaijan is binding on Nakhchivan, and the constitution of the autonomous republic must be in line with the constitutional law of Azerbaijan.[5] Moreover, Nakhchivan has a government system, which is independent in decision-making processes regarding the internal affairs of the autonomous unit. The symbols of Nakhchivan are the same as those of the Azerbaijan Republic.[6] Nakhchivan does not have, in fact, its police and military forces. Its monetary system is dependent on the central system, it does not formulate independent foreign policy, and in international competitions, its athletes represent not Nakhchivan but Azerbaijan. Nakhchivan does not have a high degree of autonomy since most of its population is Azerbaijanis, and they have never claimed a higher status. However, the absence of a direct land connection with the central government made it necessary for a self-rule system to be established there.

In order to think about what a ‘highest possible autonomy status’ for Nagorno-Karabakh might look like, it is essential to analyze existing ‘special autonomy status’ cases, as these experiences might serve as a precedent for other issues.

In practice, whereas there are no standard international regulations governing a higher autonomy status, various cases exist of an entity that can be identified as having a higher autonomy status, such as Tatarstan, Bashkortostan, South Tyrol, and Hong Kong. Although these cases also differ, in fact, from each other, by analyzing them, it is possible to identify several general standard features of autonomy with a higher status that might be considered as setting a precedent for other issues, such as the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Indeed, in most of these cases, the autonomy status is guaranteed by international agreements and the constitutions of their parent state; dual-state language is in use within the autonomous territories; there is less dependence on the center on legislative, executive, and judicial issues; the autonomies have their state symbols; the ethnic language is dominant in the education system; financial liberty provides the opportunity to spend the budget without special approval from the central government; some of these entities have their police system; and in international sport tournaments, they have the right to represent their autonomous region rather than the central state. All these privileges are unfamiliar to all autonomies that enjoy the higher status since each has specific features, such as historical events, ethnic maintenance, geographical locations, etc., that influence its special status. Therefore, choosing one of these models for Nagorno-Karabakh is not that easy.

Thus, it should be stressed that the Constitution of the Azerbaijan Republic might have formed the main legal framework for the status of Nagorno-Karabakh. This status could be guaranteed either by international agreements or by the Constitution of Azerbaijan. Generally saying, while relations between the central government and the autonomous region were being determined, regulations governing various cases similar to the Nagorno-Karabakh case could be used. However, Armenian side did not accept this proposal of Azerbaijan and the Second Karabakh War changed the reality regarding the issue. There is no administrative territorial unit called Nagorno-Karabakh in Azerbaijan today. Azerbaijan has set up Karabakh and East Zangazur economic regions upon President Ilham Aliyev’s decree signed on July 7, 2021, and called “On the New Division of the Azerbaijani Republic’s Regions.” These economic regions are among the 14 economic regions ratified under the decree. The Karabakh economic region covers Khankendi city, Aghjabadi, Aghdam, Barda, Fuzuli, Khojaly, Khojavand, Susha, and Tartar regions. The Eastern Zangazur economic region includes the liberated Jabrayil, Kalbajar, Gubadli, Lachin, and Zangilan regions.[7]

[1] Izzet, I, “Head of State Committee: After solving Nagorno-Karabakh conflict Armenians can become Azerbaijani equal citizens,” Trend, September 6, 2013; https://en.trend.az/azerbaijan/karabakh/2186913.html. Accessed on December 4, 2022.

[2] “Article 24,” The Constitution of the Azerbaijan Republic.

[3] “Articles 44, 45, 48,” The Constitution of the Azerbaijan Republic.

[4] “Chapter VIII,” The Constitution of the Azerbaijan Republic.

[5] “Article 134,” The Constitution of the Azerbaijan Republic.

[6] “Article 2, 10,” The Constitution of the Nakhchivan Autonomic Republic.

[7] Jabbarova, Aisha, “Azerbaijan sets up Karabakh and East Zangazur economic regions,” AZERNEWS, July 7, 2021; https://www.azernews.az/nation/181004.html. Accessed on December 4, 2022.