Who were the parties to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict?

Various steps are described in the academic literature that should be taken into consideration to find a lasting solution in settlement of armed or social conflicts. Identifying the parties to the conflict is an initial and significant step that must not be ignored because misleading information about the identities of the parties or stakeholders will result in deadlock and prolong the process of achieving peace. The parties to the conflict are the main actors whose perceptions, emotions, and approaches directly affect the peace-building process. Moreover, it could be possible to define the nature of the conflict, whether ethnic or territorial, interstate or intrastate, by identifying the respective parties (stakeholders).[1]

When Russia and Kazakhstan set up the first initiative for settling the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict during the Soviet era, and later when Iran organized a meeting in Tehran to start the mediation process, Azerbaijan and Armenia were recognized as parties in the conflict. In 1992, the CSCE/OSCE Minsk group took on a mediator role in the conflict. Its first task as a mediator was to draw up the so-called Baker rules, named after the US Secretary of State James Baker. These rules, which were agreed upon by all sides in the conflict, recognized Azerbaijan and Armenia as “principal parties” to the conflict. At the same time, the Azerbaijani and Armenian communities of Nagorno-Karabakh were designated as “interested parties.” Since then, these rules have been known as the “Baker rules.”[2] From the ceasefire agreement of 1994 until the outbreak of the Second Karabakh War of 2020, the negotiation format did not alter, and peace initiatives between the parties were carried out according to these rules. The Trilateral Statement for halting Second Karabakh War was also signed between Azerbaijan and Armenia as parties to the conflict, plus Russia as a mediator. Since then, the negotiation process for achieving lasting peace in the region, with the initiatives of Russia on one side and the European Union on the other, is also carried out in this format.

In addition, it is possible to divide the parties to the conflict into primary, secondary, and third parties in academic literature. In this regard, Paul Wehr indicates, “primary parties are those who oppose one another, are using fighting behaviour, and have a direct stake in the outcome of the conflict. Secondary parties have an indirect stake in the outcome. They are often allies or sympathizers with primary parties but are not direct adversaries. Third parties are actors such as mediators and peacekeeping forces which might intervene to facilitate resolution.”[3]

In the case of the former Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, Azerbaijan and Armenia were the primary parties, the so-called Nagorno-Karabakh Republic and the Azerbaijani community of Nagorno-Karabakh were the secondary parties, and the OSCE Minsk Group as a mediator was a third party to the conflict. Because of their role, only Azerbaijan and Armenia were accepted as primary parties and have been involved in the negotiation process. The so-called Nagorno-Karabakh Republic was excluded from the negotiation process and was not recognized as a “principal” party. Being unsatisfied with the exclusion, the so-called Nagorno-Karabakh Republic insisted on the importance of its direct presence in the mediation process for the establishment of constant peace in the region. On the other hand, while recognizing Nagorno-Karabakh as part of its territory and treating the conflict as an interstate rather than an intrastate (internal), Azerbaijan preferred to negotiate only with Armenia and believed that involving the Armenian and Azerbaijani communities in the talks would disrupt the format of the peacebuilding process. However, it assumed that once an agreement had been reached on the Basic Principles (the principles drawn up at the OSCE Madrid Summit in November 2007), it would be possible to involve both communities of Nagorno-Karabakh in further attempts to achieve a comprehensive peace agreement.[4]

Unlike Azerbaijan, Armenia shared the Armenian community’s position concerning direct involvement in the negotiation process. It, therefore, had officially declared that it is impossible to make further progress in the peace process unless the so-called Nagorno-Karabakh Republic participates fully in the peace talks. Regardless of Armenia’s official position on the status of the parties, the international community had recognized Azerbaijan and Armenia as “principal” parties to the conflict since the very start of the settlement process and throughout the mediated peace-building process between them.

To organize a better communication structure and improve the talks’ credibility, the parties to the conflict usually opt to negotiate through a third party. The activities of the third party are generally identified as fact-finding, good offices, and mediation.[5] When a third party intervenes, the character of a conflict changes into a three-way interaction, and full responsibility for and control over the design and structure of the negotiation process, therefore, passes to a new actor in the conflict.[6] In the former Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, the OSCE Minsk group was a third party that had been responsible for mediating between the parties to the conflict for about three decades. Despite all initiatives of the organization, unfortunately, no progress had been made in the peace-building process. The parties, especially Azerbaijan, blamed the OSCE Minsk group for the failing process and insisted that this mediation group was not making enough effort to solve the problem. It was clearly stated that the OSCE Minsk Group had only a mediation mandate and was not entitled to direct, impose on, or otherwise affect the parties to the conflict.

However, the OSCE Minsk Group Co-chairs, namely Russia, the US, and France, which have closer relations with Armenia than with Azerbaijan, are enough powerful states, and by making reasonable efforts, they could change or modify the dispute in some way. However, according to UN Guidance documents on mediation, mediators must be impartial, treat the parties to the conflict equally and fairly, and keep a balance between them. Moreover, it is better to appoint mediator states from different regions and ones that hopefully have no global or regional ambitions. In addition, interested states may not be allowed to be directly involved in the mediation process.[7] However, in the case of the OSCE Minsk Group, all three states were countries with global and regional ambitions. Thus, while including the South Caucasus region within its sphere of influence, Russia was an interesting state in the conflict.[8] It can therefore be argued that the co-chair format of the OSCE Minsk Group was not an adequate structure for mediating in the peace-building process and, to improve the effectiveness of the talks, it would be better for it to bring in new mediators who have no interests in the dispute.

Finally, it can be stated that all the parties to the conflict recognized the existing negotiation format, which was based on “Baker’s rules.” The negotiation process was carried out between the principal parties to the conflict, Azerbaijan and Armenia. However, it is considered that in the next stage of the process, it should be possible to involve the interested parties, namely the Azerbaijani and Armenian communities of Nagorno-Karabakh. Despite the ineffectiveness of the OCSE Minsk group, none of the parties to the conflict had rejected the organization’s involvement as a third party in the mediation process. Hence, until the Second Karabakh War, the parties to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict were Azerbaijan, Armenia, and the OSCE Minsk group and today the negotiation for having final peace between two states is carried out between Azerbaijan and Armenia.

[1] Дмитриев, А. В., Конфликтология (Гардарики, 2000), p. 57.

[2] 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.

[3] Wehr, Paul, “Conflict mapping,” International Online Training Program On Intractable Conflicts, Conflict Research Consortium, University of Colorado, USA.

[4] Pashayeva, Gulshan and Göksel, Nigar, “The Interplay of the approaches of Turkey, Russia and the United States to the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh,” SAM review, 2011, p. 23.

[5] Bercovitch, Jacob, “Third Parties in Conflict Management: The Structure and Conditions of Effective Mediation in International Relations,” International Journal, Vol. 40, No. 4, 1985, p. 738.

[6] Bercovitch, “Third Parties in Conflict Management”, p. 739.

[7] “United Nations Guidance for Effective Mediation,” United Nations Peacemaker, July 2012, pp. 10-18; https://peacemaker.un.org/guidance-effective-mediation. Accessed on December 4, 2022.

[8] Cornell, Svante E., “Turkey and the Conflict in Nagorno Karabakh: A Delicate Balance,” Middle Eastern Studies, Vol. 34, No. 1, 1998, p. 57.