Authorities in Armenia and Karabakh have reacted very positively to the July 22 decision by the highest UN court to uphold the legality of Kosovo’s 2008 declaration of independence from Serbia. They say it strengthens the Armenian case for international recognition of Karabakh’s de facto secession from Azerbaijan. One apparent implication of this is that they will now be even less likely to agree to the disputed region’s return under Azeri rule.
Yet, despite being buoyed by the non-binding ruling issued by the Hague-based International Court of Justice (ICJ), the Armenian government will hardly recognize Kosovo’s independence anytime soon. It will clearly remain anxious not to upset Russia, Armenia’s closest ally, that has thrown its weight behind Serbia throughout the conflict in the predominantly Albanian-populated territory. Armenian Deputy Foreign Minister, Shavarsh Kocharian, welcomed the ruling as “truly unprecedented” just hours after its announcement. He said the ICJ ruled that the principle of peoples’ self-determination, championed by the Armenian side, should take precedence over territorial integrity in the resolution of other ethnic or territorial disputes (Armenian Public Television, July 22).
A spokesman for the ruling Republican Party of Armenia echoed this interpretation. “For the first time, an international court ruled that … self-determination is more important than territorial integrity,” Eduard Sharmazanov told Radio Free Europe’s Armenian service the next day. The ruling could “positively impact Karabakh’s international recognition,” he claimed. The pro-government daily, Hayots Ashkhar, similarly predicted on July 24 a “certain impact” on the long-running Armenian-Azeri peace talks mediated by the US, Russia and France.
Karabakh’s ethnic Armenian leadership also welcomed the ICJ decision. Bako Sahakian, the president of the self-proclaimed Karabakh Republic, called it an “important event” that created a “new political situation” (www.news.am, July 23). The three political parties represented in the Karabakh government and parliament also stressed the verdict’s importance in a joint statement issued on the occasion. “Karabakh declared its independence in conformity with all norms of international law … and in the same conditions facing Kosovo,” Vahram Atanesian, a senior member of the Karabakh legislature, announced. He said the Armenians should therefore “assert our rights from a firmer position” (Regnum, July 23).
Azerbaijan’s reaction to the development was predictably different. Foreign Ministry Spokesman, Elkhan Polukhov, was quoted by the Trend news agency as saying that the ICJ cannot have any implications for the resolution of the Karabakh conflict. The US State Department agreed, saying that the ICJ’s advisory verdict is based on “unique facts specific to Kosovo. We do not see that this ruling and these facts apply to other cases,” department spokesman Philip Crowley told a daily news briefing in Washington (www.state.gov, July 22).
The US, Russia and France, which co-chair the OSCE’s Minsk Group, have tried to reconcile self-determination and territorial integrity with regard to the Karabakh dispute. All their peace proposals made since 2005 have been based, in one way or another, on a combination of these principles enshrined in the 1975 Helsinki Final Act. The so-called “basic principles” envisage a gradual settlement that would start with the liberation of virtually all territories in Azerbaijan proper that were occupied by Karabakh Armenian forces in 1992-1993. Karabakh itself would remain under Armenian control at least until the holding of a referendum (presumably within the disputed enclave) on its final status in the future.
Despite years of intense diplomacy, the mediating powers have so far failed to persuade the conflicting parties to overcome their disagreements on crucial details of this peace formula, such as the timetable for Armenian troop withdrawal and practical modalities of the referendum. The parties also continue to make diametrically opposite interpretations of the so-called Madrid Principles drafted by the Minsk Group co-chairs. Azeri leaders insist, in particular, that Karabakh’s predominantly Armenian population can exercise its right to self-determination only within the framework of Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity.
Armenian officials dismiss such claims, saying that Karabakh residents would be able to vote for independence, reunification with Armenia or return to Azeri rule. The ICJ ruling may not have an immediate impact on the mediators’ position, but it should further embolden both Yerevan and the Karabakh Armenians to reject any possible ambiguity in the Madrid document’s provisions relating to Karabakh’s status. Another Armenian calculation is that the Kosovo precedent will reinforce the mediators’ apparent belief that putting the Armenian-controlled territory back under Azerbaijan’s control is unrealistic, at least in the foreseeable future.
In their June 27 statement adopted during the G8 summit in Canada, the US, Russian and French presidents said vaguely that the status issue should be settled through “a legally-binding expression of will.” A Russian translation of the statement released by the Kremlin spoke of “a legally-binding expression of the will of Karabakh’s population.”
Moscow gave the Armenian side what has turned out to be another boost when President, Dmitry Medvedev, presented his Armenian and Azeri counterparts with a new peace plan during their last face-to-face talks in St. Petersburg on June 17. The Armenian leaders refer to them as a “new version” of the Madrid document drawn up by the mediating troika. After initial denials, the Azeri foreign ministry confirmed the existence of such a plan on July 22. Yet, the ministry spokesman insisted that it was single-handedly drawn up by Russia and is therefore not a Minsk Group document. He also said, without going into details, that the Russian proposal is unacceptable to Baku because it changes “the whole philosophy of the negotiating process” (www.day.az, July 22).
Senior diplomats in the US, Russia and France made no mention of the Russian proposal in a joint statement which they issued in Almaty on July 17, following fruitless negotiations held there by the Armenian and Azeri foreign ministers. However, they did praise Medvedev’s efforts to “bridge the differences between the parties.”