1 Apr 2011
A New Look at Old Principles: Making the Madrid Document Work
The Minsk Group has encouraged Presidents Ilham Aliev and Serzh Sargsyan to agree on the Madrid Principles for almost four years. To date, the leaders have only managed to agree on the preamble. This article assesses why the Madrid document remains unsigned, and challenges the conventional wisdom that the most divisive issues should be left for last. Instead, this analysis suggests a modified plan for peace that confronts the most divisive issue first: Nagorno-Karabakh’s status.
The Minsk Group’s Mirage of Progress
Since 1992, the Minsk Group of the OSCE has tried and largely failed to facilitate a peaceful resolution to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, yet official statements say that negotiations are moving forward. The co-chairs often express hope that a peaceful resolution is just beyond the horizon, but those familiar with the issue have grown weary of this mantra.
Initially proposed by the Minsk Group to the Presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan in 2007 and revised in 2009, the Madrid Principles include the following six points:
1. Return of the territories surrounding Nagorno-Karabakh to Azerbaijani control
2. An interim status for Nagorno-Karabakh providing guarantees for security and self-governance
3. A corridor linking Armenia to Nagorno-Karabakh
4. Future determination of the final legal status of Nagorno-Karabakh through a legally binding expression of will
5. The right of all internally displaced persons and refugees to return to their former places of residence
6. International security guarantees that would include a peacekeeping operation
The parties disagree about the sequence, however. Azerbaijan prefers the order shown above, considering special modalities for the withdrawal of Armenian military forces from the regions of Kelbajar and Lachin. Armenia views this order as unfair, arguing that it would be giving up land but only receiving a promise in return about Nagorno-Karabakh’s final legal status in the future. Given that Nagorno-Karabakh has had de facto independence from Baku for almost 20 years, let us examine what addressing the status of Karabakh would imply.
In their current form, the Madrid Principles avoid the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict’s thorniest point of contention by pushing the issue of status into the vague realm of “future determination.” Such ambiguity makes the Madrid document vulnerable to manipulation and misunderstanding. More important, it prevents a credible and peaceful resolution.
The Madrid document fails to define the entity of “Nagorno-Karabakh.” During the Soviet period, the Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republic included both the Nakhichevan Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic (Nakhichevan ASSR) and the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast (Nagorno-Karabakh AO). ASSRs enjoyed a greater degree of autonomy within the Soviet system than AOs.
Whereas Nakhichevan ASSR’s autonomous status was carried over to the Republic of Azerbaijan’s 1995 constitution as the Nakhichevan Autonomous Republic, the constitution makes no mention of Nagorno-Karabakh. The autonomous status of the Nagorno-Karabakh AO was, in fact, dissolved on November 26, 1991, shortly after Azerbaijan’s Supreme Council adopted the country’s independence from the Soviet Union on October 18, 1991 (De Waal, 2003, p. 162).
Nagorno-Karabakh’s absence in Azerbaijan’s constitution ties directly into the question of its final legal status. When it comes time for the determination of final status, to what version of “Nagorno-Karabakh” will that status be applied? The Madrid Principles offer no answer to this question: they contain no definition of what territory is considered to be included in Nagorno-Karabakh. And, as noted, Azerbaijan’s constitution also neglects to mention, let alone define, Nagorno-Karabakh. Because of this omission, Azerbaijan could later impose its own territorial definition of Nagorno-Karabakh, without being restrained by a previously stated definition.
If the Madrid Principles are followed to their logical conclusions in the order listed above, then the Armenian-controlled territories surrounding the former Nagorno-Karabakh AO would be returned to Azerbaijan, followed by the repatriation of hundreds of thousands of Azerbaijani refugees and internally displaced persons. At that point, Armenians fear, Azerbaijan would institute the “future determination of the final legal status of Nagorno-Karabakh through a legally binding expression of will,” by calling for a referendum.
Rather than being a referendum on the independence of what was the majority-Armenian Nagorno-Karabakh AO of Soviet Azerbaijan, Armenia is very concerned that the future referendum would include the votes of the newly repatriated Azerbaijani majority in the territories surrounding the former Nagorno-Karabakh AO. The Armenians would be the minority in such a broad territorial definition of Nagorno-Karabakh, forfeiting their ability to achieve de jure independence from Azerbaijan through the referendum. This is a legitimate grievance, and it makes the Madrid Principles in their current form a non-starter.
A Pragmatic Plan for Peace: Clarifying and Ordering the Madrid Principles
Clarifying and ordering the present version of the Madrid Principles offers a more viable alternative road map for Presidents Aliev and Sargsyan. The leaders must first reach a political compromise on the following two points:
- An agreement on the territorial boundaries of Nagorno-Karabakh (not mentioned in the Madrid Principles).
(Envisioned compromise: The borders of the former Soviet Nagorno-Karabakh AO, plus the Lachin Corridor with an agreed-upon width.)
- An agreement on the participants of a referendum on secession which would serve as “a legally binding expression of will” for the determination of the final legal status of Nagorno-Karabakh, and the logistics of the voting process (clarification to D).
Second, the Minsk Group must encourage Presidents Aliev and Sargsyan to agree to the following order of the updated Madrid Principles, which would include the clarifications outlined above:
1. An agreement on the territorial boundaries of Nagorno-Karabakh, including a corridor linking Armenia to Nagorno-Karabakh (new principle; C)
2. An interim status for Nagorno-Karabakh providing guarantees for security and self-governance (B)
3. A referendum on secession, facilitated by the OSCE, which would serve as a legally binding expression of will for the determination of the final legal status of Nagorno-Karabakh (D, revised)
4. International security guarantees that would include a peacekeeping operation (F)
5. Return of the territories surrounding Nagorno-Karabakh to Azerbaijani control (A)
6. The right of all internally displaced persons and refugees to return to their former places of residence (E)
A Win-Win Situation
The Minsk Group co-chairs stated that the Madrid document “was not an ultimatum, and its provisions were not the Ten Commandments” (Merzlyakov, 2008). Incorporating the aforementioned changes to the document would result in a win-win situation that balances self-determination and territorial integrity, in which both the Armenians and the Azerbaijanis have much to gain.
What the Armenians Gain:
According to the Soviet Union’s final census of 1989, the Nagorno-Karabakh AO had a majority-Armenian population of 76.9% and an Azerbaijani minority of 21.5% (International Crisis Group, 2005, p. 4). The referendum would allow for the de jure secession of Nagorno-Karabakh, with the necessary addition of the Lachin Corridor. This would satisfy the Armenians’ right to self-determination.
What the Azerbaijanis Gain:
Of the seven regions outside of the former Soviet Nagorno-Karabakh AO that are fully or partially controlled by Armenian forces, six would be returned to Azerbaijan in their entirety, as well as the region of Lachin outside of the Lachin Corridor, amounting to about half of the territory now under Armenian control (International Crisis Group, 2005, p. 1).  This would satisfy the Azerbaijanis’ right to territorial integrity.
Nagorno-Karabakh is a tinderbox that is dangerously close to igniting. The South Caucasus has the unfortunate reputation of garnering diplomatic attention only after bullets start flying. There is still time, albeit less and less, to find a diplomatic solution to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Noting the urgency of this matter, the alternative plan for peace outlined above seeks to work within the Madrid document to create a viable and peaceful resolution that should interest both parties. I hope that the Armenian and Azerbaijani leadership will consider this plan and its potential for solving differences with the pen rather than the sword.
De Waal, T. (2003). Black garden: Armenia and Azerbaijan through peace and war. New York, NY: New York University Press.
International Crisis Group. (2005, September). Nagorno-Karabakh: Viewing the conflict from the ground (Europe Report No. 166, pp. 1, 4). Retrieved from http://www.crisisgroup.org/~/media/Files/europe/166_nagorno_karabakh_viewing_the_conflict_from_the_ground.ashx
Medvedev, D. A., Obama, B. H., & Sarkozy, N. P. S. U.S. White House, Office of the Press Secretary. (2009, July). Joint statement on the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Retrieved from the U.S. White House website: http://www.whitehouse.gov/the_press_office/Joint-Statement-on-the-Nagorno-Karabakh-Conflict
Merzlyakov, Y. N. (2008, November). Statement by the Minsk group co-chairs to the OSCE permanent council (p. 2). Vienna, Austria. Retrieved from the U.S. Mission to the OSCE website: http://osce.usmission.gov/uploads/AF/UV/AFUV30tG_rF6f8OXYLYbsA/st_110608_minskgroup.pdf
Middle East: Azerbaijan. (2011). In Central Intelligence Agency: The world factbook. Retrieved from https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/aj.html
President of the Republic of Azerbaijan, Press Service of the President of the Republic of Azerbaijan and Political Analysis and Information Support Department of the Administration of the President. (2010). The constitution of the republic of Azerbaijan. Retrieved from the President of the Republic of Azerbaijan website http://www.president.az/azerbaijan/constitution?locale=en
 This estimate is based on the following figures provided by the International Crisis Group’s September 2005 report, Nagorno-Karabakh: Viewing the Conflict from the Ground: the area of the former Soviet Nagorno-Karabakh AO and the seven regions outside of it that are now fully or partially controlled by Armenian forces is about 11,722 sq. km; the area of the seven regions outside of the former Nagorno-Karabakh AO that are fully or partially controlled by Armenian forces is about 7,409 sq. km.; the area of the parts of the Mardakert and Martuni regions which were in the former Soviet Nagorno-Karabakh AO but are now controlled by Azerbaijani forces is 327 sq. km; the area of the former Soviet Nagorno-Karabakh AO was 4,388 sq. km.; and the area of the former Soviet region of Lachin was 1,835 sq. km. Without calculating the former Soviet region of Lachin, if the win-win situation described above were to be followed, Azerbaijan would receive a net gain of about 5,247 sq. km. (+7,409-1,835-327), or 44.76% (5,247/11,722) of the territory currently controlled by the de-facto Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh. If, for example, one-third of the region of Lachin was to be designated as the Lachin Corridor (611.67 sq. km.), then Azerbaijan would receive a net gain of about 6,470.33 sq. km. (+7,409-611.67-327), or 55.20% (6,470.33/11,722) of the territory currently controlled by the de-facto Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh.