Democracy and a Settlement in Nagorno-Karabakh


A long-term peaceful settlement in Nagorno-Karabakh does not rest in the hands of governing elites, but with the people of Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Karabakh. Autocratic rulers and corrupt public institutions have simply used the conflict to further their own aims while robbing the people of any hope for a lasting peace.  The “road map” in Nagorno-Karabakh will be a long and difficult process. Populations need debate, policy options, and transparency. They must have trust in government institutions and a clear path to engage decision makers. As Karabakh is an internal and inter-state conflict, cross-border interaction and trust at all levels of society are critical. Sadly, signs of such responsible governance, and commitment to its further development, have not been forthcoming from the region. These facts should dampen any talk of an imminent settlement and refocus international efforts on the issue of democratization in the South Caucasus.

Recent Developments

The November 7th Azerbaijani election secured President Ilham Aliyev all but one seat for his governing bloc. The election, like many others in the region, was a sham defined by little opposition activity, complete regime control of the media, rampant vote rigging, and sadly, limited criticism from the international community. Prior to the election, on October 22, Aliyev announced that the 2011 state budget calls for a military expenditure of $3.1 billion, almost double that of the current year. The following week, on October 27, he travelled to the southern Russian city Astrakhan where talks with his Russian and Armenian counterparts yielded an agreement on prisoner swaps and a recommitment to pursue general principles for a peaceful Nagorno-Karabakh settlement.

The Astrakhan talks were largely welcomed by the international community. The US State Department referred to the outcome as a “positive development,” while their French OSCE counterparts said the measures could “help to reduce tension.” However, the election results and Aliyev’s budget announcement should raise caution.  Elaborating on the new military appropriations, Aliyev proudly announced that “our military spending will be more than Armenia’s whole state budget. But we will not stop here. We plan to increase our defense spending further.”  It seems unlikely that the symbolic Astrakhan meeting outweighs the President of Azerbaijan publicly boasting about an enormous military buildup aimed directly at Armenia. This announcement illustrates, despite public statements to the contrary, that Azerbaijan is prepared, possibly even enthusiastic, to use military force in achieving a settlement to the conflict.

Rhetoric for Domestic and International Audiences

President Aliyev’s rhetoric undercuts the current peace process and dilutes the significance of the confidence-building measures established in Astrakhan. More importantly, it shows the vast gap between the pledges made on the international stage and the politics employed for domestic consumption. Aliyev is telling his Western partners and investors what they want to hear while employing militaristic nationalism with his citizens, a population too devoid of democratic freedoms to prevail over government propaganda.

Armenia is no stranger to such bellicose campaigns. Countering Aliyev’s chauvinism, President Serzh Sargsyan traveled to Karabakh on November 12 and declared, “We will not attack first now, either. But if the moment arrives, if they force us, our strike must be devastating and final this time around.” While he is not advocating a preemptive strike, the sentiment is clear and, like Aliyev’s, entirely contradictory to the spirit of international proclamations.

For years, the conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia has been punctuated and stoked by such hyperbole and secrecy. In his definitive history of the Karabakh conflict “Black Garden,” journalist Thomas de Waal writes frequently about this problem.  He quotes former Armenian President Robert Kocharyan as saying, “I would not want to raise their [the people of Armenia] expectations without knowing for sure that the conflict will definitely be resolved.” In other words, the people of Armenia were to play no role in the peace process. They were simply to support a plan deemed acceptable by one man. Similarly, de Waal writes about the tendency of former Azerbaijani President Heydar Aliyev to propose politically courageous concessions behind closed doors while publicly promising his population total military victory. This type of political manipulation has prevented the development of legitimate public support for a negotiated settlement.

Democracy in Azerbaijan and Armenia

Democratically, Azerbaijan and Armenia are some of the poorest performing countries on the planet. Azerbaijan is categorized as “Not Free“ by Freedom House’s 2010 annual ranking, on par with other autocratic and near failed states such as Angola and Yemen. The current Transparency International Survey of Corruption Perception ranks Azerbaijan 134th out of 178 surveyed countries. Finally, World Bank governance indicators place Azerbaijan in the bottom 25th percentile globally in voice and accountability and rule of law. It is in this repressive environment that President Aliyev is making decisions regarding a militaristic and confrontational future for his country.

Armenia fares only slightly better, and President Sargsyan faces an enormous legitimacy gap resulting from the violence following his 2008 election victory. Armenia is ranked “Partly Free” by Freedom House and ranks 123rd in the Corruption Perception Index. The World Bank places them in the 26th percentile for voice and accountability, and in the 43rd for rule of law. Recent Armenian presidential and parliamentary elections have been defined by abuses of political power, limited free media, and restricted opposition.

Conversely, there have also been some positive developments in Armenia. In October, members of the governing opposition called for a parliamentary vote on the official recognition of Nagorno-Karabakh’s independence.  Such a vote, like threats of violence, is prohibited under existing international protocols. President Sargsyan’s coalition wisely threatened to abstain from the vote, thus forcing a temporary delay of the measure. This political maneuver demonstrates Sargsyan’s readiness to keep the option of a negotiated settlement alive. This courageous decision showed Baku, and the international community, that Sargsyan is willing to be a constructive partner in future negotiations.

Past experiences in Georgia inform about the need for more democratic development and accountability. In 2008, President Saakashvili told a NATO summit that frozen conflicts were the greatest source of instability in the South Caucasus. Later that year, he attempted to solve the South Ossetia question through militaristic and undemocratic means. The result was the most pressing security threat within Europe since the Balkan wars. Georgia, considered the most “democratic” nation in the South Caucasus, lacked the government institutions and procedures to prevent President Saakashvili from undertaking a disastrous military expedition against South Ossetia and Russia. Following the war, Saakashvili was able to use the power of his presidency, his control over governing institutions and the media, to avoid accountability, deflect blame, and maintain power. The conflict in Georgia demonstrated that democracy and accountability matter. Therefore, it is striking that the international community is failing to see the relationship between domestic governance and stability in Nagorno-Karabakh.

Moving Forward

It is no secret that the European Union and United States place a high premium on improved economic relations with Azerbaijan.  The future of European energy security depends largely on Azerbaijani gas deposits. However, they should not sacrifice their moral authority, democratic principles, or a chance for a sustainable Karabakh peace to avoid insulting Baku. They need to speak out powerfully in favor of responsible governance. By ignoring democratization, the US and EU are doing themselves a long-term disservice, as an undemocratic regime in Azerbaijan (or Armenia) is not a reliable long-term partner.

The warmongering of Presidents Aliyev and Sargsyan, and the failed election in Azerbaijan, are simply the latest transgressions against democracy. Such actions and language make constructive engagement in the Karabakh conflict nearly impossible. Large democratic deficits have helped to undermine 16 years of negotiations, and created an environment in which a sustained peace is impossible. Stability in Karabakh and the greater South Caucasus region will continue to be elusive if the international community insists on negotiating with leaders and regimes that lack popular support and internationally recognized democratic credentials. This does not suggest that negotiations be called off until truly democratic regimes come to power in the region. Instead, governance should be promoted in tandem with peace negotiations, employing equal zeal and comparable resources.

The EU and US should use their influence and rhetoric to go beyond diplomatic niceties and strongly condemn undemocratic acts like the recent election in Azerbaijan. Additionally, leaders on both sides must be held accountable and put an end to saber-rattling. Neither Armenia nor Azerbaijan should be able to sink the treasures of their under-developed nation into a major military buildup without intense international and/or domestic criticism.  It can no longer be tolerable to accept declarations of peace and collaboration at the international bargaining table while ignoring calls for war at home.  Next, acts of responsible governance, like preventing a Karabakh independence vote in the Armenian Parliament, should be acknowledged and praised. Finally, and most importantly, the people of the region must be engaged in the discussion and implementation of a settlement. If they are ignored or manipulated by the process, peace will remain elusive.

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What are your thoughts on the subject?


Reshad K.

29 Dec 2010

Sir, as a member of the Azerbaijani community, I am simply flabbergasted and outraged with your cynical “voice” and use of phrases such as “militaristic nationalism,” “Aliyev’s chauvinism,” “entirely contradictory to the spirit of international proclamations” toward Azerbaijani position. Firstly, the Nagorno-Karabakh, as well as seven (7) other regions of Azerbaijan that have been occupied by Armenia (a total of some 16% of the territory of Azerbaijan, from which all of its 800,000 strong Azerbaijani population has been ethnically cleansed), are recognized by the international community, including both US and UK, as being part of Azerbaijan (for a detailed review of all these aspects, read Nowhere do you mention any of these facts, nowhere does your article even attempts to cover its utter bias with any kind of disclaimers. It is absolutely unacceptable that your publishing houses serve as clearinghouses of propaganda, separatism and distortion. Secondly, elections in Armenia are not so much about political power but rather who controls economic interests and businesses. This is also the situation in Yerevan as well as outside of the capital city. In the 64-page report, "Democracy on Rocky Ground: Armenia's Disputed 2008 Presidential Election, Post-Election Violence, and the One-Sided Pursuit of Accountability," ( ) you can find details the clashes between police and protesters in Armenia's capital, Yerevan, on March 1, 2008, in the wake of the disputed February 2008 presidential polls. It also documents the ill-treatment of individuals detained in connection with the violence, and lack of comprehensive investigation and accountability for excessive use of force on March 1 and in its aftermath. As a result, at least 10 people died - eight protesters and two police officers - and scores were injured.The report is based on more than 80 interviews carried out over three research missions in Armenia in 2008 and 2009. Is this good enough to be accepted by your standarts and ranked “Partly Free” by Freedom House? Thirdly, can you explain, how is such a deeply consernrd with the regional security country as Armenia has its place in the list of states supplying the Iranian military with arms? In December 2008, then-Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte wrote a letter to Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan expressing his concerns about Armenia's transfer of arms to Iran. In his letter, Mr. Negroponte noted that by law, the transfer of weapons to Iran requires the United States to consider whether there is a basis for sanctions against Armenia. It is important to note that the bills of lading associated with the arms transferred to Iran were signed by none other than then-Defense Minister Serzh Sargysan. Last point - the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan cannot be a subject of compromise. Azerbaijan will not surrender an inch of our territory to anyone. Azerbaijan does not want war and remains committed to a peaceful resolution. Yet if forced by deliberate actions aimed at the further consolidation of the current status quo of occupation, Azerbaijan will be ready to resort to any other available measures to legitimately restore its territorial integrity. Territorial acquisitions and the practice of ethnic cleansing are incompatible with universal and European values and contradict the principles and ideas of peace, democracy, stability and regional cooperation. Though, it is obvious that the success of the peace process depends on the constructive approaches of both sides, as well as on the active contribution of the international community, especially the OSCE Minsk Group and its Co-Chairmen. However, it is very difficult to hope for a substantial breakthrough based on the position on which Armenia currently persists. Indeed, the military actions against Azerbaijan were aimed from the very beginning at seizing the territories by means of force and the fundamental change of their demographic composition. Therefore, it is for the purpose of unilateral secession that Armenia wants to retain control over some occupied districts surrounding Nagorno-Karabakh, prevents the displaced Azerbaijani population from returning to their homes and thus excludes equal consideration of the opinions of both communities.