Madrid Principles: Basis for Conflict Settlement or War?


The Nagorno-Karabakh peace process has entered a key stage with the OSCE Minsk Group co-chair countries releasing two unprecedented statements within the last year in L’Aquila (July 10, 2009) and Muskoka (June 26, 2010) affirming their commitment to support the leaders of Armenia and Azerbaijan in resolving the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict based on Basic Principles (also known as the Madrid Principles) for conflict settlement.

The Basic Principles are the following (OSCE, 2009):

–          The return of the territories surrounding Nagorno-Karabakh to Azerbaijani control.

–          An interim status for Nagorno-Karabakh providing guarantees for security and self-governance.

–          A corridor linking Armenia to Nagorno-Karabakh.

–          Eventual determination of the final legal status of Nagorno-Karabakh through a legally binding expression of will.

–          The right of all internally displaced persons (IDPs) and refugees to return to their former places of residence.

–          International security guarantees, including a peacekeeping operation.

These principles have been strongly criticized since their origin by both Armenians and Azerbaijanis for different reasons. Several points have been strongly disputed in Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh, particularly in relation to the width of the Lachin corridor and the return of Azerbaijani IDPs and refugees to Nagorno-Karabakh before finalizing its legal status. Armenians still think that concessions made by this agreement are detrimental for the national interests of Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh, with perhaps the most disturbing principle being that the final status of Nagorno-Karabakh would be determined by referendum. In 2009, slight but significant changes were made in the text substituting the “idea of a referendum or population vote to determine the final legal status of Nagorno-Karabakh” (OSCE, 2006) with the “final status of Nagorno-Karabakh to be determined in the future by a legally-binding expression of will” (OSCE, 2010).

Many Azerbaijanis considered the Basic Principles unacceptable since they did not envisage the possibility of restoring territorial integrity of Azerbaijan given that Nagorno-Karabakh’s population would be entitled the right of referendum or popular vote to decide their future. However, with the recent amendments made, these concerns seem to be ungrounded since an interim status for Nagorno-Karabakh “providing …self-governance” and “…final legal status of Nagorno-Karabakh through a legally binding expression of will” do not preclude Azerbaijan from providing Nagorno-Karabakh self-governance in an autonomous entity within Azerbaijan. Besides, the determination of the final status of Nagorno-Karabakh is scheduled after the refugees return to their former places of residence, which means that everyone residing in Nagorno-Karabakh at that time will be able to express their own will.

Compared with the “stage by stage” proposal of conflict settlement made by the OSCE Minsk Group Co-chairs in 1997, which was considered the worst at the time by many in Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh, the current Basic Principles are not perceived as fully satisfying in terms of the security needs of Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia, and probably offer a less-favorable outcome, taken into account the missed opportunity for development and economic growth for more than 12 years. In 1997, the buffer zone was to be deployed on the northern and southern borders of a demilitarized Lachin region (not corridor) after the retreat of Armenian troops, a no-fly zone over the surrounding territories and Nagorno-Karabakh was to be operated, and there was a clause clearly mentioning demilitarization and absence of heavy weaponry in all other territories around Nagorno-Karabakh (Hakobyan, 2008, pp. 519-520).

Thus, there has constantly been regress for the Armenian side in the proposals made by the mediators since 1997. The same is also true when comparing Madrid Principles in 2006 and 2009. Given the dramatic changes in the geo-political situation in the region since 2008, it is also most probable that if Armenia rejects the current framework agreement of the Madrid Principles there will either be another proposal with a worse offer for the Armenian side or a war waged by Azerbaijan to restore its claimed territorial integrity. A few changes in the geo-political situation include the March 1, 2008 tragic post-election events in Armenia and subsequent lack of legitimacy of the authorities; the Russo-Georgian war of August 2008; a new Russian-American relationship status with the “reset button” after Barack Obama’s election bringing in serious political disagreements in Russo-Iranian relations and Russia’s active participation in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict settlement process; a larger gap between the military and economic potential of Armenia and Azerbaijan; and new oil and gas pipeline projects running through Azerbaijan and subsequent reinvigoration of the importance of its role in the region with Armenia’s engagement remaining extremely low in almost every aspect  mentioned above.

All of these contribute to the resolution of the conflict with a less favorable outcome for Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh, both of which are eager to stick to the status quo, as has been possible to do until now with an aim for the so-called “cyprusisation” of the conflict. But it is getting less and less possible to do so for various reasons. There have been no significant investments in Nagorno-Karabakh. Armenians in Armenia and the Diaspora have not been encouraged to settle in Nagorno-Karabakh. The necessary living conditions have not been maintained for the people of Nagorno-Karabakh to remain there and not emigrate. Armenia will not be able continue developing and supporting Nagorno-Karabakh with the two borders blocked. And above all, while trying to maintain the status quo, the chances of resumption of war by Azerbaijan would largely increase since for this authoritarian leadership, certain reassurances are needed to safely maintain its own political capital, in spite of the fact that the top authorities in Azerbaijan might be the least interested in waging war that would certainly jeopardize their own business interests.

The restoration of democratic governance in Armenia with the new leaders free from the burden of illegitimacy and severe foreign dependence would be extremely important since the peace process is already unbalanced in favor of Azerbaijan due to the geopolitical standoff. This could change the asymmetric character of negotiations where Armenians are currently the underdogs. Balancing the Madrid Principles so that all parties feel they are equally winning or losing (unfortunately a win-win outcome is hardly possible given the peculiarities of such conflicts) is one of the most important issues in the peace process.Otherwise, Armenians may feel their basic needs are significantly less satisfied and try to preserve the status quo, which will tremendously increase the chances of resumption of violence by Azerbaijan — a disaster for everyone involved in this conflict. In turn, after the implementation of the first stage of the Madrid Principles significant political confidence will be achieved in Azerbaijan, substantially diminishing possible adventurous policies (such as waging war against Nagorno-Karabakh proper after the return of several surrounding territories) endangering their own positions.

In order not to let the prolongation of the status quo (by Armenians) or the resumption of war (by Azerbaijan), the Madrid Principles (2006 version being more preferable for the sake of a more balanced peace process) should be accepted by all parties as a basis for negotiations laying the foundation for trust building rather than war (as the next worst offer of conflict settlement for Armenia) resumed by Azerbaijan. Building peace today by making the resumption of war impotent and ensuring security for the people of Nagorno-Karabakh will be a solid step towards future harmonious relations in the region where countries consider each other neighbors rather than eternal enemies.


Hakobyan, T. (2008). Green and Black, Artsakh Diary, Yerevan-Stepanakert (in Armenian). Publisher unknown.

OSCE Minsk Group Co-Chairs (2006). “We have run out of ideas”: Statement of mediators of Nagorno Karabakh conflict settlement. Retrieved from

OSCE Minsk Group Co-Chairs (2009). Statement by the OSCE Minsk Group Co-Chair countries. Retrieved from

OSCE Minsk Group Co-Chairs (2010). Statement by the OSCE Minsk Group Co-Chair countries. Retrieved from

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Onnik Krikorian

31 Aug 2010

Incidentally, I can't help but think that resistance to the Madrid Principles from those, aside from the ARF-D for obvious reasons, inside Ter-Petrossian's ANC isn't just part of the politicized environment since 2008 and simply an attempt to exploit Karabakh to push for regime change. I say this because the 1997 proposals didn't apparently include any mechanisms for determining status. In fact, says Gerard Libaridian, Ter-Petrossian was ready to accept autonomy in Azerbaijan and it was Kocharian, Serge and Vazgen Sargsyan who opposed this along with the Karabakh Armenians. --- Armenia’s President Levon Ter-Petrosian had revised his approach to the Karabakh problem since leading the Karabakh Committee in 1988, when he had been an advocate of reunification with Armenia. Under his presidency the Armenian government’s approach was to define the issue as the security of Nagorny Karabakh and its right to self-determination – not necessarily meaning the internationally unpopular goals of independence or reunification with Armenia. Ter-Petrosian sought a compromise where the Armenian side would concede that Nagorny Karabakh would be legally part of Azerbaijan; in return Azerbaijan would agree to a status above the nominal autonomy that the NKAO had enjoyed until 1988, but a notch below independence. --- I also don't think it's unfair to criticize talk of the involvement of NK's Azeri minority especially as they were and are precisely that, a minority. The same goes for talk of no-fly zones and demilitarized areas around Karabakh. I would think it's logical to consider that these elements would be part of any security guarantees along with the deployment of peacekeepers in those areas. Unfortunately, I think, Karabakh has become a way to come to power or maintain it. Ter-Petrossian became president on the back of the Karabakh movement, lost power because of it, Kocharian took his place and manipulated the conflict for internal political needs, and now the opposition hopes to also raise fears of a "sell-out" for the same purpose. Meanwhile, Aliyev's rhetoric of war is also used for domestic political consumption. Tragically, I think we have three main problems here. Firstly, and most significantly, it is the politicization of the Karabakh conflict. Secondly, it is the inability for Azerbaijan to consider the right of people to self-determination in exchange for return of the occupied territories, but also it is the increasing tendency for some Armenians to consider the territory of Nagorno Karabakh to now including the buffer zone and refer to them as 'liberated.' Of course, this is not the main problem and obstacle, I suppose. as in previous potential agreements it has been the timing for any return of most of Lachin and Kelbajar i.e. after a referendum in the case of Armenia, and before one from the position of Azerbaijan. Nevertheless, all that said, I agree with you that in case no framework agreement is signed in the near future, the situation is not going to improve and will likely get worse. What is necessary, however, is the de-politization of the Karabakh conflict in both countries and an understanding that mutual compromise is the only way forward. And the Madrid principles are the framework for doing so, and certainly no worse than what Ter-Petrossian advocated over 10 years ago. In fact, some would argue, they are better because a mechanism for determining status is made pretty clear.

Artak Ayunts

3 Aug 2010

Thanks for the comments Onnik. There is no counter argument against the last two sentences, however they are enthusiastic rather than realistic, and probably all these will not be possible to achieve unless NK conflict is settled. That’s why with this article I wanted to sound more pragmatic and focus on the issues we have today around NK peace process. Ideally I would also consider democratization of both countries as an important prerequisite of conflict resolution but looking at the issues realistically makes me believe that we should find political settlement today by working out mechanisms for long-term democratization processes otherwise we might wait for ages to have genuine democracy in Armenia, let alone Azerbaijan. Re the 'restoration of democratic governance’ – one of the constituent aspects of democratic governance is free and fair elections which were the case at least until 1996 in Armenia. The same is true for ‘severe political dependence’, which was not the case before 1999. That’s why I mentioned ‘severe’, understanding clearly that given the geopolitical situation Armenia cannot be absolutely independent.

Onnik Krikorian

1 Aug 2010

The restoration of democratic governance in Armenia with the new leaders free from the burden of illegitimacy and severe foreign dependence would be extremely important ... --- Legitimacy, maybe, but this was lost with every president from Ter-Petrosian's second term in 1996. Free from severed foreign dependence? Landlocked, lacking in resources, and blockaded, this isn't going to happen until the third point is resolved. Restoration of democratic governance? There has never been any in Armenia. Not under Levon Ter-Petrosian, not under Robert Kocharian, and not under Serge Sargsyan. The same is true regarding successive presidents in Azerbaijan. What is more likely needed is the ACTUAL democratization of both countries, including both societies and the need to promote democratic mindsets and values such as tolerance. And this is a generational shift, with education key, and the willingness of society to open up to new and progressive ideas, many of which challenge the national approach still prevalent amongst most.