Nagorno-Karabakh: Not Yet “Ripe” for Resolution


Since 1994, negotiators for Armenia and Azerbaijan have sought to end the stalemate over Nagorno-Karabakh, thus far without success.  This essay examines whether the conflict is currently “ripe” for resolution. A conflict is considered “ripe” when conditions exist for that conflict to be resolved through negotiation.  The term itself has a long history as a common law judicial doctrine that prevents the premature adjudication of disputes.   Ripeness is also a subjective determination, existing largely in the minds of the participants despite, as Christer Jönsson notes, “seem[ing] to connote an objective condition.”[1] This essay explores the concept of ripeness and concludes that the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh is not yet “ripe” for resolution.


William Zartman frames his conception of ripeness as a cost-benefit analysis with two prongs.  The first prong concerns whether, in the eyes of the leadership on both sides, there exists a “mutually hurting stalemate.”[2] In a mutually hurting stalemate the perpetuation of the conflict is perceived as less advantageous to both sides than ending the conflict would be.   Thus, if one party is “hurting” and the other is not, then the situation is not ripe for negotiated settlement.  Central to Zartman’s thesis is that neither side believes it can “win” a mutually hurting stalemate.

The second prong in Zartman’s theory is that there must be a “way out.”[3] In other words, the opposing sides must be able to envision possible solutions and they must perceive that the other side could plausibly entertain such solutions.  Zartman refines his conception of “ripeness” with two further points.  First, he assumes that parties to a conflict are rational actors.  Second, he notes that catastrophic events (whether in the past, present, or future) tend to concentrate the minds of political leaders and make conflict situations riper.[4]

In Haass’ conception of “ripeness”, there are four prerequisites for a situation to be ripe.  First, there must be “a shared perception of the desirability of an accord.”[5] Haass defines this perception in terms similar to Zartman’s, noting how “parties must conclude that in the absence of an agreement time does not work in their favor, and that they will be worse off in absolute terms, in relative terms, or both.”[6] Like Zartman, the subjective analysis of the parties is the crucial element.  More pointedly than Zartman, however, Haass notes the element of time as a determining factor.  For example, if a party views the passage of time as “on their side” then the situation is probably not ripe under this view even if the parties perceive themselves to be in a “mutually hurting stalemate”.

Haass’ second prerequisite identifies “sufficient” strength or weakness from both parties as necessary to forge a compromise.[7] A strong leader can make concessions without falling from power.  A weak leader is forced to make concessions because he or she has no choice.  Haass’ nightmare scenario, therefore, is probably the most common one: “a principal party that falls in between: not strong enough to compromise, but only strong enough to hang on.”[8] Such middling leadership, in Haass’ view, will preclude a situation from being ripe and serve to prolong a conflict.

The third and fourth prongs of Haass’ analysis address reciprocity.  Haass’ third prerequisite is that there exist “sufficient compromise on both sides to allow leaders to persuade their colleagues and citizens that the national interest was protected.”[9] In other words, there must be reciprocal concessions and enough political space to “spin” an agreement as a victory.  Similarly, Haass’ fourth prerequisite concerns the process of the negotiations themselves. If both sides do not agree on process, then any agreement may be denounced as manifestly unfair.  The fairness of process is a deep-rooted concern in any dispute resolution mechanism (for instance, the doctrine of ‘due process’ in American jurisprudence).  Such concerns are equally pronounced in negotiations between states.


Application of ripeness theory to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict suggests that the conflict is not currently ripe for resolution.  While this conclusion is unsurprising, the exercise of applying ripeness theory to the conflict is itself instructive, providing clues for how the situation may be ripened in the future.

The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is not a “mutually hurting stalemate.”  Objectively, this diagnosis appears illogical.  Both Armenia and Azerbaijan suffer economically from their continued animosity.  The uncertain political environment acts as a deterrent against foreign investment.  Both nations are forced to divert large percentages of their gross domestic product (GDP) to military expenditure.  Armenia is forced to massively subsidize Nagorno-Karabakh’s budget.[10] In short, both countries are objectively “hurting” from this stalemate.

The presence of a mutually hurting stalemate, however, is a necessarily subjective determination based on the perceptions of both parties rather than on objective facts.  Here, neither side views the costs of the continuing conflict as outweighing the costs of ending the conflict on uncertain terms.  In this calculus, the fact that the dispute concerns sovereignty over territory may be dispositive.  Arguably, rational actors prefer to minimize losses rather than maximize gains.  When a dispute concerns land, each side views land-based concessions as a loss rather than as a means to facilitate possible gains.  This is especially true in Nagorno-Karabakh where the land is so intimately entwined with historical ethnic narratives.[11]

The scholarly literature suggests that a “mutually hurting stalemate” did exist in 1994, but that the opportunity for resolving the conflict was squandered.  At that time, the catastrophe of the war was fresh in the minds of the leaders of both nations and the renewal of hostilities remained uncertain.  With the passage of time, however, the imminent threat of catastrophe has receded, and with it the imperatives that drive the “mutually hurting stalemate” in the minds of the negotiating parties.

If we focus on Haass’ element of time it becomes apparent that the “share[d] perception of the desirability of an accord” is absent.  Both parties believe that they have time on their side.  Tabib Huseynov argues that “both the Armenian and Azerbaijani leaderships have adopted a mixture of avoidance and competition conflict behaviors, which is often referred to as the ‘buying time’ strategy.”[12] Azerbaijan is using its oil wealth to upgrade its military – increasing spending from $135 million to $1.85 billion between 2003 and 2008[13] – perhaps with the intent of winning back its lost territory by force.[14] Armenian leaders are not intimidated by the buildup, counting on Russian and Iranian support to defend against an Azeri attack.[15] Also, Armenian officials believe that the longer Nagorno-Karabakh is de facto independent, the more legitimate the status quo becomes.   Huseynov therefore concludes that “neither of the sides has been seriously thinking about peace.”[16]

Looking at Haass’ second prerequisite – the strength or weakness of the leadership – it is unclear whether the leaders are strong (or weak) enough to forge an agreement, particularly the Armenian side.  President Sarkisian of Armenia, despite his native Nagorno-Karabakh credentials, is constrained in any negotiation by the effective veto wielded by the Nagorno-Karabakh leadership.[17] Also, his coalition government could be vulnerable in the event of a peace deal, as evidenced by the coalition’s fragility during the 2009 debate on normalizing relations with Turkey.[18] Thus, Sarkisian is neither a particularly strong nor a weak leader.  By contrast, Azerbaijani President Aliyev faces less democratic opposition to his rule and would probably be able to conclude an agreement without prohibitive domestic opposition.

Concerning the existence of a ‘way out’ of the conflict in Zartman’s terms, it is difficult to conceive of a path at present that is not zero sum.  Hopmann and Zartman write that “there is no Zone of Possible Agreement (ZOPA), that is, there is no conceptual area where the gains for each side overlap.”[19] Again, this impasse finds its origins in the zero-sum nature of sovereignty over land, which is finite and tangible.  The concept of dual sovereignty – federalism – has been proposed and thoroughly rejected, thereby hardening the Armenian Nagorno-Karabakh demand for independence and the Azerbaijani demand for territorial integrity.  The political rhetoric of these demands is militaristic and uncompromising on both sides, rendering Haass’ third prong increasingly elusive (the third prong being the ability to compromise enough so that leaders may convince their constituents that “the national interest was protected”).[20]

This last point is especially important because the increasingly divergent societal understandings of the conflict make its resolution less ripe (or more “raw,”  to use the appropriate antonym).  Both Armenian and Azeri scholars lament the distortion and bias that is rampant in the press and in schools in both societies.[21] The demonization of the “other” transmitted through these media finds no counterbalancing force in human relationships because of the lack of contact between Armenian and Azeri society.  The bar for politicians is thus set ever higher for ensuring that they “protect the national interest” – thereby decreasing the bargaining space for negotiators.

Finally, Haass’ fourth prerequisite – that there be “a mutually acceptable approach or process”[22] – is lacking.  The competing “package” and “step-by-step” solutions favored by Armenia and Azerbaijan respectively indicate this lack of agreement.  Although the Madrid Principles do present a hybrid approach, they are themselves still the subject of negotiation.  Because the process of negotiations has the potential to alter the power dynamics between the participants, it has become a major source of contention.  Indeed, even the mediation of the Minsk Group itself has been called into question by Azerbaijan, which sees the forum as biased in favor of Armenia due to the large Armenian Diaspora in Russia, France, and the United States.

Despite this gloomy assessment, however, both sides have continued to negotiate for the past fifteen years.  Such persistence suggests that the parties truly desire a peace agreement of some sort.  If such optimism is warranted, then the conflict is perhaps amenable to ripening.  As noted above, ripeness theory postulates that the ripeness of a situation is inherently subjective; it is the perceptions of the participants that matters.  As such, the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh can theoretically be ripened if the perceptions of the Armenian and Azerbaijani leaderships and peoples can change.  This requires, as Zartman reminds us, that “the parties need to feel that they are in a mutually hurting stalemate and that there is a way out only through negotiation, mediation or a related non-coercive process.”[23]

Outside state actors, particularly Russia, Turkey, and the United States could wield enormous influence in this regard.  Turkish rapprochement with Armenia and warmer Russian relations with Azerbaijan could work to dispel the historical ethnic and religious edge to the conflict.  The United States is in a structurally advantageous position to act as an honest broker because it is neither a regional power nor does it instinctively favor one side.  A recent visit to both countries by Secretary of State Clinton in July 2010 indicates that the United States may be willing to play a more active role as a chair of the Minsk Group.[24] Such top-down (or “Track 1”) initiatives are necessary, but insufficient for ripening the situation in Nagorno-Karabakh.  For instance, civil society may have the ability to help foster a more hospitable environment for a peace agreement.[25] Combined with diplomatic efforts, civil society can help increase the costs of stalemate (and the benefits of agreement) and advocate a dialogue of mutual interest instead of zero-sum positioning.


The “frozen conflict” between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh is not currently ripe for resolution.  The participants to the conflict do not perceive it to be a “mutually hurting stalemate” nor are they able to articulate a “way out” through negotiated settlement.  Nonetheless, both sides continue to negotiate and proclaim their desire for peace.  Inter-governmental negotiations and pressure from civil society will both be crucial in realizing this goal.  As Zartman reminds us, however, even if the situation does become ripe, “practitioners need to employ all their skills and apply all the concepts of negotiation and mediation”[26] to turn that ripeness into a sustainable peace agreement.  Ripeness alone is not enough.

[1] Christer Jönsson, Cognitive Theory, in International Negotiation: Analysis, Approaches, Issues, 270, 285 (Victor Kremenyuk ed., 2002).

[2] William Zartman, Ripeness,, Aug. 2003, available at

[3] Id.

[4] Id.

[5] Richard Haass, The United States and Regional Disputes 27 (1990).

[6] Id.

[7] Id. at 28.

[8] Id.

[9] Id.

[10] Tabib Huseynov, Mountainous Karabakh: New Paradigms for Peace and Development in the 21st Century, 15 International Negotiation, 7, 14 (2010).

[11] Aytan Gahramanova, Paradigms of Political Mythologies and Perspectives of Reconciliation in the Case of the Nagorno-Karabakh  Conflict, 15 International Negotiation 133, 142 (2010).

[12] Huseynov supra note 10, at 18.

[13] Id.

[14] Ruben Hartunian, The Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict: Moving from Power Brokerage to Relationship Restructuring, 15 International Negotiation, 57, 78 (2010).

[15] Id.

[16] Huseynov supra note 10, at 18.

[17] Talech Ziyadov, Nagorno-Karabakh Negotiations: Through the Prism of a Multi-Issue Bargaining Model, 15 International Negotiation, 107, 110 (2010).

[18] Ruzanna Stepanian, Dashnaks Decry ‘Rule of Wealth’ in Armenia, Azatutyun, Dec. 8, 2010, available at

[19] Terrence Hopmann and William Zartman, Overcoming the Nagorno-Karabakh Stalemate, 15 International Negotiation, 1, 5 (2010).

[20] Haass supra note 5, at 28.

[21] Gahramanova supra note 11, at 148.

[22] Haass supra note 5, at 28.

[23] William Zartman, Ripeness-Promoting Strategies,, Sept. 2003, available at

[24] Clinton Seeks Nagorno-Karabakh Deal on Caucasus Visit, BBC News, July 4, 2010.

[25] Irina Ghaplanyan, Empowering and Engaging Civil Society in Conflict Resolution: The Case of Nagorno-Karabakh, 15 International Negotiation 81, 100 (2010).

[26] Zartman supra note 2.

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