Karabakh conflict is getting harsher and more dangerous, yet there is still time left for peace" />

No peace? War?

Karabakh conflict is getting harsher and more dangerous, yet there is still time left for peace

First attempt: Don’t let war be levied

It was September 1991.  The Soviet Union had been agony-ridden for a few months up to this point.  A year before that, in August 1990, the Parliament of Armenia and its non-communist leadership passed a declaration of independence, thus setting in motion the process of peaceful withdrawal from the USSR.

In March 1991, Azerbaijan and its communist leadership voted for the preservation of the USSR in a referendum. The referendum on the preservation of the USSR was conducted neither in Nagorno-Karabakh nor Nakhichevan.  However, the August coup d’état spoiled everything.  Finally, at the end of August 1991, Azerbaijan declared independence and a couple of days later, on September 2, so did Nagorno-Karabakh, though it was not recognized by any country, including Armenia.


Boris Yeltsin decided to engage in conflict.  He was elected the President of Russia in June 1991.  Having had profound political differences with Gorbachov, Yeltsin expressed his intention to stand as a mediator in the Karabakh affair. In order to powerlift and attach more significance to his mediation, he paid a visit to the Caucasus together with the President of Kazakhstan, the USSR’s second largest country.  It was so that the first Russian President initiated the first mediation attempt to resolve the Karabakh conflict.

On September 21-23, Yeltsin and Nazarbayev visited Baku, then, passing Ganja, they travelled to Stepanakert, then left for Yerevan and finally arrived in Zheleznovodsk, in the North Caucasus.  On September 24, in Zheleznovodsk, they signed a joint memorandum, bearing the signatures of four leaders:  Yeltsin, Nazarbayev, Levon Ter-Petrosyan and Ayaz Mutalibov.  The Karabakh side, Robert Kocharyan, Leonard Petrosyan and Vagif Jafarov, participated in talks as observers.

Zheleznovodsk, 1991, left to right: B. Eltsin, L. Ter-Petrosyan, N. Nazarbayev, A. Mutalibov

Kocharyan was then a political leader in Karabakh and a supporter of Ter-Petrosyan in Nagorno-Karabakh (NK). The latter was the NK most important official, the Chairman of the Regional Council.  Vagif Jafarov was the mayor of Shushi, the largest city in the NK, populated by Azeris.

The Zheleznovodsk memorandum suggested taking the following measures to stop the war on the verge of breaking out:

• invalidation of all “anti-constitutional acts, adopted with regard to Nagorno-Karabakh’ (in particular, the NKAR Regional Council’s decree, dated February 20, 1988, under which the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Region expressed its intention to withdraw from Soviet Azerbaijan and join Soviet Armenia, as well as the Azerbaijani decree on November 28, 1989, abolishing the NKAR administrative entity);
• ceasefire;
• withdrawal of all armed units, except for the USSR internal troops, from the conflict area.

A 10-point memorandum was to take effect on January 1, 1992.

However, on January 1, the world’s greatest power, the USSR, ceased to exist on the political map.  Mikhail Gorbachev filed for resignation, whereas the USSR internal troops, that were the last force there, preventing bloodshed between Armenians and Azerbaijanis, left the conflict area.

War: January 1992–May 1994

Following the collapse of the USSR, Armenians and Azerbaijanis engaged in hostilities that lasted until the May 1994 truce and claimed the lives of over 12,000 Azerbaijanis and 6,000 Armenians.

The political map also changed. Armenians who, before the hostilities, had dreamt of integrating the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Region (NKAR) into Soviet Armenia, with its territory amounting to 4.4 thousand sq. km, as of May 1994, in reality, gained control not only over Nagorno-Karabakh, but also 7 thousand sq. km of adjacent areas:  full control over 5 Azerbaijani districts (Lachin, Kelbajar, Kubatly, Jabrail, Zangelan) and partial control over 2 districts (Agdam, Fizuli).

Azerbaijani armed forces, in turn, established partial control over the districts of Martakert and Martuni in the Nagorno-Karabakh region, as well as gained full control over the Shaumyan district and Getashen sub-district.

From the May 1994 truce until the present, the international mediators have offered the conflicting parties five proposals or projects, each focusing on the following key elements:

  • Nagorno-Karabakh’s status, 
  • return of the territories under control of Armenian troops, 
  • return of refugees and deported individuals back to their homes,
  • security guarantees.

Second attempt-“package and “stage-by-stage resolution schemes

In summer, and later, in autumn of 1997, the OSCE Co-Chairs offered Baku, Stepanakert and Yerevan, first, the “package and then the “stage-by-stage schemes of conflict resolution.

After the May 1994 truce, negotiations were held in the capitals of different countries, some of them members and some non-members of the OSCE Minsk Groups:  Moscow, Helsinki, Vienna, Paris and others.  In January 1997, the OSCE Troika (the main consultative body of the OSCE Chairmanship) was formed. It comprised three geopolitical power centers: Russia, USA and France (representing the EU’s interests).  From 1994-1997, a separate delegation from Nagorno-Karabakh participated in all stages of the talks.

Azerbaijan could not come to terms with this fact, but it neither prevented nor interrupted the negotiations.  Azerbaijan was, in reality, negotiating with Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh, whose positions on these key issues might not have necessarily coincided.  Nizami Bahmanov, the last mayor of Shushi who was of Azerbaijani nationality, also participated in the talks.  In contrast to the Karabakh delegation that sat at the negotiation table separately from the Armenian side, he was included in Azerbaijan’s delegation.

There was a need for a ‘stage-by-stage’ scheme because Stepanakert flatly rejected the first-proposed “package scheme. It was unacceptable for Armenia as well, but the delegates from Yerevan preferred to let Stepanakert reject it.

Levon Ter-Petrosyan and Heydar Aliyev

Both the ‘package’ and ‘stage-by-stage’ proposals resulted in the following actions:

  • withdrawal of Armenian troops from all NK adjacent areas, except Lachin (that implies not just part of it, but the entire Lachin district);
  • deployment of international peacekeepers in the area between NK and Azerbaijan;
  • return of the deported population to their permanent place of residence.

The principal difference between the ‘package’ and ‘stage-by-stage’ schemes could be found in the paragraph concerning the status of NK.  Under the ‘package’ scheme, NK was provided maximum autonomy within Azerbaijan, which was unacceptable for Yerevan and Stepanakert.  Whereas the ‘stage-by-stage’ option did not address the problem of status at all, putting that very controversial issue on the back burner.

Baku considered both the ‘package’ and the ‘stage-by stage’ schemes as acceptable.  Yerevan agreed to the ‘stage-by-stage’ one, though with some reservations.  However, Stepanakert rejected both proposals, and that was not a pre-planned trick on the part of Armenia and NK.

Stepanakert authorities claimed there was no principal difference between the ‘package’ and ‘stage-by-stage’ variants, since in both cases, the question of status would be resolved in favor of Azerbaijan.  In the ‘package’ solution, in exchange for the return of six districts, Nagorno-Karabakh would only recieve more autonomy within Azerbaijan.  In the ‘stage-by-stage’ solution, six districts would be returned and the question of status would be left hanging in the air.  It was obvious that having regained six districts, Azerbaijan would not agree in the future to grant NK the independence that Stepanakert was aspiring for.

During his well-known press conference in September 1997, as well as in his extensive article ‘War or Peace?’, published in November of the same year, Ter-Petrosyan tried to convince the Armenian public that the “stage-by-stage option was the very best that Nagorno-Karabakh could get.  However, he encountered not only the public resistance, but also from his own team.

As a result, the Armenian Defense Minister, Vazgen Sargsyan, who was killed in a terrorist attack in the Armenian parliament two years later, and was also in the Karabakh wing of the government headed by Prime Minister Robert Kocharyan, forced Ter-Petrosyan to resign.

Third attempt – ‘common state’

A year later, in the end of 1998, the OSCE Minsk Group presented a new settlement proposal, referred to as the ‘common state’. The author of this document was then-Foreign Minister of Russia, Yevgeny Primakov.

Yerevan accepted the proposal with reservations, Stepanakert with serious reservations, while Baku flatly rejected it.

As for the elimination of the repercussions of the conflict, the ‘common state’ concept was no different from the previous two documents. The main difference was again in the paragraph concerning the status of Nagorno-Karabakh.  As it was pointed out in the beginning of the proposal, ‘Nagorno-Karabakh is a territorial and state entity in the form of a republic, forming a common state with Azerbaijan within its internationally recognized borders.’

Thus, a creative approach was used which allowed them not to violate the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan, but, at the same time, as part of this integrity, Nagorno-Karabakh would have become independent state.  ‘De jure means not part of Azerbaijan, de facto, an independent state-the following sophisticated wording was used with regard to Nagorno-Karabakh in the diplomatic circles of those days.


The ‘common state’ principle implied that Nagorno-Karabakh would have its anthem, emblem and flag, the national guard and the police, whereas the official language would be Armenian.  Nagorno-Karabakh residents would have Azerbaijani passports with a special mark ‘Nagorno-Karabakh’. They would be entitled to elect their representatives in the Parliament of Azerbaijan and to run in presidential elections.  NK would not have been able to have its own embassies, ​​but it could have representatives in Azerbaijani embassies in different countries.

Heydar Aliyev claimed the proposal was unacceptable for Azerbaijan because two independent states were formed within Azerbaijan, and Baku would have no control over Stepanakert.  There were also some other comments made by people in Baku.  For instance, Vafa Guluzade, Ilham Aliyev’s advisor, expressed concern that if Azerbaijan accepted the proposal, then in Karabakh, an Armenian would be able to become the president of Azerbaijan.

Fourth attempt-exchange of territories

The Kocharyan-Aliyev bilateral talks were commenced in Washington, in spring of 1999.  As a result, the so-called informal Key West document was refined in spring of 2001.

Unlike the previous three documents, this document that Azerbaijan had rejected once again, was not published in the end.  The only thing known is that it was partly based on the philosophy of territorial exchange.  Nagorno-Karabakh would have gained a road to Armenia through the Lachin corridor, whereas Azerbaijan would have been granted as compensation land access to Nakhichevan through the Meghri district in the southern-most part of Armenia.

Robert Kocharyan and Heydar Aliyev

Nagorno-Karabakh, including the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Region’s entire area of 4.4 thousand sq. km, would have become a part of Armenia, whereas ​​7 thousand sq. km which was under the control of Armenian armed forces, would have been transferred to Azerbaijan.

It is noteworthy that Key West Island, which is located in the state of Florida, is the place where Ernest Hemingway wrote his brilliant work, ‘A Farewell to Arms.’ The negotiations were held in the proximity talks format:  presidents communicated with intermediaries in two separate rooms.

The mediators listened to the parties’ demands and concerns, according to which they drew up the conflict settlement project.  The US Secretary of State, Colin Powell arrived in Key West to help resolve the Karabakh conflict, however as the president was on his way back, they were received by George W. Bush in Washington.


As Heydar Aliyev stated in Baku airport before his departure to Key West, he was ready to go as far as Antarctica for the sake of resolving the Karabakh conflict.  However, upon his return home, Aliyev welshed on the preliminary agreements reached in Key West.  Meanwhile, Robert Kocharyan was sharply criticized in Armenia, Nagorno-Karabakh and Diaspora for his intention to cede the lands to Azerbaijan and give up Meghri.

Fifth attempt-postponed referendum

A new stage of negotiations, commonly referred to as the Prague process, was launched in 2004. In 2006, in Rambouillet castle in the outskirts of Paris, the parties seemed so close to reaching an agreement on common principles.

The key novelty of the Prague process was the idea of ​​a pending referendum, which implied the following:

• Karabakh forces withdraw from five districts;
• the issue of Kelbajar’s return will be decided parallel to Nagorno Karabakh referendum

However, the negotiations came to a deadlock once again, this time due to the parties’ failure to agree on the schedule of Kelbajar’s return and the timeframe of the Nagorno-Karabakh referendum. The Lachin corridor also remained a subject of dispute.

Ilham Akiyev, Vladimir Putin and Robert Kocharyan

In November 2007, in Madrid, the OSCE Minsk Group Co-chairs handed Yerevan and Baku a 14-point document, which was also based on the postponed referendum principle.  It was a working document, rejected at different stages of talks either by Armenia or Azerbaijan, depending on which item had undergone change.

The Madrid principles included the following provisions:

  • The final legal status of Nagorno Karabakh shall be determined through a plebiscite that will provide the Nagorno-Karabakh population with an opportunity to express their will freely and genuinely.
  • During the interim period, until the final legal status of Nagorno-Karabakh is determined, its population shall enjoy certain rights and privileges
  • All Azerbaijani territories around Nagorno-Karabakh, under Armenian control, will be returned to Azerbaijani control.
  • A corridor of agreed width will link NK to Armenia.
  • All internally displaced persons and refugees from the conflict-affected areas will have the right to return voluntarily.
  • International peacekeeping forces will be deployed as soon as the Peace Deal takes its effect.


Since 1994, there has not been any rapprochement for the parties’ positions, even based on certain details.  Moreover, angered by military rhetoric and hostile propaganda, they have become even harsher.  The ceasefire regime has been violated so often and there have been so frequent subversive actions and shelling of each other’s territory over the past two years, that it could be said that the ceasefire regime is no longer valid.

Serzh Sargsyan an Ilham Aliyev

One can offer a lot of reasons and point the blame.  However, the main reason is that the parties of the conflict, who are seeking peace, do not actually want to pay for it.  There will never be peace until the societies are ready to pay the price for it.

Tatul Hakobyan – a journalist, coordinator at ANI Foundation for Armenian Studies, an expert at Civilitas Foundation. Author of the books: “Karabakh Diary: Green and Black and ‘The View from Ararat: Armenians and Turks.’
Photos from Tatul Hakobyan’s archive
Cover photo by Knar Babayan
Published: 31.03.2016

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