Return, Restitution and Rights: Addressing Legacies of Forced Displacement in the Nagorno Karabakh Conflict

By Laurence BROERS

1. Introduction

Although a universal right of return is routinely mentioned as a core aspect of the Madrid Principles, the current basis for Armenian-Azerbaijani negotiations, Armenians and Azerbaijanis have sharply divergent expectations of a process of return. Public discussion of return on each side remain locked within tight ideological parameters emphasizing unilateral rights of return with no discussion of reciprocity, of what is required from societies accepting returnees, or the role that provisions on return would be likely to play in legitimizing any eventual peace deal.

This reflects the fact that the return of displaced people is one of the most emotive and symbolically laden issues in the resolution of conflict. Internally displaced people and refugees embody both the human tragedy of conflict in a way that few other actors do, and at the same time represent in human form national claims to territory. For the conflict party that has lost control over territory, their claim to that territory loses meaning without a population to return there. For the conflict party in control of disputed territory, the return of displaced people is widely perceived as diluting their control, a security threat, and a reversion to the pre-war situation. These conflicting political imperatives impose severe constraints on displaced communities in their ability to make decisions about whether to integrate where they now live, or to invest in uncertainty by focusing more on the idea of return, and the myths that often accompany it.

Public understandings and expectations of return in Armenia and Azerbaijan are consequently deeply divergent. Azerbaijani society is encouraged to believe that all displaced people will be able to return, while Armenian societies are encouraged to believe that return of Azeris will never happen (and indeed that Armenian settlement in parts of the occupied territories will be long-term or irreversible).

Why focus on an issue that seems, given the current realities of long-term impasse in the Karabakh peace process, purely hypothetical? At today’s juncture, the return of displaced people looks very unlikely to happen in the foreseeable future given circumstances on the ground. One reason is that return is both routinely mentioned as a standard component of any eventual peace deal, and, in Azerbaijan, invoked as an imminent possibility. One purpose of this publication, then, was to focus attention on the contradictions between the idealized, maximalist visions of return encountered in national rhetoric on the one hand, and the pragmatic choices and incomplete outcomes likely to characterize any return process in practice on the other. ‘Thin’ sound bites of the kind commonly heard about return do little to prepare populations for the ‘thick’ conceptual challenges and the inevitably messy realities of implementation. Underlying these contradictions is the fact that state-sponsored visions and individual choices are unlikely to coincide: the choices of displaced people cannot, after 20 years, be reduced to glib generalizations.

A second purpose of the publication was to outline the parameters of international community responses to this issue. Proposed solutions to the problem of forced displacement in the Karabakh context, like any other, will be assessed at least to some extent according to their compliance with wider international norms. While geopolitics can trump international moralities, there is nonetheless a rich seam of international thinking and practice that can be drawn upon. This broad legal and institutional architecture for resolving displacement is rarely considered in local discussion of the problem.

Third, the papers here provide clear evidence of the different starting points of different parties in coming to debates about not only return, but the broader, implicit issue of Armenian-Azerbaijani co-existence in a single state. According to Tabib Huseynov in this volume:

“Azerbaijanwants the restoration of pre-war demographics to reverse Armenian war acquisitions and regain its sovereignty in the occupied territories, including in NK. Armenians, on the other hand, want to entrench ethnic demarcation obtained through the use of force in order to secure their control over the territory.”

Masis Mayilian, also in this publication, frames the same issue differently by stressing the difference between cause (the status of NK) and consequence (forced displacement); according to this logic, causes must be addressed before consequences.

The papers in this publication are indicative of the distance between the conflict parties’ positions in approaching the issue of return. They also vividly illustrate the distance between these respective positions and an approach that could legitimately fulfill the right of displaced individuals to exercise their right to choose between different options. Among other things they provide further confirmation (if more was needed) of the urgent necessity for genuine confidence-building measures. Furthermore, these papers (even if implicitly) provide clear evidence of the need for institutions capable of offering accountability and justice for war crimes. No such mechanisms exist in the Armenian-Azerbaijani case, yet without them the viability of any return process must be seriously doubted.

2. The policy dilemma at the heart of managing return

The essays in this publication reveal and in very different ways explore a central paradox at the heart of any debate over displacement and return in the Karabakh conflict. This paradox lies in the fact that no return process can recreate or restore the pre-conflict demography and settlement pattern, yet any peace agreement that fails to create a realistic basis for some degree of return is unlikely to be seen as legitimate by all conflict parties, or by the international community.

The protracted nature of displacement, dissociation among some groups with former places of residence and the entrenchment of ethnic exclusivity across the region explain why any attempt to recreate pre-war patterns of settlement are likely to fail. Yet international norms and practice, particularly after the experience ofBosnia, has evolved in such a way that international acquiescence with legacies of forced expulsion is unlikely. The likely shape of an eventual compromise between these realities will be structured by both trade-offs on other core issues, such as status and security, and the individual choices made by potential returnees.

3. Conceptualizing forced displacement in the Karabakh conflict

In total over one million people were displaced as a result of the Karabakh conflict. Behind this figure, however, lie differing patterns of displacement and categories of displaced person that are important in discussing possible resolutions of the displacement issue in the Karabakh case.

3.1 Refugees and internally displaced people

Forced displacement in the Karabakh conflict featured both refugees and internally displaced people (IDPs). Numbers are inevitably contested, and given the nature of the conflict with its contested borders, some groups of forcibly displaced people are referred to by one side as refugees and by the other as IDPs.

3.1.1 Refugees

Armenians living outside of NK constituted Soviet Azerbaijan’s largest minority (approximately 390,000 in 1989), living predominantly in Baku and other urban centres. Azerbaijanis also constituted Soviet Armenia’s largest minority (approximately 200,000 in 1989), residing predominantly in rural areas. These populations were almost entirely displaced as a result of massive mutual expulsions in 1988-1991, and are referred to without controversy as refugees, since they crossed what is now an internationally recognized border (between Armenia and Azerbaijan). A small, dwindling and contested number of Armenians, mainly wives in mixed Armenian-Azerbaijani and Armenian-Russian families, remains in Azerbaijan to this day.[1]

The essays in this publication attest to what amounts to a tacit acknowledgement on all sides that the return of refugees is extremely unlikely. As Artak Ayunts observes in his essay, “In Armenia, the return of Armenians toAzerbaijanhas rarely been considered as a way to address the refugee issue even in the long term,” and Armenian refugees “themselves generally do not express interest in return toAzerbaijan”. According to Azer Allahveranov, in Azerbaijan it is only a small minority of those refugees most isolated from surrounding society that adheres to a residual identity as Azeris from Armenia; Azeris of Armenian origin are indeed known for forming one of the most integrated and successful solidarity groups in Azerbaijan.

One important reason for the eclipse of the return option for refugees is that Armenia and Azerbaijan are recognized states, and face few international pressures to accept refugees from a belligerent state. As various observations in this publication attest, the return of refugees figures most prominently as a rhetorical weapon to deny the possibility of return for other categories of displaced person.

3.1.2 IDPs

The largest single category of people (approximately 586,000) displaced by the Karabakh conflict are internally displaced persons displaced when Armenian forces took control (in whole or in part) of several Azerbaijani provinces surrounding Nagorno Karabakh (Kelbajar, Gubatly, Fizuli, Aghdam, Jebrayil, Zangelan and Lachin[2]) in 1992-1993. The populations of these regions were virtually all ethnically Azerbaijani (with a small number of Muslim Kurds in Lachin and Kelbajar). These people were all displaced to other parts of Azerbaijan. The classification of these people as internally displaced is largely unquestioned.

Azer Allahveranov in his contribution provides a typology of IDP and refugee populations in Azerbaijan and the extent to which they have integrated with surrounding society in Azerbaijan. He provides evidence of a fundamental divide in the Azerbaijani displaced population, between those who are to a greater or lesser extent integrated with surrounding society, who include most refugees and those who are not, whom he refers to as ‘isolated’: “integrated or assimilated refugees and IDPs link all their hopes and future plans with their present environment, while isolated IDPs pin all their hopes and plans on the earliest possible return to NK”.

A number of Armenians were also displaced from the former Shaumyan district and the eastern edges of Mardakert and Martuni districts, those parts of NK that were under Azerbaijani control at the time of the ceasefire. Both sides refer to this category as internally displaced people.[3]

3.1.3 Disputed categories

A central feature of displacement in the Karabakh context is the specific social landscape of forced displacement in Nagorno Karabakh itself, the primary subject of dispute between Armenians and Azerbaijanis. The population of the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast’ (NKAO) in 1989 was 189,000; of which Azerbaijanis accounted for 40,700. This population was displaced almost in its entirety during the course of armed hostilities. Azerbaijan and the international community refer to Karabakh Azerbaijanis as IDPs, since they have not crossed an internationally recognized border. The Armenians of Karabakh, however, refer to them as refugees as they define the boundary of the de facto NKR as an inter-state one.

For the Azerbaijani claim to Karabakh the return of the Karabakh Azeri population is a central imperative. As Masis Mayilian’s essay in this publication clearly demonstrates, however, the notion that Karabakh is a shared homeland is fiercely rejected in Karabakh today.[4]  Furthermore, as all Armenian contributions here document, Karabakh has become home to many Armenians displaced from Azerbaijani locations. Armenian positions privilege the right of these displaced Armenians to resettle in NK over the right of Azeris to return there, especially in light of the fact that there is little prospect for the return of Armenians to Azerbaijan.

As noted by Tabib Huseynov a critical feature of the specific context in Karabakh is the fact that the NKR is not recognized: “Recognition of [the NK authorities] as a legitimate (and not only de facto) power…within the entity will require satisfaction of complex measures relating to internal governance and protection of the Azeri minority in NK.” Recognized states already enjoy international legitimacy and face few pressures to accept returnees if they do not want them (as noted above in the case of Armenia and Azerbaijan). It may be true that unrecognized states, whose status lies at the heart of the conflict, ultimately seek international legitimacy and are therefore under different pressures to address the legacies of forced displacement on which their current demographic realities are based. However, many unrecognized states have successfully resisted pressures to accept returnees to the point where, as has begun in the case of NK, intergenerational change transforms the nature of the displacement issue.

This issue is understood more categorically in NK itself. Karabakh Armenians believe there is a double standard in international acceptance that refugee return to Armenia and Azerbaijan is unviable, while IDP return to Karabakh is seen as not only viable, but desirable. In particular, they ask why should Azerbaijan be absolved of obligations to its displaced Armenian community, while NK is pressured to accept Azerbaijani returnees? There is no easy answer to this critique of international expectations of return; mediators can indeed reflect on how the divisive impact of this inconsistency can best be mitigated. However, if return is seen as part of a package of elements meeting other Karabakh Armenian needs as well as realizing full restitution for all refugees, and with actual levels of return likely to be low for reasons discussed below, the inconsistency may not be so great.

4. Thinking hypothetically about the geography and sequencing of a return process

Gerard Toal’s typology of return contexts in Bosnia provides useful tools in considering the geography of return in the Karabakh conflict. He distinguishes between what he terms return to “contested” and “uncontested” space, where the defining feature is the previously bi- or mono-ethnic character of the territory.

4.1 Return to uncontested space

Uncontested space refers to those areas that were mono-ethnic prior to the conflict and where no settlement has taken place by representatives from the other side. It is space that is neither legally contested (it is not territory forming part of a secessionist claim), nor is it contested by the physical presence of post-war settlers.

In the Karabakh context this description most obviously applies to six of the seven provinces around NK currently wholly or partially occupied by Armenian forces: Jebrayil, Kelbajar, Gubatly, Aghdam, Zangelan and Fizuli. The seventh district, Lachin, is a special case (see below). These territories did not form part of Armenian self-determination claims at the inception of the conflict, featured no significant Armenian population prior to the conflict and came under Armenian control only as a result of battlefield outcomes. Villages and towns in these districts are virtually all abandoned and ruined. In the event of a comprehensive peace agreement, the primary practical obstacle to resettlement of these territories is their physical rehabilitation (demining and reconstruction). However, as this publication attests, there is an evolving context of Armenian attitudes vis-à-vis these territories, which sees them increasingly included in maximalist definitions of the de facto NKR (see below, section 5.4). Put differently, the occupied territories are being transformed over time from uncontested space into contested space, with very serious implications for the eventual transformation of the conflict and the possibility of return.

4.2 Return to contested space

Return becomes inherently more complicated where returnees would be returning to contexts where they must live with populations from the other side. This context calls on returnees to achieve renewed co-existence, and ultimately reconciliation, with some of the most radicalized representatives of the other side who may themselves be living in displacement.

With the return of refugees to Armenia and Azerbaijan effectively ruled out, there are three core contested space return scenarios in the Karabakh conflict.

4.2.1 Return to Shusha

One contested space context is the return of Azerbaijanis to NK itself. Prior to the conflict Azerbaijanis had formed a local majority (98%) in only one major town in NK, Shusha, where they formed a population of 17,000 in 1989 [5]; elsewhere in Karabakh Azerbaijanis generally lived in a dispersed pattern. Shusha is one of the most symbolically important locations in the entire Karabakh conflict, imbued by each side with enormous significance as a cradle of identity and the claim to Karabakh itself. Commanding the heights above Stepanakert, the town is also of geo-strategic importance, and as Tabib Huseynov observes the “return of Azeris to Shusha will be a litmus test for the success of the return process and of the peace process in general”.

After the war, Shusha remained mostly abandoned for several years, retaining only its pre-war Armenian population. Gradually a population of Armenian settlers displaced from Azerbaijan came to settle in Shusha, which reportedly has a population now of some 4,000.[6]  Although there was for many years little reconstruction or development in Shusha, recent years have seen more concerted efforts to restore the town, including the restoration of numerous roads and settlements, as well as religious monuments.

4.2.2 Return to Lachin

Another key contested return context is in Lachin, the eponymous capital of one of the provinces around Karabakh under Armenian control. Lachin’s significance lies in its geographical position as the narrowest point between NK and the Republic of Armenia. Retaining control over a land corridor running through Lachin is a geopolitical imperative for Armenians, preventing Karabakh’s reversion to being an enclave within Azerbaijan.

Azerbaijanis constituted an overwhelming majority in Lachin district before the war, the next biggest nationality being Kurds. Some 20,000 people from both groups were displaced from Lachin district during the war. However, since the ceasefire Lachin has been the focus of attempts to settle Armenians into this geopolitically sensitive area. Amid harsh socio-economic conditions these attempts have not succeeded in a radical transformation of realities on the ground. In 2006 Lachin’s population was claimed by an Armenian source to be around 5,000 (comparing with the OSCE’s estimate of 9-12,000 in the occupied territories overall), a population composed of both Armenians displaced from elsewhere in Azerbaijan and Armenians from Armenia.[7]

4.2.3 Return to Shaumyan

Lying to the north of the former Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast (NKAO), the Shaumyan region did not form part of the NKAO in Soviet times, but was the only Armenian-majority region in Soviet Azerbaijan outside of NK. In 1989 Shaumyan’s local Party Committees voted to join NK in declaring independence from Azerbaijan; this is the basis for the addition of the region to the territory claimed as part of NK. The region was under Azerbaijani control at the end of hostilities in 1994, however, hence Karabakh Armenians refer to it as “occupied territory”, since in their view it is part of Karabakh occupied by Azerbaijan. Here, Karabakh Armenian rhetoric replicates Azerbaijani calls for the restoration of territorial integrity. Azerbaijanis reject these claims; although not co-extensive with it, Shaumyan today forms part of the Goranboy region of Azerbaijan.

Armenian and Azerbaijani population movements into and out of Shaumyan reflected those of Shusha and Lachin, but in reverse. In 1991-1992, some 20,000 Armenians were forcibly displaced from the district. Since the ceasefire in 1994 Shaumyan was renamed Aghjakend. Azerbaijani refugees and internally displaced people were settled in the district.

5. Specific problems

In light of the above discussion, a number of specific problems, dealt with in different ways in the essays in this volume, need to be addressed.

5.1 Sequencing

An obvious problem is the sequencing of return with other core aspects of a framework agreement, most notably measures for providing security (such as the deployment of an international peacekeeping force) and a procedure for determining the status of NK. As Artak Ayunts observes and Ashot Beglarian’s quotations from interviews with interlocutors in NK itself show, Armenian positions emphasize that status and security must precede any return process. Conversely, Azerbaijani positions emphasize that return must precede status determination).

There is no straightforward solution to this chicken and egg situation. It can only be noted that the Armenian view that the Karabakh referendum of 1991 obviates the need for any further public expression of will is not widely supported in the international community.[8]  At the same time any future referendum or plebiscite that excludes either the real possibility of Karabakh’s de jure independence or Azerbaijani participation is also unlikely to be seen as legitimate. The experience of Kosovo shows that the capacity of an entity seeking recognition to guarantee a full set of collective rights for all ethnic groups is a key standard in securing international recognition.[9]  On the other hand, Kosovo’s experience also shows that once a process of status determination is embarked on it can be difficult to restrict the outcome.

This discussion makes evident some of the dilemmas associated with sequencing facing actors in the Karabakh conflict. Armenians and, especially, Karabakh Armenians are effectively confronted with a choice between accepting what would probably be a symbolic or residual population of Azerbaijani returnees in return for a process culminating in internationally recognized status, yet without an iron-cast guarantee that that this status would be the internationally approved independence (or union with Armenia) that they seek. In this light their preferred strategy is to opt for the status quo, de facto secession without international recognition, the indefinite blocking of any Azerbaijani return to NK and the preservation of an ethnic monopoly on settlement in NK and the surrounding territories.

Azerbaijan is confronted with a similarly no-win situation. It could opt for a genuinely open-ended process on status determination with a limited degree of Azerbaijani return to NK, but with the risk that Azerbaijani returnees would become part of a society quite separate, that is to say independent, from Azerbaijan – possibly in a situation comparable to Serbs in Kosovo. Its alternative, and currently preferred, strategy is to block any open-ended process of NK’s status determination, but at the cost of simultaneously blocking any possibility for not only Karabakh Azeris, but all Azerbaijani IDPs, to return to the occupied territories.[10]

5.2 Likely reach and legitimacy of a zone of separation

Gerard Toal’s essay highlights possible problems with the establishment of a zone of separation (ZOS) between Armenian and Azerbaijani forces. If the Bosnian model were followed, this zone would be controlled by international peacekeepers and would be the area in which initial, “break-through” return processes would begin. Given the geography of the conflict, establishment of a symmetrical ZOS would offer opportunities for the smaller number of Armenian return sites to be rehabilitated for return long before the much larger number of Azerbaijani sites. As Toal observes, this would offer rich opportunities for spoilers. To avoid this he suggests that: “One way around this, if the ZOS model is to be pursued at all, is to start with a small symmetrical ZOS as a gesture of good faith and confidence building, but then extend it in a phased way into the bulk of the occupied territories.”

5.3 Minority returns

Although Azerbaijanis constituted majorities in Shusha and Lachin before the war, the (respectively) symbolic-military and geopolitical centrality of these locations to Armenian conflict goals means that local Armenians are unlikely to be willing to see these majorities restored. For reasons discussed below, it is unlikely that the numbers of people desiring and able to return would match pre-war numbers. What returnees to Shusha and Lachin may confront is “minority return”, “the return of ethnic/national groups to territories now controlled by another ethnic/national group, even though the returnees may have been among the majority before the war”.[11]

Armenian returnees to Shaumyan would face an analogous situation to Azerbaijani returnees to Shusha or Lachin, returning as a minority to a district where previously they had formed a majority. These three contexts[12]  returnees would confront a locally entrenched population that has itself experienced displacement.

A key question in thinking about possible and likely patterns of return to contested locations, then, is whether both Armenians and Azerbaijanis are prepared to accept minority returns. The policy implications of minority returns, especially to locations of particular symbolic and/or geo-strategic significance (e.g. Shusha, Lachin), therefore need to be carefully considered. Returnees who once lived in the majority would face a radically altered demographic landscape, to which they return as a member of a new minority. Local economic resources are likely to be in the hands of locals and difficult to penetrate. The risk from spoiling actions, covering a spectrum from soft bureaucratic obstructionism to physical violence, is considerable.

5.4 Practical and cognitive barriers to release of the territories around NK

As noted above in the discussion on Lachin, positions differ on the extent of systematic or state-sponsored attempts to populate the occupied territories surrounding the former NKAO with Armenian settlers. An OSCE observer mission in 2005 found no significant state-sponsored settlement of these territories outside of Lachin, although it did report finding some small-scale settlements in Kelbajar and parts of Aghdam too, with financial incentives provided by the de facto authorities in Stepanakert (in some cases channeling diaspora funds).

An OSCE assessment mission in December 2010 estimated the number of settlers at 14,000, almost all located in Lachin. This figure is less than that claimed by any conflict party but the mission’s very presence in the field sparked demands for the accelerated Armenian settlement of these territories, particularly by Armenians originally displaced from other parts of Azerbaijan before the 1994 ceasefire.[13]  Although there is evidence that some diaspora funds and agendas are converging with the needs of Armenian displaced persons to establish new Armenian settlements in the occupied territories (some of them named after former Armenian settlements in historical eastern Turkey – or ‘western Armenia’ in popular Armenian discourse[14]), this is not – as yet – a large-scale or systematic trend deserving of the term “ethnic engineering”.

Perhaps more significant are cognitive obstacles to the release of the occupied territories. One primary psychological barrier to the release of occupied territory, as recognized in Tabib Huseynov’s paper, is the constant threats of the use of force and military display in Azerbaijan. This strategy just confirms Armenian perceptions that security is not deliverable through political frameworks, only the ransom of occupied territory.

Yet the papers in this volume provide evidence of deeper cognitive obstacles to the release of territory. Both Artak Ayunts and Masis Mayilian provide striking evidence of shifts in Armenian perceptions of these territories. Although these territories are usually referred to by the international community as occupied, they have traditionally been referred to in Armenian sources as the ‘security’ or ‘buffer’ zone, effectively a zone of separation between NK and Azerbaijani armed forces. Releasing control of these territories was traditionally seen as a vital bargaining chip to secure other Armenian conflict goals, including provisions for the determination of NK’s status on favorable terms.

The Armenian papers in this publication reflect the evolving metaphors to describe these territories. They are increasingly referred to “liberated territories”, implying that they do form part of (Karabakh) Armenian territorial claims (see Artak Ayunts). Although rejected by officials in Yerevan, this approach is popular in NK itself and with some Armenian political parties, including the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Dashnaktsutiun)[15].  An increasing psychological bond to these territories is being popularized through the notion of “42,000 square kilometres” [16], i.e. the territory covered by Armenia, NK and adjacent occupied territories, and reinforced, for example, through popular maps on sale in Karabakh and Armenia showing these territories as part of Karabakh. Masis Mayilian and Ashot Beglarian’s contributions to this publication highlight a further shift, suggesting that these territories can serve as “land-as-reparations” for what they define as Azerbaijani aggression.

While such a view would be unlikely to gain international support or approval, it is indicative of significant cognitive barriers to the release of these territories back to Azerbaijani jurisdiction. Reference to these territories as forming part of the de facto NKR reflects a maximalist Armenian position according to which these territories can never be returned to Azerbaijan. The more time that goes by, moreover, the more entrenched this view becomes. What began as a self-determination struggle in NK is sliding slowly and almost imperceptibly over time into conquest of territory that never formed part of the dispute over Nagorno Karabakh.

In Masis Mayilian’s analysis, drawing on wider Armenian commentary, and the popular opinions in NK explored in Ashot Beglarian’s contribution, this problem is resolved through the portrayal of the emergent (de facto) state in Nagorno Karabakh as a ‘refuge state’ for Armenians displaced from homes in Azerbaijan with no other recourse to legal redress. According to this scenario, NK takes upon itself the responsibility to reinstate the rights of Armenians who lost their homes due to the conflict and cannot secure compensation.

Mayilian also provides evidence of further cognitive obstacles to return to NK in the form of popular understandings of population movements as “weapons of demography”. He shows how this view characterizes Karabakh Armenian understandings of both population movements and boundary changes during the period of NK’s incorporation as an autonomous region in Soviet Azerbaijan. It is arguable whether union republic-level authorities or the Soviet system as a whole are “to blame” for developments seen as detrimental to Karabakh Armenian interests (and in demographic terms Karabakh Armenians were in a significantly better situation than most other autonomous region or republic-level nationalities in the Soviet Union). Nonetheless the experience of a dysfunctional Soviet ethno-federalism that privileged majority groups is a further important obstacle to any change in the current demographic monopoly.

What these reflections demonstrate is the yawning gap between the assumptions inherent in the Madrid Principles and lived reality in Nagorno Karabakh. This is a direct consequence of the exclusion of the population in NK from meaningful participation in the formulation and discussion of the Madrid Principles. The thinking is “nothing about us, without us”; this is a conundrum that has yet to be resolved by the Minsk Process.

5.5 Obstructionism

The importance of Karabakh Armenian buy-in is evident in Gerard Toal’’s discussion of obstructionism. Drawing on the experience of Bosnia, Toal highlights a number of strategies used on the ground to prevent return from happening. These may range from outright physical intimidation and violence to softer, “bureaucratic” forms of obstructionism. A crucial difference between the Bosnian and Karabakh contexts, however, is that international presence and capacity on the ground is likely to be much less in Karabakh than it was in Bosnia. This will increase the likely scope for obstructionism in any process of return that does not enjoy local, as well as international, legitimacy.

6. Alternatives to return

In cases of protracted displacement lasting more than 20 years, both maximalist national agendas for the return of all compatriots and the language of universalism in human rights instruments are unlikely to be matched by physical numbers of people willing to return. Where displacement is protracted, no return process can reproduce or restore the pre-conflict demography and settlement pattern. This may suggest that alternative, less then maximal outcomes, such as minority returns or options other than return may need to be considered. A number of alternatives to return are considered in the essays presented here.

6.1 Ratification of the status quo

Masis Mayilian in his contribution discusses the possibility of de jure ratification of the de facto population swap that occurred between Armenian and Azerbaijani societies during the conflict. Such a move would effectively replicate the Greek-Turkish population swap in the early twentieth century. While this option could be argued to be the most realistic in the current circumstances of complete impasse in the peace process, it seems unlikely to find popular support given the sense that there is at least an aspiration among international actors to move beyond the clean logic of the Lausanne Treaty at which the Greek-Turkish swap was agreed. The Balkan wars of the 1990s resonated with calls for “no more Lausannes”, reflecting the fact that formalized population swaps cannot incorporate principles and pragmatics of individual choice, now the central planks in international thinking and practice in addressing forced displacement.

6.2 Integration

Integration of refugees and IDPs is controversial precisely because it appears to be a strategy endorsing and accepting the status quo. In cases of protracted displacement, however, integration is a spontaneous process that happens across displaced communities with or without official approval or support. In such cases, integration can only be prevented through artificial means: the construction of separate communities, restrictions of movement and other forms of segregation, the imposition of special identity categories on displaced people and their descendants, and restriction of participation in mainstream political and social life. Preventing integration in the name of preserving a community for eventual return can, however, easily translate into human rights violations, discrimination and renewed displacement – this time to the political, social and economic margins of society.

As Azer Allahveranov’s essay highlights, many of those living in protracted displacement are integrated by necessity over the passage of time into societies physically and socially distant from their ancestral homes. They and especially their descendants are likely to feel ambivalent about return, even when it does become possible.

Both Armenia and Azerbaijan have quietly undertaken the integration of refugees from each other’s countries. Return for these populations are not considered a live issue, and they have been effectively integrated into national societies (or at least do not face substantive obstacles to doing so). The integration of internally displaced people in Azerbaijan is seen differently. Although significant progress has been achieved in improving the material conditions of most IDPs, their integration is proscribed on the grounds that this is seen as compromising the likelihood that they will return once conditions exist for them to do so.

Yet integration does not have to mean the surrender of the right of return. Integration can be understood instead as the fulfillment of a displaced person’s full entitlement to a range of economic, social, cultural, civil and political rights during displacement. This should continue until such time as conditions allow for them to exercise a choice between return, resettlement or the final ratification of their integration with the exercise of a right to dispose of their former property (or its financial value) as they choose. As discussed below, this right may be understood and exercised in different ways, and even in cases of protracted displacement IDPs and refugees are unlikely to disappear as a political constituency.

6.3 Restitution: making individual choice central

Restitution remains a largely taboo theme in public debates in Armenian and Azerbaijani societies. Although there were some spontaneous processes of ad hoc ‘property settlements’ in the form of property exchanges at the time of displacement this applies to a minority of cases and only among refugees.[17]

There is an emerging set of international norms and practices which treat restitution as an important process separable from return. These norms, in the form of the Pinheiro Principles, do not presume the physical return of displaced people as their starting point. Restitution may mean the return of former property as a legal and material good. This can be converted into financial resources for its former owner to deploy in choosing between alternative ‘durable solutions’ (return, integration, resettlement). This focus on individual choice empowers displaced persons but also reflects international experience that reintegration and reconciliation of violently unmixed peoples cannot be based on forced return.

Gerard Toal highlights the fact that it is the incentive structures built into the architecture of an Armenian-Azerbaijani framework agreement that will have decisive impact on the choices that people make. In the Bosnian case the international community financed and therefore incentivized ‘minority returns’ (returns of members of a former ethnic majority to former residences but now as an ethnic minority), while it did not finance, or therefore incentivize, compensation or local integration. This outcome was related to international desires to see forced displacement reversed.

The Karabakh context differs from that in Bosnia in a number of ways. For one thing unlike in the Bosnian conflict, there was a clear winner in the Karabakh war. Even-handedness and a focus on individual choice may clash with a sense of collective entitlement on the ground related to the outcome of the war. Also unlike Bosnia, the war-derived pattern of property ownership and settlement has endured long beyond the ‘war years’, through the much longer ‘no war, no peace’ period too. On-the-ground realities are likely to be much more deeply entrenched and difficult to reverse than they were in Bosnia.

Furthermore, as Toal concedes, international presence and on-the-ground influence is likely to be much less in Karabakh than it was in Bosnia. There are no international vehicles for accountability and justice in the South Caucasus corresponding to the role played by the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) and domestic judiciaries are lacking in independence. Crucially, the conflict parties to date use justice arguments as support to position demands, rather than to promote the cause of justice itself. A cognitive relocation of the true source and purpose of justice is needed.

Finally, there appears to be a clear substantive distinction between refugees and IDPs. No one expects refugees to go back to Armenia and Azerbaijan, suggesting that restitution in the form of property rights converted into financial resources will be the dominant pattern so far as refugees are concerned. One particular problem is how to deal with those refugees that were ‘beneficiaries’ of ad hoc, improvised compensation schemes at the time of their displacement: how should they be included? Where IDPs are concerned there appears to be greater likelihood that the choice of return will be deemed a feasible, practicable right. Particularly in contested space locations of special symbolic significance, it seems likely that restitution of property rights (including the right to use property) will be balanced with the right of return as a challenge to the geo-demographic order imposed by war.

What this points to is that it is individuals who will decide what to do with their former homes – live in them, or convert them into resources either for the life they have built in displacement, or for starting out afresh somewhere else. It is through individual pragmatism, and not national visions of obligatory return, that real justice can be done.

7. The parameters of compromise

As suggested in Azer Allahveranov’s analysis any process of return is contingent on a reframing of Armenian-Azerbaijani relations and a rehabilitation of Armenian-Azerbaijani coexistence. Today’s militant rhetoric and mutual isolation is leading in precisely the opposite direction. Under current circumstances this situation suits Armenian interests better, since it is Armenian interests that are more fulfilled by the status quo of separation and ethnic immingling. As Artak Ayunts notes in his contribution, there is a strong sense among many Armenians that the status quo is “restitution enough”. Yet in the long term it seems evident that no overall conflict settlement that does not adequately address the issue without some degree of return will be legitimate or sustainable.

Azerbaijan’s stated preferred conflict outcome – the reintegration of NK with its Armenian population intact – assumes that Armenian-Azeri coexistence is possible and desirable. Current Azerbaijani rhetoric and the overall human rights context in Azerbaijan are, however, working directly against this outcome. There is much that Azerbaijan could do to increase its chances of eventually securing some degree of Azerbaijani return. This would involve, among other things, policies securing complete and secure rights for Armenians and Armenian heritage in Azerbaijan, and facilitated Armenian-Azerbaijani movement across the border between Armenia and Azerbaijan.[18]  Armenian goals of long-term security, whatever the formal nature of territorial arrangements, would also be served by corresponding policies on the Armenian side.

The essays in this publication make clear the one-sided nature of debates on return in each society. Conflict parties talk only of the return of ‘their’ displaced, omitting the reciprocity necessary if any process of return is to be part of resolving conflict rather than reigniting it. Yet the intermingled nature of pre-war Armenian-Azerbaijani settlement patterns means that the aspiration to return cannot be divorced from self-reflection on readiness to accept returnees from the other side. Regardless of eventual outcomes, return in the Karabakh conflict cannot be conceptualized as a one-way street, just as no one group holds a monopoly on loss and grievance. Reciprocity and a holistic philosophy of return encompassing a range of choices along the return-restitution spectrum for all those displaced as a result of the Karabakh conflict can shift debates on return beyond familiar red lines.



1. In his essay in this publication Azer Allahveranov cites official Azerbaijani figures for the numbers of Armenians (not including NK and the occupied territories) inAzerbaijantoday, 20-30,000. However, empirical research, while not able to offer alternative statistics, does suggest that the real number is much smaller, and is any case difficult to establish due to contested criteria of who qualifies as ‘Armenian’ in Azerbaijan today (Melanie Krebs, “When the native city became a foreign country: Armenians in Baku today”. Paper presented at the 2011 Annual Convention of the Association for the Study of Nationalities,ColumbiaUniversity, 15th April 2011). Either way, there is no Armenian community life inAzerbaijantoday.

2.  In this essay to facilitate reading I have used place-names as they were most widely used at the time when the Karabakh conflict began.

3. This obscures the underlying contradiction that bothAzerbaijanand the de facto authorities claim the former Shaumyan district as their own (see below, section 5.2.3). I draw no inference here on the relative validity of these claims.

4. This is reflected especially in fierce rejection by Armenians of the “community” label, i.e. rejection of the notion that there are two equivalent communities of Nagorno Karabakh. Conversely, this is the terminology used in Azerbaijani sources.

5. This compares with a 92% Azeri population of the overall district of Shusha at 23,000 in 1989.

6.  A census carried out in Nagorno Karabakh in 2005 identified the population of Shusha at 4,324 people.

7. Onnik Krikorian, “Armenia’s Strategic Lachin Corridor Confronts a Demographic Crisis”, available at

8. This is true of other autonomous republic or region-level referenda carried out at that time. It can be argued that these referenda were carried out in an atmosphere of fear and already hostile inter-communal relations, and there were no international observers present. From a Karabakh Armenian perspective, however, these factors are not accepted as detracting from the legitimacy of the result, a majority of people in NK voting for separation fromAzerbaijan.

9.  See the discussion in, for example, Marc Weller, Negotiating the final status of Kosovo, Chaillot Paper No.114, (Paris: European Union Institute for Security Studies December 2008), pp.28-29.

10.  Another idea with potential to offset the divisive potential of a ZOS is the rehabilitation of the Aghdam-Stepanakert-Shusha-Goris road and its extension to Nakhchivan, providing a live artery connecting Armenians and Azeris, rather than separating them.

11.  Gerard Toal (Gearóid ó Tuathail) and Carl Dahlman, “Post-DomicideBosnia and Herzegovina: Homes, Homelands and One Million Returns”, International Peacekeeping, Vol.13, No.2, June 2006, p.249.

12.  I infer no equivalence between these contexts except in their structural similarities.


14. One example is the recent ‘renaming’ of Aghdam as ‘Akna’, with an alleged population of 460 people. See Tabib Huseynov’s article in this publication.

15.  Article 142 of the Constitution of the de factoNagorno-KarabakhRepublicstates that until the restoration of the state territorial integrity of theNagornoKarabakhRepublicand the adjustment of its borders public authority is exercised on the territory under factual jurisdiction of theNagornoKarabakhRepublic”.

16.  See Thomas de Waal, The Karabakh Trap. Dangers and Dilemmas of the Nagorno Karabakh Conflict (London: Conciliation Resources, 2009), p.7; available at

17. There were also isolated cases of ‘village exchanges’, where local people organized the exchange of property for entire villages. This has been documented in the case of the villages of Kizil-Shafag and Kerkenj, in S. Huseynova, A. Akopyan and S. Rumyantsev, Kizil-Shafag and Kerkenj: history of villages exchange in situation of Karabakh conflict (Tbilisi: Heinrich Böll Foundation, 2008).

18. Reciprocal visits were a part of the peacebuilding repertoire in the late 1990s. In recent years, with the exception of two high-profile visits of ‘intelligentsia’ figures organized by the Armenian and Azerbaijani ambassadors toRussia, there has been strong resistance to reciprocal visits organized by civil society. Officials across the region, however, agree when prompted that they would welcome such visits in theory. Reciprocal visits could certainly play a central role in restoring mutual confidence, interest and rapport between Armenians and Azeris.   


Comments are closed.