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Unwavering Tension in Nagorno-Karabakh

In 1923, Joseph Stalin decided to shift the majority-Armenian region of Nagorno-Karabakh into Soviet Azerbaijan as an independent oblast. This decision has predisposed Armenia, which makes a cultural claim to both the region and Azerbaijan and holds de jure control to continuous conflict. Competition eventually escalated into war between the two nations in 1991. Despite the cease-fire that was signed in 1994, the conflict has persisted. In 2016, deadly skirmishes erupted in the disputed territory. Wary of the long-standing stalemate, popular opinion in both countries increasingly gravitates towards the delivery of a decisive and violent blow through full-fledged military action against a perpetual enemy. With the global diplomatic efforts failing to negotiate peace in the region and diasporic groups lobbying against negotiations by the Obama Administration, this predisposition towards a military solution to the conflict is perhaps understandable. But even for the shortcomings of past negotiations, Azerbaijan and Armenia are not without options. These two countries should look to the United Nations’ Department of Political Affairs, which, through its internal heterogeneity, experience and diplomatic standing, can potentially negotiate an end to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.

Outside interests have largely corrupted past diplomatic efforts. The OSCE Minsk Group, created in 1992 by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, set forth a chain of meetings and negotiations intent on putting aside the differences of both Azerbaijan and Armenia. In an attempt to eliminate any power-dynamics or hierarchy of interests, the group took a multilateral approach including nations like France, the U.S., Russia, Italy, Hungary, Belarus, Germany, Portugal, the Netherlands, Sweden, Finland and Turkey. Yet the agendas of France, the U.S. and Russia, countries with large diasporas of Armenian people and strategic interests in Armenia, have dictated the group’s operation. Ultimately, the group’s negotiations never materialized into a real peace treaty. Though the OSCE Minsk Group continues its efforts to this day, many are wary of its interests due to its structure, which disproportionately lends influence to only a few global powers.

As an alternative, many have pointed toward the great past success of the United Nations Department of Public Affairs as a potential means to a solution to this ongoing crisis. A shift towards the utilization of this intermediary force, with its balanced system of head officials and activity in Central Asia, could prove more effective than diplomatic efforts in the past. Headed by Rosemary DiCarlo with aid from Taye-Brook Zeirhoun and Miroslav Jenca, strong experienced leadership in the office may prove to be crucial for the case of Armenia and Azerbaijan. Both Under-Secretary-General DiCarlo and Jenca have extensive experience in dealing with diplomacy in former Soviet states. Furthermore, since Department diplomats can effectively sidestep any bureaucratic slush, they are particularly well-equipped to aid countries in political turmoil.

Currently, the Department of Public Affairs of the UN has a presence in Central Asia, yet does not participate in the negotiations of Armenia and Azerbaijan. The Department could, however, expand its involvement in the region as long as the Secretary-General approves such a decision. The Azerbaijani Minister himself even agreed that if negotiations continue, Azerbaijan would accept the resolutions set forth by the United Nations Security Council. Ongoing negotiations of the OSCE Minsk group and political turmoil in Armenia are the main barriers limiting the head of the state’s flexibility to negotiate.

It is difficult for the international community to select and support one side with all effort, as both sides have misconducted themselves in recent escalations. In total, both sides still claim 5,600 prisoners from a war that saw atrocities like the Khojaly and Maraghar Massacres. Analyses reveal that Azerbaijan and Armenia continue to acquire equipment and weapons from Russia and that both militaries remain in constant vigilance in case of conflict. Within the UN General Assembly, too many have not taken the initiative to push the Department of Political Affairs to take action. A prime example can be found in the controversial UN Resolution 62/243, which asked for “the immediate, complete, and unconditional withdrawal of all Armenian forces from all occupied territories of the Republic of Azerbaijan.” 100 countries abstained from voting, and France, Russia, and the U.S.- the three main heads of the OSCE Minsk group- were among the seven countries which rejected the resolution. While the resolution was adopted, its lack of enforcement mechanism left it toothless;  it only strained the relationship between the two countries. However, it was not the intentions behind this resolution that were flawed, but rather how suddenly it was proposed. Through the prevention and mediation operations side of the Department of Political Affairs, the Secretary-General could easily dispatch diplomats to mitigate the tension. This specific resource previously utilized to prevent tension from escalating after the end of the Cold War in satellite states of the Soviet Union has proven historically useful. Geopolitics obviously does not resolve itself quickly, but with one million displaced people due to the conflict, a push for more negotiations is necessary by the UN to enforce its legitimacy and capitalize on the concessions that Azerbaijan has given. While Armenia still stubbornly opposes certain aspects of a peace deal, the UN Department of Political Affairs has more resources, a diverse set of representatives, neutral status and more experience than other negotiating bodies and could realize a long-overdue peace.

The legacy of the Soviet Union continues to have its impacts on the region, as Central Asia and the Balkans have not been able to reconcile ethnic and territorial conflicts caused by the Stalin administration’s imposition of oblasts. Whether it be the conflicts regarding South Ossetia, Chechnya, the Republic of Abkhazia, or Caspian Sea tension, the region has an immense amount of work to do before they can achieve a state of peace. As for Armenia and Azerbaijan, they must use the convenient supranational organization at their disposal. The United Nations can prove to be the intermediary force that they desire to finally reach a mutual agreement regarding the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh. While it will take great effort, it is a struggle that is worthwhile to promote future peace in the region.

Photo: Secretary Kerry Shakes Hands With Azerbaijani President Aliyev Before a Meeting on the Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict in Vienna

About the Author

Leonardo Moraveg '22 is a Staff Writer for the World Section of the Brown Political Review. Leonardo can be reached at