Levon Ter-Petrosyan’s Policy on Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict

One of the main tasks of the foreign policy of the Republic of Armenia is peaceful and fair settlement of the Karabakh issue, based on the self-determination of the people of Artsakh. Thus, this problem is focal for political science research.

The observation of the current developments of the Karabakh conflict should begin from Communist period, since many events that take place today are direct consequences of the policy pursued at the end of 1980s. The Karabakh issue and the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict were actively discussed by the international community only after the Republics of Armenia and Azerbaijan proclaimed their sovereignty, and when the conflicting parties became capable of drafting their own political agendas. Hence, chronologically it is necessary to start the observation of the state policy of the Republic of Armenia from the years of the founding President Levon Ter-Petrosyan’s tenure. Obviously Ter-Petrosyan’s policy was reshaped during 1988-1998. This analysis is aimed at representing the policy of Ter-Petrosyan as a Karabakh Committee member (1988-89), as a delegate of the Supreme Council of the SSRA (1989, 1990), as the Speaker of the Supreme Council (1990, Aug. 4), as the President of the RA (1991-1998), as well as the changes of his views and their reasons during these periods. Methodology of content analysis and historical methods have been used to conduct this research.

Starting his political career from “Karabakh” committee, yet in 1988 Ter-Petrosyan had his vision of the NK conflict settlement which implied the unification of the Autonomous region with the SSRA. In March, 1988 with respect to the decision of the SPSU Central Committee and the Council of Ministers of the USSR, “On the measures of the socio-economic development of the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast of the Azerbaijan SSR from 1988 to 1995”, Ter- Petrosyan wrote, ‘The SPSU Central Committee’s and the Council of Ministers’ reforms, given to Karabakh as a mercy are a tiny percent of the millions grabbed from Karabakh for years; it is a simple cheating aimed at silencing the strained political problem and stupefying the Armenian people. The only way of the settlement of the so called “Karabakh problems” is the reunion of the Oblast with Armenia’. The same political line is remarked in the speeches of Ter-Petrosyan until the founding congress of the Pan-Armenian National Movement (November, 1989).

In his article “The Path of the Resolution of Karabakh Conflict” (1989) Ter-Petrosyan eliminated the possibility of taking drastic actions. He considered the suggestion of the SSRA Supreme Council of declaring Karabakh an inseparable part of Armenia to be vulnerable, since ‘it could be interpreted as a serious violation of the international law and could imply Armenia’s territorial demands towards Azerbaijan. There is another delicate and impregnable way of the conflict settlement that meets the requirements of the international law and public opinion; the self- determined and independent Autonomous Oblast of Karabakh and the Republic of Armenia, as two sovereign organizations of the Soviet Union, sign an agreement with each other and declare a formation of a union republic’.

In fact as a member of “Karabakh” committee, Ter-Petrosyan supported the idea of the unification to avoid contradiction with the political situation and public opinion in Armenia. Thus, it is logical that his statements were aimed at getting political dividend, since the Pan-Armenian National Movement (PANM) was in a race for power in the country. But the demands gradually became moderate; Ter-Petrosyan started to demand reestablishment of the “legal” government in Artsakh. In this case Armenia would have become an observer. This change was substantiated with the interference of the Center into the conflict; in 1989 a special administration headed by Arkady Volsky was established in the Nagorno-Karabakh, and after its abolition Azerbaijani authorities created Republican Organizational Committee endowed with sweeping powers. With the establishment of the Committee a new wave of anti-Armenian sentiment was emerged. Moreover, the Supreme Council of the USSR rescinded the December 1st decision on “The Unification of the Armenian SSR and Nagorno-Karabakh”.

At the parliamentary elections in May, 1990 the PANM gained prominent amount of mandates in the Supreme Council of SSRA, and in August Ter-Petrosyan was elected the Speaker of the SC. Henceforth, the Karabakh issue was subordinated to the interests of the Republic of Armenia. In September, during the closed session of the SC he voiced his opinion on the resolution of Karabakh conflict; there were two main options, confrontation and compromise; though the first one had success, it exhausted itself, thus the parties needed to make a compromise. ‘Artsakh must at least become similar to other regions of the USSR, where the Soviet laws will be administrated and interference into its domestic affairs will be excluded. On this accord, it is possible to find a political compromise. Today Armenia’s authorities’ official policy has chosen a certain way that would be highly appreciated not only by the USSR, but also by the international public opinion’.

From 1990s Ter-Petrosyan had adopted the policy of compromise which could be exercised only through internalization of the conflict, since Azerbaijan was refusing to start direct negotiations with Karabakh, hence the assistance of mediators became mandatory. However, Azerbaijani authorities were against the discussion of the issue in international arena considering it as the internal problem of Azerbaijan. In December, 1990 in Supreme Council session Ter-Petrosyan suggested two ideas:

  1.  Internalization of Karabakh issue would lead to either resolution or freezing of the conflict, however it would ensure international guarantees for the population of the Autonomous Oblast;
  2. Refusal to create Armenian Armed Forces, instead establishment of military units within CIS which might have prevented Azerbaijani and Soviet armies from attacks on Armenia.

Though this strategy was not approved by the Supreme Council, it underlay the future policy of the President. This was the reason of the following dualism of the foreign policy of Armenia; in the international arena Ter-Petrosyan preferred to speak about the Karabakh conflict from the perspective of human rights and ethnic minorities rather than right to self-determination that was in the core of his opponent’s, Foreign minister Raffi K. Hovannisian’s perspective. The second version was also more popular in Armenia, especially among power structures. However, the conduct of Referendum of Independence and presidential elections only within the territory of the current Republic of Armenia proved that Armenia had refused the idea of union republic. Therefore, from 1991 a struggle began on the recognition or non-recognition of the Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh, as well as the abolishment of the December 1st decision. The majority of Armenia’s political elite was in favor of the recognition, but the President and his supporters chose more passive standpoint; to recognize the independence of the NKR after its recognition by other countries. In 1992 the Speaker of the SC Babken Ararktsyan declared that the decision on reunification of 1989 should not be enforced, and Armenia refrained from defining the status of NK in compliance with the standards of the international law.

As for the internalization of the issue, measures were taken since 1990 when CSCE undertook such mission. In February, 1992 CSCE recommendations included: establishment of a ceasefire, humanitarian corridor and conducting negotiations between Armenian and Azerbaijani parties. The final resolutions was somehow outlined; establishment of autonomous status for NK within the territory of Azerbaijan. While Ter-Petrosyan was not against this proposal, the population of both Armenian states strongly resisted this idea. In its turn, Azerbaijan did not intend to provide anything but cultural sovereignty as it was certain of its victory. However, the CSCE fully assumed the mediation responsibility since 1992, thus we should refer to Russia’s and Kazakhstan’s respective efforts.

Operation “Circle” (“Koltso”) unleashed in 1991 by Azerbaijan and Russian OMON (Special Purpose Military Unit) followed by armed attacks on Armenian villages urged the Armenian party to seek negotiations as early as possible. Ter-Petrosyan’s publications and presentations verified that in this stage of the conflict the President tried to avoid direct military confrontation which might not prove desirable for Armenia. Whereas, there was a need to curb Azerbaijan’s actions at least with the help of mediators. That is why he was taking every effort to use all the possible negotiation platforms. Since in 1991 there had been a struggle between Gorbachev’s and Yeltsin’s proponents and the latter supported “sovereigns’ parade”, hoping that it would eventually bring to the collapse of the USSR, Yeltsin and Nazarbayev assumed the mission of the conflict settlement in Karabakh. Delegations headed by them arrived in Baku, Stepanakert and Yerevan on September 20-23, 1991, and on September 25th  Zheleznovodsk Communiqué was signed. It implied the withdrawal from the conflict zone of all armed forces, except units of Soviet Interior Ministry and Soviet Defense Ministry troops before January 1st , 1992. The third point implicated return of the deported population to the villages, the fourth – release of hostages. The fifth point implicated normal operation of all communication infrastructures. The sixth point foresaw establishment of an information group consisted of the representatives of Russia and Kazakhstan authorized to collect official information on the events in conflict zone. Ter-Petrosyan was in favor of such resolution in view of Karabakh’s being a party of the conflict, refraining Armenia from being a direct party to the conflict. However, after the declaration was signed, there were protests against Mutalibov in Azerbaijan, as Azerbaijani party was trying to avoid the inclusion of Karabakh as an independent party to the conflict. Thus, this attempt was doomed to failure by the opposition. Two days later Shushi was bombed. The parties de facto confronted, and a large-scale war broke out.

While at the end of the 1980s the conflict had a local character and was displayed mainly with illegality, from April-May, 1991 armed attacks on Armenian villages were launched; in fact, Nagorno-Karabakh war was prompted by Azerbaijan. Certain measures were taken to organize self-defense units of the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic. During 1991-1994 military operations were conducting with alternating success. In this period Azerbaijan underwent two power shifts; in 1992 Mutalibov was replaced by Elchibey, and in 1993 the latter was opted out by Aliyev. Prior to that Armenian party reestablished humanitarian corridor with Armenia, then overthrew military forces of the aggressor from Horadiz, Qubadli, Jabrail, Fizuli, Zangelan and other regions. In December, 1993 Azerbaijan started large-scale hostilities along the borderline that were ceased on May 12, 1994 when after the Bishkek negotiations Armenian parties and Azerbaijan signed ceasefire agreement.

After the Bishkek protocol active talks were resumed. There were two ways of the internalization of the Karabakh conflict: to discuss it either in the UN Security Council or continue talks within CSCE. In 1993 the UN SC adopted 4 resolutions that were calling upon the parties to cease all hostilities and withdraw the forces from occupied territories. Since there was a priority requirement to cease all hostilities which was avoided by the Azerbaijani party, it became impossible to progress the next requirements of the resolutions. The next important point is that the Resolution 853 urged ‘the Government of the Republic of Armenia to continue to exert itsinfluence to achieve compliance by the Armenians of the Nagorno-Karabakh region…’ which proved the UN’s approval of the measures taken by Armenia and its consideration of the RA as an indirect party of the conflict. However, the future developments made us assume that the UN SC did not intend to continue the talks on the conflict, since by that time the settlement of the Yugoslavian conflict became top-priority for the European countries, thus the issue of Karabakh was removed from the agenda.

In 1992 the Minsk Group reshaped the negotiations. Before the ceasefire was signed, the main task of the mission was the elimination of the consequences of the war. In October, 1993 the first chair of the Minsk group Mario Rafaelli suggested a plan for a peaceful settlement of the conflict according to which:

  1. The armed forces of Nagorno-Karabakh were to be withdrawn progressively within one month from the different occupied territories;
  2. Azerbaijan was to respond by lifting its blockade in a number of corresponding stages;
  3. All these stages were to be monitored by groups of the CSCE experts.

Azerbaijan refused the plan explaining that it did not include the issue of the Armenian blockade of the Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic and Lachin province. Armenia stated its support for the plan, but the authorities of Karabakh turned it down.

On November 8, 1993, during the meeting in Vienna the Minsk Group presented a new plan where Azerbaijan’s demands were taken into account, particularly:

  1.  The withdrawal of troops from the occupied territories;
  2. The creation of conditions enabling refugees to return to their homes.

The plan stated that the status of Nagorno-Karabakh could not be discussed before the Minsk Conference opened. Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh approved the plan, but Azerbaijan again turned it down.

The first mention of Nagorno-Karabakh in the documents of the OSCE was made in 1994, in the Budapest Summit Declaration “Towards a Genuine Partnership in a New Era”. The document made a reference to the UN SC resolutions highlighting the necessity of their implementation, i.e. the return of the surrounding territories of the former Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast to Azerbaijan without clarification of the status of NK and other issues.

One year later in the Ottawa Declaration the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly reflected the position of the member states on the conflict resolution, proclaiming their commitment to the principles of territorial integrity and sovereignty. The withdrawal of the armed forces from so called “occupied territories” was stipulated to be mandatory.

On December 2-3, 1996 during Lisbon Summit The OSCE Minsk Group and the OSCE Chairperson-in- office suggested certain principles that were supposed to become landmarks in the conflict settlement. However, the Armenian party did not accept them. The principles were the following:

  1. Territorial integrity of the Republic of Armenia and the Azerbaijan Republic;
  2. Legal status of Nagorno-Karabakh defined in an agreement based on self-determination which confered on Nagorno-Karabakh the highest degree of self-rule within Azerbaijan;
  3. Guaranteed security for Nagorno-Karabakh and its whole population, including mutual obligations to ensure compliance by all the Parties with the provisions of the settlement.

Armenia vetoed the statement since it predetermined ‘the status of Nagorno-Karabakh, contradicting the decision of the OSCE Ministerial Council of 1992, which referred this issue to the competence of the OSCE Minsk Conference, to be convened after the conclusion of a political agreement’.

In July, 1997 the co-chairs of the OSCE MG drafted the “package” proposal. It implicated the following steps: withdrawal of the armed forces of Nagorno-Karabakh within the 1988 borders of the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast; formation of a buffer zone, in which OSCE peacekeeping forces would implement monitoring of security conditions; Azerbaijan would lease the corridor to the OSCE, which would conclude a contract on the exclusive use of the corridor by the Karabakh authorities; creation of conditions enabling refugees to return to their homes, etc. According to this proposal Nagorno-Karabakh must have formed a state territorial entity within Azerbaijan, moreover the administrative boundaries of Nagorno-Karabakh would have been determined on the basis of the boundaries of the former Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast. As a matter of fact, the “package” deal outlined the future of Nagorno-Karabakh within Azerbaijan, and the deployment of the peacekeepers and the refugees in the buffer zone would have meant to surrender Artsakh to Azerbaijan. Hence, the proposal was turned down by the RA and the NKR. However, the further developments proved that this proposal was not inacceptable for Ter-Petrosyan.

On December 2, 1997 the co-chairs proposed the “step-by step” deal which was highly supported by Ter-Petrosyan. It suggested withdrawal of the armed forces, creation of a buffer zone, deployment of peacekeepers, return of the refugees and IDP to their homes after which the parties were supposed to discuss the status of Nagorno-Karabakh. The proposal was approved by Armenia and Azerbaijan, contrary to NKR. The rejection was substantiated with the fact that it did not determine the future status of Karabakh.

Ter-Petrosyan’s approval of the “step-by- step” proposal caused public opinion and opposition protests. Power structures seriously disapproved the President’s standpoint. In response to this, Ter-Petrosyan explained his position in an article “War or Peace? Time for Thoughtfulness”. Ter-Petrosyan wrote, ‘I considered both the “package” and the “step-by- step” solutions to be realistic. I have also mentioned that Armenia accepted the co-chairs’ first proposal, i.e. the “package” deal, with serious reservation. Only after Azerbaijan and Nagorno-Karabakh turned it down, the co-chairs had to present the “step-by- step” solution to the parties… By first rejecting the “package”, then the “step-by- step” solution, and today proposing to return to the “package” approach, the Karabakh side has put both Karabakh and Armenia in an uncomfortable situation. However, I do not think that the situation is deadlocked, since it is possible to combine the two proposals. The idea is very simple; during the negotiation the “step-by- step” proposal is being signed but it is implemented only after the clarification of the NK status. Due to this Karabakh shows its constructiveness to the international community, that it does not have any intentions to keep the occupied territories, from the other hand it would lead to serious progress in the settlement process, and the talks will be resumed. Today it is vital to resume the suspended negotiations, thus we should immediately make an agreement on the draft plan underlying the negotiations’.

In his book “By the Path of Independence” former Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian remembers the enlarged meeting of the National Security Council on January 8, 1998, where Ter-Petrosyan and his opponents were openly discussing their disagreements. Ter-Petrosyan had a conviction that in the current geopolitical situation the best solution for both the RA and the NKR would be the return of the “occupied” territories, except Lachin corridor. His opponents’ counter-argument was that the “step-by- step” proposal did not touch the issue of the status of Karabakh. However, Ter-Petrosyan considered this gap to be an advantage since he thought it was impossible to adopt any document about the status where the principle of the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan would not be mentioned. In fact, the President was considering unrealistic the definition of NK status outside the territory of Azerbaijan, thus he was in favor of the suggested solutions; Ter- Petrosyan wanted to end the conflict which was hindering the development of Armenia.

For the majority of the two Armenian states both proposals were unacceptable since they outlined the future of Nagorno-Karabakh within the territory of Azerbaijan. The discords between the President and the opposition, as well as the citizens, led to political crisis and later to the President’s resignation. In his resignation speech Ter-Petrosyan announced, ‘I would like to mention that in this political crisis the manifestation of the Artsakh issue was only an excuse. The problem goes much deeper and is connected with the principles of our statehood, the dilemma of peace and war. Whereas, the life will show who did what to Artsakh, and who is selling it’.

To sum up, the policy of the founding President on the Karabakh issue, we should highlight the following points:

  1. Before the declaration of the independence of the RA Ter-Petrosyan approved the idea of the unification of the two Armenian states, later the reestablishment of the “legal” authorities in Artsakh by the Center.
  2. After the formation of the RA and the NKR Ter-Petrosyan was against the consideration of Armenia as a direct party of the conflict; he supported the position that Karabakh authorities should negotiate with Azerbaijan on their own. Ter-Petrosyan viewed the Karabakh issue as the main obstacle to the development of the RA and to the reconciliation with Turkey. Thus, his policy was focused on the “alienation” of Armenia from the conflict and on taking a passive standpoint.
  3. Through the internalization of the conflict Ter-Petrosyan tended to solve it as soon as possible in order to free Armenia from the impediment. However, the internalization ledto the “freezing” of the conflict.
  4. Being forced to enter the war, Ter-Petrosyan tried to use all possible platforms for negotiations in order to rescue Armenia from blockade and casualties.
  5. Ter-Petrosyan was in favor of almost all the proposals offered by the CSCE/OSCE. During the last years of his presidency he supported the idea of the self-determination of Karabakh within the territory of Azerbaijan. Meanwhile this idea was opposed by Armenia’s military elite and the population.
  6. Ter-Petrosyan always referred to the surrounding territories of the NKOB as being “occupied” and was ready to return them to Azerbaijan.
  7. The President did not oppose the idea of the return of refugees and IDP to the “occupied” territories and deployment of peacekeepers there.

The success of Ter-Petrosyan’s policy was that he managed to ensure Karabakh’s participation in the negotiation process claiming that “Yerevan will never sign a document that will not have the signature of Stepanakert”. However, this was enshrined in law only in the CSCE Ministerial Council’s decision in 1992 (Helsinki); they used the word “among” instead of “between” in word collocation “among the negotiating parties” which implied that Karabakh was also included as an independent party. In practice this was proved when the co-chairs were representing their proposals to the Karabakh authorities and holding meeting in Stepanakert. On the contrary, the second President Robert Kocharyan started direct negotiation between Yerevan and Baku. Thus, the last trilateral negotiations were held during Ter-Petrosyan’s presidency, in the spring of 1997, when in Moscow Armenian delegation left the negotiations.

The next important point is that Ter-Petrosyan abolished the idea of the reunification of the two Armenian states which is the biggest failure of his policy. Another drawback was his willingness to return the liberated territories to Azerbaijan; it was obvious that Azerbaijan would not be satisfied with regaining control over those regions, it would demand more, while those territories have strategic and political importance for both Artsakh and Armenia. Eventually, Ter- Petrosyan’s policy on the Karabakh issue can be determined as a period of “missed opportunities”.

Thus, Ter-Petrosyan prioritized the final settlement of the conflict which would not have been permanent with the implementation of his proposals. It was natural that every compromise was opposed by the majority; the country that wins the war does not make concessions to the loser. However, Ter-Petrosyan was not mistaken claiming that the maintenance of the status quo will eventually cause problems for the Republic of Armenia. But it was obvious that the concessions suggested by him were unacceptable for the citizens and for the political and military elite. Ter- Petrosyan’s policy was too pragmatic and Armenian-centered; his perception of Armenia did not include Karabakh, while all the current developments prove that the Karabakh factor is inseparable both from the internal and external politics of the RA, that Nagorno-Karabakh is an inseparable part of Armenia.


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Author:  Viktorya Aydinyan: © All rights are reserved