Commentary: Is Kosovo Independence Precedent for Karabagh?


By Edmond Y. Azadian

After Kosovo declared its independence in 2008 with the support of the Western  countries, the Serbian government brought the case to the International Court of Justice in The Hague, accusing Kosovo of violating international law.

On July 22, the court made its verdict public that Kosovo had not violated any intentional law. The verdict is of an advisory nature and thus not enforceable. The Belgrade government refused to accept the verdict, but it does not have any recourse to reverse it, since the godfathers of that independence have already a 10,000-strong UN force in place “to preserve” peace. Actually, it is to forestall any potential revanchist move from Belgrade or the Serb minority regularly harassed by the Kosovar in their region.

As much as the verdict was symbolic, the reaction from the Serbian president was equally academic, ruling out the use of force to reverse the course inKosovo. Besides, the Belgrade government is very anxious to join the European Union, and with that prospect in mind, has cooperated with theWest and the International Court by handing many former Serb leaders to the court aswar criminals.Of course, trying to commit that murder in the middle of Europe could not go unseen.

The court verdict stirred many reactions from different quarters. Countries which upheld the principle of territorial integrity raised their voices against it, while others, who believed in the principle of self-determination, spoke the opposite.

Some countries were caught between the two principles: Turkey recognized Kosovo’s independence, although itself is in a controversial position; Ankara is for self-determination in Northern Cyprus, but against that principle in the case of the Karabagh issue.

Turkey has a vested interest in Kosovo. First, as a former colonial power in the Balkans, it wields a lot of influence in the region. And second, support for Kosovo will consolidate the second Muslim nation in the heart of Europe, paving the way for the third one.

Russia, in its turn, is caught in the dichotomy. On the one hand, Moscow recognizes the self-determination and independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia; on the other hand it is refusing to recognize Chechnya’s self-determination. In solidarity with their Serbian brothers, the Russians refused to recognize Kosovo’s independence, citing UN Resolution 1244, which calls for continued negotiations until an equitable solution is reached to meet the demands of the opposing parties.

The dismantling of the Yugoslav Federation was Washington’s plan to draw a line in the sand, limiting Russia’s influence in Europe, and second, to pay lip service to the Muslim world, which has been antagonized by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

A case in point is Secretary of State Madeleine Albright’s statement at a press conference in Europe, when she was asked if Moscow was consulted on the Rambouillet Agreement (partitioning Yugoslavia) and she retorted, “We don’t need anyone’s opinion on our decision.”

Along with the verdict of the International Court, it was announced that Kosovo’s independence cannot serve as a precedent to other similar cases. Many countries were heartened by it and also inspired, including the people of Karabagh.

Kosovo’s independence was an artificially-created one, yet 69 countries have recognized it, because the US has actively promoted it. Former Yugoslavia was partitioned and rag-tag street gangs in Kosovo were armed to become the Kosovar Liberation Army. And following the declaration of independence, an international force was put in place to guarantee that independence.

By comparison the Karabagh conflict was caused by a genuine threat to the Armenians living in that autonomous region; Azerbaijan declared war to depopulate the region as it had depopulated Nakhichevan, during the Soviet era, courtesy of Heydar Aliyev, former KGB colonel.

The reason the Kosovo verdict does not apply to other conflict areas is because it is based on political premises, rather than any tenet of the international law.

For many years now, the Minsk Group of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) has been negotiating with the opposing parties, based on the Helsinki resolution, which calls for the respect of territorial integrity, adherence to the principle of self determination, and the exclusion of use of force in any conflict resolution. The first two principles cancel each other and render the combined principle into a square wheel, preventing any progress in the negotiations.

The assumptions also open the door for wild interpretations, inviting each party to define the principles in a way that suits their purposes.

For the leaders in Baku self determination for the Karabagh Armenians means “highest level of autonomy within Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity.” Nobody yet knows what the “highest level of autonomy” means, except the Nakhichevan Armenians who were expunged from their native land and Karabagh Armenians who were subjected to ethnic cleansing.

Each member state of the Minsk group has given its own interpretation of Kosovo’s independence and the principle of self-determination. However, it is very interesting to quote the interpretation of the British representative at the International Court. That interpretation fits exactly the Karabagh situation. Here is the British interpretation: “The principle of the territorial integrity applies when a certain country is under threat by another country. If the right for self-determination of any indigenous group is trampled by the central government, than the principle of territorial integrity does not apply.”

A war was thrust upon the Karabagh-Armenians by the Azeri government and the people in Karabagh rose in self-defense and defeated the aggressor.

Now, rather than paying war reparations to Karabagh Armenians, the Baku government has subverted the main cause of conflict and has reduced it to the issue of the “return of occupied territories.”

The Karabagh parliament assessed Kosovo verdict as a precedent and issued an announcement stating: “The verdict of the UN International court of Justice confirms that the principle of a nation’s self determination does not contradict any international law nor infringes on territorial integrity…the Republic of Mountainous Karabagh is ready to assume its responsibility in the situation created in the international arena to achieve peace and stability in the region.

“On December 10, 1991 the Republic of Nagorno Karabagh declared its independence in conformance with the principles of international law and the constitution of USSR extent at that period. During the last 20 years, the Republic was able to repudiate Azerbaijani aggression. During that entire period, Karabagh has demonstrated that it has achieved the status of a legitimate state.”

The autonomous region of Karabagh seceded from the USSR exactly in the manner Azerbaijan did. And since Karabagh has never been an integral part of Azerbaijan’s territory, it had been placed under its administrative rule by Stalin’s arbitration; therefore, its independence does not infringe upon the latter’s territorial integrity.

The Helsinki Principles can be applied to the Karabagh situation only when the parties agree on the assumption that Karabagh is not breaking away from Azerbaijan, since it has most importantly dissociated itself from the USSR.

Unfortunately, the oil factor has been proving to be more effective than any logic and any principle of international law. Countries constituting the Minsk Group keep assuming that Karabagh was and should continue to be part of Azerbaijan’s territory. Even non-binding resolutions have been passed by the UN general assembly giving credence to Azeri claims.

Unless mediators are convinced otherwise, the Helsinki Principles will be locked in a square wheel and the conflict will remain unresolved.

Some quarters blame Armenia’s diplomacy, which has not been able to convince the international community that Karabagh has never been a part of Azerbaijan. These people forget the oil factor.

When the major powers decide to create political facts, they will interpret the law to justify their actions. Kosovo was part and parcel of the former Yugoslavia. The Kosovars did not fight to obtain independence. It was handed to them on a silver platter, after Yugoslavia was partitioned by force. Therefore the principle of self-determination applies more to Karabagh than to Kosovo. But the powers behind the verdict of the

International Court of Justice warn that the decision on Kosovo cannot be applied to any other similar conflicts.

The French writer La Fontaine concluded one of his fables with the following adage, which is more appropriate to use here: “The reasoning of the mighty is always the best.”