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  • Third Party Mediation: An Obstacle to Peace in Nagorno Karabakh
  • Wendy Betts (bio)

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For six years an undeclared war raged in the small Armenian enclave of Nagorno Karabakh, once part of the former Soviet Union. Years of underlying ethnic tensions exacerbated by Soviet policies exploded into violent conflict upon the collapse of the USSR. Since 1992, neighboring states, Western powers, and international organizations have attempted to find some common ground between the disputants. Many conflict management experts emphasize that such third party intervention is often necessary in ethnic-based, territorial disputes such as those over Nagorno Karabakh. Yet despite seven years of mediation efforts by numerous actors, a political solution to the conflict remains elusive. The mediation efforts, rather than facilitating a solution, have proved to be an obstacle to a negotiated settlement.

This paper will briefly describe the rationale behind third party involvement based on the underlying structural and ethnic sources of the current tensions. On this foundation, the motives and roles of the mediators will be analyzed in order to determine why their past efforts were ineffective. I propose that the abundance of willing intermediaries and their competing agendas conspired to reduce the mediators’ effectiveness by robbing them of the leverage necessary to move the disputants toward a final peace agreement. Additionally, the conflicting goals of the mediators have not only hindered their efforts, but also at times have contributed to the conflict. This case provides valuable lessons for the international community about the [End Page 161] need for selective mediation, the importance of a coherent approach, and the dangers posed by the mediators’ own agendas.


Nagorno Karabakh is a region of approximately 1,700 square miles located inside the former Soviet republic of Azerbaijan. When the current round of violence began in the late 1980s, approximately 75 percent of the population of the region was ethnic Armenian. 1 Although the region shares no official common border with Armenia, as a result of successful military offensives, the Armenian population of Nagorno Karabakh (Karabakh Armenians) currently controls 20 percent of the territory of Azerbaijan, effectively joining the enclave with Armenia. Both Armenia and Azerbaijan are bordered by Georgia, Iran, and Turkey. Azerbaijan is also bordered by the Russian Federation. These shared frontiers help to explain the extent to which Russia, Iran, and Turkey have been involved in mediation attempts.

Both Armenia and Azerbaijan have long sought control of Nagorno Karabakh. In 1921, Joseph Stalin established Nagorno Karabakh as an autonomous oblast in Azerbaijan. Despite Armenian protest, this remained Nagorno Karabakh’s status throughout the decades of Soviet rule. In the late 1980s, the loosening of central control under Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev’s controversial policy of glasnost provided an opening for the resurgence of debate over the issue. Armenians held numerous demonstrations protesting Azerbaijan’s control of Nagorno Karabakh and its alleged discrimination against the Karabakh Armenians. Similarly, Azerbaijanis mobilized politically to defend the territorial integrity of their republic. These actions heightened tensions and nationalist sentiments between the two groups, leading to sporadic violence, which escalated into a full-scale, although undeclared, war.

The conflict reached a watershed in 1991. That year witnessed the disintegration of the Soviet Union and, in its wake, declarations of independence from Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Nagorno Karabakh. With the dispute over Nagorno Karabakh no longer an internal Soviet conflict, the involvement of external actors became possible. In 1994, after a series of mediation attempts by outside agents, a ceasefire was achieved, but efforts toward a permanent settlement currently remain deadlocked. [End Page 163]

Sources of Conflict

Parties and Issues

Conflict has been defined as “a perceived divergence of interest among parties, or a belief that the parties’ current aspirations cannot be achieved simultaneously.” 2 The main parties to this conflict are the Karabakh Armenians, Azerbaijan, and Armenia. Although originally seeking unification with Armenia, the Karabakh Armenians now demand the right to self-determination. They argue that just as Azerbaijan had the legal right to secede from the Soviet Union, they have the right to exercise self-determination and secede from Azerbaijan. 3 The government of...

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pp. 161-183
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