This year marks the twentieth anniversary of the collapse of the Soviet Union and the independence of a number of countries that used to form part of the USSR. What was perhaps one of the most unexpected events of the twentieth century resulted in the statehood of fifteen republics – fifteen states recognized by the international community, by the world at large, along with four countries that yet often go by the moniker of being stuck in “frozen conflicts”.
Out of the four, Abkhazia and South Ossetia have been not just thawed, but deep fried back into the center of attention of the West, of the media and academia, after the brief resumption of hostilities across Georgia’s northern frontiers in August, 2008. Of the other two, Transnistria’s situation remains dormant, while Artsakh – as the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic is called in the native Armenian – has always been simmering, ever since the ceasefire of 1994, with further escalation of belligerent rhetoric coming from Baku during recent years. Negotiations are ongoing, as they tend to be in such situations.
Artsakh itself marked twenty years of independence on the second of September. The issue of Nagorno-Karabakh is, of course, a complex one. But the people of Artsakh – the Armenians who live and work there – are confident in asserting and celebrating their freedom, simply because they fought for their lives and their rights. Ask anybody in the capital Stepanakert, or in any of the towns and rural areas of this roughly 11,000 square kilometers sliver of land (about 4,000 square miles), and you will hear nothing other than assurance that the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic is an independent state.
According to the Montevideo Convention of 1933, statehood is defined following the four criteria of territory, population, government, and the ability to deal with other states. In political terms, statehood implies sovereignty. But who decides sovereignty? Recognition of such is a controversial matter. For the most part, it is a practical question that is, more often than not, pretty obvious. Most states recognize their immediate neighbors and their borders. The United Nations organization is the main forum to regulate their affairs; its membership and how to go about acquiring such membership is clear. Capitals host embassies, militaries make alliances, economies carry out trade. Most of what people call “countries” are, to use more technical parlance, sovereign states, full members of the international community.
But then there are the controversial ones, from ones that don’t make too much noise and offer little to dispute, such as the Principality of Sealand, to governments-in-exile or those with whom there are partial dealings, such as Tibet or Taiwan, all the way to the very problematic conflict raging in Palestine/Israel, a matter that has not been resolved in over ninety, sixty, or forty years, depending on where you start. The Palestinian Authority is planning on pursuing full statehood as a tactic, which only goes to indicate that there is something very significant about sovereignty and its role in global affairs. It is, to put it bluntly, nothing less than an essential component of international relations.
Self-declared sovereignty is one thing, whereas international recognition is quite another, however, and that’s where further complications arise. Usually, either a country is recognized, or it is not. We have witnessed the birth just recently of South Sudan: a resolution of a civil war, followed by a referendum, and then formal recognition, admission to the UN, flag-hoisting and other solemn ceremonies. All planned out, involving, at least formally, every other state in the world.
That’s not the way it worked in Kosovo, though. Eighty-two countries recognize Kosovo as a sovereign state today. Only four recognize Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Does it matter that one of those four is Russia, and that one of the eighty-two is the United States?
The United States itself offers the classic example of a struggle for independence and the fulfillment of “the right to self-determination”, as modern terminology would put it. The American Revolution, in fact, serves as the classic historical precedent, a main point of inspiration for many peoples the world over struggling to assert their rights. The issue over Artsakh is very complicated to say the least, but part of the story certainly reflects the struggle of the native Armenian population to solve the issue of its physical security, to say nothing of the institutionalized discrimination and marginalisation faced during six decades and more of rule as part of Soviet Azerbaijan.
Does it matter that no state recognizes the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic as independent? International law might consider it important, but for the people of Artsakh, the bottom line is that they managed to secure themselves and have been busy building up a democracy, a viable economy, infrastructure, healthcare, education, and certainly an army worthy of any country for twenty years now. Freedom means something to the Armenians who live there in a way that is qualitatively different than any declaration or embassy might indicate, whether from Washington, Moscow, New York, Paris, or Brussels.
The foreign minister of Uruguay recently stated the possibility of moving to formally recognize the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic. It seems, then, that we may yet see a new convention out of Montevideo.
Written by Nareg Seferian
Seferian is currently pursuing a master's degree at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University.