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Special Report
Last Updated: 07/12/2005
Nagorno-Karabakh conflict: Intractable?
Philip Gamaghelyan

Finding a compromise solution to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is usually considered the prerequisite for peace and cooperation in the Caucasus. The analysis of the conflict, however, shows that the mutual mistrust and animosity of Armenians and Azeris presently is so high that even the smallest concession, particularly related to the status of Nagorno-Karabakh, is unacceptable to either side. As long as those attitudes persist, no compromise can be reached. The approach, therefore, has to be reversed. In stead of pressing parties to compromise, peace-building efforts must foster regional cooperation. If a high level of regional economic and security integration in the Caucasus is achieved, the significance of the status of Nagorno-Karabakh will decrease, which in its turn will clear a path for a sustainable peace.

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This article is intended to call in question the myth of the intractability of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. It provides a stakeholder analysis and examines political, economic, security and socio-cultural dynamics of the conflict. Distinguishing between the positions and the interests of the main actors, the paper evaluates the peace process, reveals the factors accounting for its continuing failure and develops recommendations on how the conflict can be resolved. 

The recent phase of the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh, a small region of 1,699 sq mi (4,400 sq km) with a population of almost 200,000[1], began in 1987. It started as a land dispute between the Soviet Republics of Azerbaijan and Armenia over the predominantly Armenian-populated autonomous region of Nagorno-Karabakh within Azerbaijani SSR. After the break up of the Soviet Union the dispute was transformed into a full-scale war between two neighboring countries. The death toll is estimated at approximately 25,000 to 30,000 people[2] and the number of refugees and internally displaced people (IDPs) is estimated to be over a million.[3]  


The ‘intractability’ of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is not attributable to the lack of vitality of a particular solution. Any agreement that establishes a definite solution would require some concessions, would dissatisfy one or both parties and would produce powerful ‘spoilers’ that could sabotage the peace process. Therefore it is necessary not to look for a fast solution, but to develop a long-term strategy of addressing underlying issues of the conflict such as mutual perceptions, security issues and democracy, and cultivate a ripe moment when the core issues - the status of Nagorno-Karabakh and its relation to Armenia and Azerbaijan - can be addressed. At present, the moment is not ripe. Only secondary parties of the conflict, Armenians in Armenia, and refugees/IDPs in Armenia and Azerbaijan are experiencing a so-called “hurting stalemate”[4] and they are not in a position to resolve the conflict. The immediate parties to the conflict, Nagorno-Karabakh Armenians and the majority of Azeris, do not see themselves in a “hurting stalemate” and would rather resort to violence than compromise on the status of Nagorno-Karabakh. 

In my search for a solution, I consciously do not address the issue of status of Nagorno-Karabakh. As I argue in my paper, the ‘intractability’ of the conflict largely originates from the desire of parties to have a sense of the final status of the region, before addressing the underlying problems. I suggest that if this approach is reversed, all other issues are resolved, and an acceptable level of stability and cooperation in the region is achieved, the final status of Nagorno-Karabakh will become less significant, which will make it easier for parties to come to a compromise....

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[1] Soviet census of 1989.

[2] Mooradian, M., and D. Druckman. Nov, 1999. “Hurting Stalemate or Mediation? The Conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh”, 1990-95. Journal of Peace Research, Vol. 36, No. 6., pp. 709-727.

[4] “The concept is based on the notion that when the parties find themselves locked in a conflict from which they cannot escalate to victory and this deadlock is painful … they seek an alternative policy or a way out”. Zartman, W. in Darby, John and Roger Mac Ginty. 2002. Contemporary Peacemaking: Conflict, Violence and Peace Processes. New York: Palgrave Macmillan. p. 19.

This analysis was compiled with the help of Professor Steven Burg, Brandeis University and of Kathy Sampson. In Azerbaijan, my special thanks go to Tabib Huseynov for his insightful comments.
Phil Gamaghelyan is an MA student in Coexistence and Conflict at Brandeis University and Project Assistant at the Mercy Corps Conflict Management Group. Email: