Nagorno-Karabakh: The Hidden Motives Behind Ethnic Conflict

By Dayana Shaybazyan

Abstract: This paper attempts to explain the persistence of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan by using instrumentalist and constructivist theories of ethnic identity. It argues that conflict resolution is impeded by the promotion of ethnic differences by the opposing states and also by international actors, who exploit the region for political and economic gains.


After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Caucasus region witnessed a number of disputes. Clashes over sovereignty, complex ethnic claims, and the growing hostility towards minorities and their legitimate demands dominated the political agenda of states. A number of studies have sought to explain the roots of post-Soviet conflicts and the failure of actors to come to a peaceful resolution. It is important to promote research and facilitate discussion on frozen conflicts, a persistent phenomenon in the international arena, as they pose significant security challenges, result in large numbers of refugees and fatalities, and worsen the economic, political and social conditions in opposing states (Pokalova, 2015).

The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan was one of the disputes that arose in the Caucasus in the late 1980s. With the weakening of the Soviet Union, the majority Armenian population in the Nagorno-Karabakh region, officially recognized as part of Azerbaijan, began to demand for its unification with Armenia. The protests led to a six-year war between the two states that left over a million Armenian and Azerbaijani civilians displaced. Both countries accused each other of committing war crimes. A Russian-brokered ceasefire, signed in 1994, led to numerous peace initiatives which aimed to negotiate a lasting solution to the conflict. Nevertheless, under the auspices of the OSCE Minsk group, set up in 1992 as the main institution responsible for the peace process in Nagorno-Karabakh, the dispute has not been resolved. The past 25 years have failed to produce stable peace, with continuous violations of the ceasefire and the refusal of Armenia and Azerbaijan to reach a peaceful agreement (Cornell, 1997).

Figure 1: Map of the Nagorno-Karabakh region.Reprinted from “Karabakh map”, Achemish, 2016, Retrieved from Copyright 2013 by Achemish CC-BY-SA-4.0 (

This paper aims to examine the underlying factors of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict by applying the instrumentalist and constructivist theories of ethnic identity. It also aims to test which of the two theories is more effective in explaining the failure to achieve a peaceful settlement. With no clear solution or foreseeable end to the conflict, world powers have ignored the issue until circumstances force them to act, while the danger of yet another violent uprising continues to plague the two nations. This paper argues that while the promotion of ethnic “hate narratives” by the governments of Azerbaijan and Armenia plays a significant role in preventing a peaceful conflict resolution, the ethnic conflict cannot be resolved until the international actors refrain from exploiting the region for political and economic gains. It further suggests that the failure to negotiate a lasting peace in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is best explained by the instrumentalist theory, as the conflict is the result of modern factors. Ethnic identity was used as a mere tool for acquisition of power and benefits by the international community and the two sparring governments.

Historical Background

The Nagorno-Karabakh War

In 1988, the population of Nagorno-Karabakh, an autonomous province within the Soviet Republic of Azerbaijan, was made up of a 75% Armenian population (Minority Rights Group International, 2018). The Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast (NKAO) was separated physically from the Soviet Republic of Armenia by a strip of land referred to as the “Lachin corridor.” The corridor was exclusively inhabited by Azeris and Kurds, hence shaping the NKAO as an Armenian exclave. The Azeri community, a local minority within the region, was considerably smaller than the Armenian population, despite it being part of the larger Azeri majority in the Soviet Republic of Azerbaijan (Melander, 2001).

In an attempt to preserve the Soviet state and its communist ideas, Mikhail Gorbachev, the last leader of the Soviet Union, approved significant reforms in the 1980s, including the policy of glasnost, which called for openness and improved freedom of speech and the press in the Soviet republics. As a consequence of this policy and the reduction in Soviet control, the Armenian population in Nagorno-Karabakh began to freely express its resentment towards the Azerbaijani government, rioting against oppression with the claim that Azerbaijan neglects and discriminates against the Armenian community in the NKAO. As a result of continuous protests and the struggle to unite with Armenia, Armenians in the region were targeted by the Azeri community, with massacres and pogroms escalating into a full-fledged war.

In 1991, following the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Russia withdrew its troops from Nagorno-Karabakh: the development allowed Azerbaijani troops to intensify their attacks on the region. Despite continued fighting, Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh declared their de facto independence from Azerbaijan in 1992, which was never recognized (Volkan, 1998). Azerbaijan unsuccessfully attempted to restore control by launching a military operation against the capital of the NKAO in 1992; however, it witnessed major losses as the Lachin Corridor was lost to Armenians, and Nagorno-Karabakh was no longer separated from Armenia by Azerbaijani land. The continuous warfare between the years of 1988 and 1994 resulted in an estimated 35,000 deaths and approximately one million refugees on both sides (Kambeck & Ghazaryan, 2013).

History of Mediations

The international community expressed significant disapproval of the occupation of Azerbaijani territory by Armenia. Four UN Security Council resolutions were adopted after the war, instructing the occupying Armenian forces to withdraw from Azerbaijani land and reminding the warring parties of “the inviolability of international borders and the inadmissibility of the use of force for the acquisition of territory” (Cornell, 1997, p. 16). The UNSC resolutions also requested the return of the Azeri refugees, who had been driven out by Armenians, back to the region, and prohibited Armenia and Azerbaijan to provide any military assistance to the region. On the 5th of May 1994, the Republic of Armenia, the Republic of Azerbaijan, and the Nagorno-Karabakh de facto government signed a ceasefire agreement ending the war, but not the conflict itself, as Azerbaijan refused to accept the continued control of over 20% of their de jure territory by Armenians (Kaufman, 2016).

The OSCE Minsk Group, co-chaired by France, the Russian Federation, and the United States, was established as the focal point for multilateral consultations on Karabakh in 1992. In 1995, the OSCE passed a resolution calling for the “highest degree of autonomy” of Mountainous Karabakh within Azerbaijan, the territorial integrity of which was to be preserved. In 1997, it further proposed the withdrawal of the Armenian troops from occupied territories, along with a buffer zone to be patrolled by the OSCE peacekeeping force and an OSCE-administered lease of the “Lachin corridor” from Azerbaijan to Karabakh. Azerbaijan accepted the terms as a basis for negotiation, but Armenia and Karabakh refused them. Armenia and Azerbaijan further rejected the proposal by OSCE for a “common state”, meaning a de facto independent Karabakh.

Despite some attempts to negotiate a resolution, , the momentum for a settlement has nevertheless been lost (Cutler, 2003) and sporadic fighting continues. In 2016, heavy fighting along the Nagorno-Karabakh frontline left over 350 soldiers and civilians dead on both sides (U.S. Department of State, 2016). As sporadic and low intensity fighting at the border continues, it negatively impacts the peace process. The Azerbaijani government maintains the position that Armenia is occupying part of its territory, thereby keeping the two neighboring states at war (Melander, 2001). The Armenian government claims that the conflict represents a struggle for independence and self-determination of the Armenian people. To understand the impasse,  the next section will explore competing ethnic identities, which play a significant role in the ongoing tensions between the nation-states and act as barriers against a peaceful settlement.

The Role of Ethnicity in Generating and Maintaining Conflicts

Complex ethnic identities can generate conflict by associating different groups with different interests. However, as argued by Stuart J. Kaufman (2001), it is misleading to believe that ethnicity itself is the cause of any conflict, whether it is violent or not: in inter-state ethnic conflicts, political figures and international powers seek tangible interests. On the other hand, for the masses, the issues at stake are often purely symbolic ones. Psychocultural theorists point out that, in psychological experiments, people randomly assigned to groups tend to evaluate their own group more highly than other groups, even when they are told that they are not competing. Hence, what is at stake for the group is not just absolute benefits but group self-esteem, group worth, and legitimacy (Horowitz, 1985).

There is hardly consensus among scholars who have been studying ethnic conflicts and it is important to consider multiple schools of thought. The instrumentalist theory sees ethnic identity as a mere tool used by elites to pursue competition over tangible goods such as economic opportunities. This perspective suggests that there is no such thing as an “ethnic conflict” at all and ethnicity does not generate conflict (Kaufman, 2001). The instrumentalist theory further argues that elites exploit the ethnic allegiance of the masses, stoke ethnic tensions and, in some cases, intentionally provoke ethnic violence as a method to seize power, protect existing authority, or as defense against group threats (Blanton, 2015). From an instrumentalist viewpoint the self-interest of international powers and the state promotion of ethnic hate narratives in Armenia and Azerbaijan are the principal obstacles in the way of peace..

Instead, primordialist theorists suggest that many ethnic identities have existed for thousands of years and that ethnic conflict is based on “ancient hatreds”, which are impossible to eradicate and nearly impossible to manage (Isaacs, 1975). Finally, constructivists locate themselves somewhere in-between instrumentalism and primordialism by emphasizing the degree to which people create their own identities, pointing out that ethnic identities are “socially constructed” (Hardin, 2001). Constructivists argue that history, culture, and myths of ancient homeland provide motives for conflict and are not simply pretexts used for manipulation of the masses. They further believe that instrumentalists exaggerate the manipulating power of elites while neglecting the importance and genuine character of popular beliefs and mass action.

A constructivist theorist, Anthony Smith (1999) argued that social constructions are created through a “myth-symbol complex”, which establishes the “accepted” history of the group and the criteria for distinguishing its members. Individuals identify heroes and enemies and glorify symbols of the group’s identity, selecting “chosen traumas” to work as morally defining experiences for people (Volkan, 1998). While the myths do not necessarily arise from selfish interests and instead can be genuine in nature and can stem from the masses, the instrumentalist theorists might argue that the myths can be rediscovered and reinterpreted by the modern nationalist intelligentsias for selfish motives. However, it is important to consider the constructivist theory, because the manipulation of one’s identity often succeeds only when it works in tandem with a previously constructed social perception of the conflict (Smith, 1999). The constructivist theory aids in understanding the claims made by opposing governments on an ancient homeland, and helps to explain how an “accepted” history of the group prevents the conflict from reaching a peaceful resolution. The next section of the paper applies these interpretative toolsto the frozen state of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.


Role of the International Community

The persistence of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is largely a result of the lack of response from the international actors to the unfolding events. For over a decade, the conflict has served the interest of several powerful states, including the Russian Federation, Turkey and the United States, who have been very successful in influencing the actions of the international community.

The United Nations was involved in the conflict only superficially, allocating its resolution to the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which established the OSCE Minsk Group, co-chaired by Russia, France and the United States in 1992. However, while the Group attempts to defend and justify the official recognition of Nagorno-Karabakh as Azerbaijan’s territory, it has been unable to promote resolutions due to the self-interests of its powerful co-chairs. The OSCE Minsk Group has further proven to ignore the complex nature of the conflict and failed to provide security guarantees (De Waal, 2013). In 1997, the Minsk Group proposed the withdrawal of Armenian troops from the occupied territories and a Karabakh self-government within Azerbaijan. As part of the proposition, all ethnic-Azeri displaced persons were to return to the occupied region. Azerbaijan accepted the document as a basis for negotiations, but Armenia responded that adequate guarantees of security were necessary to facilitate withdrawal from the occupied territories (Cutler, 2003). This proposition is one of many examples in which the peacekeepers have failed to recognize and incorporate the complexity of the conflict in carrying out decisions for peace.

When the economic status of Armenia and Azerbaijan is examined, the significance of security guarantees becomes evident. Over the years, Azerbaijan, propelled by oil and gas, embarked in a military build-up. In 2015 alone, Baku spent 3 billion dollars on its military, more than Armenia’s entire national budget (Kambeck & Ghazaryan, 2012). Hence, OSCE’s propositions to remove the self-government in Karabakh is seen as unmanageable for the local Armenian officials and does not provide the assurance of their secure withdrawal (Behlül, 2008). As the frozen conflict is continuously interrupted by violations of the ceasefire, the threat of escalation is always present (Melander, 2001). However, when considering the lack of security guarantees, it can be argued that a full-scale war can be avoided if strategic uncertainties and security dilemmas are addressed by the international mediators, which merely do not consider the resolution as beneficial for their own interests, exemplifying the instrumentalist theory.

Russia’s direct interest in the conflict became visible soon after the independence of Armenia and Azerbaijan in 1991. Territorially, in its efforts to prevent competing powers, Turkey and Iran, from getting a foothold in the Caucasus, Russia found Armenia to be the single reliable ally in the region. The early presidents of Georgia and Azerbaijan, Zviad Gamsakhurdia and Abulfaz Elchibey, were strong anti-Russian nationalists who initially refused to join the newly formed Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). Therefore, Armenia and the Karabakh Armenians acted as levers for Russia to bring Georgia and Azerbaijan into the CIS and consequently allowed Russian troops to develop stations near the Iran and Turkey borders in Armenia and Azerbaijan to “guard” the common CIS border (Goltz, 1993).

The lack of interest in the resolution of the conflict and the self-centered approach of Russia was similarly visible prior to the Nagorno-Karabakh war, when Joseph Stalin and the “Kavburo” of the Soviet Union made the decision to “leave” or “make” the Nagorno-Karabakh region as part of Azerbaijan. While the region was allocated to Azerbaijan, the Russian rule ordered official business to be conducted in Armenian, elevating a class of Armenian elite, which later sought to merge the region back with Armenia (Pokalova, 2015). Hence, Russia played a significant role in establishing the initial formations, which escalated into the conflict, but did not try to solve them, as under the USSR such problems could be contained. This Russian policy of first assigning the majority-Armenian Karabakh to Azerbaijan and then establishing a class of Armenian elite in the region is known as divide et impera, a strategy of asserting control over a territory by breaking up large concentrations of power into smaller and more manageable units.

Through the years of mediations, as a co-chair of the Minsk Group, Russia has demonstrated a general lack of interest in the joint mediation of the conflict. It considers the OSCE as an intruder in its sphere of influence and prefers to conduct a Russian-only mediation (Cornell, 1997). Russia’s instrumentalist attempt to manipulate the conflict for its own territorial security and economic interests became particularly visible in 2016.Russia’s Prime Minister Dimitry Medvedev stated that Russia would continue to sell arms to both Azerbaijan and Armenia, and justified the decision as an attempt to preserve the existing balance of forces in the conflict (Puddington, Repucci, Dunham, Nelson & Roylance, 2016). This policy betrayes Russia’s focus on its national interest: as the region witnessed renewed fighting in 2016, Moscow continued to sell its weapons to both sides as well as to provide extensive military support to Armenia, where it maintains a base. While Armenia expressed strong disapproval for Russia’s supply of arms to Azerbaijan, the Armenian government cannot speak out against these selfish motives due to its dependence on Russia as a means of overcoming its territorial encirclement by Azerbaijan and Turkey. Hence, international powers outweigh Armenia’s national leadership in the conflict. Russia supplies Armenia not only with military aid and territorial support but also with cheaply priced gas, goods, and acts as a primary destination for Armenian migrant labor (Torbakov, 2010). Russia’s direct interest in maintaining positive ties with both Azerbaijan and Armenia prevents the country from implementing decisive strategies to end the tensions in Nagorno-Karabakh.

Another prominent actor in the resolution of the conflict is Turkey, whose role can be examined through its domestic appeal and its relations with the US and Russia. Turkey’s initial interest in the conflict arose as an attempt to deal with domestic pressures, as huge anti-Armenian demonstrations took place in the country during the Nagorno-Karabakh war in 1992. Turkish people demanded its government to interfere on Azerbaijan’s behalf, accusing the leaders of undermining Turkey’s prestige in Azerbaijan and amongst the fellow Muslim states in Central Asia. Hence, in its efforts to improve its domestic public image, the Turkish government began to demonstrate its strong support for Azerbaijan (Behlül, 2008).

While Turkey’s president Tayyip Erdogan remains very vocal on his belief that Armenian territories historically belong to Azerbaijan, the government has not provided decisive support to Azerbaijan. The lack of interference can be partially explained by Turkey’s interest in gaining full membership in the European Union, which requires normalization of relations with Armenia. Furthermore, Turkey attempts to respect the neutrality of the US towards the conflict, fearing that if it extends further support to Azerbaijan and disrupts the current balance of powers in the region, the US will cut its military aid- which is vital for Turkey’s fight against the Kurds (Pearson, 2018).

Turkish relations with Russia further play an important role, in particular with the recent improvement in military and economic relations between the two states. In 2017, Turkey purchased the S-400 surface-to-air missile system from Russia, a step which was condemned by the US but is beneficial for Turkish military development (Pearson, 2018). Turkey’s interest in maintaining positive economic and military relations with both Russia and the United States prevents it from attempting to resolve the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. The case of Turkey’s involvement demonstrates the complicated web of relations between the international actors involved and the large number of hidden motives, which block them from an unbiased and fair mediation process.

As for the United States, who is also part of the OCSE Minsk Group, its policy towards the conflict has largely been defined by its recognition of the Caucasus as the “backyard of Russia” and a policy of non-interference (Mooradian & Druckman, 1999). Whilst ostensibly playing a significant role in conflict resolution, Russia, Turkey and the US have further cultivated tensions and used the conflict to pursue economic and military opportunities, and security guarantees (Blanton, 2015). The complex relations and pursuits of national benefits demonstrate that international actors, more importantly Russia and Turkey, play a more important role in sustaining the conflict than Armenia and Azerbaijan, where these external actors achieved a high level of dependency, power and guardianship. While Azerbaijan condemns Turkey’s attempt to maintain positive relations with all the involved powers, and while Armenia condemns Russia’s sale of arms to Azerbaijan, both Russia and Turkey continue to value their own interests over their perception in Armenia and Azerbaijan and treat the tensions between the two ethnic groups as means for personal gains.

On the other hand, the constructivist theory of ethnic conflict helps in explaining the social constructs which arose from the failure of the international community to impose proper punishments for the war-crimes committed between 1988 and 1994 in Nagorno-Karabakh. As described by the International Committee of the Red Cross (1993), “there has been a complete lack of knowledge of international humanitarian law among the combatants. The conflict violated the law of war of the most gruesome kind and included mass killings of unarmed civilians, bargaining in dead bodies, de facto ethnic cleansing and restrictions imposed on the civilian population’s freedom of movement.” Upon the signing of the ceasefire, the participants of the conflict were not subject to firm punishments, which could have eased people’s emotional trauma and attachment to the hostilities. Hence, the failure of the international mediators to impose proper punishments allowed for the creation of what constructivists call a “myth-symbol complex”, which established an “accepted” history for both ethnicities and created a criterion through which they labelled each other’s ethnicity as the “enemy.”

The Armenian and the Azerbaijani masses feel that their enemies were not penalized for their atrocities and, hence, continuously push against any proposal of peaceful resolution that threaten their  group identity while glorifying their opponents’(Pokalova, 2015). While the common people in Armenia and Azerbaijan do not have much influence on the trajectory of events, their “accepted history” and social constructs, which formed in the periods of ethnic violence, enable international actors and their respective national governments to pursue their selfish motives and promote ethnic hate narratives in both countries.

Promotion of Ethnic Differences in Armenia and Azerbaijan

While external factors and the selfish attitudes of the international community largely determine the negotiation process and impede the resolution of the conflict, the governments of Armenia and Azerbaijan have also exploited the conflict for national gains. To unite the country under one leadership and protect their existing authority, both governments promote ethnic differences, manipulate the ethnic allegiance of the masses and provoke ethnic tensions. Upon the collapse of the Soviet Union, the issues of independence from various Soviet Republics and the accompanying ethnonationalistic sentiments began to escalate as leaders strived to mobilize their masses in favor of the state (Blanton, 2015). The everchanging political climate in the region, which requires leaders to preserve the loyalties of the people, resulted in the promotion of common identity and a shared history by the governments of Azerbaijan and Armenia against those who threatened their existing authority. Because this promotion of ethnic differences has been exercised for over a decade and shapes the social constructs of individuals in both states, any just solution to the dispute today will entail painful compromises and will have to balance radically opposing principles.

As stated by Elkhan Mehdiyev, the director of Baku’s Peace and Conflict Resolution Centre, in 2016, “Peace for Azerbaijan means the liberation of its territory, restoration of its sovereignty and peaceful coexistence with Armenia… a ceasefire is not peace” (Safarova & Grigoryan, 2016). However, the institutionalization of ethnic differences by the government of Azerbaijan and the anti-Armenian propaganda continues to close the remaining bridges between the two nations and their people. Ilham Aliyev, the acting president of Azerbaijan, actively uses academic circles to promote the myth of Armenia’s occupation of its historic homeland territories. In “Nation and History in Azerbaijani textbooks” (2005), Yasemin Kilit Aklar demonstrates that Azerbaijani textbooks misuse history to encourage hatred and feelings of ethnic and national superiority, by portraying Armenians as historical enemies. These ethnic hate narratives result in growing hatred within the masses and contribute to consolidates the long-standing enmity between the countries. From a constructivist viewpoint, these state-sponsored textbooks contribute to the “social construction” of political identities and “invented traditions.” They lead younger generations to embrace strong anti-Armenian sentiment, and ethnic hatred between the two groups (Horowitz, 1985).

The media serves as the most important outlet for the dissemination of the anti-Armenian propaganda by Aliyev’s government. The state distributes special grants to individuals and outlets who engage in the so-called “dissemination of truth about Azerbaijan.” The European Commission against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI), which published a report on Azerbaijan in 2016, studied hate speech in the media and concluded that out of the 679 Azerbaijani news items examined, 196 items were targeted directly at Armenians and connected directly with the conflict over the Nagorno-Karabakh region (ECRI, 2016).Furthermore, continuous rejection of the legitimacy of Armenian sovereignty is also promoted in the country, as visible through the quote by an Azerbaijani former Defense Minister, Safar Abiyev, in 2004, who stated that “Within the next 25 years there will be no state of Armenia in the South Caucasus. Modern Armenia was built on historical Azerbaijani lands. I think that in 25 years its territory will again come under Azerbaijan’s jurisdiction” (The Caucasus: Frozen conflicts and closed borders: Hearing before the Committee on Foreign Affairs, 2008).

The purpose of Aliyev’s hate dissemination and his hardening confrontation with regards to the conflict can be explained by the interest of the state to use ethnicity as a tool for distraction against the flaws of the authoritarian Azerbaijani government in light of the democratic revolution in the near-by Armenia (Blanton, 2015). The prime minister of Armenia, Nikol Pashinyan, supports this argument, as he stated in his interview with Al Jazeera in 2018 that “Azerbaijan became more aggressive in its push for the Nagorno-Karabakh region after the Armenian democratic revolution against the corrupt government, because Ilham Aliyev has a fear that Azerbaijani people will likewise rebel against his authoritarian rule” (N. Pashinyan, personal communication, July 27, 2018). When the instrumentalist theory is applied to Aliyev’s fear of losing power, it is clear that the promotion of ethnic differences by the state is intended to exploit the ethnic allegiance of the masses and defend the existing regime by uniting the people against a common enemy and under a common goal of acquiring the contested lands in Nagorno-Karabakh.

The tools used by Azerbaijan to promote ethnic differences have been successful in influencing the public opinion. The ECRI report (2016) demonstrated that 91% of the surveyed Azeris perceived Armenia as their state’s greatest enemy. The anti-Armenian sentiment in the country is visible through frequent demonstrations organized in Baku. At one of such events in 2016, Islam Shikhali, an Azerbaijani freelance reporter, said “Karabakh is the value that connects all Azeris. Everyone with different backgrounds, from different political groups, come together and become one nation when it comes to Karabakh” (Safarova & Grigoryan, 2016). While most Azerbaijanis refuse to cooperate with Armenia, some civil society organizations and individuals attempt to maintain ties; however, they do not have the power to do so, as Aliyev prohibits such contact. This demonstrates the lack of influence of the common people, who attempt to establish peaceful communication with Armenians, in fostering the peace negotiations.

In Armenia, the conflict sits deep within the public national consciousness. In 2018, the charismatic Nikol Pashinyan came to power after leading a successful democratic revolution. However, he was faced with the problem of preserving his public support and maintaining the anti-Azerbaijani construct in the country while refraining from angering its security patron, Russia. While in the beginning of his term, he was seen to be a cautious diplomat interested in democratic negotiations with Azerbaijan, the strong national consciousness turned him into a nationalist leader. His recent rhetoric includes powerful messages about the “Armenian cause”, and he began to incorporate the Armenian name for Karabakh, “Artsakh”, as well as chants for the union of Karabakh with Armenia in his speeches (Kucera, 2019).

Pashinyan’s interest also lies in the economic benefits, which the potential unification of Karabakh would bring to Armenia. During his Nagorno-Karabakh visit in August 2019, Pashinyan stated that “In the period until 2050 we have to manage to solve the following issues – increase the population of Armenia to at least 5 million, create 1.5 million jobs, and eliminate poverty, transform Armenia into an industrial country…”. When asked about his failure to comment on his future vision of Nagorno-Karabakh, he added “’The answer is very simple, Artsakh is Armenia and there is no alternative” (Kucera, 2019, para. 10). Pashinyan’s attempt to link the myth of “ancient homeland”, and his belief that Karabakh belongs to Armenia, with his future economic goals in Armenia was effective in impressing the Armenian public. His statement was highly condemned by all of the involved actors, and Azerbaijan in particular, further impeding the negotiations which began to flourish when he first started his term.

The ECRI report on racism and intolerance in Armenia, points out that, similar to the government of Azerbaijan, Armenian leaders have demonstrated intolerance by actions such as the prohibition of screenings of Azerbaijani films in the Armenian capital and the lack of efforts to adopt priority housing programme for persons forcibly displaced from Azerbaijan (ECRI, 2016). Such actions are also actively supported by the public in Yerevan, which, through the state-sponsored promotion of ethnic “hate narratives”, continuously glorifies its group identity by diminishing the powers of the “enemy” group (Kaufman, 2001). The effectiveness of the promotion of ethnic differences in Armenia could also be seen earlier in 1999, when the presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan came close to an agreement somewhat resembling a common state. However, the political situation in Armenia became stalemated after a Yerevani journalist entered the Armenian Parliament building, while it was in session, and assassinated numerous members of the national leadership who took part in the peaceful negotiations (Cutler, 2003). This demonstrates the constructivist theory, as Armenians identify as enemies not only the Azerbaijanis, but also the Armenians who went against the group and tried to shift the constructed understanding of the accepted history in favor of a compromise.

Territorially, the reasons provided by the Armenian government for the violations of the ceasefire usually include protection and security of the Armenian population. However, the Armenian troops in the region have actively pushed for more territories and continue to engage in military engagements, moving away from simple defense towards strategies of deterrence. This further showcases the presence of national interests in extending the sphere of influence, resources, and power under the claim of ethnic protection (Volkan, 1998). The interconnection between constructivism and instrumentalism is visible in both states. They exploit the social constructs of the public on the existence of a common enemy and manipulate ethnic allegiances and sentiments to secure their power. Hence, although the international actors who have influence in Armenia and Azerbaijan largely decide the outcomes of the conflict, the state promotion of ethnic differences in both countries further impedes the mediation process.


As demonstrated by the arguments on the role of the international community and the promotion of ethnic differences in Armenia and Azerbaijan, the failure to reach a peaceful resolution in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is best explained by the instrumentalist approach. While the constructivist theory of ethnic identity is useful in explaining the deep-rooted beliefs and social constructs which prologue the conflict, instrumentalism powerfully demonstrates the use of ethnicity as a tool by the Armenian and the Azerbaijani governments and by the international community to attain political, economic and territorial gains. Armenia and Azerbaijan face difficult decisions that potentially carry political risks; however, the establishment of a dialogue is critical as any additional delay will only further strengthen the ethnic conceptions within each country and make an already difficult decision-making environment even more challenging. Therefore, the co-chairs of the OSCE Minsk Group and the international community as a whole should shift their attention away from pursuing hidden motives and towards maximizing efforts to help Armenia and Azerbaijan in reaching fruitful agreements as the start of a lasting peace.


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