What defines whether a group of self-governing people deserves recognition from the rest of the world as an autonomous entity?
What factors, if any, made it morally right for, as an example, the American colonists to declare their sovereign independence from the British crown in 1776?
Would it have mattered back then if no other existing world powers ever came to recognize the self-determination of those brave people and agreed with their assessment of having rightfully formed their own country by the consent of those governed?
The rights of people to determine their own group affiliation and the policies that govern them is at the heart of the libertarian cause behind prospective nations like Liberland that seek recognition for the national values and identity they have chosen. Recognizing new, freely formed nations as and when they emerge in the world is critical to the cause of establishing freedom beyond the limits of old dictatorial, monarchical, and enslaving ways of governing humanity.
By official counts, there are 196 sovereign nations on Earth, but the lines drawn between them are not always clear or unanimous. As well, there are many disputed territories around the world with inhabitants that consider themselves sovereign and capable of governing themselves, both logistically and ethically, but which are, nevertheless, overlooked by the international powers that hold the clout to declare such claims valid or not by whatever arbitrary standards they hold. By some counts, there are presently 124 countries engaged in active disputes over 105 territories in nearly every corner of the Earth.
Taiwan, for example, claims independence from China and has received recognition as sovereign by at least 25 countries. But if you try mentioning these facts to people in China, and you just might find yourself getting an in-depth look at a Chinese jail cell. All that matters, in the final analysis, is whether some stronger political entity like China has the military power and international political leverage necessary to force the would-be independent uprisers from standing up for their rights to govern themselves.
Artsakh and Nagorno-Karabakh: a Nation in a Dispute over Self-Ownership or Azeri Control
In 2015, I had the opportunity to visit one of these disputed territories while researching my maternal grandmother’s lineage in Armenia. Artsakh, otherwise known as the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic, lies the south of the Caucasus Mountains and is about 4,400 square kilometers (1,700 square miles) in size.
Visiting Artsakh was not logistically very different than visiting any of the other 50+ countries I have been to on this planet. I obtained a visa at their embassy in the Armenian capital of Yerevan. Although difficult to access by road, the Artsakhi capital of Stepanakert was modern, welcoming, and comfortable. Artsakh even has its own flag, modern government administration building, and passports for its roughly 150,000 citizens.
Yet, because the United Nations does not recognize Artsakh as a nation, it is left off almost all official dossiers. And because of this lack of official recognition from world powers, the rights of its people are often neglected in ways they would be considered monstrous and unacceptable for inhabitants of “real” nations like the ones you and I come from. A recently reignited war for the Nagorno-Karabakh territory that started on September 27, 2020 when Azerbaijan broke a longstanding mutual ceasefire to shell the Artsakhi capital city of Stepanakert as well as other civilian and cultural targets is proof of that.
From my perspective on the ground in Armenia, my new home, this is not the same old territorial dispute between Armenia and Azerbaijan. It is not merely about the familiar conflict that dates back to when Joseph Stalin unilaterally gifted the region known as Nagorno-Karabakh, a region that had been inhabited by ethnic Armenians and their descendants for roughly 2,000 years, to the newly christened nation of Azerbaijan. Today’s war is one of political and moral values, the outcome of which may forever shape the way of life in this region and many others the world over.
Even if you don’t know anything about the history between the Armenian and Azeri people (and the Turkish allies currently aiding them), this war for autonomy invites us all to look at how we determine what self-identified groups of people deserve rights, protection, and respect from those who would seek to aggress against them.
Artsakh’s Ongoing Stand for the Recognition of Their Basic Human Rights
As noted by historians like Strabo, Plutarch, Ptolemy, and Pliny the Elder, Artsakh was an important part of the ancient Armenian kingdom and inhabited continuously by ethnic Armenians since possibly as early as 200 BC. Ancient Armenian churches and cathedrals that date back to the fourth century AD still stand today, some of them built just shortly after Armenia became the world’s first Christian nation. Even when Stalin promised Artsakh to Azerbaijan without the permission of the Armenians living there, it continued to be populated and controlled almost exclusively by the Armenians who had always considered it their home.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, a 1991 referendum was held in Artsakh in full legal compliance with the rules of international and USSR legislation that allowed for autonomous regions to choose to become independent. In the Soviet Union, an autonomous region (“oblast”) had the right to secede from the republic it was a part of, and the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast (NKAO) exercised that right. 99.8% of the 89% ethnic Armenian population voted for the independence of Artsakh as its own republic, free from what they considered the oppressive rule of Azerbaijan, a nation they never shared any cultural identity with and never asked for any political ties to.
Incidentally, as a current dual American-Armenian, I feel compelled to compare this to the origins of my home country. I seriously doubt that the founding fathers who signed America’s Declaration of Independence from the British crown had explicit agreement from over 99% of colonists to do so on their behalf, yet they did it anyway because they believed it was the will of the people and the right thing to do.
Since the time that Artsakh declared its independence by near-unanimous agreement from Azerbaijan, nine new countries have also managed to declare their independence and officially enter the world stage: the Czech Republic (1993), Slovakia (1993), Eritrea (1993), Palau (1994), East Timor (2002), Montenegro (2006), Serbia (2006), Kosovo (2008), and South Sudan (2011). Each of them, by some means, managed to receive what Artsakh did not: international recognition and the basic respect for their human rights.
Even without permission from the world’s reigning governments, the de-facto Republic of Artsakh has held its own independent elections since the 90s and even drafted a new constitution. It has embodied all the trappings and appearances of everything we, in the modern world, consider a functioning government of the people, by the people, and for the people.
So, what’s the issue here? Why don’t we, as a world, collectively grant statehood and sovereignty to these people who have clearly expressed their wishes and ability for such for nearly 30 years?
Our Role in the Future of Sovereign Statehood
It would be ironic if the current attacks on Artsakh and Armenia and the notoriety they create were to lead to the international recognition of Artsakh as a sovereign political entity (i.e., a “real” country). After all, how many people outside of Armenia had heard of Artsakh or knew of its Armenian history and functioning government just a month ago, before the recent attacks started?
Perhaps, by trying to take away a population’s rights to choose for themselves how they wish to be governed, the tyrannical actors who proclaim they have a right to control who lives on this disputed territory may actually be accomplishing the opposite of their intentions.
The outcome depends on how we, as a world, respond to two fundamentally different outlooks on moral rightness and the justification for using violent force to make people do what we want.
Do we, out of respect for international custom, take the path of least resistance and uphold the unilateral demands of a long-dead Soviet dictator?
Or do we make the conscious choice to value the will of the people who have risked their lives for generations to exercise their rights to live in the land of their ancestors and defend their culture from expulsion?
Do we allow the political borders of our world to continue to be defined by power-grabs and the mandates of non-elected tyrants simply because it seems to be the way we have always done things?
If we do, we must also accept the long-lasting negative consequences for ourselves and our descendants. The struggle of the people of Nagorno-Karabakh is not one for a piece of land to live on but for the respect of their fundamental rights to live and let live without interference.