Active Participant: Democratization as a Stabilizing Force in Nagorno-Karabakh

Mikaela Bennett

San Francisco State University, 2015

Note: This paper was written prior to the recent outbreak of conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia, and therefore does not include an analysis of recent events in Nagorno Karabakh. (4/29/2021)


Although still faced with international non-recognition and emphatic opposition from Azerbaijan, an independent Nagorno-Karabakh presents itself as a relatively stable unrecognized quasi-state 20 years after the original ceasefire agreement. Prior analyses tend to focus on external players and internal shortcomings, while downplaying the impact of democratization in Nagorno-Karabakh.  This article finds that democratization efforts within Nagorno-Karabakh actively contribute to the relative stability which Nagorno-Karabakh enjoys, and examines the ways in which this takes place.



The worst period of fighting between Azerbaijan and Armenia over what is now an unrecognized independent territory, Nagorno-Karabakh (Artsakh), ended with a ceasefire agreement signed over twenty years ago. Contrary to the pessimism of political analysts, Nagorno-Karabakh has not imploded amid dire predictions for the future of the territory (The Economist, 2014; Kaplan, 2008; Kolstø & Blakkisrud, 2012, p. 143; Sheets, 2012). The conflict is commonly characterized as a ‘frozen’ conflict, with no negotiated resolution yet achieved and an active ceasefire line which remains largely stable despite regular small-scale violence such as sniper fire and aging land mine hazards (Rowland, 2008; Smolnik, 2012; Krikorian, 2012; Sheets, 2012). 

However, to treat this conflict as ‘frozen’ ignores the manner in which the political ground shifted in the last 20 years. Choices made by the political leadership in the interim yield new dynamics which bear consideration. Remarkably, out of the chaos of Soviet disintegration and intercommunal warfare, Nagorno-Karabakh established territorial and institutional continuity in the face of international isolation and Azerbaijani obstructionism. Not only that, Nagorno-Karabakh consolidated both the form and function of reasonably effective state governance while maintaining a commitment to democratic reforms (Caspersen, 2012, p. 54). Karabakh’s success stands in sharp contrast to the experience of other post-Soviet unrecognized territories, so much so that Karabakhi authorities now seek to disassociate themselves from their fellow quasi states in order to leverage this difference (Gardner, 2011).

While Nagorno-Karabakh’s oft-cited special relationship with Armenia and the Armenian diaspora is certainly crucial to these accomplishments on many levels, a singular focus on this aspect of Nagorno-Karabakh’s survival strategy minimizes the agency of Karabakhis and the role of governance within Nagorno-Karabakh. In this paper I argue that democratization efforts in Nagorno-Karabakh also contribute significantly to its relative stability. Nagorno-Karabakh’s democratization efforts expanded its legitimacy both at home and abroad, enabled key economic improvements, and insulated the emergent state against common pitfalls experienced by unrecognized states. These in turn yielded internal and external security against many perils which face an isolated quasi-state such as Nagorno-Karabakh.