The Soviet Constitution was Unambiguous on the Potential Secession of Autonomous Regions like Nagorno-Karabakh (ANALYSIS)

By Vasif Huseynov

“Repeat a lie often enough and it becomes the truth”, a law of propaganda often attributed to the Nazi Joseph Goebbels, appears to be the strategy adopted at the highest level of Armenian politics. Otherwise, there wouldn’t be consistent attempts to justify the secession of Nagorno-Karabakh region from Azerbaijan by referring to an article of the Soviet Constitution which in fact did not exist. Although the Azerbaijani and some international historians and legal analysts have presented undeniable facts debunking this claim, the Armenian politicians and experts do not shy away from reiterating it in various platforms.

Unfortunately, the new leader of the Armenian government, Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, whose coming into power was welcomed with widespread optimism for positive changes in the internal and external politics of the country, chose to sustain this tradition in an even more showy and ostentatious way. Referring to the Soviet Constitution on a number of occasions, Prime Minister Pashinyan do not abstain from repeating it even before the international audience of distinguished experts and politicians.

For instance, delivering a speech at the discussion, entitled “Dialogue on the Future,” at the Italian Institute for International Political Studies in Milan, in the course of his visit to Italy in November 2019, Pashinyan jumped into falsified historical and legal claims, to persuade the listeners of Armenia’s position. The following quote is worth reading to get a clear understanding of the shocking degree of manipulation by the leader of the Armenian government:

“Then, as the Soviet empire was in the process of disintegration, Azerbaijan, like other republics, started its withdrawal from the USSR. In accordance with the Soviet Constitution, if a member-republic declared its intention to separate from the USSR, the autonomous regions under its jurisdiction were entitled to determine their status, which included the secession from that republic. Making use of the Soviet Constitution, Nagorno-Karabakh autonomous region exercised its right to self-determination. Nagorno-Karabakh declared independence from Azerbaijan exactly in the same way as did Azerbaijan separating from the Soviet Union.”

This approach constitutes a blatant contradiction to the historical facts documented in the official papers and interpreted by prominent legal scholars. The Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict: Legal Analysis, a book authored by Dr. Heiko Krüger, a Berlin-based attorney-at-law specializing in the areas of European Union law, international law and German corporate law, provides in-depth and objective insights into the issue. The following excerpts from the book’s first chapter on the territorial status of Nagorno-Karabakh are worth to be quoted here.

Examining whether Nagorno-Karabakh as an autonomous region of the Azerbaijan SSR was entitled to its own right to secession under the Soviet Constitution and, if such right existed, whether Nagorno-Karabakh effectively exercised it before 18 October 1991 or 26 December 1991, Dr. Krüger finds two places in the constitution which dealt with secession options and territorial alterations in the context of the territories of the union republics.

The first instance (Article 72) provided that each union republic retained the right to freely secede from the USSR. Dr. Krüger emphasizes that there is no doubt that Nagorno-Karabakh as an autonomous region could not have recourse to this right, to which the Azerbaijan SSR was solely entitled. Given the structure of the USSR, there is also no room for an analogous application of this article in favour of the autonomous regions. The USSR was conceived as a federation of sovereign Soviet states.

The second instance in the Soviet Constitution had in fact dealt with the secession of autonomous regions like the Nagorno-Karabakh or South Ossetian Autonomous Region. Dr. Krüger finds out that Article 78 sentence 1 illustrated that territorial restructuring and subdivisions affecting the union republics were conceivable. This also included a potential secession of Nagorno-Karabakh from the Azerbaijan SSR. However, Article 78 sentence 1 spelt out the inference drawn from the ideological conception of the USSR as well as Article 86 sentence 1: the territory of a union republic could not be altered without its consent. This was a clear constitutional prohibition that had to be observed in the absence of an amendment to the Constitution and that, in accordance with Article 173, could not be revoked by an ordinary, non-constitutional Soviet law. In light of the Azerbaijan SSR’s consistent approach of refusing any territorial alteration, the secession of Nagorno-Karabakh could not have been legally successful on this basis.

The author’s analysis of the clauses of the Soviet Constitution on the status of autonomous regions and their secession probabilities ends with an unequivocal conclusion: It should be noted that the 1977 Constitution of the USSR did not grant Nagorno-Karabakh a right to secession that it could have successfully exercised. Territorial alterations were solely in the hands of the union republics or the USSR, which, however, upheld the status quo of Nagorno-Karabakh.

However, there were some legal initiatives in early 1990s which might have generated a right to secession of Nagorno-Karabakh. The Law on Secession which was adopted by the Gorbachev administration in the historical context of the growing independence movements in some parts of the USSR, in particular in the Baltic region, dealt with the secession of Union republics including their autonomous regions. Dr. Krüger writes that in the event that a union republic followed a secession procedure, Art. 3 para. 1 sentence 2 of the Law on Secession provided that any autonomous regions, such as Nagorno-Karabakh, should decide on their own whether they want to remain in the breakaway union republic or in the federation of the USSR and which legal status they should adopt. The Law on Secession defined procedural steps which, if followed through, would have entailed an effective secession.

There is, nevertheless, a major nuance which prohibits the application of this law in the case of Nagorno-Karabakh. This is about the procedural steps which the Law required the Union republics including autonomous regions to undertake in order to secede from the Union. The problem is that Azerbaijan, nor any other Soviet republic, applied these procedures before declaring their independence. Hence, Dr. Krüger reaches a clear-cut conclusion about the inapplicability of the Law on Secession as a legal justification for the secession of Nagorno-Karabakh.

He emphasizes that Nagorno-Karabakh did not have the option to secede effectively from the Azerbaijan SSR under the law of the USSR. The decisions of July 1988 and December 1989 to accede to the Armenian SSR and the decision of September 1991 to establish an independent union republic contravened Soviet law and therefore had no legal effect. Art. 3 para. 1 sentence 2 of the Law on Secession, referred to by the Armenian side in the discussion, is extremely problematic with respect to Arts. 72, 78 and 86 of the Constitution of the USSR but was nonetheless valid. Irrespective of this, the actions taken by Nagorno-Karabakh, and in particular the referendum of 1991, did not satisfy the procedure of the Law on Secession. Several mandatory requirements of the Law on Secession were not fulfilled.

Dr. Krüger’s book is only one source amongst many authored by the scholars and analyst representing disinterested parties. The same counter-arguments are also raised each time by Azerbaijani politicians and experts when the Armenian leaders turn the blind eye to the historical facts and repeat the blatant lies in a conviction that it might actually turn to be the truth. To the dismay of those people in the Armenian government, these lies about the status of Nagorno-Karabakh have no potential to become the truth and are doomed to be debunked by a quick google search. 

Dr. Vasif Huseynov is a senior fellow at the Baku-based Center of Analysis of International Relations and holds a PhD from University of Göttingen (Germany).


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