The Idiots Guide to Everything: Nagorno-Karabakh

Posted on October 2, 2012




A landlocked mountainous region deep in the South Caucasus, Nagorno-Karabakh is a land of mountain and forest that has been the subject of an intense, unresolved conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan. The name ‘Nagorno-Karabakh’ comes from the Russian and Persian languages, combining to mean ‘Mountainous Black Garden’. Armenians however, who today make up around 99% of the population, refer to it as Artsakh. This is the name that the region is referred to in its first appearance in history, as a province of the kingdom of Armenia. Needless to say, as with most Armenian history, this happened a very very long time ago. Armenian settlements are thought to have been there since the 2nd century BC. In the 5th century, the founder of the Armenian alphabet established the first Armenian religious schools in the territory.

The present day issues stem from the last 100 years or so. Heading into the 20th century the region was a protectorate of Imperial Russia, but after the Russian Revolution it became part of the Transcaucasian Democratic Federative Republic, which soon became the separate republics of Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia. Immediately following the climax of World War One, there were a series of short wars between Armenia and Azerbaijan over several regions. These ended when the Bolsheviks rolled through in 1920. Azerbaijan fell first, quickly followed by Armenia and Georgia. In the process of taking over Armenia, the Soviets had promised to give Karabakh to Armenia, but the combined desire of placating neighbouring Turkey and their policy of divide and conquer left the region in Azerbaijan. Much like in other demographically challenging areas of the USSR, the conflict died down during the Soviet years. However, it didn’t take long after the arrival of Gorbachev and the subsequent crumbling of the USSR in 1980s for the conflict to be revived. With republics within the Union clamouring for independence, the majority Armenian population (76% at the time) or Nagorno-Karabakh wanted the province transferred to Armenia.  With national and cultural identities beginning to flourish once again, the issue of Nagorno-Karabakh took on great importance for the intellectual Armenians, as well as many others throughout the Soviet Union.

In the spring of 1988, demonstrations broke out in the capital city of Stepanakert (or Khankendi to the Azerbaijanis), which was quickly followed by supportive marches in Yerevan (the capital of Armenia). The aim was the transfer of Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia, but Moscow rejected the idea. Counter protests were held in the Azerbaijani capital of Baku, and violence began sporadically in both countries, with the respective minority being targeted. Huge numbers left each country for the other. The propaganda machine predictably went into overdrive, with both sides accusing the other of rapes and murders and all manner of atrocities. It wasn’t until 1991 that Azerbaijan abolished the autonomy that Nagorno-Karabakh had and brought it under its own direct control. This led to the Armenian population passing a referendum that approved creating the independent republic of Nagorno-Karabakh, a referendum that was completed boycotted by the minority Azerbaijani population. Attempting to quell the impending cascade of bloodshed, the Soviets proposed greater autonomy for Nagorno-Karabakh within the Azerbaijani republic. Quite obviously, this satisfied neither side, and a full scale war between Azerbaijan and Nagorno-Karabakh erupted, with Armenia heavily backing up Nagorno-Karabakh.

Armenia was the first non-Baltic nation to declare independence from the Soviet Union, and was followed a year later by Azerbaijan. With these declarations, the conflict escalated quickly and brutally. With the former Soviet Union in chaos, a surplus of weapons flooded the region. The defensive set up of the Soviet Union played into the hands of the Azerbaijanis, as Armenia had been designated a battle zone in case of a hypothetical invasion by Turkey. This meant that whilst Armenia was bereft of ammunition and divisions, the same of which could not be said for Azerbaijan. Large numbers of Russian and Ukrainian mercenaries could also be found fighting on both sides, and the Azerbaijani side was also supported by Chechen fighters and mujahedeen from Afghanistan. With the overwhelmingly Christian Armenians on one side facing off against the Islamic Azerbaijanis on the other, religion was to play a large role in this war. The war was notorious for the awful treatment that was suffered by hostages on both sides, as well as the atrocities that were committed by both sides.

As 1993 rolled in, Armenia started to capture parts of Azerbaijan that were outside of Nagorno-Karabakh, and by the end of the war in 1994 they controlled around 14% of Azerbaijan’s territory. This led to the possibility of outside powers being more directly involved. A ceasefire, encouraged and implemented by Russia, was signed in 1994 and brought an end to the war, an end that was considered a victory for the Armenians, but hostilities still exist to this day. The war caused huge numbers of refugees, with the entire Azerbaijani population of Nagorno-Karabakh leaving. Today it is considered a frozen conflict that could flare up at any time. As of writing, Nagorno-Karabakh is a de facto independent state heavily influenced by Armenia that is recognised only by 3 other former Soviet breakaway regions, Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Transnistria. Azerbaijan still claims it as part of its own territory, and force is often threatened to confirm this.