Nagorno-Karabakh is the subject of one of several conflicts in the Caucasus that arose when long-suppressed ethnic conflicts flared up in connection with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Azerbaijan and Armenia ended up in war over Nagorno-Karabakh. A ceasefire was signed in 1994. Since then, the stalemate has prevailed and is occasionally interrupted by short-lived flaming battles.
Nagorno-Karabakh is inhabited by ethnic Armenians but is completely surrounded by Azerbaijan and formally belongs to the former Soviet republic.
Riots broke out in Nagorno-Karabakh as early as 1988, and the war between Azerbaijan and Armenia lasted from 1991 to 1994. Up to 30,000 people lost their lives and over one million were forced to flee their homes in the region. Russian mediation contributed to the conclusion of a ceasefire agreement, but the conflict is not resolved and strife is constantly occurring in the border area.
Armenian troops occupy Nagorno-Karabakh and a buffer zone west of it to the Armenian border. In reality, the area functions as an independent state under the protection of Armenia. In the autumn of 2020, a war broke out that was short-lived but led to the Armenian forces losing ground.
The area is located in a strategically important region with large oil and gas pipelines, and negotiations on its future are ongoing. The inhabitants continue to demand independence while Azerbaijan wants to agree to nothing but autonomy. Meanwhile, the approximately 150,000 inhabitants of Nagorno-Karabakh have created a small state that works in practice but is not recognized internationally – not even by Armenia.
Nagorno-Karabakh is located in an area that was alternately controlled by Turkish and Persian rulers until 1813, when the area came under Russian rule. Armenians already existed in the area and more people moved in during the 19th century. In the early 20th century, the differences between Christian Armenians and Muslim Azeris began to escalate into open conflict.
Many of the Armenians who came to Nagorno-Karabakh in the 19th century fled persecution in the Ottoman Empire, while others were encouraged by the tsarist authorities to move in from Persian-controlled areas. At the same time, some Muslim Azeris left the region and went to Muslim Persia.
In the early 20th century, the differences between Christian Armenians and Muslim Azeris began to escalate into open conflict. After the Russian Revolution of 1917, both Azerbaijan and Armenia were declared independent states. Fighting broke out over the demarcation and control of several areas, including Nagorno-Karabakh. In April 1920, Azerbaijan was captured by the Russian Red Army. Between 1922 and 1936, Azerbaijan, Armenia and Georgia became part of a common Soviet republic and were later re-divided into three.
According to a decision by Soviet leader Joseph Stalin, in 1923 Nagorno-Karabakh became an autonomous region – an autonomous oblast – in Azerbaijan. At the same time, the slightly larger area of Nakhtivan became an autonomous region in Azerbaijan, despite being separated from Azerbaijan between Armenia and Iran. The construction was part of Stalin’s divide-and-rule policy. The division of the geographical areas was seen with bitterness by Azeris and Armenians, both of whom claimed historical rights to large tracts of land in the South Caucasus.
The conflict is gaining momentum
The dispute between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh was intense during the Soviet era, but it was not forgotten. The population remained predominantly Armenian, although the proportion decreased through the influx of Azeris. Nakhichevan, on the other hand, lost almost its entire Armenian population.
When the Soviet Union began to shake to its foundations in the late 1980s, the conflict resurfaced. Glasnost – openness – became a watchword in Moscow. It inspired Nagorno – Karabakh’s Armenian majority to start demanding Armenia.
The conflict escalated in February 1988, when Nagorno-Karabakh’s Supreme Soviet (People’s Assembly), 110-117, voted in favor of a request to join its oblast in Armenia. The leaders stated, among other things, that the Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh lacked textbooks and TV broadcasts in Armenian. They also accused the Azerbaijani government in Baku of deliberately trying to “azerify” Nagorno-Karabakh by forcing Azeris to move in and Armenians to move out.
Both Moscow and Baku said no to changing sovereignty over the area. Demonstrations for the proposal were held in the Armenian capital Yerevan, while protests took place in Baku. In Nagorno-Karabakh itself, violent clashes broke out between Armenians and Azeris, and soon a migration began: ethnic Armenians left Azerbaijan and ethnic Azeris left Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh. Moscow tried in vain to quell the unrest.
Moscow’s inability to deal with the conflict became clear in 1989. Repeated state of emergency only caused the Soviet leadership to forfeit confidence in both camps. At the end of the year, Moscow withdrew Nagorno-Karabakh’s autonomy, and the region came under Azerbaijani rule. Shortly afterwards, in December 1989, Armenia’s Supreme Soviet declared Nagorno-Karabakh part of Armenia, with the support of the territory’s leadership.