In January 1990, when new violence broke out against Armenians in Azerbaijani towns such as Baku and Sumqayıt (Sumgait), the Soviet military intervened and temporarily occupied Baku. Alongside the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, nationalist sentiments were rising against Moscow in both Soviet republics. At the same time, the disagreement over Nagorno-Karabakh led to the development of an armed conflict between Armenians and Azerbaijanis inside Nagorno-Karabakh.
In the spring of 1991, Azerbaijani militias and Soviet troops joined forces against armed Armenian groups in Nagorno-Karabakh. Soviet soldiers were also sent to Yerevan.
The collapse of the Soviet Union contributed to the escalation of the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan. In the autumn of 1991, both declared themselves independent and by the end of the year, the Soviet Union ceased to exist. Nagorno-Karabakh was also declared an independent republic. In a referendum held on December 10, independence was approved by the Armenian population of Nagorno-Karabakh – while the remaining Azeris boycotted the referendum.
From the late autumn of 1991, the conflict took the form of open war. Sabotage, murder and terror were carried out by semi-military groups from both sides. Persecution of minorities living in “wrong” places triggered refugee flows. Armenia supported the Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh but rejected allegations of military intervention.
In 1992, the Armenians took control of most of Nagorno-Karabakh. In May, they captured the city of Şuşa (Shushi in Armenian), which was the stronghold of the Azeris and from which the capital Stepanakert was shelled. The Azerbaijani people fled and Şuşa was largely laid in ruins. The Armenians could also open a land passage from Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia, the so-called Latjin Corridor.
The following year, the Armenians conquered large areas around Nagorno-Karabakh. In mid-1993, the Azerbaijani resistance weakened as a result of a military coup in Baku. The Armenians were able to repel Azerbaijan’s forces not only from Nagorno-Karabakh, but also from areas mainly south and west of it all the way to the border with Iran and Armenia respectively. A stated purpose of occupying land outside Nagorno-Karabakh was to protect its capital, Stepanakert, from artillery fire. In several resolutions, the UN called on Armenia to withdraw troops from occupied territory.
Just over a million displaced
Peace talks were held to and from during the war, with the support of Russia, Iran, Turkey and the so-called Minsk Group formed by the predecessor to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe ( OSCE ). After a number of brief ceasefires, the parties agreed in May 1994 on a ceasefire, in accordance with the so-called Bishkek Protocol. The war had claimed up to 30,000 lives. At the time of the ceasefire, Armenia, in addition to Nagorno-Karabakh, controlled almost a tenth of Azerbaijan’s territory.
The information on how many people were expelled in connection with the war varies. But in total there were more than a million: 300,000-400,000 Armenians left areas of Azerbaijan or near the troubled border, and 700,000-800,000 Azeris (as well as some Kurds) fled Armenia, Nagorno-Karabakh and nearby districts .
Following the ceasefire, negotiations began on a peace agreement with the Minsk Group as mediator. The Minsk group has more than ten members, including Sweden, and is led by the United States, Russia and France.
The Minsk group proposed in 1997 that Nagorno-Karabakh should have great autonomy but officially belong to Azerbaijan. When Armenia’s then-president Levon Ter-Petrosyan seemed ready to agree to this, he was met with such strong backlash among his countrymen that he was forced to resign. Robert Kotjaryan – former President of Nagorno-Karabakh – was elected new President of Armenia in 1998.
The tone hardens
Azerbaijan’s then-president Heydar Aliyev (Heydər Əliyev) initially said he was willing to grant Nagorno-Karabakh autonomy within Azerbaijan, but not full independence. That model was supported by, among others, the OSCE. But despite several meetings between the presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan, there was no breakthrough in the peace negotiations. (Negotiating with the Nagorno-Karabakh leadership, Azerbaijan refused, as it could be interpreted as an acknowledgment.) In 2001, positions seemed to have hardened. Armenia did not accept any alternative to independence for Nagorno-Karabakh. Azerbaijan now refused to even agree to territorial autonomy for the area, but only so-called “cultural autonomy”.
When a new referendum on independence was held in Nagorno-Karabakh in 2006, 98 percent of voters were reported to have voted yes. But the outside world did not approve the referendum.
In the spring of 2008, the most serious violation of the ceasefire occurred so far, when the exchange of fire at the border claimed the lives of more than a dozen soldiers. Armenia and Azerbaijan accused each other of initiating the shooting. The UN General Assembly adopted a resolution declaring Nagorno-Karabakh part of Azerbaijan, and called on Armenia to withdraw its forces. The resolution was backed by 39 countries, while seven voted against it – including the Minsk Group’s chairmen, the United States, Russia and France.