Trans Eurasia travel

Your virtual guide to Eurasia! Let's travel together!


Nagorno Karabagh was under Persian rule in 1805 when, along with other areas in eastern Transcaucasia, it was annexed to the 'everlasting rule' of the Russian Empire. The Gulistan Treaty of 1813 signed by Russia and Persia ratified this. The collapse of the Russian Empire in 1917 resulted in a changed arrangement of states in the Caucasus. The newly formed Republic of Armenia and the equally new Azerbaijan Democratic Republic both sought control over Nagorno Karabagh between 1918 and 1920. From the outset the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic made territorial demands for large areas of historic Armenia, even though the Tsarist census of the whole Karabagh region showed in 1917 a population which was 72% Armenian. (These figures are disputed by the Azeris who consider the Russian Imperial Census of 1897, showing an Armenian population of about 40%, to be more reliable.) Taking advantage of the confused state of affairs resulting from World War I, the collapse of the Russian Empire and continuing persecution of Armenians by Turks, Turkish forces along with Azeri military units destroyed hundreds of ethnically Armenian villages. (It was a feature of the whole region that all villages were dominated by one ethnic group: some Armenian, some Azeri, and elsewhere some Georgian and some Turkish.) Only in Nagorno Karabagh did the Armenian population succeed in repelling the attacks. In July 1918, the First Armenian Assembly of Nagorno Karabagh declared the region to be self-governing and created the Karabagh National Council. In August 1919, this National Council entered into a provisional treaty arrangement with the Azerbaijan government to try to halt the military conflict. This, however, did not prevent Azerbaijan's violation of the treaty, culminating on 28 March 1920 with the massacre of Armenians, accompanied by burning and plundering, in Shushi, the then capital. As a result the Karabagh Assembly nullified the treaty and declared union with Armenia.

The First League of Nations had its inaugural meeting in late 1920. Applications for membership were considered by the 5th committee, chaired by Chile, which recommended that Azerbaijan should not be admitted (mainly because of its Bolshevik government) while consideration of Armenia's admission should be postponed (because it was occupied). However, the League of Nations, before final resolution of the issue, recognised Nagorno Karabagh as a disputed territory since it had not in practice been ruled by any outside power since the Russian collapse in 1917. That only changed when Bolshevik forces occupied Nagorno Karabagh in 1920. Immediately following the establishment of the Soviet regime in Armenia, the Azerbaijan Revolutionary Committee on 30 November 1920 formally recognised Nagorno Karabagh, as well as Zangezur (southern Armenia) and Nakhichevan, to be parts of Armenia and in June 1921, Armenia itself declared Nagorno Karabagh to be part of Armenia.

Meanwhile the Bolshevik leaders in Russia were having visions of an imminent international communist revolution and believed that the new Turkish government under Ataturk was a believer in their cause. This resulted in a change of attitude regarding Turkeys ethnically close relations with Azerbaijan and the question of the disputed territories including Nagorno Karabagh. Stalin, Commissar of Nationalities in the Council of People's Commissars in Moscow, therefore persuaded the Caucasian Bureau of the Russian Communist Party to adopt on 5 July 1921 a policy of annexing Nagorno Karabagh to Azerbaijan rather than Armenia. This was despite the fact that both Armenia and Azerbaijan were still independent, albeit communist controlled, countries: the Soviet Union into which they would be incorporated along with Russia was not formed until December 1922 and it was no business of the Russian Communist Party to decide on the wishes of the Karabagh population. This Russian decision was put into effect but with the proviso that Nagorno Karabagh would be granted the status of an autonomous region.

On 7 July 1923, the Soviet Azerbaijan Revolutionary Committee resolved to dismember Nagorno Karabagh and to create - on only part of its territory amounting to 4,400km2 - the promised autonomous region. A large part of the remainder, comprising the present-day districts of Lachin and Kelbajar, became the Kurdistan Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic. Thus Armenia and Nagorno Karabagh were now separated by the territory of Kurdistan. In 1929, Kurdistan was abolished and the territory fully incorporated into Azerbaijan, so that from 1929 onwards, Armenia was separated from Nagorno Karabagh by Azerbaijan proper.

In 1935, there were protests in the region against Nagorno Karabagh remaining within Azerbaijan and these became an almost annual feature after 1960 following the Khrushchev thaw. Gorbachev's policy of openness, established after he came to power in 1985, merely served to bring matters further into the open. The year 1988 became a turning point in the history of Nagorno Karabagh. Mass demonstrations started there on 11 February 1988 demanding union with Armenia. On 20 February in an extraordinary session of the Nagorno Karabagh Autonomous Republic Council, the People's Deputies voted to secede from Azerbaijan and join Armenia and appealed to the Supreme Soviet of the USSR to recognise this decision. This was matched by massive demonstrations in Yerevan, accompanied by a petition signed by 75,000 Armenians, demanding the annexation of Nagorno Karabagh. A pogrom on 28 February at Sumgait, Azerbaijan, which was directed against ethnic Armenians, resulted in around 30 deaths (or some estimates claim up to 120) of Armenians by their Azeri neighbours. This unprecedented killing shocked the Soviet Union and the Soviet authorities arrested 400 rioters. Some 84 perpetrators were tried and sentenced in Moscow. (The incident which purportedly led directly to the Sumgait massacre was the death five days earlier of two Azeri young men, by youths reported by the press to be Armenians, in a skirmish between the two ethnic groups in the Aghdam region of Karabagh.) Thereafter ethnic tensions continued to rise and during the fighting over Nagorno Karabagh there were civilian deaths on both sides. (Perhaps the incident which gained most international notice and condemnation was the deaths of 161-613 (numbers are disputed) Azeri civilians, fired on by Armenian forces in February 1992, as they tried to leave Khojaly, near Aghdam, as it was about to be occupied by Armenian forces. Khojaly was used as a military base by the Azeris to shell Stepanakert, or Khankendi as it is known by the Azeris. The Sumgait massacre was followed by even bigger mass protests in Armenia itself when almost a million people were estimated to have participated. The inaction by Moscow produced massive unrest with an estimated 200,000 Azeris fleeing Armenia and 260,000 Armenians fleeing Azerbaijan. In July the Nagorno Karabagh Supreme Soviet, Nagorno Karabaghs supreme governing body, took the decision to secede from Azerbaijan and adopted measures to become part of Armenia.

The members of the Karabagh Committee, a group leading the fight for union with Armenia, were arrested in December 1988 and held in Moscow without trial whilst on 12 January 1989 direct rule of Nagorno Karabagh from Moscow was imposed. International protests eventually led to the Karabagh Committee members being freed on 31 May. Showing how little control of events Moscow had by now (the Soviet Empire in central and eastern Europe was fast disintegrating at the time) Azerbaijan started partially blockading Armenia in September. With a breathtaking disregard for the likely consequences, Moscow abandoned direct rule of Nagorno Karabagh on 28 November and handed control to Azerbaijan.

Armenia's response was swiff and on 1 December the Armenian Supreme Soviet voted for unification with Nagorno Karabagh. The vote was declared illegal by the Supreme Soviet of the USSR to which Yerevan's response was to pass a new law giving it the right of veto over laws passed in Moscow. As of 10 January 1990 residents of Nagorno Karabagh were allowed to vote in Armenian elections. The year 1990 was to be a year of conflict between Armenians and central Soviet forces with massive protests over the Karabagh issue and often brutal police and military repression: six Armenians were killed in Yerevan by Soviet troops in a confrontation on 24 May. Eventually, after two changes of leadership, the appointment of Levon Ter-Petrossian as Chairman of the Supreme Soviet of Armenia on 4 August led to Armenia declaring independence within the USSR on 23 August.

The next year was to see momentous change. The failed coup against Gorbachev on 19 August 1991 led to the inevitable break-up of the Soviet Union at the end of the year. More immediately Azerbaijan's response on 27 August was to annul Nagorno Karabagh's status as an Autonomous Region which then led, on 2 September to the declaration of the independent Republic of Nagorno Karabagh - the goal had changed and union with Armenia had ceased to be the objective. A plebiscite in Nagorno Karabagh on 10 December resulted in an overwhelming vote for independence. Azerbaijan began a blockade of the territory (which of course it completely encircled) and launched military attacks using the equipment of the USSR 4th army stationed in Azerbaijan. Meanwhile newly emergent Russia saw Armenia as a key ally - notably because of its long border with Turkey, a member of NATO. Accordingly Russia signed a treaty of friendship and co-operation with Armenia on 29 December, two days before the demise of the USSR. This was to be followed, much more crucially for Nagorno Karabagh, by a collective security pact signed by Russia and Armenia along with Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan on 15 May 1992.

Azeri military attacks made initial territorial gains but by 8 May 1992 they had been driven back from Martakert and Shushi while on 18 May the Armenian army was able to force a corridor through the Azeri lines at Lachin and break the blockade of Nagorno Karabagh. This, however, was to be followed by a renewed Azeri offensive which resulted in considerable further Azeri gains so that by the end of July they had taken the whole of the Shahumian region, a great portion of the Martakert region, and portions of Martuni, Askeran and Hadrut controlling about 60% of the entire territory. These Azeri victories had several effects: there were demonstrations against Ter-Petrossian, by now the Armenian president, and he survived an assassination attempt on 17 August; the US Congress adopted a resolution condemning the actions of Azerbaijan and prohibited US government economic assistance; and Ter-Petrossian on 9 August invoked the less than three-month-old security pact asking for Russian help.

Russian support arrived in the form of supplies and equipment. By March 1993 the Armenian army was able once more to go on the offensive and it not only over the next few months recouped its losses but also gained almost all of Nagorno Karabagh, together with the former Kurdistan and a considerable swathe of Azeri territory bordering Iran. Finally on 5 May 1994, a ceasefire brokered by Russia, Kyrgyzstan and the CIS Interparliamentary Council, was signed which took effect on 12 May. By this time Azerbaijan had lost control of a substantial area of its territory. Since then the self-declared Republic of Nagorno Karabagh has incorporated into its administrative districts even the occupied areas of Azerbaijan which were not in the former autonomous region, considerably increasing its size in the process.

The job of finding a solution to the conflict is in the hands of the Minsk group of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe which was set up in 1992. It looks as far away as ever. Azerbaijan might be willing to hand over Nagorno Karabagh to Armenia in exchange for southern Armenia but that is unacceptable to Armenia since Armenia would lose its important direct link to Iran. Armenia wants a resolution of the problem which it believes would help economic growth but Armenians feel that they cannot desert their kith and kin. Nagorno Karabagh is a key factor in the unwillingness of certain factions in Turkey to ratify the protocol, signed by the foreign ministers of Armenia and Turkey in October 2009, aimed at normalising relationships between the two countries. Turkey's prime minister has promised its ally, Azerbaijan, that it will not open its border with Armenia until the Nagorno Karabagh dispute is resolved and Armenian forces are withdrawn from what Azerbaijan regards as Azeri territory. This Armenia is not prepared to do. Meanwhile the ceasefire holds, despite occasional sniper fire across the ceasefire line with no war and no peace either.