The Karabakh conflict is an ethnic conflict between the Armenian Christian natives of the historical region called Artsakh in the Southern Caucasus and the Republic of Azerbaijan. The latter is a country that emerged in 1918 and has since been controlled by a breed of Muslim Turks known before the 1920s as Caucasian Turks or Caucasian Tatars.
“Nagorno Karabakh” is a journalistic cliché, a somewhat awkward combination of a mispronounced Russian word Nagnorniy (нагорный, meaning mountainous) and the Persian-Turkic-Armenian word Karabakh. The practice of calling Artsakh “Nagorno Karabakh” derives from the fact that Artsakh’s core territories were assigned in the 1920s by the Bolsheviks to be part of a Soviet autonomy called Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Region (NKAR).
The conflict has both historical and modern roots. The historical origin of the Karabakh conflict can be traced to the 1750s. At that time, the region was devastated by the long Persian-Ottoman wars, which allowed an opportunistic nomadic Turkic tribe of Otuz-Eki to penetrate the homogenously Armenian and self-ruled region of Artsakh from the eastern steppes and capture Shushi – a lynchpin fortification in the central part of the country. Not only did the mountain region’s tiny Turkic minority view their relationship with Armenians through the prism of the Islamic law, they even made a failed attempt to politically dominate them, temporarily upsetting the Armenian region’s tradition of uninterrupted self-governance that goes as far back as the Roman times.
After Artsakh – and the entire Southern Caucasus – was absorbed into the Russian Empire starting in the 1800s, the Otuz-Ekis left the region with the exception of a small community that remained living in the Muslim quarter of the city of Shushi.
Russians began calling these Turkic speakers “Caucasian Tatars,” since the latter did not have a strong enough common identity, with Otuz-Eki being an illustrative example of that notion. In most regions of the South Caucasus, relations between Armenians and the Caucasian Tatars have not been openly conflictful. Furthermore, in some specific regions, Armenian-Tatar relations, were, in fact, fairly amicable. But Artsakh wasn’t one of those regions – there, mutual suspicion and animosity lingered on.
When the Russian Empire began disintegrating in 1917, in the aftermath of the Bolshevik Revolution, the three major ethnic groups in the Southern Caucasus – Armenians, Caucasian Tatars (future “Azerbaijanis”), and Georgians – proclaimed their corresponding national states, in 1918. Starting from day one, all three states began disputing their contiguous borders. The region of Artsakh, with its Armenian majority and the history of being a core province of the Kingdom of Armenia, wished to join Armenia. Artsakh formed its own self-defense forces to offset the pressure of the newly-established Republic of Azerbaijan and its Ottoman sponsors. The Russian Provisional Government recognized Nagorno Karabakh as part of Armenia. When WWI ended, Artsakh was officially considered as a disputed region by the victorious Entente. Тhe 1919 Paris Peace Conference was supposed to examine the issue and offer a way to solve it.
Since the Azerbaijani Republic was established with the heavy support of the Ottoman expeditionary army, which before being dispatched to the Russian-held Caucasus in 1918 took an active part in the Armenian Genocide, Baku’s policies toward the Armenians of Artsakh were openly genocidal. Photographic material that captured the aftermath of the large-scale massacre of the Armenian population of Artsakh’s capital city of Shushi – perpetrated by the Azerbaijani armed forces in March 1920 – is treated as one of the most representative illustrations of the scale and savagery of the Armenian Genocide (1915-1922).
In 1921, after Russian Bolshevik armies re-conquered the South Caucasus, the Bolsheviks proclaimed Artsakh as part of Armenia. But shortly thereafter, that decision was put on hold because of pressure coming from Baku where the Azerbaijani state acquired considerable lobbying power because of petroleum resources that fell into its hands. Finally, by an autocratic decision by Josef Stalin – who at that time held the post of the Commissar for Nationalities – Artsakh was given to Azerbaijan, which caused a strong negative reaction of the region’s Armenian majority. In 1923, the Bolsheviks established the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Region where 95 percent of the population was ethnically Armenian.
Once part of Azerbaijan, Artsakh was placed by the Azerbaijani authorities under a slow-moving process of ethno-demographic re-engineering aimed at squeezing out the region’s Armenians and replacing them with Azerbaijani resettlers. After the disintegration of the USSR, Soviet Azerbaijan’s long-time leader Heidar Aliyev – father of the country’s present-day head Ilham Aliyev – openly admitted that he personally designed and followed through an abusive plan to upset Nagorno Karabakh ethnic balance. Indeed, if in 1921 Armenians comprised 95 percent of the population, according to the 1979 Soviet census their relative demographic weight dropped to around 76 percent. From 1926 to 1979, the region’s overall population grew only insubstantially – it increased by only 23 percent. By sharp contrast, the number of Azerbaijanis in the region increased a staggering 300 percent, growing from 12,592 in 1926 to 37,264 in 1979.
Under the Bolshevik rule, fighting between the two countries was kept in check, but, as the Soviet Union began transforming during the dual reform-focused policies of Glasnost and Perestroika, so did its grip on Armenia and Azerbaijan. As a result, Baku’s process of ethno-demographic manipulations became more explicit and forceful, which increased pressure on the region’s Armenian population between 1985 and 1988.
In response to ominous signals coming from Baku, Armenians began mobilizing in the Nagorno Karabakh Autonomous Region. In Feb 1988, Nagorno Karabakh’s obkom – the region’s rubber-stamp parliament – stopped behaving as the USSR’s typical phony institution and, unexpectedly to the Kremlin and the Azerbaijani authorities in Baku, passed a resolution to join Armenia and appealed to the Kremlin to examine how the issue of the region’s status can be settled constitutionally. This decision was cheered in Armenia, where hundreds of thousands of people organized rallies in support of their co-ethnics in Artsakh. This was a very unusual display of public behavior in the Soviet Union, where all aspects of public life were under the tight control of its totalitarian government.
The response that came from the opposite side was shocking and unprecedented – pogroms of unsuspecting ethnic Armenians living in Azerbaijan’s towns located hundreds of miles from the epicenter of the conflict. By reviving its pogromist culture, Azerbaijan became solely responsible for turning a constitutional dispute about the status of Nagorno Karabakh’s autonomy into a violent inter-ethnic conflict, and – after the collapse of the USSR – into a war. Armenians were not interested in violence because inter-ethnic clashes were used both by Baku and the Kremlin to discredit the Nagorno Karabakh unification movement. The Soviet authorities in Moscow treated Nagorno Karabakh as a potentially dangerous precedent that could ignite similar Stalin-created ethno-territorial time bombs in other parts of the USSR.
Between 1988 and 1991, when the USSR disintegrated, Azerbaijan organized several waves of anti-Armenian violence. The Sumgait pogrom in 1988 and the Baku pogrom in 1990 shocked both the Soviet and international public by the savagery of crimes perpetrated against innocent civilians, including children, women, and the elderly. When learning about such acts of violence, Western journalists and statesmen do not always understand the Soviet social and political context in which they took place. The USSR’s totalitarian system excluded public violence, uprisings, or spontaneous rallies. It would be only a slight exaggeration to suggest that the USSR was as a country where something like a laud scuffle in a bar in some remote corner of Siberia would be such an unheard-of event that reports about it would be discussed the next day at the Kremlin.
Anti-Armenian violence caused a large-scale exodus of Armenians from Soviet Azerbaijan. By 1989, it triggered a retaliatory exodus of Azerbaijanis from Armenia. In 1989, Azerbaijan imposed a complete rail and road blockade of Armenia.
As the Soviet Union was dissolving in 1991, Azerbaijan seceded from the USSR, immediately abolished the autonomous status of Nagorno Karabakh, and cut off all land and air connections between Nagorno Karabakh and the rest of the world. In response, Nagorno Karabakh declared independence from Azerbaijan, as the Nagorno Karabakh Republic, by invoking an article of Soviet constitutional legislation allowing autonomous entities to secede from their respective union republics if the latter unilaterally leave the USSR. In Dec 1991, the proclamation of Nagorno Karabakh’s independence was underwritten by an internationally-monitored popular referendum.
After declaring independence, Baku’s next move was to seize the Soviet Army’s military equipment and ammunition depots on its territory in preparation for a large-scale armed offensive against Nagorno Karabakh. Since Artsakh’s population alone could not resist the Azerbaijani military campaign, Artsakh’s self-defense units were reinforced by volunteers from Armenia.
The 1991-1994 war was waged with intermittent success by both sides of the conflict. In 1992, with the capture of the strategic fortress city of Shushi, Armenians were finally able to stop the shelling of Nagorno Karabakh’s regional capital city of Stepanakert and reopen a road connecting Nagorno Karabakh and Armenia. But as a result of the counteroffensive one month later, Azerbaijan captured 40 percent of Nagorno Karabakh’s territory and displaced nearly half of the region’s population. To deal with that situation, Artsakh and Armenia were compelled to open the second land corridor via the Kelbajar district of Azerbaijan and create a security belt around Nagorno Karabakh. This shortened the frontline by about 400 kilometers and established a measure of strategic depth that allowed to neutralize Azerbaijan’s advantage in long-range multi-launch rocket and artillery systems, aviation, and manpower.
In 1994, Russia brokered a cease-fire which has remained in place until Sep 2020. The first war between Artsakh and Azerbaijan left roughly thirty thousand casualties and hundreds of thousands of refugees.
All these years, Nagorno-Karabakh had been a frozen conflict, but minor skirmishes between Armenian and Azerbaijani troops have been causing deaths every year. Early April 2016 witnessed the most intense fighting since 1994, killing dozens and resulting in more than three hundred casualties. After four days of fighting, the two sides announced that they had agreed on a new cease-fire. However, a breakdown in talks was followed by repeated cease-fire violations, and tensions have remained high.
Negotiation and mediation efforts, primarily led by the Minsk Group, have failed to produce a permanent solution to the conflict. The Minsk Group, a mediation effort led by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), was created in 1994 to address the dispute and is co-chaired by the United States, France, and Russia. The co-chairs organize summits between the leaders of Armenia and Azerbaijan and hold individual meetings with members of their governments. The group has successfully negotiated cease-fires, but the territorial issues remain as intractable as ever. In October 2017, the presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan met in Geneva under the auspices of the Minsk Group, beginning a series of talks on a possible settlement of the conflict.
The situation on the frontline drastically changed in Sept 2020, when Azerbaijan launched a large-scale military offensive against the Republic of Artsakh. Judging by the results of Azerbaijan’s failed war campaign in April 2016, Baku would have never had sufficient resolve to undertake the 2020 operation, had not it been the help of the Turkish armed forces and several thousands of Islamic terrorist mercenaries air-lifted by the Turkish government from Syria to fight alongside Azerbaijani army. The fighting stopped on Nov 9, following mediation by President Vladimir Putin of Russia.