By: Fatma Begüm Karacaoğlu
The Republic of Artsakh is a self-proclaimed and unrecognized Armenian enclave located in the Caucasus region and internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan.
The Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict is often referred as a post-Soviet 'frozen conflict' because of the long-standing dispute between Armenia and Azerbaijan (Nagorno-Karabakh profile, 2016).
Both Azerbaijan and Armenia claim the land to be historically theirs by showing kingdoms or vassals as evidence to their legitimacy.
It has long been called 'the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic,' but in 2017, the Armenians voted for a name change through a constitutional referendum and today, it is officially called the Republic of Artsakh.
Due to the official name change, the country will both be referred as Artsakh and Nagorno-Karabakh in the article. The usage of both names and the name change will be discussed by explaining the history of the region from ancient times until today.
Etymology of Nagorno-Karabakh
In English, the previous official name of the self-proclaimed country is Nagorno Karabakh, and the name itself provides us a hint on the diverse history of the region.
Nagorno comes from the Russian adjective nagorny, meaning “highland” (literally “on the mountains”) and Karabakh is a mix of the Turkic kara (“black”) and Persian bagh (“garden”).
In fact, Azeris refer to the region as Qarabağ. Dağlıq Qarabağ (‘’mountainous Karabakh’’) or yuxarı Qarabağ (‘’upper Karabakh’’) can be interchangeably used as well.
One theory for the meaning is that the name can be traced back to a Persian toponym bagh-i siyah in which the territory is described with its wooded character and later it was translated to Karabakh by Turkic speakers (Hovhannisyan, 2004).
The place name can be first found in the Georgian Chronicles (Kartlis Tskhovreba), as well in Persian sources of the 13th and 14th centuries (Hovhannisyan, 2004). However, it first starts appearing in Western cartography around the middle of the fifteenth century (Galichian, 2018).
As for Armenians, they solely use the name Artsakh and consider it the ancient name of the land before it came to be known as Karabakh by others. The meaning of Artsakh is mainly unknown but it comes from the 10th province of the ancient Kingdom of Armenia.
A Brief History of Nagorno-Karabakh
In ancient times, the region was populated with Caucasian tribes and starting from 2nd century BC, Armenians conquered the region and it became a part of the Kingdom of Armenia.
Later it became under the rule of Sasanid Persia as a region of the Caucasian Albania (unrelated to the Albanians of the Balkans) of Sasanid Persia from 387 to the 7th century.
Azerbaijanis propose that Caucasian Albanians are their ancestors and therefore, they place their claims on the region through the Caucasian Albanian state. However, many historians consider this as historical revisionism.
In many texts, they even replace the term Armenian state with the Albanian state or show Armenian medieval leaders as Albanian figures thus erasing the Armenian history of Karabakh. Within this narrative, they also claimed that the Christian inhabitants have always been ‘’Armenized Albanians’’ (Zolyan, 2018).
The ancient Caucasian Albanians were said be composed of various tribes and today, the Udi people are considered to be the direct descendants.
Udis are Christians who speak a Lezgic language from the Northeast Caucasian language family and they are mentioned in many ancient texts as one of the tribes that formed the Caucasian Albania.
Also, many Caucasian Albanians were assimilated under Armenians and Georgians as well as many becoming Muslims under Persians and Turkic peoples participating in the ethnogenesis of Azeris.
Between the 7th to 9th centuries, Arabs invaded the region and controlled it. In 821, it formed the Armenian principality of Khachen and around the year 1000, the Kingdom of Artsakh was founded.
The Kingdom of Artsakh was one of the last medieval Armenian kingdoms and principalities to maintain its autonomy until the Turkic invasions of the 11th to 14th centuries. Since the 11th century, it has been ruled by many powers including Mongols, Turks, Persians, Russians and finally Soviets.
Due to warfare and forced relocations, the Armenian population diminished over centuries and there were times in history that Karabakh was heavily populated by Turkic-speaking Azeris (or Tatars as they were called).
The earliest documented traveller to the region is the German Johann Schiltberger who resided in lower Karabakh in the winter of 1420.
He also mentioned that both Christians and Muslims inhabited the region proving both the Armenian and Azerbaijani presence. He describes Karabakh ‘’The infidels call the plain, in the Infidel tongue, Karawag. The Infidels possess it all, and yet it stands in 'Ermenia.'
There are also Armenians in the villages, they must pay tribute to the Infidels’’ (Telfer).
In the Safavid Iran, Shah Abbas I held a campaign of massive relocation of Armenians in 1604-05 in which Armenians would turn into a minority in Artsakh.
In 1813, Persia gave the region to the Russian Empire under the Treaty of Gulistan and it remained part of the Russian Empire until its collapse in 1917. In 1920, Armenia and Azerbaijan came under Soviet rule.
Soviets had a policy of divide and rule which led to the creation of Nagorno Karabakh Oblast, in this manner, people would fight each other instead of the USSR (Zolyan, 2018). For instance, in a case of conflict with Azeris, the Armenian SSR would have to cooperate with Soviet leadership for their safety.
Joseph Stalin put the autonomous oblast under Azerbaijani control in 1922 even though it was ethnically 94% Armenian at the time. However, it should be noted that many Azeris were nomadic people and therefore not be counted in the official statistics.
Another reason suggested for the placement of Karabakh is that the Soviets wanted to please Turkey, a nation that is always supportive of Azerbaijan with close ties to Turks and strategically, Azerbaijan seemed more important to them with its oil reserves (Zolyan, 2018).
The belief was that under the leadership of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk and with the help from Russia, the new Turkish republic would also adopt communism. Thomas de Waal, a leading researcher on the Caucasus, also has a similar position ‘’Armenians say that Stalin ‘gave’ Karabakh to the Azerbaijanis, while Azerbaijanis maintain that the decision merely recognized a pre-existing reality.
From the Bolsheviks’ standpoint in 1921, it was a logical decision. Consolidating Soviet Azerbaijan at that time was a much bigger priority than satisfying weak and devastated Armenia, and their new ally, Kemalist Turkey, also supported the Azerbaijani claims. ‘’ (p. 105).
From 1988 to 1992, the Armenian population who made up the majority of Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast wanted the region to be under the jurisdiction of Armenia.
The Armenian demand for reunification began in 1988 and with the collapse of the Soviet Union, the conflict turned more violent resulting in a full-scale war by 1992 that lasted until May 1994.
Ultimately almost no Azerbaijanis were left in Artsakh and their abandoned houses, villages and belongings remain as a testimony to the bloody war.
Due to the war, the region has become heavily depopulated as Azeris and Kurds have fled. The authorities have attempted to repopulate Karabakh with Armenians fleeing Azerbaijan, while implementing a pro-natalist policy in the republic (Harvey, 2016). Many victims of the Baku pogrom (a pogrom inflicted on Armenians in Baku) today reside in Artsakh.
Syrian Armenians fleeing the civil war in Syria have also found refuge in Artsakh, as well as been given incentives such as land and houses to live (Pearson & Welsford, 2015). Meanwhile en estimated 600,000 Azerbaijani refugees that also fled Armenia live in exile in Azerbaijan, most of them living close to the border with Nagorno-Karabakh.
Political Status of Nagorno-Karabakh
Artsakh is not internationally recognized by any United Nations member state, including Armenia. Only other unrecognized countries such as; Transnistria, Abkhazia and South Ossetia recognize it.
As for the reason for Armenia’s lack of recognition, it instead opted for a policy of strategic ambiguity.
2017 Nagorno-Karabakh Constitutional Referendum
With a referendum held on February 20 in 2017, the system of the country’s governance changed from a semi-presidential to a fully-presidential system and a new constitution has been adopted (2017).
They also voted in favor of renaming the country - the Republic of Artsakh. As mentioned earlier, Artsakh is the ancient Armenian name for the region that is used by every Armenian.
The name change could be considered as a reaction to Azerbaijan’s military assault on early April of 2016 which caused the death of 50 and 350 lives on both sides (2017).
In addition to the attack, Ilham Aliyev, the president of Azerbaijan, has been consistently using a war rhetoric against Armenia and Armenians while building up a stronger Azerbaijani army. He is against all initiatives that attempt to build a bridge between Azeris and Armenians.
Thus, it would not be wrong to say that Armenia and Azerbaijan are becoming even more hostile that makes it harder to come up with a potential peace solution
for the region.
The Future of Nagorno-Karabakh
Similar to many ethnic conflicts, scholars always make claims on ‘’who were there first’’ and indeed this is the question that lies at the heart of the issue more than religious or economic reasons. Who does Artsakh / Nagorno-Karabakh belong to?
The name one refers to the country can even indicate their side on the issue. From the standpoint of the individual, the Armenian control since 1994 could be regarded as either occupation or liberation.
Armenians would say that if they have lost the Nagorno-Karabakh War, they would have gone through ethnic cleansing in Artsakh and the region would share the same fate as Nakhchivan, which is an Azerbaijani exclave separated from Azerbaijan by Artsakh, has been emptied of its ethnic Armenians as well as its Armenian history being systematically wiped out.
As for Azeris, they consider Karabakh to be theirs and under occupation by Armenia while ethnic Karabakhi Azeris remain in exile.
Since the country is isolated from the world due to its lack of recognition, they rely on their own resources, the Armenian diaspora and Armenia for their survival and future. Neither Armenia recognizes the republic as they have a policy of strategic ambiguity and aim to negotiate with Azerbaijan in order to peacefully resolve the conflict.
Minsk Group and the European Union issue statements that the elections and referendums of Artsakh have no meaning as it not a recognized territory.
As for the Azerbaijani government, they are determined and consistent in their rhetoric that Karabakh will always be Azerbaijan and they do not shy away from following a military route to ‘’free the occupied territories,’’
For instance, in the June of 2018, Ilham Aliyev tweeted, ‘’The developments unfolding in the world confirm that the international law does not work.
If it did, Azerbaijani lands would have been freed from the invaders long ago.’’ Recently Armenia accused Azerbaijan of wanting Karabakh without its people and not being open for a compromise or even negotiation (2019).
However, as with the recent rhetoric coming from the Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan stated in a speech in Artsakh, it is also hard to come up with a resolution that satisfies both sides (Kucera, 2019).
In front of a crowd in Stepanakert, the capital of the state, he said ‘’Artsakh is Armenia, and that’s it,” and led the crowd to chant for unification.
Bilateral relations seem more difficult than ever with such strong rhetoric and the talks between the two countries having stalled over the years.
Both sides are confident in their claim that the land belongs to them and negotiations have so far failed to produce a peaceful resolution.
The lack of recognition continues to be a big problem for the Republic of Artsakh on one hand, and thousands of Karabakh Azeris live in exile on the other hand. All this while the conflict remains ongoing.
Artsakh Votes for New Constitution, Officially Renames the Republic. (2017, February 21). The Armenian Weekly. Retrieved from https://armenianweekly.com/2017/02/21/artsakh-votes-for-new-constitution-officially-renames-the-republic/
Atanesyan Vahram (2012, december 1), Nagorno-Karabakh : a brief history . Retrieved from https://agbu.org/news-item/nagorno-karabakh-a-brief-history/
Cornell, S. E. (1999). The Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict (p. 164). Uppsala Universitet.
De Waal, T. (2013). Black garden: Armenia and Azerbaijan through peace and war. NYU press.
Foster, B. (2009). Empire and names: The case of Nagorno Karabakh.
Fringe.” Eu Observer, 20 Feb. 2017, https://euobserver.com/foreign/136961.
Galichian, R. (2018). Karabagh (Artsakh) in Old Maps. Retrieved November 16, 2019, from https://roubengalichian.com/2018/04/19/karabagh-artsakh-in-old-maps-2/.
Harvey, D. A. (2016, June 18). Anastasia Taylor-Lind – The National Womb: Baby Boom in Nagorno Karabakh. Retrieved November 16, 2019, from https://www.burnmagazine.org/essays/2012/07/anastasia-taylor-lind-the-national-womb-baby-boom-in-nagorno-karabakh/.
Hovhannisyan, N. I. K. O. L. A. Y. (2004). The Karabakh Problem. The Thorny Road to Freedom and Independence.
Kucera, J. (2018, August 6). For Armenians, they're not occupied territories – they're the homeland. Eurasianet. Retrieved from https://eurasianet.org/for-armenians-theyre-not-occupied-territories-theyre-the-homeland
Kucera, J. (2019, August 6). Pashinyan calls for unification between Armenia and Karabakh. Eurasianet. Retrieved from https://eurasianet.org/pashinyan-calls-for-unification-between-armenia-and-karabakh
Nagorno-Karabakh profile (2016, April 6). Retrieved from https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-18270325
Pearson, E., & Welsford, K. (2015, June). Where war and peace collide. Le Monde Diplomatique. Retrieved from https://mondediplo.com/outsidein/where-war-and-peace-collide
Polls open in constitutional referendum in Nagorno-Karabakh. (2017, February 20). OC Media. Retrieved from https://oc-media.org/polls-open-in-constitutional-referendum-in-nagorno-karabakh/
Rettman, A. (2017, February 20). Referendum to create 'Republic of Artsakh' on Europe's fringe. Eu Observer. Retrieved from Rettman, Andrew.
Telfer, J. B. (2017). The Bondage and Travels of Johann Schiltberger, a Native of Bavaria, in Europe, Asia, and Africa, 1396-1427. Hakluyt Society.
Wikipedia contributors. (2019, November 10). Nagorno-Karabakh War. In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 14:58, November 16, 2019, from https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Nagorno-Karabakh_War&oldid=925459397
Zolyan, M. (2018, February 8). How It All Began: The Soviet Nationalities Policy and the Roots of the Karabakh Problem. EVN Report. Retrieved from https://www.evnreport.com/spotlight-karabakh/how-it-all-began-the-soviet-nationalities-policy-and-the-roots-of-the-karabakh-problem