History of Nagorno-Karabakh

By: Assel Seidualiyeva

The Republic of Artsakh

Nagorno-Karabakh, officially known as the Republic of Artsakh, is an unrecognized country in the Caucasus region.

It was proclaimed on September 2, 1991 at a joint session of the Nagorno-Karabakh regional and Shaumyan district councils of people's deputies of the Azerbaijan SSR within the borders of the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Region and the adjacent Shaumyan region of the Azerbaijan SSR.

Unrecognized Country

According to the administrative-territorial division of the Republic of Azerbaijan, the territory controlled by the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic is part of Azerbaijan, and is internationally recognized as such.

Located in the north of the geographical region of Western Asia and northeast of the Armenian Highlands. It borders with Armenia in the west, with Azerbaijan in the north and east, and Iran in the south.

History of Nagorno-Karabakh

According to the official and generally accepted history of Transcaucasia, Artsakh was part of the ancient Armenian state of Urartu (VIII – V centuries BC). After the partition of ancient Armenia between Byzantium and Persia in 387, the territory of Eastern Transcaucasia (including Artsakh) was passed to Persia.

At the beginning of the VIII century, Artsakh was conquered by the Arabs who brought Islam with them (before that Christianity of the Gregorian rite was spread among the population of the region).

In the middle of the XI century, the territory was invaded by Seljuk Turks, liberation from which occurred a century later.

In the 30s of the XIII century, Artsakh was conquered by the Mongols; most of its territory began to be called Karabakh (from the Turkic words kara - “black” and bakh - “garden”).

Such phonetic misconstructions appear when a group that arrives to a new land from elsewhere tries to adapt local toponyms to their own language.

As the Turko-Islamic colonization expanded in Artsakh—as in many places throughout the Near East, Minor Asia and the Balkans—the nomads gradually pushed the indigenous Christians to the mountains, as they assumed control of the plains.

As a result, the central and eastern regions of what is now the Azerbaijani Republic lost most of its aboriginal Armenian population who migrated west and found refuge in the impregnable Christian strongholds populated and ruled since the Roman times by Artsakh’s Armenian mountaineers.

However, the economic life of the Turkic nomads, which required access not only to lowland areas but also to hilltop pastures, and their values, which derived from misinterpreted principles of Islam, denied Christians most political and social rights while legitimizing banditry and looting.

This eventually pitted the nomadic newcomers and Islamized Armenians against the Christian highlanders too, and established the basis of the historical confrontation between the Armenian natives of Artsakh and the Turkic tribesmen of the Southeastern Caucasus, some of whom chose to be called “Azerbaijanis” in the 1920s.

In the 18th century, however, a long Armenian-Turkish war with Ottoman invaders ravaged Artsakh while internal disagreements further weakened its administration. As a result, in the early 1760s, the Armenian dukes (meliks) of Artsakh succumbed to the pressure of the Muslim tribes, which nearly succeeded in penetrating the region and establishing a parallel Turkic-Armenian rule over the province.

The consequence was the proclamation of so-called “Karabakh Khanate,” a short-lived Armenian-Turkic principality in Artsakh that in 1805 was absorbed into the Russian Empire, after 40 years of existence, and then abolished.

The effect of the Khanate’s collapse was a century of relative stability in regional Muslim-Christian relations.

Fall of the Russian Empire

The Armenian-Turkic conflict in Artsakh was ignited once again with the ascent of the era of nationalism, when in the beginning of the 20th century the Caucasus was plunged into inter-ethnic strife accompanied by pogroms and incidents of mass murder. The largest of such clashes took place in 1905-1906, and is known as the “Armenian-Tartar War."

The situation worsened after the demise of the Russian Empire and emergence of three independent states in the Southern Caucasus— Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan — which from the very first days of creation disputed over their borders.

The population of Nagorno-Karabakh, 95 percent of whom were Armenians, convened its first congress, which proclaimed Nagorno-Karabakh an independent administrative and political unit, elected the National Council and the government.

In the years 1918-1920. in Nagorno-Karabakh there were all the attributes of statehood, including the army and legitimate authorities.

In response to the peace initiatives of the people of Nagorno-Karabakh, the Democratic Republic of Azerbaijan has launched military operations. Between May 1918 and April 1920, Azerbaijan and the military units of Turkey supporting it committed acts of violence and mass killings against the Armenian population (in March 1920, about 40 thousand Armenians were killed and deported).

But even in this way, they failed to force the people of Nagorno-Karabakh to accept the power of Azerbaijan. In August 1919 In order to prevent a military conflict, Karabakh and Azerbaijan entered into a preliminary agreement, on which they agreed to discuss the status of the region at the Paris Peace Conference. The reaction of the international community is significant.

The League of Nations rejected a request for Azerbaijan’s membership in the organization, citing this, among other things, because it is difficult to define clear borders and territories under the sovereignty of this state. Among other contentious issues was the status of Nagorno-Karabakh.

Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast

After the Sovietization of the region, the problem fell off the agenda of international organizations. The establishment of Soviet power in Transcaucasia was accompanied by the creation of a new political order.

The Soviet Union also recognized Nagorno-Karabakh as a disputed territory between Armenia and Azerbaijan.

Thus, in August 1920 an agreement between the Soviet Union and the Armenian Republic, Russian troops temporarily settled in Nagorno-Karabakh.

Immediately after the establishment of Soviet power in Armenia, on November 30, 1920, the Revolutionary Committee of Azerbaijan (the Revolutionary Committee - at that time the main body of the Bolshevik government) in its statement recognized the territories that Azerbaijan had previously claimed - Nagorno-Karabakh, Zangezur and Nakhchivan, as an integral part of Armenia.

The National Council of the Azerbaijan SSR, on the basis of an agreement between the Revolutionary Committee of Azerbaijan and the governments of the Azerbaijan SSR and the Armenian SSR, a declaration of June 12, 1921 proclaimed Nagorno-Karabakh an integral part of the Armenian SSR.

Based on the statement of Soviet Azerbaijan on the rejection of claims on Nagorno-Karabakh, Zangezur and Nakhichevan and the agreement between the governments of Armenia and Azerbaijan of June 1921.

Armenia also proclaimed Nagorno-Karabakh its integral part. The text of the decree adopted by the Armenian government was published both in the press of Armenia and Azerbaijan ("Baku Worker", an organ of the Central Committee of the Azerbaijan Communist Party, dated June 22, 1921).

Thus, the legal consolidation of the accession of Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia was accomplished. In the context of international law, this was the last legal act on Nagorno-Karabakh during the communist regime.

On July 4th, 1921 The Caucasian Bureau of the Communist Party of Russia convened a plenary meeting in the capital of Georgia, Tbilisi, during which it again confirmed the fact that Nagorno-Karabakh belongs to the Armenian SSR.

However, under the dictation of Moscow and with the direct intervention of Stalin on the night of July 5, the decision made on the previous day was reviewed and a compulsory decision was made to include Nagorno-Karabakh in Azerbaijan and form an autonomous region on this territory, in violation of even the current procedure decision making.

This was an unprecedented legal act in the history of international law, when the party body of a third country (RCP (b)), without any legal basis or authority, determines the status of Nagorno-Karabakh.

Azerbaijan and Armenian SSR in December 1922 were included in the processes of the formation of the USSR, and only on one part of the territory of Karabakh on July 7, 1923, by decision of the Central Executive Revolutionary Committee of the Azerbaijan SSR, the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast (NKAO) was formed as part of the Azerbaijan SSR, which, in fact, the Karabakh conflict was not resolved, but temporarily frozen.

Moreover, everything was done so that the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast did not have a common border with Armenia. Thus, Artsakh - Nagorno-Karabakh, was turned into the world's only Christian territorial autonomy inside a largely Muslim state entity.

For the next 70 years, Azerbaijan bombarded Artsakh with various forms of ethno-religious discrimination, economic mistreatment and gerrymandering, in an attempt to eliminate its Armenian Christian majority and replace it with Azerbaijani Muslim settlers.

But over the entire Soviet period, the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh never reconciled with this decision and for decades have been constantly fighting for reunification with their homeland.

For the entire time that the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast was part of the Azerbaijan SSR, the leadership of this republic regularly and consistently violated the rights and interests of the Armenian population.

Azerbaijan’s discriminatory policy towards Nagorno-Karabakh was expressed in attempts to artificially suspend the socio-economic development of the region, turn it into a raw materials appendage, actively intervene in the demographic process, destroy and develop the Armenian monuments and cultural values.

The discrimination of Azerbaijan in relation to Nagorno-Karabakh also influenced the population of Karabakh, becoming the main reason for its emigration. As a result, the ethnic ratio of the population of Nagorno-Karabakh has changed.

If in 1923 the Armenians accounted for 94.4 percent, then according to 1989, the percentage of Armenians fell to 76.9. The policy of squeezing Armenians was a great success in another Armenian region - Nakhchivan.

The people of the NKAO and the authorities of the Armenian SSR repeatedly appealed to the central authorities of the USSR with a request to reconsider the decision to transfer Karabakh to Azerbaijan, but these appeals were either ignored or refused, causing the authors of the persecution to be prosecuted.

Among them are the Address of the Government of the Armenian SSR and the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Armenia to the Government of the USSR and the Central Committee of the CPSU in 1945, letters addressed to the USSR authorities with 2.5 thousand signatures of the NKAR population in 1963 and with more than 45 thousand in 1965, proposals collective farms of the NKAR in the framework of nationwide discussions of the new Constitution of the USSR in 1977.

In an unprecedented example of direct democracy, in February 1988, Nagorno-Karabakh’s regional parliament, which for 70 years functioned as a powerless "rubber stamp," officially appealed to Baku and Yerevan to consider the possibility of reunifying their homeland with the Armenian Soviet Socialist Republic.

Azerbaijan’s reaction to Nagorno-Karabakh’s nonviolent and constitutional measures was totally unexpected and shocking.

Instead of responding to Nagorno-Karabakh's appeal by launching a constitutional dialogue, the Azerbaijani leadership organized a series of pogroms and massacres of unsuspecting ethnic Armenian civilians living in remote corners of Azerbaijan.

The Dissolution of the Soviet Union

This campaign of violence began in February 1988 in the country’s principal city of Sumgait, located hundreds of miles away from Nagorno-Karabakh, and continued in Kirovabad (November 1988), Baku (January 1990), and other Azerbaijani cities and towns.

Azerbaijan’s anti-Armenian attacks in 1988-91 only confirmed Nagorno-Karabakh’s worst fears. After proclaiming independence by unilaterally breaking away from the USSR in 1991, Azerbaijan unconstitutionally “abolished” the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Region and organized full-scale military aggression against its people.

This eventually emptied Azerbaijan of all ethnic Armenians residing in places outside of Nagorno-Karabakh’s self-defense zone.

Overall, nearly 370,000 Armenians (out of their total number of 475,000, according to the USSR ’s 1979 Census) were permanently displaced from Azerbaijan.

Most of them were dumped in refugee camps in Armenia. The premeditated maltreatment of Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh by the authorities in Baku was an open secret that Azerbaijan tried to cover up for some time.

However, beginning from 1999, Azerbaijan’s Soviet-era leader and its post-independence President Heydar Aliyev launched a series of public confessions in which he bluntly admitted that the goal of his administration—between 1967 and 1987—was to intentionally abuse the region’s Armenian majority, drive them into exodus and thus change Nagorno-Karabakh’s demographic balance in favor of ethnic Azeris.

Resolution of the Conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh

The first plan for the territorial resolution of the Karabakh conflict was proposed by the American political scientist Paul Hobble back in 1992. According to him, Armenia and Azerbaijan can only achieve peace by exchanging disputed territories.

Azerbaijan transfers the territory of the former Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast to Armenia (naturally, without the Shaumyan region) and the Lachin region connecting Nagorno-Karabakh with Armenia.

Armenia transfers to Azerbaijan its southernmost Meghri region, for which it gets the opportunity to use Turkish ports and communications for transit. Having given this territory, Armenia will lose access to Araks and lose the border with Iran.

Azerbaijan, on the contrary, will get a connection between the main territory of the country and the enclave of the Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic.

Azerbaijan benefits from such an exchange, restoring the compactness of its territory and letting go of Nagorno-Karabakh, which did not already belong to it. Turkey wins, gaining a corridor to the Turkic-speaking regions of the former USSR and updating the ideas of a pan-Turkic state.

The United States is winning, increasing pressure on Iran, its old foe, and gaining the status of a peacemaker in the geopolitically promising Transcaucasian region.

Armenia loses, finding itself in the ring of a tight blockade of unfriendly countries. Iran loses, admitting Americans to its borders. Russia loses, losing its ability to pursue an independent foreign policy in the Caucasus.

Gobble’s plan was enthusiastically received in Turkey and Azerbaijan. However, after the NKR defense army occupied the Lachin corridor and a number of border regions of Azerbaijan, it lost relevance.


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