Updated: Aug 28, 2019
By: Sara Zeineddine
Nagorno-Karabakh, officially the Republic of Artsakh (unrecognized) is located in the south Caucasus region between Armenia and Azerbaijan - two ex-Soviet states.
The name of the region has a very interesting meaning. Nagorno, meaning mountainous in the Russian language and Karabakh, coming from the Azeri language and meaning black garden.
For much of history, it has been seen as a strategic region for a lot of different powers.
However, this territory has a long and deeply complicated history. Over much of its history, until today, the region has seen conflict over its sovereignty.
In order to fully understand the conflict today, the origins of the conflict in the region needs to be looked at closer.
Origins of the Conflict
Artsakh has for centuries been a mosaic of cultures and religions, therefore a lot of different peoples lived there including; Christian Armenians, Turkic Azeris and others with Persian influences (Nagorno-Karabakh profile, 2016).
During the times of the Soviet Union, some tension could be felt but it never escalated to the point of war.
In 1813, Nagorno-Karabakh was given to the Russian Empire by Persia and given its own regional government. However, during the Russian Revolution in 1917, Transcaucasia was created and wanted to gain self-determination in April 1918, but it did not last because of the Turkish invasion.
Therefore, the area of Artsakh changed its status and became an autonomous region (Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, 2019). At the time, a lot of different countries gained their independence such as Armenia and Azerbaijan in May 1918 which resulted as the principal root of the conflict.
Nagorno-Karabakh was a strategic region, it had a separate administrative and political entity and formed an independent government (Karabakh: 1918-1921, 2019). In September 1918, the Armenian genocide created a different and dark reality for ethnic Armenian across the region as a whole.
During this mass killing spree, Azerbaijan tried to include Nagorno-Karabakh in its territories.
However, with the fall of the Ottoman Empire in 1918, Turkish troops were forced to leave Armenia and the Azeri government left their troops in Nagorno-Karabakh to keep hold of the land.
In April 1920, the Armenians of Karabakh fought to repel Azeri troops. They requested to reunite Nagorno-Karabakh with Soviet Armenia instead of leaving it to the Azeris.
The Armenian population of Karabakh didn’t recognize the authority of Azerbaijan. This resulted in fierce fighting and atrocities in the region.
The Armenians and the Azeris both claimed that this territory as their own: Azerbaijan insists that it has been under their rule since renowned history and on the contrary, the Armenian side claims that Nagorno-Karabakh was an Armenian territory originally and that the claims of Azerbaijan are not legitimate (AGHAJANYAN, 2018).
In official documents, this disputed territory was considered as a part of Armenia. This caused a lot of tension that soon would develop into full-fledged war. During the Cold War, the Soviets controlled this territory.
Upon its dissolution nevertheless, the region, similar to other areas seeking independence, was dragged into an open conflict. In 1988, it was the Republic of Artsakh’s turn.
The Nagorno-Karabakh War (1988-1994)
Before the fall of the Soviet Union, Azerbaijan and Armenia began a bloody war in Nagorno-Karabakh in 1988. It is still considered as a frozen conflict born because of its status and has been frozen in time, with no resolution taking effect. In addition, its sovereignty continues to be disputed and unrecognized by the international community.
This conflict is a territorial issue for the Azeris and an ethnic conflict for the Armenians with both claiming that this territory historically belonged to them.
After the end of the war, the region voted to be a part of Armenia since the majority of its population is Armenian.
One of the first sparks for the war was made by Azeris in Sumgait in 1988. Apartments were attacked and destroyed, some people went missing, others were hurt and and the murdered.
It was considered as a tragedy and the Azeri government, however nothing was done about it, they allowed it to happen. From 1988 to 1989, another string of attacks took place in the capital city of Azerbaijan, Baku.
Armenians who lived there were compelled to leave their houses and to leave the country immediately. Officials don’t have the exact number of murders, but it is known that the numbers of death were more than any other attack on civilians during this war.
A lot of people were killed during this conflict and most of the habitants of Nagorno-Karabakh, both Armenians and Azeris, were forced to leave.
Since then, Azeris have not been allowed to come back and remain in a state of limbo until today.
In 1991, a military operation called the ‘Koltso operation’ (ATANESYAN,2012) was created by the Azeri forces for the deportation of the Armenians living in Artsakh.
The original idea was to expel the Armenians because they are living in a land that is not theirs, according to the Azeris. The operation began in April 1991, it started with a massive bombardment (The “Koltso” operation of deportation, 2019).
The main goal was to destroy all of the Armenian villages in Artsakh. The United States Senate condemned the actions of the Azeris forces, they were seen as ‘attacks on innocent children, women and men’ (The “Koltso” operation of deportation, 2019).
Even with the involvement of other countries to stop all the violence, this military operation increased tensions and led to more violence in the war.
In 1991, the Soviet Union collapsed and Nagorno-Karabakh declared itself an independent republic through a referendum where 99,98% of the population voted in favour of independence (ATANESYAN,2012).
However, we need to keep in mind that the majority of the population in Karabakh were Armenians and as such, Azeris had little say. With that said, Armenia never recognized this status and does not consider it as an independent state.
In fact, the Azeris of Artsakh refused to participate in the referendum, they thought that violence was the only answer to get their land back and they supported this way of thinking, which was promoted in Azerbaijan.
Azeris thought that to solve this war, the only solution was through military action and not a political one. Communication was not seen as a key but violence was. This policy has essentially remained unchanged until today.
Shortly after the referendum. Two villages in Artsakh were touched as well in 1992 : Khojaly and Maragha. The first one was an artillery base created by Azeris forces, where about 600 habitants mostly from Azerbaijan were killed.
However, this town has two sides of the story. The Azeris talked about a massacre, while the Armenians talked about how it was an urgent evacuation of the city and that residents were notified in advance.
In 1992, Maragha, an Armenian village, was attacked by the Azerbaijani army and widely considered as an act of revenge (Beginning of the conflict, 2019). The casualties during the war were high, while others had to flee the territory and leave their belongings in order to save their lives.
At the end of the war, ethnic Armenians controlled most of the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, in addition to a small amount of the Azeri territory outside of the region of Nagorno-Karabakh.
The Nagorno-Karabakh defense army was able to stop the Azeri troops which resulted in the end of the conflict in 1994 with a cease-fire brokered by Russia.
The 1994 Ceasefire
The OCSE Minsk Group was created in 1992 and was co-chaired by France, Russia and the United States of America. They played the role of mediators and wanted to create a final peace agreement to try to settle peace and safety in the region (FALCO, 2018).
They had three important objectives: First, they aimed at providing an appropriate framework for conflict resolution; second, they aimed at a ceasefire agreement and organizing the Minsk Conference; third, they aimed at promoting the peace process by deploying peacekeeping forces (KLEVER, 2013).
The cease-fire was agreed upon in Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan (ATANESYAN,2012). Artsakh (The Nagorno Karabakh Republic and not yet the Republic of Artsakh) Azerbaijan and Armenia signed the protocol of Bishkek on May 5 1994.
Although this agreement ended the violence, it had little support by the Azeri population and Artsakh was placed in the hands of ethnic Armenian. All of this created a more mainstream anti-Armenian movement. With this said, the cease-fire was violated on numerous occasions.
The need to keep the peace was weaker than the need to claim the area for both countries - neither of which was willing to compromise. The UN gave some resolutions but the government of Azerbaijan didn’t want to be a part of it.
Armenia was accused by Azeris for not willing to compromise as well. In fact, according to the ministry of foreign affairs of Azerbaijan, Armenia continues to violate the truce (2019). Although, Armenia has stated the same about Azerbaijan on many different occasions.
Post War Nagorno-Karabakh (Artsakh)
Moreover, Nagorno-Karabakh claimed its independence after the war as the Nagorno Karabakh Republic, later on changing its name to the Republic of Artsakh. This unrecognized country operates like any other recognized country with functioning state institutions.
The leaders insist that it is a democracy where free democratic elections take place (MINASYAN).
Over the course of the year, the conflict has reappeared, for example in 2016 and was called ‘the four day war’ or ‘April war’ (AGHAJANYAN ,2018).
From April 2nd to 5th, Artsakh and Armenian forces operated against Azerbaijani forces. Azerbaijan made the first offensive and declared that this operation was carefully planned and prepared ( The Four-day War of 2-5 April 2016 ,2019).
It was in fact a violation of the ceasefire established in 1994, with the aim of taking back Nagorno-Karabakh. The mediators said that there was no military solution for this conflict and everyone had to respect the cease-fire agreement made in 1994.
Russia has been accused of having invested interests in the non-resolution of this conflict. Not only through the supply of weapons but also through gained influence in the region (KLEVER, 2013).
In conclusion, the Nagorno-Karabakh issue is still an unresolved conflict. This conflict is the result of the fall of the Russian empire in 1917 and continued with dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, turning it into a ‘post-Sovet frozen conflict zone’ today.
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