Nagorno-Karabakh: The Volatile Core of the South Caucasus

Karabakh Armenian soldiers stand near a howitzer in Nagorno-Karabakh on Tuesday, April 5, 2016. Azerbaijan forces and separatist forces in Nagorno-Karabakh agreed on a cease-fire Tuesday following three days of the heaviest fighting in the region since 1994, the Azeri defense ministry announced.

In this map, the historic area of Nagorno-Karabakh is shown in dark brown. Its effective area today, however, is shown in dark yellow (area occupied by Armenia). This map is slightly modified from one found on Wikipedia.

The Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh is one of four frozen conflicts that emerged after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Legally recognized as a part of Azerbaijan, it declared independence in 1991 and then defended that independence in a war with Azerbaijan that lasted until 1994. While it enjoys no international recognition of sovereignty, Nagorno-Karabakh has been de facto independent since its declaration and has been supported militarily and economically by neighboring Armenia.

The modern Nagorno-Karabakh Republic is slightly smaller than the American state of Connecticut and has a population comparable to Syracuse, New York. However, despite its modest size and small population, the mountainous territory has dominated and distorted the destinies of both Azerbaijan and Armenia for more than two decades. The conflict also has potentially wider geopolitical repercussions as oil-rich Azerbaijan has typically been supported by Turkey and the US, while Russia has typically favored Armenia. Armenia supports Nagorno-Karabakh on the basis that it is populated by an Armenian majority that has declared independence under the principle of self-determination.

Thus, although the region may be little-known outside of geopolitical circles, Nagorno-Karabakh’s unresolved status remains one of the most potentially explosive issues in the volatile Caucasus region today.

The Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict at a Glance

Conflict Studies Banner While the name is ancient and specific reference unclear, the region can be well understood through its name: “Nagorno” is a Russian modifier meaning “mountainous,” while “Karabakh” is an amalgamation of Turkish and Persian words that together mean “black garden.” Nagorno-Karabakh features several small, fast-flowing rivers cutting several deep ravines through mineral-rich mountainous country on their way to a central valley. The result is a rugged, yet agriculturally abundant land – a garden with rich black soil that is likely to get as much shade as sun.

Another, political reading of the name might be as a beautiful mountain garden that has provided the backdrop for dark events. Nagorno-Karabakh was long contested by the Ottoman, Persian, and Russian Empires as part of the Caucasus Mountains, which formed a formidable natural barrier between those rivals. Nagorno-Karabakh is of particular interest as it represents an overlap in the declared homelands of two different peoples: the Christian Armenians and the Muslim Azerbaijanis. Under the nearly perpetual conquest of the area, one of these two groups was generally favored by whichever side was in power at the time. This helped build a centuries-old animosity between the two geographically intertwined peoples.

By the time that Soviet planners attempted to draw ethnic republics in the Caucasus, the region between Armenia and Azerbaijan was an irreconcilable mess. Some compensation was made via a system of enclaves and autonomous provinces and the situation remained relatively stable while both republics were part of the larger and more powerful Soviet state. When that state began to crumble, however, a powerful arbiter was lost and ethnic tensions flared into war.

Above is a video produced by the Tourism Department of the unrecognized state of Nagorno-Karabakh (known in Armenian as “Artsakh”). Presented from an Armenian perspective, it shows lots of images of the countryside and modern life as well as presents the history of the region

The majority-Armenian territory of Nagorno-Karabakh attempted to declare independence from Azerbaijan just two months after Azerbaijan declared independence from the USSR. Azerbaijan invaded the territory. Armenia joined the conflict and helped secure for Nagorno-Karabakh not only its de facto independence, but also de facto expanded borders. While Soviet Nagorno-Karabakh was completely enclosed within Azerbaijan, Armenia now effectively controls the narrow strips of land to the west and south for it, giving the unrecognized state direct borders with Armenia and Iran. Thus, Nagorno-Karabakh secured access to the outside world and the ability to conduct limited trade.

Although the tiny state saw much of its infrastructure destroyed and its population flee during the war, it was quick to rebuild with substantial assistance from Armenia and from the numerous and relatively wealthy Armenian diaspora abroad.

The Early History of Nagorno-Karabakh

The history of the Karabakh region, the section of the Lesser Caucasus between the Aras and Kura rivers, stretches back into prehistoric times: in 1968, a jawbone dating back to 300,000 BC was found in Azikh Cave in Nagorno-Karabakh. The discovery indicates that one of the earliest examples of proto-human habitation in Eurasia was in Nagorno-Karabakh.

In ancient times Karabakh was populated by Caucasian tribesmen who spoke a Lezgic language. Located between the competing empires of Urartu, Assyria, and the Medes, the region was absorbed by the Persians under Cyrus the Great in the 6th century BC. It is not known exactly when the mountainous areas of Karabakh first came under Armenian influence, but the borders of the Armenian province of Artsakh established in 189 BC largely correspond to the contemporary, enlarged territory of Nagorno-Karabakh. In fact, Armenia refers to the area today as “Artsakh.”

In 387 AD, the Kingdom of Armenia was partitioned between the Romans and the Persians after an extended war. Artsakh was awarded to the neighboring state of Albania—often referred to as “Caucasian Albania” to avoid confusion with the modern state in the Balkans—as a reward for its loyalty to the Sassanid kings of Persia. The Caucasian Albanians were ethnically similar to the original inhabitants of Karabakh and spoke the Lezgic Udi language. Under the Albanians, an historical account of the region was written by the Armenian Movses Kaghankatvatsi, and the Armenian and Albanian alphabets were both created by the Armenian Mesrop Mashtots. In 461 AD, Caucasian Albania was absorbed into Arran, a province of the Sassanid Empire.

A brief history – from an Azerbaijani perspective – of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, the current state of the region, and the conflict’s refugees. Warning: explicit images of death included.

Arabic invasions of the Caucasus followed in the seventh and eighth centuries. Revolts by Armenian princes against the Arabs in the early ninth century led to the establishment of the Principality of Khachen on the territory of the former province of Artsakh. As an Armenian polity, The Khachen Principality survived later pressure from the Byzantine Empire to the west and a series of invasions by nomadic tribes from the east: the Seljuks in the 11th and 12th centuries, the Mongols and Timurids in the 13th, and the Turkic federations of Kara Koyunlu and Aq Qoyunlu in the 14th and the beginning of the 16th centuries. This largely ended in the mid-16th century, when the Turkic Persians conquered and placed the entire region under the control of another Turkic tribe, the Qajars. However, Armenian political and cultural life endured within five semi-independent principalities called melikdoms that formed in the highlands of Nagorno-Karabakh, where Armenian settlements had been strongest.

A topographic map of Nagorno-Karabakh, as defined by its current de facto borders after the 1994 war with Azerbaijan. The region is mostly mountainous, but with fertile valleys. For a larger map, click here.

The modern Azerbaijani people now speak a Western Turkic language, likely in part due to the gradual Turkification of the native Caucasian and Iranian populations during the Middle Ages under Turkish influence. This was another major shift that would separate the modern Azerbaijani and Armenian peoples.

In 1724, Persia was partitioned between Russia and the Ottoman Empire, with Nagorno-Karabakh becoming part of the easternmost province belonging to the latter. Twelve years later, the region was retaken by the Persian general Nader Shah with the help of the Armenian melikdoms. As a reward, the Armenian principalities were granted much greater independence from the Qajars. A power struggle, however, ensued between the melikdoms with the Varanda Melikdom allying with the Turkic leader Panah-Ali Khan of the Karabakh Khanate. In the end, all five melikdoms were absorbed into the Turkic Karabakh Khanate, after which many Armenians emigrated out and Turkic peoples immigrated in, especially to the Karabakh lowlands.

Nagorno-Karabakh Under Russian and Soviet Rule

In 1805, the Khanate became a vassal state to the Russian Empire. In 1813 it was absorbed into Russia and in 1823 it was liquidated into the larger Russian Karabakh Province. Tax surveys performed by the Russians revealed that while Azerbaijanis were a majority in Karabakh—almost two-thirds in 1845—the mountainous districts were populated almost exclusively by Armenian villages. However, they did not recognize that the majority of Karabakh’s Azerbaijanis lived a nomadic lifestyle and spent their summers in the highlands of Nagorno-Karabakh. The Azerbaijani herdsmen’s claim to the lands of Nagorno-Karabakh is thus not reflected in these surveys, which were typically conducted during winter.

The Russian authorities favored the Christian Armenians over the Azerbaijanis, who shared religious and linguistic ties with the Ottomans. Throughout the 19th century, the Armenian population of the Karabakh lowlands grew steadily, encouraged by Russian policy, while increasing numbers of Muslims left for Iran and Turkey, reversing the demographic processes that had occurred under the Turkic Karabakh Khanate. By 1897, Karabakh was 43% Armenian and 55% Azerbaijani.

Tension between the two populations grew under Russian rule as increasing numbers of Armenians migrated to urban areas in the lowlands. This tension erupted into open ethnic conflict in the chaos of the 1905 Russian Revolution, as thousands of Azerbaijanis and Armenians were killed in pogroms held against each other in the region’s major cities. The violence was renewed on a much larger scale following the collapse of the Russian Empire in 1917. When a newly independent Azerbaijan laid claim to Karabakh in 1918, the Armenian-dominated provinces of Nagorno-Karabakh resisted, forming the Armenian National Council of Karabakh. The British forces stationed in the region lent their support to Azerbaijan, hoping to wrest the country away from Soviet influence and gain access to Baku’s significant oil reserves. Fearing encirclement by the enemy, Karabakh Armenians attacked Azerbaijani garrisons in 1920. In response, the Armenian quarters of Shusha, Nagorno-Karabakh’s largest town, were completely razed, and thousands of Armenian civilians were slaughtered by the retaliating Azerbaijanis.

Azerbaijan, before-after

This topographic map shows Azerbaijan’s effective borders before (top) and after (below) the 1993-1994 war. Note that the loss of this territory eliminates much of a defensible mountainous border that once separated it from its long-time enemy, Armenia. In a wider conflict, this would be a great advantage to Armenia, making the defense of southern Armenia easier (by eliminating a bottleneck and expanding the territory) and make the invasion of eastern Azerbaijan easier.

With its army occupied with Nagorno-Karabakh, Azerbaijan lost control of its capital, Baku, located on the other side of its territory, to Bolshevik forces in April 1920. By 1921 the entirety of the South Caucasus was under Soviet control. With the exit of the British there was some indication that Nagorno-Karbakh would be transferred to the Armenian state, but the geopolitical situation changed in 1921 with the normalization of relations between the USSR and Turkey.

As a concession to Turkey, which feared a strong Armenian state, Nagorno-Karabakh was incorporated as an autonomous province into the Azerbaijani Soviet Socialist Republic. However, Azerbaijani emigration had continued during the years of revolution in Russia and, by 1926, the province was 94% Armenian. The seasonal Azerbaijani presence in Nagorno-Karabakh was further curtailed during the anti-nomadic collectivization campaigns of the 1930s. All of this helped bolster Armenian claims to the territory.

The Armenian majority in Nagorno-Karabakh soon chafed under what they saw as excessive Azerbaijani interference: although autonomous regions in the Soviet Union were theoretically granted broad cultural and linguistic freedom, teachers of the Armenian language could study in Stepanakert (the capital of Nagorno-Karabakh) or Baku (Azerbaijan’s capital), for example, but were never given permission by Azerbaijani officials to study in Yerevan (the capital of Armenia). Residents of Nagorno-Karabakh sought greater autonomy, but because of the strict hierarchy of the Soviet administrative system, their demands had to be addressed to Azerbaijan, which consistently rejected them.

As the Armenians felt their situation worsen, the Armenian birthrate dropped and many left the region for work in larger cities. The area’s rural population again took on an increasingly Azerbaijani character, assisted by programs from Baku that encouraged Azerbaijani settlement of the area. By 1979, Nagorno-Karabakh was roughly 25% Azerbaijani. This shift helped exacerbate tensions, leading to escalated rhetoric by local political leaders. Armenian and Azerbaijani historians at this time also began to propagate radically divergent views on the region’s history and culture, setting the stage for the coming conflict.

A short tourism advertisement made by the European Center for Artsakh to encourage travel to Nagorno-Karabakh. It shows much of the modern landscape and some of the contemporary cities of the region.

The Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict

Glasnost under Mikhail Gorbachev allowed the region’s simmering ethnic tensions to be expressed openly. Demands for greater cultural, economic, and linguistic freedom by the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh escalated to demands for full reunification with Armenia by 1988. Ethnic clashes broke out later that year, with anti-Armenian riots claiming the lives of many in the Azerbaijani cities of Baku and Sumgait. Isolated attacks on Azeris occurred in Nagorno-Karabakh and then spread to Armenia. Moscow placed Nagorno-Karabakh under martial law winter of 1988, but the weakening state could do little to reconcile the two factions. Fighting grew even fiercer and, by November 1989, the Soviets resigned the situation, lifting martial law without a solid peace plan in place. The situation spiraled out of control after Azerbaijan declared independence from the USSR in October 1991, and Nagorno-Karabakh declared independence from Azerbaijan in December 1991. Full-scale war erupted between Azerbaijan and Armenia.

Gandzasar Monastery

The fortified Gandzasar Monastery in Nagorno-Karabakh. It dates to at least the 10th Century. View a larger image here.

The armed forces of both countries consisted of former Red Army units, volunteer irregulars, and, occasionally, mercenaries. A greater share of the military equipment left behind in the region fell into Azeri hands, but the Armenians possessed the advantage of greater manpower and a larger share of former Soviet officers.

An estimated 15,000-20,000 people, including civilians, were killed during the fighting and hundreds of thousands displaced: some 200,000 Armenians left Azerbaijan; 185,000 Azerbaijanis fled Armenia; 50,000 Azerbaijanis left Nagorno-Karabakh; and as many as 500,000-600,000 Azerbaijanis fled Armenian-occupied Azerbaijani lands. Thousands of refugees and displaced persons still languish in Armenia and Azerbaijan. Numerous cases of ethnic cleansing were reported, such as the Khojaly riots in February 1992 that claimed the lives of hundreds of Azeris.

Vladimir Putin on Russia’s position on the conflict and Russia’s military base and activities in Armenia. This video is from 2007, but the situation remains largely the same.

By 1994, the Armenians had pushed Azeri forces out of Nagorno-Karabakh and expanded its borders to their present locations, taking about 14% of Azerbaijan’s former territory. On May 12, 1994, Azerbaijan and Armenia signed a ceasefire, but a treaty was never signed and status of Nagorno-Karabakh remains unresolved.

Nagorno-Karabakh Today

In 2012, Nagorno-Karabakh’s population was estimated at 143,600, with 53,000 persons residing in its capital, Stepanakert. The population is almost entirely Armenian.

The question of Nagorno-Karabakh’s status dominates political life in both countries. The last two Armenian prime ministers came from Nagorno-Karabakh, a place that now raises feelings of national pride in Armenia. Azerbaijan’s government often reminds it populace of the conflict and often blames the occupied territories for any shortcoming in the government’s performance.

Nagorno-Karabakh saw most of its infrastructure destroyed in the war, but has been quick to rebuild. As Armenians have lived for centuries under outside political pressure or dominance, a significant number have sought their fortunes outside of Armenia’s historic borders. However, they have traditionally retained familial and even cultural ties with their homeland. In their new countries, they have often gained reputations as successful entrepreneurs, craftsmen, and industrialists. The vast majority of Armenians, in fact, live outside Armenia, with several hundred thousand each residing in the US, Europe, and Russia.

A significant percentage of the region’s budget is supplied by Armenian diaspora organizations such as the Hayastan All-Armenia Fund. For instance, a new $25 million road project was recently undertaken with funds raised by the diaspora. The diaspora has also heavily lobbied on behalf of the unrecognized state to their various governments. Thus, Nagorno-Karabakh is the only former Soviet breakaway state with permanent representation in the US and the only one to have ever received US aid ($10 million in 2002).

A report from Euronews on the conflict after fighting again flared in April, 2016. It discusses the current military, social, and economic situation.

During Soviet times, Nagorno-Karabakh was a significant producer of wheat, grapes, and animal products. Figs, citrus fruits, and pomegranates are also grown in its mild subtropical climate. While the country’s agricultural potential remains underdeveloped due a lack of equipment and fertilizer, investment is growing. Further, mineral deposits are being prospected and mined, many for the first time.

Sepanakert from the air

Arial view of Stepanakert, the capital of Nagorno-Karabakh. View the larger image here.

Perhaps the best opportunity for economic independence that the region has comes from its steep mountains and abundant water resources, which are highly favorable for the development of hydroelectricity. Minihydroelectric plants are now being constructed along its waterways and today, the republic supplies its own electricity and exports a surplus to Armenia.

That said, development is still hampered by an economic blockade by Turkey and Azerbaijan that has been in place for over two decades; in addition, a lack of international recognition disqualifies the region from most foreign aid and discourages investment by raising the perceived political risk.

Despite its lack of international recognition, democracy in Nagorno-Karabakh is often ranked higher by NGOs such as Freedom House than that in Azerbaijan and occasionally even Armenia. Elections have been certified as free by international observers, although the ruling party routinely gains over 80% of the vote and almost no critical voices are heard in the now largely-homogenous society.

A short documentary, produced by the Tourism Department of Nagorno Karabakh’s de facto government, covers the history, topography, and modern economy of Nagorno Karabakh from the Karabakh perspective.

Dozens of soldiers are killed along the line of contact between Azerbaijani and Armenian forces each year, and the balance of power may be tilting back towards oil-rich Azerbaijan, which increased defense spending from $175 million in 2004 to an estimated $3.1 billion in 2011. Rhetoric on both sides remains fiercely militaristic, with Azerbaijan, for instance, reacting to plans to rebuild an airport in Nagorno-Karabakh by saying that it would shoot down any unauthorized aircraft – including passenger craft – over its internationally recognized territory. In 2010, Azerbaijan signed a mutual assistance pact with Turkey, its only regional ally.

Nargno-Karabakh agriculture

A man showcases locally-produced fruits, juices, and wines at a festival in Nargno-Karabakh. View larger image here.

An Azerbaijani invasion of Nagorno-Karabakh could potentially draw both Russia and Turkey into war. The Nagorno-Karabakh issue remains the thorn in the side of the relatively prosperous South Caucasus, negatively impacting the region’s economic, democratic, and cultural development. It is only with its resolution that Transcaucasia can realize its full potential as the historic crossroads of Europe and Asia.


About the Author

Josh Wilson

Josh has lived in Moscow since 2003, when he first arrived to study Russian with SRAS. He holds an M.A. in Theatre and a B.A. in History from Idaho State University, where his masters thesis was written on the political economy of Soviet-era censorship organs affecting the stage. At SRAS, Josh assists in program development and leads our Home and Abroad Programs. He is also the editor-in-chief for the SRAS newsletter, the SRAS Family of Sites, and Vestnik. He has previously served as Communications Director to Bellerage Alinga and has served as a consultant or translator to several businesses and organizations with interests in Russia.

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David Parker

David Parker holds degrees in Russian and East European Studies from Middlebury College and Stanford University. He studied abroad in SRAS's Translation Abroad Program in Moscow. He resides in Seattle and works for a tour operator that specializes in Russia and Eastern Europe.

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