Civil War: Azerbaijan and Nagorno-Karabakh Republic (1992-1994)

Jessica Atwood. Civil Wars of the World: Major Conflicts since World War II. Editor: Karl DeRouen Jr. & Uk Heo. Volume 1, ABC-CLIO, 2007.


Azerbaijan has long been one of the poorest countries in the former Soviet Union. The civil war there and in the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic is rooted in the tension between Christian Armenia and the Muslim territories that surround it, and more than 1 million people were displaced during the 1992-1994 civil war. Unfortunately, a timely resolution of this conflict is unlikely, since neither the Azeris nor the Armenians seem willing to prioritize peace over their own territorial interests in the Nagorno-Karabakh region.

Country Background

In 1918, Azerbaijan emerged from World War I and the Russian Revolution as an independent state. Azerbaijan’s independence, however, was short-lived: The Red Army’s invasion in 1920 led to Azerbaijan’s annexation by Soviet Russia in the same year. As a constituent republic, Azerbaijan came under the total political and economic control of the state that became the Soviet Union in 1922. Under Soviet rule, Azerbaijan was subjected to Moscow’s authoritarian regime, and the same political patterns instituted under the Soviets continued in Azerbaijan when it established itself as an independent state. In terms of institutionalized authoritarian patterns, Polity IV data (Marshall and Jaggers 2002), which measures a state’s political regime characteristics through democracy by ranking a state with a full-fledged democracy with a score of 10 and a state with a copiously authoritarian regime with a score of-10, scores the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) from 1953 to 1987 as a -7. As Gorbachev ushered in glasnost and perestroika, the USSR’s Polity IV score improved to -6 in 1988, -4 in 1989, and 0 in 1990. In the year of the USSR’s collapse and in the three years following it, Azerbaijan’s polity score was primarily -3, and in 1995 Azerbaijan became more autocratic when its polity score dropped to -6 for three years and to -7 in 1998, remaining there until 2003.

What accounts for the drastic fluctuations in Azerbaijan’s polity scores during the 1990s? They can be attributed to the failure of the Azerbaijani government to resolve the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict throughout the 1990s. “Growing masses of disaffected refugees pressed vociferously for military victory and quickly shifted their support from one leader to another when losses occurred, negating efforts to establish solid political institutions at home or to make concessions that might provide a diplomatic solution to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict” (Curtis 1994). For instance, in the late 1980s, the advent of Mikhail S. Gorbachev’s policy of glasnost in Moscow encouraged vocal opposition to the ruling Azerbaijani Communist Party (ACP). In 1989, the central opposition role went to the Azerbaijani Popular Front (APF), which was able to capture the presidency from the ACP in the 1992 election, but in 1993 the APF leadership was overthrown, and former Communist official Heydar Aliyev was installed as president.

Azerbaijan ranks just as poorly in terms of political freedom and civil liberties as it does in institutionalized authoritarian patterns, as measured by Freedom House (2003) . In the Freedom House data, a score of 1 indicates the highest amount of either freedom or liberties, and a score of 7 equals the lowest amount of freedom or liberties. From 1973 to 1991, the USSR hovered around a score of 7 or 6 in both the political freedoms and civil liberties categories. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Azerbaijan’s political freedom and civil liberties rankings improved to 5 in 1992 and to 4 in 1993 and 1994. Immediately after the cease-fire that ended the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, however, Azerbaijan’s political freedom rankings deteriorated to Soviet Union levels.

Economically, the prosperity of Azerbaijan, like much of the Soviet Union, had been slowly declining since the 1970s. Azerbaijan possessed rich agricultural lands and a relatively developed industrial sector, but utilization of those resources during the Soviet period were subject to the customary deformations of centralized state planning. The Soviet-era collective farm system discouraged private initiative; agricultural equipment and the irrigation systems were outdated; modern technology had failed to be introduced on a wide and large scale; and agricultural program administration was ineffective. In the early 1990s, Azerbaijan saw significant further economic degeneration with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the emergence of armed conflict with the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic (NKR). After the collapse of the Soviet Union, “production in both sectors [fell] in both absolute and relative terms. In 1991, agriculture made up 39 percent of GDP. By 1996, this had dropped to 30 percent. In the same period, the share of industry in GDP shrank from 30 percent to 23 percent” (European Forum 1999). According to the European Forum, Azerbaijan’s GDP was approximately US $1,000 in 1990; but GDP in Azerbaijan fell by 22.6 percent in 1992, by 23.1 percent in 1993, and by an additional 18.1 percent in 1994. Between 1992 and 1994, hyperinflation levels reached over 1,000 percent (European Forum 1999). Inflation took off in early 1992, when many prices were decontrolled, and accelerated throughout the year, reaching an annual rate of 735 percent by October 1992. Inflation for 1993 was estimated at 1,200 percent, a figure exceeded in the international community only by Russia and a few other former Soviet republics.

Shrinking productivity in Azerbaijan’s traditional economic activities of agriculture and industry contributed greatly to the drop in GDP after 1991. In the industrial sector, gross industrial production plunged at least 26 percent in 1992 and 10 percent in 1993. This reflected the lack of infrastructure maintenance and other inputs left over from the collapse of the Soviet Union. In the agricultural sector, declines in production were attributed to the collapse of the Soviet Union and to the fighting in the Nagorno-Karabakh region. The major agricultural cash crops of Azerbaijan were vegetables, cotton, fruit, and tobacco. Together, these crops accounted for more than 80 percent of all production. In 1990, work stoppages and anti-Soviet demonstrations contributed to the beginning of declines in agricultural production. Azerbaijan’s economy was further reduced because of the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh, as Nagorno-Karabakh was the site of approximately one-fourth of Azerbaijan’s croplands. The breakout of fighting substantially reduced agricultural production. Additionally, the decline in agriculture’s contribution to GDP was also owing to changes in weather patterns that reduced cotton and grape harvests in the early 1990s.

Although the agricultural and industrial sectors shrank after the fall of the Soviet Union, Azerbaijan’s gas and electrical production contracted insignificantly compared to the other sectors. “A substantial part of the Azerbaijani economy relies on extensive oil fields in the Caspian Sea, gas and electricity production. In contrast to the rest of the economy, these sectors have contracted only slightly in absolute terms since 1991” (European Forum 1999). Azerbaijan has four major oil fields in the Caspian Sea: the Gunesli, Cirak, Azeri, and Kepez oil fields. The largest oil field was Gunesli field, which in 1992 accounted for approximately 60 percent of Azerbaijani oil production. Crude oil production has decreased in recent years, mainly because of a weak global market, well maturity, inadequate investment, and outdated equipment, but during the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, oil production decreased relatively little compared to the other sectors. “According to Azerbaijani estimates, for the first seven months of 1993 compared with the same period in 1992, crude oil production declined 7.1 percent, gasoline refining 2.8 percent, and diesel fuel production 19.9 percent” (Curtis 1994).

Historically, Azerbaijan was one of the poorest Soviet republics, and poverty further increased in 1992 because of the collapse of the economy after the fall of the Soviet Union and the escalating conflict with the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic. “In spite of the standard communist proclamation that employment was a right and employment was virtually full, large-scale, chronic unemployment had already emerged in the late 1980s, especially among youth and the growing ranks of refugees and displaced people” (Curtis 1994). According to official statistics compiled by the Azerbaijani government, the Azerbaijani workforce numbered approximately 2.5 million individuals in 1992, with agriculture accounting for approximately 35 percent of employment, and industry accounting for an additional 16 percent. Yet, these figures were skewed by underreporting by the Azeri government because workers in idle industries were listed as “employed” in official statistics. Additionally, by the end of the conflict with the NKR, it is estimated that 62 percent of the population lived at or below the poverty level. Poverty was worst among displaced persons, refugees, and the elderly. Officials tried unsuccessfully to protect the standard of living from inflation by periodically increasing wage payments and taking other measures. In his New Year’s message in January 1994, Aliyev acknowledged that during 1993 Azerbaijan had faced a serious economic crisis that led to further declines in the standard of living, but he promised that 1994 would witness positive changes. But unemployment had increased to 20 percent by 1996, despite the promised improvement of the economy.

In keeping with Aliyev’s economic promises to stabilize and stimulate the economy, Azerbaijan enacted economic reforms in 1995, cutting the budget deficit by slashing subsidies and utilizing international monetary support. With the assistance of the IMF (International Monetary Fund), Azerbaijan’s economic prospects began to improve, with a comprehensive economic stabilization program through the IMF and through increased foreign direct investment (FDI). The United States alone invested US $1.8 billion by the end of 1997. By 1998, Azerbaijan’s gross domestic product had grown by approximately 8 to 10 percent, and inflation remained close to zero (Laurila 1999). Yet, despite this economic growth, Azerbaijan still remains economically distant from the rest of the world. Through the assistance of the IMF, the Azerbaijani government had some success in stabilizing the economy. Although unemployment figures were still high in 1995, inflation dropped drastically to 84.5 percent, and experts believe overall economic recovery started in Azerbaijan in 1996 when GDP grew by 1.3 percent. However, despite several economic improvements, economic growth and recovery in Azerbaijan have been limited in comparison with the international community.

Conflict Background

“The conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh has its roots in the animosities between the peoples of predominantly Christian Armenia and those of the surrounding Muslim region that today comprises Azerbaijan, Turkey, and Iran—animosity seriously aggravated by Soviet policy in the region from the early 1920s, when the Soviet republics of Armenia and Azerbaijan were arbitrarily created by Stalin” (United States Institute of Peace 1992). Stalin had a “divide-and-rule” policy by which he intentionally placed territories containing large ethnic majorities inside regions containing a different ethnicity, thereby making the former ethnic majority an ethnic minority. One such example is the Nagorno-Karabakh region, a predominantly Armenian area that Stalin placed inside the borders of Azerbaijan. “By placing the [Nagorno-Karabakh] region within the borders of Azerbaijan, the Armenia inhabitants could be used as potential ‘hostages’ to ensure the Armenian SSR’s cooperation with the wishes of the Soviet leadership. By the same token, an ‘autonomous’ Armenian enclave within Azerbaijan could serve as a potential pro-Soviet fifth column in the event of disloyalty by the Azerbaijanis” (Cox and Eibner 1993, 31; Croissant 1998, 19-20). “In order to convert these potentialities into reality, Stalin created the Autonomous Oblast of Nagorno-Karabakh (AONK) on July 7, 1923 and drew its borders so as to leave a narrow strip of land separating it physically from Armenia” (Croissant 1998, 20; Walker 1991, 109). The AONK, however, was given the authorization to govern its own cultural and educational affairs (Altstadt 1992; Croissant 1998). During the Soviet period, any animosity that was stirred between the two ethnic groups was quickly and quietly suppressed by strong central rule from Moscow. “However, in the hearts and minds of the Armenians and Azerbaijanis, the question of Nagorno-Karabakh never receded in importance: The Armenians retained a strong desire for unification with their brethren in the mountainous area and vice versa, while the Azerbaijanis retained an equally strong desire to retain sovereignty over the land” (Croissant 1998, 25). As is typically the case when there is ethnic hostility fueled by attachment to a piece of land, tensions cannot be indefinitely suppressed. “Therefore, when the ‘thaw’ of the Gorbachev period arrived, tensions and irredenta that had been just below the surface of Armenian-Azerbaijani relations were released, resulting in a spiraling cycle of violence and bloodshed between the two republics that outlasted the Soviet Union itself” (Croissant 1998, 25).

Whether the conflict between the NKR and Azerbaijan is classified as a true civil war depends upon whether the Armenian government is considered to be actively assisting the Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh (Gleditsch 2001). Leading scholars (Doyle and Sambanis 2000; Eriksson and Wallensteen 2004; Fearon 2004; Strand, Håvard, Wilhelmsen, Gleditsch, and Eriksson 2004) ascertain that the conflict was a civil war, but Eriksson and Wallensteen (2004) attach a caveat to this categorization by classifying the conflict as a civil war during 1992 and as an internationalized civil war during 1993 and 1994, owing to Armenia’s assistance of the NKR. Just as the classification of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is dependent upon the definition of civil war, the beginning and ending dates of the conflict are dependent upon one’s perception and definition of armed conflict and civil war. Most scholars (Fearon 2004; Eriksson and Wallensteen 2004; Strand et al. 2004; Wallensteen and Sollenberg 1998) assert that the duration of the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh lasted from 1992 to 1994 because the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 allowed Azerbaijan to become an internationally recognized state.

Major Conflicts
Baku, Nakhichevan, and Ganja (Kirovabad)—anti-Armenian pogroms; Gedashen and Martunashen; Khojali; Maragha; Shusha; Lachin; Shaumian region; Martakert (Agdere); Srkhavend; Kelbajar region; Martakent; Aghdam; Jebrail; Kubatly; Horadiz; Zangelan; Fizuli; Kelbajar region
Important Geographical Locations
Karabakhian mountain ridge; Mrav mountain ridge; Artsakh region—rich in forests; Tartar River; Khachen River
Mineral Resources
Coal—in Maghavuz, Nareshtar, and Kolatak in the Martakert region; zinc, lead, copper, gold—found in Mehmana, Drmbon, Gyulatagh, Kousapat, Van, Khazanchi, Lisagor, Zardanashen, Mets Tager, Tsor, and Maghavouz, between the Tartar and Khachen Rivers, and also on the slopes of the mountain Mrav
Large Diaspora Communities
United States, Iran, France, Lebanon, Russia, and Argentina
NKR Permanent Missions
Paris, Washington, D.C., Sydney, Moscow, Beirut, and Yerevan
Table 1: Major Features of the Azerbaijani Civil War

Before 1991, the conflict in Azerbaijan was not a civil war, because the Armenian inhabitants of the Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republic (SSR) were not fighting against the Soviet government. Still, other notable scholars, primarily Doyle and Sambanis (2000), assert that the conflict lasted from 1988 to 1996. The start dates vary because of differences in definitions of the beginning of the conflict. The year 1988 saw the beginning of protests about the status of Nagorno-Karabakh in Armenia and the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic, and the ethnic cleansing of Armenians and Azerbaijanis in Azerbaijan and Armenia, but it was the Khojaly massacre in 1992 that initiated full-scale war over the territory. Similarly, the end dates of the conflict are dependent upon one’s definition of conclusion. A permanent cease-fire was instituted in 1994, but peace negotiations continue to the present year. Although the conflict is technically considered a civil war only after the collapse of the Soviet Union, it is important to consider the events that began in 1988 in order to understand the importance of the onset of events after the collapse of the Soviet Union. It is also important to understand that, theoretically, fighting stopped with the implementation of a cease-fire in 1994, but animosity and deliberations continue today among the three primary actors (the NKR, Armenia, and Azerbaijan).

Although the Armenians are predominantly Christian and the Azerbaijanis are predominantly Muslim, the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh is truly an ethnic territorial conflict (Doyle and Sambanis 2000; Eriksson and Wallensteen 2004; Fearon 2004; Strand et al. 2004). Originally, the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh wished to reunite with Armenia, but now the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic wishes to establish sovereignty. The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is one that saw an Azerbaijani army consisting of approximately 74,000 troops (Doyle and Sambanis 2000) fighting against the NKR’s army, which numbered approximately 20,000 (Pushkin 2002). Lacina and Gleditsch (2005) estimate that over the course of the armed conflict more 20,000 battle deaths were inflicted on each side. Lacina and Gleditsch (2005) also estimate that Azerbaijan suffered 16,000 total population deaths, whereas Armenians suffered only 4,000. Doyle and Sambanis (2000), however, give more conservative estimates of the total number of civilian and battle casualties by estimating only 55,000 lives lost in total during the period 1988-1996. In addition to the number of dead, over 1 million people were displaced during the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh.

Sources: World Resources Institute 2004; Pushkin 2002.
War: NKR vs. Azerbaijan
Dates: 1992-1994
Casualties: 55,000-60,000
Regime type prior to war: -3 (ranging from-10 [authoritarian] to 10 [democracy])
Regime type after war: -3 (ranging from-10 [authoritarian] to 10 [democracy])
GDP/capita year war began: US $1,000 (constant 1995 dollars)
GDP/capita 5 years after war: US $1,200 (constant 1995 dollars)
Insurgents: Nagorno-Karabakh Republic (NKR)
Issue: Historical ethnic tensions resulting in the disagreement over the ownership of territory
Rebel funding: Armenian and Russian assistance, NKR tax base, Armenian diaspora
Role of geography: Mountains used as defense barrier; also allowed rebels to use guerrilla tactics against government troops.
Role of resources: Oil, which impacted peace settlements
Immediate outcome: Cease-fire facilitated by CSCE
Outcome after 5 years: Stable cease-fire but peace-building failure
Role of UN: Passed four resolutions in 1993; no peacekeepers
Role of regional organization: CSCE
Refugees/displaced persons: More than 1 million
Prospects for peace: Unfavorable
Table 2: Civil War in Azerbaijan

The Insurgents

The Nagorno-Karabakh Republic (NKR) established its independence on September 2, 1991, but it was (and still is) unrecognized as a sovereign state by the international community; Armenia does not even recognize the NKR as a sovereign state in order to prevent international diplomatic situations. Still, Armenia has allowed the NKR to establish the Permanent Representation of the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic in the Republic of Armenia in Armenia’s capital city of Yerevan, which is guarded by soldiers of the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic. However, despite its officially unrecognized international status, the NKR has established a highly organized government bureaucracy that includes a prime minister, a unicameral legislature consisting of thirty-three democratically elected representatives, and executive ministries. There are strict passport and visa requirements to enter the republic, and the NKR has established permanent missions in Paris, Washington, D.C., Sydney, Moscow, Beirut, and Yerevan. “There is even a Miss Artsakh beauty competition—bathing costumes and all—every April in the Palace of Youth. It seems the only thing in the Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh does not have is a national airline” (Harris 1999). The Nagorno-Karabakh Republic has also established a taxation system to fund these government activities, and it does not appear that the looting of resources is a source of funding for the NKR.

The NKR has also established a modern, well-equipped army—with effective command and control, border guard, air defense, heavy and light artillery, mechanized infantry, engineering, intelligence, and special operations units—that is considered to be the most capable military force among all post-Soviet militaries on the unit-for-unit basis. The NKR established its Defense Army on May 9, 1992, to defend Nagorno-Karabakh’s population against Azerbaijani military aggression. The formation of the Defense Army was a uniting of various self-defense units within the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic that were formed in the early 1990s to protect Nagorno-Karabakh from military attacks. To resist Azerbaijani aggression, life in the NKR primarily focused on the military effort. Every male over the age of eighteen must serve two years in the army as a conscript, and only full-time students can defer the service obligation:

Conscripts go to the Defense Ministry Training Division at Ivanovka … [where] …there is much emphasis on discipline and adherence to a strictly enforced daily routine … Much of the time in the first three months is spent on establishing the regime and on basic training … Basic training includes care and use of uniform, drill, training in the use of the standard infantry weapon AK-74, first aid, close quarters combat and, unusually, learning to throw a knife to kill… After six months, those who are particularly keen and able can elect to go to military training college with a view to becoming professional soldiers … A lieutenant of the Karabakh Armed Forces on the front line earns $150-170 a month. Soldiers serving under contract earn $60-70 a month (average monthly wages in NKR amount to $25-30) … Women are admitted to the NKP [the standing army of the NKR] but are restricted to work in areas like administration and medical services. (Harris, 1999)

With regard to military funding, the NKR receives a great deal of outside assistance, especially from Armenia and Russia. The NKR also receives considerable economic, political, and humanitarian support from the ethnic Armenian diaspora. Large Armenian diasporas exist in the United States, Iran, France, Lebanon, Russia, and Argentina. These diasporas have provided financial assistance to Armenia in the form of humanitarian aid and in other charitable projects. “However, a field where politically active Armenians were able to provide a significant amount of support beyond the pocket books of the community was in the formation of lobbying organizations in the West” (Masih and Krikorian 1999, 112). In the United States, for instance, the Armenian diaspora numbers almost 1 million individuals. This population’s involvement in American politics has had a considerable impact on U.S. policy toward Armenia. In 1992, Congress passed the Freedom Support Act, which provided for American assistance for the newly independent states of the former Soviet Union, and Section 907 of the Act was lobbied for by the Armenian diaspora. Section 907 assisted the Armenian and Nagorno-Karabakh governments by preventing the U.S. government from assisting the Azerbaijani government. Additionally, the Armenian diaspora was able to convince the United States to provide large amounts of humanitarian assistance to Armenia, which led to “Armenia eventually [becoming] the largest per capita recipient of US aid in the former Soviet Union and the fourth largest dollar recipient following Russia, Ukraine, and Kazakhstan” (Masih and Krikorian 1999, 112). Due to Armenian and ethnic Armenian assistance, most of the literature discussing the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict tends to describe the conflict as one between the government of Azerbaijan and “Armenian forces.” The term “Armenian forces” is a calculatedly ambiguous term, which refers to Nagorno-Karabakh’s army as well as to citizens of Armenia, the Armenian diaspora, mercenaries, and members of the armed forces of Armenia.


Nagorno-Karabakh is located in the southeastern portion of the Caucasus Minor. Its very name (Nagorno means “mountainous”) indicates that the region is exceptionally mountainous and covered with forests. The Mrav mountain ridge, which runs through the Martakert region, is the country’s highest mountain chain; and the other notable mountain chain, the Great Kirs, is situated in the junction of the Shushi and Hadrout regions. The Nagorno-Karabakh region is, on average, 1,100 meters above sea level, and it covers approximately 1,700 square miles in western Azerbaijan. The region has numerous mineral springs as well as deposits of zinc, coal, lead, gold, marble, and limestone. Farming and grazing are important agricultural activities, and there are various light industries in the region. The mountainous topography of the region has aided the NKR in the defense of its land by creating an environment conducive to guerrilla tactics and inconducive to offensive operations (Pushkin 2002). “The topography of the region does much to prevent either side from launching another military offensive” (Carley 1998, vi).

“The region’s mountainous landscape would make it difficult for Azerbaijan to launch an offensive against either Armenia or Karabakh” (Carley 1998, 12). Moreover, the mountainous terrain in the areas of conflict around Nagorno-Karabakh and along the Azeri-Armenian border precluded the effective use of large-scale military assaults by armored forces.


According to the online journal Russian Military Analysis (Pushkin 2002), the NKR’s military is one of the best-equipped, best-trained forces in any of the former Soviet republics. Although the NKR does not release official numbers pertaining to its force strength, the Russian Military Analysis (Pushkin 2002) estimates that the NKR currently has 20,000-25,000 servicemen, 316 tanks, 324 armored combat vehicles, 322 artillery pieces of 122-mm and larger caliber, and 44 multiple rocket launcher systems:

The Karabakh Armed Forces are the most combat ready and efficient armed forces in any of the former Soviet republics. The experience of the former Soviet army was taken as the basis for combat training. The Armed Forces of NKR have practically the same regulations, firing and driving practices. Military exercises are organized regularly, and not only active troops, but also mobilization reserves take part in these exercises … NKR spends one-fourth of its budget on defense. There are combat units deployed along all 250 kilometers of the Karabakh-Azerbaijani border. These units are prepared to parry the opponent’s attacks at any time. (Pushkin 2002)

In comparison, according to Doyle and Sambanis (2000), during the conflict the Azerbaijani military numbered 74,000 troops. By Russian Military Analysis estimates (Pushkin 2002), Azerbaijan has 69,900 servicemen, 259 tanks, 328 armored combat vehicles, 303 artillery pieces of 122-mm and larger caliber, 49 combat airplanes, and 15 strike helicopters. Although Azerbaijan may have an advantage over the NKR in terms of ground forces, the Azerbaijani Armed Forces are inefficient and poorly trained relative to the NKR’s Defense Army, and “Baku is unable to successfully conduct offensive operations against the NKR and Armenia. Meanwhile, the military and economic potential of Azerbaijan is much higher than that of the opposing forces. Baku has substantial resources for replenishment of fuel and lubricants which [the NKR] does not” (Pushkin 2000). Officially, Azerbaijan and the NKR fought each other without outside intervention:

However, the non-governmental organization Human Rights Watch found evidence that Armenia mobilized its regular forces. The Russians participated by providing training and material assistance. According to Russian sources mountain troops from the 128 Regiment of the 7th Russian Army based in Armenia participated in the seizure of Kelbajar Province of Azerbaijan in a blitzkrieg operation starting 27 March and ending 5 April 1993. A number of mercenaries participated in the war operations on the both sides. Also other sources and eyewitness evidence confirm the direct military and political involvement of the Soviet Union. (Laurila 1999, 8-9)

The NKR’s primary tactic in fighting against Azerbaijan has been to occupy the land between itself and Armenia, thereby creating a security zone around the NKR by removing Azerbaijanis from the land. After its formation in 1992, the NKP succeeded in liberating previously captured territories from Azerbaijan and, during military engagements, occupied a few Azerbaijani regions bordering the NKR that had been used as firing lines against the Armenians. The creation of the security zone precluded the immediate threat facing the population of the NKR. This security zone now amounts to approximately 15 percent of Azerbaijani land. The only physical connection that the inhabitants of or visitors to Nagorno-Karabakh have with the outside world is through a seven-hour road journey through the Lachin Corridor. This is a 10-kilometer-wide corridor driven through Azerbaijan that was created by the NKR (with Armenian assistance) to connect Armenia and the NKR. All supplies from the outside world come through the corridor on trucks bearing the plates and camouflage of either the Armenian or Nagorno-Karabakh armies.

Causes of the War

In addition to the previously discussed historical ethnic tensions, Yamskov (1991) identifies three immediate factors that contributed to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict: economic factors, cultural and linguistic factors, and ethno-demo-graphic factors. The most basic underlying economic cause of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict was the difference in the standard of living between the Azerbaijanis and the Armenians:

The population of Nagorno-Karabakh enjoys a level of social and economic development that is somewhat higher than that of the general population of Azerbaijan. However, the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh are well aware that life is even better in neighboring Armenia, and are dissatisfied, believing that their lower standard of living is the result of the deliberate policies of the Azerbaijani republican government, which controls the development and economy of their oblast. The government of Azerbaijan, comparing the living conditions in Nagorno-Karabakh with the surrounding region, concluded that the situation in the autonomous oblast was significantly better than elsewhere, and that funds from businesses in Karabakh should be directed toward the development of other, poorer territories. (Yamskov 1991)

In addition to economic grievances, the people of the NKR were discontented with Azerbaijan’s perceived suppression of their cultural and linguistic heritage. Despite Nagorno-Karabakh’s autonomous status as an oblast of the Azerbaijan SSR, the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh were hindered in developing and using their own language and culture (Yamskov 1991; Laurila 1999). “The Azerbaijanis can be accused of depriving the 130,000 Armenians living in the Nagorno-Karabakh of their possibilities to watch TV broadcasts from Yerevan, of their right to study Armenian history and their access to Armenian literature” (Laruila 1999, 8). The near severance of their education and cultural ties with Armenia and the inadequate development of the Armenian language and culture in the oblast itself aroused the Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh as they saw these policies brought about by the Azerbaijani government (Yamskov 1991).

Not only did the Armenians of the NKR reason that the Azerbaijani government was intentionally suppressing their culture, they also believed that the government was attempting to “Azerbaijanize” the NKR. When the Soviet government created the boundaries of Nagorno-Karabakh, it had a population of 131,500-5.6 percent of which were Azerbaijani (Yamskov 1991). By the late 1980s, the oblast had grown to 177,100 inhabitants—24.4 percent of which were Azerbaijani (Yamskov 1991; Starovoitova, Yamskov, and Krupnik 1988). The population changes in terms of ethnicity were evident to the inhabitants of Nagorno-Karabakh as well as to the Armenians and Azerbaijanis. Yamskov (1991) estimates that, had these population trends continued for another twenty years, the Azerbaijanis would have gained majority status in the oblast. To the Armenians living in the oblast, the increased Azerbaijani population was seen as an “Azerbaijanation” of the oblast, and the chance that the Azerbaijanis might gain predominance in the oblast meant the displacement of Armenians from Armenia’s “native land” by “foreigners” (Yamskov 1991).


Conflict Status

After numerous failed attempts, a permanent cease-fire was instituted on May 12, 1994, to end two years of armed conflict. “After a series of offensives, retreats, and counteroffensives, Nagorno-Karabakh now controls a sizable portion of Azerbaijan proper … including the Lachin corridor.” (Starovoitova 1997, 25-26). Although relative peace has been maintained since the cease-fire, Doyle and Sambanis (2000) have coded the conflict as a peace-building failure owing to the continued occupation of Azeri territory by the Armenians and the inability of either side to reach a permanent, peaceful settlement.

The conflict created approximately 1 million refugees and displaced persons. According to Human Rights Watch: Helsinki, “A displaced person is one who flees his home because of fear or persecution but does not cross an international border. A refugee is one who is forced out of his home under the same circumstances but crosses an international border” (HRW 1994, 58). Much of the forced displacement of ethnic Armenians took place before the collapse of the Soviet Union and the recognition of Azerbaijan as an independent state by the international community. Human Rights Watch: Helsinki estimates that 350,000 ethnic Armenians left Azerbaijan between 1988 and 1990 and the majority relocated to Armenia or Russia. “In 1991, in Operation Ring, the government of the former Azerbaijani Soviet Socialist Republic with the aid of central authorities in Moscow was responsible for the forced displacement of Armenian civilians from Geranboi (Shaumyan) province and from Chaikent (Getashen), a village in Khanlar province, Azerbaijan” (HRW 1994, 59). Most of these individuals were able to return to their villages within the next two years. In 1992, another Azerbaijani counteroffensive against the provinces of Geranboi and Mardakent displaced roughly 40,000 Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh, but most of these Armenians were able to return to their villages as a result of later successful Karabakh Armenian offensives.

In comparison to the number of Armenian refugees, Azerbaijan acquired numerous displaced persons, and there were almost as many Azerbaijani refugees as Armenian refugees. Between 1988 and 1989, approximately 200,000 Azerbaijanis fled Armenia, but between 1988 and 1994, an estimated 750,000 to 800,000 Azeris were forced out of Nagorno-Karabakh and the seven other Azeri provinces now completely occupied by Karabakh-Armenians. De Waal estimates that half a million Azerbaijanis were forced out in the years 1992 to 1994. (2003, 218). In comparison to other civil wars, “Azerbaijan has the largest proportion of displaced people per capita as every tenth person is a refugee from the conflict with Armenia … Six years after the cease-fire agreement was signed, in the year 2000, around eighty or ninety thousand of them were still in refugee camps. Hundreds of thousands more were living in a vast archipelago of sanatoria, student hostels, and makeshift accommodations.” (De Waal 2003, 218). As of 1999, there were 900,000 Azerbaijani refugees and internally displaced persons who cannot return to their homes in the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic due to a heavily militarized ruling structure in the region, coordinated by the Armenians, that prevents ethnic Azerbaijanis from returning to their homes.

The conflict between the NKR and the Azerbaijani government also produced numerous violations of the rules of war. From 1992 to 1994, both sides violated a vast majority of the rules of war by actions that included indiscriminate fire, the destruction of civilian objects, the taking of hostages, and looting. Additionally, each side took or held hostages, which is prohibited in armed conflicts. There were also reports that the Republic of Armenia took and held hostages to assist the NKR. “The Armenian government has participated in the holding of hostages; several Azeri hostages told HRW/H that they were held in jails or other locations inside Armenia. In addition, several former Azeri hostages alleged that soldiers from the Republic of Armenia army took them hostage” (HRW 1994, 53). Moreover, combatants that were captured were not cared for in the appropriate manner.

Human Rights Watch/Helsinki spoke with captured combatants on both sides who were slashed with bayonets or knives at the time of their capture. Most were beaten thereafter, sometimes to the point of unconsciousness. One released Karabakh Armenian captive reported that hot water had been poured on him while in detention. A release Azeri captive … [reported] that he and two of his comrades were beaten terribly, then tied to the outside of an armored personnel carrier and a tank and driven off. Prisoners were sometimes subject to ridicule and scorn from civilian crowds. (HRW 1994, 52)

Duration Tactics

Using the dates provided by PRIO/Uppsala (Strand et al. 2004) research, the duration of the actual conflict between Azerbaijan and Nagorno-Karabakh was fairly short—from 1992 to 1994. Yet, the duration of the acrimony harbored by the two sides dates back centuries and continues to the present day. The post-Cold War conflict was limited in length not because of efforts made by the Azerbaijani, Armenian, or Nagorno-Karabakh governments but rather because of intervention by outside entities and the international community’s interest in the former republics of the Soviet Union. Additionally, Armenia’s and Azerbaijan’s admittance to the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) in 1992 promoted the short duration of the conflict, as the CSCE agreed to act as a mediator for the conflict. The countries of the CSCE had underlying reasons, discussed following, for desiring the quick end of the Nagorno-Karabakh and Azerbaijani conflict.

External Military Intervention

Officially, no state will publicly admit to intervening in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict from 1992 to 1994, but numerous states had economic and strategic interests in the region that caused them to covertly interfere in the conflict. These states typically provided either Armenia, which in turn assisted the NKR, or Azerbaijan with economic or military aid. Russia, for instance, shipped over $1 billion in arms to Armenia from 1993 to 1995:

[I]t appears that Russian military commanders in the field sold or “loaned” arms and ammunition first to Armenian forces fighting in Karabakh and later to Azerbaijani forces when Armenian forces seemed likely to prevail. The military equipment ranged from Kalashnikovs to tanks, armoured combat vehicles (ACVs), heavy artillery and Grad multiple rocket launchers. Huge quantities of military equipment were also looted by militia forces from poorly protected Russian military depots. Detailed accounts provided by Aman Tuleyev, former Minister for CIS Affairs, General Igor Rodionov, former Defense Minister, and retired General Lev Rokhlin, Chairman of the Duma Defense Committee … [note that the] Trans-Caucasian Group of Forces (TCGF) covertly transferred to Armenia without payment around US $1 billion worth of military equipment. The equipment was said to include 84 T-72 tanks, 50 ACVs, howitzers, heavy artillery, antitank guided missiles and up to 32 Scud tactical missiles, as well as light weapons and ammunition including 26 mortars, 306 submachine guns, 7,910 assault rifles and 1,847 pistols.” (Anthony 1998; Berryman 2000; Herzig 1999; Menon 1998)

Turkey intervened in the conflict by allowing Armenia to utilize its airspace, railroads, and ports to facilitate the movement of goods when Azerbaijan blockaded Armenia in 1992 and practically brought the economy to a standstill. Turkey had hoped to establish itself as a power in the region, yet when Armenia began to look to Russia for assistance as well as to Turkey, Turkey became disgruntled at this sensed struggle for influence with Russia, and in 1993, Turkey shifted its support from Armenia to Azerbaijan when it closed its borders with Armenia under the premise that Armenia must withdraw from seized Azeri land. Turkey began diplomatically supporting Azerbaijan in international forums, and it hampered shipments of humanitarian assistance to Armenia. Iranian intervention in the conflict was prompted by concerns that, if the conflict were not quickly and peacefully settled, its own Azeri minority might want independence. American involvement in the conflict was motivated by the need for containment of Iranian influence, the Armenian diaspora’s influence in the United States, and oil in the Caspian. Yet, none of these countries openly contributed troops to the conflict.

Conflict Management Efforts

Numerous mediation attempts were made by Russia, Kazakhstan, Iran, Turkey, and France prior to 1994. The longest-lasting mediation attempt, led by Iran, lasted a week but collapsed because of the unwillingness of either side to commit to peace and because of Western resistance to Iranian involvement. “[T]he Armenians of Nagorno-Karagagh saw their situation as desperate and did not feel that they could successfully negotiate while their very existence was precarious at best. They were concerned with their security first and foremost…. During critical phases of the Iranian negotiating efforts, NKR forces seized strategic objectives, which essentially torpedoed Iranian mediation” (Masih and Krikorian 1999, 116-17). Additionally, the conflict between NKR and Azerbaijan quickly appeared on the international radar owing to to the world’s interest in the former Soviet Union. “Iran’s competitors in the region, most notably Turkey, viewed Iranian sponsored negotiations with growing apprehension” (Masih and Krikorian 1999, 117), but to the relief of Iran’s competitors and to the dismay of Iran, with Azerbaijan’s and Armenia’s admittance to the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE), the mediation torch was passed to this organization in 1992. The CSCE created the Minsk Group to lead mediation efforts, and a cease-fire was signed on May 12, 1994. Beyond the permanent cease-fire established in 1994, little progress has been made regarding a permanent peace. “[E]ach side has insisted on … conditions that the other will not accept. The Armenians will not discuss the withdrawal of their troops from Azeri territories until the [NKR] is recognized as independent; Azerbaijan insists on its complete territorial integrity and demands the withdrawal of Armenian troops before it will discuss … Nagorno-Karabakh” (Carley 1998, v). And Nagorno-Karabakh flatly rejects any plan that does not include a provision for sovereignty.

In general, the mediation process has been flawed by the lack of peacekeeping experience of the CSCE (which later became the Organization for Security and Cooperation [OSCE] in Europe in 1995) and by the ulterior motives of the Minsk Group members. First, at the insistence of Azerbaijan, Nagorno-Karabakh is not a member of the OSCE, because it is lawfully part of Azerbaijan. Therefore, as Nagorno-Karabakh is not a formal member of the peace negotiations, any permanent conflict resolution is irrevocably hampered (Hughes and Sasse 2002). Second, the deeply rooted historical and cultural causes of the conflict and the issue of repatriating at least some of the approximately 1 million refugees have still not been resolved by the OSCE. Third, the OSCE’s lack of a substantial peacekeeping force would hinder the enforcement of any settlement if one were reached. Additionally, numerous Minsk Group members have “wider strategic aims” (Carley 1998, 7) than simple peace between Azerbaijan and the NKR.

Russia, a supporter of Armenia, is pursuing a solution that would allow it to maintain its influence in the South Caucasus region, which is evident by its “occasional attempts to bypass the OSCE process entirely and continue to pursue separate resolution efforts” (Carley 1998, 7). Turkey, Russia’s traditional rival in the region, has committed itself to the defense of Azerbaijan should Armenia resume hostilities. As for the United States, it is attempting to assuage its own influential Armenian population while securing alternative oil pipeline routes for Azerbaijan’s substantial oil reserves from the Caspian Sea. Although there is little evidence that natural resources (other than land) contributed to the conflict, oil has emerged as a concern in the mediation efforts. It was in 1994 that “Washington and other centers of power seemed to wake up to the realities of Caspian oil” (Carley 1998, 13). Not only has oil contributed to Western interest in the region, but oil has negatively impacted the peace negotiations by creating a mindset among officials in Baku that Azerbaijan’s petroleum resources means “time is on its side and … there is less need to compromise now because the country’s position will improve [economically and politically] in the future. More importantly, this situation may increase the risk that Baku will resort to force if no progress is made at the negotiating table, because once oil revenues start to fill the national coffers, it will be harder for the Azeri government to explain to its people why Azeri lands are still occupied by Armenians” (Carley 1998).


The conflict over the Nagorno-Karabakh region has been described as a “war without hope” (United States Institute of Peace 1992), and any prospects for a peaceful settlement are bleak because there are territorial factors linked to the nationalistic pride of each state. Azeri writer Houseline has declared,

“There cannot be a victor. The Azeris will never agree to the forcible annexation of Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia. And Armenia can never rest in peace after seizing the territory of others.” Independent journalist Thomas Goetz … concluded that the only evident solution would be for Azerbaijan to give Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia in exchange for territory … two moves that he labeled as politically impossible for both governments. Kenneth M. Jensen …agreed that the only apparent way to peace in Nagorno-Karabakh would be a swap of territory or population between Armenia and Azerbaijan, but warned that would constitute “an outrageous violation of a number of important norms of international relations.” (United States Institute of Peace 1992, 5)

It is very difficult to negotiate a permanent solution to the conflict which would be satisfactory to the main parties. At the heart of the Karabakh conflict lies the classic contradiction inherent in the international system: territorial integrity versus the right of self-determination. The difficulty facing any peace agreement… is how to combine these two principles in a manner that is acceptable to the main parties to the conflict.” (Hughes and Sasse 2002, 159).