Nagorno-Karabakh: An Apple of Discord between Armenia and Azerbaijan (Part I)

Alec Rasizade. Contemporary Review. Volume 283, Issue 1701, Summer 2011.

It is impossible to understand the historic hostilities and territorial claims in this part of the Caucasus (as well as the current stage of the conflict) without making at least a short excursion into the history of the region and a brief reminder of the more recent developments there. Therefore, let us begin with historical facts.

The national identity of the region known as Nagorno-Karabakh in the Caucasus is disputed between the Azeri and Armenian historians as being populated by either Caucasian Albanians or indigenous Armenians who lived there between the rivers Kura and Araxes. (The medieval Caucasian Albania should not be mistaken for the modern Balkan Albania.) Accordingly, they name this province historically either Aran (Caucasian possession of the Persian Empire) or Artsakh (the tenth province of the ancient Kingdom of Armenia). Karabakh is a Turkic name given to the plain between the two rivers by the nomads who migrated here from Central Asia in the eleventh century, and it literally means the Black Garden, while Nagorno is a Russian word meaning Highland. Therefore, Nagorno-Karabakh means the Upper (mountainous) part of Karabakh (Haut-Karabakh in French), which had been inhabited by either Albanian or Armenian mountaineers, but not by the Turkic tribes who settled since their arrival in the grasslands of Lower Karabakh. This division has remained intact: Armenians live in the Upper Karabakh, while Azeris (the descendants of those Turkic tribes) populate the Lower Karabakh.

Christianity spread in Transcaucasia in the early fourth century, although Albania, the Christian kingdom that existed on the territory of modern Azerbaijan before the arrival of Turkic tribes, has disappeared since then. After the partition of Armenia between Byzantium and Persia in 387, Artsakh became part of the Kingdom of Albania, but in 469 Albania itself became a Persian satrapy under the name of Aran. Albania is a Latin name for this country, its native name is unknown for Albanians lacked a written language and we know them mainly through Armenian chronicles. As for Armenia (which is also a Latin name for the native Hayastan), after the creation of an Armenian written language by Mesrop Mashtotz in the fifth century, a rise of Armenian culture began in Artsakh/ Aran, which remained under the Persian rule until the Arab invasion of the seventh century, which broke Albania into several small principalities, some of which rapidly Armenized in the face of coercive conversion into Islam enforced by the Caliphate.

In this period of Arab conquest, the cultural life in Aran/Artsakh did not cease and in the eighth century a distinctive local Christian culture was shaped, as opposed to the Islamization of the surrounding nations, including the Turkic ancestors of modern Azeris that arrived in the region three centuries later. Albanian monasteries, churches and towns of Aran acquired an Armenian significance marked by khachkars, the stone crosses, before the arrival of Azeris. Thus Christianity helped to preserve the native identity of Aran/Artsakh from an absorption by the powerful Muslim empires that then dominated the Caucasus.

Therefore, proceeding from these historical facts, Armenian ideologues insist that the Muslim Azerbaijan cannot be considered a successor to the Christian Albania either culturally or linguistically, and claim that only the Christian Armenia is a genuine heir to Albanian heritage including the area of Aran/Artsakh. This is the pivotal principle of the Armenian historical claim to Nagorno-Karabakh. Azeri ideology claims the same area as the historic province of Albania, which existed on the territory of modern Azerbaijan. Armenians argue, however, that the modern Azerbaijan has as scant a relation to the medieval Albania as the modern Arabs of Egypt have to the ancient Egypt.

In 821 the Armenian prince Sumbat revolted in Artsakh against the Arab Caliphate and established the House of Khachen, which ruled Artsakh as a principality until the early eighteenth century. (The name Khachen originated from khach, which means ‘cross’). With the arrival of Turkic tribes from Central Asia in the eleventh century, the whole territory of Karabakh became by the fifteenth century part of the Seljuk states ruled by the Kara-koyunlu and Ak-koyunlu tribal confederations (literally meaning the Black-sheep and the White-sheep). They assigned the governance of Upper Karabakh to local Armenian princes who held the title of melik. During this period the area received its Turkic name Karabakh for the first time.

In the early sixteenth century, after the fall of Ak-koyunlu, control of the region passed to the Persian Sefevid Empire, which created the Karabakh Beylerbeylik (principality). During all of these conquests the population of Upper Karabakh remained largely Armenian and the local Armenian meliks were granted a wide degree of autonomy by the Sefevids in return for their support of the Persian Empire against the invading Ottoman Turks. Armenian meliks maintained full control over the region until the early eighteenth century when Nadir-shah of Persia took Karabakh and placed it under his own direct control.

With the death of Nadir-shah in 1747, the absence of power in Persia presented a threat to the empire’s integrity. Both the Ottoman and Russian Empires were seeking their shares from a possible disintegration of Persia, especially in the Caucasus: Turkey for this purpose enlisted the support of Muslim Daghestan mountaineers, while Russia recruited supporters among Christian Armenians and Georgians. In 1722 Peter the Great began his Persian campaign along the Caspian coast, occupying Derbent and Baku. At the same time the Armenian meliks, encouraged by Russia, gathered an army in Karabakh against Ottoman Turkey, which had by that time already occupied the entire territory of historic Greater Armenia to the west. However, Russia signed a peace treaty with Turkey in 1724, giving the latter a free hand in Transcaucasia. In the same year Ottoman troops invaded Karabakh and defeated the meliks, who did not receive the promised support from Russia.

Consequently, in the middle of the eighteenth century, the local Azeri khans formed the Karabakh Khanate, which only nominally recognized the Persian rule and became a Russian protectorate in 1805, when the Czar recognized Ibrahim Khalil-khan and his descendants as the sole hereditary rulers of the region. Karabakh’s new status was confirmed in 1813 under the terms of the Treaty of Gulistan, when Persia formally ceded Karabakh to the Russian Empire. In 1822, however, the Karabakh Khanate was eliminated and, with the incorporation of the rest of Transcaucasia into the Russian Empire after the second Persian war in 1828 by the Treaty of Turkmenchay, many Muslim families emigrated from Karabakh to Persia, while many Armenians were induced by the Russian government to immigrate from Persia to Karabakh.

After Russia’s October Revolution of 1917 a local Soviet government, led by an Armenian communist Stepan Shaumian, was established in Baku and ruled the city as the Baku Commune. Following the deportation of the entire Armenian population from their homeland in Ottoman Armenia and from Constantinople in 1915 (regarded by Armenia and recognized by France as genocide), the ethnic and religious animosity in Baku grew by March 1918 into an armed Azeri-Armenian conflict, with the formally neutral Bolsheviks tacitly supporting the Armenian side. The Armenian zinvors (militiamen) of Stepan Lalayan, gaining the upper hand, launched a massacre of the city’s Azeri population. Azeris, considered as the ethnic kin of Turks, were expelled from Baku or went underground. At the same time the Baku Commune was involved in heavy fighting with the advancing Ottoman army, which finally invaded the city and routed both the Armenian and Bolshevik forces. In these circumstances the government of Azerbaijan declared the incorporation of Karabakh into the newly established Azerbaijan Republic.

Meanwhile, with the demise of the Russian Empire, Karabakh became part of the Transcaucasian Federative Republic, which dissolved in May 1918 into the separate Armenian, Azeri and Georgian republics. The next two years saw a prolonged war between Armenia and Azerbaijan over several regions, including Karabakh. In July 1918, the Armenian Assembly of Nagorno-Karabakh declared the region independent and created a government. Later, Ottoman troops entered Karabakh, meeting armed resistance by Armenians. After the defeat of the Ottoman Empire in the First World War, British troops occupied Karabakh. The British affirmed the governor-general of Karabakh appointed by the Azeri government, pending a final decision by the Paris Peace Conference in 1919. The British decision was soon annulled by the Karabakh Assembly, which declared union with Armenia in April 1919.

On 28 April 1920, when the Azeri army was locked in Karabakh fighting the local Armenians, Baku was taken over by Bolshevik Russia, which created the Caucasian Bureau (Kavburo) for Sovietization of Transcaucasia, headed by Stalin who oversaw the Caucasus in the Bolshevik government. Armenia and Georgia were soon also taken over by the Bolsheviks who promised that they would allot Karabakh to Armenia, along with Nakhichevan and Zangezur (the mountain range separating Nakhichevan from Azerbaijan proper). However, Lenin had ulterior plans concerning Turkey, hoping that its ruler M.K. Ataturk would follow along the Communist lines. This can be seen, for example, by the odd placement of the Nakhichevan exclave, which is separated by Armenia but is a part of Azerbaijan, while the Nagorno-Karabakh enclave, which is similarly separated by Azerbaijan, is not a part of Armenia. To appease Ataturk, Stalin agreed to a division of Transcaucasia under which Zangezur fell under the control of Armenia, while Karabakh and Nakhichevan were placed under the control of Azerbaijan. As a result, the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast (NKAO) was established within the Azerbaijan SSR on 7 July 1923.

With the Soviet Union firmly in control of the region, the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh died down for several decades, leaving it with a population that was 94 per cent Armenian. The Soviet census of 1989, however, showed the reduction of Armenians in the NKAO, which had in 1989 a population of 200,000 people, of which 75 per cent were Armenians and 23 per cent Azeris. The Karabakh Armenians, pointing to the complete disappearance of Armenians from Nakhichevan, claimed that they too were subjected to a purposeful policy of displacement. They believed that Baku was measured to supersede Armenians from Karabakh in the way it had methodically done in the Nakhichevan ASSR.

The essence of Armenian discontent was that the Azeri authorities deliberately severed their ties with Armenia and pursued a policy of de-Armenization by a planned Azeri settlement, by squeezing the Armenian population out of the NKAO and neglecting its economic needs. With the disintegration of the USSR in the 1980s, the question of Nagorno-Karabakh re-emerged at full force. Openly accusing the Azeri government of conducting an ethnic cleansing of the region, the local Armenians, with ideological and material support from Erevan, started a movement to have the NKAO transferred from the Azerbaijan SSR to the Armenian SSR.

The War: 1988-1994

On 20 February 1988 the regional Soviet (local parliament) of Nagorno-Karabakh, proceeding from the right of nations to self-determination, appealed to the Supreme Soviets of the USSR, Azerbaijan SSR and Armenian SSR, asking them to authorize secession of the NKAO from Azerbaijan and its unification with Armenia. The appeal caused indignation among the neighbouring Azeri population, which began to gather crowds to go to Nagorno-Karabakh and ‘restore the order’. The first direct confrontation in Karabakh occurred on 23 February 1988, when a large group of protesting Azeris marched from the town of Agdam in the Lower (Azeri) Karabakh towards the Armenian town of Askeran on the frontier of Upper Karabakh, wreaking destruction in Armenian villages along the way. Confrontation degenerated into a skirmish, which left several participants dead.

The Askeran clash escalated on 27 February 1988 into an Armenian pogrom in the industrial city of Sumgait on Azerbaijan’s Caspian coast, which lasted for three days and claimed over 100 Armenian lives. A chain of further pogroms in Armenia and Azerbaijan followed, leading to a mass exodus of refugees from both republics. The issue was temporarily suspended when on 7 December 1988 a devastating earthquake hit Armenia, levelling the cities of Leninakan (now Gumri) and Spitak, killing 25,000 people.

Meanwhile, the NKAO regional Soviet was reformed into the Karabakh National Council, which held a joint session with the Armenian Supreme Soviet on 29 November 1989 and proclaimed the reunification of Nagorno-Karabakh with Armenia. This challenge sparked massive protest meetings in Azerbaijan and in January 1990 Azeri protesters in Baku went on a rampage against the remaining Armenians. Gorbachev intervened only on 20 January, after the forced evacuation of almost 300,000 Armenians (the entire Armenian population of Baku), dispatching army troops to put down the Azeri uprising and killing 122 people.

Prior to the official dissolution of the USSR, when all the constituent republics were holding the referenda on their independence, a similar referendum in Nagorno-Karabakh on 10 December 1991 approved the creation of an independent state, the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic (NKR). Armenia held its own referendum and declared independence from the Soviet Union on 21 September 1991, whereas Azerbaijan had declared its independence on 30 August 1991. On 21 November 1991 the Supreme Soviet of Azerbaijan repealed NKAO’s autonomous status. In response, on 6 January 1992, the NKR declared its independence from Azerbaijan.

As soon as the Soviet Union passed away on 31 December 1991, both sides waged a full-scale war. Azeri forces launched a military onslaught on the NKR which had no army at that moment. The newly independent Republic of Armenia intervened in the conflict and a new Azeri-Armenian war subsequently erupted between (formally) the NKR and Azerbaijan. From the beginning of the conflict, however, Armenia provided aid, weapons and volunteers to Nagorno-Karabakh. Armenia’s involvement escalated after the December 1993 Azeri offensive, when the Republic of Armenia began sending regular army troops to fight in Karabakh.

There is plenty of evidence that Armenia was supported by the Russian military and supplied with weaponry, while Azerbaijan received munitions and military instructors from Turkey to organize its ragtag troops. But on the battleground, where the fighting was going on between strictly the Armenian and Azeri soldiers, the better organized (and disciplined) Armenians were gaining the upper hand due to the lack of military tradition (and motivation) among the Azeris. The survival instinct also greatly determined the Armenian resolve: they had nowhere else to retreat.

The United States Congress passed a bill in 1992 entitled Section 907 of the Freedom Support Act in response to Azerbaijan’s debilitating transit blockade against Armenia, banning any American military supplies to Azerbaijan until it lifts the blockade, but Azerbaijan continues to maintain its railway and airspace blockade of Armenia to this day. The only land connection Armenia has with the outside world is through Georgia and (theoretically) Iran across the Araxes via impassable mountains, while its only link with Karabakh is the narrow Lachin pass through the mountain range that separates Azerbaijan from Armenia.

Mediation was attempted during the war by Russia, Kazakhstan and Iran, among other countries, as well as by the United Nations and the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe, which began sponsoring peace talks in 1992. Since these negotiations met with little success and several ceasefires broke down, the UN Security Council adopted in 1993 four resolutions calling for Armenian forces to withdraw from the occupied Azeri regions. Armenians responded that they were driving back the Azeris to protect Nagorno-Karabakh from their artillery and rocket shelling.

For a typical example, Iranian diplomacy was able to bring the leaders of Armenia and Azerbaijan to Tehran where they signed a communique on 7 May 1992, agreeing to a ceasefire and dealing with the refugee crisis. At the same time, however, Azeri commanders holding out in Shusha (the old Persian capital of Karabakh), began a massive artillery and rocket bombardment of the nearby Stepanakert, the new (Armenian) capital of NKR. The shelling barrage had forced 50,000 residents of the city to seek refuge in underground bunkers and basements, whereupon Armenians organized an offensive to take the town of Shusha. Fierce fighting took place in the town’s streets and several hundred men were killed on both sides. The Azeri commander of Shusha ordered a retreat on 9 May 1992, in consequence of which the Tehran agreement was ruined. Armenians swiflty followed with the capture of Lachin to the west of Shusha on 18 May 1992, which opened the so-called Lachin corridor to Armenia.

After recuperating from these defeats, Azerbaijan launched in June 1992 a large-scale offensive in the region of Geranboy (formerly the Shaumian district of Azerbaijan SSR populated by Armenians) which is separated from Nagorno-Karabakh by the Murovdag range to the north. The Geranboy offensive was the only major success of the Azeri army in this war and marked the peak of its advance in Nagorno-Karabakh. On 4 July 1992 Azeris captured Mardakert, the largest town in the north of Nagorno-Karabakh, and moved on Stepanakert. By August 1992 the Azeri army occupied 40 per cent of Nagorno-Karabakh territory and was within 30 minutes’ drive from Stepanakert. However, as Azeri forces pushed deeper into Karabakh’s mountainous terrain, they were persistently harassed by the detachments of zinvors (Armenian militia), suffering heavy losses when caught in narrow gorges and bombarded from atop the cliffs. This allowed the NKR troops to regroup and organize a counter-offensive towards the original front lines.

The first success came in the autumn of 1992, when Armenians pushed back the Azeri army which was attacking the southern town of Martuni. By February 1993 Armenians took back Mardakert in the north and advanced further to the west along the Terter river gorge, capturing the Azeri region of Kelbajar that separated Nagorno-Karabakh from Armenia, thus establishing a continuous swath of land stretching alongside the NKR and Armenia proper, in addition to the Lachin corridor. On 2 April 1993 Armenians attacked Kelbajar from two directions so quickly that Azeri armor and troops became trapped in the gorge. Nearly all Azeri soldiers died in this cul-de-sac. Many Azeri refugees retreating from Kelbajar through the Murovdag froze to death: they had to walk through the heavy snow in mountain passes. This provoked an international furore, for it was the first time that Armenian forces had crossed the boundaries of the enclave into Azerbaijan’s proper territory. On 30 April 1993 the UN Security Council passed Resolution 822, co-sponsored by Turkey and Pakistan, affirming Nagorno-Karabakh as part of Azerbaijan and demanding that Armenian forces withdraw from Kelbajar.

Instead of fighting back, the commander of Azeri forces on the Karabakh front, Suret Huseynov, marched his troops on Baku and toppled the government on 1 July 1993, clearing the way for a return of Azerbaijan’s former Soviet leader Heydar Aliev, who was elected in October 1993 as president of Azerbaijan on the promise to restore social order and recapture the lost regions. It is interesting to note, from the legal point of view, that the leader of the Karabakh separatists, Robert Kocharian, whom the international law presumes to be a citizen of Azerbaijan (considering Nagorno-Karabakh as its part) was elected in 1998 as president of the whole Armenian Republic.

Meanwhile, during the summer of 1993, Armenians regained not only their original positions and land connection to Armenia to the west, but also established a buffer zone to the east and south around the former territory of NKAO, thus further expanding the territory of the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic. However, the Geranboy/Shaumian district to the north, lost in the early stages of the Geranboy offensive, was not recaptured and remained under the control of Azerbaijan. Demoralized Azeri forces were unable to put up much resistance and left most of the areas without any serious fighting. For example, when Armenians commenced on 4 July 1993 an artillery bombardment of the Azeri town of Agdam to the east and civilians began to evacuate, so too did the soldiers, who made little effort to defend the town, letting Armenians take hold of Agdam. To the south, Armenian forces took in August 1993 four more Azeri towns: Kubatly, Fizuli, Jebrail and Zangelan, adjacent to Nagorno-Karabakh, and reached the river Araxes along the Iranian border by October 1993, displacing the local Azeri population. The war created 1.5 million refugees on both sides: almost one million Azeris from Armenia and the Karabakh region, and around 500,000 Armenians from Azerbaijan.

It is important to note here that Azeri conscripts were not only demoralized, but lacked a sense of purpose and commitment to fighting the war, probably because Karabakh did not matter to Azeris as much as it did to Armenians. This reality was reflected by an American journalist who wrote: ‘In Stepanakert, it is impossible to find an able-bodied man out of uniform, whereas in Baku draft-age men hang out in tea-houses. For Azerbaijan the issue of Karabakh is a matter of ambition, for the Armenians of Karabakh, it is a matter of life or death’ [M.Specter in The New York Times, 15 July 1994].Azeri youths as young as 16, with no military training, were drafted and sent to fight the seasoned Armenian zinvors in the mountains. As a result, two major attacks in the winter of 1994 cost Azerbaijan as many as 5000 men, compared to 600 casualties on the Armenian side. The Azeri winter offensive was aimed at recapturing Kelbajar, but again, as in the past spring, the Azeri brigade was locked by the Armenians in the Terter river gorge and completely destroyed.

In view of the disorderly Azeri retreat, Turkey deployed troops along its border with Armenia in September 1993 and issued a warning to Erevan to desist from invading the Nakhichevan Autonomous Republic sandwiched between Armenia and Iran along the Araxes river. The Treaty of Kars, signed in 1921, obliges Turkey to protect the Azeri status of Nakhichevan in the event of a military threat to this exclave emanating from any other state. Fighting continued into the early 1994, with Azeri forces winning some engagements and regaining some territory lost in previous months, which encouraged H. Aliev to pledge that in the coming year the occupied territories would be liberated and Azeri refugees would return to their homes.

At that point, Armenian forces held 14 per cent of the territory recognized as Azerbaijan, with Nagorno-Karabakh proper comprising only 5 per cent. However, after Aliev’s pledge, Armenians started a new campaign and, during the first three months of 1994, captured even more areas, thus creating a wider buffer zone around Nagorno-Karabakh. By May 1994 the NKR gained control over 20 per cent of the territory of Azerbaijan, having accomplished all its strategic goals. At that stage the government of Azerbaijan for the first time recognised Nagorno-Karabakh as a third party in the war and started direct negotiations with the NKR. As a result, an unofficial truce was reached on 12 May 1994 through Russian mediation. It is noteworthy that the final battle of the six-year war took place at Gulistan in the Shaumian/Geranboy district—exactly the place where the Treaty of Gulistan was concluded between Russia and Persia on 24 October 1813, by which Persia ceded Karabakh to the Russian Empire.