[Jan-Pieter Verheul]

Nagorno-Karabakh is a 4,400 square kilometer region in the southern Caucasus legally belonging to Azerbaijan, but predominantly inhabited by ethnic Armenians. Since its official incorporation into the Azerbaijan Soviet Republic in 1921, the Armenian residents have been continually struggling for liberation from Azerbaijani rule in favor of unification with Armenia. Fueled by memories of the Armenian genocide of 1915, oppression during the Soviet and post-Soviet regimes, and bolstered by support from Armenian forces across the Azerbaijani-Armenian border, the national campaign of Nagorno-Karabakh was one of the first movements to enact Gorbachev’s policies of perestroika and glasnost’ by requesting independence from Azerbaijan. The on-going conflict revolves around territorial integrity as well as the Armenians’ struggle for national self-determination. Nagorno-Karabakh has historically been considered Armenian territory and currently maintains an overwhelming ethnically Armenian population that is “firmly committed to independence from Azerbaijan” (Chorbajian, 1, 30). Despite major efforts during a 1988-1994 conflict with Azerbaijan, Nagorno-Karabakh has remained part of Azerbaijan, but operates as its own unrecognized republic and continues to push for emancipation from Azerbaijan.

Many ancient buildings and documents suggest that ethnic Armenians have resided in Nagorno-Karabakh since the 6th century BCE, when the region was known as Artsakh. Throughout history the land has been conquered and ruled as an extension of numerous kingdoms, such as the conquest of Tigran the Great in the 1st century BCE. It has also been invaded and overrun by the Arabs, Seljuk, Turks, Mongols, Turkmens, Ottoman Turks and the Safavid Persians. Despite these attacks and influences, the area has always been under immediate autonomous Armenian control (Chorbajian, 33). It is important to note that no Turkic presence existed prior to the 11th century, and Turkic influence was not prominent until the middle of the 18th century and the beginning of the 19th century, when these Turkic groups, known as the Meliks, actually ruled Nagorno-Karabakh as the Karabakh khanate. Under this rule, the Armenian population significantly declined as a result of persecutions, famine, emigration and Persian attacks. Incidentally, while Nagorno-Karabakh was a long-established and predominantly Armenian region, until the early 20th century the name Azerbaijan was not a word affiliated with nationality, but rather geography, describing the region between Persia and Russia. Although no ethnic Azerbaijani peoples date as far back as the Armenians, the Azerbaijani have linked themselves to Albanian Caucasians, who resided throughout the southern and eastern parts of the Caucasus from the 3rd century BCE to the 11th century CE. This claim, however, has been strongly questioned by Armenian historians who argue that the Albanians in this region and in Nagorno-Karabakh were ultimately assimilated into Armenia and Georgia (Chorbajian, 33-35).

Russian annexation

Concluding war with Persia, Russia officially annexed Nagorno-Karabakh through the Treaty of Gulistan in 1813. With this regime change, many Armenian émigrés who fled under Turkic occupation in the late 18th century returned to Nagorno-Karabakh. This fact is disputed by many Azerbaijani historians who allege that the high Armenian population of the area was created at this time as a result of this influx, and that beforehand the region had traditionally been Azeri. The Azeris base their argument on a claim that the Armenians in the region at this time were merely Armenianized Albanians, paralleling the Armenian-based argument against Azeri history in the region (Croissant, 12). In 1828 the Russians signed the Treaty of Turkmenchai with the Persians, which ceded the remaining parts of Transcaucasia to Russia. Russians soon sent out ethnographers to chart the populations of the regions, which surprisingly showed heavy Armenian concentrations in areas that had been identified as Turkish in the past. From 1823 to 1897, the Armenia populations increased from 30,850 to an astounding 106,363 people, whereas the 5,370 Tatars had grown only to 20,409 (Chorbajian, 35-36).


Sovietization of Transcaucasia began in 1917, and by 1920 the Red Army occupied each Republic in the region. As in most other regions under the Soviet regime, the Soviets established boundaries and ascribed territories to certain republics with little consideration to former border disputes between these regions. Although Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh shared strong ethnic and historical ties, the Russians included Nagorno-Karabakh in the Azerbaijani Soviet Socialist Republic. This decision was most likely the result of political issues in the region regarding the status of Turkey, Muslim assimilation into Communism, and the size of Azerbaijan’s population and reserves of oil shale. The president of the Republic of Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, had expressed concern over Muslim populations and Turkish borders, and the Bolsheviks were quick to assuage him in hopes of promoting Communism in Turkey and other parts of the east. Recognizing the Armenian frustrations concerning the status of Nagorno-Karabakh, as well as the relationship between Azerbaijan and Turkey as a possible future threat, the Soviets gave the territory of Zanzegur to Armenia, thereby increasing Armenian lands and providing a buffer between Azerbaijan and Turkey. This decision was consistent with the Soviet motto “divide and conquer,” and Moscow argued that because of its resources, Azerbaijan would be better equipped to maintain Nagorno-Karabakh (Chorbajian, 36-38, 64). The Soviet decision also had to do with the fact that in Azerbaijan, Nagorno-Karabakh’s status would serve as something of a “hostage” in the event of political unrest in the Armenian SSR. The corollary to this was that the region would also serve as a Soviet-supporting outpost in the wake of Azeri disloyalty (Croissant, 20). While Azerbaijan and Armenia were made official Soviet Socialist Republics, Nagorno-Karabakh was granted the status of autonomous oblast, giving it fewer rights. As a result, Nagorno-Karabakh was isolated from Armenia throughout the existence of the Soviet regime.

Ethnic conflicts

In 1914, nearly 70% of all Armenians lived in Turkey, and in 1915 Turkey instituted a policy of Armenian genocide – over 1.5 million Armenians were killed. As a result of this destruction, most Armenians in both Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia were extremely concerned about the incorporation of Nagorno-Karabakh into Azerbaijan. Later, in 1918 and again in 1920, Turkey invaded Armenia and killed all captives. Similar persecutions continued throughout Transcaucasia until 1923. Interestingly enough, although there was never a Turkish-backed genocidal attack in Nagorno-Karabakh, few Armenian refugees ever settled in the region. The Azerbaijanis were, however, responsible for many massacres and displacements of Armenians in both Nagorno-Karabakh and Azerbaijan. One such incident occurred in the city of Shushi, located just southeast of Stepanakert. The oldest records available show Shushi to have been traditionally an Armenian city. In the early 20th century, Shushi was the third largest city in the Transcausasus and was well developed, with many cultural, educational, and religious facilities and institutions. Azerbaijan forced a strongly anti-Armenian governor onto Nagorno-Karabakh, and in 1914 strong campaigns were waged against ethnic Armenians in the region, eventually escalating into massacres of the population and destruction of property. From 1914 to 1922 the Armenian population of Shushi dropped from 22,004 to 289 persons (Chorbajian, 23-25). Certainly both Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh were well-aware of the anti-Armenian activity, which has significantly contributed to both the Armenian national self-definition and the demands for national self-determination.

As these struggles against oppression in both Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh continued, ethnic Armenian nationalism increased. In the 1920s underground movements distributed literature calling for reunification; despite the harsh conditions of the Stalinist regime in the 1930s, many public officials openly raised questions about the issue, and many were purged. Under Khrushchev, the suppression of nationalism was relaxed a little, and nationalist sentiments began to be seen in many public arenas, such as the Party, intelligentsia, human rights groups and in other organizations. In 1967 Armenia even made open calls for the return of Nagorno-Karabakh, as well as other Armenian territories that had been politically removed. Moscow did, however, react negatively to many of these situations and in the following years all of the republic’s First and Second Secretaries in office were replaced by Russians.

Nagorno-Karabakh, like so many other Soviet republics, saw decreased economic developments, cultural suppression, and forced relocations. In the 1930s 118 Armenian churches were shut down, and members of the clergy were arrested; the 1960s saw the destruction of schools, textbooks, churches and cemeteries, and the introduction of Azeri as the official language. Between the 1960s and the 1970s, Armenian law enforcement agents were replaced by Azeri at an alarming rate and number. The Armenians in both Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia saw this as a direct threat, and continued pushing for reunification throughout the entire Soviet regime. As Lalig Papazian argues:

Reunification would also satisfy the primordial and instrumental needs of the population, as it would reunite the historically Armenian territories, would end foreign domination and would improve the material well being of the people. Both in Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh, the collective consciousness of Armenians, which emanates from the attachment to their homeland and their national heritage, was strengthened by Azerbaijan’s abuse of Nagorno-Karabakh (Chorbajian, 66).

The poor treatment of Nagorno-Karabakh economically in terms of resource distribution, and the severe reduction in and persecution of its intelligentsia and urban populations, renders it unsurprising that Armenians have been calling for reunification between Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia. As the Soviet era drew to a close in the late 1980s, the tension between Armenia and Azerbaijan had reached an unprecedented level, resulting in a conflict that would last until 1994 (Chorbajian, 63-67).

The Armenian-Azeri Conflict

Having suffered cultural, economic, political and physical oppression, Nagorno-Karabakh finally pushed back against its Azeri oppressors in 1987. Gorbachev had instituted his policies of perestroika and glasnost’, supposedly allowing for an unprecedented level of freedom of expression in the Soviet Union, and Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia were some of the first to truly exercise these policies (Croissant, 26-27). In October 1987, Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh yet again openly called for reunification, and on October 17 and 18 the people held demonstrations in Yerevan, the capital city of Armenia. The demonstrations were initially intended to bring awareness to environmental concerns over a chemical factory that had been leaching toxins into the ground, causing an entire generation of birth defects and cancer in the area, but after authorities began using violence these demonstrations quickly escalated into calls for Armenian reunification. Shortly thereafter, the campaign for reunification began showing up in posters all over both Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh, often with the slogan “one nation, one republic” (Chorbajian, 68-69).

On February 18, 1988, Moscow officially rejected the Armenian proposals put forward five months earlier, causing increased tension between Armenians and Azeris, and continuing demonstrations. With Moscow’s support, Azerbaijan was in no real danger of losing the territory; however the defiant nature of these demonstrations introduced unparalleled disobedience in the area, which the Azeris interpreted as a threat. This threat was not only one pertaining to ethnic and territorial conflicts, but also to economic concerns, as stability in the region was a major priority for Azerbaijan and its promotion of its oil industry (Chorbajian, 205). Therefore, in late February many Azeris themselves began rallying in the name of Azerbaijani patriotism in the eastern city of Sumgait, and many ethnic Armenians in the area (a total of 9% of the local population) were persecuted violently; these attacks “were described by Soviet officials as pogroms” (Chorbajian, 69; Rupesinghe 119). Although Nagorno-Karabakh initially began demonstrations against Azeri rule, Azerbaijan escalated the situation to brutal physical violence. This event marked a major turning point in what had previously been heated civil disobedience. Armenians, with a well-remembered history of genocide throughout the region, became almost instantaneously galvanized and unified; as Lalig Papazian describes the Armenian reaction to violence, “the collective consciousness that emanates from this experience would ascribe to the Armenian-Azeri conflict an intensity that goes beyond what would be expected from one specific incident” (Chorbajian, 70).

On March 17, 1988, Nagorno-Karabakh proposed reunification with Armenia, a request which was ultimately denied by Azerbaijan’s Supreme Soviet in June. That same month, however, Armenia’s Supreme Soviet voted to officially unify with Nagorno-Karabakh and in July Nagorno-Karabakh announced its secession from Azerbaijan. As a result of these political struggles, the following months brought more Armenian and Azeri demonstrations, ethnic attacks on both sides, Azerbaijani food and energy blockades against Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh, and the deployment of Soviet troops as peacekeepers. As the conflict escalated, Moscow directly intervened and in January 1989 brought Nagorno-Karabakh under its administration. This policy of supervision was, however, short-lived, and in November Nagorno-Karabakh was returned to Azerbaijan. Naturally, the Armenian nation in both Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh was in an uproar. Moscow had been the only protection against their Turkic oppressors, and the reversal of Nagorno-Karabakh’s status instantaneously induced massive feelings of betrayal. Therefore, on December 1 Armenia voted again to incorporate Nagorno-Karabakh and directly overrode Soviet law by forming legal ties to the Azerbaijani region. Six weeks later, Armenians and Azeris were engaging in mutual attacks that continued throughout 1990, and despite Armenian calls for reunification, Soviet-supported Azerbaijan was successful in maintaining Nagorno-Karabakh, and removed its autonomous status before the year was over (Chorbajian, 70-71).

Azerbaijan continued to strengthen its grip on Nagorno-Karabakh and in November 1991 voted to block all economic links between the region and Armenia. One month later, Azerbaijan began recruiting an army, the result of which ultimately increased national self-assertion in Nagorno-Karabakh. Azeris soon took all political positions in regional councils. Although there had been attempted peace agreements between Armenians and Azerbaijan, mutual attacks continued and in February 1992 Armenians attacked Azeris in both Nagorno-Karabakh and Azerbaijan and overran the south-western town of Lachin in order to disrupt Azeri blockades. The conflict had finally escalated into war. As Azeris fled Nagorno-Karabakh, Azerbaijan dispatched new counteroffensives, and the war continued until a Russian-mediated ceasefire in spring 1994 (Chorbajian, 71-72). Although the ceasefire has since been maintained, there has still been no complete resolution, despite the inclusion of nations, including the United States and Russia, in mediation (Chorbajian, 225-226). The Armenian military continues to occupy approximately 16% of Azerbaijani territory and as a result of the conflict approximately 230,000 ethnic Armenians and 800,000 Azerbaijanis have left the region entirely (CIA World Factbook).

The Role of Nationality and Self-Determination

Like many other areas of the Soviet Union, especially in the Caucasus, Nagorno-Karabakh was completely rearranged politically, geographically, ethnically and culturally. The Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh had always maintained shared national identity with their counterparts in Armenia, and both regions’ push for Nagorno-Karabakh’s national self-determination was dramatically increased by interethnic tension with Azerbaijan. The war between the Armenians and Azeris united Armenians throughout the southern Caucasus behind the banner of oppression, and arguably helped further develop their national identities. Armenian demonstrations often incorporated Armenian cultural elements, such as the “We Are Our Mountains” slogan carried throughout the conflict. This attitude was not just a campaign tool, but a very real part of the Armenian attitude throughout history. Anthropologist John Kasparian best illustrates this through his work with ethnic Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh, one of whom explained: “I’m nourished by this water. It may be dirty, it may not be cold, but it’s what I’m made of. I grow better here, can create something of value here. We could have emigrated, as many others have done, but you can’t bring your soil with you, wherever you go. Our ties to this land are part of who we are” (cited in Chorbajian, 143).

The Armenians, deeply scarred by repeated brutalizations, never once surrendered their goals of national unification. While the initial efforts of the Soviet Union may have been to “divide and conquer” Transcaucasia and replace all nationalist sentiments with Marxist-Leninist ideology, there is strong evidence for Nagorno-Karabakh’s constant resistance through incessant Armenian nationalism. (Chorbajian, 139-140). The history of Nagorno-Karabakh is one of the best examples of how Soviet policies failed in reshaping nations geographically, politically, ethnically and historically, as illustrated by such strong Armenian activism, which most likely will persist until the Armenian nation is unified again.


Works cited

  • CIA World Factbook. “Azerbaijan.”
  • The Making of Nagorno-Karabagh: From Secession to Republic, edited by Levon Chorbajian (Houndmills: Palgrave Press, 2001).
  • Michael P. Croissant, The Armenia-Azerbaijani Conflict: Causes and Implications (Westport, Praeger Publishers, 1998).
  • Kumar Rupasinghe, Peter King, Olga Vorkunova, Ethnicity and Conflict in a Post-Communist World: the Soviet Union, Eastern Europe and China (New York, St. Martin’s Press, 1992).