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Historicising the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict

Dominique Jones

Source: The Daily Beast

The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, and its complex history

Intermittent violence has punctuated the Nagorno-Karabakh region, making it one of the world’s three most heavily militarised borders.

To understand the complexity of the conflict we must analyse Azerbaijan and Armenia’s entangled history regarding Nagorno-Karabakh. The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict demonstrates how, contrary to the Eurocentric belief, the USSR’s collapse was not entirely peaceful.

Census data shows that at least 95% of Nagorno-Karabakh consists of ethnic Armenians. This overwhelming majority is due to the expulsion of ethnic Azeri from the region and the migration of Armenians from Azerbaijan to Nagorno-Karabakh.

In July, Armenian and Azerbaijan foreign ministries met to discuss amicable relations, coming to no avail. A month later Azerbaijani troops regained control of the Lachin region and the north of Nagorno-Karabakh. Official fighting broke out in mid-September. Armenia claimed Baku launched a strike in bordering towns.

Alarming online visuals have depicted Azerbaijan soldiers executing Armenian soldiers at close range, sparking calls for the investigation of war crimes. Almost 200 people are believed to have been killed.

Soviet annexation and mismanagement

The origin of these Armenia-Azerbaijan border clashes can be traced back to the formative years of the Soviet Union. Even before the collapse of the Romanov Empire, Azerbaijan and Armenia were becoming hotbeds of conflict. Tsarist Russia’s bouts of war with the Ottoman Empire saw mass forceful migration throughout the South Caucasus (Georgia, Azerbaijan, Armenia).

In 1905, labour tensions erupted between Azerbaijan and Armenia, resulting in the ‘Armeno-Tatar’ war which killed thousands. With the fall of the Tsar, between the years of 1917-1920, the South Caucasus was imbued by interstate and civil wars. During this time both Azerbaijan and Armenia experimented with self-determination, establishing the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic (ADR) and the Democratic Republic of Armenia (DRA) in 1918. However, this faulted as both countries were incorporated into the Soviet empire in 1920. They were coined the Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republic (AzSSR) and the Armenian Soviet Socialist Republic (ArmSSR).

What the Soviet Union had inherited were two states seething with ethno-social tensions. Tensions were heightened by violence inflicted upon one another as well as their short stint of self-government.

The Soviet’s inadequate management of Nagorno-Karabakh first occurred in 1921 when the Bolsheviks’ Caucasus Bureau, Kavburo, voted to allocate Karabakh to Azerbaijan. This was despite previous discussions that the region would be allocated to Armenia.

Many associate this decision with Joseph Stalin, who at the time was the Commissar of Nationalities, yet he did not vote on the issue. The Bolsheviks’ reversal of their position regarding the allocation of Nagorno-Karabakh evinced their incapacity to deal with interethnic issues appropriately.

The Bolsheviks’ decision reflected entirely a primary objective of securing regime support, found in Azerbaijan at the time. Armenians have trivialised, to no avail, the Bolsheviks 1921 decision, citing the late reversal in legitimising their claim to the region.

Two years later, in 1923, the Soviets founded the autonomous oblast of Nagorno-Karabakh (NKAO) which formally instituted an autonomous Armenian majority within Azerbaijan. Despite the NKAO’s establishment, the absence of a reaffirming ethnic character further complicated Nagorno-Karabkh’s existence. Without official ethnic associations, the oblast housed an ethnic vacuum that fuelled Azerbaijani arguments that the NKAO was an artificial creation within their sovereign borders.

For Armenians, the NKAO’s lack of formal ethnicity muddied their claims to the region but simultaneously strengthened their resolve to correct Soviet mismanagement of the region. From this time until the mid-1980s, violence on behalf of both parties over Nagorno-Karabakh quelled.

Fast forward to the reform era of Mikhail Gorbachev’s glasnost and perestroika which inspired a resolution by the NKAO’s local Soviet. They called for the oblast’s unification with the ArmSSR. Nagorno-Karabakh exposed the inadequacy of the Soviet’s nationality program and its wilted capacity to construct a cohesive Soviet identity throughout the Union.

Violence immediately ensued resulting in the Soviets removal of the NKAO from the AzSSR jurisdiction, placing it under direct rule. Of course, shortly after the dissolution of the USSR in 1991, Azerbaijan and Armenia declared independence, yet Nagorno-Karabakh remained a sore point.

Nagorno-Karabakh continues to be internationally recognised as Azerbaijan territory despite the Armenian majority that remains in control of the area.

This international recognition saw an overwhelming 81% of Azerbaijani’s in 2013 declare they would never accept an independent Nagorno-Karabakh. A full-scale war erupted in 1992 where 30,000 people were killed before Russia brokered a ceasefire named the Bishkek protocol.

The protocol called for the halting of aggression, installed peacekeeping forces in the region and required Armenia to return the territory it had gained during the fighting period. Yet the resumption of hostilities in 2016 marked the end of the Bishkek protocol.

As such, nearly 50% of Armenians in 2019 were not optimistic about a peaceful resolution over the contestation of the region.

In 2020, another full-fledged war began in September. The fighting, which lasted for six weeks and killed 6,500, ended by way of another Russian-brokered ceasefire. The ceasefire mandated that Armenia return territories surrounding Nagorno-Karabakh to Azerbaijan and inserted nearly 2,000 Russian peacekeeping forces along the contact line of Nagorno-Karabakh. But, it was problematically silent on the status of Nagorno-Karabakh, leaving open the possibility for further contention.

Final thoughts

To appreciate the complexity of the contest for Nagorno-Karabakh, its Soviet past must be accounted for. The Soviet Union’s ambiguous management of Nagorno-Karabakh exacerbated tensions between Azerbaijan and Armenia and the consequences of this continue to reverberate. Importantly, the continued fighting over the region challenges the idea of the USSR’s peaceful dissolution.


Dominique-Dee Jones is currently studying a Bachelor of Arts in History and International Studies at the University of Melbourne. She has interned for the Australian Institute of International Affairs, and is interested in undertaking further study in the history of Eurasian foreign relations.