The story of Nagorno-Karabakh, the landlocked, mountainous territory that has been at the centre of the clashes between Armenia and Azerbaijan, has been that of imperial conquests, ethnic violence, civil strife and mass uprisings. Once a part of the Armenian Kingdom, Nagorno-Karabakh (literal meaning, mountainous black garden) has seen all empires — the Romans, the Persians, the Ottomans, the Russians and the Soviets — that came to Transcaucasia establishing their rule over itself. When empires retreated or collapsed, Nagorno-Karabakh, located between the southern part of the Lesser Caucasus range and the eastern edge of the Armenian Highlands, and largely populated by ethnic Armenians, was left within the borders of Azerbaijan, igniting a protracted conflict that’s still raging.
The roots of today’s conflict go back to the time when Transcaucasia (or South Caucasus) was part of the Russian Empire. Tsarist Russia took over the region in the early 19th century after the Russo-Persian wars from the Persian Empire, which had suzerainty over the region for centuries. After the 1917 revolution, the Russian influence receded in the South Caucasus, which allowed the formation of an independent Transcaucasian Democratic Federative Republic. Karabakh became a part of this republic.
But the federation crumbled under its own contradictions and then emerged three separate republics — Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia. Nagorno-Karabakh, which had been part of the Elisabethpol Governorate of the Russian Empire, was incorporated into Azerbaijan by the Azeri authorities. This was also the time when the Ottomans were attacking the region, mainly targeting Armenian militias, in an alliance with Azerbaijan. When the Ottomans, in the face of defeat in the First World War, withdrew from the South Caucasus, the British temporarily filled the vacuum. But they, too, failed to calm the ethnic tensions, which led to an open war between Armenia and Azerbaijan in 1920. The war was disastrous, especially for the ethnic Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh. Azerbaijani forces, after repelling an Armenian offensive, burnt down parts of Shusha, Nagorno-Karabakh’s capital. “The most beautiful Armenian city has been destroyed, crushed to its foundations; we have seen corpses of women and children in wells,” Soviet communist leader Grigoriy Ordzhonikidze later wrote about the war.
When the war was raging, the Bolshevik revolutionaries took over Azerbaijan and Armenia. For the Russians it was an important victory in extending the Soviet rule to the territories of the former Russian Empire. Nagorno-Karabakh at that time was 90% Armenian. But the Soviet leaders (Joseph Stalin was the acting Commissar of Nationalities for the Soviet Union under which the Caucasian Bureau, or the Kavburo, was created) decided to give Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast (province) to Azerbaijan, despite protests from Armenia. One explanation was that since Azerbaijan was a regional ally of the Ottoman Empire during the War, Stalin did not want to give more reasons to Turkey to exploit ethnic tensions in the South Caucasus by giving Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia. The Soviets also redrew the map between Azerbaijan and Armenia, which left the Nagorno-Karabakh Oblast within the boundaries of Azerbaijan.
As long as the Soviet Union remained strong, the region had been relatively peaceful. But with the Soviet power receding in the late 1980s, the ethnic frictions started resurfacing. In 1988, the regional assembly of Nagorno-Karabakh passed a resolution to cancel its autonomous status and join Armenia. Azerbaijan opposed this move, leading to violent clashes. When Azerbaijan and Armenia became independent countries, after the disintegration of the Soviet Union, in 1991, the tensions over Nagorno-Karabakh led to an open war. The ethnic Armenian rebels of Nagorno-Karabakh, backed by the Armenian government, fought Azerbaijan for years. When a ceasefire was reached in 1994, the rebels had not only ensured their rule over what was the Nagorno-Karabakh Oblast, they had also extended their control to the Armenian borders, re-establishing territorial continuity with Armenia. The rebels had also declared independence in the region (Republic of Artsakh), which has not been recognised by any country.
Despite the ceasefire, Armenia and Azerbaijan failed to reach a peace agreement. Azerbaijan continues to claim sovereignty over Nagorno-Karabakh, and Armenia accused the Azeri forces of attacking ethnic Armenians. In July this year, violence erupted, which left some 16 people dead. Since then, the border has remained tense. In the current spell of clashes, which broke out on September 27, dozens have already been killed.
Azerbaijan, with direct support from Turkey, seems to be emboldened now. Nagorno-Karabakh is dependent on Armenia for security. Armenia, in turn, is dependent on Moscow, which enjoys good relationships with both Baku and Yerevan. That’s why Russia has called for a ceasefire. But for now, Azerbaijan and its backers in Ankara seem to be in a mood to fight.