Origins of Nagorno Karabakh: Historical Perspective

Territorial disputes and ethnic conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan in the Caucasus is approximately for more than three decades now. Both the sides repeatedly claiming their rights over the territory of Nagorno Karabakh with the historical proofs. Complexity around the history of Nagorno Karabakh can be seen in the name of the region itself. Composition of three different languages i.e ‘Nagorno’ word derived from the Russian language which means ‘mountainous terrain’, word ‘Kara’ came from Turkish language meaning black and ‘Bakh’ which is actually a Russified word with Persian origin (bag) means ‘garden’.  Historical complications making it difficult to find an appropriate solution for the ongoing conflict between Artsakh region of Armenia and Dagliq Qarabag region of Azerbaijan.

During the eighteenth century, this region became an important centre of the power struggle between Tsarist Russia, Ottoman Empire and Persia. Persian ruler Nadir Shah in 1735 captured Nagorno Karabakh region from Ottomans who ruled the region for a very brief period from 1728-1735. After the assassination of Nadir Shah, Persian empire tumbled down into several Khanates. Inhabited by diverse cultural entities, the Karabakh Khanate was commanded by a Turkic ruler. Karabakh Khanate existed until 1806 and formalised Russian control with the Treaty of Gulistan in 1813. Fath Ali Shah Qajar of Iran transferred Karabakh khanates to Tsar Alexander I of Russia as compensation for Russo-Persian War 1804-13.  Fath Ali Shah also ceded the previously disputed territory of Georgia to Imperial Russia, and the Iranian territories of Dagestan, most of what is nowadays Azerbaijan, and some parts of Armenia.

In 1822, Karabakh Khanate was abolished and province with Tsarist military administration was formed.  Within four years of the military establishment, another war broke out between Qajar of Iran and the Russian empire. The treaty of Turkmenchay concluded the Russo-Persian war of 1826-1828.  The treaty made Persia ceded to Russia the control of several areas in the Trans Caucasus: the Erivan Khanate, the Nakhchivan Khanate and the remainder of the Talysh Khanate. The boundary was set at the Aras River. Southern land of Aras River or Trans Caucasus region became part of the Russian empire and Northern region of Aras River or territories of North Caucasia currently situated in south-western parts of Russia controlled by Iranian.

Russian supported demographic changes in this region. Many Azerbaijanis and other Muslims left for Persia or the Ottoman Empire, whereas many Armenians travelled back in the region from neighbouring Islamic empires. As a result, the percentage of Armenians in the Karabakh khanate – not only Nagorno Karabakh but also lower Karabakh – increased from 9 per cent in 1823 to 53 per cent in 1880.1 Tensions between the Armenians and Azerbaijanis existed over many generations, but there was never really any violence until 1905 when the first Russian revolution also reached the Caucasus region. Hostilities burst out in Baku, Yerevan and Nakhchivan but quickly extended to Karabakh. The number of casualties ranged from between 3,100 and 10,000, but more Azerbaijanis than Armenians died during these clashes.2

In December 1920, Soviet Azerbaijan issued a statement mentioning Karabakh, Zangezur and Nakhchivan would be brought under Armenian control. While establishing peace with Turkish president Kemal Ataturk, Soviet leadership decided that Nakhchivan and Karabakh were to be transferred back to Azerbaijan. Caucasian Bureau of Communist Party or the Kavburo, under Stalin’s presence, voted in 1921 in the favour of Armenia over the inclusion of Karabakh region in Armenian SSR. But on the very next day, the Soviet government eventually rescinded the verdict and Karabakh received a degree of autonomy under the Azerbaijani SSR.

On July 7, 1923, Soviet government established Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast within the SSR of Azerbaijan with capital Khankendi which immediately renamed ‘Stepanakert’ by the Soviet government to honour the leader of the 26 Baku Commissars and an Armenian Bolshevik Stephen Schaumian. Nakhchivan became an autonomous republic within the Azerbaijani SSR. Thus, even though Armenian with their alliance with Russia started establishing a relationship with Turkey. After World War I, Independent Trans-Caucasus Republics wanted Paris Peace Conference to settle these geographical disputes and get involved in the region. Armenia tried to establish control over Nagorno-Karabakh, Zangezur and Nakhchivan region however British who had replaced the Ottomans in Turkey, supported the Azerbaijani government.

During the period of the Soviet Union, Armenian authorities continuously tried to influence the situation to regain control over Karabakh region but Moscow never entertained their demand. Since 1960, nationalist outrage and continuous protests erupted in Armenia and Nagorno Karabakh region. However, the intensity of conflict realised by Soviets when Armenian Azeri refugees started marching towards Azerbaijan in February 1988.  On 20 February the soviet of the Nagorno Karabakh Autonomous Oblast requested it be reassigned under the Armenian SSR. In the same month, unrest arose in Sumgait city in Azerbaijan over a rumour of ethnic clashes in Stepanakert and Askeran region. Many Armenians flee from Azerbaijan due to infamous Sumgait pogrom.  On February 27, 1988, mobs of ethnic Azerbaijanis formed into groups and attacked and killed Armenians on the streets and in their apartments, widespread looting took place and the army and troops of the interior ministry were called in but lack of concern from authorities allowed the violence to continue for three days. This incident led to the mass extermination of the Azeri population living in Armenia in the Ararat and Zangezur provinces.

Supreme Soviet of the USSR declared that the status of Nagorno Karabakh would remain unchanged and replaced the republican leaders of Azerbaijan and Armenia. But the violence continued and more and more people absconded from both countries. The Azeri population was not only dissatisfied with the Armenians but also with their own government, as their leaders were unable to exercise required control over Nagorno Karabakh.

On 12 January 1989, the Soviets established a special government administration in Karabakh. But within a year Nagorno Karabakh once again transferred to the Azerbaijan SSR. To mark its disagreement, Soviet of Armenian SSR officially assimilated Nagorno Karabakh. Violent protests broke out in Azerbaijan and thousands of Soviet troops were moved to Baku and Karabakh. Motivated by the domino effect in USSR, the Karabakh Soviet announced independence on September 2, 1991. More violent demonstrations led by Nagorno Karabakh unification force disrupted state of affairs in Armenia. Soviet troops withdraw from the region in following December and Azerbaijan lost military control.

Full fledge war broke out in February 1992, when Azeri population forced out of Azerbaijani villages. The mass murder of 161 ethnic Azerbaijani civilians from the town of Khojaly on 26 February 1992 also known as Khojaly Massacre increased the tension. Armenia gained control over Shusha and Lachin in May 1992 and established a corridor which connected Armenia with Nagorno Karabakh region and made political unification as well as transportation of logistical supplies possible. Political chaos in Baku and Armenian offensive military stance put Azerbaijan into vulnerable position at every front. The ceasefire announced in May 1994 still remains in force, however, occasional violations occur. Refugees displaced from the fighting amount to nearly one million people. An estimated 400,000 Armenians living in Azerbaijan fled to Armenia or Russia and a further 30,000 came from Karabakh.3 Many of those who left Karabakh returned after the war ended. An estimated 800,000 Azerbaijanis were displaced from the fighting including those from both Armenia and Karabakh.4

With the independence of Armenia and Azerbaijan Nagorno Karabakh issue derived attention of the entire international community, and several countries especially Russia and Turkey offered to mediate. The UNSC resolution and formation of OSCE Minsk Group, co-chaired by France, Russia and the US, was set up in 1992 to stimulate peaceful negotiation between Baku and Yerevan. These negotiations have been inconclusive and failed to obtain a possible solution. Renegotiation of Autonomy is possible as Armenia does not recognize the independence of Nagorno Karabakh but does support its sovereignty. Neutral status for Nagorno Karabakh is also a practicable explication which can guarantee harmony in the region.


  1. Frederik Coene, (2010) The Caucasus: An Introduction, Routledge: London & New York.
  2. S. E. Cornell, (2001), Small Nations and Great Powers: A Study of Ethnopolitical Conflict in the Caucasus, Richmond: Curzon Press.
  3. Collin, Matthew. “Azeris criticised on human rights Archived 11 July 2007 at the Wayback Machine.” BBC News. 28 June 2007.
  4. The Central Intelligence Agency. “The CIA World Factbook: Transnational Issues in Country Profile of Azerbaijan”. Archived from the original on 10 June 2009. Retrieved 14 February 2007. 

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The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Kootneeti Team

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Shambhavi Thite

Shambhavi Thite is a Former Research Intern at The Kootneeti

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