Eight Things You Need to Know About Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict


The Nagorno-Karabakh (Artsakh) is a territory under dispute between Armenia and Azerbaijan that has recently erupted in fighting after a 20 year truce. During the April 1 Nuclear Summit in DC, which both Armenia’s president Serzh Sargsyan and Azerbaijan’s president Ilham Aliyev attended, violence on the border between the two escalated into a short four-day war. The fighting has claimed more than 100 dead in total, adding to the 30,000 people killed before the 1994 ceasefire agreement.

1. Nagorno-Karabakh’s status

Nagorno-Karabakh is a landlocked autonomous territory located in the Caucasus, neighboring Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Iran. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Nagorno-Karabakh became a de jure part of the Republic of Azerbaijan, though it simultaneously declared its independence as the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic (NKR). Today, NKR’s independence is only recognized by non-UN member states: South Ossetia, Transnistria, Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

2. Nagorno-Karabakh’s ethnic composition

As is common in the Caucasus—where ethnic and linguistic groups traditionally migrated and mixed together [1]—Nagorno-Karabakh has historically been relatively heterogeneous. When nationalism rose in the 20th century, ethnic nationalists and political parties began to draw the line between the two largest groups: ethnic Armenians and ethnic Azeris (Azerbaijanis), the Turkic ethnic group of present day Azerbaijan.

While statistics and figures provided by the Soviet Union and Azerbaijan varied significantly, Nagorno-Karabakh today continues to be predominantly Armenian. A 2001 census provided by the NKR government cites that over 95% of the population is Armenian with a minority made up of Kurds, Greeks, Assyrians, and Russians.

3. A brief history

In 1923, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) under Stalin designated the territory as the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast (NKAO) — an autonomous province — of Azerbaijan as a temporary compromise between Armenians and Azerbaijanis. Over 70% of the population of the mountainous region were ethnic Armenians, but because the USSR had to appease its ally Turkey, which was closely linked to Azerbaijan, Nagorno-Karabakh was ceded to Azerbaijan. Though Armenia would repeatedly request that Moscow include Nagorno-Karabakh in Armenia during the Soviet era, the conflict did not escalate into violence until Gorbachev’s policies of Glasnost and Perestroika created the space for freedom of speech and a surge of nationalism in 1987.

4. The beginning of a “frozen” conflict

Fighting erupted the year after in 1988, with protests in Baku evolving into campaigns, movements and fighting, calling for Nagorno-Karabakh to secede from Azerbaijan and to join Armenia. When both Armenia and Azerbaijan declared independence in 1991 following the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the clashes intensified, with indiscriminate raiding and strikes on civilians and soldiers between both Armenia and Azerbaijan. The war left 30,000 people from both sides dead. A ceasefire agreement was finally brokered by Moscow in 1994: the Bishkek Protocol. The agreement granted autonomy to the Nagorno-Karabakh region and 7 other districts. A Line of Contact was drawn, creating a buffer zone of trenches separating Nagorno-Karabakh and Azerbaijan proper. Intermittent minor skirmishes between 1994 and 2015 created tensions but did not escalate into war until this year.

5. Mediation efforts

Mediation efforts by the Organization for Security Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Minsk Group have failed to bring about a permanent peace.

Since 1992, the OSCE Minsk Group, co-headed by Russia, the United States and France, has been the only diplomatic institution actively seeking a permanent resolution for the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Scholars and the media are calling the Minsk group “obsolete” and “ineffective” for its inability to present a peace proposal and inactivity save for the few monitors remaining in the region.

6. The “simmering” conflict

Fighting broke out on April 2 this year, breaking the 1994 ceasefire agreement. Only hours before, Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan and the Azerbaijani president Ilham Aliyev had each met with US Vice President Joe Biden during the Nuclear Summit in Washington, D.C, when Azerbaijan and Armenia-backed NKR troops launched artillery attacks over the NKR and Azerbaijani border. The next day, Azerbaijani forces clashed with Armenian-backed NKR forces with tanks, gunships and heavy artillery. The short war ended on April 5 with a ceasefire agreement brokered by Russia. However on April 26, two NKR soldiers were killed following scattered gunshots that continued through the night.

7. Who’s involved? Armenia and Azerbaijan’s geopolitical strategy

The two main actors involved are Armenia and Azerbaijan, both of whom have interests in Nagorno-Karabakh’s status, while the major external actors are Russia and Turkey.

Azerbaijan is backed by Turkey because of a shared Turkic ethnicity. They share security and energy resources, most prominently through the Baku–Tbilisi–Ceyhan oil pipeline, which runs from Azerbaijan to Georgia and Turkey.

Armenia, which is isolated in the region, has aligned itself with Russia, which is also the broker for ceasefires and a member of the OSCE Minsk Group. Armenia is also a member of the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) and the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) and hosts around 5,000 Russian troops at its military base in Gyumri. Because Turkey has not recognized the Armenian Genocide of 1915 of 1.5 million Armenians during WWI, Armenia and Turkey do not share diplomatic relations, thereby maintaining a closed border. Controversy remains on Russia’s supplying of arms to both sides of the conflict.

8. The IDP and refugee crisis

The conflict since 1988 has created approximately 600,000 Internally Displaced Persons (IDP)—one of the highest IDP per capita in the world. About half of them live in the Azerbaijani capital, Baku.

In 2014, Armenia welcomed and resettled Syrian-Armenians fleeing the Syrian civil war in the Nagorno-Karabakh district of Kashatagh, which lies near the border it shares with Armenia. The Azerbaijani foreign ministry has condemned the settlement, hailing it as “illegal” and as “violating international law.” [ 2]

● [1] David D. Laitin and Ronald Grigor Suny, “Armenia And Azerbaijan: Thinking a way out of Karabakh,” Middle East Policy 7 (1), 3.
● http://www.echr.coe.int/Documents/CLIN_2015_06_186_ENG.pdf
● Magdalena Grono, “What’s behind the Flare-up in Nagorno-Karabakh?” http://blog.crisisgroup.org/europe-central-asia/2016/04/03/whats-behind-the-flare-up-in-nagorno-karabakh/ April 2016.
● Arsène Saparov, “Why Autonomy? The Making of Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Region 1918–1925,” Europe-Asia Studies, 64:2, 281-323, DOI:10.1080/09668136.2011.642583.
● [2] Hayk Ghazaryan, Shahla Sultanova, Karabakh Offers New Home to Syrian Armenians, CRS Issue 671 https://iwpr.net/global-voices/karabakh-offers-new-home-syrian-armenians Jan 2014 .

DISCLAIMER: The views and opinions expressed in the article are solely those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the ERA Institute.

This article is produced by the Eurasian Research and Analysis Institute, Inc. (ERA Institute), a public, 501(c)(3) nonprofit institution devoted to studying Eurasian affairs. All views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

Share this post

Share on facebook
Share on google
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin
Share on pinterest
Share on print
Share on email