How Moscow views Nagorny Karabakh

We Are Our Mountains monument in Stepanakert, the capital of Nagorny Karabakh.  This statue is widely regarded as a symbol of Karabakh’s identity

We Are Our Mountains monument in Stepanakert, the capital of the Nagorny Karabakh Republic. This statue is widely regarded as a symbol of the identity of Nagorny Karabakh. (Photograph by this writer)

One of many hotspots in the former Soviet space is the region of Nagorny Karabakh in the Caucasus. I have written about Nagorny Karabakh in the past, but this time, I would like to focus precisely on Russia’s view of the situation.

What is Nagorny Karabakh?

Nagorny Karabakh is a majority-Armenian region in the Caucasus. Its landscape is forested and mountainous, dotted with numerous historical Armenian monuments and churches. It is one of the most beautiful places in the former Soviet Union.

The region is internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan, but is a de facto independent state, closely allied with neighboring Armenia. Armenia, which does not officially recognize Nagorny Karabakh, maintains that its local Armenian inhabitants have the right to self-determination (whether or not to be an independent state, part of Armenia, or an autonomous region of Azerbaijan). This position is supported by the area’s majority-Armenian population. By contrast, Azerbaijan argues for the principle of territorial integrity and that Nagorny Karabakh’s future should be determined only within the internationally recognized borders of Azerbaijan. Supported by Armenia, Nagorny Karabakh gained its de facto independence from Azerbaijan after a war in the 1990s, one of a handful of post-Soviet ethnic conflicts. Today, the status of Nagorny Karabakh is frozen and can be best described as one of “neither war nor peace.”

The name of the region, a testament to its checkered history, is a Russian, Turkish, and Persian amalgam, which literally means “Mountainous Black Garden.” The “Nagorny” or “Mountainous” aspect is important because this distinguishes the area from the traditionally majority Muslim Azerbaijani Lowland Karabakh. The term “Karabakh” is often liberally used as shorthand in the West to refer exclusively to majority Christian Armenian “Mountainous Karabakh.” However, the term “Karabakh” can also be used to refer to both the Mountainous and Lowland areas in totality. To avoid confusion, I will refer to the area as Nagorny Karabakh (henceforth NK).

NK is also referred to by its historical Armenian name, “Artsakh,” by Armenians in Armenia and in NK. The local Armenian population of NK speaks a unique dialect of Armenian that even standard Armenian speakers have difficulty understanding.

Tsar Peter the Great saw great potential in expanding Russia into the Caucasus.  Portrait by Paul Delaroche, 1838.

Tsar Peter the Great saw great potential in expanding Russia into the Caucasus. Portrait by Paul Delaroche, 1838.

Why is Nagorny Karabakh important to Russia historically?

With regard to Russian history, NK is part of the reason that present-day Armenia (historical Eastern Armenia) and the South Caucasus generally became part of the Russian Empire. In the 18th century, Khachen (as NK was then known) and Syunik (today southern Armenia) were the only parts of historic Armenia that were able to retain a semi-independent status amid Armenia being overrun by the Mongols, Turks, and Persians. Formally, the two principalities were semi-independent vassals of Persia. Their princes (meliks), together with the king of eastern Georgia and the Armenian Orthodox Patriarch (Catholicos), formed a coalition beseeching Tsar Peter the Great to liberate their lands from their larger Islamic neighbors.

Peter was interested in the Caucasus not only to help fellow Orthodox Christians, but also as a means for Russia to secure access to profitable trade routes to India, in order to gain access to silk and other riches. Thus began the relationship between Russia and the Caucasus that would eventually culminate in the annexation of eastern and western Georgia (starting in 1801), the further incorporation of historical Eastern Armenia and present-day Azerbaijan in 1813-1828, and the conquest of the North Caucasus in the 1860s.

What are the origins of the present-day dispute over Nagorny Karabakh?

The origins of the present-day dispute over NK date to the Sovietization of the Caucasus in the early 1920s. It is important to understand how the dispute originated in order to comprehend the dynamics of the conflict today. There are two different theories in this regard that are widely repeated in the media. Neither is supported by factual evidence, but both fit conveniently into dominant political narratives.

Anastas Mikoyan, Joseph Stalin, and Sergo Ordzhonikidze, Tbilisi, 1925.  Though often blamed for assigning Nagorny Karabakh to Azerbaijan, Stalin's actual influence was not a major factor in the final decision.

Anastas Mikoyan, Joseph Stalin, and Sergo Ordzhonikidze, Tbilisi, 1925. Though often held chiefly responsible for assigning Nagorny Karabakh to Azerbaijan, Stalin’s actual influence was not a major factor in the final decision.

One theory asserts that the dispute began when Stalin personally decided to assign NK to Soviet Azerbaijan during the Sovietization of the Caucasus. Those who support this theory have given different possible explanations as for Stalin’s exact motivation for such a step. Some claim that he wanted to appease Turkey, hoping that under Atatürk, Ankara would develop into a communist state. Others allege that Stalin had an anti-Armenian bias. However, most proponents of this theory claim that the motivation was for Moscow to divide-and-rule Armenia and Azerbaijan. Overall, this theory is undermined by the fact that Stalin was far from the zenith of his power and was not the sole decision-maker in determining NK’s fate, even though he was the Commissar of Nationalities at the time. Moreover, he had good relations with Armenian communists like Mikoyan and was actually sympathetic to Armenian claims over NK.

The second theory holds that the Soviets assigned NK to Azerbaijan because it was economically dependent on the city and surrounding area of Baku during Tsarist times. However, if this was true, then the Armenian provinces of Syunik and Tavush (which, together with NK, were part of the Tsarist-era Elizavetpolskaya Guberniya) would have been logically assigned to Azerbaijan on the same basis. Instead, they became part of Soviet Armenia.

In reality, according to recent research by Caucasus scholar Arsene Saparov, the actual reason behind NK’s assignment to Azerbaijan was the fact that, despite its majority Christian Armenian population, it was controlled by Azerbaijani forces at the time of Sovietization. It was therefore easier for the Soviets to sanction the existing situation on the ground, while also offering the “compromise” of local Armenian autonomy. Hence the “Nagorny Karabakh Autonomous Oblast” of Soviet Azerbaijan was established. Again, it is important to emphasize that the Soviets were desperate to secure control of the region at the time and, being communist-internationalists, they believed that national borders would one day be abolished anyway. There were no sinister imperial schemes or machinations behind the assignment of NK to Azerbaijan.

How does Russia view Nagorny Karabakh today?

Today, Moscow ultimately wants to see some sort of resolution, but it realizes that devising one is virtually impossible right now, given current conditions. It therefore favors the status quo and continued peace talks.

Map of Armenia and the self-proclaimed Nagorny Karabakh Republic (NKR) in the Caucasus

Map of Armenia and the self-proclaimed Nagorny Karabakh Republic (NKR) in the Caucasus

Along with the United States and France, Russia is a co-chair of the OSCE Minsk Group which facilitates talks on the NK issue. Both the Armenian and Azerbaijani governments are committed to these talks. However, the present government of Ilham Aliyev in Azerbaijan, which has engaged in high military spending and bellicose anti-Armenian rhetoric, is unwilling to compromise on anything short of NK’s total return to Baku. Armenia in turn has stood firmly in favor of Karabakh’s self-determination. The unrecognized NK Republic is currently not involved in the negotiations, but states that it should be, due to the fact that it is the representative of the local Armenian population.

As of a result of the NK war of the 1990s, the NK Republic also controls a handful of districts of Azerbaijan proper, giving them contiguous frontiers with Armenia and Iran. A potential compromise solution may require forfeiting some of these districts, such as Aghdam. The status of refugees and other issues also need to be discussed, but the main sticking point for both sides remains the determination of NK’s ultimate status.

It is important to note that Armenia relies on Moscow for security vis-a-vis Azerbaijan and Turkey, both of which have closed their borders with Armenia since the 1990s. However, Turkish-Armenian relations have improved significantly since Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and the Justice and Development Party (or AKP) came to office. For instance, though Turkey still denies the 1915 Armenian Genocide, the issue is no longer a taboo in Turkish society and is now openly discussed. However, largely due to pressure from Turkey’s domestic nationalists and from official Baku, the border between Turkey and Armenia remains closed, despite the obvious benefits for both Ankara and Yerevan. Nevertheless, Turkish-Armenian relations will continue to improve and will be further helped by growing cooperation between Ankara and Moscow on issues such as the proposed Turk Stream gas pipeline.

Meanwhile, relations between Yerevan and Baku remain tense. In this regard, Armenia looks to Moscow for security and is therefore a close ally of Moscow and Russia’s main “center” in the South Caucasus today. By contrast, Azerbaijan was engaged in a flirtation with the West for some time, especially with oil lobbyists and neoconservative politicians in Washington eager to undermine Iran and Russia. The latter two groups have been very interested in creating alternative energy pipelines from post-Soviet Central Asia through Azerbaijan and to Europe, at the expense of traditional energy routes from Russia.

The mountains of Nagorny Karabakh. (Photograph by this writer)

The mountains of Nagorny Karabakh. (Photograph by this writer)

However, Azerbaijan’s flirtation with the West appears to have diminished in recent years, amid mounting criticism regarding Baku’s human rights record. Baku has therefore engaged in new thaws with Moscow and Tehran. However, it is unlikely to join the Moscow-backed Eurasian Union any time soon, given Aliyev’s interest in keeping Azerbaijan independent of any supranational union or alliance. However, Baku has a finite supply of natural energy reserves and will have no choice but to turn to regional cooperation, compromise, and economic diversification in the future. In this respect, it would do well to discard the bellicose discourse and adopt a more balanced and constructive approach.

In Moscow’s view, a resolution of the NK dispute is not only desirable for regional stability but also for Russian security. Russia continues to face challenges on its troubled southern frontier in the North Caucasus with Islamic extremists. In order to help contain and isolate this threat, Russia seeks to solidify its position in the former Soviet South Caucasus states. A strong “buffer zone” of secure and friendly countries to the south of the North Caucasus is therefore an important vector of Russia’s policy toward the region.

Russia is also concerned about the potential expansion of NATO in the South Caucasus, particularly in Georgia. Additionally, it is concerned about the expansion of US-supported energy projects designed to undermine Russian energy exports to Europe. Moscow is puzzled by these American-backed steps, which are viewed as a throwback to Cold War “containment” and as a provocation intended to isolate and weaken Russia. They are also regarded as spurning potential cooperation on serious matters such as fighting Islamic extremism in the area. Indeed, Georgia has recently faced problems with Islamic radicalism in the Pankisi Gorge and attempts by ISIS to woo the region’s local population of ethnic Kists (a Chechen subgroup). Notably, the infamous ISIS commander Omar al-Shishani is originally from Pankisi. Given such concerns, it is clear that if Moscow, Tbilisi, and Washington all worked together to combat this common threat, the benefits would be optimal.

Whatever the future, for Moscow, the Caucasus remains an important area within the post-Soviet space and a potential flashpoint for future conflict. Despite the dispute over NK, Armenians and Azerbaijanis have co-existed and lived together side-by-side in the past. Peace is possible, and indeed NK would greatly benefit from cooperation between Russia and the West.

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Upcoming Elections in the Former USSR, 2015-2018

Considering the ongoing Ukraine crisis and rising tensions between Russia and the West, the former Soviet space is definitely a region to observe in 2015.

Elections in the former Soviet republics are especially important to watch. In some cases, like the authoritarian states of Belarus, Azerbaijan, and Uzbekistan, the results are foregone conclusions. However in other more open states, such as Georgia, Armenia, and Kyrgyzstan, they are not. In Russia’s case, it will be interesting to see what happens in 2018, and whether or not Putin will stay on for an additional term.

Below is a schedule of upcoming elections in the former Soviet space over the course of the next four years, from 2015 to 2018.

Correction: Transnistria’s parliamentary election will be taking place in November 2015, not February 2015.

2015

  • February
    Voting in Transnistria (TASS).  In 2015, the locals of this breakaway region of Moldova will be voting in new parliamentary elections.

    Voting in Transnistria. (TASS) In 2015, the locals in this breakaway region of Moldova will be voting in new parliamentary elections.

    • Tajikistan: parliamentary election
  • March
    • Uzbekistan: presidential election
  • May
    • Nagorny Karabakh (Az.): parliamentary election
  • October
    • Kyrgyzstan: parliamentary election
  • November
    • Belarus: presidential election
    • Azerbaijan: parliamentary election
    • Transnistria (Md.): parliamentary election

2016

  • March
    Longtime Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev is widely expected to win re-election in 2016. (Photo: AP)

    Kazakhstan’s longtime President Nursultan Nazarbayev is widely expected to win a landslide re-election in 2016.  He is seen here casting his ballot in the 2011 presidential election with his wife, Sara. (Photo: AP)

    • Abkhazia (Ge.): parliamentary election
  • September
    • Belarus: parliamentary election
  • October
    • Georgia: parliamentary election
  • December
    • Kazakhstan: presidential election
    • Transnistria (Md.): presidential election
    • Russia: parliamentary election

2017

  • January
    Voting in Nagorny Karabakh (Photolur). In 2017, locals in this disputed majority-Armenian Caucasus region will be voting for a new president.  It is uncertain who will succeed incumbent Bako Sahakyan.

    Voting in Nagorny Karabakh. (Photolur) In 2017, locals in this disputed, majority-Armenian Caucasus region will be voting for a new president. It is uncertain who will succeed incumbent president, Bako Sahakyan.

    • Kazakhstan: parliamentary election
  • February
    • Turkmenistan: presidential election
  • March
    • South Ossetia (Ge.): presidential election
  • May
    • Armenia: parliamentary election
  • July
    • Nagorny Karabakh (Az.): presidential election
  • October
    • Kyrgyzstan: presidential election

2018

  • February
    Voting in Vladivostok. (Reuters)  2018 will be a big year for elections in Russia.  Nationwide, voters are expected to choose a new president.  It is unclear whether or not incumbent President Putin will find a successor or will stay on for another term.  In 2015, Muscovites will also go to the polls to vote for a new mayor.

    Voting in Vladivostok. (Reuters) 2018 will be a big year for elections in Russia. Nationwide, voters are expected to choose a new president. It is unclear whether or not incumbent President Putin will find a successor or will stay on for another term. In 2018, Muscovites will also go to the polls to vote in the Moscow mayoral election.

    • Armenia: presidential election
  • March
    • Russia: presidential election
  • September
    • Moscow: mayoral election
  • October
    • Azerbaijan: presidential election
    • Georgia: presidential election
  • November
    • Moldova: parliamentary election
  • December
    • Turkmenistan: parliamentary election

Moscow’s Sochi Summit on Karabakh

Karabakh Armenian Soldier on the Frontline with Azerbaijan (nkrmil.am)

Karabakh Armenian Soldier on the Frontline with Azerbaijan (nkrmil.am)

In recent weeks, Armenia and its sister republic of Nagorny Karabakh have been experiencing an increase of violence along the contact line with Azerbaijan, claiming the lives of many soldiers on both sides. The fighting has been so intense that some observers have dubbed it the worst the region has seen since the 1994 ceasefire.

Ceasefire violations have been common since the 1994 armistice, with Azerbaijan often doing the violating as a means of warning the Armenians and the international community that it is not pleased with the status quo. Since the death of longtime Azerbaijani leader Heydar Aliyev and the succession of his son Ilham, the ceasefire violations have only increased in their intensity and aggressiveness. This reflects much of the character of the regime of Ilham Aliyev, who frequently engages in bellicose anti-Armenian rhetoric as a means of rallying the population around his notoriously corrupt government. He has often referred to the Armenians as a “worthless” nation and has continuously vowed to not only invade Karabakh but also advance on the Armenian capital Yerevan and to take the country’s turquoise Lake Sevan and the ruggedly mountainous Syunik region as well. Aliyev has also worked to use his country’s oil wealth as a means of not only enriching himself, his family, and his clique but also massively increasing Azerbaijan’s military spending. All this while brutally and swiftly stifling voices of dissent at home, earning Aliyev’s Azerbaijan an international reputation as an authoritarian petrostate – a corrupt kleptocratic khanate on the Caspian.

Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev

Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev

Aliyev’s strategy is a dangerous one. By intensifying ceasefire violations, engaging in aggressive rhetoric, and massively spending on the military, he believes that this will increase his authority and legitimacy domestically.  However, he is instead driving the region toward a war that neither the Armenian nor Azerbaijani sides need. In fact, despite its astronomical spending on high-tech military equipment, Azerbaijan is in a particularly bad place to start a war. Among other things, the Azerbaijani army is poorly-trained and rampantly corrupt. This is compounded by the fact that Aliyev does not want to have a military that is too strong because there has been a history of military coups in post-Soviet Azerbaijan. A war would also be devastating for Baku because the Armenians could easily target the Western-backed oil pipeline that runs through Azerbaijan. Further, it would be extremely difficult for Azerbaijani tanks to make it through Karabakh’s very mountainous terrain, which the local Armenians know intimately and would use as a “natural fortress” to fight against the Azeris. Finally, Armenia has very good security relations with the Russian military, which would protect Armenia in the case that a new conflict erupts.

Map of Armenia and the self-proclaimed Nagorny Karabakh Republic (NKR) in the Caucasus

Map of Armenia and the self-proclaimed Nagorny Karabakh Republic (NKR) in the Caucasus

Nevertheless, Azerbaijan has persisted in violating the ceasefire along the line of contact and not just in the vicinity of Karabakh. In recent years, there have been several ceasefire violations along the border with Armenia’s northern province of Tavush, close to the border with Georgia. Then in June, Azerbaijan launched an unexpected attack on Armenia from its exclave of Nakhichevan. The exclave has a naturally-defined border with Armenia running along the Vayots Dzor and Syunik (or Zangezur) mountain ranges. The situation has remained largely calm along this border due to the fact that Armenia controls the heights looking over Nakhichevan.

Protection mounds placed near the Armenian-Nakhichevan border, July 2014

Defensive mounds placed near Armenia’s north-south highway along the Armenian-Nakhichevan border, July 2014. (Photograph by this writer)

However, one section of Armenia’s border with Nakhichevan, between the Armenian Ararat province and the northern Nakhichevan district of Sadarak, remains less secure and it was there where the recent border attack unexpectedly occurred. While traveling along Armenia’s north-south highway in Ararat province this July, I witnessed large mounds along the roadside of this section of the border that had been setup by the Armenian military. They are intended to protect civilian drivers from Azerbaijani artillery and indeed, the attacks on Armenian positions are so close that they have actually reached this highway.

In yet another recent episode in early July, three men from Azerbaijan (allegedly Azerbaijani commandos) infiltrated the Karabakh contact line and entered into the region of Karvatchar (or Kelbajar) where they killed two people and seriously injured another. One was shot dead while the other two are on trial for murder in Nagorny Karabakh. All of this has only increased fears in Armenia about the start of a potential new conflict in the region, which very few in Armenia desire. It has also made efforts for peace and dialogue between the sides even more difficult.

Russian President Vladimir Putin (Reuters / Maxim Shemetov)

Russian President Vladimir Putin (Reuters / Maxim Shemetov)

Despite this, Armenia’s Sargsyan and Azerbaijan’s Aliyev have been invited to Sochi at the behest of Russian President Vladimir Putin. The meeting was already planned in advance. Moscow wants to strengthen its position in the Caucasus, especially regarding the Eurasian Union. As efforts to lure Georgia back into Moscow’s fold have stalled, the Kremlin is instead looking to the possible prospect of bringing the sides together and luring Azerbaijan into its Eurasian Union. However, despite some recent warm-up in the relations between Baku and Moscow, Aliyev appears largely content with remaining independent of any geopolitical union, whether it be the Eurasian Union or the EU.

In this context and in the context of the more recent ceasefire violations, Moscow is now shifting gears and trying to play the role of a peacemaker. It realizes that an immediate peace deal over Karabakh is unattainable and is instead working to simply calm tensions and prevent another war from breaking out. As noted above, if a new conflict erupted in Karabakh, Moscow would be obliged by treaty to assist Armenia in ensuring its security. However, given the conflict in Ukraine’s Donbas, a war in the Caucasus is the last thing that Moscow needs. Therefore, Putin’s primary objective at the Sochi summit is to de-escalate tensions between the sides, as Moscow was successfully able to do during the 2014 Sochi Olympics.

Overall, one thing is most certain: nobody in the region would benefit from a new war over Karabakh.

Crimea and Karabakh: A Precedent in the Caucasus?

Map of Armenia and the self-proclaimed Nagorny Karabakh Republic (NKR) in the Caucasus

Map of Armenia and the self-proclaimed Nagorny Karabakh Republic (NKR) in the Caucasus

Previous posts on this publication have been devoted to Ukraine, Georgia, and Moldova. Today’s post shifts the focus on Georgia’s southern neighbor, Armenia. Like Georgia, Armenia shares a very strong sense of national pride, related to its unique art and culture as well as its centuries-old history. Also like the Georgians, Armenians are independent-minded and are generally adverse to Russian imperialism, though, again like their Georgian counterparts, they are also fond of the Russian culture and people. Indeed, Armenia is an ancient Christian country with a long tradition of statehood. The Christian faith arrived here via two of the original twelve apostles of Christ and in AD 301, Armenia became the first nation to officially adopt Christianity as its national faith. This had a profound impact on the development of Armenia’s cultural and literary traditions and resulted in the creation of the unique Armenian alphabet invented in the 5th century and written horizontally from left-to-right, thus indicating a Western orientation. At the same time, similar developments also profoundly affected Georgia, which also adopted a unique alphabet with a left-to-right directionality.

Armenia, along with Georgia, Ukraine, and Moldova, was one of four countries that actively participated in the Brussels-backed EaP.  Yet, on September 3, 2013, Yerevan made a sudden volte-face on signing its Association Agreement deal with the EU (basically the same deal that Ukraine later refused in November). Instead, it opted for membership in Moscow’s Eurasian Union. This shocked many commentators, who at the time viewed Armenia’s signing of the EU Association Agreement as a foregone conclusion. Many observers, both inside and outside of Armenia, quickly concluded that the Armenia’s President Serj Sargsyan was pressured by Russian President Vladimir Putin to join the Eurasian Union.

Armenia's Serj Sargsyan and Russia's Vladimir Putin immediately after their 3 September meeting.

Armenia’s Serj Sargsyan and Russia’s Vladimir Putin immediately after their 3 September meeting.

However, I believe that it is more plausible to conclude that Sargsyan managed to squeeze out the best possible terms for Eurasian Union membership from the Kremlin. This would explain the body language between the two leaders when the decision was announced. Sargsyan was visibly pleased, as if he had received something, whereas Putin looked somewhat satisfied, though also as if Sargsyan had extracted major concessions out of him. Sargsyan has stated publicly to the Armenian media that he managed to secure “major concessions” from the Russian leader. What these concessions are is not yet known. However, they must have been quite substantial since Armenia was willing to sell the remaining 20% share of its gas sector to Russia’s Gazprom and guarantee that this agreement would remain unchanged until 2043. This action remains controversial with both within the Armenian parliament and on the streets of Yerevan, where Armenian students have launched demonstrations against it. The vote to validate the deal was boycotted by the opposition in the Armenian parliament. Still, though, the basic idea of joining the Eurasian Union has been broadly endorsed by all sectors of the Armenian political elite, including one of Sargsyan’s most vocal critics, former President Levon Ter-Petrosyan. Though Sargsyan has not yet announced the benefits of Eurasian Union membership for Armenia, they are likely tied to security concerns stemming from the dispute with Azerbaijan over Nagorny Karabakh.

Oleh Tyahnybok, leader of Ukraine's far-right Svoboda party (zbroya.info)

Oleh Tyahnybok, leader of Ukraine’s far-right Svoboda party (zbroya.info)

Then in yet another more recent shocking move, on March 27 Armenia voted with Moscow against a UN Resolution condemning the incorporation of Crimea into Russia. Earlier, Yerevan seemed to have at least partially endorsed the Crimean move, with Sargsyan phoning Putin and hailing it as “yet another example of realization of peoples’ right to self-determination through a free expression of will.” The latter caused a slight rupture in Ukrainian-Armenian relations.  Oleh Tyahnybok, the leader of the far-right Svoboda party, urged the recall of Kiev’s ambassador to Yerevan, a demand with which the Yatsenyuk government eventually complied. What is behind Armenia’s pro-Russian posturing on Crimea? Is it under pressure from Moscow with regard to security and energy ties? Possibly. However, a far more likely scenario is that the Armenians actually see a precedent in Crimea for Nagorny Karabakh.

The famed 13th century Gandzasar Monastery in Karabakh.

The famed 13th century Armenian Gandzasar Monastery in Nagorny Karabakh (Gandzasar.com)

So what exactly is Nagorny Karabakh and why does Armenia attach such importance to it? Nagorny Karabakh is a disputed, mountainous region sandwiched between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Its very name is a testament to its checkered history with “nagorny” being Russian for “mountainous,” “kara” being Turkish for “black,” and “bakh” being Farsi for “garden.”  The current Armenian President Sargsyan is a native of Karabakh as was his predecessor Robert Kocharyan. De jure Karabakh is recognized internationally as being part of Azerbaijan. De facto the region is a self-proclaimed independent state, closely tied with Armenia. Yet no state, including Armenia, presently recognizes it internationally.  The landscape of Karabakh is littered with old, historic Armenian churches and monuments. Its local population is comprised entirely of ethnic Armenians who speak their own distinct musical dialect, heavily influenced by Russian and Farsi with significant remnants of the old Classical Armenian or grabar (the Armenian equivalent of what Old Slavic is to Russian or Ukrainian or what Latin is to Italian).  The dialect is so unique that even native Armenian speakers have difficulty understanding it.  The Karabakh Armenians are known as a strongly independent mountain people and are said to be “more Armenian than Armenians.” Many prominent Armenian military figures that fought in the armies of Tsarist Russia and the USSR came from Karabakh. During World War II, a significant number were renown for their bravery in the war.

We Are Our Mountains (also known as Tatik u Papik (Grandma and Grandpa) in Armenian), a statue that is widely regarded as a symbol of Karabakh's identity.  It was completed by the sculptor Sargis Baghdasaryan in 1967. (Barev Armenia.com)

We Are Our Mountains (also known as Tatik u Papik (Grandma and Grandpa) in Armenian), a statue that is widely regarded as a symbol of Karabakh’s identity. It was completed by the sculptor Sargis Baghdasaryan in 1967 and is located near Stepanakert, the capital of the self-proclaimed Nagorny Karabakh Republic. (Barev Armenia.com)

The area of Nagorny Karabakh, known as “Artsakh” in Armenian, is of particular significance to Armenians historically and culturally. Historically, it formed one of the easternmost provinces of the Kingdom of Armenia.  Along with the province of Utik, Artsakh was disputed at times with the neighboring Caucasian Albanians, a Christian people, unrelated to the Albanians of the Balkans, whose core homeland encompassed significant portions of modern Azerbaijan east of the Kura River, west of the Absheron and Shirvan, and south of the Greater Caucasus range. In the Middle Ages, the Kingdom of Armenia enjoyed significant prosperity under the Bagratuni dynasty which also had a branch ruling in neighboring Georgia. This kingdom collapsed amid Armenian infighting, Byzantine opportunism, and invasions by the Seljuk Turks. It was only the province of Artsakh (today’s Nagorny Karabakh) along with the neighboring region of Syunik (today the southermost province of Armenia) that managed to maintain some level of independence and autonomy. Together, these two regions became to Armenia what Piedmont-Sardinia became to Italy. To Armenians, they became a center for national liberation and unification.

18th Century Armenian diplomat Israel Ori

18th Century Armenian diplomat Israel Ori sought the aid of Peter the Great to free Armenia and Georgia from Persian suzerainty.

By the 18th century, both regions were still governed by Armenian nobles and were under Persian suzerainty with Artsakh now known by the name of “Khachen.” The local Armenian nobility was eager to secure protection from a Christian power and thus sought aid from Imperial Russia. The diplomat Israel Ori was especially notable in this regard. A noble from Sisian in the Syunik region, Ori secured an audience with Tsar Peter the Great, in which he detailed the persecution of the Armenian and Georgian people who lived under the sphere of Persia and under the rule of the Ottoman Empire. Peter, already interested in gaining access to the silk and spices of Persia, Central Asia, and India, now found an additional reason to expand Russia into the Caucasus. He readily agreed with Ori’s proposal and sent a delegation to Etchmiadzin, the seat of the Armenian Apostolic Church (then under Persian rule).

Davit Bek as portrayed by Hrachia Nersisyan for the 1944 Soviet Armenian feature of the same name.  The film was meant to foster patriotic feelings among Armenians during the time of the Nazi invasion of the USSR.

Davit Bek as portrayed by Hrachia Nersisyan for the 1944 Soviet Armenian feature of the same name. The film (the Armenian equivalent to Eisenstein’s Aleksandr Nevsky) was meant to foster patriotic feelings among Armenians during the time of the Nazi invasion of the USSR.

Unfortunately, Ori died in 1711 and thus was unable to see his dream realized. Yet, he nevertheless laid the groundwork for Russia’s intervention in the region. The movement for the liberation of the Caucasus from Persia continued under the Armenian Catholicos Asdvadzadur as well as the Georgian King Vakhtang VI the Scholar (whose descendent would later be Prince Pyotr Bagration, the great hero of the Napoleonic War). Having soundly defeated the Swedes in the Great Northern War in 1721, Peter finally set his sights on the Caucasus. The time seemed perfect as Persia had descended into a civil war. Vakhtang camped in Ganja (in present-day Azerbaijan) with a Georgian-Armenian force 40,000 strong awaiting Peter’s army. He hoped that the Tsar would liberate Georgia and Armenia from the Persian and Ottoman yoke. However, Peter’s Caspian and Caucasian campaigns against Persia proved disastrous and the Russian aid never arrived. Feeling threatened by Russia and taking advantage of internal turmoil in Persia, the Ottoman Empire intervened to violently attack the Georgians and Armenians for entertaining the idea of Russian aid. However, Davit Bek, an Armenian rebel leader of noble stock in the service of the Georgian court managed to hold off the Turks until his death in 1728.  In 1736, Nader Shah reasserted Persian authority over the region and reaffirmed the autonomy of the Armenian princes, who had assisted Persia in expelling the Ottomans.

Following the death of Nader Shah in 1747, the regional autonomies of Khachen and Syunik lasted until 1750 when both were incorporated by a local Muslim Khan into the neighboring Karabakh Khanate with the aid of an Armenian prince. This was a consequence of the fact that the region had since become engulfed in infighting among its different Armenian noble families. The local nomadic Turkic Muslim population (the predecessors of today’s Azerbaijanis) saw an economic connection between the lowland Karabakh area that they had known within their khanate and the highland Khachen principality. They used both areas alternatively for seasonal grazing of their sheep. The incorporation of highland Khachen into the Karabakh Khanate only reinforced this perception of economic unity with Lowland Karabakh among the Turkic nomads. Henceforth, the Armenian region of Khachen gradually became known as “Highland Karabakh” in contrast with the neighboring lowland areas located entirely within present-day Azerbaijan that had been already known as Karabakh.

Eventually, the Russians managed to secure a foothold in the region with the annexation of Georgia in 1800. Then in 1813, St. Petersburg renewed its assault on Persia, seizing Baku and the Caspian coastline and further inland, Highland Karabakh and Syunik (also known by now by the name of “Zangezur” after the area’s distinct mountain range). It was not until 1828 that Russia managed to acquire the remainder of the present-day Armenian republic with Yerevan and Etchmiadzin. Yet, the dates here are significant for Highland Karabakh remained administratively outside of the confines of the Erivan (Yerevan) guberniya (province) within the Russian Empire.

The remants of the Armenian quarter of Susha after the pogrom of March 1920.

The remnants of the Armenian quarter of Susha after the pogrom of March 1920 (US National Archives).

With the collapse of Russian power in the region following the Russian Revolution of 1917 and the Russian Civil War, the Caucasus at first attempted to unite into a single Transcaucasian Federation. This attempt at unity failed between both the external ambitions of the Ottoman Empire and internal divisions among the Caucasus peoples. The federation was dissolved and three new states emerged: Armenia, Georgia, and Azerbaijan. Armenia was constantly under threat from the Ottomans who had initiated a systematic campaign of genocide against their Armenian population in 1915 in which 1.5 million Armenians perished. A large number of starving refugees from the genocide poured into the newly-independent republic and the government in Yerevan had few resources to deal with them. The new republic also faced territorial disputes. The dispute over Highland Karabakh with neighboring Azerbaijan proved especially contentious. Ethnic violence engulfed the region. A Karabakh Armenian uprising in March 1920 was violently crushed by Azerbaijani forces and an anti-Armenian pogrom ensued in the town of Shusha (also known as Shushi).

By the time of the region’s Sovietization, the area passed into provisional Azerbaijani control, though this was deeply resented by the local Armenians. Meanwhile, the Armenian Republic itself was absorbed by the Bolsheviks in 1920, with Moscow ceding some portions, including the Armenian national symbol Mount Ararat and the ruins of the historic medieval Armenian capital Ani, to now-Kemalist Turkey.  The Bolshevik presence in Armenia was met with significant resistance in Syunik.  In 1921, the Armenian mountaineers of this region fled to the highlands and launched a major revolt against Soviet rule. The situation was so intensely out of control that the Soviet military was called in to establish order.  To placate the Armenians and to subdue the rebels, the Soviets periodically promised that the region of Highland Karabakh would be incorporated into Soviet Armenia.

In the end, the Soviets managed to crush the rebellion. The highland mountaineers of Syunik fled across the border into neighboring Iran. The crushing of the rebellion literally occurred just as the Kavburo was voting to determine whether or not Highland Karabakh should become part of Soviet Armenia. Initially the delegates voted in favor of this but when the fortunes changed on the ground in Syunik, the Soviet Azerbaijani leader Narimanov managed to convince his colleagues that there was no need to make Highland Karabakh part of Armenia anymore. He further threatened Soviet leaders with a possible cessation of oil supplies from Baku. Eager to avoid this and to quickly resolve territorial issues to maintain their control in the region, the Bolsheviks acceded to Narimanov’s demand. Hence the decision was reversed and Highland Karabakh was granted to Soviet Azerbaijan provided that it be granted autonomy in order to satisfy the local Armenian population. Such a decision was never accepted by the Armenian locals who wanted to be part of Soviet Armenia.

Yerevan 1988

Yerevan 1988

Throughout the Soviet era, the Karabakh Armenians periodically petitioned Moscow for the area to be reassigned to Armenia with no success. When Mikhail Gorbachev initiated his policy of glasnost (political openness) in the late 1980s, the Karabakh Armenians seized the opportunity. Petitions, accompanied by peaceful protests in both Armenia and Karabakh, requested that the Soviet leader transfer the region to Armenia. By February 1988, the demonstrations in Yerevan had grown to as many as one million people (about one third of the Armenian population). Fists raised, the protestors shouted slogans such as “Ka-ra-bakh” and “Hay-as-stan” (the Armenian name for Armenia). In addition to Karabakh, the protests also focused on other issues as well, notably environmental concerns such as clean air and the controversial Metsamor Nuclear Power Plant. The leaders of the demonstrations were a group of individuals known as the “Karabakh Committee.” However, unlike Zviad Gamsakhurdia in Georgia, the leaders of the Karabakh Committee like Levon Ter-Petrosyan, Vazgen Manukyan, Ashot Manucharyan, Hambartsum Galtsyan, and others were not national chauvinists but liberals influenced by progressive Thaw-era Soviet values.

Memorial to the Armenian Earthquake Victims, Washington, D.C. (Panoramio)

Memorial to the Armenian Earthquake Victims, Washington, D.C. (Panoramio)

Unfortunately, the situation turned violent when anti-Armenian pogroms broke out in the Azerbaijani city of Sumgait. The protests in Armenia and Karabakh became even more impassioned and tension between Armenians and Azerbaijanis only continued to rise. Soon, all Armenians from Azerbaijan left for Armenia and all Azerbaijanis left Armenia for Azerbaijan. The horrible earthquake in Armenia in December 1988 only seemed to compound the crisis. Measuring a magnitude of 6.8 on the Richter scale, between 25,000 to 50,000 people died and as many as 130,000 were injured. Azerbaijan also instigated a total blockade against Armenia and Karabakh, preventing the delivery of crucial relief aid to Armenian earthquake victims. Meanwhile, Moscow’s perceived inaction on the crisis by local Armenians fueled the growth of a national secessionist movement in Armenia by 1990.

Armenian Refugees from Karabakh.  The conflict over the disputed territory displaced hundreds of thousands of civilians on both sides. (BBC World News)

Armenian Refugees from Karabakh. The conflict over the disputed territory displaced hundreds of thousands of civilians on both sides. (BBC)

By the time both Armenia and Azerbaijan achieved independence from the USSR in 1991, the conflict over Karabakh had erupted into a full-scale war. The war left tens of thousands of people dead or displaced on both sides. Though the Karabakh Armenians managed to secure their own de facto independence and a “buffer zone” of territory connecting them to Armenia proper, Turkey joined a blockade against Armenia and Karabakh. This precipitated a grave energy crisis that was only compounded by economic difficulties and a large number of IDPs from the war and the 1988 earthquake. The borders with Turkey and Azerbaijan remain closed and the situation has remained very tense since. Consequently, a Russian military base in Armenia, located on the Turkish-Armenian border plays a major role as a guarantor for stability and security in the region.

Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev

Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev

Meanwhile, exploiting its oil resources, Azerbaijan has increased its military spending in recent years and has been empowered to be even more nationalistic. President Ilham Aliyev’s controversial statements have raised serious concern in Yerevan. In speeches and messages, he has referred to Armenia as a “country of no value,” stated that “Armenians are guests in Yerevan,” and that the Karabakh Armenians should accept Azerbaijani rule or be forced to emigrate. Official Baku likewise refuses to allow individuals bearing Armenian surnames to enter their country (even if they are not citizens of Armenia) and has maintained the blockade against Armenia, preventing crucial civil society and people-to-people contacts so important to a lasting peace.

In September 2012, Aliyev declared Ramil Safarov a “National Hero.” Safarov killed a young Armenian man in his sleep with an axe during a NATO Partnership for Peace seminar. In February 2013, an Azerbaijani author, Akram Aylisli, who has called for peace and dialogue in the Karabakh dispute, was threatened by officials affiliated with Azerbaijan’s ruling political party who have called for a bounty on the author’s ear for $15,000 and who have staged public book burnings of his works. Indeed, the level of anti-Armenian sentiment prompted one popular Russian-Jewish television journalist to draw parallels between the official Azerbaijani attitude toward Armenians and that of Nazi Germany toward the Jews. All of this has only evoked painful memories among Armenians about the tragic 1915 Genocide and has only fueled greater distrust between Armenians and Azerbaijanis. It also has reinforced the need for Russian security in the region.

Now with the Crimea united with Russia, many in both Armenia and Karabakh see the potential possibility for a direct reunification between their two entities in the case of a future Azerbaijani attack. The precedent of the incorporation of Crimea into Russia via a democratic plebiscite has certainly buoyed hopes in Karabakh for the region’s eventual reunification with Armenia, even if Yerevan-based analysts have emphasized that the two situations are entirely different. Meanwhile, official Baku has been noticeably quiet in the midst of all of this. What will happen next remains to be seen.