Ten days into renewed heavy fighting over the contested territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, the enclave’s capital, Stepanakert, is coming under heavy shelling by Azerbaijan, with some 20 civilians killed. The self-governing enclave within Azerbaijan has since 1994 been under the control of ethnic Armenians, who constitute the majority there, and have declared the de facto Republic of Artsakh. The National Assembly of Artsakh on Oct. 5 issued a statement accusing Azerbaijan of intentionally targeting civilian infrastructure and using banned weaponry such as cluster munitions. The statement also accused Turkey of directing the offensive, and backing it up with mercenary fighters. The National Assembly called upon the international community to formally recognize the Republic of Artsakh as “the most effective way to put an end to the ongoing grave crimes against the peaceful population of Artsakh, and to protect their rights.”
The Armenian diaspora is mobilizing in support of this demand. Hundreds of Armenian-American protesters in Los Angeles blocked traffic on the 101 freeway Oct. 3. In France, Nicolas Aznavour, co-founder of the Aznavour Foundation and son of the famous French-Armenian singer Charles Aznavour, has called on President Emmanuel Macron to recognize the Republic of Artsakh. (Armenian Weekly, Public Radio of Armenia, LAT)
The threat of escalation is clearly grave. Azerbaijan’s second city, Ganja, has also come under shelling, with at least one civilian reported killed, and Baku has threatened to retaliate by destroying military targets inside Armenia. It is unclear if this shelling has come from Artsakh or Armenia proper. Yerevan denied it had directed fire “of any kind” toward Azerbaijan. Authorities in Artsakh said their forces had targeted a military airbase in Ganja but halted fire in order to avoid civilian casualties. (EurasiaNet, Al Jazeera)
There are also fears the fighting could spread to the Nakhichevan Autonomous Republic, an exclave under Azerbaijan’s sovereignty between Armenia and Iran, southwest of Nagorno-Karabakh/Artsakh. This would be an obvious vulnerable target for Armenian forces if Azerbaijan actually invades Artsakh. (Atlantic Council)
Artsakh and the Great Game
Nagorno-Karabakh, which translates as “Mountain of the Black Garden” in an amalgam of Russian and Turkic words, was a heartland of Armenian culture in ancient and medieval times, and under the rule of Armenian kingdoms. In the 5th century, the inventor of the Armenian alphabet, St. Mesrob Mashtots, established the first Armenian religious school at Amaras Monastery, now in Martuni district of the Artsakh Republic.
Turkic tribes conquered most of the Caucasus in the 13th century, and local Armenian rulers spent the following centuries in vassalage to different Turkish and Persian states. This cycle repeated until the 19th century, when the Russian Empire consumed most of the region. Under Russian rule, Nagorno-Karabakh became a part of Elisabethpol governorate, created as a buffer zone between Baku governorate (contemporary Azerbaijan) and Erevan governorate (contemporary Armenia). Throughout the centuries of Turkish, Persian and Russian rule, the Armenian and Turkic communities of the Caucasus generally co-existed peacefully, often sharing the same cities and villages.
This began to change with the emergence of nationalism in the late 19th century, opening a cycle of mutual clashes and pogroms, including in the area of Nagorno-Karabakh. During World War I, thousands of Armenians fled to territories controlled by Russia to escape a genocide perpetrated by the Turkish Ottoman Empire that killed some 1.5 million people. Memory of the Armenian genocide continues to inform the contemporary conflict.
In 1918, amid the chaos of the Russian Revolution, an independent Armenian state was declared, but it was conquered by the Soviet Red Army in 1920, with territories in the west (Kars and Surmalu provinces) ceded to Turkey. A Turkish-supported “Caucasian Islamic Army” simultaneously rose up in an attempt to seize what is now Azerbaijan before being likewise put down by the Soviets. Nagorno-Karabakh was contested by all the warring parties, with thousands of both Armenians and Turkic Muslims (contemporary Azeris) killed in reprisals.
As Soviet rule was established, the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh hoped their region would be unified with the Armenian Soviet Socialist Republic, but Moscow decided to award it to the Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republic. This was part of strategy by Joseph Stalin, then the People’s Commissar for Nationalities, to pit local populations against each other, solidifying their dependence on Moscow. With formal establishment of the USSR in 1922, both the Armenian and Azerbaijan republics, along with Georgia, were merged into a Transcaucasian Socialist Federative Soviet Republic (TSFSR). But this was dissolved in 1936, and the previous borders re-established.
In a concession to Armenian aspirations to self-rule, a Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast was created within the TSFSR in 1923, and continued to exist as an oblast within the re-established Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republic after 1936. But here again Moscow’s map-makers complicated matters: It was with creation of the oblast that Nagorno-Karabakh lost its common border with Armenia, making the region an enclave isolated within Azerbaijani territory. Armenians continued to be the overwhelming majority there.
With the policy of glasnost (openness) under Mikhail Gorbachev in the 1980s, the region’s simmering ethnic tensions resurfaced. Calls for greater autonomy by the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh escalated to demands for full reunification with Armenia by 1988. Inter-ethnic clashes broke out that year, with anti-Armenian riots claiming the lives of many in Baku and other Azerbaijani cities. This, in turn, sparked reprisals against Azeris in Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia. Moscow placed Nagorno-Karabakh under martial law that winter, but violence only escalated. Azerbaijan declared independence from the USSR in October 1991, and dissolved the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast. Nagorno-Karabakh responded by declaring independence from Azerbaijan that December, precipitating full-scale war between Azerbaijan and Armenia.
The Azeri minority was effectively cleansed from Nagorno-Karabakh during the war, with the February 1992 massacre of hundreds of ethnic Azeri civilians by Armenian separatist forces at Khojaly being the bloodiest episode.
The war ended with a Russian-brokered ceasefire in 1994, with the Republic of Artsakh under a de facto independence recognized by no country on earth (including Armenia). The unresolved status has left the territory ripe to be exploited as a pawn by both sides in the Great Game for the Caucasus still being played by Russia and Turkey. (Cilicia.com, Meduza, Geohistory Today, Conflict of Nagorno-Karabakh)