Following the collapse of the USSR, the former Soviet nation-state entity known as the Nagorno Karabakh Autonomous Region (NKAR) as well as the Armenian-inhabited Shahumian region merged to form the Nagorno Karabakh Republic (NKR), with the capital city of Stepanakert. NKR declared its independence on September 2, 1991, in full compliance with the fundamental norms and principles of the international law. Ever since, the republic’s leadership has consistently pursued a policy of maintaining peace and stability in the Caucasus region.
Nagorno Karabakh (in Armenian, Artsakh) is located in the southeastern part of the Armenian Highlands. Since ancient times, it has been one of the provinces of historical Armenia, with Kura River, according to all ancient sources, as its northeastern border. Strabo, Pliny the Elder, Claudius Ptolemy, Plutarch, Dion Cassius, and other historians have noted in their accounts that the border between Armenia and Aghvank (Caucasian Albania, its most ancient Caucasian neighbor representing a mixture of mountainous peoples) was the Kura River. In the ancient Armenian state of Urartu (8th-5th centuries B.C.), Artsakh was referred to as Urtekhe-Urtekheni. The favorable geographic location determines the nature and climate of this mountainous region.
After 387 A.D., Byzantium and Persia partitioned Armenia between each other. The area of eastern Transcaucasia, including Artsakh, fell under the Persian rule. This did not affect the ethnic borders of the region until the late Middle Ages— the right bank of Kura, along with Artsakh (Karabakh), continued to remain Armenian-inhabited. Only in the middle of the 18th century did nomadic Turkic tribes begin penetrating into the northern borders of Karabakh, initiating centuries-long wars against the local Armenian noble families.
The provinces of Nagorno Karabakh, governed by hereditary feudal lords (meliks), were able to maintain real autonomy, while simultaneously sustaining personal, royal, and other kinds of military units. Being compelled to resist attacks of the Ottoman armies, nomadic tribes, hostile neighbouring governors, and the armies of the Persian shahs, the Artsakh meliks strived to free themselves from foreign (Muslim) dominance. Working towards that purpose, during the 17-18th centuries, Karabakh meliks corresponded with Russian tsars, including Peter I and Paul I.
In 1805, the historical territory of Artsakh, artificially named as “Khanate of Karabakh”, along with other large areas of Eastern Transcaucasia, fell under the “everlasting rule” of the Russian Empire by the Gulistan (1813) and Turkmenchay (1828) treaties signed between Russia and Persia.
A peaceful period started that lasted until 1917. After the collapse of the Russian Empire, resulting in a new arrangement of recently formed states in the Caucasus, Nagorno Karabakh became an arena of war. The independent Republic of Armenia and the newly formed Democratic Republic of Azerbaijan that was created due to Turkish intervention, battled over the territory between 1918 and1920. From the moment of its formation, Democratic Republic of Azerbaijan made territorial demands regarding significant Armenian lands in Transcaucasia.
Between the years 1918-1920, taking advantage of the chaotic situation created due to World War I, and the collapse of the Russian Empire, the regular Turkish forces joined by Azeri military units completely destroyed hundreds of Armenian villages and organized massacres of Armenians in the cities of Baku and Gyanja and Genocide of Armenians. Only in Nagorno Karabakh they have met serious armed resistance by military formations, organized by the National Council, despite the fact that on March 23, 1920 Turkish forces burned, plundered Shushi, the regional capital, and annihilated its Armenian population.
At that time, the international community considered it imperative to become involved in the conflict. On December 1, 1920, the 5th Committee of the League of Nations, based on a report from the 3rd subcommittee, unanimously decided against accepting Democratic Republic of Azerbaijan into the League of Nations, taking into account Azerbaijan’s territorial ambitions. The League of Nations, before the final resolution of the conflict, recognized Nagorno Karabakh as a disputed territory, which was agreed to by all parties, including Azerbaijan. Thus from 1918-1920, during the formation of Democratic Republic of Azerbaijan, its sovereignty did not extend over Nagorno Karabakh or, for that matter, Nakhijevan.
In Transcaucasia, the consolidation of Soviet rule was accompanied by the creation of a new political system. In 1920, after the establishment of Soviet Azerbaijan, Russian forces temporarily occupied Nagorno Karabakh as per the treaty signed between Soviet Russia and the Republic of Armenia, until a peaceful solution to the conflict was reached.
Immediately after the establishment of the Soviet regime in Armenia, the Azerbaijan Revcom (Revolutionary Committee – the main Bolshevik instrument of power at that time) made a declaration recognizing Nagorno Karabakh, Zangezur, and Nakhijevan as inseparable parts of Armenia. In effect, the declaration renounced all of Azerbaijan Republic’s claims over Nagorno Karabakh, Zangezur, and Nakhijevan. At the time of this declaration, none of those territories belonged to Azerbaijan.
Based on this declaration, and following agreement between the Armenian and Azerbaijani governments, in June 1921, Armenia declared Nagorno Karabakh as its inseparable part. The text of the decree issued by the Armenian government was published in the Armenian as well as Azerbaijani media outlets (“Baku Worker” the official paper of the Azerbaijan Communist Party Central Committee, June 22, 1921).
The International Community, including Russia, applauded the act of cession. This fact is reflected in the resolution of the League of Nations Assembly of December 18, 1920, memorandum of the executive secretary of the League of Nations to the member states, as well as 1920-1921 annual report of the RSFSR Foreign Ministry Peoples’ Commissariat to the highest body, the 11th Soviet session.
Soon after the Bolshevik leaders, in the context of fostering an “international Communist revolution”, where Turkey was assigned the role of “torchbearer of the revolution in the East”, changed their attitude regarding the issue of “contested territories,” including Nagorno Karabakh.
The leaders of Azerbaijan renewed their claims over Nagorno Karabakh. In 1921, the plenary session of the Caucasus Bureau of the Russian Communist (Bolshevik) Party (RCbP), disregarded the decision of the League of Nations and refused to accept the plebiscite (referendum) as a popular mechanism for determining borders between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Under Stalin’s direct pressure, contradicting the act of cession, and with procedural violations, a decision of forceful separation of Nagorno Karabakh from Armenia was made, with a stipulation of Armenian national autonomy of Nagorno Karabakh within the Azerbaijani Soviet Socialist Republic.
Azerbaijan delayed granting autonomy to Nagorno Karabakh in every possible way. Following a two-year armed struggle of the Karabakhis and the insistence of the RCbP, finally in 1923, an Autonomous Region (one of the constitutionally fixed national entities within USSR) was established on a small portion of the actual land. Nagorno Karabakh was partitioned: one part became autonomous, while another large part was deliberately merged into the administrative regions of Soviet Azerbaijan in such a way that the physical and geographic ties between Armenia and the Armenian autonomous region were neutralized.
Thus, a significant portion of the territories that the League of Nations had recognized as “disputed” was forcibly annexed to Azerbaijan, and the borders of the autonomous region excluded many areas of Nagorno Karabakh (Gulistan, Kelbajar, Karakhat (Dashkesan), Lachin, Shamkhor, etc.).
In effect, the Karabakh question was not resolved but was frozen for almost 70 years. The Armenian majority of Nagorno Karabakh, on many occasions, appealed with letters and petitions to the central authorities in Moscow, demanding annulment of the 1921 unconstitutional and illegal decision and transfer under the jurisdiction of Armenia.
The year 1988 became a turning point in the history of Nagorno Karabakh. The people of Artsakh raised their voice in defence of their rights and freedom. Respecting all the existing legal norms and employing exclusively democratic peaceful means to express their will, the Armenian population of Nagorno Karabakh demanded reunification with Armenia. Those events were critical not only in the life of Artsakh Armenians, but, in fact, they predetermined the subsequent fate of the entire Armenian nation. On February 20, 1988, the People’s Deputies made a decision at extraordinary session of the (Soviet) Nagorno Karabakh Autonomous Republic Council to appeal to the Supreme Soviet of Azerbaijani SSR for secession, to the Supreme Soviet of Armenian SSR for unification, and to the Supreme Soviet of the USSR to approve this act based upon the existing legal norms and the precedence of resolving similar disputes in the USSR.
Every effort to discuss the dispute in a civilized fashion was followed by an escalation of violence, massive and widespread disregard of the Armenian population’s rights, economic blockade, etc. Hundreds of kilometres from the NKAR, massacres and mass murders of Armenians were carried out in Azerbaijani cities of Sumgait, Baku, Kirovabad, Shamkhor, and later throughout Azerbaijan. More than 450,000 Armenians from towns and villages in Azerbaijan and Nagorno Karabakh became refugees.
A joint session of the People’s Deputies of the Nagorno Karabakh Autonomous Region and Shahumian regional councils, on September 2, 1991, declared the establishment of the Nagorno Karabakh Republic (NKR) within the borders of the former NKAR and Shahumian region.
The people of Nagorno Karabakh exercised the right enshrined in the then legislation, in particular, the law of April 3, 1990 USSR “The Regulation Governing Questions Concerning the Secession of a Union Republic from the USSR”. This law provided right to the national autonomies to decide independently their own legal status in case of a Soviet Republic’s secession from the USSR. At the same time (November 1991), the Supreme Soviet of Azerbaijan, contrary to all legal norms, passed a law liquidating the NKAR, which was declared as unconstitutional by the USSR Constitutional Court.
Just a few days before the official collapse of the Soviet Union, on December 10, 1991, a referendum was held in Nagorno Karabakh with the overwhelming majority of the population (99.98%) voting in favour of full independence from Azerbaijan. Parliamentary elections of the NKR were held on December 28, which then formed the first government. The independent NKR government went on to work under the conditions of total blockade, war and aggression unleashed by Azerbaijan.
Utilizing the weaponry of the USSR’s 4th Army headquartered in its territory, Azerbaijan engaged in wide-scale military operations against Nagorno Karabakh. As it is well known, the war continued with varying success from the fall of 1991 until May of 1994. There were times when almost 60% of the territory of Nagorno Karabakh was captured, while the capital city of Stepanakert and other residential areas were relentlessly subjected to massive air and artillery bombardments.
The defence forces of the NKR were able to liberate the city of Shushi, in May of 1992, and open a corridor into the Lachin region, creating an opportunity to reconnect the territories of the NKR and Armenia, thus partially neutralizing the multi-year blockade of the NKR.
In June-July of 1992, the Azerbaijani army captured the NKR’s entire Shahumian region, a great portion of the Martakert region, and portions of Martuni, Askeran, and Hadrut regions.
In order to resist Azerbaijani aggression, life in the NKR completely focused on the military effort. The NKR State Defence Committee was formed on August 14, 1992. Separate defence detachments were reconfigured forming the Nagorno Karabakh Defence Army, based on the principles of discipline and central command.
The NKR Defence Army succeeded in liberating previously captured territories from Azerbaijan and, during military engagements, took over a few regions bordering the NKR that had been used as firing lines. The creation of this security zone precluded the immediate threat facing the peaceful population of the NKR.
With the mediation of Russia, Kyrgyzstan, and the CIS Interparliamentary Council, Azerbaijan, Nagorno Karabakh and Armenia signed the Bishkek Document in the capital city of Kyrgyzstan, Bishkek, on May 5, 1994. According to that document, parties to the conflict agreed to a cease-fire, effective from May 12, 1994 to date.
In March 1992, the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (since 1994 – The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe) joined the settlement process of the conflict between Azerbaijan and Nagorno Karabakh. In 1997 the institute of co-chairmanship of Russia, France, and USA of the OSCE Minsk Group was created, which since then has been the only agreed format, with the mandate from the OSCE to conduct mediating activities for the peaceful settlement of the Azerbaijan-Karabakh conflict.
The Nagorno Karabakh Republic is committed to the peaceful settlement of the conflict with the full participation of official representatives of the NKR in all stages of the negotiation process, from the exchange of opinions around the philosophy of settlement to the workout and realization of concrete steps and arrangements.
The peaceful settlement of the conflict between Azerbaijan and Nagorno Karabakh and the international recognition of the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic will serve for the establishment of stability and long-lasting peace in the region.