Nagorno-Karabagh: Conflict & Conciliation

Over a decade ago, the Armenians of Mountainous Karabagh (also known as Nagorno-Karabagh, a small region in the Caucasus) stood at the head of the forces leading to the downfall of the Soviet Union during their own struggle for self-determination and freedom from tyranny. They were forced to fight a bitter battle against Azerbaijani nationalists, the latter at times supported by Soviet military force. They eventually succeeded in taking control of their ancestral territory, in which they remained a demographic majority. Today, though the military battles have died down, this land and its people still lie at the crossroads of East and West, and many world powers—the U.S., Russia, France, Iran and Turkey included—attempt to shape the forthcoming peace to suit their own interests.

Historical Background: Much of Karabagh in ancient times lay in the ancient Armenian province of Artsakh, on the eastern edge of the Armenian plateau. Its people converted to Christianity along with the rest of Armenia in the 4th century A.D., and from that time many churches and monasteries were established. For centuries, Artsakh (like the rest of Armenia) faced foreign invasions and occupations, but the mountainous terrain allowed for a good deal of local autonomy even in the worst of times. By the late medieval era, a system of autonomous Armenian lords of small principalities, called "melikates," arose. Only in the second half of the 18th century did a Muslim feudal principality, centered in Shushi, emerge in Mountainous Karabagh, and lead to an influx of Turkic and Kurdish tribesmen. In the 19th century, the Russian Empire seized control of the region, and after the onset of Soviet rule in the 20th century, Mountainous Karabagh was placed under the control of the Soviet Republic of Azerbaijan, but with its borders manipulated so that they were no longer directly contiguous with those of the Soviet Republic of Armenia.

Soviet rule allowed the Azerbaijani masters of the ostensibly autonomous Karabagh republic to assert their dominance over the local Armenians politically, economically, and culturally. Protest was in vain, and Armenian demographic dominance declined from over 94 percent to roughly 75 percent by the end of the 1980s. At this time, the crumbling of the Soviet Union inspired the Karabagh Armenians to appeal for Karabagh's governance to be transferred to Soviet Armenia. Demonstrations by Armenians both in Karabagh and Soviet Armenia led to violent reprisals in various parts of Azerbaijan. The worst was in the industrial city of Sumgait, where several hundred Armenians were killed in pogroms in February 1988. Soon, an Azerbaijani economic blockade of Karabagh and the forcible deportation of Armenian villagers with the assistance of Soviet forces gave rise to armed clashes, as Armenians resisted. Over the next two years, threats and attacks against Armenians caused the several hundred thousand Armenians living in Soviet Azerbaijan to flee to Armenia, Russia, and Central Asia. Azerbaijanis living in Armenia fled to Azerbaijan and elsewhere.

War in Karabagh, 1991-94: Out-and-out war began in 1991. After Azerbaijan revoked the autonomous status of the Region of Mountainous Karabagh, the local Armenians in turn held a referendum for independence, which was formally ratified by a newly-elected Nagorno-Karabagh parliament in January 1992. Despite several reversals, the Karabagh Armenians emerged victorious, having taking control of most of the territory of the former autonomous region, with the exception of some northern areas remaining under Azerbaijani control. Territory surrounding Karabagh was also occupied by Armenians to provide for a buffer zone against future attacks, and this displaced hundreds of thousands of Azerbaijanis. Several tens of thousands died on both sides during the active period of conflict. A ceasefire agreement was signed in May 1994; it has remained unbroken until today, despite minor incidents.

Mediation / Reconciliation Efforts: International mediation efforts had already begun in 1991. All the major powers of the region—Iran, Turkey, and Russia—made attempts, as was to be expected. The United States, as a world power, and several of the states of Western Europe, also had an interest in the region. A number of major international organizations, such as the United Nations, were involved. Even more distant countries like Kazakhstan, or internationally unrecognized countries like Chechnya, offered to mediate the conflict. Ultimately, it was the Minsk Group of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE, formerly CSCE) which provided the framework for the major mediation effort, which included most of the interested powers with the notable exception of Iran.

The various regional states and outside powers naturally pursued their own national interests during the prolonged mediation processes. This frequently led to one state or another unofficially upsetting arrangements that were being officially concluded; often individual states engaged in separate negotiation efforts alongside the official Minsk Group talks. When one of the actual parties to the negotiations objected to developments, it could take advantage of these disputes among the diverse mediating powers.

Part of the difficulty encountered during negotiations was the absence of a defined negotiating status of Nagorno-Karabagh itself. At times it participated in negotiations, and at other times only the states of Azerbaijan and Armenia were involved. The approach to a settlement itself has been controversial, with the Karabagh Armenians generally insisting on a "package" settlement, which would determine the final status of the Karabagh territory while simultaneously detailing all future measures to enforce peace and return all occupied territories. The "step-by-step" approach, offered in 1997 by the Minsk Group, delayed a determination of final status until after a series of accommodations were made by the various parties concerned. It was accepted by Azerbaijan and Armenia, but domestic opposition led to the resignation of the Republic of Armenia's President, Levon Ter Petrosian. Subsequent Minsk Group attempts have likewise fallen short of success, including proposals for a "common state" promoted by Armenia and Karabagh, which would forego claims for Karabagh's independence and return occupied territory outside of Karabagh proper.

Humanitarian Assistance: After the fighting had stopped, many international organizations provided assistance to Karabagh, as well as to refugees in Armenia, Azerbaijan, and elsewhere. In the Nagorno-Karabagh Republic, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) has worked with several non-governmental organizations to provide humanitarian aid in the form of housing projects, hospital reconstruction, water distribution systems, and the repair of schools. Chief among USAID's partners has been the Fund for Armenian Relief (FAR). Organizations such as the British "Halo Trust" are involved in de-mining programs. The International Committee of the Red Cross has educated both Armenian and Azerbaijani populations about the dangers of landmines and implemented water and sanitation efforts in Azerbaijan. Baroness Caroline Cox, Christian Solidarity International, and Christian Solidarity Worldwide have brought a variety of aid to Karabagh, especially medical supplies.

Much remains to be done to implement a true and lasting peace in the region. Humanitarian needs of refugees and others are still overwhelming in Karabagh and its neighboring states. The unstable peace means that periodically lives are lost during minor clashes or incidents, while economic blockades prevent a true rehabilitation of the economy of Karabagh and Armenia, and of course have a detrimental effect on Nakhichevan and much of Azerbaijan as well.

For more information on Karabagh and related issues, contact the Diocese's Krikor and Clara Zohrab Information Center.