Publication: Prism Volume: 1 Issue: 24

No Narrowing of the Chasm Between Azerbaijan and Armenia

by David Nissman

There have been no serious battles between Azerbaijan and Armeniafor more than a year and a half, ever since a cease-fire wentinto effect. Now under the sole auspices of the OSCE in the personof the Minsk Group negotiations are underway to resolve the issuesbetween the two warring countries. Foremost among these issuesis the question of the future status of the 4.4 thousand squarekilometers of the former Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast: willit be recognized as an independent entity or, as is more probable,will it remain under Azerbaijan’s rule and, if so, what degreeof sovereignty will it retain?

The Minsk Group is also seeking to resolve the question of thewithdrawal of Armenian forces from the twenty percent of Azerbaijan’sterritory that they now occupy; the fate of the cities of Shushain the East and Lachin through which runs the road artery connectingArmenia and Karabakh; the repatriation of the Azeri refugees fromall the Armenian-occupied territories; and the nature and compositionof the peacekeeping forces which will (presumably) maintain thepeace.

The problem is that Karabakh forms part of both Azerbaijan’sand Armenia’s historical traditions. The peace process makes noeffort to resolve issues concerning past national grievances;i.e., those occurring in the early twentieth century and before,or to resolve the various issues connected with past demographicchanges and the reasons for them. These issues, involving thenational pride of both warring parties, while not irrelevant tothe situation as a whole, are not capable of a resolution by decreeand will not be broached intentionally during the current peacenegotiations. Nevertheless, it will be recalled that the Treatyof Versailles that ended the First World War was ultimately interpretedby a nationalistic and militant Germany as a betrayal of Germaninterests. Thus it can be said that this treaty contributed directlyto World War II.

The Treaty of X (the treaty which will make peace between Armeniaand Azerbaijan) must sidestep the immediate pitfalls such as thosebuilt into Versailles. Whether this is possible is unclear. Nationalmyths and national histories, harnessed by the right leaders atthe right time have an indisputable power of their own and havea way of rendering past agreements void. Thus, it is worth takinga look at the recent origins of the Karabakh dilemma.

The Origins of the Karabakh Conflict

At the time of the 1988 outbreak of hostilities (although onlyArmenia was aware of it–neither Moscow nor Azerbaijan suspectedthat there was a larger issue at stake), the population of thethen Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast was some 75 percent Armenianand 25 percent Azeri.

The demographic changes which occurred in Karabakh after Persiaceded the territory to Russia under the Treaty of Gulistan inthe early 19th century have played and are playing a central rolein the current situation. An informal demographic survey conductedby the Russian Yermolov in the 1820’s established that the regionwas ethnically predominantly Azeri. This data was constantly reiteratedin the Azeri media in the first three years of the current conflict.The ethnic balance began to shift by the early 1920s, and theArmenian population began to flow into the region from Iran, Armeniaand other countries. Many of them claimed their roots were inKarabakh, and this claim is made today. The growing Armenian populationof Karabakh was not at the forefront of issues concerning theBolshevik leadership in the early years of Soviet rule: at thattime Karabakh had also become a pawn in the power struggle betweenthe Bolsheviks and Mensheviks, the Whites and Reds, the communistsand the interventionists.

Nagorno-Karabakh changed hands several times between 1917 atthe time of the February Revolution and 1923, when it was finallygiven to Azerbaijan by Moscow. Following the events of February1917, a dual government was created for the region in which powerand authority were shared between the Dashnaks (the Armenian RevolutionaryFederation) and the Musavats (the ruling party in Azerbaijan duringthe period of the first Azerbaijan Republic;) a comment in theAzerbaijan Soviet Encyclopedia says this dual government was takenunder Armenian-Azeri control "with the help of interventionists."In 1918, Turkish forces under the command of Nuri Pasha took Shusha,an ancient city now possessing an ambiguous future under the probableterms of the Treaty of X. In March 1920, a Dashnak army underthe command of General Dro and Col. Nzhdeni took Karabakh again,but withdrew when Nuri Pasha’s Turkish army reentered the region.At the end of that same month, the Red Army entered Nagorno-Karabakhand forced the withdrawal of the Dashnaks. At this point in time,Azeris inhabiting the region slightly outnumbered the Armenians.

By 1923, the Russian civil war was winding down and Moscow feltsecure enough to start distributing territories, including Nagorno-Karabakhwhich, as noted above, was granted to Azerbaijan. This is thesituation as it stood at the outset of the present conflict in1988.

The territory of the former Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblastis not contiguous with Armenia: it was separated from Armeniaby a distance of a few kilometers, and actually surrounded bya number of Azerbaijan’s rayons, some of which were newly createdin the early 1930’s out of the previous rayons. The most importantof these was, and is, Lachin which has also had a dappled ethnichistory in the twentieth century. Between the early 1920’s andthe early 1930’s, it was populated by a large number of Kurdsand, until quite recently, was thought to have been the site ofa genuinely Kurdish autonomous area.

While there is no doubt that the region around Lachin was ethnicallyand culturally Kurdish, it was never the home of a Kurdish government,even under Soviet Azerbaijan. Because of this misconception, however,the Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh offered the Kurds (and the PKK)autonomy and self-rule as part of a Karabakh confederacy in 1992.This initiative, although it was widely publicized at the time,went nowhere.

Lachin is, however, the most important of Azerbaijan’s regionsfrom a strategic standpoint: the only highway connecting Nagorno-Karabakhwith Armenia, and thus the only secure lifeline for bringing suppliesinto the region, runs through Lachin. In the negotiations fora lasting peace now underway under the auspices of the Minsk group,it is widely understood that Karabakh’s government will not consentto releasing Lachin from its control, and Azerbaijan will neverturn it over willingly. The status of Lachin is one of the mostdifficult issues to settle in the current peace negotiations.Connected with these questions is the question of border demarcationbetween Karabakh, Azerbaijan and Armenia. This is ultimately oneof the touchiest areas in the peace negotiations and one of themost difficult to resolve.

While the conflict over Karabakh is the age-old one of nationalself-determination versus the status quo, the present politicalenvironment is not one that permits territorial redistributionalong ethnic or any other lines in the former Soviet Union. TheArmenian-Azeri conflict over the status of Karabakh is not theonly such situation in the former Soviet republics, although ithas generated the most refugees and the most bloodshed to date.

The refugee question will, at best, be extremely expensive toresolve. By 1990, all Azeris had been driven out of Armenia, andall Armenians out of Azerbaijan. As the various Armenian militaryunits (including newly recruited Karabakh Armenians) advancedinto Nagorno-Karabakh and drove a new wave of Azeris into theurban centers of Azerbaijan, the Azeri government did nothing,preferring to have Moscow settle the dispute as it had done inthe past.

Moscow’s efforts, as it tried various formulas to end the growingconflict, were half-hearted and incompetent. At the same time,hundreds of thousands of refugees were driven into the citiesof Azerbaijan; they were poorly fed, impoverished by having beendriven out of their traditional homes and lands, and ill-equippedto deal with survival in a highly industrialized country.

The refugees were, in short, easy prey for those who would manipulatethem. Atrocities and pogroms occurred in Sumgait, Baku and othercities where mobs of refugees congregated and sought revenge againstArmenians at the instigation of unknown leaders. In November andDecember of 1988, a massive and well-organized demonstration tookplace in Baku which, while nominally devoted to protesting Armenianactions against Azerbaijan, turned into a forum for the discussionof the virtues of independence as opposed to the vices of Sovietrule. Azerbaijan’s society became increasingly polarized and politicizedas political movements and ideas, long suppressed, came into theopen. In the meantime, Azerbaijan’s leadership still waited forMoscow to settle the conflict with Armenia and paid little attentionto the developments in their own country.

A year later, in January 1990, Gorbachev used a pogrom (whichhad been ended by Azeri police six days previously) as a pretextto move the Soviet Army into Baku in order to quash Azerbaijan’sgrowing independence movement. Subsequently, the Azeri media oftenalluded to Russian- Armenian collusion against Azerbaijan as oneof the obstacles to any Azeri effort to counter Armenia’s seeminglyvast territorial appetite.

In the meantime, the Armenian government in Yerevan, in concertwith the newly-elected, self-declared government in Karabakh,stayed on the course selected in 1988 and continued to fight foran independent Nagorno-Karabakh republic. They were also ableto gain very positive press coverage of the events in the Transcaucasus,especially in Moscow where the press had adopted a strong anti-Muslim(anti-Azeri) bias from the outset of hostilities. This was carriedover into the Western media which tended to mimic coverage oftheir then Soviet colleagues when it came to coverage of eventsin obscure corners of the Soviet realm. Also, the Muslim "spin"in Russian coverage made the situation sound comprehensible totheir readers. One consequence of this media process is that thetendency to treat the conflict as Christian Armenian versus MuslimTurk was taken as a kind of crusade, even though it is a grossdistortion of the real situation.

By the end of 1994, after close to seven years of fighting, acease-fire agreement was concluded. The OSCE’s Minsk Group, nowco-chaired by Finland and Russia, became the sole party mediatingthe dispute. And what exactly is their role? According to HeikkeTalvitie, one of the co-chairmen, its aim "is not to imposean unacceptable position on any one side, but to act as a mediatorto bring the positions closer." (1)

The difficulty of this job may be inferred from a recent statementby Arkady Gukasyan, foreign minister of the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic:"Karabakh has sufficiently serious arguments to defend itsindependence. We do not rule out the possibility of treaty-basedrelations with Azerbaijan. We do not rule out that there couldbe some form of truncated statehood…But the point is that Nagorno-Karabakhshould be a subject of international law…And on this there canbe no concessions on our side." (2)

The status of Karabakh is the crux of the matter, and the reasonfor comparing the future Treaty of X’s with Versailles at thebeginning of this discussion. Both Azerbaijan and Armenia considerthe territory of Nagorno-Karabakh to be a repository of theirown pasts, and without finding a formula for preventing a futureirredentist struggle by one or the other side, any agreement reachedis doomed. And each member of the Minsk Group knows this to beso.


1.Azerbayjan Radyo Televizyasi, September 29, 1995

2. Pravda, October 4, 1995

David Nissman is an Adjunct Professor at Georgetown University.