Nagorno-Karabakh: Armenian or Azerbaijani?

Nicholas Vickery ‘22

Nagorno-Karabakh is a region that Armenia and Azerbaijan have been fighting over for years.  Although the region may not seem significant, especially considering its size, it marks one of the many points in Armenian history where larger countries have committed injustices against Armenia.

The conflict began in February of 1988 in the mountains of Nagorno-Karabakh.  To summarize, it was an undeclared war between the Armenians and the Azerbaijanis over ownership of the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic located in Western Azerbaijan.  In total it claimed more than 25,000 lives.  But the question remains: who should have ownership of Nagorno-Karabakh? The Armenians or the Azerbaijanis?

Nagorno-Karabakh has been controlled by many different countries and empires in the past.  For example, the Russians and the Ottomans both controlled Nagorno-Karabakh before and during WW1. After the Russian Empire collapsed in 1917, the Armenians, Azerbaijanis, and Georgians formed the Transcaucasian Federation.  The federation lasted three months before collapsing and then fighting broke out between the First Republic of Armenia and the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic over the boundaries of Nakhchevan, Zangezur, and Karabakh.  The fighting did not stop, and territorial disputes in the region remain a subject of tension even today.

To give context, tensions between the Armenians and the Azerbaijanis have been present since the early 20th century mainly because of religious differences. Currently, the Armenian population is about 98% Christian while 97% of Azerbaijanis are Muslim. Although these statistics are from the 21st century, the percentages were relatively similar 100 years ago.

In the 1920’s the USSR dictated that Nagorno-Karabakh was to be an autonomous region inside of Azerbaijan. The USSR maintained control of both countries and was able to quell disputes until it began to collapse in the 1980s. In 1988, the legislature within Nagorno-Karabakh decided to approve a resolution and join Armenia. Azerbaijan, needless to say, was not happy and soon enough war erupted. One would question why Azerbaijan started a war over a region that is 76% Armenian, but they did.

When the war began, Azerbaijan had more than twice the amount of materials as Armenia.  Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh collectively had about 20,000 soldiers while Azerbaijan had about 64,000. In addition, Armenia had roughly 500 railroad carts of ammunition while the Azerbaijanis had about 10,000.  Furthermore, Armenia had 3 fighter aircraft and Azerbaijan had somewhere between 60-170.  Azerbaijan also had more tanks, helicopters, and artillery.  However, from the start of the war until the Russians called for a cease fire, the Armenians only lost about 6,000 soldiers while the Azerbaijanis suffered a loss of about 20,000-30,000.

In 1994, Russia brokered a cease fire and the OSCE Minsk Group began mediating peace negotiations. In one proposal, Azerbaijani officials offered a significant percentage of their profits from a major oil pipeline. However, this proposition and others have not been what Armenia and Nagorno Karabakh are looking for.

Tensions have remained high between the two countries.  In fact, below are some of the most notable border clashes that have followed the cease fire:

  • In March of 2008, the Mardakert skirmishes commenced. These skirmishes were noted for having been the heaviest fighting between ethnic Armenians and Azerbaijani forces after the ceasefire in 1994. After the skirmishes the UN General Assembly voted 39-7 in favor of removing Armenian forces from the areas they occupied in Azerbaijan.
  • In February of 2010, an exchange of gunfire took place on the line dividing Azerbaijani and Karabakh Armenian military forces. Azerbaijan blamed Armenia for shooting at their military positions near a series of small villages. The Azerbaijanis lost three men and one was wounded.
  • Also in February 2010, the Mardakert skirmishes took place. This was a series of violations of the ceasefire agreement. Both sides accused the other of violating these negotiations.
  • In 2011-2013, continued fighting left three Nagorno-Karabakh soldiers dead, 38 Azerbaijani soldiers dead, and 36 Armenian soldiers dead.
  • In 2014 a series of violent shooting prompted Russian officials to warn both sides to stop. On August 2nd, Azerbaijani officials said 8 soldiers died during three days of clashing with NKO soldiers. NKO denied any casualties and said the Azerbaijanis lost 14 men and many more were injured. NKO also said 2 Armenians had died. Following the statements, 5 more Azerbaijani forces were killed.
  • Throughout the course of 2015, continued fighting resulted in the death of 42 Armenian soldiers and 64 Azerbaijani soldiers.

Currently, Armenia has some degree of military control over the Nagorno Karabakh region as well as some of the surrounding areas of Azerbaijan. In conclusion, Azerbaijan refuses to relinquish political control of the Nagorno Karabakh region even though it is 76% Armenian and should rightfully be independent of Azerbaijan.