Nagorno-Karabakh: A walk through history


The Nagorno Karabakh region has been a major bone of contention between Azerbaijan and Armenia since the two nation-states were formed after the disintegration of the soviet union. The region has seen both sides resorting to open war in the last year. The geopolitical significance has also attracted regional powers into taking sides with Turkey allied with Azerbaijan and Russian supporting Armenia.

It is important to note here that Russia is an arms and ammunition supplier to both Azerbaijan and Armenia. The war ended with a Russia brokered ceasefire agreement and Azerbaijan claiming victory after Armenia agreed to withdraw its forces around the disputed region. The conflict seems far from over as such agreements have been brokered in the past as well but have failed to achieve a permanent solution to the conflict. Both sides claim the area to be an inseparable part of their identity and culture.

This article is an attempt to draw the history of the Nagorno-Karabakh region before the formation of the two nation-states. The modern Karabakh region has been inhabited by humans since the early days. MM Guseynov writes that more than a million years ago the oldest site of a man in whole Eurasia existed in the territory of Karabakh. The present-day Republic of Azerbaijan was called the Kingdom of Caucasian Albania during the 4th century BC. It remained autonomous throughout and was briefly invaded by the Romans in 1 AD. With time the region also became a vassal of Sassanid Persia.

Initially, the religions practiced were Pagan and Zoroastrianism, by 4 AD Christianity became the major religion. A significant change followed when the Arab Muslims during the reign of the third Caliph Uthman bin Affan conquered the region. After the conquest, the native population, the majority of which were Christians embraced Islam in large numbers. Further Arabs named the area Al-Ran or Arran.

Later Seljukid Sultan Alp Arslan established his hold over the region after he defeated the Byzantine emperor Romanos IV Diogenes at the Battle of Manzikert. The period from 1230-1232 witnessed many Mongol invasions. After the death of Genghis khan his grandson Hulagu founded the Ilk Khanate which included the territory of historical Azerbaijan and Arran. It was towards the end of the 14th century that Timurids took control of the region.

While the Timurids ruled, confrontations with Qara Qoyunlu (Black Sheep) Turkmen increased. Eventually Qara Qoyunlu Turkmen established a state which comprised of Azerbaijan, Armenia, eastern Turkey, and Iraq. In the later part of the 14th-century Aq Qoyunlu(white sheep) Turkmen wrested control from Qara Qoyunlu. It was in the year 1501 that Safavid ruler Shah Ismail confronted Aq Qoyunlu, defeated them, and proclaimed himself Shah of Azerbaijan. He also declared Shiite Islam as the official religion of the state.

The ottomans had become an expansionist force by the 16th century. Due to this Ottoman- Safavid confrontations became frequent in the region. This led to significant demographic changes as many Turk tribes inhabited the region. Shah Ismail’s son Shah Tahamasp appointed Sultan Shahverdi of the Qajar clan as the governor of the Karabakh region. This also led to many Qajar families inhabiting the region.

Meanwhile, the Ottoman-Safavid confrontations continued with finally ottomans getting control of the region in 1714. In 1747, Panah Ali khan declared independence and established Karabakh khanate. This also included the mountain areas populated by Christians.

Later his son, Ibrahim Khalil khan(1759-1806) under the pressure of Iranian invasions called for Russian help in 1796. The Russian army which was on the way to Karabakh returned due to the death of Empress Katherine II. Thus Karabakh fell to Iranians and Ibrahim Khalil accepted the Iranian suzerainty.

Russia’s interest in the Caucasian region increased and Ibrahim Khalil sensing an opportunity signed a treaty on 14 May 1805 which formalized the inclusion of Karabakh khanate into the Russian nation. Ibrahim Khalil khan also was awarded the title of General Lieutenant of the Russian army.

Further in 1822, Karabakh khanate was declared a Russian province. Demographic changes occurred as more Armenian families began settling in the region. The agricultural census in 1917 showed population figures stood at 62% Azeris and 36% Armenian. Tsarist Russian officials adopted a policy of “divide and conquer” and this led to Armenian-Azeri clashes in February 1905 leaving 10000 dead on both sides. Armenians being better armed and organized pushed Azeris out of the Karabakh region. This left a lasting impact and the clashes increased in the following years. In the summer of 1918 Armenian launched an offensive in Karabakh which led to 50000 Azeris escaping to other areas of Azerbaijan. Armenia in 1920 again attacked Karabakh and the communists in Azerbaijan appealed to the Soviets.

The Soviet army captured Baku and Karabakh in the summer of 1920. Thus Azerbaijan ceased to exist and a little later Armenia too came under the Soviet fold. In November 1920, the Nagorno Karabakh region was granted self-determination rights. This did not mean an end to the territorial dispute as both sides sent petitions to the Soviets for the inclusion of land into their area. Soviet leadership in the ’70s and ’80s was aware of the developments taking place in the area but refrained from any action as it did not pose a threat to them.

Clashes broke again in 1987 and Azeris from Armenia and Karabakh started arriving in Baku and USSR. With the collapse of the USSR in 1991, Armenia and Azerbaijan became a republic and the territorial conflict for Karabakah entered a new stage. The full-scale war started in the winter of 1992 and Armenia captured most of the Karabakh region.

The war stopped with a ceasefire agreement brokered by Russia in May 1994 and a diplomatic channel was established. Although the ceasefire agreement did not deter the two sides and small border clashes became quite frequent in the region. In September 2020, fresh clashes erupted which ultimately led to full-scale war. The fighting went on for 44 days and ended on 10 November 2020 after a Russia brokered ceasefire agreement. Azerbaijan conquered large areas in the Karabakh region which were taken away previously by Armenia.

Further, Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev declared that the conflict has ended, but the possibility of new clashes along the border cannot be ruled out. Both sides have historically affirmed that Nagorno Karabakh is an integral part and thus remains a fault line between the two nations.

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Shahnawaz Mughal

Shahnawaz is Independent Researcher. MA Politics ( International and Area Studies) BA (H) Hotel Management Travel & Tourism

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