Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
The demography of the NKR is a politicized subject and all statistical data needs to be treated with caution. The NKR held its first census in October 2005, which recorded a total population of 137,737. There was no breakdown of this figure by nationality, although following the expulsion of the Azeri population and migration of Armenians expelled from parts of Azerbaijan to the NKR, the population was thought to consist of at least 95 per cent Armenians. They speak Armenian, which belongs to the Indo-European linguistic family. Except for a few scattered individuals, no Azeris remain in Nagorno-Karabakh. The last official census took place in 2015 and estimated that the total population was 150,932. According to its results, Armenians now make up the overwhelming majority of the region with small Russian, Ukranian, Yezidi, Georgian and Syrian minorities.
Updated April 2018
The status of the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh, now referred to as the Republic of Artsakh by Armenians since its name was changed following the passing of a new Constitution in 2017, is where most of Azerbaijan’s Armenian minority are based and has been a source of ongoing tensions between Azerbaijan and neighbouring Armenia since the early twentieth century. While still nominally part of Azerbaijan, the territory has been under de facto autonomous rule since the outbreak of a protracted conflict in the early 1990s between Azerbaijan and Armenia. It is estimated that in the wake of conflict in the 1990s, 300,000 Armenians left Azerbaijan and only around 18,000 remained in Azerbaijan outside the Nagorno-Karabakh region. At the same time, hundreds of thousands of ethnic Azeris were forcibly displaced from the territory, leaving behind an overwhelmingly ethnic Armenian population.
Although a ceasefire was established in 1994, no official peace settlement has been signed and despite periodic discussions violence has flared up on occasions in recent years. A major ceasefire violation occurred in April 2016 when dozens of soldiers on both sides died in clashes. Fighting continued for four days before a ceasefire was agreed. In July 2017 there was a further eruption of violence when Armenian-backed troops shelled an Azerbaijani village, killing two Azeris, one of them a two-year old toddler.
Poor relations are exacerbated by the lack of meaningful dialogue, even informally, between Azerbaijani and Armenian stakeholders. For example, the Azerbaijani government actively discourages autonomous initiatives by Azerbaijani NGOs to engage Armenians, and information on the situation within Nagorno-Karabakh is tightly controlled. In both Azerbaijan and Armenia there is a distinct impression of monopolization of the peace process by narrow elites, and a wide-ranging failure to engender debate over what kind of compromises may be admissible.
Nagorno-Karabakh (‘Mountainous Karabakh’), or the Republic of Artsakh as it is referred to by many Armenians, is situated in the highland region legally constituting the south-west part of Azerbaijan. Traditionally a wider area including the surrounding lowlands was referred to as Karabakh, although today the term has become more synonymous with the mountainous part of this wider region.
As a result of secession and occupation of the surrounding districts, the territory under the de facto control of the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic (NKR) is much larger than the territory formerly making up the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast (region) of Soviet times. This territory includes the de jure Azerbaijani regions of Zengelan, Jebrail, Kelbajar, Lachin, Gubatly and parts of the Aghdam and Fizuli regions.
Due to the conflict for sovereignty over Nagorno-Karabakh, the history of the region is hotly contested between Armenians and Azerbaijanis. In pre-modern times the region is thought to have formed part of Caucasian Albania (no relation to the Balkan Albania), a now extinct culture that had converted to Christianity in the fourth century and had assumed some Armenian cultural traits. In the early mediaeval period, waves of Seljuk invasions contributed to the spread of Islam and Turkic culture in the lowland areas of Karabakh. Through the early modern period a mixed system of rule obtained in the region, combining jurisdictions of Muslim khans and Armenian meliks (princes). To Armenians the region was known as Artsakh. Overall sovereignty over Karabakh belonged to the Persian empire (Iran) until 1813, when the region was formally incorporated into the Russian empire. Karabakh then became part of the Elizavetpol province of Russia.
Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict over territory coincided with the emergence of independent Armenian and Azerbaijani states in 1918. Karabakh was just one of a number of regions disputed by these fledgling states. After incorporation into the Soviet Union Karabakh was initially allocated to Soviet Armenia, but this decision was countermanded to see the region given instead to Soviet Azerbaijan as an autonomous district.
The most recent conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh first surfaced in 1988, following a campaign by Nagorno-Karabakh Armenians for reunification with Armenia. Violence increased with Soviet troops being deployed to try to quell the unrest. On 2 September 1991, NKR declared its secession from Azerbaijan. In December 1991, a referendum was held on independence and confirmed in January of the following year. Attempts at mediation by the Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe (CSCE; later the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, OSCE), CIS countries and others were fruitless, as the violence escalated to all-out war. Human rights abuses were committed on all sides. A ceasefire established in 1994 has held, but the status of NKR remains unresolved.
In November 1996 Robert Kocharian was elected de facto president of the NKR, and later became prime minister of Armenia in March 1997 and then president one year later. In September 1997 Arkady Ghukasian was elected de facto president of the NKR. Ghukasian was seriously wounded in an assassination attempt in March 2000, which was attributed by the establishment to Minister of Defence and former army commander Samvel Babayan. However, Ghukasian was re-elected President of the NKR in 2002. In 2007 Bako Sahakyan, a former deputy commander of the Nagorno-Karabakh Defense Army, ran a successful campaign for the presidency and was subsequently re-elected again in 2012.
Notwithstanding some developments in the past two decades, negotiations – promoted under the auspices of the OSCE on a regular basis since the 1994 ceasefire – have failed to produce a lasting peace settlement. While several proposals have been put forward for a resolution to the conflict, none have been acceptable to all parties. In 2001 negotiations reportedly came close to admitting the secession of Nagorno-Karabakh from Azerbaijan, although this proposal unsurprisingly foundered due to resistance.
In a 2006 referendum, which has been declared illegitimate by Azerbaijan, Nagorno-Karabakh adopted a new Constitution. However, despite the fact there was no permanent peace settlement, there have been occasional meetings between the Armenian and Azeri presidents. Significant progress made between the two countries at talks in 2009 subsequently stalled. Tensions have persisted since then, with fighting breaking out between Azerbaijani and Armenian forces in April 2016, resulting in dozens of deaths on both sides. Since then the violence has continued sporadically, with repeated border skirmishes having resulted in the deaths or injury of a number of Armenian and Azerbaijani soldiers.
The NKR is a stronger entity than the other unrecognized states in the South Caucasus. This is partly due to the fact that the NKR is responsible for its own security, necessitating an effective military capacity, and partly to the fact that Armenia is a reliable provider of resources to the NKR. The NKR also avoided fragmentation into competing clans or warlord armies, in contrast to Chechnya. A power struggle did develop between the de facto president Arkady Ghukasian and Minister of Defence Samvel Babayan, ending in 2000 with Babayan’s arrest on charges of attempting Ghukasian’s assassination.
The NKR adopted a Constitution on the basis of a referendum held in December 2006: no Azeris took part in the referendum. Technically a regime of martial law is still in place, renewed annually by presidential decree. Political partnerships and networks formed during the war with Azerbaijan or by business interests are highly significant, as is the Nagorno-Karabakh Defence Army. According to the de facto authorities in Stepanakert the army comprises some 20,000 soldiers, a substantial number of which are thought to be recruited from Armenia.
The NKR holds regular presidential and parliamentary elections, which are not widely recognized by the international community. In 2007, the incumbent Arkady Ghukasyan who was constitutionally barred from seeking a third term, endorsed Bako Sahakyan – head of the National Security Service – who was duly elected after a poll held in July that year. Sahakyan subsequently won the 2012 elections and was due to end his term in 2017. However, a referendum held in February 2017 resulted in the passing of a new Constitution that will see the post of Prime Minister abolished and more powers concentrated with the President, including the appointment of government ministers. The referendum was deemed illegal by both the Azerbaijan government and the mediating group of the OSCE. The transition to a presidential state is scheduled for 2020 and in the interim Sahakyan will remain in office – a decision criticized by some as a move to retain him in power.
Perhaps due to the imperative of militarization and extensive support for the regime from Armenia and the Armenian diaspora, civil society is more weakly developed in the NKR compared, for instance, to Abkhazia. International isolation, and the fact that Azerbaijan forbids access to Nagorno-Karabakh from its side of the line of contact, have also contributed to this state of affairs. There are few effective civil society groups, and a very small number of independent media outlets. Although opposition parties have developed, and have on occasion, achieved success in local elections, they have played a more marginal role at the level of the National Assembly.
Minority based and advocacy organisations
Centre for Civilian Initiatives
Institute for Civic Diplomacy
Stepanakert Press Club
Sources and further reading
Abasov, Ali and Haroutiun Khachatrian. Karabakh Conflict. Variants of Settlement: Concepts and Reality. Baku and Yerevan: Areat/Noyan Tapan, 2006.
Broers, Laurence (ed.). The Limits of Leadership: Elites and Societies in the Nagorny Karabakh Peace Process, Accord 17. London: Conciliation Resources, 2006.
Croissant, Michael. The Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict: causes and implications. London: Praeger, 1998.
De Waal, Thomas. Black Garden. Armenia and Azerbaijan through Peace and War. New York and London: New York University Press, 2003.
Human Rights Watch/Helsinki, Azerbaijan: Seven Years of Conflict in Nagorny Karabakh, New York, 1994.
International Crisis Group. ‘Nagorno-Karabakh: viewing the conflict from the ground’. Tbilisi/Brussels: Europe Report, no.166, 14 September 2005.
International Crisis Group. ‘Nagorno-Karabakh: a plan for peace’. Tbilisi/Brussels: Europe Report, no.167, 11 October 2005.
Krag, H., and Funchthe, L., NORTH CAUCASUS: Minorities at a Crossroads, MRG report, London, 1994.
Matveeva, A.,The South Caucasus: Nationalism, Conflict and Minorities, MRG report, London, 2002.