Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
At 1.3 per cent of the population, Armenians are the third largest minority group with a population of 120,300 (2009 census) living mainly in the Nagorno-Karabakh region of Azerbaijan. Some also live outside Nagorno-Karabakh, including in Baku city. There is no reliable data for the number of Armenians in the seceded territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, while the number of Armenians in the rest of Azerbaijan is a highly politicized issue. Anecdotally the figure of 30,000 is often cited, although this is almost certainly an exaggeration. The vast majority of Armenians remaining in the rest of Azerbaijan are spouses in mixed Armenian–Azerbaijani or Armenian–Russian marriages. They speak Armenian, which belongs to the Indo-European linguistic family. Only 0.2 per cent of Armenians living in Azerbaijan speak Azerbaijani.
The conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh first surfaced in 1988 following a campaign by Nagorno-Karabakh Armenians for reunification with Armenia. The area had originally been designated as Armenian by the Bolshevik Caucasus Bureau in 1921; however, days later this decision was revoked by Stalin in his capacity as Commissar for Nationalities and the area was handed over to Azerbaijan. Both Armenians and Azeris claim a historic right to the territory.
By 1988 the territory, prior to the break-up of the Soviet Union, was 75 per cent Armenian. The campaign for secession from Azerbaijan and the formation of the Armenian Karabakh Committee sparked demonstrations in Yerevan in support of the campaign. Karabakh Armenians had long-held grievances against the Azeri administration over the lack of education and cultural rights, as well as the neglect of ancient Armenian monuments. These grievances were disputed by the Baku authorities. It was also alleged by Armenians that the area had suffered deliberate economic neglect, although Azeris maintain that the general standard of living in Nagorno-Karabakh was better than in Azerbaijan as a whole, albeit lower than in Armenia itself. Contemporary historians of the conflict agree that while living standards in Soviet Karabakh were not significantly different from surrounding areas of Azerbaijan, they compared less favourably with conditions in parts of Armenia.
As the violence increased direct rule was imposed by Moscow, but attempts to calm the situation failed and the region was returned to Azerbaijani rule in November 1989. Armenia responded with a Supreme Soviet declaration that Nagorno-Karabakh should belong to Armenia, a declaration declared null and void by the Soviet authorities. Following the declaration of a state of emergency in mid-1991, Soviet troops were deployed in the region, with little success other than to fuel the resentments of Karabakh Armenians. Strikes and violent protests continued in the enclave.
With the dissolution of the Soviet Union at the end of 1991, Armenia and Azerbaijan found themselves as independent states facing an increasingly intractable conflict. Nagorno-Karabakh declared its secession as a republic from Azerbaijan on 2 September 1991, according to the then-still-valid Soviet Union Law on Secession, although it stopped short of an outright declaration of independence. By December 1991, a referendum on independence was held and confirmed on 6 January 1992 by the newly elected Nagorno-Karabakh legislature; 1992 witnessed a transition from sporadic outbreaks of violence to outright war.
In 1989 there were around 400,000 Armenians in Azerbaijan. Around one-third of the Armenian population was resident in the enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh, and there were also significant Armenian communities in industrial centres such as Baku and Sumqayit. Following the escalation of tensions over the Nagorno-Karabakh issue and pogroms against Armenians in Baku and Sumqayit, an estimated 300,000 Armenians left the country. It was estimated that by the mid-1990s only around 18,000 Armenians remained in Azerbaijan proper, while there were no accurate figures for the Armenian population of Nagorno-Karabakh.
Attempts at mediation were made by a number of parties, including CIS countries, notably Russia and Kazakhstan, the Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe (CSCE; later the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, OSCE), Turkey and Iran. Since mid-1992 mediation efforts have been undertaken by the OSCE Minsk Group of 11 countries, headed by a tripartite structure of co-chairs from Russia, the United States and France. By the beginning of 1994 Nagorno-Karabakh was in the hands of Karabakh Armenian forces, as was the Lachin corridor linking it to Armenia, and the surrounding territory, representing approximately 13 per cent of Azerbaijani territory. Human rights violations were committed by both parties, including indiscriminate shelling, the taking of hostages, summary executions and the large-scale displacement of civilians. A ceasefire negotiated in May 1994 has held till the present, despite sporadic instances of violence. The Karabakh Armenians have established self-rule, regularly holding presidential and parliamentary elections that are not recognized by the international community at large.
Negotiations under the auspices of the OSCE have continued on a regular basis since the ceasefire. Several proposals have been put forward for a resolution to the conflict, although none have been acceptable to all parties. Proposals have included the so-called ‘package’ and ‘step-by-step’ solutions, envisaging the simultaneous and staged implementation of conflict measures respectively. A third proposal envisaged a ‘common state’ uniting Nagorno-Karabakh and Azerbaijan, although the terms of such a union remained vague. In 2001 negotiations reportedly came close to admitting the secession of Nagorno-Karabakh from Azerbaijan, although this proposal unsurprisingly foundered due to resistance within the Azerbaijani political elite.
Key stumbling blocks are the issues of the continued occupation of Azerbaijani territories by Armenian forces, the return of Azerbaijanis displaced from these territories including Nagorno-Karabakh, the future status of the formerly Azeri-populated town of Shusha and the Lachin corridor linking Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia and the identity of any peacekeepers potentially deployed along the line of contact (the ceasefire is currently self-regulating with no international presence). In a 2006 referendum which has been declared illegitimate by Azerbaijan, Nagorno-Karabakh adopted a new Constitution. However, despite the fact there was no official 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. In both Azerbaijan and Armenia there is a distinct process of monopolization of the peace process by a narrow elite, and a wide-ranging failure to engender debate in society over what kind of compromises may be admissible. Without buy-in from wider society, it is unlikely that any peace proposals will achieve success.
Contacts between the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh and Azerbaijanis are limited to occasional reciprocal visits by civil society activists, although Armenian visits to Azerbaijan have grown increasingly few due to Azerbaijani reluctance to guarantee security. The Azerbaijani government actively discourages autonomous initiatives by Azerbaijani NGOs to make contact with Armenians, and Azerbaijani society has few sources of information about developments in Nagorno-Karabakh outside of official propaganda. In this context, conditions for those Armenians remaining in Azerbaijan outside of Armenian-controlled territory remain extremely unfavourable. Hate-speech against Armenians continues to be a staple of officially sanctioned media, while peace-building initiatives involving civil society actors are regularly vilified, and sometimes result in physical assaults on the property and persons of those involved.
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. In late 2017, the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Azerbaijan announces talks with Moscow with the aim of finally finding a solution for the conflict.
Updated March 2018