Nagorno-Karabakh - Background
Armenia remains formally at war with neighboring Azerbaijan over the Nagorno-Karabakh territorial dispute. Over the centuries, the Caucasian region was subject to influence and conquest by Persians, Arabs, Mongols, Turks and Russians. Two largely opposite versions of history shape present-day Armenian and Azerbaijani perceptions as regards the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.
- The Armenian view is that Artsakh is the cradle of Armenian identity. Back in the 5th century, the first Armenian school was open at the Amaras Church in present-day Martuni District of N-K. Earlier, in 301 Armenia had adopted Christianity and in 405 scholar, preacher and military leader Mesrop Mashtots had created - or according to other sources, revived the forgotten Armenian alphabet. Armenian historiographers consider this long period essentially as Christian or Armenian resistance against foreign, largely Muslim domination.
- The Azerbaijani view is fundamentally different. The Azerbaijani view is that from 4th century B.C. to 8th century A.D. present-day N-K belonged to Caucasian Albania, the most ancient state of Northern Azerbaijan, which adopted Christianity in 313 and had its unique alphabet composed of 52 letters. In their view, the region was populated by Caucasian Albanian and Turkic tribes ruled by Albanian Mikhranid princes and later by descendants of Hassan-Jalal - Jalalids.
As the Azerbaijani population grew, the Karabakh Armenians chafed under discriminatory rule, and by 1960 hostilities had begun between the two populations of the region. Armenians feared that their demographic decline in Nagorno-Karabakh would replicate the fate of another historically Armenian region, Nakhichevan, which the Soviet Union had designated an autonomous republic under Azerbaijani administration in 1924. In Nakhichevan the number of Armenians had declined from about 15,600 (15 percent of the total) in 1926 to about 3,000 (1.4 percent of the total) in 1979, while in the same period immigration and a higher birth rate had increased the Azerbaijani population from about 85,400 (85 percent) to 230,000, or nearly 96 percent of the total.
In addition to fearing the loss of their numerical superiority, Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh resented restrictions on the development of the Armenian language and culture in the region. Although the Armenians generally lived better than Azerbaijanis in neighboring districts, their standard of living was not as high as that of their countrymen in Armenia. Hostile to the Azerbaijanis, whom they blamed for their social and cultural problems, the vast majority of Karabakh Armenians preferred to learn Russian rather than Azerbaijani, the language of Azerbaijan. As early as the 1960s, clashes occurred between the Karabakh Armenians and the Azerbaijanis, and Armenian intellectuals petitioned Moscow for redress of their situation in Nagorno-Karabakh.
A series of escalating attacks and reprisals between the two sides began in early 1988. Taking advantage of the greater freedom introduced by the glasnost and perestroika policies of Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev (in power 1985-91) in the late 1980s, Armenians held mass demonstrations in favor of uniting NagornoKarabakh with Armenia. In response to rumored Armenian demands, Azerbaijanis began fleeing the region.
On February 20, 1988, Armenian deputies to the National Council of Nagorno-Karabakh voted to unify that region with Armenia. Although Armenia did not formally respond, this act triggered an Azerbaijani massacre of more than 100 Armenians in the city of Sumgait, just north of Baku. The two-day rampage in the industrial town of Sumgait, northwest of Baku, resulted in the deaths of more than 100 Armenians. A similar attack on Azerbaijanis occurred in the Armenian town of Spitak. During 1988, while Moscow hesitated to take decisive action, Armenians grew increasingly disillusioned with Gorbachev's programs, and Azerbaijanis sought to protect their interests by organizing a powerful anti-Armenian nationalist movement. Large numbers of refugees left Armenia and Azerbaijan as pogroms began against the minority populations of the respective countries.
In the fall of 1989, intensified inter-ethnic conflict in and around Nagorno-Karabakh led Moscow to grant Azerbaijani authorities greater leeway in controlling that region. The protests of the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh against Azerbaijani rule began in the spirit of perestroika, but the movement evolved quickly into a political organization, the Karabakh Committee, a broad anticommunist coalition for democracy and national sovereignty. In the confusion following the earthquake that devastated northern Armenia in December 1988, Soviet authorities tried to stem the growing opposition to their rule by arresting the leaders of the committee. The attempt by the CPA to rule in Armenia without support from Armenian nationalists only worsened the political crisis. In March 1989, many voters boycotted the general elections for the Soviet Union's Congress of People's Deputies. Massive demonstrations were held to demand the release of the members of the committee, and, in the elections to the Armenian Supreme Soviet, the legislative body of the republic, in May, Armenians chose delegates identified with the Karabakh cause. At that time, the flag of independent Armenia was flown for the first time since 1920. The release of the Karabakh Committee followed the 1989 election; for the next six months, the nationalist movement and the Armenian communist leadership worked as uncomfortable allies on the Karabakh issue.
Gorbachev's 1989 proposal for enhanced autonomy for Nagorno-Karabakh within Azerbaijan satisfied neither Armenians nor Azerbaijanis, and a long and inconclusive conflict erupted between the two peoples. In September 1989, Azerbaijan began an economic blockade of Armenia's vital fuel and supply lines through its territory, which until that time had carried about 90 percent of Armenia's imports from the other Soviet republics. In June 1989, numerous unofficial nationalist organizations joined together to form the Armenian Pannational Movement (APM), to which the Armenian government granted official recognition.
Although both Armenia and Azerbaijan continued to be governed by communist parties, neither republic was willing to obey Moscow's directives on the Karabakh issue. In November 1989, in frustration at its inability to bring the parties together, the Supreme Soviet of the Soviet Union abolished the Special Administrative Committee and returned direct control of Karabakh to Azerbaijan. The Soviet policy backfired, when a joint session of the Armenian Supreme Soviet and the National Council, the legislative body of Nagorno-Karabakh, proclaimed the unification of Nagorno-Karabakh with Armenia in December 1989. After more than two years of the Karabakh conflict, Armenia had gone from being one of the most loyal Soviet republics to complete loss of confidence in Moscow. Gorbachev's unwillingness to grant Karabakh to Armenia and his failure to end the blockade convinced Armenians that the Kremlin considered it politically advantageous to back the more numerous Muslims.
In mid-January 1990, Azerbaijani protesters in Baku went on a rampage against remaining Armenians and the ACP. Even the invasion of Azerbaijan by Soviet troops in January 1990, ostensibly to stop pogroms against Armenians in Baku, failed to dampen the growing anti-Soviet mood among Armenians. Moscow sent police troops of the MVD, who violently suppressed the APF and installed Mutalibov as president. The troops reportedly killed 122 Azerbaijanis in quelling the uprising, and Gorbachev denounced the APF for striving to establish an Islamic republic. These events further alienated the Azerbaijani population from Moscow and ACP rule.
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