Nagorno-Karabakh: The Indelible Stains of History
Protests in Armenia
Nagorno-Karabakh is internationally recognised as part of Azerbaijan, something the Armenians have never reconciled to.
Since November 2020, Armenia had been witnessing protests and turned into mass demonstrations recently including in the capital Yerevan. The protestors as well as the opposition parties were demanding that Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan step down.
The protestors had clashed with security forces with reports indicating that hundreds had been arrested. They accused the PM of surrendering Armenian interests by signing a peace deal with Azerbaijan after losing the last war to the Azeris which started in September 2020.
Azerbaijan secured significant gains in the war regaining most of the Armenian occupied territories surrounding Nagorno-Karabakh and large parts of Nagorno-Karabakh, including the culturally significant city of Shusha.
The war ended with a trilateral agreement in November 2020, between Armenia, Azerbaijan and Russia. Under the agreement Armenia was forced to transfer all the remaining occupied territories surrounding Nagorno-Karabakh to Azerbaijan.
The Prime Minister’s defence to lawmakers that the international community favoured such a peace deal and wanted Armenia to scale down demands on Karabakh satisfied no one. The PM maintained that the agreement would allow border demarcation to be carried out without the risk of military clashes. He had also proposed that Russian border forces be stationed along the length Armenia’s border with Azerbaijan
Opposition leader and National Assembly Vice Speaker Ishkhan Saghatelyan had said that any political status of Karabakh within Azerbaijan was unacceptable and that the protest movement would shortly lead to the overthrow of the government. In the beginning of May 2022 he said that a large-scale campaign of civil disobedience would begin-the recent protests in the first week of May 2022 suggest it has begun.
The first main casualty of the peace deal was the Presidency. Armen Sarkissian who had been President since 2018 resigned saying his office did not have the wherewithal to influence policy during times of crisis. The dilution of the President’s powers had taken place after a referendum in December 2015 that made Armenia a parliamentary republic.
The President had complained about not being included in the negotiations leading to the peace deal and also clashed with the PM after the latter dismissed the head of the armed forces in the wake of the lost war. Sarkissian had spelled out his clear stand on the Nagorno-Karabakh issue stating that for the Armenians the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict was not a territorial issue, but a matter of the rights of the local ethnic-Armenian population- a sentiment echoed by the protestors seeking the ouster of the PM.
The roots of the problem between predominantly Christian Armenia and its neighbour,a majority Muslim Azerbaijan, lie in history. A brief recounting of historical events would demonstrate the background that led eventually to the present ongoing protests in Armenia.
Nagorno Karabakh falls within the lands occupied by peoples known to modern archaeologists as the Kura-Araxes culture, who lived between the two rivers Kura and Araxes.
Historians say the ancient population of the region consisted mostly of non-Indo-Europeans tribes. There were Armenians who came to the region after its inclusion into Armenia in the 2nd or, possibly earlier, in 4th century BC.
Around 387 AD, Armenia was divided between the Roman Empire and Sassanid Persia. Two Armenian provinces, Artsakh and Utik, became part of Albania which was influenced by Armenian religion and culture. In the 7th century AD it was conquered by Muslim Arabs.
A treaty in 1805 made Nagorno-Karabakh a protectorate of the Russian Empire which recognised the Muslim ruler Ibrahim Khalil Khan and his descendants as the sole hereditary rulers of the region. The Treaty of Gulistan in 1813 after the Persians were defeated by the Russians led to the formal ceding of Karabakh to the Russian Empire.
After the Russian Revolution of 1917 1918–1920), there were a series of short wars between Armenia and Azerbaijan over several regions, including Karabakh between 1918-20. In 1918, the First Armenian Assembly of Nagorno-Karabakh declared the region self-governing and created a National Council and government. Ottoman troops subsequently entered Karabakh, but were resisted by the Armenians. The British occupied Karabakh after the Ottoman empire fell in the 1st World War.
In 1920, the Karabakh National Council agreed to Azerbaijani jurisdiction. But the Armenians did not accept the agreement and continued guerrilla fighting. The agreement was annulled by the Ninth Karabagh Assembly, which declared union with Armenia. After Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan were Sovietised, Stalin was said to have decided that Karabagh would remain with substantial autonomy as a part of Azerbaijan. The borders of the sub divisional area or district were drawn to ensure an Armenian majority.
The demise of the erstwhile Soviet Union in 1980-90 rekindled the question of Nagorno-Karabakh. The majority Armenian population started a movement to have the autonomous district transferred to Armenia accusing the Azeris of forced Azerification of the region. They sent a petition in 1987 Moscow, seeking union with Armenia. In an interesting development in 1988, a majority of the Soviet People's Deputies voted in Karabakh for the transfer of the region to Armenia.
In 1989, direct rule in Nagorno-Karabakh was ended and the region was returned to Azerbaijani administration. But Nagorno-Karabakh’s legislature, the National Council, in a joint session with the Armenian Supreme Soviet announced the unification of Nagorno-Karabakh with Armenia.
In 1991 Armenia and Azerbaijan gained independence from the Soviet Union and the dispute over Nagorno-Karabakh escalated. On 10 December 1991, in a referendum that the local Azerbaijanis boycotted, the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh approved the creation of an independent state. This led to a full-scale war between the neighbours with both the Armenian and Azerbaijani with both sides using mercenaries and the Afghan mujahideen and Chechen participating on Azerbaijan's side.
By mid 1994, the Armenians had taken control of nearly 14% of the territory of Azerbaijan. For the first time the Azerbaijani government recognized Nagorno-Karabakh as a third party in the war and started direct negotiations with the Karabakh authorities. The Russians mediated and a ceasefire was secured in May 1994.
Meanwhile on the international front in 2005 the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe adopted a Resolution condemning ethnic cleansing against. The OIC also got into the act and adopted a resolution calling Armenia’s occupation of Azerbaijani territory as aggression and calling the actions against Azerbaijani civilians as a crime against humanity. In March 2005 the United Nations General Assembly demanded the immediate, complete and unconditional withdrawal of all Armenian forces from all occupied territories of the Republic of Azerbaijan.
On January 26 2016, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe said that the occupation by Armenia of Nagorno-Karabakh and other adjacent areas of Azerbaijan had created humanitarian and environmental problems for the citizens of Azerbaijan. It condemned ethnic cleansing against Azerbaijanis and said all Armenian forces should immediately withdraw. A similar stand was taken by the European Parliament.
Intermittent clashes continued between the two neighbours until September 2020 when all out war broke out. The United Nations, condemning the conflict, called on both sides to de-escalate tensions and hold urgent negotiations without delay. NATO, the United States, Russia, and Iran repeatedly called for a halt to the fighting. But Armenia’s neighbour Turkey had openly endorsed the Azerbaijani position. In October 2020 Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan praised Azerbaijan’s “great operation both to defend its own territories and to liberate the occupied Karabakh”. He had also said that Turkey would continue to unstintingly support Azerbaijan. Turkish relations with Armenia had always been tense because of the killing of Armenians by the Ottaman empire—an event called the Armenian genocide which, for the first time, commemorated by US President Biden.
Turkey had closed its borders with Armenia in the 1990’s in protest against the occupation of Nagorno-Karabakh. After Azerbaijan’s victory in the 2020 war it was now reported that the special representatives of Turkey and Armenia had held a third round of normalization talks in Vienna in May 2020 and agreed to continue the negotiations without preconditions.
Given the domestic tensions in Armenia, any move that would exacerbate Armenia’s loss of face was likely to fuel the protests against Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan. The question that arises is whether, if indeed the protests lead to the PM’s ouster, any new government would seek to avenge the 2020 defeat. In which case the future could replicate the past with more clashes and even wars breaking out.