Mountainous Karabakh (also known as Nagorno Karabakh or the Artsakh Province of Historic Armenia) was handed over from Persia (Iran) to the Russian Empire in 1813 by the Treaty of Gulistan as a consequence of the Russo-Persian War (1804-1813). This political status lasted only until the overthrow of the Russian monarchy through the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, and a local government was created in Mountainous Karabakh.
By Vahram Atanesyan
Editor’s Note: The article below presents a historical overview of Karabakh starting from the early nineteenth century to the post-war years. It also portrays chronologically the political developments that led to relinquishing Karabakh to the Azeris in the Bolshevik years, the chain of events that sparked the heroic liberation movement and the tenuous ceasefire that continues to this day. The article establishes the irreversibility of Karabakh’s independence, and notes the vital importance of the support of Armenia and the Diaspora in ensuring both the advancement of the republic’s economy and infrastructure and achieving international recognition.
Between May 26 to 28, 1918, Georgia, Azerbaijan and Armenia all proclaimed themselves, one after the other, independent states in the Southern Caucasus. A National Council formed in Mountainous Karabakh declared the territory “an inseparable part” of the Republic of Armenia.
On September 15, 1918, Baku was conquered by an Ottoman Turkish regiment. The Azeri government moved from Gandzak to Baku and declared its “competence” over Karabakh and Zangezur. A bloody Armeno-Azeri war broke out; however, the Azeri government, which was supported at first by Ottoman Turkey and, after the defeat of the latter in World War I, by the British Empire, was not able to establish its hegemony over Mountainous Karabakh and Zangezur (Syunik).
Unfortunately, peace did not prevail. On March 23, 1920, the Azeri armed forces of Mussavat launched an attack on the Armenian quarters of Shushi, slaughtering some 30,000 Armenians. On April 28, 1920, the Bolshevik forces entered Baku and proclaimed Soviet control there. An armistice treaty was signed between Russia and the Republic of Armenia on August 10, 1920, according to which Mountainous Karabakh, Zangezur and Nakhijevan were recognized as “temporarily occupied” by the Russian forces. Their legal status, according to the agreement of the parties, was to be determined by a subsequent treaty.
Following the loss of the independence of the Republic of Armenia on December 2, 1920, the issue of the three “temporarily occupied” territories was transferred to the hands of the Bolshevik Party’s “KovkasBureau” in the Caucasus.
On March 15, 1921, the Russo-Turkish Treaty, “About Friendship and Brotherhood,” was drawn, which predetermined the special status of Nakhijevan as a territory conceded from Turkey to Azerbaijan. Zangezur was proclaimed part of Soviet Armenia and Mountainous Karabakh was left as part of Azerbaijan with a “high degree of regional autonomy.”
This illegitimate act aroused the protest of the Armenian majority of Artsakh continuously for the next several decades. In the period following the death of Stalin, when Soviet tyranny was somewhat less extreme, the Artsakh Armenians presented several petitions to the central authorities in Moscow with a request to reunite Artsakh with Soviet Armenia.
In 1966, a petition signed by 13 state, party, public and cultural figures of Artsakh, attached to 40,000 signatures was sent to Moscow. The same question was raised in 1977 when the bill of the New Constitution of the USSR was being discussed.
However, the mightiest movement for the reunification of Artsakh with Armenia began concurrently with the declaration of the policy of reforms in the USSR, in the late nineteen eighties. The movement reached its culmination on February 20, 1988. On that day, the Regional Council—the highest body of the regional authorities of Mountainous Karabakh—passed a resolution, in which it solicited the Supreme Soviet states of Azerbaijan, Armenia and USSR to discuss and resolve the problem of the reunification of the autonomous region with Armenia.
The government of Soviet Azerbaijan responded brutally to the legitimate demands of the Armenians of Artsakh with the atrocities and persecutions perpetrated in Sumgait during February 26 to 29, 1988. As a consequence of these tragic events, about half a million Armenians were deported from Azerbaijan. The climax in the pressures exerted by the Soviet authorities against Artsakh was the military operation named “Koltso” (Ring), which followed the visit of former Turkish President Turgut Özal to Moscow on March 15, 1991, 10 years after the signature of the “About Friendship and Brotherhood” Treaty.
The military operation started from Getashen on April 30, 1991. During the next few days, the populations of Getashen and of the adjacent village of Martounashen, numbering more than 4,000, were deported. Dozens of women, children and elderly were tortured or murdered and the fate of hundreds of unarmed people remains unknown to this day. The next target of atrocities was Shahumyan, in northern Artsakh, inhabited mainly by Armenians, which, had been left outside the administrative borders of the autonomous region.
The military operation “Koltso” called to mind the deportations of the “unreliable people” in the Soviet Union to Middle Asia and Siberia during the Stalin era. The plan was to banish the Armenians from Artsakh, where the local structures of authority had been previously abolished and a military junta had been established under the leadership of General Safonov of the USSR Ministry of Interior and the Communist official of Azerbaijan, Polyanichko. During the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, he had been the Afghan advisor and implemented his experience in the struggle with the mujahedeen against the unarmed Armenians of Artsakh.
During this catastrophic period, the inhabitants of 24 Armenian villages were deported, and their homes ransacked and set on fire. The members of the so-called “Special Detachment of the Azerbaijan Police,” who were, in reality, the sub-unit of armed gangs of brigands renowned for their brutality, cooperated closely with the Soviet Ministry of Internal Affairs forces in the atrocities perpetrated against the Armenian population of Artsakh. Several thousands of Armenian men were arrested during these punitive operations and were imprisoned in concentration camps created in the various regions of Azerbaijan. Many were subsequently exchanged with other prisoners, but a few dozen died in captivity.
“Koltso” was the final straw that definitively shattered the Artsakh Armenians’ faith in the Soviet authorities and burned all bridges. It became evident that a military clash was imminent, and a volunteer movement was organized in Artsakh. Following the unsuccessful coup in Moscow, Soviet military units stationed in Artsakh lost their centralized governing line of command.
On August 30, 1991, the Supreme Soviet state of Azerbaijan declared that it assumed the succession of the Azerbaijani Democratic Republic that existed from 1918 to 1920, and, accordingly, suspended the application of the USSR Constitution in its territory. On September 2, 1991, the Mountainous Karabakh and Shahumyan Regional Councils and the participants of deputies from all the governing levels of Mountainous Karabakh countered this claim and held a joint session in Stepanakert proclaiming the Republic of Mountainous Karabakh, which included both the Artsakh and Shahumyan territories.
On December 10, 1991, a referendum was held in Artsakh. The only question put to a vote was: “Do you agree that the proclaimed Republic of Mountainous Karabakh be an independent state and independently decide its relations with the neighbors?” 99.98% of the voters answered “Yes.”
On December 28, the elections of the Supreme Council of the Republic of Mountainous Karabakh took place. On January 6, 1992, Arthur Mkrtchyan was elected Chairman of the Supreme Council of the Republic of Mountainous Karabakh and Oleg Yessayan was nominated Prime Minister. The law “About the Principles of Independence of the Republic of Mountainous Karabakh” was adopted six days later, and state institutions were formed under martial conditions. Artsakh was subjected to the severest blockade.
A Russian journalist visiting Stepanakert during those days had compared the town with Leningrad, besieged and bombed by Fascist troops. There was neither electricity nor gas, and no telephone/telegraph communications. The supply of provisions, medicines and other necessities were running short. Stepanakert was being shelled with rockets from Shushi. The following month, Azeri forces initiated the use of Grad missiles, which fire 40 multi-splinter shells in a few seconds. The only airport in Artsakh was under the control of Azeri armed forces.
It was in this extreme state of affairs that the Self-Defense Committee of Artsakh (SDCA), chaired by Serzh Sargsyan and commanded by Arkady Ter-Tadevosyan, passed a daring resolution to break the blockade of Stepanakert and to establish at least aerial communications with the external world. On February 26, 1992, the self-defense forces, including volunteer fighters from Armenia and the Diaspora, broke through the blockade and liberated the village of Khojalu, near the airport of Stepanakert.
The military operation was carried out in accordance with all humanitarian laws in effect during wartime: the civilian population was notified ahead of time about the corridor left in their retreat. Not a single peaceful civilian of Khojalu was harmed. In contrast, a few days later, Azeri authorities announced to the world that “thousands of people had been killed and tortured.” The civilian slaughter was organized at that very moment in the territory under the control of the Azeri forces, at a distance of two kilometers from the town of Aghdam.
Meanwhile, an attempt to capture the village of Karintak in the Shushi region had been made under the personal command of the Azeri Defense Minister Tajmedin Mehtiev. According to Azeri publications, the goal was a military operation intended to divert attention and the main thrust was to be delivered in the direction of Askeran-Khojalu-Stepanakert. On that same day, Azeri forces succeeded in seizing the Armenian village of Khramort in the Askeran region. Further advances were averted thanks to the exceptional heroism of the Artsakh self-defense forces. Nevertheless, the liberation of Khojalu also pursued the military aim of ensuring the safety of Stepanakert from the north.
Taking advantage of a certain equilibrium of forces following the functioning of the airport, the High Command of the Artsakh self-defense forces indicated in April 1992 the launch of “Wedding in the Mountains” for the liberation of Shushi.
After several postponements, the military operation was successfully carried out on May 8 and 9. The liberation of Shushi altered the military-political plan of the government of Azerbaijan; the enemy was now compelled to reverse tactics from attack to defense, but nevertheless in vain. After military engagements for several days in the direction of Shushi-Lachin, the Artsakh self-defense forces liberated Berdzor, closely approaching the Armenian border; the liberation of Lachin made possible the opening of the Goris motorway and consequently, and finally, Artsakh and Armenia had direct land communication.
The guns were still thundering on the northern and southern sections of the Goris-Stepanakert road when the first convoy, composed of two hundred heavily loaded trucks arrived in Stepanakert. The besieged Artsakh received humanitarian aid from Armenia and the Diaspora, the significance of which was not only material, but psychological, as well. The people of Artsakh felt safety and protection from the entire Armenian nation.
A tragic event occurred, however, that summer. On June 12, making use of the ample resources of the 24th Army division and the 89th Aero-Landing Division of the united military forces of the CIS countries still stationed in Gandzak, which the mercenary commanders had put at the disposal of the Azeri authorities, the enemy launched an attack on Shahumyan.
After fighting for two days, Armenian forces retreated. Shahumyan was deserted. Enemy troops approached the borders of the Martakert region. After an obstinate resistance of about one month, the town of Martakert fell. The most disastrous result was the loss of four dozen fighters from the “Arabo” volunteer detachment on the outskirts of Haykavan.
The sources siding with the authorities, on the contrary, assert that “the fighting detachment of the ARF had shown their back to the enemy with a view to provoke a political crisis in Armenia.” The successes of the Azeri army were due to a false notion about then-Azeri President Abulfaz Elçibey in the Russian governmental circles in Moscow. The latter hoped that a gift offering to the newly-elected president of Azerbaijan, would entice Baku to join the united armed forces of the CIS countries, thus assuring Moscow the presence of the Russian troops in the geopolitically important region of the Caspian basin.
The failure on the front line brought about critical manifestations within Artsakh’s inner political life. The Supreme Council lost the political control of the self-defense forces, and a solution was found at this critical juncture: a new government body was created—the State Defense Committee (SDC), appointing Robert Kocharian as Prime Minister.
The jurisdiction of the Supreme Council was confined only to legislative activities, but the SDC took decisive internal political steps. Martial law was declared in Artsakh. Very tight restrictions on entring/exiting the republic were imposed. SDC plenipotentiary representatives and defensive bodies were appointed in different locations.
On February 5, 1993, Artsakh forces launched a furious counterattack on the northern front. After fighting successfully for a few days, they liberated the villages of Kichan and Cheldran in the region of Martakert and subsequently the village of Drmbon, closely approaching the Martakert-Kelbajar (Kashatagh) highway. In early March, the strategically important localities of Vaghouhas and Getavan were liberated. The Kelbajar detachment of the enemy was cut from its rear support and surrounded. Their only way out was through the almost impassable Mrav Mountains.
In early April, the exceptional military operation for the liberation of Kelbajar was launched under the command of diasporan volunteer fighter Monte Melkonian, and the enemy was compelled to retreat. The most strategic stronghold, Haterk, was liberated. The Azeri side regrouped its forces in the vicinity of the Sarsang hydroelectric station. During the bloody clashes in the months of April and May, the self-defense forces of Artsakh and the Armenian volunteer fighters approached the outskirts of Martakert.
On the eastern front, near the defensive region of Martouni, Armenian forces under the command of Monte Melkonian succeeded in liberating the village of Marzilou and closely approached the town of Aghdamin in early June. Almost at the same time, the Armenian regiment of the northern direction liberated several Azeri-populated villages located on the strategic heights guarding the Martakert-Aghdam highway.
A military plan for the liberation of Aghdam had been developed, with a second purpose of putting an end to the volley of enemy gunfire in the towns of Askeran, Martouni and Stepanakert. This plan was suspended on June 13, 1993, when Monte Melkonian was shot to death.
The Supreme Council Deputy Chairman Georgi Petrosian, who replaced Arthur Mkrtchyan on April 14 following his death, had resigned. Official accounts indicated Mkrtchyan’s death was due to “careless behavior with firearms.” Karen Babouryan was then appointed Deputy Chairman of the Supreme Council. After voting and deliberation lasting several hours, Babouryan signed “the program of urgent measures” into effect.
The military operation for the liberation of Aghdam was carried out 40 days after the death of Monte Melkonian, on July 23. The ensuing events succeeded each other at a rapid pace; by the fall, the Artsakh self-defense forces now controlled the regions of Fizouli, Zangelan, Ghoubatlou, and Jebrayil, and, in the north, the battle front had gone beyond the town of Martakert.
In this state of affairs, the new Azeri authorities, under the leadership of General of the Soviet Special Services Heydar Aliev, were compelled to establish direct contacts with the Artsakh authorities. As a result of the negotiations, which lasted about one month, and included a direct confidential meeting between Aliev and Kocharian held in Moscow under the auspices of the Russian Federation, an agreement to a 30-day ceasefire was reached. During that period, Azerbaijan conducted special presidential elections and Heydar Aliev “legitimately” held office as state leader.
The most severe phase of the war came during the winter-spring of 1993-1994, when, rallying its forces and enlisting mercenaries from Afghanistan, Turkey, Ukraine and other countries, Azerbaijan launched simultaneous attacks in the direction of Fizouli and Kelbajar with a mission to reclaim those territories.
In the south, the enemy succeeded in recapturing Horadis and its railway station, and, in the north, in closely approaching the Lachin humanitarian corridor. It was only owing to their exceptional fortitude that Armenian forces were able to repulse the Azeri army units and to re-establish control over the Omar mountain pass, thereby ensuring the safety of Kelbajar and the humanitarian corridor. Horadis remained, under the control of the enemy.
The battles that ensued in the winter of 1994 threatened to develop into a more extensive confrontation also involving the town of Gandzak, which caused a serious concern to the international community. Previously, in the fall of 1993, Azerbaijan was conducting dual negotiations of “solicitation” with Western and Russian oil companies. An unprecedented deal was being sketched out and international circles of influence strived to halt the military operations.
The role of Russia in the matter was of particular importance and, at its immediate insistence, the belligerent sides first made a political declaration on May 12, 1994 in the capital of Kyrgyzstan, Bishkek, and subsequently signed it in Moscow at the level of Ministers of Foreign Affairs. The armistice, known as the Bishkek Protocol, was for an undetermined period of time and is still in effect. Under both documents there is the signature (equal in rights and recognized by all) of the plenipotentiary representative of Artsakh.
Since the establishment of the armistice, regulation talks have been proceeding under the auspices of the OSCE Minsk Group. To this day, the issues are still unresolved. Nonetheless, the Republic of Artsakh has made tremendous progress in the past 19 years. The ravages of war have been almost completely erased; the state and public affairs of the country have been democratized. Local government, parliamentary and presidential elections are held regularly.
Financial assistance from the Republic of Armenia and the Diaspora is invaluable in the restoration and development of Karabakh’s economy and infrastructure. Thanks to the annual fundraising efforts of the Hayastan All-Armenian Fund, the North-South Highway has been constructed, linking Martakert and Hadrout.
The plan for the revival of the town of Shushi is being implemented. New school buildings and kindergartens have been built; water mains have been installed or renovated in numerous villages thanks to the investments of diasporan institutions and individual benefactors.
The economy has been subjected to structural reforms. Today, it is completely based on free market trade. Undoubtedly, the difficulties are also numerous. But the main motto of the authorities is “The Artsakh-Armenia-Diaspora triad,” which inspires in its citizens the greatest faith and confidence. It is with this trust that Artsakh celebrated the 20th anniversary of its independence and crossed the threshold of maturity.
The independence of Artsakh is irreversible. The issue of Artsakh is part of the Armenian rightful claim. The Armenian people in the homeland and in the Diaspora remain persistent in their objectives.