A mountainous region at the eastern end of the Armenian plateau in the south Caucasus and originally part of the Artsakh province of historic Armenia, the Nagorno-Karabakh ("Mountainous Karabakh") region kept its autonomy following the loss of Armenian statehood in the eleventh century. Its right to self-government was formally recognized from 1603 onward by the Persian shahs, giving it a special place in Armenian history.
Nagorno-Karabakh was incorporated into the Russian Empire in 1806, following the first Russo-Persian war. While this meant the dissolution of the region's autonomy, Russia was able to portray itself as the savior of Christians in the region, facilitating Russia's full occupation of the eastern Transcaucasus by 1828.
During the tsarist era, Nagorno-Karabakh was made part of the Elisavetbol province, which included the plains of Karabakh to the east, linking the region to the economy as well as history of the Azeri population and giving it a special place in the development of modern Azerbaijani culture. Following the withdrawal of Russian troops from the southern Caucasus during World War I and the proclamation of independence by Azerbaijan and Armenia in 1918, the two republics fought over the region, which was then considered a disputed territory by the League of Nations. Great Britain, briefly in charge of the region following the defeat of Turkey, facilitated its incorporation in Azerbaijan. Following the Sovietization of the two republics, Nagorno-Karabakh was made part of Azerbaijan as the Autonomous Region of Nagorno-Karabakh (NKAO, 4,800 square kilometers), despite the wishes of its majority Armenian population.
While the NKAO enjoyed relative stability until 1988—the Soviets placed an army base in Stepanakert, the capital of the region—there were intermittent protests by Armenians against Azerbaijani policies of cultural, economic, and ethnic discrimination. Armenians continued to consider the inclusion of the region in Azerbaijan as an unjust concession to Azerbaijan, and Azerbaijanis considered the special status an unfair concession to Armenians.
According to the last Soviet census taken in 1989, NKAO had a population of 182,000, of which 140,000 were Armenian and 40,000 Azeris.
In 1988, following glasnost and perestroika, Soviet Armenians joined NKAO Armenians in demanding the unification of the region with Armenia, leading to pogroms against Armenians in Azerbaijan and the expulsion of about 170,000 Azeris from Armenia and of 300,000 Armenians from Azerbaijan in 1989 and 1990. Following the declaration of independence of Azerbaijan from the USSR in 1991, NKAO declared its own independence from Azerbaijan, while Azerbaijan dissolved the autonomous status of the region. The Azerbaijani decision in 1991 to use military means and blockades to force the region into submission led to a war from 1992 to 1994 that ultimately involved Armenia. Azerbaijan lost the NKAO as well as seven Azeri-populated provinces around the region. The conflict created close to 400,000 Armenian and 700,000 Azeri refugees and internally displaced persons, including those evicted from their homes in both republics.
A cease-fire mediated in 1994 has been maintained since. But negotiations, including those conducted by the Minsk Group of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, have failed to resolve the problem of the future status of the region. Russia, suspected by Azerbaijanis as the party responsible for the conflict and the lack of progress in its resolution, has been involved in the negotiations both as a major regional actor and as a member and subsequently co-chair of the Minsk Group.
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Gerard J. Libaridian