What is Nagorno-Karabakh?

There is a real danger today of war involving a resurgent Turkey and Russia, patrons respectively of the republics of Azerbaijan and Armenia in the southern Caucasus — a mountainous region that lies between the Black and Caspian seas, where Asia meets Europe.

The borders of these republics reflect the ancient rivalries of their more powerful neighbors, particularly the Turkish, Persian and Russian empires.

The instability in the region in the last three decades, including the current conflict between Armenians and Azeris in the contested region of Nagorno-Karabakh, may be directly attributed to the protracted death of the Ottoman Turkish state in the early 20th century; World War I and the Bolshevik coup in Russia in 1917; the civil war that followed; and the rise of independent states that quickly collapsed under the Bolsheviks in 1921.

As the Soviets consolidated their power, Soviet leaders drew the borders of these republics. Tightening their grip, they awarded some territory to appease certain populations and withdrew it to subdue or punish others. Hence the Soviet incorporation of the historically Armenian Christian region of Nagorno-Karabakh as an autonomous region within the Turkic Shiite-dominated state of Azerbaijan.

As the Soviet Union began to unravel in the late 1980’s, the Armenian-dominated population of Nagorno-Karabakh rebelled, petitioning for unification with Armenia. Nagorno-Karabakh’s Azeri population, about 40,000 people or some 20 percent of the region, resisted. When Moscow denied the petition calling for unification with Armenia, the region’s Armenians took up arms supplied by an emerging independent Armenia. The heaviest fighting, which often included mercenaries from the dissolving Red Army as well as fighters from Chechnya and Afghanistan, occurred from 1991 through 1993. By 1994, when Russia brokered a cease-fire, Armenian-led forces occupied more than just Nagorno-Karabakh, but more than 9 percent of adjacent Azerbaijani territory, home to some 400,000 Azeris.

The bitter fighting displaced hundreds of thousands of people, creating a largescale humanitarian disaster in Armenia and Azerbaijan, and prompted cries from both sides of ethnic cleansing and the wanton destruction of cultural and religious landmarks. The cease-fire maintained the status quo, allowing the self-declared Republic of Artsakh to consolidate its control over Nagorno-Karabakh as well as Armenian-occupied Azerbaijani territories.

“The site of important shrines and monastic centers of the Armenian Church since the earliest days of the Christian faith in historical Armenia, the disputed territory is home to an estimated 145,000 people.”

Michael J.L. La Civita

Today, Azerbaijan, flush with resources from its natural gas and oil exports, and armed by Turkey and Israel, has vowed to recapture its lost territory. 

Nagorno-Karabakh (meaning “mountainous black garden”) refers to the highlands portion of the larger region of Karabakh all of which now forms the de facto Republic of Artsakh. Largely set at thousands of feet above sea level, the territory is heavily forested, its valleys verdant and its natural resources — such as gold, limestone, marble and zinc — abundant.

The site of important shrines and monastic centers of the Armenian Church since the earliest days of the Christian faith in historical Armenia, the disputed territory is home to an estimated 145,000 people, nearly all of whom are ethnic Armenians who speak a dialect of Armenian laden with Russian, Persian and Turkish vocabulary. The territory also includes Syrian Armenian refugee families settled there by the governments of Armenia proper and its client, the government of Artsakh.      

Historically a part of greater Armenia, Nagorno-Karabakh was for centuries annexed to the Persian empire, with local Armenian princes governing its territories and peoples: Ethnic Armenian Christians dominated the region yet coexisted with nomadic Turkic Shiite herdsmen and their families, ancestors of modern Azeris, who traversed its valleys and mountain passes.

That coexistence began to erode in the early 20th century, but escalated during the waning days of World War I. A fluid theater brought about by the war and the Russian Revolution fueled the emergence of Armenian, Azeri and Georgian nationalist movements, pitching these peoples against one another and the forces of their respective allies, including Ottoman Turkey and its foe, Great Britain. Pogroms and slaughters of isolated civilian populations, particularly Armenian Christians, culminated in the massacre of half of the population of Shusha, the primary city of Nagorno-Karabakh, in March 1920. Observers estimate that between 500 and 20,000 Armenians were killed and the Armenian half of the city, destroyed, including its cathedral dedicated to the Holy Savior.

Shusha, once the trading center of the southern Caucasus, never recovered and is today a shell of its past, with fewer than 5,000 people, all of them Armenians who returned to the city after its capture from Azerbaijani forces in 1992.

Now, as cease-fires negotiated by France, Russia and the United States quickly collapse, a real danger of a protracted regional war is emerging. As of today, an estimated 1,120 Armenian soldiers have died and just under 40 civilians. Thousands have been displaced and are seeking refuge in Armenia proper. The Azerbaijani government has not reported its military casualties, but it reports that more than 69 people have been killed and 322 injured.

Pray for a just peace between Armenia and Azerbaijan — the consequences of failure in negotiating that peace could be devastating as the possibilities of a larger more regional crisis escalate.  

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