Ethnic Cleansing in Progress: War in Nagorno Karabakh - Basic Facts
Ethnic cleansings
Roots of conflicts
Legal aspects
Press archive
Operation Ring

Sumgait 1988
Baku 1990
Maraghar 1992


Caroline Cox and John Eibner

Ethnic Cleansing in Progress: War in Nagorno Karabakh

[Contents] [Preface] [Introduction] [Basic Facts] [A Conflict of Civilizations] [The Genocide] [The Pincers of Pan-Turkism] [Soviet Rule] [The Karabakh Question Revived] [Operation Ring] [The Post-Soviet Conflict] [The Characteristics of the People of Nagorno Karabakh] [The Prognosis: Continuing Bloodshed] [Conclusions] [Recommendations]

Basic Facts

The Land
The Armenians
The Azeri-Turks


The Land

The contested territory of Nagorno Karabakh is a patch of fertile, mountainous land on the eastern rim of the Armenian plateau overlooking the broad Azerbaijani plain to the east. To the west lies the Republic of Armenia, less than 5 miles away at the nearest point. The Islamic Republic of Iran is less than 15 miles to the south. The two major towns of the enclave, Stepanakert and Shusha, are but a few miles from each other, with the mountain fortress of Shusha towering over the more modern Stepanakert below. Before the current war the towns were centres of light industry. In the countryside the economy was based on subsistence farming. In times of peace the land provided the people of Nagorno Karabakh with a good supply of the basic necessities of life.

The name Nagorno Karabakh, meaning mountainous black garden, came into currency in this form in the 19th century and reflects linguistically the major imperial political powers that ruled the region during the past 1,000 years. Nagorno means mountainous in Russian, while Karabakh is a compound of the Turkish word for black (kara) and a Persian word for garden (bakh). The use of the adjective 'Nagorno' distinguishes the mountainous part of the former Turkic and Persian ruled province of Karabakh, largely populated by Armenians, from the lowland part, inhabited mainly by Azeri-Turks. Artsakh, an ancient Armenian name for the region, which predates the name Karabakh, is the official name of the Republic of Nagorno Karabakh and is used within the Armenian community and in some western publications.
Ancient Greek and Roman sources indicate that Nagorno Karabakh constituted a part of larger Armenian political entities from at least the 2nd century B.C. until the partition of the kingdom of Armenia by the Romans and Sasanid Persians at the beginning of the 5 th century A.D. Thereafter Nagorno Karabakh was no longer in political union with the Armenian lands to the west. Nagorno Karabakh fell under the rule of the now extinct Caucasian Albanians, the Seljuk and Ottoman Turks, the Mongols and the Persians before being conquered by the Russian Empire in 1805. Russian rule lasted unbroken until the collapse of Tsarist Russia in 1917. Ottoman Turkey's attempt in 1918 to conquer Nagorno Karabakh was foiled by its World War I defeat. Turkey's failure was immediately followed by an attempt at conquest by the newly-independent Azerbaijani Republic, which was cut short by the occupation of Azerbaijan, Nagorno Karabakh and Armenia by the Red Army in 1920. Both the Armenian SSR and the Azerbaijani SSR placed claims on Nagorno Karabakh. In 1921, the region's Bolshevik leaders first assigned Nagorno Karabakh to Armenia. But on July 5, 1921, they reversed their decision - apparently upon the orders of Stalin - and awarded Nagorno Karabakh to Azerbaijan.

Most of Nagorno Karabakh was granted the status of an Autonomous Region of Azerbaijan in 1923, with Stepanakert as its capital. But the Bolshevik authorities severed the northern tip of the Armenian enclave, known as the Shaumyan district, from the new Autonomous Region. Thus the Shaumyan district was fully integrated administratively with the Azerbaijani SSR. The borders established by the Bolsheviks left Nagorno Karabakh separated by a few miles from the Armenian SSR. With the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991, Armenia and Azerbaijan became independent republics. On December 10, 1992, the majority of people of Nagorno Karabakh, as well as the Shaum-yan district, voted to establish an independent republic. The current President of Nagorno Karabakh is Gevorg Petrossian.


The Armenians

The modern Armenians are a mixture of the indigenous inhabitants of the ancient kingdom of Urartu straddling northeastern Anatolia and southwestern Transcaucasia and Indo-Europeans who entered the region at the end of the 8th century B.C. These Indo-European newcomers provided the basis of the distinctive Armenian language. The Armenians are a peculiarly sedentary people. Mass emigration from the ancient Armenian homeland has been the result of flight from, or deportation by, foreign powers. It was not until the 1st century B.C. that an Armenian kingdom was able to become a major regional power. This proved to be shortlived. Before the end of the century the might of the Kingdom of Greater Armenia had been whittled away in the crossfire between the more powerful Roman and Persian empires, and in 387 A.D. the Armenian Kingdom was divided between them. For centuries thereafter fragmented Armenian political entities struggled with varying success to preserve whatever automony they could in relation to the region's imperial powers. At the beginning of the 4th century the Armenians embraced Christianity, thus making them the oldest Christian nation.
The Armenians suffered their greatest national tragedy at the hands of the Turks during the massacres of 1894-96 and the great genocide of 1915-16. Altogether nearly 2 million Armenians perished, thus virtually eliminating Turkey's Armenian population. A mere 30,000 Armenians, according to official statistics, live there now, mainly in Istanbul and its environs. Most survivors of the genocide found refuge beyond the borders of present-day Turkey. Their descendants form the basis of the significant Armenian communities of North and South America, Western Europe and Australia. Hundreds of thousands of Armenians also live in Iran, Lebanon and Syria. Today the Republic of Armenia has a population of 3.6 million, 95% of which is Armenian. In 1988, before the conflict in Karabakh began in earnest, about 500,000 Armenians lived in the Soviet Republic of Azerbaijan. 140,000 of these Armenians lived in the Autonomous Region of Nagorno Karabakh, where they made up 75% of the population.
The national characteristics of the Armenians have been shaped largely by centuries of struggle to preserve their culture against great odds. Those familiar with Armenians anywhere in the world are bound to recognize truth in Prof. David Marshall Lang's description of them:


"Originally proud and warlike, they have often had to bow to an alien yoke, and cultivate qualities of diplomacy and guile to ensure physical survival. They are first-rate fanners, and outstanding craftsmen, excelling in every branch of handicraft, sculpture, and føne work in precious metals and textiles. Sober and industrious, they will work without respite for long hours. Armenians are extremely sociable and hospitable, and faithful to family and community ties. They have a truly Scottish regard for thrift and honesty, though they know how to drive a hard bargain." (Lang, p.39-40)


Among the less flattering features noted by Prof. Lang is the tendency to argue and quarrel. This characteristic may figure in the Armenians' historic inability to sustain united and independent statehood.


The Azeri-Turks

The prehistoric homeland of the Turks lies east of the Altai Mountains in present-day Mongolia and southern Siberia. Turkic tribes began to penetrate eastern Transcauscasia as early as the 5th century A.D. But it was not until the Seljuk Turks conquered the region in the 11th century that the Turkic element of the population of eastern Transcaucasia became preponderant. Most Turkic tribes converted to Islam as a result of the Arab conquest of Transcaucasia and Central Asia in the 7th century A.D.

The present-day Azeri-Turks have evolved from the assimilated indigenous population of eastern Transcaucasia and the many Turkic tribes that invaded and settled there over the centuries. Until the 20th century the identity of the Turks of Azerbaijan was linked primarily to Islam rather than the Turks as an ethnic group. Under Russian rule they understood themselves to be Tatars - the term used to classify all the Muslim peoples of the Russian empire, most of whom were Turks. An Azeri-Turk national consciousness began to coalesce at the end of the 19th century, gradually undermining their identity as Tatars. The language of the Azeri-Turks belongs to the southwestern, or Oghuz, group of Turkic languages. It is intelligible to their Turkish cousins in Anatolia. The traditional nomadic and semi-nomadic lifestyle of the Azeri-Turks was severely eroded in the 19th century under Russian rule. But their nomadic tradition continues to have a powerful influence on their political culture. The prominent Azeri-Turk ethnologist Aidin Mamedov states:


"All Turkish culture is based on nomadic culture. The Turkish races are distinguished by the nomad's warlike quickness of mind and temper. They're very swift and impetuous. It's a natural gift. The Turks move fast and decide strategy on the run, unlike the Europeans, who sit and plot strategy. The Turks have always had the blitzkrieg." (Cãllen, p. 63)


Since abandoning the nomadic lifestyle most Azeri-Turks have been drawn into the sedentary peasantry and the urban proletariat. Today more than 5 million Azeri-Turks live in the Republic of Azerbaijan, the total population of which is 7 million. Three times as many Azeri-Turks - approximately 15 million - live in the Azerbaijani provinces of northeastern Iran. In 1988, when the current conflict in Nagorno Karabakh was in its early stages, about 40,000 Azeri-Turks resided in the enclave.



No institution has had a greater impact on shaping the national culture of Armenians than the Armenian Apostolic Church. In c. 301 AD the Armenian King Tiridates III responded positively to the mission of St. Gregory the Illuminator and embraced Christianity, as did his nation. Thus the Armenians have the distinction of having become the first nation to turn to Christianity. Despite enormous and sustained pressure to convert to Zoroas-trianism, Islam, and more recently to Marxism, the Armenian people have retained their Christian faith. Since the loss of political independence the Armenian Apostolic Church served for centuries as the institutional focal point for Armenian nationhood. The Armenian Church has been independent of the Greco-Roman Church since the 6th century A.D. when, following the example of the Coptic and Syrian Orthodox Churches, it refused to accept the definition by the Council of Chalcedon (451 A.D.) of the relationship between the divine and human natures of Christ. Rejecting what it regarded as an unacceptable doctrinal innovation, the Armenian Church adhered to the pre-Chalcedo-nian doctrine of the Greco-Roman Church.

Shusha Cathedral: Bombed by Azerbaijani SU 25 (CSI)

Christian faith. Since the loss of political independence the Armenian Apostolic Church served for centuries as the institutional focal point for Armenian nationhood. The Armenian Church has been independent of the Greco-Roman Church since the 6th century A.D. when, following the example of the Coptic and Syrian Orthodox Churches, it refused to accept the definition by the Council of Chalcedon (451 A.D.) of the relationship between the divine and human natures of Christ. Rejecting what it regarded as an unacceptable doctrinal innovation, the Armenian Church adhered to the pre-Chalcedo-nian doctrine of the Greco-Roman Church.

The present supreme spiritual head of the Armenian Apostolic Church is Catholicos Vaz-gen I of the Ararat Diocese. The Catholicos' see is at Echmiadzin in the Republic of Armenia. In the 18th century an Armenian Catholic Church loyal to Rome was established and in the 19th century Protestant missions began to win converts amongst Armenians. While the Catholic and Protestant churches have exercised a powerful western influence on Armenian culture, the ancient Armenian Apostolic Church continues to enjoy the allegiance of an overwhelming majority of Armenians.

Nagorno Karabakh became a part of Christendom in the early 4th century as a result of the missionary activity of St. Gregory the Illuminator. The enclave's oldest church was built at the monastery at Amaras in c. 330. The scores of monasteries built in Nagorno Karabakh over the centuries attest to the historic vibrancy of Armenian church life there. Bishop Parkev Martirosian is the current head of the diocese of Nagorno Karabakh.



Islam is central to the national identity of the Azeri-Turks. To be an Azeri-Turk is to be a Muslim. The concept of a Christian Turk is regarded as contradictory by the Azeri-Turkic community. However, the first Turks to penetrate Transcaucasia were not Muslims. Islam was imposed on much of eastern Transcaucasia by Arab invaders in the 7th century, when most of the non-Armenian population of the region became Muslim. Islam and the Turkic population were bolstered by the invasion in the 11th century of the Islamized Seljuk Turks and subsequent waves of Turks from Central Asia. The Islam of the invading Turks was that of the frontier rather than that of strict orthodoxy or of lax urban life. "Theirs was a militant faith, still full of the pristine fire and directness of the first Muslims, a religion of warriors, whose creed was a battle-cry, whose dogma was a call to arms," according to Prof. Bernard Lewis, the doyen western historian of the Turks. (Lewis, p. 12) The Azeri-Turks became predominantly Shiite Muslims under the influence of Persia in the 15th and 16th centuries, though today roughly 25% of the Azeri-Turks remain Sunni Muslims. The Russian conquest of Transcaucasia in the early 19th century placed the Azeri-Turks in the position of a disadvantaged religious minority. In the 20th century severe persecution of Islam followed the Sovietization of Azerbaijan. By the mid-1980's there were only sixteen open mosques in the Azerbaijani SSR and none at all in Nagorno Karabakh. The number of functioning mosques has increased as a result of Gorbachev's glasnost and Azerbaijani independence. The spiritual head of the Azeri-Turkic Muslims is Sheikh-ul-Islam Pasha-Zadeh, who is the chairman of the Baku-based Muslim Spiritual Board of Transcaucasia.

Nagorno Karabakh fell under Islamic rule with the Arab conquest of the 7th and 8th centuries. However, the population remained Christian and the Church retained considerable autonomy. Islam has remained confined to the enclave's Azeri-Turk community. As with Christianity, official Islam ceased to exist in Nagorno Karabakh during the Stalinist persecution of religion, but it continued to exist underground. A mosque in Shusha was reopened during the dying days of communist rule.





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