Following the collapse of the USSR, the former Soviet nation-state of the Nagorno Karabagh Autonomous Region and the Armenian inhabited Shahumian region combined to form Nagorno Karabagh Republic (NKR). Independence of the NKR was declared on September 2, 1991, in accordance with fundamental norms of international rights.
Nagorno Karabagh (in Armenian, Artsakh) is located in the northeastern area of the Armenian highlands. Since ancient times, it has been a province of historical Armenia. The northeastern border, according to all ancient sources, was the Kura River. In the ancient Armenian state of Urartu (9th-6th centuries B.C.), Artsakh was referred to as Urtekhe-Urtekheni. The nature and climate of the mountainous region are conditioned by its favourable geographic location. The works of Strabo, Pliny the Elder, Claudius Ptolemy, Plutarch, Dion Cassius, and others note that the border between Armenia and Aghvank (Caucasian Albania, its most ancient Caucasian neighbor representing a mixture of mountainous peoples) was the Kura River.
After 387A.D., Armenia was partitioned between Byzantium and Persia. Eastern Transcaucasia, including Artsakh, came under Persian rule. This did not affect the ethnic borders of the region until the late Middle Ages; the Right Bank of the Kura, along with Artsakh (Karabagh) continued to remain Armenian inhabited. Only in the middle of the 18th century did nomadic Turkish tribes begin penetrating the northern borders of Karabagh, initiating centuries long wars against Armenian noble families.
The nobility of Nagorno Karabagh, governed by hereditary feudal lords (meliks), were able to maintain real autonomy due to personal, noble, and other types of military units. Compelled to resist attacks by the Ottoman Empire armies, nomadic tribe invasions, divisions of populous, often hostile neighboring governors and the armies of the Persian shahs, the Artsakh meliks attempted to free themselves from foreign (Muslim) dominance. Working towards that purpose, the Karabagh meliks corresponded with Russian tsars, including Peter I and Paul I, during the 17th-18th centuries.
In 1805, the historical territory of Artsakh, artificially named "Khanate of Karabagh", along with other widespread areas in Eastern Transcaucasia, were annexed to "everlasting rule" of the Russian Empire. The Gulistan (1813) and Turkmenchay (1828) treaties signed by Russia and Persia ratified this.
Artsakh in the 20th century
There was a peaceful period, that lasted until 1917. After the collapse of the Russian Empire, resulting in a new arrangement of recently formed states in the Caucasus, Nagorno Karabagh became a theater of war. The Independent Republic of Armenia and the newly formed Azerbaijan Democratic Republic, created due to Turkish intervention, battled over the territory between 1918 to 1920. From the moment of its formation, Azerbaijan Democratic Republic made territorial demands regarding significant Armenian lands in Transcaucasia. Taking advantage of the confused state of affairs due to world war, the collapse of the Russian Empire, and as a continuation of the 1915 Genocide of Armenians, Turkish forces joined with Azeri military units, from 1918 to1920, to destroyed hundreds of Armenian villages. Organized massacres of Armenians took place in Baku and Gyanja. Only in Nagorno Karabagh military formations faced any serious armed resistance, despite the fact that on March 28, 1920, Shushi, the area's capital, had been burned, plundered and the Armenian population annihilated.
At that time, the international community considered it imperative to become involved in the conflict. On December 1, 1920, the 5th Committee of the First League of Nations, based on a report from the 3rd subcommittee, unanimously decided against accepting the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic into the League of Nations, taking into account Azerbaijan's territorial ambitions and the widespread Armenian massacres. The League of Nations, before final resolution of the conflict, recognized Nagorno Karabagh as a contested territory, which was agreed to by all parties including Azerbaijan. Thus from 1918-1920, during the formation of the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic, its sovereignty did not include Nagorno Karabagh or Nakhijevan.
In Transcaucasia, the consolidation of Soviet rule was accompanied by a new political system. In 1920, after the establishment of Soviet Azerbaijan, Russian forces temporarily occupied Nagorno Karabagh as per the treaty between Soviet Russia and the Republic of Armenia until peaceful solution to the conflict.
Immediately after the establishment of the Soviet regime in Armenia, the Azerbaijan Revcom (Revolutionary Committee - the main Bolshevik instrument of power at that time) made a declaration recognizing Nagorno Karabagh, Zangezur, and Nakhijevan as inseparable parts of Armenia. In effect, the declaration renounced any of Azerbaijan Republic's claim over Nagorno Karabagh, Zangezur, and Nakhijevan.
Based on this declaration, and following agreement between the Armenian and Azerbaijani governments, in June of 1921, Armenia declared Nagorno Karabagh her inseparable part. The text of the decree issued by the Armenian government was published in Armenian and Azerbaijani media ("Baku Worker" organ of the Azerbaijan Communist Party Central Committee, June 22, 1921). Thus, the documented unification of Nagorno Karabagh to Armenia, within the context of international law, was the last legal act by the Transcaucasia Communist regime.
Russia and the international community greeted the act of annexation. The League of Nations Assembly, on December 18, 1920, ratified the annexation in a resolution. The executive secretary of the League of Nations, in his memorandum to the member states, to the highest body in the RSFSR Foreign Ministry Peoples' Commissariat, and in his 1920-1921 annual report to the 11th Soviet session recognised the unification.
However soon after, the Bolshevik leaders in Russia had politically inspirations and desires to foster an "international Communist revolution". To achieve this, Turkey was assigned the role of " torch bearer of the revolution in the East". This resulted in a change of attitude regarding Turkey's ethnically close relations with Azerbaijan and the question of "contested territories," including Nagorno Karabagh.
The leaders of Azerbaijan, under the direction of Moscow, restarted talks about claims for Nagorno Karabagh. In 1921, the plenary session of the Caucasus Bureau of the HKbK, disregarded the decision of the League of Nations and refused to accept the plebiscite as a popular mechanism for determining borders between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Under Stalin's immediate pressure, the decision was made to separate Nagorno Karabagh from Armenia by force, contradicting the act of unification and violating principle, though it was stipulated that on those Armenian lands, under Azerbaijani SSR rule, national autonomy with wide privileges would be established.
Azerbaijan delayed giving Nagorno Karabagh autonomy in every possible way. Following a two-year armed struggle waged by the Karabaghtsis and the insistence of the HKbK finally, in 1923, an autonomous region on a small part of the land was established. Nagorno Karabagh, apparently by a decision made from afar, was partitioned. One part became autonomous, while the other part assimilated into the administrative regions of Soviet Azerbaijan in such a way that the physical and geographical ties between Armenia and the Armenian autonomous region were neutralized.
Thus, a significant portion of the territories that the League of Nations had recognized as "contested" was forcibly annexed to Azerbaijan, and the borders of the autonomous region excluded many areas of Nagorno Karabagh [Gulistan, Kelbajar, Karakhat (Dashkesan), Lachin, Shamkhor, etc.].
In effect, the Karabagh question was not resolved but was frozen for 70 years. The Armenian majority of Nagorno Karabagh, on many occasions, appealed with letters and petitions to the central authorities in Moscow, demanding the 1921 unconstitutional and illegal decision be rescinded and transferal of Nagorno Karabagh to Armenia. Even during the Stalinist repression, when the conditions were ripe for the exile of the entire population from their historical homeland (like other nations that had been subjected to repression), the struggle of Nagorno Karabagh Armenians to be freed from the Azerbaijani SSR did not cease.
The year 1988 became a turning point in the history of Nagorno Karabagh. The people of Artsakh raised their voice in defense of their rights and freedom. Respecting all the existing legal norms and employing exclusively popular means to express their will, the Armenian population of Nagorno Karabagh demanded unification with Armenia. Those events were critical not only in the life of Artsakh Armenians, but, in fact, predetermined the subsequent fate of the entire Armenian nation. On February 20, 1988, the extraordinary session of the (Soviet) Nagorno Karabagh Autonomous Republic's Council, Peoples Deputies made a historic decision. This included an appeal to the Soviet Azerbaijan to secede from the region, an appeal to the Soviet Armenia for unification, and an appeal to the Supreme Soviet of the USSR to recognize this shift based upon legal norms and on precedents in resolving similar disputes in the USSR.
Every effort to discuss the dispute in a civilized fashion was followed by an increase of violence, massive and widespread disregard of the Armenian population's rights, economic blockade, etc. Hundreds of kilometres from the NKAR, massacres and mass murders of Armenians were organized in Azerbaijani cities -- Sumgait, Baku, Kirovabad, Shamkhor, and later throughout Azerbaijan. More than 450,000 Armenians from towns and villages in Azerbaijan and Nagorno Karabagh became refugees.
A joint session of the People's Deputies of the Nagorno Karabagh and Shahumian regional councils, on September 2, 1991, declared the establishment of the Nagorno Karabagh Republic (NKR) in the former borders of the NKAR and the Shahumian region. A declaration of independence was signed for the NKR. Rightful independence was realized drawing on the April 3, 1990 USSR legislation; "The regulation governing questions concerning a union republic seceding from the USSR". This law governed the right of national autonomies to decide independently their state-legal status when seceding from the USSR. The Supreme Soviet of Azerbaijan during the same period (November 1991), contrary to all legal norms, passed a law liquidating the NKAR, that the USSR Constitutional Court declared unconstitutional.
Just a few days before the official collapse of the Soviet Union, on December 10, 1991, a referendum was held in Nagorno Karabagh with the overwhelming majority of the population voted in favor of total independence from Azerbaijan. Parliamentary elections of the NKR followed forming the first government. The independent NKR government went to work under conditions of a total blockade, war and aggression unleashed by Azerbaijan.
Utilizing the weapons and war material of the USSR's 4th Army headquartered in her territory, Azerbaijan engaged in wide-scale military actions against Nagorno Karabagh. As it is well known, the war continued with varying success from the autumn of 1991 until May of 1994. There were times when almost 60 percent of the territory of Nagorno Karabagh was captured, while the capital city of Stepanakert and other residential areas were almost incessantly subjected to massive air and artillery bombardment. The defense forces of the NKR were able to liberate the city of Shushi, in May of 1992, and open a corridor into the Lachin region, creating an opportunity to reconnect the territories of the NKR and Armenia, thus partially neutralizing the multi-year blockade of the NKR.
In June-July of 1992, the Azerbaijani army captured the NKR's entire Shahumian region, a great portion of the Martakert region, and portions of Martuni, Askeran, and Hadrut. The US Congress in August, 1992, adopted a resolution condemning the actions of Azerbaijan, prohibiting government to government economic assistance to that state.
In order to resist Azerbaijani aggression, life in the NKR completely focussed on the military effort. The NKR State Defense Committee was formed on August 14, 1992. Separate defense detachments were reconfigured forming the Nagorno Karabagh Defense Army, based on principles of discipline and central command.
The NKR Defense Army succeeded in liberating previously captured territories from Azerbaijan and, during military engagements, occupied a few Azerbaijani regions bordering the NKR that had been used as firing lines against the Armenians. The creation of the security zone precluded the immediate threat facing the peaceful population of the NKR.
With Russia, Kyrgyzstan, and the CIS Interparliamentary Council mediating, at the capital of Kyrgyzstan, Bishkek, on May 5, 1994, Azerbaijan, Nagorno Karabagh and Armenia signed the Bishkek Document. According to that document, parties to the conflict agreed to a cease-fire, effective from May 12th to date.
In 1992, the OSCE Minsk Group was formed to resolve the Karabagh conflict. Under its auspices, a negotiating process has been created to prepare for the OSCE Minsk Conference that has the duty of finding a final solution to the status of Nagorno Karabagh.