Nagorno-Karabakh is the usual name for an ethnically Armenian region wholly enclosed by Azerbaijan, of which it was a part; but in 1991 with the break-up of the Soviet Union, Karabakh declared its independence. The ensuing war of secession brought in Armenia in support of their cousins, and together Armenia and Karabakh occupied much of western Azerbaijan, connecting the two regions. Its status is unresolved. It is also known as Artsakh.

The capital is Stepanakert (new Azeri name Khankendi). One source gives the area as 4800 km2 and the population as 150 000, but this is only rough, since we must distinguish the territory Karabakh claims as officially their own from surrounding regions of Azerbaijan they have occupied for self-defence and may be prepared to give back if a peace treaty is ever agreed.

Historically the region was originally Armenian, as they are a people who are ancient residents in the Caucasus and widespread beyond, and who over the ages have been occupied, displaced, and massacred by various powerful neighbours. The internal history of the Caucasus is too complex to give more than a cursory survey of here. The mountains have been variously conquered and divided by their three powerful neighbours, Russia, Turkey, and Persia.

From about the eleventh century Turks moved from Central Asia into what is now Turkey, on the other side of the Caucasus, and largely destroyed the old Armenian kingdom, which survived in independent principalities in the mountains. One of these, Artsakh, is used as the modern Armenian name for Nagorno-Karabakh. It became part of the Ottoman Empire in 1588, and an Islamic khanate of Qarabagh was founded in 1606. By the eighteenth century another Turkic people, the Azeris, had penetrated widely into the Karabakh plains, bringing about essentially the modern ethnic division in Azerbaijan.

Russia gradually occupied the statelets of the Caucasus in the nineteenth century, and also annexed many of them that were formerly ruled by Persia: they gained Karabakh and Azerbaijan in 1805, and the other Armenian territories in 1828. For this reason Karabakh was administered as part of Azerbaijan.

After the October Revolution there was a brief and very confused flurry of independent states in the Caucasus, some bolshevik and others not, and an attempt at a Transcaucasian federation in 1918. Turkey invaded and occupied part of the area, treating the Armenians harshly, but with its defeat in World War I the Caucasus returned to Russian domination, and the independent republics were brought into the USSR a couple of years later. The question of whether Armenia or Azerbaijan should rule Karabakh and the other disputed region of Nakhichevan was shelved pending the 1919 international peace conference, and the no doubt optimistic assumption of brotherly concord under Soviet rule. In 1923 the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast was formed within the Azerbaijani SSR of the USSR.

Now for the multifarious names. Nagorny is Russian for 'mountainous', and refers to the fact that the autonomous region was specifically the Armenian-dominant uplands, and not the more ethnically mixed plains of Karabakh. The name Karabakh is Turkic, meaning black garden, and is more accurately written Qarabagh, as it occurs in Persian. The Azeri form is Garabagh or Qarabag (Azeri has had more than one attempt to use a romanization based on Turkish). Although the Armenian name is really Artsakh, in their English-language material they commonly refer to it by the better-known versions, specifically in the form Nagorno Karabagh. (The form with KH is Russian, which has no GH.) Azerbaijan's official name for the area is Dagliq Qarabag, where dagliq also means 'mountainous'.

In 1988 there was much unrest, with Karabakh Armenians, who then formed about 80% of the population, seeking to be reunited with Soviet Armenia. On 2 September 1991, after the independence of Azerbaijan from the USSR, they proclaimed the Nagorno Karabagh Autonomous Republic, at first seeking to be ruled by Moscow. They claimed both the original autonomous oblast plus the Armenian-majority Shahumian district of Azerbaijan. On 6 January 1992 they declared full independence. Curiously, not even Armenia officially recognizes their independence.

War between Nagorno Karabagh and Azerbaijan went on for several years, with varying fortunes. The present situation is that Karabakh has largely won, and is left at peace, having occupied not only the Lachin corridor, which is regarded as indispensable for attaching them to Armenia proper, but a number of other districts which serve as buffer regions. The Lachin district is non-negotiable but some Karabakhi politicians are prepared to withdraw from other areas if their national safety is guaranteed. There has inevitably been a significant change in demography, with the Azeri population of Karabakh almost entirely fled, and settlers from Armenia moving into other occupied territories.*

The national flag is like Armenia's, a horizontal tricolor of red, blue, and orange, with an additional feature in the fly: a white V composed of stepped squares, visually separating a small triangular region of the Armenian flag from the main part. This represents a carpet pattern.

Many people in both Armenia and Artsakh doubtless want the two territories to be united, but technically Armenia treats Artsakh as a separate country, doubtless because the secession of an autonomous region is more internationally acceptable than the conquest and annexation of the territory of a neighbour. However, they are not exactly the same: for example, Artsakh gives refuge to an extremist nationalist political party that is banned in Armenia. The situation may in some respects resemble that of relations between Serbia and its client state Republika Srpska in Bosnia. The Armenian currency, the dram is used.

The president of Artsakh (Nagorno Karabagh) is Arkady Gukassian, elected September 1997, replacing Robert Kocharian, first president since December 1994, who had moved on to become prime minister then president of Armenia.

Official website:
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* shallot tells me a lot of the inhabitants of the buffer zone are actually Kurdish.

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