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How To Destroy A People: The Story of Artsakh

What do you do if you identify as one ethnicity but a line drawn on a map stipulates that you belong to a nation comprised mainly of a different ethnicity?

Flag of the Republic of Artsakh

Do you try and form your own independent nation?

Or, do you try and change the border so that your people are now included within the boundaries of a nation whose ethnicity they can more easily identify with?

What do you do if both of the above options fail?

This is a brief look at the contested region of Artsakh and what transpired in the last months of 2023 that few news channels seem to be reporting on.

The capital of Artsakh, Khankendi/Stepanakert (Source: BBC World News)

The Background

The Kingdom of Artsakh (Nagorno-Karabakh region) dates back to medieval times when it was an independent kingdom, within the Armenian Kingdom. In the thirteenth century the Kingdom fell to Georgian and then Mongol rule before becoming an Armenian Principality.

In the sixteenth century Iranian rule came to the region however the autonomy of the Province remained until 1805 when the Russian Empire advanced and declared Artsakh a protectorate.

Location of Artsakh on a world map

When the Russian Empire fell after World War One, the Armenians of the region established an un-recognised council with the hope that the Paris Peace Conference would solidify independence and create a Artsakh nation. The conference ended with no concrete resolution but both Azerbaijan and British pressure was for the region to accept Azerbaijan rule.

Following an ultimatum from Azerbaijan to the region, Armenia sent agents to help the local Armenian population with an uprising that didn’t go as planned and would ultimately lead to the displacement of the Armenian population in Shusha.

With the rise of the Soviet Union, locals took matters into their own hands creating an autonomous oblast within the Azerbaijan Soviet. Initially the region was incorporated into Azerbaijan which caused a local uproar that required the autonomous region of Artsakh to be created.

Having an autonomous oblast did little for the Armenian’s living in Artsakh with the over-arching Azerbaijan soviet actively discriminating against the Armenian’s, seemingly with the support of Soviet party officials. Anyone who spoke out was imprisoned, lost their jobs or were forced to leave. Armenian history and cultural lessons were banned with students who chose to attend college in Armenia persecuted.

The region of Artsakh as defined by the Soviet era borders. As you can see Azerbaijan surrounds Armenia on both sides. (Source: BBC World News)

When it became clear that the USSR was coming to an end the movement for unification with Armenia began to grow with violent clashes. On 30 August 1991 Azerbaijan declared independence from the USSR and in November the autonomous status of the region was revoked. Under the Soviet system, borders hadn’t played such an important role due to the centralization of power but now with independent and individualistic nations being created, the autonomy of the region and possible isolation became a bigger issue. In response a referendum was held on the topic of independence from Azerbaijan with 99% of ethnic Armenians in the region voting for independence and the creation of the country of Artsakh.

On 6 January 1992 independence from Azerbaijan was formally declared by Artsakh. The war, which had begun in 1988 escalated and continued until a ceasefire was reached in May 1994. Throughout the six-year war over 600,000 people were displaced and the official death toll reached over approximately 20,000 (however the impact of ethnic cleansing was much further reaching).

The ceasefire saw Artsakh become a de facto country, internationally recognised as part of Azerbaijan but in practice more closely tied to Armenia. The state possessed everything you’d expect of an independent nation, flag, national anthem, levels of government and political parties. At this time the minority Azerbaijan population decreased from around 20% of the population to under 1%. The total population of the region had already fallen by around 40% during the war years.

An uneasy peace remained in place for the next 16 years until 2020 when fighting broke out between Armenian and Azerbaijani forces. Russia oversaw the ceasefire agreement which included a provision by which Russia could deploy peacekeeping forces to the region. As part of the peace deal Armenia agreed to remove forces from the regions surrounding Artsakh.

It should be noted that while Armenia has provided support for the region at no point did they recognise Artsakh as an independent nation but rather supported the region in autonomy from Azerbaijan and against persecution of the Armenian people who lived there.

This map illustrates the one access road out of the region, through Azerbaijan and into Armenia. It highlights what the region looked like in late 2022. (Source: USCShoahFoundation)

What Has Happened Now?

In December 2022 the only road between Artsakh and Armenia (as well as the rest of the outside world given it is surrounded completely by Azerbaijan) was blocked with a checkpoint set up by Azerbaijan in effect creating a blockade. The Red Cross and Russian peacekeeping forces enabled humanitarian aid to enter Artsakh however in June 2023 Azerbaijan ceased this, effectively starving the people of Artsakh.

On 19 September 2023 Azerbaijan launched an offensive and within a day had gained control of the region with the Government of Artsakh agreeing to integration and the dissolution of all state institutions from 1 January 2024.

A mass evacuation of ethnic Armenians took place with fear of persecution high. Of the approximately 145,000 population at this time, ethnic Armenia’s comprise over 99%. As of the start of 2024 almost the entire population of Artsakh had fled into Armenia leaving behind only a small number of people. In effect this has ended any future attempts at creating an independent nation or even an autonomous state within Azerbaijan.

Source: Armenian National Committee of Australia

Recently, New South Wales Senator Hollie Hughes spoke in the Australian Senate about the atrocities and ethnic cleansing faced by the people of Artsakh at the hands of Azerbaijan. She noted the political imprisonment of the region’s former leaders at the hands of Azerbaijan’s autocratic rule. Azerbaijan’s government is an authoritarian regime in practice despite holding regular elections but these are marred by electoral fraud and illegal election practices. The most recent election, held on 7 February 2024 was an example of such a farce, similar to those held in Russia with the recent re-election of Vladimir Putin.

Other than what is noted above, there is very little to be found anywhere about what has happened in Artsakh. As world events seem to see humanity unravelling at a rapid rate it is just another story that is lost to more prominent headlines.

I came across the plight of Artsakh while following news on the Russian invasion of Ukraine as in this situation Russia was placing itself as intermediary. It seems ironic that Russia considers itself neutral when it comes to refereeing the disputed borders of nations; however look at the outcome we have now witnessed for Artsakh and the autocratic rule of Azerbaijan. Perhaps Russia's role was not so neutral.


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