The conflict in the Caucasus – historical development and current dangers

The author is a publicist and human rights activist. He is the editor of “Armenia: Taboo and Trauma” and is considered to be the builder of the recognition of the Armenian genocide by the Austrian parliament.

Nagorno Karabakh is a region in the southern Caucasus with around 12,300 m2 and 150,000 inhabitants, mostly of Armenian descent. The country is marked by war: mine fields with anti-personnel mines, loopholes and trenches that show the former front lines as well as ruins where people once lived.

The Armenians here are fighting for their lives and their homeland. The Azerbaijani mercenaries and soldiers are fighting over an area that is geostrategically important for an attack against the Republic of Armenia.


The area of Karabakh, in Armenian “Artsakh”, is already mentioned in the ancient Greek writings. From the 11th century onwards, Muslim Turkic tribes came into the country via the north of Artsakh and called it Karabakh, in Aseri/Turkish “black garden”.

It was not until the mid of the 18th century that Artsakh, now also called Karabakh, got under the control of the Ottomans.

From 1804 the southern Caucasus (Armenia, Artsakh and the northern parts of Persia) got under the control of the Russian Empire. After its collapse, there were several wars between different peoples of the region (Turks, Georgians, Armenians and Azeris) in order to determine future borders. Through military and political intervention by Turkey, Azerbaijan was founded on May 28, 1918, an area with significant oil production at this time.

In Azerbaijan, between 1918 and 1920, under the sovereignty of Turkish soldiers, happened numerous attacks on the Armenian population living there, who interpreted this as a continuation of the genocide of the Armenians during the First World War. On the other hand, there were also acts of revenge against Muslims. These persecutions were temporarily ended on April 28, 1920 with the proclamation of the Soviet Republic of Azerbaijan.

On November 29th, 1920, Armenian Bolsheviks seized the power in Armenia. The chairman of the Azerbaijani Bolsheviks Nariman Narimanov and first prime minister of the Soviet Republic of Azerbaijan recognized on November 30, 1920 that Karabakh belonged to Armenia. On the same day there was an article by Joseph Stalin in Pravda:

“The Caucasus is important for the revolution because it is a source of raw materials and food. But it is also important because of its location between Europe and Asia, because all of the economic and strategic connections that are of considerable importance run through here. We have to control this region.”

The arbitrary division

After the Red Army marched into the Southern Caucasus in December 1920, the “Caucasian Office of the Communist Party of Russia”, to which the Communist Parties of the Soviet Republics of Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan belonged, was tasked with clarifying which republic the Karabakh region should belong to. The Armenian population at that time was around 90%.

On July 4, 1921, the “Caucasian Office” decided in a meeting in Tbilisi that Karabakh should remain with the Soviet Republic of Armenia. The following day, in his function as People’s Commissar for Nationality Issues, Stalin revised this decision at the urging of Ataturk and Narimanov, so that Karabakh was added to the Soviet Republic of Azerbaijan as an autonomous region in protest of the Soviet Republic of Armenia.

Prof. Otto Luchterhandt comment: “This decision was based on the power of the Red Army in the Caucasus. […] The affected population was not asked. There was no referendum. He called the decision ‚arbitrary‘.

Russian concessions

In the 1920s there was a rapprochement between the Soviet Union and Turkey, including political concessions by the Soviets, combined with the hope that Turkey would turn to communism. The award of the Karabakh region to the Soviet Republic of Azerbaijan was a political concession. In the peace and friendship agreement signed by Soviet Russia and the Turkish national government in 1921 (Treaties of Moscow), the Soviet Union renounced Kars, Ardahan and some other areas on the Caucasian border. Likewise, Nahitschewan, then predominantly Armenian, was ceded to the Soviet Republic of Azerbaijan. Azerbaijan should share a 6 km long border with Turkey.

As a result, the Armenian population was driven out by the Azeris. Valuable, centuries-old cultural assets, for example Armenian cemeteries with the famous cross stones, were destroyed.

In the years between 1923-1929 the “Red Kurdistan” district was founded in an area between the Soviet Republic of Armenia and Karabakh.

Kurdish tribes settled there as early as the 18th century and gradually became the majority population. With the establishment of the “Red Kurdistan”, the final expulsion of the Armenians living there began, Azeri Muslims were settled in a targeted manner and mixed with the Kurds. In this way, Karabakh, with its direct border with Armenia, became an enclave within Azerbaijan.

In the Soviet era, Karabakh and its Armenian population were discriminated by the government of the Soviet Republic of Azerbaijan and the Azeris. Karabakh had only geostrategic value for the government in Baku, there are no raw materials such as oil, so no investments were made in this region. In the 1970s, more Muslims were settled in Karabakh.

The right of self-determination of the people

In February 1988 thousands of people took to the streets in Stepanakert (capital of Karabakh) to demonstrate for the unification of Karabakh with the Soviet Republic of Armenia. The Armenians in Karabakh first tried to join Armenia through Soviet constitutional law (referendum). This failed because the resolutions by the regional parliament of Karabakh in Stepanakert were declared unconstitutional by the bodies of the USSR. Rightly so, since Soviet communism envisaged a federal structure on paper, but there was no legal set of rules. A constitutional realization of the right of the peoples to self-determination was rejected by the Soviets.

In response to this peaceful expression of will by the Karabakh people, the Azerbaijani leadership instigated pogroms in Sumgaith. As a result, there were further riots against Armenians in Azerbaijan.

On March 14th, 1990, under Mikhail Gorbachov, the Soviet constitution of 1977 was changed: the party sovereignty was to be replaced by state sovereignty, and a federal confederation was to emerge from the dictatorship of the Communist Party.

On April 3rd, 1990, the law on the withdrawal of the 15 Union Republics from the USSR was installed. This law not only affected the republics, but also gave the 20 autonomous regions within the USSR autonomy rights. One of these autonomous areas was Karabakh.

From the law of April 3rd, 1990: “In the Union Republic which has autonomous republics, autonomous areas and / or autonomous districts within its association, the referendum is carried out separately for each autonomy. The people of the autonomous republics and entities retain the right to independent questions about remaining in the USSR or the withdrawing Union republic and the right to raise their status.“

Azerbaijan had left the USSR via a withdrawal law, so Karabakh had the option to leave as part of Azerbaijan or to stay in the USSR and thus define its status.

War between Azerbaijan and Karabakh

Between April and August 1991, Soviet Azerbaijan, with the help of the Soviet Army and the police, deported the Armenian population of Karabakhs: around 10,000 people lost their homes and hundreds died.

Azerbaijan declared its independence on August 30, 1991, and on September 2nd, 1991. Karabakh announced that it would make use of the withdrawal law as an autonomous region. On the one hand, this meant that Karabakh was allowed to remain in the USSR for the time being and, on the other hand, was allowed to define its own status. It was no longer part of Azerbaijan.

On December 10th, 1991, a referendum was held in Karabakh, which was boycotted by the Azeris, who made up around 20% of the population. With over 99% of voters (turnout 82%) in Karabakh voted for independence. Thus the decision of September 2nd was legitimized.

The Soviet Union existed until December 21, 1991, so the law at that time or the regulation described above applied. Azerbaijan denied this and referred to ongoing peace negotiations in the Minsk Group, at the end of which the status of Karabakh would be clarified. To date, the Artsakh Republic is not recognized internationally, but has in fact existed as a state for over 30 years.

Azerbaijan started a war with Karabakh in December 1991, which lasted until 1994 and killed 40,000 people on both sides.
After the end of the war in 1994 the front line came to a standstill so that some villages of Artsakh were controlled by Azerbaijan. If the residents were lucky, they were evicted.

The Artsakh Armenians established a territorial connection with Armenia in 1994 and conquered some land, mainly in the southeast of Artsakh. Villages came under the control of Artsakh, whose Muslim population had mostly fled from the advancing troops. Those who did not want to flee, however, were driven out by the Armenians.

Two countries, one people

The Republic of Armenia (and some volunteers from the diaspora) supported Artsakh, as it is now called, in their fight for their freedom.
Turkey supports Azerbaijan politically and militarily, and in the early 1990s Ankara heard the threat that the number of “Armenians will be like artifacts in museums”.

Turkish voices are also coming forward in the current conflict. For example Ibrahim Karagül, editor-in-chief of the AKP-affiliated Yeni-Afak newspaper: “A rocket must accidentally fall directly into the center of Yerevan! Azerbaijan is not alone.“ Erdogan recently named Armenia” the greatest threat to peace in the region.”

After the Armenians were able to assert themselves militarily in Karabakh in 1993, Ankara subsequently increased its military support for Azerbaijan.

At the beginning of September 1993, Turkey had gathered troops on the Turkish-Armenian border. On September 6th, Turkish border troops opened fire on Armenian territory, but the Russian soldiers stationed there did not respond to the provocation.

For its part, the Armenian government feared that the 10,000 Russian soldiers at the Turkish-Armenian border would be withdrawn to Russia if the coup in Moscow were to come back and that a Turkish invasion could then take place. During the critical weekend of October 2nd and 3rd, 1993, the Armenian Defense Minister Sarkisian was in constant contact with his Russian counterpart, who had assured him that the army was behind Yeltsin and that a withdrawal from Armenia was out of the question.

According to French secret services, there is said to have been an agreement between the coup leader Khasbulatov (a Chechen and Russian parliamentary speaker) and Turkey. Accordingly, in the event of a successful coup, Khasbulatov would have allowed “limited actions” in Armenia and Georgia to “hunt down Kurdish fighters” or to secure Abkhazia.

Frozen conflict

A ceasefire was agreed in May 1994, but the conflict itself was never resolved. Rather, it was broken again and again. The most serious escalation took place between April 2nd and 5th, 2016, when 92 Armenian and 31 Azerbaijani soldiers lost their lives. According to official sources in Artsakh, Islamist mercenaries are said to have been deployed even then. In the summer of 2017, there was a kamikaze drone attack on an Armenian position.

Islamists at the front

According to the Armenian media, between 2,000 and 8,000 jihadists whom Turkey rescued from Syria have been sent to Azerbaijan, where they are used against Artsakh. In Baku, according to other reports, all available pick-ups were confiscated to be used at the front.

According to “Asia News” in Syria alone, 4,000 jihadists were withdrawn from Idlib, which was occupied by the Turks, and sent to Azerbaijan. In an appeal by the Islamist militia “Sultan Murad Brigade” (supported and deployed by Turkey) it says, among other things: “The volunteers from Syria are deployed in the front line on the Armenian-Azerbaijani border.” In a talk show on the Islamist broadcaster “Orient“ Criticism was raised that instead of fighting Assad in Idlib “the fighters were withdrawn and sent to the Armenian border against the Christian crusaders”.

The Russians, for their part, researched training camps and assembly points in Syria that recruited and trained fighters for Karabakh; on October 9th, 2020, these camps were destroyed in several blows. Over 150 jihadists are believed to have been killed.

Azerbaijan perpetrates war crimes by attacking churches such as Shushi Cathedral (see pictures) and cultural monuments.

Azerbaijan uses rockets against civilian targets in violation of international law (the rockets hit the capital of Karabakh), as well as the Israeli type M095 DPICM cluster ammunition, which was used by Azerbaijan.

The creation, storage and / or use of cluster ammunition has been internationally prohibited and outlawed since August 1, 2010. In the meantime, a protest movement has formed in Israel demanding that no more weapons should be sold to Azerbaijan.

The Aliyev regime has repeatedly been associated with corruption, human rights violations, a lack of democracy and war crimes. Reports from the EU, but above all from human rights organizations, paint a clear picture.

One question remains: why now?

Turkey has always had expansion dreams. This is evident from the teaching materials from the Turkish Ministry of Education. In addition, as the regional military power that NATO has made, Turkey wants to intervene in its environment and help shape it. For example, by attacking the Kurds, who were the only ground units to fight against the Islamists during the Syrian war, and by delivering weapons and equipment to the Islamists.

The economic situation in both countries is precarious

The value of the Turkish lira fell by 50% last year. Turkey is experiencing a massive economic crisis, and there is no end in sight. In the case of Azerbaijan, which derives over 90% of its income from oil and gas, the massive drop in the price of oil has resulted in a loss of economic base.

Contrary to the Turkish political announcement of “zero problems with the neighbors”, Turkey has had clashes or military interventions with Kurds (in its own country), Greece, Cyprus, Iraq, Syria, Libya and Artsakh in the last ten years. In the case of Syria and Iraq, the Turks have occupied land from both lands.

Both presidents (Erdogan and Aliyev) got rich in their offices, are not friends of democracy, freedom of expression and freedom of the media, suppress the opposition and have family members in the government. Many different minorities live in both countries and yet fear and hatred against minorities – especially against Armenians – are stoked in school books.

Both Erdogan and Aliyev desperately need a presentable success. The German Chancellor’s “appeasement” policy is the wrong answer to the muscle games from Ankara that we have been going on for years.

The people in the Caucasus do not want to be the game of politics, they want peace. Nobody wants to send their children, the future of a family, the people, a country to war. All that remains is fear, distrust and bitterness.

What both Turkey and Azerbaijan really need is freedom of the press, freedom of expression and democracy. That would do the most to stabilize the region.


  1. zitiert nach Hélène Carrère d’Encause: Lenin. Piper Verlag, München 2000, ISBN 3-492-04199-X, S. 404
  2. Luchterhandt Otto, Das Recht Berg-Karabaghs auf staatliche Unabhängigkeit aus völkerrechtlicher Sicht, Archiv des Völkerrechts 31. Bd., No. 1/2, UMWELTSCHUTZ / PROTECTION OF THE ENVIRONMENT (1993), pp. 30-81, Internetfundstelle und
  3. Otto Luchterhandt war von 1991 bis 2008 Professor für Öffentliches Recht und Ostrecht an der Universität Hamburg und war Direktor der Abteilung für Ostrechtsforschung
  4. Luchterhandt, Das Recht Berg-Karabaghs
  5. Ebenda

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