Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
Myths and Realities of Karabakh War
The failure to resolve the conflict over the mountainous territory of Nagorny Karabakh remains the most serious problem in the south Caucasus, blighting the peaceful development of the whole region.
Almost nine years after Armenians and Azerbaijanis signed the ceasefire agreement that halted the war in 1994, and ten years after the first United Nations resolution on the conflict on April 30, 1993 the dispute is no nearer resolution.
One reason it remains unsettled is that the combatants have fostered myths and propaganda, which reinforce their - mistaken - perception that they are the guiltless victims of the conflict, while the other side is the dangerous aggressor.
The misinformation comes down to basic facts. Officials in Azerbaijan, the losing side in the conflict, routinely say that the country has one million refugees, and that twenty per cent of what is internationally recognized as the territory of Azerbaijan is occupied by the Armenians.
Yet an analysis of the facts suggests that while Azerbaijan does have a large population of refugees, there are in fact around 750,000 of them. A little over half a million were displaced from in and around Karabakh in 1992-94, and the rest fled Armenia in 1988-90.
A detailed calculation shows that the Armenians hold a little under12,000 square kilometres of the recognised territory of Azerbaijan, a figure that includes Karabakh itself. That translates as 13.62 per cent of the territory of Azerbaijan.
On the other side, the entity's Armenians frequently state that they have a population of 140,000 people - thus buttressing their claims for self-determination. But estimates by international aid workers in Karabakh put the figure much lower, at perhaps half that.
A breakthrough in peace talks is only likely if each side faces up to its responsibility for the violence it committed against the other, yet the picture here is depressing. The two presidents, Heidar Aliev in Azerbaijan and Robert Kocharian in Armenia, who have come close to a compromise in private, must share the blame as they repeat mythologized stories of "suffering" and "heroism" in public.
The beginning of the dispute dates back to February 1988, when the Armenian-dominated regional soviet (communist-era assembly) in the autonomous region of Nagorny Karabakh requested to be allowed to leave Soviet Azerbaijan and join Soviet Armenia. It was an unprecedented act for the Gorbachev era and triggered the first inter-ethnic quarrel of the late Soviet Union - a quarrel that played a significant role in dissolving the whole union itself.
A few days after the entity's Armenians made their request, the first serious violence took place in, the Karabakh village of Askeran and the Azerbaijani town of Sumgait.
Yet research now shows that the first trouble began the year before, in 1987. Azerbaijanis fled the southern Armenian region of Kafan, while Armenian villagers were beaten up in Chardakhlu, an Armenian village in Azerbaijan. The Armenian nationalist activist Igor Muradian organised a mass petition in Karabakh, sent delegations to Moscow and received small arms from outside the Soviet Union.
This is important because it demonstrates that the dispute started from below and received immediate grass-roots support on the ground. While both sides are inclined to blame the hand of Moscow for the beginning of the conflict, the evidence suggests that the communist authorities were caught unawares and unable to control a rapidly spreading bush-fire.
Both sides have since told and retold stories describing the "aggression" of the other, and playing down the violence which they themselves committed.
Few Armenians know that dozens of Azerbaijanis died fleeing Armenia in 1988-89 - in Armenia the story is that the Azerbaijani minority's departure was peaceful. And while a beautiful 18th century mosque has recently been restored in Yerevan, few of its citizens recall that a small Azerbaijani mosque on what is now Vardanants Street was demolished by a bulldozer in 1990.
In Azerbaijan, the terrible pogroms that led to the deaths of 32 people in the town of Sumgait in February 1988 were the first mass violence of the dispute. Azerbaijanis now routinely portray them as having been a "provocation" organised by the KGB in Moscow, or even by underground Armenians.
Yet detailed research showed that none of the supposed evidence for this stands up: the responsibility goes squarely back to the then authorities in Azerbaijan and the Sumgait rioters themselves.
The Armenians' victory in 1994 can be attributed to three factors: the Armenians were better organized and prepared militarily; Azerbaijan was in more or less permanent chaos between 1991 and 1994; and the Russians, after initially helping both sides, began to help the Armenians more.
In the early phase of the war, most of the Russian troops fighting - never a large number - were Soviet army officers based in the Caucasus and looking for work on either side.
In perhaps the most bizarre phase of the conflict, the Azerbaijanis pushed deep into Karabakh in June and July 1992, using Russian tanks and crews from the Soviet 4th Army. The Armenians then persuaded the Russians to send in a helicopter squadron, which repulsed the Russian tank attack and halted the Azerbaijani advance on Stepanakert.
By 1993, Moscow was taking a more strategic interest. Levon Ter-Petrosian, Armenia's president between 1991 and 1996, now reveals that he received arms shipments from Russia, which were personally approved in writing by President Boris Yeltsin. This admission contradicts what has been for many years the official Armenian version of the war. Ter-Petrosian insists, however, that Russia only helped Armenia because it wanted to "preserve the military balance" and close the arms gaps between the two countries.
"It turned out that there were more three times more weapons in Azerbaijan than in Armenia," Levon Ter-Petrosian said. "And when we talked to the Russian side, we came to the conclusion - and I managed to get them to agree to this - that we should be compensated for this. And Yeltsin agreed to this and agreed that the balance should be preserved."
Russia now plays a much more positive role in the dispute, and has a more balanced relationship with Armenia and Azerbaijan. Along with France and the United States, it is one of three main mediators in the conflict. Yet, despite high-level involvement, including from President Jacques Chirac himself, the mediators have failed to engineer a breakthrough.
The prime responsibility for untying the Karabakh knot and freeing up the Caucasus belongs to those who will benefit most: the people and leaders of Armenia, Azerbaijan and the two communities of Karabakh.
The omens are not good. On each side, a whole generation of schoolchildren is growing up completely isolated from the other, and reading textbooks that present a nationalistic and distorted version of the tragic history of the Karabakh conflict.
Thomas de Waal is IWPR's Caucasus Editor. His book, "Black Garden: Armenia and Azerbaijan Through Peace and War" is published today, May 1, by New York University Press.
- Europe & Eurasia
- Latin America
- Middle East & North Africa
- Focus Pages
- Training & Resources
- Print Publications
- IWPR Spotlight