In Turkey / Türkiye

Why Autonomy? The Making of Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Region 1918–1925

By Arsène Saparov, published in Europe-Asia Studies, Volume 64, Issue #2, February 2012, pp 281-323

Map of Azerbaijan and Nagorno-Karabach conflictAccess the essay online at, or view the article in pdf format by clicking here:

Why Autonomy, The Making of Nagorno Karabakh

Mountainous Karabakh—an Armenian-populated area within Elizavetpol’ guberniya with a Turkic majority—became a source of dispute between Armenia and Azerbaijan after the collapse of the Russian Empire. During the Soviet conquest of the region, the Bolshevik Party used the issue of Karabakh to promote its agenda by supporting at times the claims of its ally Azerbaijan, or those of Armenia when it needed to facilitate the capture of Zangezur. By 1921, when the Sovietisation of the region was complete, the Karabakh issue was still unresolved. The solution adopted was to leave Karabakh under Azerbaijani control on condition that it had autonomous status, but this was a solution that satisfied neither side.

The Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh is one of the oldest in the post-Soviet space—dating from 1988. As with many of the post- communist conflicts, it started with popular demands to transfer from one sovereignty to another: in this case to transfer the Nagorno-Karabakh region from Azerbaijan to Armenia. It almost immediately turned violent and, with the dissolution of the USSR, a full-scale war erupted between Armenians and Azerbaijanis. The ceasefire agreement signed in 1994 ended the active war and left the Armenians in control of most of the former Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Region as well as several adjacent districts. Ever since then the line of contact between Armenia, Nagorno-Karabakh and Azerbaijan has been reminiscent of the entrenched positions of the First World War.

The Karabakh conflict has received wide academic attention. The Western literature addressing it has mainly concentrated on recent events as most works dealing with the conflict tend to focus mainly on the events of the post-Stalinist period, rarely venturing as far back as the period of the civil war of 1918–1921. Therefore, the reason behind the Bolsheviks’ decision to grant the autonomous status to Nagorno-Karabakh is left aside.

It has become almost a cliche to blame the creation of the ethnic Armenian autonomy within Azerbaijan on Stalin, who by doing this created leverage against both republics. It seems that the absence of any Russian-language works on the subject is partially responsible for such lack of historical insight. Indeed, Karabakh occupies an unusual place within the Soviet historiography of the civil war. Practically every autonomous formation in the USSR published its own history of the Bolshevik struggle during the civil war as a mandatory exercise in Soviet propaganda; but not so in Karabakh, where not a single volume in the Russian language dealing with these events appeared before the onset of the conflict in 1988…

Read the full essay at the weblink or pdf listed above.


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