Thirty Years’ Occupation
In the late 1980s, Armenia began ethnic provocations and terror acts, openly claiming historical territories of Azerbaijan. Taking advantage of the waning authority of the USSR central government, they advanced into action to annex the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast (NKAO) with Armenia. Thus started one of the most tragic conflicts of the 20th century.
In late 1987, the Armenian SSR started brutally deporting Azerbaijanis from their historical lands in the Gafan Region. In 1988-1989, Azerbaijanis in different cities and regions of Armenia faced the same fate. Over 250,000 Azerbaijanis in Armenia were forcibly expelled from their historical lands, while 216 brutally killed, another 1,154 injured. They took refuge in Azerbaijan to save themselves from Armenian violence.
Until 1988, Azerbaijanis had been living compactly in the territories of Armenia. However, unlike the case of Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh, the Soviet government did not grant an autonomous status within the Armenian SSR to territories, densely populated by Azerbaijanis.
How It Started
Throughout the 20th century, Azerbaijanis were purposefully expelled and deported from modern-day Armenia, such as in 1905-1906, 1918-1920, and 1948-1953. In 1948-1953 alone, over 150,000 Azerbaijanis were forcibly deported en masse from their historical lands in the territory of the Armenian SSR. Many elderlies and infants died, as they could not withstand the severe journey, harsh climate changes, physical shocks and mental anguish.
On 13 February 1988, Armenians staged their first demonstration about Karabakh in Khankendi (then Stepanakert), the capital of NKAO. They organized various rallies in NKAO from 16 February to 2 March. On 20 February, ethnically Armenian members of NKAO Soviet of People’s Deputies voted in favour of annexing the oblast to the Armenian SSR (deputies of Azerbaijani and other ethnicities did not attend the meeting). On 21 February, the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union adopted a resolution On the Events in Nagorno-Karabakh, which described the decision of the Oblast Soviet as ‘a campaign provoked by national elements’. However, on February 22, 1988, near the town of Asgaran on the Khankandi-Aghdam highway, the Armenians opened fire on a peaceful demonstration by the Azerbaijanis protesting the above-mentioned decision of the Soviet of People’s Deputies of NKAO. Two young Azerbaijanis were martyred in this incident.
In early March, two organizations with the aim of annexing Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia were established without any obstacles. One of them,“Karabakh” operated in Yerevan, while another one “Krunk” in Khankandi. On June 14, 1988, the Supreme Soviet of Armenian SSR adopted a resolution on the ‘inclusion’ of NKAO in the Armenian Soviet Socialist Republic. In response, on June 17, 1988, the Supreme Soviet of Azerbaijan SSR reaffirmed NKAO`s status within Azerbaijan SSR. On July 18, the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR adopted a resolution on the impossibility of changing the national and territorial division of Azerbaijan SSR and Armenian SSR. By doing so, the Supreme Soviet of the USSR supported the principle of territorial integrity of the republics, guided by the relevant provision of the USSR Constitution (Article 78).
The gradual weakening of the USSR state structure was further exacerbating the situation. Armed groups and terrorists appeared in Nagorno-Karabakh. Mostly sent from Armenia, these groups were engaged in destructive activities. Under these circumstances, the Special Administration Committee (existed from January 12 to November 28, 1989) created by the Presidium of the USSR Supreme Soviet was doomed to failure.
On December 1, 1989, the Supreme Soviet of Armenian SSR adopted an unprecedented decision ‘On the unification of Armenian SSR and Nagorno-Karabakh’. On January 9, 1990, the Supreme Soviet of Armenia included the plan on the social and economic development of NKAO in the Armenian SSR`s plan for 1990. On May 20, 1990, deputies of the Supreme Soviet of Armenian SSR from NKAO were elected.
The decisions of the Supreme Soviet of the Armenian SSR revealed the aggressive essence of Armenia. Territorial claims against Azerbaijan were raised not only by the nationalist groups but also by the Armenian government authorities. Armenia wanted to occupy part of Azerbaijan’s territory at any cost.
In May 1990, the Armenian All National Movement won the parliamentary elections in Armenia. In fact, the radical nationalists and chauvinists advocating the war came to power in Armenia. This speeded up their unleashing of an aggressive war. Yerevan concentrated all its efforts on establishing and arming informal military units. Armenia gave preference to a forceful way of resolving the problem in line with its war goals. Therefore, Armenia never took a serious position in the negotiation process and used it to deceive the international community.
Both during the war and in the following period, Azerbaijan’s position was fully justified in terms of the Constitution of the USSR and the norms of international law. But the incompetence of the Azerbaijani political elite at the time and the absence of a political leader made the situation even more difficult.
National leader of the Azerbaijani people Heydar Aliyev, a far-sighted person, and a prominent statesman capable of analysing the course of events and perfectly aware of the importance of displaying a strong will and a principled position of the state was on imposed leave at the time. His removal from politics had a direct impact on the further deepening of the conflict in line with the interests of the Armenians.
A Strong Pressure Wave
After the Soviet troops rolled on Baku on 20 January 1990 to commit the bloody January tragedy, the Kremlin and personally President Mikhail Gorbachev completely lost their credibility. After the bloody events in Baku, the Soviet troops killed civilians in the regions of Neftchala and Lankaran. A total of 150 people were killed in those bloody January events. The tragedy of the 20th of January played a crucial role in reshaping the Azerbaijani people’s stance toward the USSR and in fulfilling their national independence ideas. While the communist leaders of Azerbaijan did not see radical changes in the nation’s consciousness, national leader Heydar Aliyev visited the permanent representative office of Azerbaijan in Moscow on 21 January and voiced his vehement protest at the biased policy of the USSR leadership against the Azerbaijani people and later quit the Communist Party.
The USSR Supreme Soviet passed a decree on ‘Measures to normalize the situation in NKAO’ on 28 November 1989 that dismantled the Special Administration Committee, restored the Soviet of People’s Deputies in the oblast and established a Republic Administration Committee. However, the Committee was doomed to failure from the get-go, as it relied on the dwindling capabilities of the all-Union system, which was only interested in preserving itself. The August 1991 events shook the statehood of the Union to the core. After these drastic happenings, the activities of this Committee became utterly insignificant. The new political reality showed that the power of the USSR government was nominal, and it had come to an end.
In addition to influencing the course of the conflict, The Armenian diaspora and lobby actively propagandized fabricated allegations in the countries they operated and misguided them towards a solution that served their own interests.
On September 2, 1991, the so-called ‘Nagorno-Karabakh Republic’ (NKR) was declared within the borders of the NKAO and the Shaumyan region of Azerbaijan SSR. On December 10, 1991, a ‘referendum’ was held in ‘NKR’. Considering the prospect of the collapse of the USSR, Armenia clearly shifted its strategy to avoid describing itself as one of the sides involved in the conflict. They put a special plan into action to confuse international opinion.
As a reaction to these events, The Supreme Soviet of the Republic of Azerbaijan made a decision to abolish the autonomous status of Nagorno Karabakh on 23 November, 1991. Armenia, who had been openly making territorial claims for some time, launched military operations against Azerbaijan without announcing war. The conflict, consequently, entered the new ‘hot phase’.
Acts of Massacre and Genocide
During the military campaign, the Armenian armed forces ferociously murdered the peaceful Azerbaijani population in the districts and cities they occupied, seeing no difference between civilians and servicemen. Azerbaijanis were subjected to ethnic cleansing and genocide. The military-political leadership of Armenia systematically carried out massacres and genocides against the civilians in Meshali village in Asgaran, Malibayli and Gushchular villages in Shusha, Garadaghli village in Khojavand, Khojali town, Aghdaban village in Kalbajar and other settlements. They thus pursued a goal of physically exterminating the indigenous Azerbaijani population of Nagorno Karabakh and breaking the resistance spirit of the remaining population.
In the early hours of 26 February 1992, Armenia committed an act of genocide against the Azerbaijani population in Khojaly, killing 613 civilians, including 106 women and 63 children.
Rescue Mission of the National Leader
When national leader Heydar Aliyev returned to power on persistent demands of the people on 15 June 1993, the country was in a very difficult situation. The national leader made a conclusion that the settlement of the Armenia-Azerbaijan Nagorno-Karabakh conflict required a comprehensive approach, with the consideration of extensive internal and external factors. This entailed ensuring social and political stability, establishing a regular army with combat capability, restructuring state institutions, and ensuring their effective functioning, rehabilitating the economy and conducting radical governance reforms, signing strategic oil contracts that would ensure the development of the country for decades to come, and uniting Azerbaijanis around a single idea of Azerbaijanism.
On May 12, 1994, the agreement on ceasefire was signed. Until then, because of Armenia’s military aggression 20 percent of the Azerbaijani territory – town of Khankandi, Khojaly, Shusha, Lachin, Khojavand, Kalbajar, Aghdam, Fuzuli, Jabrayil, Gubadli, Zangilan regions, as well as 13 villages in Tartar, 7 villages in Gazakh and 1 village in Sadarak region in Nakhchivan – had been occupied by the Armenian armed forces. The Armenian aggression left over a million of Azerbaijanis as refugees and IDPs, killed more than 20 thousand people in combat operations and disabled over 50 thousand.
The fate of 3,889 people (including 71 children, 267 women, 326 elderly people), who went missing, and another 871 (as of 1 December 2020), taken prisoner or hostage, as a result of the I Karabakh War still remains unknown. 900 settlements, 150 residential buildings, 7,000 public buildings, 693 schools, 855 kindergartens, 695 healthcare facilities, 927 libraries, 44 temples, 9 mosques, 473 historical monuments, palaces, and museums, 40,000 museum exhibits, 6,000 industrial and agricultural facilities, 160 bridges and other infrastructure facilities were destroyed in Karabakh from 1988 to 1993.
The Conflict in International Documents
The Armenia-Azerbaijan Nagorno-Karabakh conflict had grown into a serious threat to international peace and security. It had started serious debates within international organizations, who adopted several crucial documents on the problem.
On 30 April 1993, the UN Security Council adopted Resolution 822, demanding an immediate withdrawal of Armenian troops from the Kalbajar district and other occupied territories of Azerbaijan.
On 29 July 1993, the UN Security Council adopted Resolution 853, demanding the complete, immediate, and unconditional withdrawal of Armenian troops from the Aghdam district and other occupied territories of Azerbaijan.
On 14 October 1993, the UN Security Council adopted Resolution 874, demanding the withdrawal of Armenian troops from the recently occupied territories in accordance with the CSCE Minsk Group’s settlement schedule.
On 11 November 1993, the UN Security Council adopted Resolution 884. The resolution condemned the occupation of Zangilan district and Horadiz settlement, the attack on the civilian population and the bombing of the territory of the Republic of Azerbaijan and demanded the withdrawal of the occupying forces from Zangilan district, Horadiz settlement and other recently occupied territories of the Republic of Azerbaijan.
These resolutions adopted by the UN Security Council, which acts as the main guarantor of international peace and security regarding the Armenia-Azerbaijan Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, laid a legal base for the political process to resolve the conflict based on the norms and principles of international law. All these resolutions condemn the occupation of the Azerbaijani lands and emphasize the inadmissibility of occupation of territories through the use of force, reaffirm the territorial integrity, sovereignty and inviolability of Azerbaijan’s borders, that Nagorno-Karabakh is an integral part of Azerbaijan and demand immediate, complete and unconditional withdrawal of the occupying forces from all the occupied territories of Azerbaijan.
Documents adopted within the framework of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), principles and norms of international law constitute a legal framework and mechanism of the negotiations based on the resolutions of the UN Security Council. After Azerbaijan and Armenia became members of CSCE at the meeting of its Council of Ministers held in Prague on January 30-31, 1992, the organization started to get closely involved in the conflict. After sending a mission of rapporteurs to Armenia and Azerbaijan in February, the CSCE Committee of Senior Officials adopted a decision, calling the parties to peace and to reach a ceasefire, and urging the cessation of territorial claims to neighboring states. On March 24, 1992, the Committee of Senior Officials convened the Additional Meeting of the CSCE Council in Helsinki where CSCE was called on to play the leading role in the conflict resolution. The Council decided to convene a special conference in Minsk that would act as a permanent framework for negotiations.
An agreement was reached at the organization’s 1994 Budapest summit to dispatch a multinational force to the conflict zone to strengthen the efforts and protect peace as part of the coordinated action to stimulate conflict resolution process, and the OSCE Chairperson-in-Office was instructed to appoint the co-chairs of the Minsk Conference.
Despite Armenia`s attempts to interfere, the OSCE Lisbon Summit held on December 2-3, 1996, discussed the principles of conflict resolution. And the statement by the OSCE Chairman-in-Office, which was added to the final document, featured these principles. The principles, which all the OSCE member states joined, are as follows:
1. Territorial integrity of the Republic of Azerbaijan and Republic of Armenia;
2. Legal status of Nagorno-Karabakh which gives it the highest degree of self-governance within Azerbaijan;
3. Guaranteed security for Nagorno-Karabakh and its entire population, including mutual commitment to ensure compliance with the provisions of the settlement.
Stipulation of the aforementioned principles at the Lisbon Summit, the establishment of a new co-chairmanship institution within the Minsk Group in early 1997, and the appointment of Russia, the US and France as co-chairs gave an impetus to the negotiation process. The co-chairs gave written proposals for the settlement of the conflict. In the summer of 1997, a draft comprehensive agreement on the settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict was presented to the parties. Despite Azerbaijan`s constructive stance, Armenia rejected the proposal. In the autumn of 1997, during the co-chairs’ visit to the region, the parties were presented a ‘stage-by-stage’ plan of settlement of the conflict. The plan prioritized the following stages of conflict resolution: withdrawal of the Armenian troops from the occupied territories, return of internally displaced persons to their lands, restoration of communication means, deployment of the OSCE peacekeeping mission, and review of the status of the Nagorno-Karabakh. However, Armenia again displayed a completely unconstructive position in the negotiations.
Peace Policy of Azerbaijan, Destructive Position of Armenia
In November 2007, the Minsk Group developed the principles of a peaceful settlement of the conflict. The first version of the Madrid document, which included proposals within the Madrid process, was submitted to the parties. At the end of 2009, an updated draft of the Madrid document was developed and submitted to the parties. But Armenia’s destructive position again prevented the achievement of the expected progress. Both documents provided for a stage-by-stage settlement of the conflict and featured the following elements: withdrawal of the Armenian armed forces from the occupied territories of Azerbaijan, return of internally displaced persons to their native lands and restoration of the communication lines.
At subsequent meetings, the presidents agreed to continue talks toward the peaceful settlement of the conflict and paid special attention to the humanitarian aspects of the problem. However, as the negotiation process intensified and went beyond Armenia`s interests, Yerevan attempted to undermine the negotiations through military provocations. Thus, instead of discussing specific issues on the negotiation table after the Paris meeting of the presidents initiated by France on October 27, 2014, Armenia held a large-scale military training in the occupied territories of Azerbaijan involving more than 40,000 personnel.
The intensity of the negotiations declined after the Armenian armed forces performed provocative and offensive flights above the positions of the Azerbaijani Armed Forces on the line of contact and the meeting between the presidents of the two countries resumed on December 19, 2015, in Bern, Switzerland.