I visited Nagorno-Karabakh in May 2010 together with my friend Julia on a short visit coming from Armenia. Nagorno-Karabakh is a territory that is disputed between Azerbaijan and Armenia. Internationally recognized as a part of Azerbaijan, in fact the power of government is exercised by the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic (today the Republic of Artsakh), a de facto independent state with a population of Armenian ethnicity. This is the outcome of a bloody war fought from 1992 to 1994. No UN member state recognizes Nagorno-Karabakh.

Over the millennia, the Caucasus region had become a mish-mash of different ethnicities living closely together. Nagorno-Karabakh was an area mostly populated by Armenians but which had been politically disconnected from the territory that constitutes today’s Armenia. Both territories finally ended up being part of the Russian empire. As this empire dissolved in the late stages of the First World War independent states began to form. Armenia and Azerbaijan both claimed the region of Nagorno-Karabakh and fought over it between 1918 and 1920. After things had settled down in Russia the Bolsheviks took over Azerbaijan, Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh altogether and took the decision essentially out of local hands. In 1923, the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast (region) whose population was 94% Armenian was established within the Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republic. The next 65 years the powerful Soviet Union guaranteed peace.

As the winds of political change began to blow over Soviet lands in the late 1980s, nationalism, a concept the Soviets had hoped to have overcome, began to rear its head. In February 1988, the parliament of the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast voted to unify the region with Armenia. Neither Azerbaijan nor the Supreme Soviet did agree with that proposal but unrest had arrived. As Azerbaijan declared independence in late 1991, they revoked the special status of the autonomous oblast. Nagorno-Karabakh reacted by declaring its own independence. Full-scale fighting erupted in 1992 and ended with a Russian-brokered ceasefire in 1994. By then, the Nagorno-Karabakh fighters held nearly all of the territory of the former Autonomous Oblast and some additional Azerbaijani territory. Azerbaijan had been better equipped but the Armenians fought with more determination. About 6,000 Armenians and up to 20,000 Azeris had died. About 700,000 Azeris as well as 300,000 to 500,000 Armenians had been displaced by the conflict. Both sides have been accused of not following the rules of war and committing crimes, the tone was set early with Armenian forces committing the Khojaly Massacre (200+ dead) in February 1992 and Azerbaijani forces committing the Maraga Massacre (about 50-100 dead) in April the same year. Both sides seemed to have come to the conclusion that the territories under their control should be as ethnically pure as possible and both civilian populations greatly feared the other side. The number of displaced persons from the conflict is much higher than the population Nagorno-Karabakh ever had, as nearly all ethnic Armenians living in Azerbaijan left that country as did Azeris living in Armenia.  

So far, all attempts to find a solution have failed, the government of Nagorno-Karabakh seems not interested in any change of the status quo and Azerbaijan is not ready to relinquish its territory. From time to time, shots are fired over the border and future conflict is well possible.

From a traveller’s perspective, Nagorno-Karabakh just feels like another part of Armenia. Yes, you need a visa (you can get one on the spot at the “embassy” in Yerevan), but it is the same unintelligible script, the houses look the same, it is mountainous as well and monasteries dot the landscape. The Flag of Nagorno-Karabakh is the same as the Armenian flag just with a white triangle added on one side. The major change was that our phones stopped working. We visited Shushi and important Gandzasar Monastery. We slept in the Eclectic Hotel, which is shaped like a ship. A young boy with his sister led us around Dadivank Monastery. On the way back to Armenia we stopped at Mayraberd Fortress and looked over Stepanakert. We did not dare visiting Agdam close to the front line. The border guard looked disappointed as we leave after only two days, we promise to stay longer next time.