A century on, and the movement for Nagorno-Karabakh’s recognition as part of Armenia, continues. But where did it all begin?

3 February 2020

Most famously, the early Armenian-Azerbaijani War consisted of multiple clashes in 1918 and further disputes from 1920-22. However, clashes between the two sides existed around 15 years earlier in 1905. Baku, the capital city of Azerbaijan, saw the initial clashes in February 1905 and the first conflict erupted in early August of the same year in Shusha, which is located in Nagorno-Karabakh.


With the rise of the Bolsheviks due to the 1917 Russian Revolution, Transcaucasia (figure 1) became practically cut off from the rest of the Russian state territories. The Transcaucasian Commissariat (government) took control of the region and established the Transcaucasian Sejm (parliament) on 10th February 1918 to “determine the organisa

tion of the government and form the authorities in the region.”

With mounting pressure from Turkey, the Sejm announced the succession of Transcaucasia from Russia and therefore declaring its independence on 9th April 1918. The short-lived Transcaucasia Democratic Federative Republic was destined to collapse, however, from its genesis, due to the main parties involved holding severe religious and political contradictions. The Sejm announced the break-up of the Republic on 26th May 1918.

On the same day, Georgia declared its independence and two days later, so did the Republic of Armenia and the Democratic Republic of Azerbaijan.

Figure 1: Transcaucasia, roughly today’s Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan


Before the Transcaucasia Democratic Federative Republic dissolved, Azerbaijani representatives from the Sejm were sent to Istanbul in secret talks to negotiate the assistance of the Young Turks in the process of declaring the independence of “the second Turkish state”.

By the end of May 1918 Turkish troops had entered Ganja, the first capital of Azerbaijan Democratic Republic. The next day, the Turkish General Nuri Pasha also entered Ganja and established the Islamic Army of the Caucasus, a military unit of the Ottoman Empire. Under the command of Pasha, the Islamic Army took up establishing Azerbaijani control over the territories that the Democratic Republic of Azerbaijan had claimed before.

This was a controversial move as General Pasha claimed not only areas compactly inhabited by Muslims, but also localities inhabited exclusively by Armenians. In particular, Karabakh had special importance among the regions claimed due to its strategic position and “could become a corridor or a barrier between the Muslims of Eastern Transcaucasia and Turkey, depending on the fact under whose control it was.”

Armenia declared Karabakh a separate administrative and political entity in July 1918 and formed an independent government that was committed to the right of the people’s self-determination as the starting point of their activities.


On 15th September 1918, the Army of Islam and its Azerbaijani allies entered Baku with the objective of capture. They entered with the intention of causing harm and humiliation and killed 10,000 – 20,000 Armenians. The exact number is unclear. It is argued that this brutal attack was carried out in retaliation for a massacre of 12,000 Azerbaijanis in March of the same year.

After the massacre, the Azerbaijani government, assisted by the Turkish forces, attempted to subjugate Karabakh and include it within its own borders. Turkish forces were able to capture Shusha but attempts to penetrate further into Karabakh failed due to the regions own self-defence squads that I been set up exactly for this purpose.


After the end of the First World War, the British replaced the Ottoman Empire in the Transcaucasia region due to the Armistice. The British Command refused to recognise the Azerbaijani government; however, they demanded the full disarmament of the Armenian population of Karabakh.

The Assembly drafted the Provisional Statute for Armenian Karabakh which “will establish Regional Council headquartered in Shushi [Shusha] and made up of 7 representatives from Armenians and 3 representatives from Muslims, in proportion to the population, before the Paris Peace Conference delivers its decision”. On the basis of a special agreement, one representative each from the Republic of Armenia and the Republic of Azerbaijan could be included in the Council. The draft Provisional Statute provided the right for the Head of the British Mission to Shusha to exercise control over the activities of the Council.

Azerbaijan resorted to force in order to hinder the resolution process. Azerbaijani troops entered Karabakh, who were disarmed, and committed massacres in the region’s capital, Shusha, and its surrounding villages in early June 1919.

Agreements were made for the British to temporarily recognise the borders of Azerbaijan in an attempt to halt the violence. However, Azerbaijan broke its commitments of the Agreement and larger-scale military and punitive operations followed.

As a result, the Assembly of Armenians of Karabakh, convened from February 28 to March 4, 1920,  and expressed its discontent about these activities of the Azerbaijani government and armed forces and issued the warning that “recurrence of the events will force Karabakh Armenians to resort to adequate measures to protect their lives and dignity”.

This warning did not halt the Azerbaijanis who brought in more troops to Karabakh and Zangezur. A further massacre took place of Armenians in Karabakh with others being expelled from the area.

However, by the end of April 1920, the Armenian self-defence squads had managed to turn the tables from defence to offence and drive back Azerbaijani troops. They were even able to reunify with Zangezur after three years of blockade.


Simultaneously, the Red Army entered the Transcaucasia region and after establishing Soviet rule there, Karabakh returned to being occupied and was declared as a disputed territory by the Russians.

What is little known is that Nagorno-Karabakh was so nearly a confirmed part of Soviet Armenia by the Russian Communists. Azerbaijan relinquished the region, this decision was accepted by the Soviets and the People’s Commissariat of Foreign Affairs  addressed the supreme authority and stated that “In June (1921), an Agreement was signed (by Armenia) with Azerbaijan on Nagorno Karabakh to be part of Soviet Armenia.”

This did not last long, however, as the issue was not submitted to the Central Committee of the Russian Communist Party to be reviewed. Instead, in early July 1921, a session of the Caucasus Bureau was convened and the former decision was deserted with a new one put in place stating “…proceeding from the necessity of establishing peace between Muslims and Armenians, the economic ties between Lower and Upper Karabakh, and the permanent ties of Nagorno Karabakh with Azerbaijan, leave Nagorno Karabakh in the Azerbaijan SSR, granting it wide regional autonomy, with the administrative centre of Shushi included in the autonomous region”

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