Artsakh’s Right to Rule

Sofia Gevorgian
20 June 2022

Artsakh: a province in the Kingdom of Armenia in 189 BCE, autonomous oblast within the USSR, de facto nation since the collapse of the Soviet Union, but a landmass seen by the world to be a part of Azerbaijan. The Republic of Artsakh, whose lack of a state status only breeds further instability and opportunity for Azerbaijan to accomplish its goal of total ethnic cleansing—All because under international law, this country does not exist.

Young Armenian soldier, Arman, fighting in the 2020 Artsakh War


Artsakh: a province in the Kingdom of Armenia in 189 BCE, autonomous oblast within the USSR, de facto nation since the collapse of the Soviet Union, but a landmass seen by the world to be a part of Azerbaijan. The Republic of Artsakh, whose lack of a state status only breeds further instability and opportunity for Azerbaijan to accomplish its goal of total ethnic cleansing—All because under international law, this country does not exist.

Ancient province of Artsakh (left) and the post-2020 war borders of Artsakh (right).


Artsakh, known also as Nagorno-Karabakh, has maintained an ethnic Armenian majority for thousands of years and is home to a population of 150,000 located in the South Caucasus. In the 11th century, with the collapse of the Kingdom of Armenia and increased presence of Seljuk Turks, the name “Karabakh” grew in relevance to describe this land. Under the Safavid Empire in the 16th century, Artsakh became the Province of Karabakh (where Armenian princes ruled autonomously) and in the 18th century, became a semi-independent Turkic Caucasian khanate called the Karabakh Khanate until the Russian Empire’s annexation of it in 1813.


With the fall of the Russian Empire, in 1918, the newly-established Azerbaijan and now-independent Armenia laid claim over Artsakh’s land, but it would only grow more bloody from there. Two years later in 1920, Azerbaijani troops, in addition to Azerbaijani civilians, ravaged Shushi, burning around 2000-7000 structures and killing up to 20,000 Armenians to pressure them to leave; comparing the ethnic makeup of Shushi in 1916 and 1926, the Armenian population was reduced from 53.3% to 1.8%, respectively.


Upon the establishment of the Soviet Union, the Plenum of the Caucasian Bureau of the Central Committee of the Communist Party voted to assign Artsakh to Armenia, but even though Artsakh’s population was 94.4% ethically Armenian, Joseph Stalin instead transferred Artsakh to Azerbaijan SSR as an autonomous oblast in 1923, likely with the strategy of “divide and conquer” in mind.

Ethno-demographic balance in NKAO (left) and NKAO map (right)


In the late 1980s and under the protection of Glasnost, Armenians began advocating for the unification of Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast (NKAO) and Armenia. Practicing their right to self-determination under USSR law, they protested and marched, garnering numbers of 100,000 to a million people.


However, the Azerbaijani response only reaffirmed the core notion that Artsakh’s Armenians would be unsafe under Azerbaijani rule; after NKAO’s Supreme Court voted to transfer its jurisdiction to Armenia on February 20, 1988, tensions escalated with involvement by the Communist Party of Azerbaijan until the onset of the Sumgait Massacre on February 27-29. In those three days, the population of 18,000 Armenians in the city of Sumgait, Azerbaijan, became targets as they were barred from leaving the city and the addresses of their residence began circulating. Negligence from the police allowed Azerbaijani mobs to attack Armenian residents, loot their businesses, murder and mutilate until 50 Soviet tanks quelled the pogrom.


Similar waves of anti-Armenian violence continued across Azerbaijan with the Kirovabad Pogrom in 1988 and then in Baku in 1990 after Armenian SSR’s Supreme Soviet declared the reunification of Soviet Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh in December of 1989. As a result, virtually no Armenians were left in Azerbaijan’s capital city after the massacre. State-sponsored ethnic cleansing also continued with Operation Ring, where the Soviet Army and OMON units of Azerbaijan SSR uprooted or deported around 5,000 Armenians.


The USSR was beginning to crumble, and on December 10, 1991, in accordance with Article 3 of the USSR’s constitution, stating “the people of autonomous republics and autonomous formations retain the right to decide independently the question of remaining within the USSR or within the seceding Union republic,” a referendum was held in the NKAO with 99.8% of participants voting for Artsakh’s independence. However, Soviet and Azerbaijani authorities rejected the results, and thus the First Nagorno-Karabakh War broke out between 1991-1994, ending with 30,000 deaths and Armenian forces in control of 7 territories between NKAO and Armenia.

Armenian forces in the First Nagorno-Karabakh War


The signed ceasefire did little to ensure lasting peace, as though Azerbaijan recognized the Republic of Artsakh as a viable signatory, it failed to recognize it as a state; not even an interim status was given to the territory of NKAO.


To be a country according to the accepted 1933 Montevideo Convention, a landmass must have:

  1. A permanent population.

  2. A defined territory.

  3. A government.

  4. The ability to form relations with other states.


Though Artsakh meets the aforementioned requirements, the world fails to recognize it as an independent nation and instead continues to be complacent in the face of atrocities committed against the country of 150,000, deeming this another “frozen conflict”. “Frozen”— if one overlooks the past 30 years of ceasefire violations, Azerbaijan’s attack in 2016’s Four Day War, and the full scale war on the Republic of Artsakh on September 27, 2020.


In the 44 day war in 2020, 4,000 Armenians were killed as Azerbaijan, with the military support of Turkey, seized ancient Armenian land, land that had always housed an Armenian majority. Per capita, the number of Armenians killed in the first 20 days was more than American deaths in 20 years of the Vietnam War, emphasizing the significant humanitarian crisis the war brought upon the region.


Banned weapons of cluster bombs indiscriminately killed and destroyed civilian infrastructure as Turkey’s imported mercenaries from Syria fought for Azerbaijan (which Turkey and Azerbaijan vehemently deny), and Turkish drones left little competition against the much smaller Armenian forces. Azerbaijan also executed and beheaded prisoners of war and took to burning down forests with banned white phosphorus weapons to clear those hiding in the mountains. As of June 2022, 46 to over 200 POWs remain in Azerbaijan, despite the 2020 ceasefire calling for their immediate release; instead, the government has been holding sham trials, continuing to physically and mentally torture them, hiding information from international organizations like the Red Cross, and in some cases, killing those in custody.


White phosphorus weapons burning forests in Artsakh during the Second Nagorno-Karabakh War

The list of war crimes only continues with the cultural damage and erasure the Azerbaijani government seeks. During the war, the Azerbaijani military precisely bombed the Ghazanchetsots Cathedral twice when it was well known civilians were inside, violating both Rome Statute and Geneva Convention protocols, and in 2021, the dome of the church was removed, supposedly for renovations. However, media sites heavily controlled by the Azeri state often claim Armenians embezzled an Orthodox Church, implying they would now be “restoring” Ghazanchetsots to the “original design”, by their design.

Damage after bombings and vandalization of the Ghazanchetsots Cathedral, Shushi


As if the repeated bombing of Ghazanchetsots is not enough to prove Azerbaijan’s lack of intention to protect Armenians if fully controlling Artsakh, they are actively falsifying history with such claims that Armenians are not indigenous to that land and are merely imported from Russia. They thus promote their narrative that Caucasian Albanians built the churches that serve as evidence of Armenia’s historical presence, especially considering that Armenia was the first nation to accept Christianity as its state religion. As such, where walls are inscribed with the Armenian alphabet, the government has ordered for “renovations” and removal of the Armenians’ so-called defacement of Caucasian Albanian history, and in a further attempt to alienate the cultural impact of Armenians, the government of Azerbaijan sent Udi priests to the Dadivank Monastery to hold a service in this Armenian church newly come under Azeri control.


The consistent dehumanization of Armenians even continues to the opening of the Military Trophy Park opened in Baku a few months after the war. Similar to Saddam Husein’s Victory Arch, helmets of fallen Armenian soldiers were proudly displayed, and wax mannequins of Armenian soldiers further sought to mock Armenians, that is, until being removed for “repairs,” though this was done around the time Armenia filed a lawsuit with ICJ.


Azerbaijan’s president with curtain of helmets (left) and Armenian caricatures (right)


The Azerbaijani government has been minimizing the Armenian presence in the South Caucasus for decades, proving that self-determination (“peoples, based on respect for the principle of equal rights and fair equality of opportunity, have the right to freely choose their sovereignty and international political status”) is the only answer that will protect the rights of this population. If this fails to be achieved, their lives and culture are at stake. After all, the Azerbaijani government quietly removed an entire Armenian church from a newly-won region of Artsakh and faced no tangible consequences.


Zoravor Holy Mother of God Church removed in Jabrayil (2021) (credit: BBC)


To help resolve the Karabakh conflict through mediation, the OSCE Minsk Group was established in 1992, where the United States, France, and Russia serve as co-chairs. However, they have been largely criticized for being ineffective, especially as wars over Artsakh have erupted in 2016 and 2020 and no change has come to bring stability to Artsakh. Time and time again, Azerbaijan has rejected all peace treaties that include a change in Artsakh proper’s status (which was NKAO’s territory), and considering that their president Ilham Aliyev said in June of 2022, “there is no need for the Minsk Group now that Azerbaijan has settled the Karabakh conflict [after the 2020 war],” it is important now more than ever to guarantee Artsakh’s rights to self-determination.


If a country is not recognized on the grounds of self-determination, remedial secession could apply, as was the case with Kosovo. Remedial secession is a mechanism by which an international body establishes a nation by overriding the right to territorial integrity when the ruling government in extreme cases fails to protect a population and denies internal self-determination. Amidst Serbia’s atrocities committed against Kosovo, the United States and large powers of the world recognized Kosovo’s independence, for giving the people in Kosovo the right to rule over their people ended the bloodshed of that region.


Nothing has changed since the 2020 war to alter Artsakh’s status, and as a result, the country is still in limbo. The existential threat of this community is only becoming more prevalent as soldiers and Armenian civilians are still killed near the new border while the Azerbaijani government continues pressuring Armenians to leave en masse. For instance, not only does their military use loudspeakers to verbally harass or amplify the Muslim call to prayer on the border of a Christian-majority nation, but in March 2022, they even cut the gas lines to Artsakh for over two weeks. During this time, temperatures were below freezing and residents were deprived of a heat source since Azerbaijan prevented Armenian or Russian authorities from crossing into Shushi to fix the broken pipelines.


With Azerbaijan’s gross human rights violations of Armenians from 1920 to the present, it is essential for the international community to support the Republic of Artsakh’s independence on the basis of the Kosovo Independence Precedent of remedial secession and end Azerbaijan’s quest of ethnic cleansing.


But until the world recognizes Artsakh’s right to rule, it will continue fighting for survival.