Last Updated: Friday, 02 October 2015, 13:27 GMT

World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples - Nagorny Karabakh (unrecognised state) : Overview

Publisher Minority Rights Group International
Publication Date 2007
Cite as Minority Rights Group International, World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples - Nagorny Karabakh (unrecognised state) : Overview, 2007, available at: [accessed 4 October 2015]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.


Nagorny Karabakh ('Mountainous Karabakh') is situated in the highland region legally constituting the south-west part of Azerbaijan. Traditionally a wider area including the surrounding lowlands was referred to as Karabakh, although today the term has become more synonymous with the mountainous part of this wider region.

As a result of secession and occupation of the surrounding districts, the territory under the de facto control of the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic (NKR) is much larger than the territory formerly making up the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast (region) of Soviet times. This territory includes the de jure Azerbaijani regions of Zengelan, Jebrail, Kelbajar, Lachin, Gubatly and parts of the Aghdam and Fizuli regions.

The region is variously referred to as Nagorny Karabakh, Nagornyy Karabakh and Nagorno-Karabakh.


The demography of the NKR is a politicized subject and all statistical data needs to be treated with caution. The NKR held its first census in October 2005, which recorded a total population of 137,737. At this time of writing there does not appear to be available a breakdown of this figure by nationality, although following the expulsion of the Azeri population and migration of Armenians expelled from parts of Azerbaijan to the NKR, the population is thought to consist of at least 95 per cent Armenians. Except for a few scattered individuals, no Azeris remain in Nagorny Karabakh.


Due to the conflict for sovereignty over Nagorny Karabakh, the history of the region is hotly contested between Armenians and Azerbaijanis. In pre-modern times the region is thought to have formed part of Caucasian Albania (no relation to the Balkan Albania), a now extinct culture that had converted to Christianity in the fourth century and had assumed some Armenian cultural traits. In the early mediaeval period, waves of Seljuk invasions contributed to the spread of Islam and Turkic culture in the lowland areas of Karabakh. Through the early modern period a mixed system of rule obtained in the region, combining jurisdictions of Muslim khans and Armenian meliks (princes). To Armenians the region was known as Artsakh. Overall sovereignty over Karabakh belonged to the Persian empire (Iran) until 1813, when the region was formally incorporated into the Russian empire. Karabakh then became part of the Elizavetpol province of Russia.

Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict over territory coincided with the emergence of independent Armenian and Azerbaijani states in 1918. Karabakh was just one of a number of regions disputed by these fledgling states. After incorporation into the Soviet Union Karabakh was initially allocated to Soviet Armenia, but this decision was countermanded to see the region given instead to Soviet Azerbaijan as an autonomous district.

The most recent conflict over Nagorny Karabakh first surfaced in 1988, following a campaign by Nagorny-Karabakh Armenians for reunification with Armenia. Violence increased with Soviet troops being deployed to try to quell the unrest. On 2 September 1991, NKR declared its secession from Azerbaijan. In December 1991, a referendum was held on independence and confirmed in January of the following year. Attempts at mediation by the CSCE, CIS countries and others were fruitless, as the violence escalated to all out-war. Human rights abuses were committed on all sides. A ceasefire established in 1994, has held – but the status of NKR remains unresolved.

In November 1996 Robert Kocharian was elected de facto president of the NKR, and later became prime minister of Armenia in March 1997 and then president one year later. In September 1997 Arkady Ghukasian was elected de facto president of the NKR. Ghukasian was seriously wounded in an assassination attempt in March 2000, which was attributed by the establishment to Minister of Defence and former army commander Samvel Babayan.


The NKR is a stronger entity than the other unrecognized states in the South Caucasus. This is partly due to the fact that the NKR is responsible for its own security, necessitating an effective military capacity, and partly to the fact that Armenia is a reliable provider of resources to the NKR. The NKR also avoided fragmentation into competing clans or warlord armies, in contrast to Chechnya. A power struggle did develop between the de facto president Arkady Ghukasian and Minister of Defence Samvel Babayan, which was resolved in 2000 when Babayan was arrested on charges of attempting Ghukasian's assassination.

The NKR adopted a constitution on the basis of a referendum held in December 2006; no Azeris took part in the referendum. Technically a regime of martial law is still in place, renewed annually by presidential decree. Political partnerships and networks formed during the war with Azerbaijan or by business interests are highly significant, as is the Nagorno-Karabakh Defence Army. According to the de facto authorities in Stepanakert the army comprises some 20,000 soldiers, a substantial number of which are thought to be recruited from Armenia.

The NKR holds regular presidential and parliamentary elections, which are not widely recognized by the international community. In 2007, incumbent Ghukasyan who was constitutionally barred from seeking a third term, endorsed Bako Sahakyan – head of the National Security Service – who was duly elected after a poll held in July. Some parts of the international community have demonstrated greater interest in NKR elections, including the Commonwealth of Independent States and some international human rights organizations such as the British Helsinki Human Rights Group. Assessments of elections in the NKR by these observers have generally been positive.

Perhaps due to the imperative of militarization and extensive support for the regime from Armenia and the Armenian diaspora civil society is more weakly developed in the NKR compared, for instance, to Abkhazia. International isolation, and the fact that Azerbaijan forbids access to Karabakh from its side of the line of contact have also contributed to this state of affairs. There are few effective civil society groups, and a very small number of independent media outlets. Although opposition parties have developed, and have on occasion, achieved success in local elections, they have played a more marginal role at the level of the National Assembly.

Current state of minorities and indigenous peoples

The peace process between Armenia and Azerbaijan has continued, with the latest round of negotiations being held in January 2008. The NKR authorities have campaigned consistently since the outset for direct participation in that process as a party to the conflict. So far, Azerbaijan has been successful in excluding the NKR and promoting its version of the conflict as an inter-state conflict between itself and Armenia. This strategy has ignored the influence that the NKR is able to exercise over Armenia and its resulting capacity to reject peace proposals it perceives as contrary to its interests.

In February 2005 observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe inspected occupied territories of Azerbaijan under the control of the NKR authorities. They concluded that the NKR authorities had been directly involved in the settlement of parts of these territories in Lachin and a small area east of Mardakert by Armenians, in the form of provision of subsidies and incentives to settlers. No significant involvement on the part of Armenia was observed.

No solution has been found to the issue of what kind of rights or status potential Azeri returnees would have if return were to become a possibility. The NKR authorities have formally stated that Azeris are welcome to return provided they assume the citizenship of the NKR, and that they would enjoy a full range of minority rights. Return to their homeland as a national minority is not acceptable to the Azeris of Karabakh living in displacement. Contacts between the Armenians and Azeris of Karabakh remain extremely limited. Visits by Karabakh Armenians to Azerbaijan have decreased in recent years due to Azerbaijani reluctance to guarantee security, while Azeri visits to Karabakh have been limited to very occasional visits by Azeri journalists and civil society activists. Nonetheless in June 2005 the Azerbaijani Foreign Ministry declared its support for intercommunal contacts between the two communities, although this has yet to take regular or institutionalized form.

International relations

As an unrecognized entity, the NKR is prohibited from entering into international agreements or conventions. However, following a common pattern among unrecognized states, the NKR claims to have unilaterally ratified several international human rights agreements, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the European Convention on Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms. No monitoring mechanisms exist to ascertain compliance with the provisions of these agreements.

Copyright notice: © Minority Rights Group International. All rights reserved.

Search Refworld