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Assessment for Armenians in Azerbaijan

Publisher Minorities at Risk Project
Publication Date 31 December 2000
Cite as Minorities at Risk Project, Assessment for Armenians in Azerbaijan, 31 December 2000, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/469f3a5633.html [accessed 27 August 2014]
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.
Azerbaijan Facts
Area:    86,600 sq. km.
Capital:    Baku
Total Population:    7,856,000 (source: U.S. Census Bureau, 1998, est.)

Risk Assessment | Analytic Summary | References

Risk Assessment

Armenians in Azerbaijan are at a high risk of conflict as long as the Nagorno-Karabakh issue remains unsettled. There is a recent history of conflict with periodic flare-ups, a high degree of territorial concentration (for those Armenians in Karabakh), and a very high level of nationalist rhetoric on both sides. The government in Baku is not democratic, but that may not be as much of a factor here as elsewhere because popular political pressures for peace are weak. And there is significant turmoil in the Armenian politics of the region, culminating in the assassination of the Armenian Prime Minister and seven leading parliamentarians in 1999, a political crisis in Nagorno Karabakh in 1999, and an assassination attempt on the Karabakh president in 2000.

During the late 1990s international support for a peaceful settlement to the Karabakh issue grew significantly. The United States, which at first joined Russia in supporting Armenia (due in large part to the lobbying of the "Armenian Diaspora"), is beginning to re-evaluate its stance. Washington increasingly sees Azerbaijan as an important strategic partner in the effort to export the oil and gas of the Caspian, and as a counter-weight to Russian influence in the area. Therefore, both the Clinton and Bush administrations tried to help the two sides reach an agreement over Karabakh that would bring stability to the region. President Clinton even attended OSCE-sponsored peace talks between the two sides in December 1999, which followed Baku's suggestion that Azerbaijani territory could host the first American military base in the former Soviet Union.

Initially, there were signs that this diplomacy was making progress, if very slowly. The OSCE's "Minsk Group" remains very active in promoting both official and second track talks. In May 1999 the Karabakh leadership dropped its demand for independent statehood, which was in all likelihood a political and practical non-starter, saying it would accept unification with Armenia. Baku, however, has steadfastly refused to discuss anything beyond the degree of autonomy to be granted to its Armenian-populated region, arguing that its territorial integrity was not open to negotiation. Since the new President, Ilham Aliyev, took power, little progress has been achieved and efforts at a resolution have waned.

Armenia's position has been tempered by its desire to remain open to the world and its investment dollars. Yerevan has not recognized the independence of Nagorno-Karabakh for fear that such a move would damage its relations with the West and certainly cause Baku to cut off Armenian energy supplies from the Caspian.Overall, the past decade has seen a polarization of the Karabakh conflict rather than a shift to accommodation of differences. Given the levels of rhetoric and unwillingness to compromise on both sides, a lasting peace agreement seems unlikely in the near future. Renewed Armenian-Azeri fighting cannot to be ruled out, and border skirmishes are still frequent. Such a turn of events would be bad for the Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh but it could be catastrophic for the Armenian communities still scattered throughout the rest of Azerbaijan.

Analytic Summary

PLEASE NOTE: The codes in the following Analytic Summary represent the Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh, which for all intents and purposes is independent of policies and legislation made in Baku. While some Armenians remain in Azerbaijan (approximately 30,000), they are not represented in these codes.

The Armenians in Azerbaijan are largely concentrated in the break-away region of Nagorno-Karabakh, but there are some smaller Armenian communities scattered throughout Azerbaijan, especially near Baku (GROUPCON = 2). They are a Christian minority group in Islamic Azerbaijan (CULDIFX4 = 2) that has little in common culturally with the majority Azeris (CULDIFFXX = 4). Observers often note that the Armenians in Azerbaijan have an even higher group cohesion and pride than those in Armenia itself (COHESX = 5).

The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, like so many territorial disputes of the Caucasus, has its roots in the "divide and rule" ethnic policies of Stalin and the Soviets. In 1918, Armenia experienced a brief period of independence, but this ended in 1920 when the entire Transcaucasus region was invaded by the Bolsheviks and incorporated into the Soviet Union. The Soviet authorities kept Karabakh and Ganja in Azerbaijan, and made Nakhichevan (traditionally a part of Persian Armenia) into an Azerbaijani enclave. Most of the rest of "historical" Armenia (including Mount Ararat, one of the most important Armenian landmarks) was divided between Georgia and Turkey. The area which eventually became the Armenian SSR was based on the administrative district of Yerevan, an extremely backward and impoverished area. Since most Armenian wealth was located in the cities of Tbilisi and Baku, Armenia became the smallest and one of the least influential of the Soviet republics. Karabakh was given the status of an autonomous oblast and Nakhichevan was made an autonomous republic, both constituent to Azerbaijan.

The Armenians, who had traditionally backed the Czars, initially resisted the Bolsheviks. This resistance was centered in Karabakh, which may help explain the retention of Karabakh as a part of Azerbaijan. Through Soviet rule, the Armenian economy was transformed from agriculture to industry and the Soviet authorities under Stalin made every attempt to crush Armenian culture and heritage. Despite this, Armenian culture survived and prospered, and today 99% of ethnic Armenians list Armenian as their primary language (CULDIFX2 = 2). Additionally, Armenia prospered during the industrialization of the Soviet Union, making its per capita income higher than that of the Soviet Union as a whole. Seventy percent of Armenians were urban at the time of independence in 1991. As a result of their prosperity, despite the early hardships suffered under Stalin, Armenians have continued to be very pro-Russian.

Throughout the period of Soviet rule the question of Karabakh festered for Armenians. Karabakhis harbored claims of economic neglect, charging that Azeri authorities perennially and purposely under-invested in the region to keep it impoverished. In addition, Baku placed restrictions on cultural ties with Armenia. Tensions rose in the early 1960s, and in 1968 clashes erupted between Armenians and Azeris in Stepanakert (the capital of Nagorno-Karabakh). Armenians feared that the Armenian character of Karabakh would disappear as it had in Nakhichevan over the decades, where the Armenian population had all but disappeared and all of the Armenian monuments were systematically removed (and reportedly destroyed) by the Azerbaijani authorities. Nagorno-Karabakh had a 74% Armenian majority in 1979, but received no Armenian television broadcasts and had no Armenian institution of higher learning during Soviet rule.

To most Armenians, Karabakh was the most vital issue of the glasnost era. The Azerbaijani control of Karabakh represented the continuing subjugation of Armenians by Turks (as Armenians tend to see all Azeris as Turks) and ultimately would lead to calls for overarching political reform in the Soviet Union. Turkic nationalism has been a powerful force in Baku and has undoubtedly contributed to the conflict with the Armenians given the lingering historical enmity between Armenians and Turkey.

As early as 1974, the National Unity Party of Armenia was demanding that all Armenian lands be united (including those in Turkey and Azerbaijan). In 1987, Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh (dissidents known as the Karabakh Committee which was led by Levon Ter-Petrossian and became the National Democratic Union in Armenia in 1991) organized a petition drive and on February 28, 1988, the Karabakh Soviet of People's Deputies passed a resolution supporting the transfer of Karabakh to Armenian control. A million Armenians marched in Yerevan in support of the transfer and Gorbachev promised action on the issue.

Full scale war broke out in Nagorno-Karabakh in 1991 (INTERCON = 1) following riots (or pogroms, depending on one's view) in Baku, Sumgait and other Azerbaijani cities, in which hundreds of Armenians were killed and thousands made into refugees. Despite early setbacks, with heavy financial and military support from Armenia (and, to a lesser degree, from Russia) the Karabakhis succeeded in removing almost all Azeri influence (and all Azeris) from Nagorno-Karabakh. In 1994, a tentative cease-fire was reached after roughly 30,000 people had been killed in ferocious fighting, and hundreds of thousands had been displaced on both sides. The cease-fire agreement that theoretically terminated the Azeri-Armenian war was by no means a peace treaty, for tensions and rhetoric remain high on both sides, and the truce has been a number of times, with border incidents and other isolated skirmishes still an occasional feature in the region, resulting in deaths for both Azeris and Armenians (REB00-03 = 3; REP2001-03 = 1).

Today Nagorno-Karabakh is a de facto independent region run by ethnic Armenians with policies that favor their group ((POLDIS00 and ECDIS00 = 0). Demands from Armenians within Nagorno-Karabakh have consistently favored union with Armenia as well as outright independence (AUTGR200-03 = 1; AUTGR300-03 = 2). While the region is not contiguous with Armenia, it receives a tremendous amount of support from Armenian communities scattered throughout the world. Despite this support, however, the enclave is unable to attract foreign investment and its 150,000 residents live in severe poverty and deprivation, as well as continued isolation and insecurity (DMSICK00-03 = 2). Nagorno-Karabakh is one of the unfortunate regions of the former communist world that was probably better off when the Soviets were enforcing their rhetoric of a final interethnic solidarity. The fortunes of the Armenians in Azerbaijan are unlikely to improve until agreement is reached on the Karabakh issue, and given the stubborn nationalism on both sides, no such agreement seems imminent.

History of the Armenians and Azeris

The Armenians

The history of the Armenian people goes back approximately 3,000 years. "Historic" Armenia (the area traditionally inhabited and, for very brief periods of time, ruled by Armenians) encompasses the eastern-most part of Turkey, southern Georgia, Armenia, most of Azerbaijan and northwestern Iran -- approximately 100,000 square miles. It is uncertain whether the Armenian people were the original inhabitants of this area or were migrants from Europe and Mesopotamia. The Armenian language has developed from a very early form of Indo-European and the alphabet was developed around 400 A.D. largely out of fear of losing their Armenian identity after being partitioned by the Byzantine and Persian empires. The uniqueness of the alphabet and language along with the Armenian religion have allowed the Armenian culture to survive for 3,000 years in the face of nearly constant occupation and foreign rule.

In the third century A.D., the Armenian dynasty adopted Christianity in order to limit the influence of the Iranian resurgence of the Zoroastrian religion. This resulted in an invasion of Armenia and the destruction of their capital. Rome intervened on behalf of the Armenians leading to the eventual division and subjugation of Armenia to Rome (Byzantium) and Iran. The adoption and strong adherence to the Armenian Church has distinguished the Armenian people and has contributed both to their history of genocide at the hands of the Turks and to their close historical ties with Russia.

After repeated episodes of rebellion, independence and reconquest, the last of the Armenian kingdoms was conquered by the Arabs (Mamelukes) in 1375. The only remaining autonomous pockets of Armenians were in Karabakh (Karabagh) and Zangezour, both in eastern "historic" Armenia (present-day Azerbaijan and southern Armenia), and Sasun and Zeitun, both in western "historic" Armenia (present-day Turkey). Over the next four centuries, the Armenians emigrated in large numbers throughout Europe and central Asia (both voluntarily and by force).

In 1639, the Iranians and Ottomans partitioned "historic" Armenia into western, Turkish Armenia (about 2/3 of the Armenian lands) and eastern, Iranian Armenia (the remaining 1/3). This remained stable until the beginning of the 19th century when Russia (claiming its role as protector of Orthodox Christians) invaded and conquered eastern Armenia and made it part of Russia. Over the next century, Armenians in Russia came to fare much better than their brethren under Ottoman control. Armenians throughout the Transcaucasus came to wield considerable economic and political power. By 1878, they held ministerial posts and high ranking positions in the army of czarist Russia. They used this power to petition for Russia to press the Ottomans to improve the condition of Armenians in Turkey (who were mostly peasants). When their desires were frustrated by Great Power politics, they became politically active as a group for the first time.

The political mobilization of the Armenians angered the Russian authorities. One of the responses of the czarist officials was to provoke a conflict between the Armenians and their Azeri neighbors. From 1905 to 1907, the two sides fought openly in the "Tatar-Armenian" wars. Armenians under Turkish rule fared no better, 1915 brought what is known to all Armenians as the "Genocide." Between one and one and a half million Armenians are said to have died in executions and in a forced march from Turkey to Syria. This effectively wiped out the Armenian population of western "historic" Armenia.

Beginning in 1918, Armenia experienced a brief period of independence, but this ended in 1920 when the entire Transcaucasus region was invaded by the Soviets and incorporated into the Soviet Union. The Soviet authorities kept Karabakh and Ganja in Azerbaijan, and made Nakhichevan (traditionally a part of Persian Armenia) an Azerbaijani enclave. Most of the rest of "historical" Armenia (including Mount Ararat, one of the most important Armenian landmarks) was carved up between Georgia and Turkey. The area which eventually became the Armenian SSR was based on the administrative district of Erevan, an extremely backward and impoverished area. Most Armenian wealth was located in the cities of Tbilisi and Baku, thus Armenia became the smallest and least influential of the Soviet republics. Karabakh was given the status of an autonomous oblast and Nakhichevan was made an autonomous republic, both constituent to Azerbaijan.

Through Soviet rule, the Armenian economy was transformed from agriculture to industry and the Soviet authorities under Stalin made every attempt to break Armenian culture and heritage. Despite this, Armenian culture survived and prospered, 99% of ethnic Armenians listed Armenian as their primary language. Additionally, Armenia as a whole prospered, their per capita income was higher than that for the Soviet Union as a whole and 70% of Armenians were urban. As a result of their prosperity, despite the early hardships suffered under Stalin, Armenians continued to be very pro-Russian.

The Azeris

The people of Azerbaijan are composed of three subgroups, each of which maintains a strong sense of individual identity: the Airum (living mainly in western Azerbaijan), Padar (living mainly in eastern Azerbaijan) and the Shahseven (straddling the Iranian border). All of these subgroups speak various dialects of Azeri, a Turkic language. As of the early 1990s, only approximately six million of the 18 million Azeris living in the world, lived in Azerbaijan. Azeri culture is a result of the intermingling of Turkic and Persian cultures.

Persia dominated Azerbaijan culturally, if not politically, from the 6th century B.C. until the Turkic invasions of the 9th century A.D. The Turkic culture dominated Azerbaijan from the 9th to the 11th century A.D. except in the area of religion where Azerbaijanis adopted Shi'ism rather than the Sunni sect. Persia continued to influence the area politically and culturally through invasions and reconquest until it subsided as a great power. It regained control in the 11th century and did not relinquish control until the accession of Russian imperialism in the 18th century. Rural Azeris have since then identified more closely to Iran and their religious heritage than to Turkey and their linguistic heritage.

Peter the Great annexed the northern portion of Azerbaijan in 1724, but Persia regained it in 1736. Russia and Persia divided Azerbaijan by the treaties of Gulestan and Turkmanchai (1813 and 1828 respectively). Russian rule gave little to the Azerbaijanis as czarist policy was to extract the maximum from the land and people of Azerbaijan. Ethnic Azeris were a minority in Baku and held only menial jobs resulting in both ethnic and ideological resentment. Similar circumstances prevailed in the other urban centers of Azerbaijan. This led to Azerbaijan becoming an early center of Communist agitation and organization. With the fall of czarist control, Azerbaijanis became embroiled in ethnic and ideological conflicts with both Russians and Armenians as the targets of their frustrations.

While the Russians were embroiled in the civil war, the Azeris attempted to establish their independence. While both the Ottoman and Persian empires had designs on Azerbaijan in 1918, neither could act. By 1920, the Bolsheviks had consolidated their power sufficiently to invade Azerbaijan and without international support, Azerbaijan became a part of the USSR.

Under Stalin, political lines were drawn across ethnic lines as a tool for controlling the nationalist aspirations of the republics. Azerbaijan was drawn to include a strong ethnic Armenian enclave and to be separated from Nakhichevan by southern Armenia (Zangezour). Azeri nationalism was controlled also by lessening the influence of Islam. Through a literacy (education) program and the co-option of modernist Islamic leaders, Azerbaijani nationalism was held in check for decades. In addition to limiting Islam's influence, Soviet authorities pressed to assimilate Azeris to Russian culture. This was given the utmost importance due to the strong nationalist ideals, and the extreme importance of Azerbaijan's oil and cotton production to Soviet industrialization.

During World War II, Soviet expansionist aims sought to utilize the purported affluence of Soviet Azerbaijan to stoke Azerbaijani nationalism in northern Iran which it occupied for a time. These efforts failed as the Allied powers forced a Soviet withdrawal from northern Iran and Iranian authorities quickly re-established control despite Soviet attempts to the contrary.

The economic advances experienced by the Soviet Union were not universally shared. In fact, Azeris in general did not experience nearly the same increase in living standards that the Russians and Armenians living in urban Azerbaijan did. As a whole, Azerbaijan did not benefit as much as the majority of Soviet republics. The quickly growing Azeri population also created land pressures in Azerbaijan which has contributed to ethnic resentment against Armenians and Russians.

The nationalists in Azerbaijan organized around their Turkic heritage calling for unification of all Turkic peoples of the Soviet Union with Turkey. This brand of nationalism is said to have limited appeal to rural Azeris, especially in the south, where their Shi'ite religion has drawn them closer to Iran. However, Turkic nationalism is the leading force in Baku and has undoubtedly contributed to the conflict with the Armenians given the historical enmity between Armenians and Turkey (viz. the 1915 massacre and forced exodus of Armenians under the Ottomans).

References

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