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Minorities At Risk Project: Home    

Assessment for Armenians in Azerbaijan

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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. Because the Nagorno-Karabakh issue is salient in both Armenian and Azeri politics, political leaders step up their nationalist rhetoric in preparation for elections.

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. A December 2006 referendum in Nagorno-Karabakh resulted in 98% of voters approving a new constitution and demanding sovereignty. 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. Continuing violent clashes on the Nagorno-Karabakh border, substantial political, military, and material support from the both the Armenian state and the diaspora, and the potential instability of the Azerbaijan government during democratization create a high risk of future protest.

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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 = 3). They are a Christian minority group in Islamic Azerbaijan BELIEF = 2) that has little in common culturally with the majority Azeris. Observers often note that the Armenians in Azerbaijan have an even higher group cohesion and pride than those in Armenia itself. .

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 (LANG = 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-Russia.

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 (INTERCON91 = 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; REB04-06 = 1).

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.

Today Nagorno-Karabakh is a de facto independent region run by ethnic Armenians with policies that favor their group ((POLDIS06 = 0). Demands from Armenians within Nagorno-Karabakh have consistently favored union with Armenia as well as outright independence (POLGR04-06 = 4). 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.. 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. Both the 2004 “Prague Process” and 2006 negotiations in Ramboillet, France failed to achieve any kind of agreement, despite high hopes for a settlement.

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References

Bremmer, Ian and Ray Taras, eds. Nations and Politics in the Soviet Successor States (NY: Cambridge University Press) 1993.

Fuller, Elizabeth. "Between Anarchy and Despotism." Transition (OMRI Special Issue, 1994 In Review, Part II) pp. 60 - 65.

____. "The Karabakh Mediation Process: Grashev versus the CSCE?" RFE / RL Research Reports (10 June 1994) Vol. 3 (23): 13 - 17.

____. "Russia, Turkey, Iran and the Karabakh Mediation Process." RFE / RL Research Reports (25 February 1994) Vol. 3 (8): 31 - 36.

Hovannisian, Richard G. "Historical Memory and Foreign Relations: The Armenian Perspective." Paper presented at the Russian Littoral Project Conference, "The Influence of History on Russian Foreign Policies of Central Asia and the Caucasus" May 1993, Paper No. 7.

Lexis-Nexis Reports 1990-2006

Monitor. A daily digest published by the Jamestown Foundation.

Olson, James S. ed. An Ethnohistorical Dictionary of the Russian and Soviet Empires (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press) 1994.

Open Media Research Institute. Daily Reports.

Prism. A weekly electronic journal published by the Jamestown Foundation.

Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty. Daily Reports (1993-2006).

"Report on Ethnic Conflict in the Russian Federation and Transcaucasia." From the Strengthening Democratic Institutions Project at the John F. Kennedy School of Government (July 1993).

Richter, Anthony. "The Perils of 'Sustainable Empire." Transition (OMRI 15 March 1995) Vol. 1 (3): 14 - 15.

Smith, Graham, ed. The Nationalities Question in the Soviet Union (New York: The Longman Group) 1990.

Swietochowski, Tadeusz. "Azerbaijan: A Borderland at the Crossroads of History." Paper presented at the Russian Littoral Project Conference, "The Influence of History on Russian Foreign Policies of Central Asia and the Caucasus" May 1993, Paper No. 8.

TransCaucasus: A Chronology (A publication of the Armenian National Committee of America) Vols. 1 - 4 (1992 - 1995).

United Nations Information Service release on Azerbaijan. Accesses via the United Nations Home Page on the World Wide Web.

United States Committee for Refugees. 1995 World Refugee Survey. pages 124 and 126.

U. S. State Department. Human Rights Report: Armenia. 1994, 1995, 2001-2006.

U. S. State Department. Human Rights Report: Azerbaijan. 1994, 1995, 2001-2006.

Young, Stephen, Ronald J. Bee and Bruce Seymore II. One Nation Becomes Many: The ACCESS Guide to the Former Soviet Union (Washington, DC: ACCESS) 1992.

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Information current as of December 31, 2006