In this region, names and history are as contested as the land itself. Azeris claim ‘Qarabaq’ as their cultural heartland, and point to the role of Şuşa (Shushi) in the growth of their literature and language. In Azeri accounts, the Christian inhabitants of Karabakh are descendants of the Christian nation of Albania (unrelated to the present-day state of Albania). Caucasian Albania lost independence after the Arab invasion in the 7th century, and most Albanians converted to Islam, while the remnants of the Albanian Church were usurped by the Armenian Church. Armenians agree that the Albanian Church was officially absorbed into the Armenian Church in the early 19th century, but argue that this was done at Russian prompting to sign off on a 1000-year-old reality. Certainly the locals say they’re culturally as Armenian as anyone, with 4000 churches, monasteries and forts on their hills to attest to this.
During the Middle Ages the region was under the control of Persia, with local rule in the hands of five Armenian princes known as Meliks. The Karabakh Khanate, with Panahabad (Shushi) as its capital, passed into Russian hands in 1805. During the 19th century many native Muslims left for Iran while Armenians from Iran emigrated to Karabakh.
Stalin separated Karabakh from Armenia in the 1920s and made it an autonomous region within Azerbaijan. The natural growth of the Azeri population outpaced growth of the Armenian one and Azeri settlers were moved to Armenian villages. By the 1980s the territory’s population was down to about 75% Armenian.
Demands to join Armenia grew in 1987–88, until the local assembly voted for independence from Azerbaijan in December 1989, and hostilities commenced. From 1989 to 1994 the area was racked by war, which, in its first stage, pitted the Karabakhtsis against overwhelming Azeri and Soviet forces. Grad antitank missiles fell on Stepanakert from Shushi until 1993, while bands of local men, organised into fedayeen (irregular soldier) units, scavenged for weapons and ranged them against the Soviet army. After the fall of the USSR, the war escalated into a heavily armed clash between Armenian troops and fedayeen commandos on one side and the Azeri army assisted by Turkish officers on the other. Soon after the Armenian capture of Shushi, the Azeri retreat turned into a rout. Two Azeri governments fell as a result, and Nagorno-Karabakh’s entire 50,000-strong Muslim population was forced to flee, joining 150,000 other Azeri refugees from Armenia. A ceasefire was declared in May 1994 and the territorial lines have remained constant since then. The war cost around 30,000 lives.
Since then the territory has struggled on, rebuilding as best it can.
Stepanakert, the self-proclaimed capital, is a town of about 55,000 with a parliament, presidential palace, ministries and a national museum. The local economy includes subsistence farmers and diaspora-funded projects such as the highway to Goris in southern Armenia. The North-South Hwy is currently being built along the spine of the territory, from Martakert in the north down to Karmir Shuka and Hadrut in the south. Tourism is minimal.
Visitors should be aware that because of the region’s disputed status, foreign embassy staff can’t visit the region. That said, if you stay away from the frontline areas and any military exercises it’s no less safe than Armenia. The front line traces along the edge of the hills of Karabakh, where they spread into the plains. The northern frontier is along the Mrav range, with 3724m Mt Gyamish. The occupied territories between Armenia, Karabakh and Iran are mostly empty, with only 25,000 or so settlers rebuilding among the overgrown villages and roofless walls of houses.
International negotiations have repeatedly failed but there are plenty of options on the table. The hope is that at some point an internationally recognised referendum can be held, but this would only be considered legitimate after the return of Azeri refugees who fled the region during the war. Armenia wants the referendum to be held as soon as possible, while Azerbaijan prefers a timetable of 15 to 20 years. Clearly there are issues to be sorted out.
Bako Sahakyan, Nagorno-Karabakh’s president, won his job with an 85% mandate in July 2007 elections. Running on a pro-independence platform, the win was also seen as a referendum for his cause. Despite Sahakyan’s lofty title, all political decisions and economic reforms are essentially handed down from Yerevan.