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First Nagorno-Karabakh War facts for kids

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Detailed ethnic map of Nagorno-Karabakh before the First Karabakh War
The cities and villages inside Nagorno-Karabakh before February 1988.
Location Nagorno-Karabakh en
The border of the Nagorno-Karabakh region after the First Nagorno-Karabakh War. Armenian forces of Nagorno-Karabakh controlled the areas colored in light yellow which were 17% of Azerbaijan's territory. The borders changed very little between 1994 and 2020, until the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh War started.

The First Nagorno-Karabakh War was a war that had happened since February 1988 until May 1994, over the small ethnic enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh in southwestern Azerbaijan, between the mostly ethnic Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh backed by Armenia and Azerbaijan. The war originates from 1918, when the World War I came to an end and the Ottoman Empire collapsed into independent states including Armenia and Azerbaijan, while the region was recognized as part of Azerbaijan. Since then, Armenia has claimed it; Armenians have made many efforts to unify the region, although Azerbaijanis also have worked to protect their sovereignty as well as national identity.

In February 1988, the war finally started, during the course of which both Armenia and Azerbaijan had utilized the legislatures to legitimize themselves while both caused pogroms as well as massacres against each other, with territorial loss of both sides alternated. Furthermore, the Soviet Union, before its collapse in 1991, and Russia had been involved with this Nagorno-Karabakh War, which had an impact on the fate of the war. The estimated death toll of the entire war is more than 30,000 on both sides.

Not only Moscow but also European countries, the neighboring countries of both Armenia and Azerbaijan, the United Nations, as well as the United States, had made a variety of efforts to make a ceasefire come true. However, there were conflicting interests among them and Nagorno-Karabakh itself therefore was not the most urgent matter for them.

In the end, the war ended with a Russian-brokered ceasefire that had been in effect since midnight on 11 and 12 May 1994 until April 2 2016.

Before the War Erupted

In 1918, after the World War I as well as the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, Armenia and Azerbaijan became independent, both of which claimed Nagorno-Karabakh. Consequently, the region was admitted as territory of the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic of 1918-1920 at the Versailles Peace Conference. In the early 1920s, the South Caucasus countries got annexed by the Soviet Union, whose Caucasus Bureau of the Central Committee of the Russian Communist Party of the Bolsheviks made Nagorno-Karabakh remain under the Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republic. In 1923, the region was accorded the autonomous status as the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast.

However, Armenia claimed that Armenians living in Nagorno-Karabakh endured discrimination by Azerbaijanis, who also neglected the region, although the living standard there was high, compared with other mountainous regions in the Soviet Union. On 13 February 1988, Karabakh Armenians held a political rally in the Lenin Square in Yerevan, joined by several hundred people, and called for the affiliation of the region to Armenia. This political rally was held at the same time when a delegation of Karabakh Armenian artists and writers who visited and petitioned Moscow returned. Those demonstrators chanted "Unity!" in Armenian ("Miatsum!"), which was a single-word slogan of their campaign. This incident intensified antagonism among Azerbaijanis living in Nagorno-Karabakh, which accounted for about 25% of the population, and Azerbaijani residents of Shusha, which is a neighboring town of Stepanakert and 90% of the town's total population were Azerbaijanis, started to establish counter-protests.

A week later on 20 February 1988, the Regional Soviet of Nagorno-Karabakh held an emergency session, in spite of the failed efforts by Boris Kevorkov, who was the leader of the Armenian Party and still loyal to Azerbaijan, and Kameran Bagirov, the first secretary of the Communist Party of Azerbaijan, to prevent the emergency session from taking place. Consequently, it adopted the resolution to place the region under the Armenian sovereignty; 110 Armenian deputies voted for this resolution while the Azerbaijani deputies did not vote.

Then the Azerbaijan SSR as well as the Soviet Union condemned this decision. According to Erick Melander's "The Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict Revisited: Was the War Inevitable?” (2001), the Soviet Union was concerned that similar desires would emerge and resultant disruptions would prevail in other parts within the state. With regard to this, Thomas de Waal reveals in "Armenia and Azerbaijan through Peace and War" (2013) that the Soviet Union had nineteen potential territorial disputes and Mikhail Gorbachev did not want to make concession to any of those since it would provide a precedent to energize such territorial conflicts. Gorbachev decided to intervene the affairs of Nagorno-Karabakh and sent a large delegation to the region. The Moscow delegation replaced Kevorkov with his deputy, Genrikh Pogosian, who, however, started to support the unification with Armenia because of greater respect he enjoyed from the Armenians living in the region.

Armenian Unification Efforts

Long before 1988 but especially in the late 1980s, the Armenian Soviet Socialist Republic had tried to put Nagorno-Karabakh under its sovereignty. Armenians sent letters and petitions to Moscow to make the unification come true, no matter when a political change happened there. According to Thomas de Waal's book "Armenia and Azerbaijan through Peace and War" (2013), on 3 March 1988, Gorbachev pointed out that the Politburo had failed to acknowledge such Armenian efforts as possible threats, saying "The Central Committee received five hundred letters in the last three years on the question of Nagorno-Karabakh. Who paid any attention to this?"

The latest unification effort by Armenians previous to 1988, however, was unique in that the major organizers were Karabakh Armenians who lived outside Nagorno-Karabakh in cities such as Moscow, Yerevan and Tashkent, although its predecessors were mobilized from inside the region. One of those organizers was Igor Muradian. He brought a letter to Moscow in February 1986, which he persuaded nine members and scientists of the Soviet Armenian Communist Party to sign. Furthermore, with support from Karen Demirchian, who was the leader of the Armenian Communist Party, he tried to discredit Heidar Aliev, who was an Azerbaijani politician as well as a full member of the Politburo and most likely to disrupt the unification campaign in their view.

Muradian also worked as a subversive. He got in touch with members of the Dashnaktsutiun Party (the Dashnaks) in underground cells that they have in Yerevan and abroad. The illegal Armenian nationalist party helped the unification activists to obtain small arms from abroad and form paramilitary groups in Nagorno-Karabakh.

In order to legitimize their campaign, those activists adopted what they called a referendum on unification, as well. They visited farms and factories across Nagorno-Karabakh to gather signatures for it. In August 1987, this work culminated in a huge petition with more than seventy five thousand signatures from the people in the region as well as Armenia. It was sent to Moscow; then the Karabakh Armenians dispatched two delegations to the Soviet capital and appealed to the Central Committee.

There were other Armenians who lobbied abroad. For instance, on 16 November 1987, Abel Aganbekian, who was a Gorbachev's main economic adviser, stated in front of French Armenians in Paris that Nagorno-Karabakh had "greater links with Armenia than with Azerbaijan." Then L'Humanité, the French Communist Party's newspaper which was accessible in the Soviet Union, reported on his views and because of his position as a Gorbachev's adviser and Armenian nationality, many Azerbaijanis thought that Gorbachev was supporting Armenians.

Those Azerbaijanis, however, were wrong since Gorbachev did not back Aganbekian and after all, the Armenian lobbying efforts in Moscow could not change the Politburo's mind.

Although those Armenian activists were not going to obtain support from Gorbachev and the Politburo, they mobilized a huge number of people to the streets. On 20 February 1988, slightly before the Regional Soviet held the emergency session in Stepankert, 30,000 people took to the streets in Theater Square in Yerevan. Two days later, the number of protestors reached more than 100,000; it is estimated that 300,000 gathered on 23 February, which led to a transport strike declaration in Yerevan. On 25 February, perhaps almost a million people demonstrated on the streets in Yerevan.

Counter-measures by Azerbaijanis

Azerbaijanis did not overlook those Armenian efforts, though Azerbaijani nationalist movement had not been well-organized until even later. Seven days after the Armenian political rally that started on 13 February 1988, they formed their first political protest. Students, workers, and intellectuals marched down to the Supreme Soviet of the Azerbaijan SSR with placards showing that Nagorno-Karabakh was a part of Azerbaijan. For Azerbaijanis, Armenians were trying to destroy their own republic as well as national identity.

Azerbaijani historians were also among the first to take a counter-measure. Bakhtiar Vahabzade, who was a poet, and Suleiman Aliarov, who was a historian, claimed in the journal Azerbaijan that Nagorno-Karabakh was historically a part of Azerbaijan, that Armenian unification efforts were based on an irredentist tradition and that Azerbaijani people were the victims. This counterargument, however, did not reach Moscow.

Onset of the War

On 22 February, two days after the Regional Soviet of Nagorno-Karabakh issued the resolution, protests happened in Aghdam, from where angry protestors headed to Stepanakert. On the way they clashed policemen as well as Armenian villagers in the Armenian village, Askeran.

The situation was getting worse especially after 20 February 1988. Azerbaijanis who lived in the Kafan District in southern Armenia started to flee; many of them were injured from beatings and fights although no official reports of deaths were published, and rushed to their relatives in Baku.

Six days after the Regional Soviet decided to allow Nagorno-Karabakh to leave the Azerbaijan SSR, a group of forty or fifty people who were mobilized by some of the Azerbaijani refugees protested in the Lenin Square in Sumgait. The next day the demonstration culminated in several hundred people and in the evening, incidents of violence were confirmed. The local police consisted of a huge majority of Azerbaijanis and it did not function at all when violence occurred.

The protest in Sumgait finally turned into pogroms. The rioters were roaming and looking for Armenians to attack while they destroyed windows and things, stole expensive things from houses and put automobiles on fire.

The situation in Sumgait started to calm down on 29 February thanks to a military regiment and a curfew deployed by the Soviet Union. Consequently, by the end of the day, the official number of casualties reached thirty two, twenty six Armenians and six Azerbaijanis, and over four hundred men were arrested. Furthermore, almost all the Armenians who lived in the city, 14,000, left while thousands of Armenians living across Azerbaijan left their places, as well.

Escalating War

Gorbachev and the Politburo had made efforts for both the Armenian SSR and the Azerbaijan SSR to arrive at compromise over Nagorno-Karabakh, all of which, however, failed in the end. In May 1988, Pogosian rejected the compromise plan that gives the region the status of Autonomous Republic with some privileges such as its own government and constitution, while it remains under the Azerbaijani sovereignty.

Then, on 15 June, the Supreme Soviet of Armenia issued a resolution that approved the unification of Nagorno-Karabakh. Two days later, the Supreme Soviet of Azerbaijan reemphasized that the region is a part of their sovereignty, by adopting a counter-resolution. The Regional Soviet in Stepanakert finally decided to annex the region unilaterally and rename it the Artsakh Armenian Autonomous Region. However, on July 18, the Supreme Soviet of the USSR was met in Moscow, which reaffirmed that Nagorno-Karabakh was within the Azerbaijani sovereignty. In other words, the unification of Nagorno-Karabakh was rejected by the Azerbaijan SSR as well as Gorvachev.

By the end of the year, all the Azerbaijanis who had remained in Armenia were being expelled, while in the Armenian countryside, dozens of villages were abandoned by the deported; Armenian gangs attacked Azerbaijani villages where many residents had to see their houses burned, and escape on foot.

On-site in Nagorno-Karabakh

Armenians living in the region accounted for approximately 75% of the total population; they protested against the Azerbaijanis by sheer force of numbers. The Armenians attacked buses and trucks that brought goods to Shusha, while in Stepanakert, Azerbaijani workers were fired. They even prevented Azerbaijani shepherds from bringing back a flock of sheep from their summer pastures. According to Thomas de Waal, when hearing of this incident, Arkady Volsky, who had worked in the region as the representative of the Politburo, said "Sheep have no national ambitions."

On the other hand, the Azerbaijanis took advantage of the enclave's location, which was within the Azerbaijani territory. The transportation of goods to Spepanakert, for instance, was disrupted by them.

In September 1988, around Khojaly, a convoy of Soviet Union's soldiers and Armenian civilians were transporting goods to Stepanakert. Azerbaijani people attacked them, which made some angry armed Armenians storm the village and its Azerbaijani residents; two of the Soviet soldiers were confirmed dead. As a consequence, a minority of Armenians in Shusha all left while in Stepanakert, the Azerbaijani residents were deported.

In the summer of 1989, Azerbaijanis went further; while almost ninety percent of railways in Armenia came from Azerbaijan, they blocked all the railways to Armenia. Because of this blockade, petrol and food were lacking in Armenia.

In January the same year, Volsky-led Committee of Special Administration for Nagorny Karabakh banned political activities and installed military troops to maintain order in the region. However, on 16 August, the Armenians there formed a National Council that consisted of seventy nine members and it declared that it was controlling Nagorno-Karabakh. The Armenian Supreme Soviet, together with the National Council, adopted a resolution which confirmed the region's unification and gave the residents citizenship of the Armenian SSR.

Black January

In this way, contrary to the rejection by the Azerbaijan SSR and the Soviet Union, the Armenian SSR started to establish their own political structures in Nagorno-Karabakh. On 9 January 1990, the Armenian parliament decided to control the region under its budget system, which angered Azerbaijanis and both sides fought each other in the villages in Khanlar and Shaumian regions; consequently, four Russian soldiers dispatched by Soviet Union died.

On 13 January, violence against Armenians happened in Baku; as a result, some ninety Armenians died during the Baku pogroms and thousands of surviving Armenians escaped from the city. Facing the chaos there, Gorbachev finally ordered to send the army to the city on the night of 19 and 20 January, when a massacre of the Bakuvians, known as Black January, happened.

Internationalized War

On 19 August 1991, a coup d'état happened in Moscow and Gorbachev was removed from power, but temporarily. Three days later, he restored power while the betrayers were put in jail. However, this political chaos in Moscow demoralized the Soviet Union army deployed in Nagorno-Karabakh, which now became leaderless.

The chaos also helped the two Union Republics, the Armenian SSR and the Azerbaijan SSR, go further toward independence from the Soviet Union. On 30 August 1991, Azerbaijani independence was declared while on 21 September, a referendum was held in Armenia, where 95% of the citizens supported its independence.

Although the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh had been one of the internal affairs that the Soviet Union had, after their independence, it became a territorial dispute between the two independent countries. On 2 September 1991, the Regional Soviet in Stepanakert declared that Nagorno-Karabakh became independent as Nagorno Karabakh Republic.

As the situation was escalating, the neighboring countries mediated a peace agreement between Republic of Armenia and Republic of Azerbaijan; Boris Yeltsin visited Stepanakert in September 1991 with the then Kazakh President, Nursultan Nazarbayev, and what is called Zheleznovodsk declaration was adopted. However, on 20 November in Martuni, Vagif Jafarov, who was the head of Shusha, as well as Russian and Kazakh officials who were in charge of the implementation of the peace agreement, were killed in a helicopter crash that was caused by Armenian fighters. In response, the Azerbaijani National Council declared on 26 November that Nagorno-Karabakh was under the Azerbaijani sovereignty and that Stepanakert was now Khankendi, although Armenians in the region held a referendum on 10 December with support from Armenia; 108,615 people voted for the region's independence, while there were no Azerbaijanis voting.

Last Phase of the War

In August 1993, Serzh Sarkisian, who was from Nagorno-Karabakh, became the Defense Minister of Armenia, which mobilized Armenian soldiers from not only the region alone but also Armenia. On the other hand, Azerbaijan gathered almost twenty five hundred Afghan mujahadin fighters.

Then in December, the war was re-intensified. The consequence of the winter between late 1993 and early 1994, however, was an estimated number of those who were killed, four thousand on the Azerbaijani side and two thousand on the Armenian side, with only small pieces of Azerbaijani territory in the north and south of Nagorno-Karabakh regained.

Ceasefire Agreed

On 4 and 5 May 1994, parliamentary delegations from the CIS countries including Armenia and Azerbaijan, held a meeting in Bishkek where Karen Baburian, who was the representative of the parliament in Nagorno-Karabakh, was also invited. There what is called the Bishkek Protocol, which urged all the parties in the region to implement a ceasefire from midnight on 8 and 9 May, was signed by Vladimir Kazimirov, the Russian envoy, and the Armenians. However, the Azerbaijani delegation did not since they had not yet obtained the approval of Aliev, who was the then President of Azerbaijan.

In the end, on 9 May, Mamedrafi Mamedov, who was the Azerbaijani Defense Minister, signed; the next day, his Armenian counterpart Sarkisian did in Yerevan, as well. On 11, Samvel Babayan, who was the Karabakh Armenian commander, gave consent in Stepanakert and finally at midnight on 11 and 12, the ceasefire was put into effect.

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Kids robot.svg In Spanish: Primera guerra del Alto Karabaj para niños

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