Armenians of Artsakh: An Indigenous Nation Targeted by Genocidal Regional Powers

Since 12 December 2022, Azerbaijan and its ally, Turkey, have blockaded the Armenian Republic of Artsakh (Nagorno-Karabakh) in an attempt to possess the region by forcing the Armenians to flee their native land. This blockade of the 120,000 Armenian Christians is reaching a critical juncture. Food and medicine are running out, and starvation is beginning to set in. Currently, there is no fuel — which has led to a complete transportation shutdown. The Armenians of Artsakh are thus being forced into submission to Azerbaijan through a policy of starvation.

Luis Moreno Ocampo, the founding prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC), has called the ongoing Azeri blockade against Artsakh “Armenian genocide 2023.”

Azerbaijan has a long history of ethnic cleansing Artsakh’s indigenous Armenian population.

In 1988, in response to self-determination requests by Artsakh’s Armenians, Soviet Azerbaijan conducted massacres and pogroms. In 1991, in response to Artsakh’s declaration of independence, Azerbaijan launched a violent war which carpet bombed Artsakh and destroyed much of Artsakh’s infrastructure. In 2020, Azerbaijan launched yet another attack against Artsakh in an attempt to seize the region, committing further war crimes by indiscriminately bombing civilian zones.

All of this genocidal violence is taking place, costing tens of thousands of lives, because of Azerbaijan’s obsessed hatred of Armenians and their regressive desire to possess Armenian lands.

Artsakh is located in the northeastern part of the Armenian highlands in the South Caucasus. Since ancient times, it has been a province of historical Armenia. Artsakh has never been part of independent Azerbaijan.

The Armenian sovereignty in Artsakh is historic and therefore legitimate. It should have international recognition and support in the face of ongoing Azeri genocidal violence.

The history of Artsakh as an Armenian entity dates back to approximately the 6th century B.C. Armenian King Tigran Mets (Tigran the Great) attached great significance to Artsakh and built the town of Tigranakert there. Artsakh was ruled under various Armenian monarchs, and even under Persian rulers. Nevertheless, Artsakh has always preserved its Armenian identity.

In the early 4th century A.D., Christianity spread in Artsakh. The creation of the Armenian alphabet by Mesrop Mashtots in the early 5th century led to a tremendous rise of culture in both Armenia and Artsakh. Mashtots also founded the first Armenian school in the monastery of Amaras in Artsakh — a testament to the fact that Artsakh is incredibly important and inseparable to Armenian cultural identity. Artsakh has thus been Armenian for millennia, yet it has been subject to an increase of Turkish and Azeri violence in recent decades.

Today, Azerbaijan falsely claims Artsakh as Azeri land chiefly because Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin, as part of the Soviet strategy of divide and conquer, decreed that Artsakh be part of Soviet Azerbaijan as an autonomous oblast although Armenia, one of the world’s first Christian countries, is incompatible with Azerbaijan, a nation of which the population is largely Muslim.

Not only are the two nations culturally incompatible, but they also have two distinct systems of governance — Artsakh being a democratic republic, which has had numerous leaders, free and fair elections, and respects the human rights of their citizenry — while Azerbaijan has been led by the same dictatorial family for 30 years, and boasts a notorious human rights record, even against their own citizens.

For the next 70 years, Soviet Azerbaijan exposed Artsakh to severe ethno-religious discrimination and economic persecution. These policies sought the elimination of the indigenous Armenian Christian majority and substituting it with Azerbaijani Muslim settlers.

The years 1918-1920 saw the Artsakh movement increasingly striving for independence. During this period, Armenians of Artsakh gathered nine national congresses to gain international recognition as a free, independent political entity.

On 22 July 1918, for instance, the first congress was summoned in Shoushi and proclaimed Artsakh an independent administrative-territorial entity and elected its national council. After the gathering of the Congress, however, Soviet Azerbaijan tried to seize Artsakh with the help of Turkish armed forces. 

Every time Armenians in Artsakh took a step or made a request to fulfill their right to self-determination, Soviet Azerbaijan (with the help of the Ottoman Turks and later the Turkish Republic) responded with military force and violence. On 15 September 1918, for instance, the Turkish armed forces entered Baku and massacred around 30,000 Armenians.

Massacres, blockades and ultimatums have for decades been used as tools by Azeri forces to try to subjugate Armenians and force them to accept Azeri sovereignty.

The aspiration of the Armenians of Artsakh to realize their right to self-determination was met with Azerbaijani pogroms which saw the brutal murder of Armenians and the plundering of their properties.

The objective of these pogroms was to terrorize the Armenians of Artsakh, forcing them to flee or submit although they had lived there for centuries and formed and constantly protected their national sovereignty essential to Armenian history.

The first victims of Azerbaijan’s policy to suppress the will of the people of Artsakh were the Armenians of the Azerbaijani city of Sumgait located several hundred kilometers away from Artsakh.

The pogroms in Sumgait lasted from 27-29 February 1988 in the Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republic. They took place during the early stages of the Artsakh independence movement. On 27 February 1988, Azeri mobs killed Armenians in the streets and even in their apartments, looting Armenian properties. A general lack of concern from Azeri police officers allowed the violence to continue for three days.

The second wave of the Armenian pogroms in Azerbaijan started in November 1988. The largest ones occurred in Kirovabad, Shamakhi, Shamkir, and Mingachevir. During the same period, in November and December 1988, Armenians were also displaced from the mountainous regions of Artsakh: Khanlar, Dashkesan, Shamkhor, Getabek and Kirovabad.

The pogroms, mass murders, looting, destruction of property and persecution of the Armenian population in Soviet Azerbaijan culminated with the eventual displacement of Armenians from Baku in January 1990. The pogroms against the Armenians in Baku were the last phase of a bloody ethnic cleansing campaign against Armenians.

The pogroms resulted in hundreds of deaths and the forced displacement of over 500,000 Armenians from Soviet Azerbaijan.

All this genocidal violence against Armenians was further justification for the independence of autonomous Artsakh from Soviet Azeri oppression.

After decades of the Armenian defense of their self-rule, the dissolution of the Soviet Union finally allowed Artsakh to break away from Baku’s oppression in 1988. And in 1991, Artsakh was able to re-establish itself as a free republic.

The referendum on Artsakh’s independence took place on 10 December 1991. Even on the day of the Referendum, however, Azeri forces fired at Stepanakert, the capital of Artsakh, and other Armenian locations. 10 civilians were killed and 11 were wounded.

Despite all the pressure, the Armenians of Artsakh voted with near-unanimous consent to declare their independence from Azerbaijan through the 1991 referendum.

The people of Artsakh thus declared their independence in 1991, consistent with their rights under the Declaration of International Law concerning Friendly Relations and Cooperation among States (1970) in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations. This was further verified in the legal system: in the same year (1991), two legally equal republics – Artsakh and Azerbaijan – were established as a result of the dissolution of the USSR (the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics).

Although Artsakh declared independence in line with international law, Azerbaijan launched a full-blown conflict against Artsakh, which came to be known as the “First Artsakh War”.  During the war, Azerbaijan committed many war crimes and abused human rights, including through the bombing and blockading of cities. Azeri forces targeted civilian populations and recruited terrorists from Chechnya and Afghanistan.

The war ended in 1994 with a cease-fire brokered by the newly formed Russian Federation. The ceasefire ensured Artsakh’s de facto independence from Azerbaijan and initiated a multilateral conflict resolution process under the auspices of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) ‘‘Minsk Group’’ co-chaired by Russia, the United States, and France.

The OSCE Minsk Group process determined to ensure a final resolution to the conflict based on the Helsinki Final Act (1975) principles of non-use of force, territorial integrity, and self-determination. Azerbaijan has never truly honored these principles.

Artsakh gained international recognition for the basis of its independence from many institutions, as well. On 11 May 1999, for instance, the European Parliament adopted a resolution which stated that Nagorno-Karabakh declared its independence immediately after similar declarations by Soviet Republics. 

However, Azeri violence against Armenians has never ended.

During the Four-Day War of in April 2016, in flagrant violation of the 1994 ceasefire agreement, Azerbaijan undertook a large-scale offensive against Artsakh, committing war crimes and violations of international humanitarian law against civilians and soldiers of Artsakh.

The Azerbaijani army shelled a school in Martuni region, as a result of which 12-year-old Vagharshak Grigoryan was killed and two children injured.

In the village of Talish of the Martakert Region, the Azerbaijani troops murdered an elderly Armenian couple and mutilated their bodies when the troops entered and took control over the village. The ears of these civilians were cut off.

According to the Foreign Affairs Ministry of Artsakh, the bodies of over twenty soldiers of the Artsakh Defense Army were also abused: their heads, wrists, fingers and ears were cut off. At least four Armenian soldiers were tortured while still alive. Posing with cut-off heads, the Azerbaijani soldiers demonstrated them to the residents of the nearby villages of Azerbaijan.

The State Commission on POWs [Prisoners of War], Hostages, and Missing Persons of Nagorno Karabakh announced that all bodies which were transferred to the Armenian side had been mutilated and treated inhumanely by the Azerbaijani side.

On 4 April 2016, it was reported that Azerbaijani forces decapitated a soldier from Artsakh of Yazidi origin, Kyaram Sloyan, 19. The video and pictures of his severed head later appeared on social networks. Azeri soldiers and civilians were shown holding Sloyan’s head as a military trophy and a sign of victory. The Azerbaijani officer who decapitated Sloyan then became a national hero in Azerbaijan, after that country’s president, Ilham Aliyev, awarded him a medal.

Later, reports appeared about two other beheaded soldiers of the Artsakh defense army. In all three cases, families later lodged an application before the European Court of Human Rights.

From 27 September to 10 November 2020, Artsakh was exposed to yet another genocidal assault at the hands of Azerbaijan and Turkey. The entire world watched while the aggressors committed many crimes and indiscriminately shelled the indigenous lands of Armenians.

Turkey also sent Azerbaijan mercenaries from Syria with known affiliations to Islamic radical groups. This was confirmed by a recent United Nations report, as well as by the testimonies of many Syrian mercenaries and reports by international media outlets.

Azerbaijani military forces perpetrated war crimes against Armenians. They murdered civiliansinjured journalists and targeted homes, forestshospitalschurches and cultural centers, among other non-military targets. They used white phosphorus and cluster munitions in violation of international law. At least 90,000 Armenians were forced to abandon their ancestral lands in Artsakh as a result.

The war finally halted after 45 days as a result of the Russia-brokered agreement imposed on Armenia.

However, Azeri military violence against Armenians has not ended.

Since December 12, 2022, Azerbaijan and its ally, Turkey, have blockaded Artsakh. Arman Tatoyan, the former Human Rights Defender of the Republic of Armenia, noted that since January 9 there has been no electricity in Artsakh. Since March 21, there has been no gas and since June 15, no humanitarian aid (including food).

The decades-long Azeri genocidal violence against Armenians is caused by two factors: Their hatred against Armenians in particular and against Christianity in general. And in an attempt to wipe out Armenians from the region, Azeri and Turkish forces committed pogroms, massacres, blockades, starvation and the 1915 Armenian genocide.

A second Armenian genocide is happening as we speak. We can see this reality play out even more so in the last 7 months as every day the Azerbaijani regime has gotten bolder — more brutal. They started the blockade under the guise of a protest, then installed a military checkpoint, then cut off all humanitarian aid, and now they have begun kidnapping Armenians. Their actions have only escalated because their barbarism has gone without response — leaving them with impunity to continue unimpeded as they try to ethnically cleanse the Armenian population of Artsakh out of existence.

Western governments who are purportedly committed to stopping crimes against humanity should urgently cut off their military aid to Azerbaijan, sanction Azeri political leaders and airlift aid over the blockade, because showing “deep concern” and “urging” Azerbaijan to stop, has not slowed them down. In fact, in the absence of punitive measures, it has only emboldened them.

*Gev Iskajyan is the Executive Director of the Armenian National Committee of Artsakh.

Uzay Bulut
Uzay Bulut
Uzay Bulut is a Turkish journalist and political analyst formerly based in Ankara. Her writings have appeared in The Washington Times, The American Conservative, The Christian Post, The Jerusalem Post, and Al-Ahram Weekly. Her work focuses mainly on human rights, Turkish politics and history, religious minorities in the Middle East, and antisemitism.