Azerbaijanis and the Muslim-dominated Azeri local government did not respect the autonomous status of Nagorno-Karabakh, and Armenians (who are Christian) in the enclave experienced discrimination and the suppression of their cultural traditions. As Armenians left the region, their majority gradually declined from 96 percent in 1926 to 76 percent in 1979, or by approximately 123,000 people. On 20 February 1988, a group of Armenian nationalists responded to growing uncertainty in the Soviet Union by publicly calling for the transfer of Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia. The Azeri government responded with an attack on Armenian residents in Sumgait, a town outside the Azerbaijani capital of Baku. When Armenians demonstrated their solidarity with the victims by organizing protests in Yerevan and in Stepanakert (now Xankändi), the principal town of Nagorno-Karabakh, the Azeris responded with more anti-Armenian violence. On 12 July 1988, an assembly in Nagorno-Karabakh voted to secede and join Armenia. The Armenians feared that if the Soviet Union disintegrated, they would have no political or economic future in a nationalist Azerbaijan.
In January 1989, Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev attempted to deal with the crisis by replacing Azeri control over the enclave with direct control from Moscow. When the Azeris responded with a rail and road blockade of the region and Armenia, however, he backed down. Gorbachev's vacillation served only to provoke the Armenians of the enclave. After Armenia declared its independence in September 1991, a referendum on independence was held in Nagorno-Karabakh. On 10 December 1991, 82 percent of the enclave's eligible voters went to the polls, and of those 99 percent voted for independence. For the Armenian residents of Nagorno-Karabakh, the 2 January 1992 declaration of independence was meant to be a step toward eventual amalgamation with Armenia.
The response of Azeri President Ayaz Mutalibov was to proclaim direct control of the enclave and send in a military force, which surrounded and bombarded Stepanakert. Karabakh Armenians, claiming that they had no assistance from Armenia proper, formed self-defense forces and drove the Azeri army back. In the process the Armenians took control of the Lachin Strip, which gave them road contact with Armenia proper. When the Azeri Army recovered and again bombarded Stepanakert, the Karabakh Armenians established close contact with the Armenian government headed by Levon Ter-Petrossian. With aid from Armenia and the Armenian diaspora, the Armenians went on the offensive. During October 1992–September 1993, the Armenians drove the Azeri Army out of the enclave and went on to occupy an additional 3,400 square miles of Azeri territory. Hundreds of thousands of Azeris fled the advancing Armenians, and Azerbaijan was thrown into political turmoil.
In September 1993, Turkey and Iran sponsored a successful United Nations (UN) resolution demanding that the Armenians withdraw from Azeri territory. The Armenians ignored the resolution and temporarily pushed almost to the Iranian frontier. An Azeri offensive in December 1993 succeeded in regaining some of the lost territory, but the Armenians remained in control of Nagorno-Karabakh. Finally, in May 1994, through the mediation of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), a fragile cease-fire was signed by representatives of Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Nagorno-Karabakh. It is estimated that during 1988–1994, the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict cost some 18,000 lives. Another 25,000 people were wounded, and approximately a million Azeris were displaced from their homes.
Despite efforts on the part of the OSCE to mediate, a tense standoff continued. When Ter-Petrossian, attempting to end the crisis, announced that Nagorno-Karabakh could expect neither to join Armenia nor to become independent, he was removed from office in February 1998 and was replaced by Robert Kocharian, the Armenian prime minister and a native of Nagorno-Karabakh. The president of Azerbaijan, Haydar Aliyev, and Kocharian met more than twenty times during 2000–2003, but a permanent settlement of the crisis proved elusive. Despite the protests of Russia, Azerbaijan, and the European Union (EU), Arkady Gukasyan, a staunch proponent of Nagorno-Karabakh independence, was reelected president of the enclave in August 2002 by 90 percent of the Karabakh voters.
Goldenberg, Suzanne. Pride of Small Nations: The Caucasus and Post-Soviet Disorder. London: Zed, 1994.