Nagorno-Karabakh conflict analysis: structural and proximate causes

Nagorno-Karabakh is a wound that cyclically bleeds in the former territory of the Soviet Union. However, Azerbaijanis and Armenians have been getting along for almost their entire existence. In fact, mutual grudges are quite recent. This brief conflict analysis helps to understand why these ones arose in the first place.

Twenty-eight years after the 1994 Bishkek signed cease-fire, it has still not been devised a decisive solution capable of pacifying the self-proclaimed Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh, which is a territory located in the South Caucasus, internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan but claimed, inhabited and ruled by ethnic Armenians. It is the battleground of one of the world’s longest-lasting conflicts, of one of the riskiest wars for international security given that there are multiple interests in the area (the Russian, Turkish and Iranian ones but also the Western ones), and of the longest-running one ever in the territory of the former Soviet Union. Although some writers place it in the “frozen conflicts” category, the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict is still alive and causes about forty annual deaths and moments of high international tension due to countless violations of ceasefires agreed upon over the course of these last thirty years.
Indeed, in September of this year, hostilities inflamed once again the atmosphere with artillery and drone strikes. Last time the bombing did not affect the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh. In fact, it was an out-and-out armed aggression against a sovereign state. By taking advantage of Russian distraction due to the war in Ukraine[1], Baku attacked Armenian villages located on the border. Fortunately, the conflict did not experience a bloody escalation like the one that occurred two years earlier; in 2020, the dispute turned into a hot war causing more than 6,000 deaths and encouraging regional powers to enter the fray, while the world was busy with the Covid-19 pandemic. A similar situation had already occurred in 2016. During that Four-Day War, a specific village, Talish, was bombed. It was a place from which the inhabitants succeeded in running away in time so in that circumstance a low death toll was recorded. Unfortunately, the war total death toll reaches 30,000 deaths[2] if we count it from 1988, year when the conflict started, not to mention tons of people displaced, destroyed villages and war crimes committed.  But all this for what? Which causes had brought this conflict to life?

Fragments of history

First, it should be made clear that religion has nothing to do with the growing antagonism between the two ethnic groups. It is not Muslims and Christians who fight each other. Of course, the Azerbaijanis are destroying Armenian khachkars and monasteries[3], but this is happening only with the purpose of eliminating historical traces of the past Armenian presence in the territory. Even the greed and grievance theory of P. Collier and A. Hoeffler cannot explain the genesis of the conflict. In fact, Transcaucasian history shows that Azerbaijanis and Armenians have been getting along for almost their entire existence. The mutual grudges are quite recent. The one who planted the seed of discord was the actor who established in the Transcaucasus region in the first half of the 19th century, the Tsarist Empire. Through the signing of the Treaty of Turkmenchay, which included special clauses providing for the repatriation of Armenians[4] to the Georgian and Azerbaijani khanates, sultanates, principalities and kingdoms, especially in Yerevan and Karabakh, the ethno-demographic balance in the region began to falter. Then, the arrival of more Armenians after the Crimean War, after the 1877 conflict against the Ottoman neighbor, and after the 1915 Armenian genocide triggered the completely devastation of that balance.

Already in 1905 and in 1918, the region was the dramatic scene of two brutal civil wars. The first was not an ethnic one but a class-based one; Azerbaijanis revolted against the economic and social superiority enjoyed by Armenians, who were the second ethnic group favored by the tsarist regional policy of divide and rule as well as Georgians. Even when Baku became a prosperous oil producer in the early twentieth century – in fact, the city started to offset 51 percent of the world’s oil needs[5] – Azerbaijani workers were victims of a discriminatory situation. They got less skilled and low-paid jobs than Armenians (and Russians) who occupied powerful managerial positions; just think that in 1905 although they accounted for only 17.5 percent of all workers in Baku, Armenians got 25 percent of highly skilled and well-paid jobs[6].

The second civil war must be considered from the perspective of the chaos provoked by the fall of the Tsarist Empire, which caused cheering stadium from both sides; on one hand, there were Azerbaijanis who supported the Turkish advance in the region, and on the other hand, there were Armenians who rejoiced in the imminent Bolshevik conquest. This happened after the dissolution of the Tsarist Empire with the October Revolution of 1917 and also after Karabakh had appointed its own national council. The territory was not considered as an autonomous entity; in fact, it was disputed between Yerevan and Baku. Both actors found themselves independent and as a consequence they interfaced with the issue of border demarcation for the first time after three hundred years of foreign domination. At that time, the diplomatic way to resolve the dispute failed. Later, when communist rule was established in the region, Nagorno-Karabakh was assigned to the Azerbaijani Soviet Socialist Republic as an autonomous Oblast. So, from now on, the assimilation with Armenia, or at least the separation from Azerbaijan, were the subjects of repeated petitions by the Karabakhi people to Leningrad. Unfortunately, the issue was constantly shelved and suppressed by the communist regime, and it only exploded in 1988, during Gorbachev’s era of glasnost’ and perestrojka.

After the umpteenth request by the Soviet of the Nagorno-Karabakh Oblast for unification with the Armenian Soviet Socialist Republic, on February 20 Gorbachev announced that the border between the two republics would not have changed because «if the Kremlin approved it, it would risk not only antagonizing the Azerbaijdžans, but also fueling other claims of redrawing contested borders between the republics»[7]. The Sumqayıt tragedy in response to Ağdam killings – two events that demonstrated how interethnic violence was spreading – did not block the Soviet leader’s decision, which, on the contrary, was confirmed on March 23 when the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR met in Moscow.  For Baku it was a confirmation of full Azerbaijani sovereignty over Nagorno-Karabakh, while for Yerevan it was a new demonstration of the Politburo’s closure to its legitimate territorial aspirations. On that occasion, Gorbachev also launched a measure to support Armenian communities in Nagorno-Karabakh, which included a public funding of about 400 million rubles[8] for TV programs and textbooks in the Armenian language in order to counterbalance Azerbaijani discriminatory policies. This turned Azerbaijanis’ noses up and was not enough to appease the Armenian mood. Based on the above, it is clear that this was the year when the crisis entered a new, more unstable, dangerous and violent phase. Indeed, after the Xocalı/ Ivanian trigger on the night of February 25-26 in 1992, the war exploded.

Such an explosion, which occurred only forty years after the outbreak of world war II, shocked Europe again. The West observed with concern the power of nationalism emerged with full political force during the events of February of that year. But what happened should not have taken anyone by surprise: given the political structure in which the counterparts had lived and interacted for more than seven decades, it was predictable that, sooner or later, the contentious Nagorno-Karabakh issue would erupt. Such a system, like the Soviet one, unintentionally created ethnic nationalisms, which generated hate narratives legitimized by the brutality of the clashes mentioned earlier, those of 1905 and 1918, plus that one that would happen in 1988, in order to foment those nationalisms. Moreover, it should be considered that the Nagorno-Karabakh territorial dispute was not just a regular one: it was and still is centered on an area without which the Armenians do not feel to be who they really are and the Azeris as well. Identity is mixed with prestige.

Structural causes

The Soviet Union was defined in 1993 by scholar Ronald Grigor Suny as an incubator of new nations. And indeed, the 1920s policy of nationalities had the intent to promote their development, not to annihilate it. At least in the Caucasus. This was because, in Marxist terms, social relations of many local realities still had typically feudal characters; cities, such as Baku, Vladikavkaz, Groznyi and Stavropol constituted urban islands within a larger peasant-tribal sea. Therefore, the Bolsheviks, who were guided by a genuine faith in the Marxist dialectic, and who were conscious that the Caucasus was still too backward to reach the socialist step in the short term, tried to strengthen national identities with certain measures[9] by considering that as a transitional phase toward a communist future, which, however, never came. The ethno-territorialization was one of those measures. Well, yes, the Soviets territorialized ethnicity by creating a pyramid of autonomous entities from the largest republics to smaller territories, the smallest one was the size of a single village, whose boundaries were real ethnic and political borders[10]. Even if in this analysis it is not relevant, it is worth noting that although the state was formally federally organized, the Communist Party was absolutely centralized and made every decision for the entire Union from Moscow.

According to Soviet theory, creating small sub-national soviets within which each ethnic minority would decree for itself and have the last word (or the penultimate word after Moscow), without the risk of assimilation, would have solved the clashes arising from such a large regional ethnic mosaic. Assimilation with the parent state (using Tomáš Hoch and Vincenc Kopeček’s definition[11]) was not a plausible choice for the Bolshevik government as it had the potential to trigger a mechanism of defensive nationalism which would cause a conflict[12]. This was the theory. In practice, the opposite occurred.

First, tons of national boundaries forced every village and individual to declare national loyalty. Being Ossetian, Abkhazian, Azerbaijani, Armenian, or Georgian acquired deep meaning for the first time. Mainly because there was a hierarchy of nations. The Armenians were at the top as Georgians because they were considered advanced along with the Russians, Ukrainians, Jews and Germans, while the Azeris were placed at a lower rung because they were considered as developing nation. This meant that, as in tsarist Russia, while the former could advance rapidly up the social ladder, the latter had to settle for marginal positions[13].

Second, such an ethno-territorializing policy entailed the emergence of local legislative, executive, and party institutions. In fact, in the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast, a well-organized political-administrative structure came into being; the main authority was the regional Soviet, which elected an Executive Committee, whose chairman was the leader[14]. It was exactly the Nagorno-Karabakh Regional Soviet that in 1988 passed the resolution which called for the transfer from the jurisdiction of the Soviet Socialist Republic of Azerbaijan to that one of the Soviet Socialist Republic of Armenia. So, these nascent institutions were able to forge political leaders capable of advancing their own demands and claims.

Proximate causes

Conflicts never have only one cause[15]: multiple are those that originate it and multiple are those that drive it. This is the first distinction that need to be made during a conflict analysis, the one between structural and proximate causes. What is visible of a conflict, or rather what is manifest, is only the tip of the iceberg, while the most submerged part is impossible to see at first glance. This part, in fact, symbolizes the structural causes, which are difficult to identify without an in-depth analysis. These ones are long-term and systemic causes, rooted in the structure of a society. The others, on the other hand, are the newest and more volatile ones, those that do not generate the conflict but overlap with the primordial causes and complicate it.

Applying this discourse to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, it emerged in the previous section that it was the Soviet authorities, clouded by the communist dream, that reinforced the various nationalisms residing in the Transcaucasus territory. Leaders who came into the world by such sentiments and by local institutions mentioned earlier soon found themselves wanting to settle what they considered their own domestic affairs without Russian meddling. Indeed, the Soviet arbiter, especially in its final years, had been unable to provide with a verdict on the territorial dispute and, because of the loss of some of its authority, it had no longer been able to stop tragedies such as the one that took place in 1988, when pogroms organized by Azeris against Armenians and vice versa made the international community shudder. 

So, the independence of Armenia and Azerbaijan (also Georgia but that is another matter) should be read this way, through a willingness to deal with their own national problems without external interference. However, gaining independence in 1991 was an unexpected gift. The ruling elites found themselves having to build a new fully functioning nation-state from scratch, without having any experience in the matter and without being fully aware of the magnitude of the task they faced. Creating the image of a common enemy would distract the population from the internal chaos that would be generated and mobilize them around the ideals of solidarity and loyalty, necessary elements for a fledgling country. The leaders in government knew this. To become aware of one’s collective identity, an “us” must always be pitted against a “them.” Creating otherness is necessary. Obviously, it is associated with different, if not opposite and negative characteristics than those of the group to which it belongs. The other is threatening because there are no possibilities of knowing its intentions in advance. This increases the feeling of alertness. Therefore, both the Armenian and the Azerbaijani began to perceive firsthand a feeling of potential danger only because of the presence of the other one. In such a climate of insecurity, all it took was one fuse and the 1992 war flared up.


«I have never ever thought that I can be friends with Armenians but I made few Armenian friends when I was living in Vilnius. I don’t feel threatened or scared around Armenians but still I have some anxiety. I think that young generations in my country are more rational and peace-lovers. Older ones are usually blame Armenians and majority of them are supporters of the war. They send their children to the war on purpose in order to protect and bring back the land. Personally, I think there is a possibility for peace. I hope».
These are the words of a 25-year-old Azerbaijani, Turan, staying in Vilnius with the European Union Solidarity Corps. His own internalized anxiety which emerges when he is in presence of Armenians suggests long-standing grudges. Actually, before the 1988 clashes, most Azerbaijanis in Karabakh got along with local Armenians on a day-to-day level: they worked together, had the same culinary traditions, spoke each other’s languages respectively, and had the same way of dressing and behaving[16]. Therefore, the notion of ancient odes is false. These were created at the table through the (re)construction of narratives of de-humanization of the other in an attempt to ensure, on the one hand, the survival of the nascent Azerbaijani Nation and, on the other, that of the nascent Armenian Nation. Mobilization around disputed territory should be seen in this light.

One also existed between Georgia and Armenia. However, the different significance that the Armenian population attached to Javakheti compared to Nagorno-Karabakh is one of the elements that explains why the two territories met a different fate. Javakheti’s role in Armenian history has largely been that of a peripheral area, while Artsakh has been-even if only for a few decades-an Armenian stronghold both economically and culturally. It was precisely the city of Shusha/Shushi that became one of the main cultural centers of the Russian Caucasus viceroyalty in the 19th century with the largest Armenian population after Tiflis[17]. Of course, in addition to the symbolic reason, another more concrete one was added: engagement in one conflict reduced the ability of Armenians to make synchronized efforts to respond to events occurring simultaneously on another front. Time and resources to devote to other turbulent situations were reduced. To focus on the conflict against the Azeris, the Armenians mitigated tensions with the Georgians.

In the final analysis, however, it seems that the most important factor explaining the different fate that befell the two territories lies in the fact that, in Soviet times, the Javakheti region, unlike the Nagorno-Karabakh region, did not receive an autonomous status, preventing the establishment of local self-government structures capable of developing the potential to enter into open conflict with Tbilisi after the dissolution of the Soviet Union[18]. To be sure, the Armenians of Javakheti have created numerous vibrant national associations, to the point that the region to date is in a situation of enduring tension, however, they have not arrived at an explicit separatist claim (their demands are for greater political and cultural autonomy, the use of the Armenian language in the administration, an end to attempts to alter the ethnic composition of the region, and the preservation of artistic and religious heritage). This confirms the idea that ethno-territorialization was instrumental in laying the groundwork for the Upper Karabakh conflict. Even, the Armenians of Javakheti themselves supported the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh during the 1992 war. No Armenian, wherever they lived, had accepted the Soviet decision in the 1920s to cede the region to Azerbaijan: this loss came and, to this day, is considered one of the greatest tragedies in Armenian history. Nevertheless, however, Azerbaijan will never compromise with the principle of territorial integrity that it defends with gritted teeth.


[2] M. KUBURAS, «Ethnic Conflict in Nagorno Karabakh», Review of European and Russian Affairs, n. 1, 2011.
[3] www.
[4] G. NATALIZIA, D. P. VINCELLI, Azerbaigian. Una lunga storia, Passigli Editori, January 2012, p. 29.
[5] T. DE WAAL, The Caucasus. An Introduction, Oxford University Press, October 2010, p. 33.
[6] A. MARSHALL, The Caucasus Under Soviet Rule, Routledge, August 2010, p. 37.
[7] B. NAHAYLO, V. SWOBODA, Disunione sovietica, Rizzoli, August 1991, p. 350.
[8] T. DE WAAL, Black Garden: Armenia and Azerbaijan Through Peace and War, New York University Press, July 2013, p. 28.
[9] A. MARSHALL, The Caucasus Under Soviet Rule, Routledge, August 2010, p. 37.
[10] T. MARTIN, The Affirmative Action Empire. Nations and Nationalism in the Soviet Union, 1923-1939, Cornell University Press, November 2001, p. 100.
[11] T. HOCH, V. KOPEČEK, De Facto States in Eurasia, Routledge, March 2021, p. 21.
[12] T. MARTIN, The Affirmative Action Empire. Nations and Nationalism in the Soviet Union, 1923-1939, Cornell University Press, November 2001, pp. 32-33.
[13] T. DE WAAL, The Caucasus. An Introduction, Oxford University Press, October 2010, p. 80.
[14] HOCH, V. KOPEČEK, De Facto States in Eurasia, Routledge, March 2021, p. 113.
[15] F. OLIVA, L. CHARBONNIER, Conflict Analysis Handbook: A field and headquarter guide to Conflict Assessment, United Nations System Staff College, March 2018, p. 56.
[16] T. DE WAAL, The Caucasus. An Introduction, Oxford University Press, October 2010, p. 101.
[17] T. HOCH, V. KOPEČEK, De Facto States in Eurasia, Routledge, March 2021, p. 118.
[18] A. FERRARI, (2010), «Armenia e Georgia, un rapporto complesso», ISPI Policy Brief, n. 47, 2010.

Photo: Map of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict after the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh war.