Nagorno-Karabakh: Contested narratives

As patience runs out in Baku, there is a growing pressure on the government to liberate occupied territories.

Soldiers of the self-defense army of Nagorno-Karabakh gather in Martakert province in Nagorno-Karabakh
Armenian soldiers gather at their positions in Martakert province. [Reuters]

The recent outbreak of hostilities between Armenia and Azerbaijan in Nagorno-Karabakh seems to have caught the international community by surprise, with experts and commentators struggling to explain the causes and possible consequences of the ongoing clashes.

Meanwhile, international media coverage of the conflict is also proving to be problematic, and far from impartial.

It is often difficult to convey the complexity of this long-standing regional conflict – with deep historical roots and a challenging geopolitical context, and taking place in a relatively remote corner of Europe, in the Caucasus.

As the result, hostilities on the ground spill over into what can only be described as an information war, with both sides making claims and counterclaims, seeking to influence the way the conflict is presented to global audiences.

It is important, therefore, for international media outlets to ensure that their coverage reflects a contested nature of various narratives that are being put forward by both parties.

History is arguably the most important battlefield in this information war. For the Armenian side it is essential to minimise Azerbaijan’s historical claim on Karabakh (meaning Black Garden in Azeri language).

Hence, the claim lies on the insistence that the region was incorporated into Azerbaijan as late as the 1920s by the Soviet authorities.

For Azerbaijanis the roots of the conflict go back to the mass resettlement of Armenians from Ottoman and Persian empires in Karabakh in the first half of the 19th century, following the Russian imperial conquest of South Caucasus.

Yet, as historians argue, there is overwhelming evidence that the region was inhabited by both communities for centuries, going back into antiquity.

For Azerbaijan, the Karabakh conflict is first and foremost about these people, and the right of return of Karabakh Azerbaijani community and refugees from other occupied regions is a non-negotiable redline.


As the great Armenian historian Ronald G Suny argues, nationalist narratives of both sides obscure a common Karabakh heritage in what is a shared homeland (PDF).

It is essential, therefore, that the international media coverage reflects the contested and complex nature of these competing historical paradigms, and avoids presenting any one perspective as the definitive universal truth.

Human cost

Another striking feature of current debates around the Karabakh conflict is an almost total omission from the discussions of more than a million refugees and internally displaced people.

As the conflict began with unilateral demand for secession from the Armenian community of Nagorno-Karabakh, in the early stages of the conflict (between 1988 and 1990) ethnic Armenians were expelled from Azerbaijan, while Azerbaijanis were expelled from Armenia.

This forced population exchange was accompanied by pogroms and violence. In Nagorno-Karabakh, as Armenian forces advanced, the entire Azerbaijani population was driven out in a campaign of ethnic cleansing, marked by massacres, such as the one that occurred at the Azeri town of Khojaly in February 1992.

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Some 25 percent of the Karabakh population (40,000 people, including members of my family) was forced to flee. By the time ceasefire was signed in 1994, a further 600,000 Azerbaijanis were forcibly expelled from the seven regions around Nagorno-Karabakh, which Armenians occupied in 1993-1994.

For Azerbaijan, the Karabakh conflict is first and foremost about these people, and the right of return of Karabakh Azerbaijani community and refugees from other occupied regions is a non-negotiable redline.

This is a view shared by the international community. In 1993 the United Nations Security Council passed four separate resolutions demanding Armenian withdrawal from the occupied territories.

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Last year the European Court of Human Rights confirmed that the Republic of Armenia “exercised effective control over Nagorno-Karabakh and the surrounding territories”.

And in a statement on Sunday, the President of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe Pedro Agramunt called for the “the withdrawal of all Armenian armed troops from occupied Azerbaijani territories in compliance with UN Security Council resolutions”.

Paradoxically, none of these facts seem to be reflected in media coverage of the current fighting.


One glaringly obvious fact is that the breakdown of the ceasefire regime is a direct result of the failure of the international mediation effort, led by the so-called Organization for Security Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) Minsk Group, co-chaired by the United States, Russia and France. The Minsk Group experience is marked by 20 years of failure and ineptitude, and it is now widely seen as defunct.

For Azerbaijan full implementation of the UN Security Council resolutions is of utmost priority.

Yet, after two decades of fruitless talks, it is increasingly clear that Armenia has no incentive to make the necessary concessions to start a real peace process in accordance with those resolutions.

As patience runs out in Baku, there is a growing pressure on the Azeri government to unilaterally enforce the resolutions and liberate occupied territories. The current outbreak of hostilities should be viewed in this context.

Murad Gassanly is a researcher on energy security and geopolitics in South Caucasus.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.