The first major Armenian-Azerbaijani tensions can be traced to the end of the nineteenth century. Armenians and Azerbaijanis were the two major national groups in the borderland between the Russian, Ottoman and Persian empires and as such were intermingled over territory stretching hundreds of miles. Historically, the Armenians tended to be a more successful socio-economic group, with a heavier concentration in towns and cities as a prosperous merchant class. With the rise of nationalism and heightened Russian-Ottoman conflict at the end of the nineteenth century, the Armenians became both the most militant and the most vulnerable community in Ottoman Anatolia. And, while a few generations before mainly Shiite Azerbaijanis and mainly Sunni Turks might have found little in common, they increasingly found common cause – and were identified as one and the same by Armenians. This has fed through into the Armenian generalisation that Azerbaijanis are also 'Turks' – and therefore share complicity for the 1915 genocide.
The Armenian-Azerbaijani fighting of 1917-20 can be seen as a messy attempt to draw borders and build a viable state – a bloody process that was being played out across the rest of the Eastern Europe and the Balkans. It was also war by proxy, with Russia and Turkey continuing a long-running territorial conflict that had lasted for most of the previous century, each using the Armenians and Azerbaijanis respectively as their local allies.
The misfortune of Karabakh was that it was always caught in the middle. Geographically it was situated on the Azerbaijani side of the mountainous watershed that runs down between the two countries. Demographically it was mixed, as it evidently had been for centuries: the Armenians predominated in the hills, with more Azerbaijanis in the plains, as well as in the city of Shusha (or Shushi as it was known to its Armenian inhabitants). Culturally it had great significance for both sides. For Armenians, the meaning of Karabakh lay in the dozens of Armenian churches dotted around the territory, its tradition of local autonomy through the "melik" princes of the Middle Ages and the martial reputation of Karabakh Armenians. For Azerbaijanis, the associations were primarily with the khanate based around the great eighteenth century city of Shusha and with the great cultural flowering of composers and poets such as Vagif, Natevan and Uzeir Hajibekov. Karabakh was in short a culturally rich border-zone, like Alsace, Flanders or Kashmir and, like them, fated to be a battlefield.
In 1920-21 the only 'solution' of this dispute could come either by military victory – as basically happened in Anatolia, Zangezur and Nakhichevan – or by the imposition from above of a new structure by an imperial power. After the British failed to impose a settlement, the imperial arbiters turned out to be the Bolsheviks, whose 11th Army conquered Karabakh in May 1920. On 5 July 1921 the Bolsheviks' Caucasian committee, the Kavburo, under the chairmanship of Stalin ruled that the mountainous part of Karabakh would be part of Azerbaijan. In July 1923 the Nagorny (or Mountainous) Karabakh Autonomous Region (NKAO) was created within Azerbaijan, with borders that gave it an overwhelming Armenian population of 94 per cent of the total inhabitants.
This arrangement turned the NKAO into one of only two instances in the Soviet system of an autonomous province inside one union republic that had a strong affiliation to another union republic (the other instance, Russian-majority Crimea, though also unstable, has proved a less fissiparous case). The contradictions of this arrangement were never openly discussed, but the two national narratives were still far apart: many Armenians never accepted the 1921 decision and protests against it were made in 1945, 1965 and 1977. On 20 February 1988 the NKAO local Soviet voted to request the Soviet government to permit Karabakh to leave Soviet Azerbaijan and become part of Soviet Armenia. It was perhaps predictable that the vote took Azerbaijanis completely by surprise: to them that Nagorny Karabakh was part of their republic was a self-evident fact, reinforced by everyday news as well as by scholarly literature that stressed the territory's Azerbaijani heritage.
A key point must be made here, which is that these underlying structural tensions in the architecture of the region had little impact on the daily life of the residents living there. As most Armenians and Azerbaijanis will tell you, they traditionally had a better trading relationship with each other than either community did with Georgians; rates of intermarriage were also high. Soviet Karabakhis from both communities tended to be bilingual, on good terms with their neighbours and little concerned by the nationalist narratives being advanced by intellectuals in Yerevan or Baku.
It is an elementary mistake therefore to see the Karabakh conflict as a clash of 'ancient hatreds' or as a religious dispute. Links of culture, business and marriage still bind Armenians and Azerbaijanis together in Moscow, Georgia and Iran – anywhere in fact outside the zone of the Karabakh conflict.