History of the The Nagorny Karabakh conflict

In 1988 Armenians in Nagorny Karabakh, an autonomous territory within Soviet Azerbaijan, mobilized to unite with Armenia. Azerbaijanis opposed the movement, seeing Nagorny Karabakh as an inalienable part of their territory. Moscow’s efforts to control the dispute failed, and full-scale war followed the collapse of the Soviet Union at the end of 1991. 

By the time of the ceasefire in May 1994, more than 25,000 people had lost their lives, and 1.2 million were forcibly displaced from their homes. Almost all of the territory of Nagorny Karabakh had broken away from Azerbaijani control. A new entity was established, the de facto Nagorno-Karabakh Republic, which has not been officially recognized by any state, including Armenia, to this day. Armenian forces also occupied seven regions adjacent to the former Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Region, whose Azerbaijani populations were internally displaced.  

Military rivalry and escalation

Since the mid-2000s Armenia and Azerbaijan have been locked in a regional arms race, with both states spending heavily on defence. With no international peacekeepers present, Armenian and Azerbaijani forces face off across the approximately 200-kilometre-long ‘Line of Contact’. Until 2014, sniper fire along the frontline claimed the lives of dozens of soldiers annually. From 2014 hostilities escalated, culminating in a ‘four-day war’ in April 2016, resulting in hundreds of deaths. For the first time since 1994, territory changed hands as Azerbaijan re-captured some small areas.  

After April 2016, violence declined. In 2018, a new Armenian government came to power under the leadership of Nikol Pashinyan. Increased diplomatic contacts with President Ilham Aliyev of Azerbaijan followed, leading to commitments by the leaders to ‘prepare populations for peace’. These have so far been limited to initiatives on humanitarian issues, as progress towards a wider peace process remains elusive. 

Negotiations in gridlock

Armenian-Azerbaijani negotiations have been ongoing continuously since 1992. Responsibility for the mediation process lies with the ‘Minsk Group’ of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE). The Minsk Group is led by France, Russia and the United States, and has generated several proposals, but no solution has been found. The current proposal, on the negotiating table since 2007, proposes a roadmap for a solution in the form of several ‘Basic Principles’, also known informally as the ‘Madrid Principles’.

As negotiations have stagnated, contact across the conflict divide has declined. One-sided narratives dominate public understanding of the war and its causes in each society. A whole generation of Armenians and Azerbaijanis has grown up knowing almost nothing about each other. 

Our work on the Nagorny Karabakh conflict

We have been working on the Nagorny Karabakh conflict since 2003. We have supported local media professionals to work together on documentary film-making. Between 2012 and 2019 we supported Armenian and Azerbaijani partners to jointly produce a series of documentary films, Parts of a Circle, documenting the history of the conflict as seen from contrasting perspectives. Guided screenings of the films aim to increase audiences’ understanding of the other’s perspective on the conflict.  

We also support networks of Armenians and Azerbaijanis to collect and record materials relating to the violence of the 1988-94 period. This work, part of efforts to better understand and ‘deal’ with the past, aims to catalogue source materials which provide people today with a window into the past and support more informed and meaningful discussion of the conflict. 

Convening experts, analysts and members of civil society, we also lead conversations about the challenges to negotiating an Armenian-Azerbaijani peace. Called the Karabakh Contact Group, this discussion platform generates new thinking, ideas and potential solutions which are then shared with decision-makers and fed into the official peace process. These have included a series of meetings focused on the Basic Principles for the settlement of the conflict.

We are a founder member of The European Partnership for the Peaceful Settlement of the Conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh, a group of international organisations which works with local groups, to find ways of progressing the chances for peace in the region. Much of our work is about laying the groundwork, and developing fundamental relationships so that when the political opportunities arise to move towards peace they can be seized.