Before any discussion of the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict, it is essential to clear up a few key terms.
SSRs, ASSRs and AOs
For those too young to remember, the pre-1991 superpower known in English as the Soviet Union was alternatively titled the USSR (Union of Soviet Socialist Republics). Some 14 SSRs (Soviet Socialist Republics), along with the RFSFR (Russian Federation), were the state’s ‘constituent’ republics. It was these republics that, after the Soviet Union’s break up in 1991, became nation-states. Armenia and Azerbaijan had both been SSRs since being re-conquered by Russian/Soviet forces in the 1920s. Each SSR of the union was named after a particular ‘nationality.’ However, Soviet policy, despite a few brutal Stalinist deportations, was generally one of encouraging the mixing of peoples. Thus most parts of the USSR had multi-ethnic populations; for example, Azerbaijan was a peaceable home to a very significant Armenian minority and vice versa.
The USSR also created other ‘lesser’ categories of territory to give at least the façade of local representation, though each was subordinate to a specific SSR. Foremost amongst these were 20 ASSRs (Autonomous SSRs) that were far less autonomous than standard SSRs. Less autonomous still were 8 AOs: A for ‘autonomous,’ O for ‘oblast’ - a Russian term meaning ‘region’ rather than a cry of displeasure. Neither ASSRs nor AOs qualified for independence in 1991 by the rules applied by the international community, which recognized each as legally part of their associated SSR.
The heart of the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict is a place known as Nagorno-Karabakh. But the term is a slippery one: its meaning can be significantly different according to context.
Let’s start by breaking down the words. Karabakh (or Qarabagh) as a standalone term is a somewhat inexact geographical term that approximates the southwestern corner of today’s Azerbaijan. It shares its curious name (Kara=black in Turkic languages, Bagh=garden in Persian) with one of the historic Azerbaijani khanates, a patchwork of Muslim principalities that fell to the Russian empire in the early 19th century.
Nagorno (or Nagorny) means mountainous in Russian. So Nagorno-Karabakh is often translated as Upper Karabakh, the region’s highlands. In Azerbaijani, the equivalent is Dağlıq Qarabağ. That such a term would exist is culturally logical: traditionally, a major proportion of the Karabakh population were semi-nomadic herders with seasonal camps on the steppe of lower Karabakh to which they would descend in winter from their summer pastures and villages in upper Karabakh.
Nagorno-Karabakh AO was one of the autonomous oblasts of the USSR, an embryo-shaped sub-jurisdiction within Azerbaijan. Its borderlines were so drawn as to give ethnic Armenians an overall majority. As noted above, neither ASSRs nor AOs qualified for independence in the aftermath of the USSR’s collapse.
Nagorno-Karahakh Republic (NKR)
Nagorno-Karabakh Republic (NKR), known to Armenians as “Artsakh,” was a self-declared but internationally non-recognized state whose territory included most, if not quite all, of the Nagorno-Karabakh AO along with vastly bigger swathes of Upper and Lower Karabakh. These areas of Upper and Lower Karabakh, in almost all cases, had had an overwhelmingly Azerbaijani majority population before the conflict of 1988-1994 drove them out.