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Karabagh Issue Perspective


The Caucasian Knot: The History and Geo-politics of Nagorno- Karabagh. Levon Chorbajian, Patrick Donabedian, and Claude Mutafian. London: Zed Books, 1994. 198 pp. The Karabagh issue has been a significant factor in the tumultuous changes which have occurred in the Caucasus over the last seven years. Books which present a history of those events and which can illuminate the motivations of the participants are a welcome addition to the discussion.

The book in review is a translation of the original French version Le Karabagh: Une terre armŽnienne en Azerbaijan by Patrick Donabedian and Claude Mutafian (1989). It later appeared as Artsakh: Histoire du Karabagh (1991) in an expanded and updated volume. The essence of this volume is an examination of the dispute between Mountainous Karabagh and Azerbaijan, especially as it relates to the events which have exploded in the region since 1988. Those events include a war by Azerbaijan to deport the Armenian population of Karabagh.

As Gerard Chaliand states in the preface, it is two principles underlying international law in the contemporary world, the inviolability of frontiers and the right to self-determination, that are often in contradiction. Those principles have been violated in the conflict and it is useful to examine the reasons behind the actions. Chaliand outlines the main points involved in the war in Karabagh, as well as discussing the major phases in the struggle for independence taking place there. Moscow’s role in the conflict, both historical and current, is emphasized.

Levon Chorbajian, a former Fulbright scholar who lived in Armenia, 1986-1987, introduces the English language edition. Chorbajian sets the stage for the history to follow by pointing out the historical events which preceded the conflict. Chorbajian analyzes the arguments which Azerbaijan utilizes to continue their claim on Karabagh. Politics, the economy of the region, religion, and the involvement of foreign powers are all analyzed by Chorbajian based on his knowledge of the region. Patrick Donabedian presents the history of Karabagh from antiquity to the twentieth century. He carefully examines the history of the area, its demographics, and its Armenian nature. Historical evidence from neighboring empires, as well as information supplied by Armenian historians point to the presence of Armenians in the area from a very early period. The numerous churches, monasteries, and religious monuments which dominate the landscape are ample evidence of the Armenian culture and are powerful proof of the Armenian Christian nature of Karabagh.

Later in Karabagh’s history, the Armenian meliks(princes) were able for the most part to fight for and the preserve Armenian autonomy in the area in the face of constant aggression from neighboring empires. Claude Mutafian continues the historical narrative with a description of nineteenth and twentieth century Karabagh, especially encompassing the period of the Russian empire.

The cultural capital of Karabagh was Shushi, which at the turn of the century had nineteen Armenian newspapers, and the third highest population of Armenians in the Caucasus. Mutafian describes the critical period of 1915-1921 when the fate of Karabagh was sealed. Stalin’s decision to assign Karabagh to Azerbaijan in July of 1921 was the final blow in the initial struggle of Karabagh. Mutafian clearly outlines the attempts by Karabagh Armenians to change the situtation in the period of 1921-1988. There were numerous attempts at reunification of Karabagh to Armenia beginning in the 1920’s and intensifying in the 1960’s, all without significant results.

The struggle for independence culminated in September of 1991 with the declaration of the Independent Republic of Karabagh. The book ends with events in the year 1990 and the changes which Armenia was undergoing on the path to its independence. Fourteen appendices include pertinent archival material dealing with the Karabagh issue. Such items as letters and and resolutions by the Karabagh Armenians ot the Supreme Soviet are reproduced. The Caucasian Knot is and interesting book which although does not add much new material to the available corpus of knowledge on Karabagh does present a coherent view of the events which shaped the conflict in Karabagh.