Can Secessionism Explain The Armenian-Azerbaijani Conflict?


The nations of the Southern Caucasus have had a longstanding history of territorial disputes, Armenia and Azerbaijan being of no exception. The Christian Armenians have had a long history of animosity with the Muslim Azerbaijanis, but the strife became greatly exacerbated by Soviet policies that divided up Armenian-majority territories, specifically Nagorno-Karabakh, in the early twentieth century.1 The source of conflict in this case is that Nagorno-Karabakh falls physically within Azerbaijani states lines but its inhabitants consist of 94% ethnic Armenians.2 Both sides believe they have legitimate claims over the land, which has ignited many acts of aggression. The conflict is on-going to this day but this paper will focus on the beginning of the twentieth century, largely when the violence began.

Many scholars and academics believe Secessionism can correctly explain this particular conflict; it is defined as a policy directed toward the separation of territory from within a state that is populated by a certain nationality or ethnic group which seems as though it can accurately explain the conflict at hand. It is understandable why this particular case could be seen as though it can accurately be explained by Secessionism, but I have found evidence that says that this is not the case. Why is it important that we try to establish a proper theory for explaining such a conflict or others that might occur? Perhaps being able to correctly identify an explanation for a conflict will help us to better-understand the situation, one day helping to solve this long-standing conflict and others like it. This paper will assess and argue against Secessionism as an explanation for the Armenian-Azerbaijani Conflict, focusing on the period from 1917 to 1923.

Setting the Scene

The violence between Armenia and Azerbaijan began after the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, when the nations of the Transcaucasus briefly gained independence. The Transcaucasian nations, Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan became completely independent of Russia in April of 1918 but the conflict began when it proved nearly impossible to reconcile the three nations. To make matters more complicated, the British entered the region in 1918 after World War I, aligning themselves with Azerbaijan.3 The new-found British support gave the Azerbaijanis extra incentive to carry out aggression toward the Armenians in trying to gain control of the Nagorno-Karabakh territory. In 1919, and with the official support of the British, Azerbaijan invaded Nagorno-Karabakh as well as a few other Armenian-majority territories, imposing Azerbaijani rule. Although it is still debated exactly who started the conflict, it is believed that an uprising broke out among Armenians, subsequently causing Soviet power among the Transcaucasus to be reestablished.4 Soviet rule in 1920 stated that Nagorno-Karabakh was to be under Armenian administration, however, a reverse in decision in 1921 left Nagorno-Karabakh under Azerbaijani control.5 “Initially the pendulum seemed to swing in favor of Armenia,” but eventually swung over in Azerbaijani favor.6 Historically the Transcaucasus region has always been full of territorial strife, but the the Armenians and Azerbaijanis seemed to live in relative mutual understanding, mostly void of violence before the Soviet policies were formed, as early as 1905.7 The brief independence of the Transcaucasus showed that creating ethnically homogenous states was nearly impossible and the Soviet policy laying Nagorno-Karabakh to Azerbaijani claim seemed to ignite a full-blown conflict. In 1923 the Soviets named Nagorno-Karabakh the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast (NKAO). The conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia is ongoing even now, but this paper focuses specifically on the period of conflict when the dispute over territories erupted. In 1923 the territory remained the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast, and continued as such until 1936 under Soviet policy.

Testing the Explanation: Defining Secessionism

A possible explanation for the Armenian-Azerbaijani Conflict that I will assess throughout this paper is Secessionism, which is defined as a policy directed toward the separation of territory from within a state that is populated by a specific nationality or ethnic group.8 The explanation assumes that a state “rightsizes” (adjusts the boundaries or creates a new state) its borders according to the ethnic majority of the territory.9 There is an assumption that Secessionism tends to happen when the materials and institutions needed for mobilization against the central power are available. Secessionism occurs when there is a general lack of recognition of the dissatisfaction of the minority group in the area with central state politics. A study completed in Secessionism in Multicultural States concluded that Secessionism can be less of a threat by preserving the predominance of the central state, and that giving autonomous or federal institutions for groups to continue separatist struggle.9 This essentially means that in a conflict which can be explained by Secessionism, an ethnic group will not try to secede if the central power does not provide the materials to do so and at the same time the same central power recognizes the dissatisfaction of the minority group.


In this particular case this paper analyzes, the secessionist explanation would assume, first and foremost, that the Azerbaijanis would create a policy giving Nagorno-Karabakh to the Armenians, as the population of the territory is made up of 94% ethnic Armenians. The explanation would also assume that any other states involved in the conflict, such as the British or the Soviets, would not have other factors involved in their ideas of what should be done with the territory. For example, Soviet motivation for changing which state was to act as administration to Nagorno-Karabakh was largely believed to have been persuaded by a new-found ally in the Turks, who pressed for the Azerbaijanis to gain control over the territory.9 The Soviets claimed the switch was only because of economic considerations but it is largely speculated to have been because of the former. Either way, the choice has caused constant conflict and dissatisfaction among the Armenians. The British are another interesting case regarding motivation for siding with Azerbaijan on the matter. They claimed their motivation for siding with Azerbaijan against the Armenians was to keep the balance of power, but it is widely speculated that the British wanted to strengthen Azerbaijan (as well as Georgia) as to increase economic power and build into the expansion of a “British Southern Caucasus.”10 And through all of this in mind, the British stood firmly behind Azerbaijan in its quest to grasp hold of Nagorno-Karabakh.

Evidence that Supports the Explanation

Although I do not agree that the Armenian-Azerbaijani Conflict can be explained by Secessionism, I recognize the fact that it is generally seen as so by many scholars and academics alike, and there are certainly perfectly good reasons for this. Authors Robert Donaldson and Joseph Nogee of The Foreign Policy of Russia call the Armenian-Azerbaijani Conflict “both an interstate war and a war of secession.” After Armenia and Azerbaijan became independent, the idea of the unification of Nagorno-Karabakh with Armenia dissolved and the idea of an independent Nagorno-Karabakh Republic replaced.11 In one sense the conflict can be seen as a war of secession because of the point at which the Soviets gave the territory to be under Armenian administration in 1920.12 Another point that can be made toward the conflict as one of secession, is the fact that in 1923 the Soviets declared Nagorno-Karabakh as the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast, which was to be its own nation. The policy continued on past our period of analysis. The explanation does assume that a state can “rightsize” its borders, which can include the creation of a new state altogether, which is essentially what the Soviets did by deciding Nagorno-Karabakh was to be the NKAO.

Evidence that Challenges the Explanation

Now we arrive at evidence that challenges the idea that the Armenian-Azerbaijani Conflict could be a war explained by Secessionism. The period after World War I when the nations of the Southern Caucasus briefly gained independence proved to be very difficult for creating ethnically homogenous states as people of all Transcaucasian ethnicities were intermixed throughout the Transcaucasus region. Nagorno-Karabakh was considered a “mountainous island in an Azerbaijani sea,”13 referring to how the territory was quite different in many ways to the surrounding land, not only culturally or ethnically but geographically as well. Although Soviet rule did give Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia in 1920, the rule was reversed in 1921 and the land was put under Azerbaijani control. The territory then became the NKAO of the Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republic (SSR). Even though it was titled “autonomous” it still technically belonged to the Soviet Azerbaijanis. The reason for this change in dictation is not fully known, but it is thought that it may have had to do with new-found Soviet positive relations with the Turks, who were adamant in their desire for the Azerbaijanis to take control of Nagorno-Karabakh. Hence, none of these territorial decisions were based on the fact that there was a 94% Armenian ethnic majority, which is what the secessionist explanation would assume as a theory.

Azerbaijan gained the support of the British in 1918, who proved to be a powerful force during World War I, gaining them extra incentive to continue the aggression against the Armenians. In January of 1919, the Azerbaijanis united four Armenian districts (Shushi, Zangezur, Jivanshir, and Jebrail) under the Musavat governor Khosrov Bek Sultanov, who had a reputation as the “enemy of the Armenians.”14 The British alliance with the Azerbaijanis in this particular instance can likely be attributed to British desire to expand the area into a “British Southern Caucasus,” and increasing economic power not with the intention of helping either side based on an Armenian ethnic majority.

Assessing the Evidence

The evidence presented suggests that the Armenian-Azerbaijani Conflict was not a war that can easily be explained by Secessionism. It is not apparent that the assumptions that would indicate Secessionism are present. It is apparent that the intentions in this conflict are not for uniting Nagorno-Karabakh with Armenia when this would certainly be the case in a war explained by Secessionism. There is simply too much evidence against Secessionism as an explanation in this particular case. At times the conflict does seem to display some examples of the nature of a war explained by secession, as the Soviets do put Nagorno-Karabakh under Armenian administration in 1920, followed by making the territory into an autonomous nation (although it was under the control of the Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republic). Seeing as Secessionism assumes that the territory in question is enacted upon with thoughts about the majority ethnicity and its rights, it is difficult for me to be convinced that this conflict ended on those terms. The correct intentions for Secessionism as an explanation are simply not present in this case. The Soviet decision to reverse the ownership of Nagorno-Karabakh in 1921 was done so with its own economic considerations in mind.15 Other nations that factored into the conflict all had alternate motives as well. For example, the British, a major world power coming out of the First World War, wanted to strengthen alliances with Azerbaijan as to expand their own influence in the Southern Caucasus region.

Other Possible Explanations

Rather than attempting to explain the Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict with Secessionism, perhaps it would be wise to assess other theories that might better explain the conflict as to perhaps one day remedy it. One possibility of an explanation is External Balancing, which is when a state forms an alliance with another state in order to ensure that particular state does not become too powerful. The reason this theory might be able to explain the conflict at hand is the fact that Britain aligned itself with Azerbaijan in order to increase its own power by asserting British influence over the Southern Caucasus region. It is clear that this conflict had more to do with balancing power than fretting over an ethnic majority in Transcaucasia.

Another theory that may also help to explain the Armenian-Azerbaijani Conflict is the Window of Opportunity, which describes actions taken by state A when it has a military advantage over state B. This was clearly the case between Armenia (State B) and Azerbaijan (State A); once the Southern Caucasus states gained brief independence from the Soviet Union, the British essentially latched on to Azerbaijan as its ally, giving Azerbaijan a massive military advantage over Armenia. It became the perfect time for Azerbaijan to take advantage of the fact that it could seize Nagorno-Karabakh while being backed by the British, a powerful military aid. External balancing and Window of Opportunity are two theories that could likely better-explain the case at hand.


I believe that, through assessment of the Armenian-Azerbaijani Conflict in the early twentieth century, it can be concluded that Secessionism cannot accurately explain the conflict. There was simply too much at stake for the nations involved for it to be considered a war of secession, as a secessionist war is defined as a policy directed toward the separation of territory from within a state that is populated by a specific nationality or ethnic group. It is clear that the actions taken with regard to Nagorno-Karabakh did not imply intentions for helping the dissatisfied 94% ethnic Armenian majority in the territory, and more to do with the external balancing of bigger powers involved, specifically Britain and the Soviet Union. Perhaps this particular case confirms realist theory by showing us that states are constantly concerned with their own securities on the anarchical international stage. whether with regard to an ethnic majority in a small territory, or the balance of power between states. Today Nagorno-Karabakh is a de facto but unrecognized independence,16 and unfortunately the conflict remains unresolved. Perhaps being able to correctly identify a theory for the conflict will eventually help to permanently solve it and bring stability to the Southern Caucasus region.


Cornell E. Svante, “Turkey and the Conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh: A Delicate Balance,” Middle Eastern Studies (January 1998): 52-53.

Dash P. L., “Nationalities Problem in USSR: Discord Over Nagorno-Karabakh,” Economic & Political Weekly (1989): 72.

Donaldson Robert H., Nogee Joseph L., The Foreign Policy of Russia: Changing Systems, Enduring Interests (Armonk: M.E. Sharpe, Inc., 2009), 190-191.

Eidelson Roy J., Lustick Ian S., Miodownik Dan, “Secessionism in Multicultural States: Does Sharing Power Prevent or Encourage it?” The American Political Science Review (May 2004): 209-229.

Fraser Niall M., Hipel Keith W., Jaworsky John, “A Conflict Analysis of the Armenian-Azerbaijani Dispute,” The Journal of Conflict Resolution (December 1990): 652-677.

Migdalovitz Carol, “Armenia-Azerbaijan Conflict,” CRS Issue Brief for Congress, The Library of Congress.

Simonian Aram, “An Episode from the History of the Armenian-Azerbaijani Confrontation (January-February 1919),” Iran and the Caucasus (2005): 145-158.

Yamskov A.N., “Ethnic Conflict in the Transcaucasus: The Case of Nagorno-Karabakh,” Theory and Society (October1991): 631-660.

1Donaldson and Nogee, The Foreign Policy of Russia, 190.

2Donaldson and Nogee, The Foreign Policy of Russia, 190.

3Simonian, An Episode from the History of the Armenian-Azerbaijani Confrontation, 145-158.

4Cornell, Turkey and the Conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh, 52-53.

5Fraser, Hipel, & Jaworsky, A Conflict Analysis of the Armenia-Azerbaijan Dispute, 652-677.

6Cornell, Turkey and the Conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh, 52-53.

7Yamskov, Ethnic Conflict in the Transcaucasus, 631-660.

8Professor Kier, International Conflict Lecture.

9Fraser, Hipel, Jaworsky, A Conflict Analysis of the Armenia-Azerbaijan Dispute, 652-677.

10Simonian, An Episode from the History of the Armenian-Azerbaijani Confrontation, 145-158.

11Donaldson & Nogee, The Foreign Policy of Russia, 190-191.

12Fraser, Hipel, Jaworsky, A Conflict Analysis of the Armenia-Azerbaijan Dispute, 652-677.

13Fraser, Hipel, Jaworsky, A Conflict Analysis of the Armenian-Azerbaijani Dispute, 652-677.

14Simonian, An Episode from the History of the Armenian-Azerbaijani Confrontation, 145-158.

15Dash, Nationalities Problem in USSR, 72.

16Donaldson & Nogee, The Foreign Policy of Russia, 190.


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