What are the territorial borders of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict?

The territories disputed by the parties are designated as the territorial borders of the conflict, and separately, determining these borders is very important in preventing any possible mushrooming of political and judicial problems.[1] If there is uncertainty about the borders, this could result in deadlock in the negotiations, and reaching a settlement will be a lengthy process. One reason why it is taking so long to settle the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is uncertainty over the disputed territories, resulting from the fact that the parties to the conflict identify the nature of the dispute differently.

When the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict began, Armenia claimed that the NKAO should secede from Azerbaijan and be unified with Armenia. In the first stage of the conflict, the disputed territory was restricted only to the NKAO, which was founded in 1923 during the early years of the Soviet Union and was mostly populated by Armenians and Azerbaijanis. According to statistics for 1989, 75% of the population of NKAO were Armenians and 25% were Azerbaijanis.[2] The NKAO, consisting of four districts, had a total area of 4,400 km2 and the dispute arose over these territories, which can be identified as the initial borders of the conflict.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh entered its military phase, and this continued until the ceasefire agreement of 1944 between the parties. As a result of the war, Armenia not only took control of the former NKAO, it also occupied surrounding territories belonging to Azerbaijan where the entire population was Azerbaijanis. Consequently, as a result of Armenia occupying 20 percent territory of Azerbaijan and up to one million people were forced to flee their homes and move to other parts of Azerbaijan. The territories occupied as a result of Armenia’s aggression were as follows:

  • The Nagorno-Karabakh region, the territory of the former NKAO that was abolished in 1991 by Azerbaijan.
  • Seven regions of Azerbaijan surrounding Nagorno-Karabakh: Lachin, Kalbajar, Agdam, Fuzuli, Jebrail, Qubatli, and Zengilan.
  • The territories of Gazakh, Agstafa, Tovuz, and Gedabey, which border with Armenia.
  • Territories in 4 regions that border with the Line of Contact: Terter, Goranboy, Agjabedi, and Beylagan.

Territories of the administrative regions of the Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic, a landlocked enclave of Azerbaijan surrounded by Armenia, Iran, and Turkey.[3]

In the early days of the dispute, Armenia explained that it had intervened in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict in order to protect the security of ethnic Armenians and their right to self-determination. However, after it occupied the surrounding territories, Armenia tried to justify its aggression on the grounds that it needed to ensure a lifeline and a “security belt” (or “security zone”) for the so-called Nagorno-Karabakh Republic.[4] While Armenia initially called these seven occupied districts of Azerbaijan a ”security belt”, officials and public intellectuals currently refer to them as “liberated territories” or “historic Armenian lands” that should never be returned to Azerbaijan.[5] Now the so-called Nagorno-Karabakh Republic claims all occupied Azerbaijani territories as part of its national integrity and identifies them as “controlled territories”.[6]

Regardless of the differing opinions of the parties to the conflict, the negotiation processes that are carried out between the disputants are over the territories of the former NKAO and occupied surrounding territories belonging to Azerbaijan, and these should be identified as the borders of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.

[1] Дмитриев, А. В., Конфликтология (Гардарики, 2000), p. 57.

[2] Human Rights Watch, Azerbaijan: Seven years of conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh, (USA: Human Rights Watch, December 1994), p. xx.

[3] “USAN Factsheet on the Nagorno-Karabakh region of Azerbaijan”, USAN, November 12, 2012.

[4] International Crisis Group, “Nagorno-Karabakh: Risking War”, Europe Report, No. 187, November 14, 2007.

[5] International Crises Group, “Armenia and Azerbaijan: Preventing War, Europe Briefing, No. 60, February 8, 2011.

[6] “Controlled Territories”, Office of the Nagorno Karabakh Republic in Washington D.C.; http://www.nkrusa.org/nk_conflict/controlled_territories.shtml. Accessed on October 4, 2020.