Mountainous region of 1,700 square miles (4,300 sq km) predominantly inhabited by Christian Armenians. The region was turned over to Azerbaijan in July 1921, marking the end of the short-lived Soviet Republic of Armenia, which came into existence after the people living in the area, threatened by Mustafa Kemal's Turkey, accepted the Bolsheviks as protectors. In 1921, Nagorno-Karabakh was handed over to the Muslim Azeris by the Communist regime in Moscow, though its population was 92 percent Armenian and it was separated by only 15 kilometers from the rest of Armenia. It has been argued that this move was out of deference to Turkey, but Josef Stalin, who was commissar for national minorities in the USSR, often deliberately mixed peoples to dilute national cohesiveness and enable Moscow to pit group against group.
The Azerbaijani administration belied the autonomous status of Nagorno-Karabakh. Armenians even in this enclave were discriminated against and their language and cultural expression was restricted. As Armenians left for the cities of Azerbaijan the Armenian majority dropped to 75 percent, or about 150,000 people. In February 1988, when Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh took advantage of the impending disintegration of the USSR to vote for a transfer of their region to Armenia, the Azeri government responded with a pogrom in the Azerbaijani City of Sumgait. When massive demonstrations were organized by Armenian Nationalists in Yerevan, the Armenian capital, and in Stepanakert, the principal town of Nagorno-Karabakh, the Azeris again responded with anti-Armenian violence. The Nagorno-Karabakh issue certainly involved primordial memories and insecurities; for the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh, however, it was also a question of interests. As Armenian speakers they believed they would have no educational or economic future in an independent Azerbaijan. Unable to speak Azeri and a Christian minority in a Muslim state, their interests, they perceived, lay with Armenia, the Commonwealth of Independent States (the weak organization for security and economic cooperation that replaced the USSR in December 1991), and Europe, rather than with Azerbaijan.
Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev had attempted in January 1989 to defuse the Nagorno-Karabakh issue by replacing Azerbaijan's control of the autonomous republic with direct control from Moscow. He eventually surrendered to Azeri opposition, however, including a rail and road blockade of Armenia, and returned it to Azeri control in November.
Following a referendum on December 10, 1991, Nagorno-Karabakh declared itself independent on January 2, 1992. This tactical move was meant to serve as a way station on the road to reunion with Armenia. In January 1992 Azerbaijans president, Ayaz Mutalibov, imposed direct presidential rule on Nagorno-Karabakh. The Azeris launched an offensive, surrounding Stepanakert, which they bombarded until May. Armenian self-defense forces, counterattacked in May, seizing the predominantly Azeri town of Shushi and the Lachin Strip, which established road contact with Armenia proper. The Azeris responded with a major offensive in June that overran about half the region. In August they resumed their bombardment of Stepanakert. The Nagorno-Karabakh legislature responded with a declaration of martial law and set up a state defense committee with close ties to Armenian President Levon Ter-Petrossian's government. Karabakh forces, bolstered by support from the Armenian diaspora and undoubtedly from Armenia itself clandestinely, then launched a successful counterdrive that, between October 1992 and September 1993, drove the Azeri military and their foreign mercenaries from all of Nagorno-Karabakh and some additional 2124 square miles (5,500 sq km) of Azerbaijani territory. When the Armenians occupied the