The austere beauty of the mountains surrounding Stepanakert does little to relieve the morose atmosphere. Long a provincial town with an ethnic Armenian majority deep in western Azerbaijan, Stepanakert now styles itself the capital of the independent Armenian Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh. But not even Armenia, which urged Nagorno-Karabakh's secession and supported it in the subsequent war with Azerbaijan, recognizes the enclave as a state. After almost seven years of violence and another two under a shaky cease-fire, the enclave's economy is deteriorating and the population is declining. This has done little to mitigate the sense of ethnic grievance and nationalism that prevails in the mountain fastness of High Karabakh.
Nagorno-Karabakh's Armenians had agitated for autonomy for decades before declaring independence in July 1988 as the Kremlin's hold over the Soviet Union slipped. (The 1989 Soviet census in the enclave showed a population about three-quarters Armenian and one-quarter Azeri.) That February, some 30 ethnic Armenians had been killed in a pogrom in Sumgait, and more would die later that year in Baku, the capital, and other towns in Azerbaijan outside Nagorno-Karabakh; the government of Azerbaijan probably encouraged the massacres, and certainly did little to prevent them. When the enclave seceded, Baku sent police commandos to suppress the Armenian militants. By 1991 Nagorno-Karabakh was at war. Three years later, Karabakhi fighters, supported by Armenian regular troops and Russian advisers, had routed Azerbaijani forces far superior in number. Not only had the Karabakhis gained control of the enclave's 1,700 square miles, but they had seized territory beyond its borders amounting to approximately ten percent of the rest of Azerbaijan.
Some 25,000 people died in the fighting, according to Human Rights WatchffiHelsinki, and indiscriminate shelling of civilians, hostage-taking, and torture of prisoners were reported on both sides. A December 1994 cease-fire has brought no peace agreement. The initial massacres led about 400,000 ethnic Armenians to flee Azerbaijan proper. The war also uprooted some 700,000 ethnic Azeris, Kurds, and others from Armenia, captured areas of Azerbaijan, and Nagorno-Karabakh; all 40,000 Azeris in the enclave, a quarter
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