In response to territorial claims of the Armenian SSR regarding Nagorny Karabakh, on 5 July 1921, the Caucasian Bureau of the Central Committee of the Russian Communist (bolshevik) Party decided that:
“Taking into consideration the necessity of national peace between the Muslims and the Armenians, the importance of the economic relations between Upper and Lower Karabakh and the permanent relations of Upper Karabakh with Azerbaijan, Nagorny Karabakh shall be retained within the boundaries of the Soviet Socialist Republic of Azerbaijan and broad autonomy shall be given to Nagorny Karabakh with Shusha city as an administrative center”.
The decision of 5 July 1921 was the final and binding ruling which would be repeatedly affirmed by the Soviet leadership and recognized by Armenia over the years. Despite Nagorny Karabakh was retained within Azerbaijan, it was given the status of autonomy, though more than half-a-million strong Azerbaijani community compactly resided in Armenia at that time was refused the same privilege.
On 7 July 1923, the Central Executive Committee of the Azerbaijan SSR issued a Decree “On the Formation of the Nagorny Karabakh Autonomous Oblast”. The town of Khankandi was defined as the administrative centre of the autonomy. In September 1923, the name of the town was changed to Stepanakert after Stepan Shaumian, dashnak and “bolshevik” leader.
The administrative borders of the Nagorny Karabakh Autonomous Oblast (hereinafter – NKAO) were defined in a way to ensure that the Armenian population constituted a majority. According to the population census of 12 January 1989, the population of the autonomous oblast was around 189,000 persons; of them: around 139,000 Armenians – 73,5 %, around 48,000 Azerbaijanis – 25,3 %, around 2000 representatives of other nationalities – 1,2 %.
The status of Nagorny Karabakh as an autonomous oblast within the Azerbaijan SSR was stipulated in the USSR Constitutions of 1936 and 1977. In accordance with the Constitutions of the USSR and the Azerbaijan SSR, the legal status of the NKAO was governed by the Law “On the Nagorny Karabakh Autonomous Oblast” adopted by the Supreme Soviet of the Azerbaijan SSR on 16 June 1981. Under the Constitution of the USSR, the NKAO was represented by five deputies in the Council of Nationalities of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR. It was represented by 12 deputies in the Supreme Soviet of the Azerbaijan SSR.
The Soviet of People’s Deputies of the NKAO – the government authority in the oblast – had a wide range of powers. It decided all local issues based on the interests of citizens living in the oblast and with reference to its national and other specific features. Armenian was used in the work of all government, administrative and judicial bodies and the Prosecutor’s Office, as well as in education, reflecting the language requirements of the Armenian population of the oblast. Local TV and radio broadcasts and the publication of newspapers and magazines in the Armenian language were all guaranteed in the NKAO.
As a national territorial unit, the NKAO enjoyed administrative autonomy, and, accordingly, had a number of rights, which, in practice, ensured that its population’s specific needs were met. In fact, statistics illustrate that the NKAO was developing more rapidly than Azerbaijan as a whole. The existence and development of the NKAO within Azerbaijan confirms that the form of autonomy that had evolved fully reflected the specific economic, social, cultural and national characteristics of the population and the way of life in the autonomous oblast.