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Chapter I


Ethnic Conflicts in the Caucasus 1988-1994

Alexei Zverev

Chapter I consists of 4 parts (1,2,3,4) + notes

2. Nagorno-Karabakh and the Azeri-Armenian Conflict (1988-94)

Origins of the NKAO

The issue of Nagorno-Karabakh is linked to the origins of the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast itself, and to the diplomatic history of the early 1920s, when it came into being. The Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast (AONK or, since 1937, NKAO) within the AzSSR was formed in July 1923. Its formation followed more than two years of intense argument between the government of Soviet Azerbaijan (Nariman Narimanov), the government of Soviet Armenia (Alexander Miasnikian), the emissaries of Central Soviet power in the Caucasus (Sergo Ordzhonikidze, Sergei Kirov), the Soviet People's Commissar for Foreign Affairs, Georgi Chicherin, and, most important of all, Joseph Stalin, People's Commissar for the Affairs of Nationalities at the period.

The first stage in that dispute was marked by the declaration by the Azerbaijan Revolutionary Committee (Azrevkom) of 30 November 1920, recognizing the disputed regions of Zangezur and Nakhichevan as integral parts of Soviet Armenia and granting Nagorno-Karabakh, with a predominantly Armenian population, the right to self-determination. This decision was confirmed by Narimanov, on 1 December 1920, at a grand meeting of the Baku Soviet. At the same meeting, Ordzhonikidze spoke about directly ceding Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia, as did Stalin in the issue of Pravda of 4 December 1920. Ordzhonikidze's position was later called a "mistake" by Azerbaijani writers. The solution of the Karabakh question in favour of Armenia was further confirmed by a decision of the plenary session of the Caucasian Bureau of the Russian Communist Party Central Committee (Kavbiuro), taken on 3 June 1921. However, the final decision on the matter came at another plenary session of the same Kavbiuro, on 5 July 1921: to attach Karabakh to Azerbaijan, while "granting it broad regional autonomy".(5)

The decision in favour of Armenia, while probably designed to help the Armenian Bolsheviks on the eve of the projected Soviet takeover of Armenia, had no practical consequences, but it has nevertheless been deeply engrained in the minds of the Armenian population of Karabakh ever since, serving as a legitimation of their subsequent claims to unity with Armenia and sovereignty. The opposite decision was pivotal for Nagorno-Karabakh's subsequent fate. It is generally believed that the second Kavbiuro decision was taken under pressure from Stalin,(6) but it seemed to reflect wider Bolshevik concerns - to appease Kemal Ataturk and placate the restive Moslem population which was being subdued by Soviet Russia. Azerbaijan, with its larger population and vital oil resources and which, like Kemalist Turkey, was regarded by the Bolsheviks as a beacon of revolution in the East, seemed more important than Armenia from the point of view of revolution.(7)

The formation of the NKAO satisfied neither the local Armenians nor the Azeris. The former considered the establishment of a separate autonomous district with an almost totally Armenian population, - adjacent to Armenia, but subordinated to Azerbaijan, - to be an anomaly. The Azeris objected to the carving out from Azerbaijan of a separate entity with ethnic Armenian administration and administrative borders where before there had been none. But as long as Communist rule held in the USSR, so did the uneasy but peaceful relationship between the two peoples of Nagorno-Karabakh.

Karabakh Armenians on the Eve of 1988: Grievances and Identity

For 65 years of the NKAO's existence, the Karabakh Armenians felt they were the object of various restrictions on the part of Azerbaijan. The essence of Armenian discontent lay in the fact that the Azerbaijani authorities deliberately severed the ties between the oblast and Armenia and pursued a policy of cultural de-Armenization in the region, of planned Azeri settlement, squeezing the Armenian population out of the NKAO and neglecting its economic needs. Among other ethnic groups, the Kurds and the Talysh, of Iranian stock, have been listed as Azeris in their internal passports and not counted as separate nationalities in the Azerbaijani population censuses for the last few decades.(8)

It would be wrong, however, to suggest that, had the above restrictions been lifted, the Karabakh Armenians would have been content to live under Azerbaijani rule. They possessed a sense of identity different from that of the Azeris. Grievances could be the subject of reform and negotiation - they could be rationally identified and eliminated. Differences of identity, on the other hand, have deeper, cultural origins. The fact that in the NKAO there were hundreds of ancient Armenian stone crosses (khachkars), but no Azeri cultural relics of any kind prior to the 18th century, spoke volumes to every Karabakh Armenian.

In Soviet times, any public expression of a political desire to join Armenia was fraught with the risk of arrest. Glasnost, limited though it was, opened up new possibilities for the Armenians in NKAO and Armenia to speak out. Masses of individual and collective letters from Armenians were sent off to the Kremlin, demanding a reattachment of the NKAO to Armenia. The Armenians accused Geidar Aliyev - a long-time first secretary of the AzCP Central Committee and a Politburo member since 1983 - of conducting an anti-Armenian policy. In Karabakh itself, a petition campaign in favour of reunification with Armenia was in progress since the second half of 1987. Highly-placed Armenian public figures like the Chairman of the USSR Council of Ministers' Economic Bureau, Abel Aganbeghian, or writer Zori Balayan, author of "The Hearth", a novel about Nagorno-Karabakh, also pressed the Armenian case both in the USSR and abroad. All this Armenian activity, which continued for many months - the last stage in the Armenian struggle for Karabakh which had been waged in various forms for centuries - went unreported in the central press in Moscow and received absolutely no reaction from the higher Soviet authorities. The latter still thought that the national question in the USSR had been solved for good. Stronger pressure was needed to make them understand that Karabakh was still an issue. That pressure was not long in coming.

For their part, the Azeris, basing themselves on the hundreds of years of Moslem rule in the region, pointed out that Karabakh was their land, that many famous Azerbaijani poets and composers came from Karabakh and that the Armenian public had for years been taught an enemy image of the Azeris.(9) The Azerbaijani authorities, indignant over what they viewed as a concerted Armenian drive to secure Karabakh for Armenia, responded with repression. At the end of 1987, a mass beating of protesting Armenians occurred in the village of Chardakhly in the north-west of the NKAO. The incident served as a premonition of even worse events to come, in 1988.

The Conflict Erupts: February 1988

On 20 February 1988, the Oblast Soviet of the NKAO weighed up the results of an unofficial referendum on the reattachment of Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia, held in the form of a petition signed by 80,000 people.(10) In 1979, the entire population of the NKAO was 162,000, with 123,000 Armenians and 37,000 Azeris.(11) On the basis of that referendum, the session of the Oblast Soviet of Nagorno-Karabakh adopted the appeals to the Supreme Soviets of the USSR, Azerbaijan and Armenia, asking them to authorize the secession of Karabakh from Azerbaijan and its attachment to Armenia. Baku rejected the NKAO Oblast Soviet's decision. The line taken by the Centre seemed to be to wait and see, giving the Azerbaijani authorities the opportunity to resolve the crisis as they saw fit.

After the first direct clash between an Azeri crowd and Armenian residents, near Askeran, in which about 50 Armenians were wounded and two Azeri attackers killed, Deputy USSR Procurator-General A. Katusev, speaking on central TV on 27 February, told the audience about the killing of two young Azeris, specifically naming the nationality of those killed. This announcement may have acted as a catalyst. Within hours, a pogrom against Armenian residents began in the city of Sumgait, 25 km from Baku. The pogrom, obviously prepared months in advance and marked by forms of extreme cruelty, lasted for three days, with the Azeri police nowhere to be seen. Phone calls to the police or the ambulance service went unanswered. Leading AzCP functionaries took part in the meetings which preceded mob violence, and a local Party boss even led the crowds. Moreover, in 1988 the KGB machine with its network of informers was still functioning, from which it may be presumed that Baku, if not the KGB in Moscow, had known about the preparations for the pogrom. Soviet (Russian) troops, including those in Sumgait itself, apparently had strict orders not to shoot. It was not until the third day of the killings that Soviet troops finally intervened, arresting some small fry, mostly youngsters.(12) On orders from Moscow, the Sumgait affair was judicially covered up and the press largely silenced.

The failure of Soviet leaders to use force to protect civilians was to have important repercussions in subsequent ethnic conflicts in the Caucasus and Central Asia: by making it appear that violence paid, it unleashed a cycle of violence. It was clear that there would be no punishment for ejecting a national minority under the threat of terror. For the Armenians, Sumgait conjured up memories of the genocide by Young Turks in 1915, ever present in the Armenian psyche. Gorbachev's failure to act, though apparently intended to prevent a wider outbreak of violence in Azerbaijan(13), was viewed as a betrayal by the Armenians, for it was he who had inspired the hope that democracy would prevail on the national question as well.

Soviet Reactions to the Armenian-Azeri Conflict (14)

In the eyes of the Kremlin, what happened in Sumgait was "hooliganism", but what was going on in Armenia - mass mobilization, nationwide strikes and political demands - was much more dangerous. Protests on the scale of a Union republic constituted "pressure on government authority" which could not be tolerated. In contrast to Azerbaijan, where the local party leadership initially had the situation in the republic (apart from the NKAO) fully under control, in Armenia the Communist Party was quickly losing power in a nationwide campaign of civil disobedience. In these circumstances, the Kremlin used diverse tactics: promises of economic aid, propaganda and intimidation, political pressure exerted through the medium of other Union republics, direct rule from Moscow and the use of repressive measures - arrests of the leadership of national movements, the introduction of a state of emergency and, finally, military operations against illegal military formations and the deportation of whole communities.

Besides the destabilizing potential of the conflict for the communist system, the Soviet leaders were concerned at the possibility of an uncontrollable chain reaction of border claims and population transfers across the whole of the Soviet Union. Besides, Gorbachev was wary of antagonizing Azerbaijan, a Moslem republic which, to take just one economic factor, produced most of the Soviet oil-drilling equipment.

The Russian democrats, for their part, gauged the significance of the Karabakh issue for their struggle against the Soviet imperial system. For Andrei Sakharov, the Karabakh issue was a "touchstone of perestroika", the test of the Soviet leadership's ability to settle problems democratically. Sakharov, his wife Yelena Bonner and others argued for priority to be given to the right to self-determination over the principle of inviolability of frontiers. Such a position, underestimating the destructive potential of even the most just of national causes, was dominant among the Russian democrats roughly until the August 1991 coup and the final break-up of the USSR in December of the same year, when the Russian "democrats in power" confronted the problem of dealing with the ex-Soviet republics and Russia's own autonomous entities.

1988-91: Meetings, Ethnic Strife and Soviet Repression

In late March 1988, additional Soviet troops were moved to Yerevan as mass meetings, sit-ins and hunger strikes continued in the city. In Armenia, the Karabakh Committee was formed, soon to be headed by Levon Ter-Petrosian, the future Armenian president. In Karabakh, its counterpart was the Krunk Committee (from the Armenian for crane, a symbol of longing for the homeland). On 15 June, the Armenian SSR Supreme Soviet passed a resolution granting the request of the NKAO Oblast Soviet to reunite the NKAO with Armenia. Two days later, its Azerbaijani counterpart refused the NKAO request. Thus the Soviet leaders were faced with a constitutional crisis: litigation between the two Union republics.

In Yerevan, an attempt by pickets to disrupt air traffic at Zvartnots airport prompted Moscow to decide on a military operation. On 4 July 1988, a landing-party commanded by General Albert Makashov (later notorious for his part in the Moscow parliamentary revolt in October 1993) forcibly dispersed the pickets, killing a student who tried to film the event. Another young man managed to make the film, which was shown on Yerevan TV. The official Moscow press blamed the incident on "Armenian extremists". The whole national movement was said to have been initiated by corrupt "clans", mafia elements that threatened perestroika.(15) In Karabakh and Armenia, people boycotted journalists and publicly burned copies of Pravda and Izvestia.

On 12 July 1988, a session of the NKAO Oblast Soviet took a decision to leave Azerbaijan and rejoin Armenia. The AzSSR Supreme Soviet annulled it the same day. Thus the decision of 12 July marked the start of the "war of laws" throughout the USSR. By that time, the NKAO had already broken off all economic and political links with Baku. From then on, the NKAO could only be reunited with Azerbaijan by force.

In Azerbaijan, the social dynamic was characterized by an interplay of three distinct strata of the population. The Russian researcher Dmitri Furman characterized them as follows. Firstly, there was the marginalized city "mob" - the plebs torn from a rural, traditional Islamic way of life and plunged into crime-ridden factory towns. Prone to revolt and fanaticism when aroused by some external jolt (such as Armenian actions), at quieter times it was passive and indifferent to whatever authority held sway over it. These "lower depths" were soon to increase in number with the influx of refugees. Secondly, there was the Baku intellectual and bureaucratic elite, increasingly Russified in the 1960s and 1970s (some bureaucrats and intellectuals spoke excellent Russian, but their Azeri was less good). The CP and CP-related elites feared the benighted plebs and not infrequently channelled their anger into pogroms against the Armenians and, later, into the national war effort in Karabakh. Thirdly, there was the pan-Turkist and pro-Western stratum of the Azeri intelligentsia - often provincial and village-born - inspired by the example of the short-lived Azerbaijani Republic of 1918-1920. These strata would find their exponents in the political turmoil of the years to come.(16)

Starting in May 1988, mass meetings in Baku were led by the inflammatory and fanatical Varlyg (Reality) organization headed by a worker, Neimat Panakhov (Panakhly). The Baku intelligentsia grouped around the Baku Scientists' Club, which in summer 1988 formed an initiative group to set up the Azerbaijani Popular Front (APF). The two groups did not succeed in finding common ground until early 1989. The AzCP leader, Abdurrakhman Vesirov, drifted helplessly between the masses and the intelligentsia, despised by both.(17) In late autumn 1988, unrest in Azerbaijan was sparked by the projected construction by an Armenian factory of a boarding-house and houses for refugees in the Topkhana (Khachin Tap) area in the NKAO: a blatant case of a "creeping Armenian annexation", in Azeri eyes. A permanent mass meeting started in Baku on 17 November. The CC CPSU (Central Committee, Communist Party of the Soviet Union) representative in the NKAO, Arkadi Volsky, gave orders to stop the construction. But the Baku meeting continued. The demands soon ranged from the abolition of the autonomous status of Karabakh to the creation of an Azerbaijani autonomous region in Armenia, the arrest of the Krunk and Karabakh committees and the removal of Genrikh Pogosian as NKAO party leader. Slogans like "Glory to the heroes of Sumgait" also appeared. They were followed by acts of violence, particularly in Kirovabad (Ganja). In late November, 1988, a mass exodus of Armenian refugees from Azerbaijan started; within two weeks, more than 200,000 Armenians had left the republic, mostly for Armenia. By January 1989, only a small number of the Baku Armenians still remained there.

During the night of 24-25 November, Soviet troops entered Baku and a state of emergency was declared. On 5 December, on orders from Vezirov, the troops - using force - dispersed and arrested those taking part in the meeting. The next day, thousands of workers went on strike in Baku.(18) A state of emergency was to continue in Azerbaijan for months.

As the Baku meeting and acts of violence continued, tension was growing in Yerevan. On 22 November, the Armenian parliament was virtually dissolved and a state of emergency imposed in the Armenian capital. The aim of the state of emergency was clear: to crush the Karabakh Committee and bolster the communist leadership. Significantly, the emergency regime was installed in Yerevan - although there was no ethnic violence there - but not in Armenian mixed-population districts, from where the Azeri population began to be expelled. In most cases, the expulsion was organized by Armenian CP leaders and other officials. Azeri writers put the number of those expelled at 165,000 and those killed at 216, including 57 women, 5 infants and 18 children of different ages.(19) Armenians dispute these figures.

On 7 December 1988, an earthquake hit Armenia, killing 25,000. The Soviet leadership took advantage of the earthquake to arrest and jail members of the Karabakh Committee. These were brought to Moscow and kept in jail for half a year (until the first Congress of the USSR People's Deputies), as were several members of the Azerbaijani opposition movement (Neimat Panakhov and Mohammed Gatami, among others) who were arrested in Baku. Having arrested the "instigators" of the Armenian and Azeri national movements, the Kremlin tried to conciliate both peoples by adopting some of the demands made by each of the different sides. Thus, it seemed to meet Azeri demands by removing Pogosian as NKAO party leader (January 1989), postponing indefinitely the election of a new head of the Oblast Party Committee and liquidating the elected bodies in the autonomous region. At the same time, from 12 January 1989, the task of ruling Nagorno-Karabakh was entrusted to the newly-founded NKAO Special Administration Committee (SAC), headed by Arkadi Volsky. This could be interpreted as a concession to Armenian demands for the NKAO to leave Azerbaijan's jurisdiction de facto and for direct rule by Moscow. Volsky's programme(20) included forging economic and cultural links between the NKAO and Armenia. In Azerbaijan, the very existence of the SAC, set up on orders from Moscow, generated suspicions that the region was being annexed by Armenia by stealth.(21)

In February-March 1989, Varlyg and the initiative group which was to found the APF formed an APF Co-ordination Committee (5 people from each group). Soon the leadership of the fledgling APF was taken by Abulfaz Elcibey, a pan-Turkist, pro-Western Orientalist who did not belong to either grouping. The APF was a body geared to single-issue mass protest actions and it sporadically grew in strength in crisis situations, especially those created by the Armenian pressure on Azerbaijan. Vezirov stubbornly refused to register the APF throughout 1988 and most of 1989.

By summer 1989, Gorbachev's perestroika had led to a softening of policy in the Caucasus. In Armenia, the emergency regime was lifted, members of the Karabakh Committee returned to the republic, and the Armenian Pan-National Movement (APNM), with a programme of broad political reform, began to be formed. As Volsky's committee failed to fulfil the aspirations of the Karabakh Armenians, a movement for the re-establishment of elected bodies at all levels started in Nagorno-Karabakh.

In July 1989, the APF was finally formed. APF leaders criticized the republican leadership for failing to secure Nagorno-Karabakh for Azerbaijan. AzCP leader Vezirov, unable to bring the NKAO under Azeri control or to impress on the Centre the need to do so, softened his stand on the APF by allowing it giant meetings in Baku in late July and August 1989, which demanded that the SAC be abolished and the APF allowed to register. For Vezirov, this was a means of putting pressure on Moscow. For its part, the APF intensified its struggle, resorting to strikes in late August. Finally, on 29 September 1989, the Supreme Soviet of Azerbaijan adopted a resolution on the SAC at the request of the APF, which was registered soon afterwards. The months that followed saw Azerbaijan sliding into anarchy, with Vezirov's power weakening and that of the APF growing.(22) By organizing the blockade of Armenia, the APF gained considerable authority in the eyes of the people of Azerbaijan. On 28 November 1989, the USSR Supreme Soviet abolished Volsky's Committee.

In December 1989, the futile efforts by the Centre to resolve the crisis in Nagorno-Karabakh, together with the inability of the republic's leadership to defend Azerbaijan's perceived national interests, the helpless condition of the refugees and an assortment of local grievances, led to a popular explosion spearheaded by the APF. A decision by the Armenian Supreme Soviet to incorporate Nagorno-Karabakh, taken on 1 December 1989, seemed to be the last straw. In Lenkoran, power passed into APF hands in an effort to "draw Moscow's attention to the need for a speedy resolution of the NKAO problem".(23) In Nakhichevan and elsewhere on the Soviet-Iranian border, the APF organized a mass campaign to destroy border installations (almost 700 km of the border was smashed). The APF viewed the movement which started in Nakhichevan as part of the drive for Azeri independence, inspired by the fall of the Berlin wall. Soviet Army units began to be forced out of the Nakhichevan ASSR.

The Soviet authorities feared that the forthcoming elections to local power structures would give the APF a clear majority. In these conditions, the anti-Armenian pogroms that started in Baku provided the Soviets with a much-needed pretext for a military crackdown on the APF. From 13 January, the pogroms in Baku took on an organized character: the city was methodically cleared of Armenians, house by house. There is a wealth of data on murders committed with extreme brutality.(24) The exact number of victims is unknown, as no investigation into anti-Armenian pogroms has ever been carried out.(25) Again, Moscow did not order the troops (a large Baku garrison) to help the victims. The APF issued a statement strongly condemning the pogroms, but said they were the result of the Armenian aggression, which had provoked the 200,000 Azerbaijani refugees from Armenia and Karabakh into acts of desperation.(26) The role of the APF in the ethnic violence was ambiguous: on the one hand, it had whipped up the anti-Armenian hysteria that had made the pogroms possible, on the other, when these actually broke out, it assumed the task of evacuating people from Azerbaijan to safety.

It was not until 15 January that the Presidium of the USSR Supreme Soviet imposed a state of emergency - not in Baku, where the pogroms had taken place, but in Karabakh and the areas adjoining Iran. Four days later, failing to get approval from the Supreme Soviet of the republic for such a move, it declared one in Baku as well, ordering Soviet troops to enter the city the next day. The Azerbaijani parliament condemned both the state of emergency in Baku and the arrival of the troops. The Soviet military push into Baku was marked by multiple acts of wilful murder of civilians. The tanks and armoured cars of the Soviet Army had to remove barricades which were often defended by unarmed Azeri youths. The army fired automatic weapons and machine-guns at random, causing many civilian deaths. In a fact-finding visit to Baku, observers from the Shield Union - a Moscow-based group of former army officers and jurists monitoring human rights in and relating to the army - failed to discover the "armed APF militants" whose presence was said to have justified the Soviet Army shooting.(27) Nor was Islamic fundamentalism involved in the crisis as a destabilizing factor. The official Soviet versions regarding the "Islamic factor" were probably directed at the West, whose sympathy for Gorbachev in those days prevented many from seeing the situation as it was. US President Bush, for example, saw the intervention in Baku as justified by Gorbachev's need to "keep order".(28)

After the "Black January" tragedy, tens of thousands of Azeri communists burned their party cards, as a million-strong crowd in Baku followed the funeral procession. Many APF leaders were arrested; however, they were soon released and were able to continue their activity. Vezirov fled to Moscow; Ayaz Mutalibov replaced him as party leader in Azerbaijan. Mutalibov's reign from 1990 to August 1991 was "quiet" by Azerbaijani standards. His rule was marked by the "enlightened authoritarianism" of the local nomenklatura, which traded communist ideology for national symbols and traditions in order to consolidate its power. 28 May, the anniversary of the first Azerbaijani Democratic Republic of 1918-20, became a national holiday, and official homage was paid to the Islamic religion. Furman notes that the Baku intelligentsia supported Mutalibov in that period. A consultative council with the participation of opposition leaders was set up, and it was with the consent of this council that Mutalibov was first elected President by the Supreme Soviet in May 1990. In autumn 1990, Mutalibov organized elections to the Supreme Soviet. Of the 360 delegates, only 7 were workers, 2 were collective farmers and 22 intellectuals. The rest were members of the party and government elite, managers and police officials. The APF received 31 mandates (10%) and, in Furman's view, it had little chance of getting more in a situation of relative stability.(29)

In the wake of the "Black January" crisis in Azerbaijan, which led to military clashes between Soviet and APF units in Nakhichevan, a sort of compromise was reached between Mutalibov's regime and the Union leadership: CP rule in Azerbaijan would be restored, but the Centre would render Mutalibov political assistance - at the expense of Armenia and the Armenian movement in Nagorno-Karabakh. The Soviet leadership, in turn, wanted to shore up Mutalibov for fear of losing not only Georgia and Armenia, but the whole of Transcaucasia. The former's attitude towards Nagorno-Karabakh became all the more negative as the APNM won the election in Armenia in summer 1990. In Nagorno-Karabakh, the state of emergency regime was, in fact, one of military occupation. 157 out of 162 "passport control" operations in 1990 - which, in reality, were intended to terrorize the population - were made in ethnic Armenian villages.(30)

Towards autumn 1990, after the elections in all three Transcaucasian republics, communists retained power in Azerbaijan alone. Support for the Mutalibov regime was acquiring added significance for the Kremlin, which aimed at safeguarding the unity of the USSR (Azerbaijan voted "in favour" of the preservation of the USSR in March 1991). The blockade of Nagorno-Karabakh was more stringently enforced. The strategy worked out jointly between Azerbaijan and the high-ranking Soviet military and political leaders (especially those who would later stage a coup in August 1991) provided for the deportation of at least part of the population from the NKAO and adjoining Armenian settlements.

The deportation operation received the code name "Operation Ring". It unfolded for four months, until the putsch of August 1991. During that period, about 10,000 people were deported from Karabakh to Armenia, with the army and OMON riot police depopulating 26 villages and killing 140-170 Armenian civilians in the process (37 of whom were killed in the villages of Ghetashen and Martunashen).(31) Azeri villagers from the NKAO, speaking to independent observers, also spoke of massive human rights violations at the hands of Armenian militias. The Soviet army operations in Karabakh only led to the progressive demoralization of the troops themselves. Nor did they stop the armed struggle from proliferating in the region.

Nagorno-Karabakh: Proclamation of Independence

After the August 1991 putsch in Moscow, almost all the organizers and direct executors of Operation Ring lost their power and influence. Still in August, army units in the Shaumian (Azeri name: Geranboy) Raion (raion in Russian is the equivalent of a county) received an order to stop fighting and withdraw to their permanent quarters. On 31 August, the Azerbaijani Supreme Soviet passed a declaration on the re-establishment of the independent Republic of Azerbaijan, i.e., the one which had existed in 1918-20. For the Armenians, this meant that the legal foundation for the Soviet-era autonomous status of the NKAO was now revoked. The Karabakh side countered the proclamation of Azeri independence by proclaiming the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic (NKR) on 2 September 1991, at a joint session of the NKAO Oblast Soviet and the Soviet of the Armenian-populated Shaumian Raion. The NKR was proclaimed within the borders of the former autonomous oblast and of the Shaumian Raion (which had not been part of the former NKAO).

On 26 November 1991, the Azerbaijani Supreme Soviet passed a law abolishing the autonomy of Nagorno-Karabakh. On 10 December, the NKR Supreme Soviet, consisting solely of Armenian representatives, proclaimed the independence and separation of Nagorno-Karabakh from Azerbaijan on the basis of a referendum of the Armenian population. The Armenian legislators have so far not acted upon the apparent contradiction between the proclamation of NKR independence and the still unrevoked ruling by the Armenian Supreme Soviet of 1 December 1989, which had proclaimed that Nagorno-Karabakh was reunited with Armenia proper. Armenia stated that it had no territorial claims on Azerbaijan. Such a position allows Armenia to interpret the conflict as one between Karabakh and Azerbaijan, in which Armenia is taking no direct part. Armenia failed officially to recognize NKR independence by the same logic and for fear of worsening its international position. In recent years, debate in Armenia has continued on the question: would the repeal by the Armenian parliament of its "annexationist" ruling of 1 December 1989 and a recognition of the NKR make formal, all-out war with Azerbaijan inevitable (Ter-Petrosian), or would such recognition help persuade the world community that Armenia is not an aggressor-nation? The latter line, among others, was advocated in June 1993 by the secretary of the commission on Artsakh (Karabakh) of the Armenian Supreme Soviet, Suren Zolian, who argued that unless the NKR is recognized as a subject of international relations, entire responsibility for it rests with Armenia, and the point made about Armenian aggression gains a certain amount of credit.(32) In Nagorno-Karabakh itself, a degree of ambivalence about being independent, being part of Armenia or applying to be admitted into Russia is underscored by the fact that, at the end of 1991, NKR Supreme Soviet Chairman Georgi Petrosian sent a letter to Yeltsin, asking for the NKR to be incorporated into Russia. He received no reply.(33) On 22 December 1994, the parliament of the NKR elected Robert Kocharian, former chairman of the State Defence Committee, as President of the NKR until 1996.

Armenia and Azerbaijan: the Dynamics of the Political Process

In autumn 1990, Ter-Petrosian of the APNM won the presidency in a general election. The APNM differs from the Armenian opposition parties in trying to prevent Armenia from being directly involved in the Karabakh conflict and trying to contain the conflict in every possible way. A major APNM concern is to foster good relations with the West. The Armenian APNM leadership takes account of the fact that Turkey is a NATO member and the main US ally in the region. It accepts reality by refraining from laying claims to the lands of historic Armenia (now in Turkey), and it wishes to develop Armenian-Turkish contacts.

In contrast to the APNM, the Dashnaktsutiun Party (Armenian Revolutionary Federation) - mainly based abroad, among the Armenian diaspora - is essentially an anti-Turkish party. At present, its efforts are centred on organizing public pressure in the West to make Turkey officially condemn the 1915 genocide. The party has a strong position in Karabakh due to its tough, heroic and uncompromising historical image, the emphasis on military discipline, extensive connections and substantial funds abroad. However, there is intense rivalry between Dashnaktsutiun and President Ter-Petrosian. In 1992, the latter expelled Dashnak leader Grair Marukhian from Armenia; in December 1994, he banned the party, accusing it of terrorism.

Nonetheless, efforts by the Armenian diaspora have borne fruit. Its lobbying in the US Congress in 1992 led to the enactment of a provision banning all non-humanitarian aid to Azerbaijan until it takes "demonstrable steps" to lift its embargo against Armenia. In 1993, the US allocated $195 million in aid to Armenia (second only to Russia among all ex-Soviet states); Azerbaijan got $30 million.(34)

The seven opposition parties - including, besides the Dashnaks, the Union for National Self-Determination headed by the former dissident Paruyr Ayrikian and Ramkavar-Azatakan (the Liberals) - criticize what they see as Ter-Petrosian's high-handed methods in running the country and the concessions made by the Armenian leadership under pressure from foreign powers and the UN (non-recognition of the NKR, agreement in principle to the NKR's withdrawal from occupied ethnic Azeri areas). Despite the relative political stability in Armenia, the popularity of the APNM is dwindling, mostly due to the economic hardship caused by the Azeri blockade. The overall volume of industrial production in the first nine months of 1993 was down by 38% on the corresponding period in 1992.(35) The miseries of living in blockaded Armenia have led to massive emigration, estimated at 300 to 800 thousand in 1993, mostly to southern Russia and to Moscow. The wide discrepancy in the figures on emigres is due to the fact that many of those leaving retained the legal permit (propiska) to reside in Armenia.(36)

In Azerbaijan, the issue of Nagorno-Karabakh also determines the ups and downs of the politicians' fortunes. Until mid-1993, defeats in battle or political crises accompanying the struggle for Karabakh spelt downfall for four successive CP general secretaries and presidents: Bagirov, Vezirov, Mutalibov (with interim presidencies of Mamedov and Gambar in May-June 1992), Mutalibov again, and Elcibey.

During the August 1991 putsch in Moscow, President Mutalibov made a statement condemning Gorbachev and indirectly supporting the Moscow putschists. The APF staged meetings and demonstrations demanding new parliamentary and presidential elections. Mutalibov promptly organized presidential elections (8 September 1991); 85.7% of the voters turned out, with 98.5% in favour of Mutalibov. This outcome was widely believed to have been rigged. The CP was officially disbanded, and on 30 October the Azerbaijani Supreme Soviet, under APF pressure, was compelled to hand over part of its powers to the 50-member Milli Majlis (National Council), half of which was composed of former communists and another half of the opposition.(37) The APF campaign to oust Mutalibov continued, with the latter blaming Russia for deserting him. A final blow to Mutalibov came on 26-27 February 1992, when the Karabakh forces captured the village of Khojaly near Stepanakert, killing many civilians in the process. Azeri sources claim that the massacre, allegedly perpetrated with the help of Russian troops (a fact denied by the Armenian side), resulted in the death of 450 people, with 400 wounded. That the massacre really took place was later confirmed, among others, by the fact-finding mission of the Moscow Memorial Human Rights Centre.(38) On 6 March 1992, Mutalibov resigned. Soon afterwards, ex-President Mutalibov cast doubt on Armenian responsibility for Khojaly, hinting that some of the Azeri civilians may have actually been killed by Azeri forces in order to discredit him.(39) Yagub Mamedov, Chairman of the Supreme Soviet, became an interim head of state. An election campaign was in progress when news came of the fall of Shusha on 9 May 1992. This gave the opportunity to the ex-Communist Supreme Soviet to annul Mutalibov's resignation, absolving him of guilt for Khojaly (14 May). The Milli Majlis was disbanded. The next day, APF supporters stormed the building of the Supreme Soviet and took the presidential palace, causing Mutalibov to flee to Moscow. On 18 May, the Supreme Soviet accepted Mamedov's resignation, elected APF member Isa Gambar as interim President and handed its powers back to the Milli Majlis it had abolished three days before. Fresh elections held in June 1992 conferred the presidency on the APF leader, Abulfaz Elcibey (turnout: 76.3% with 67.9% in his favour).(40)

Elcibey promised to solve the Karabakh problem for the Azeris by September 1992. The main features of the APF programme were: a pro-Turkish, anti-Russian and pro-independence stance, a refusal to join the CIS and the advocacy of an eventual merger with Iranian Azerbaijan (a tendency that worried Iran). Although Elcibey's government included a large number of brilliant intellectuals who had never joined the nomenklatura, an attempt to purge the government apparatus of the old corrupted officials failed, and the new people brought to power by Elcibey became isolated and some of them corrupted in their turn. Popular discontent led to anti-government meetings at the beginning of May 1993 in a number of cities, including Ganja, after which many members of the opposition Milli Istiglal (National Independence) Party were arrested. Geidar Aliyev, a former Politburo member and later leader of Nakhichevan, who had managed to preserve peace at the border between this autonomous republic and Armenia, saw his popularity increased. Aliyev's party, New Azerbaijan, set up in September 1992, became a focus for opposition, rallying a range of groupings from neo-communists to smaller national parties and societies. Defeats in battle and tacit Russian manoeuvres against Elcibey led to an uprising in June 1993, led by a wealthy wool manufacturer and commander, Suret Guseinov (a hero of Azerbaijan). The latter's triumphant, peaceful march on Baku led to Elcibey's being ousted from power and his replacement by Aliyev. Suret Guseinov became prime minister. Aliyev reversed APF policy by bringing Azerbaijan into the CIS, arresting the drive towards a unilateral pro-Turkish stance, restoring ties with Moscow and strengthening Azerbaijan's international position (contacts with Iran, Britain and France). He also suppressed separatism in the south of Azerbaijan (the proclamation of Talysh autonomy by Colonel Aliakram Gumbatov in summer 1993).(41)

However, Azerbaijan's internal instability did not end when Aliyev assumed power. The latter's relations with Guseinov soon soured. Aliyev prevented Guseinov from handling the oil talks (and, hence, from appropriating future oil income). Guseinov also seemed to oppose Aliyev's moving out of the Russian orbit during the course of 1994. In early October 1994, after the signing of the oil contract with the Western consortium on 20 September, there was an attempt to stage a coup in Baku and Ganja, some of the plotters being supporters of Suret Guseinov. Aliyev suppressed the coup attempt (if such it was: some observers in Baku describe it as an intrigue by Aliyev himself) and soon afterwards relieved Guseinov of all responsibilities.

Russian Policy (August 1991 - Mid-1994)

As the disintegration of the USSR was becoming more and more of a reality from August 1991, and was consummated in December, Russia found itself without either a common border or a clearcut mission to perform in the war-torn region of Nagorno-Karabakh. The end of 1991 was marked by a (temporary?) collapse of the imperial ideology and a weakening of control over the army. Among the Soviet/Russian troops in conflict zones, it was now an individual officer, at most a general, who took almost all the decisions. The processes let loose in the army by the dismantling of the Warsaw Pact, the break-up of the USSR and the Gaidar reforms - mass demobilization, withdrawal from "far and near abroad" (including Azerbaijan, from which the last Russian troops withdrew at the end of May 1993), the division of both military contingents and weapons among various republics and the conversion of the war industry to peaceful uses - all this has aggravated the general chaos in the conflict zones. Ex-Soviet mercenaries and freebooters appeared on both sides of the battle lines in Nagorno-Karabakh, Abkhazia and Moldova. In these conditions, what could be called Russian policy in the region had a haphazard, reactive character and remained so until, in 1992-93, a slow increase in the manageability of the state apparatus led to a certain resurgence of Russia's ability to formulate and achieve its aims in relations with the "near abroad" regions (although "hungry and bitter" officers fighting their local wars "at the edge of the ex-Soviet empire" still remains a factor).

From August 1991 on, Russia's policies regarding the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh were pursued in several directions: mediation efforts such as the one made in September 1991 by Boris Yeltsin and Kazakhstan's leader, Nursultan Nazarbaev, and, later, participation in the work of the Minsk Group of the CSCE, the Tripartite Initiative (Russia, the US and Turkey) and single-handed missions like those undertaken by Ambassador-at-Large Vladimir Kazimirov in 1993 and 1994; disengaging Russia's military units from the conflict zone and dividing the spoils of weaponry between the newly independent republics; trying to preserve the military balance in the region and keeping outside players (Turkey and Iran) away from its Caucasian zone of influence. As the economic reforms in Russia progressed, the economic factor in its relations with the new republics grew in importance. In 1993, Russia was increasingly interested in drawing Azerbaijan as well as Georgia into the CIS, and in playing the role of sole peacekeeper in the former Soviet republics.

As the Russian forces in Karabakh which lost their combat role after August 1991 were in serious danger of becoming demoralized, starting in November, Soviet internal troops began to be withdrawn from Karabakh (except for the 366th regiment in Stepanakert). In March 1992, the 366th regiment literally fell to pieces, with part of its non-Armenian contingent deserting and another part (especially Armenian officers and men) seizing the light and heavy weapons and joining NKR's forces.(42)

In the diplomatic field, Russia tried to keep a balance between Armenia and Azerbaijan, preventing a significant shift in favour of either. A 1992 bilateral Russo-Armenian treaty provided that Russia would safeguard Armenia from outside (implicitly Turkish) aggression, but the treaty was never ratified by the Russian Supreme Soviet, which feared Russia's becoming entangled in Caucasian conflicts.

According to the Tashkent Treaty of 15 May 1992 on collective security - signed by Russia, Armenia and Azerbaijan, among others - an attack on one member would be regarded as an attack on all. In less than a month, power in Azerbaijan passed into the hands of a pro-Turkish Elcibey government. When Armenia was threatened by Turkey during a crisis over Nakhichevan in mid-May 1992, Russia's State Secretary Gennadi Burbulis and Defence Minister Pavel Grachev paid a visit to Yerevan to discuss ways of implementing the collective security treaty: this was a clear sign that Russia was not going to leave Armenia all on its own. The US cautioned Turkey, while the Russian authorities warned Armenia against attacking Nakhichevan. Turkey's plans to intervene were called off.(43)

Another incident, in September 1993, led to a dramatic enhancement of Russia's role in the region. When fighting again broke out in Nakhichevan, Iranian troops entered this autonomous republic to guard the jointly-managed water reservoir, as well as Goradiz in "continental" Azerbaijan, ostensibly to aid Azeri refugees. In the opinion of Armen Khalatian, an analyst at the Institute for Humanitarian and Political Studies in Moscow, a request by Azerbaijan for Turkish military aid might have provoked a conflict between Turkey and the Russian troops guarding the Armenian border, as well as a clash with the Iranians who had already moved to Nakhichevan. Baku was thus faced with the choice between letting the conflict escalate to uncontrollable proportions and turning to Moscow. Aliyev opted for the latter, thereby allowing Russia to restore its influence along the Transcaucasian border of the CIS to the virtual exclusion of Turkey and Iran.(44)

On the other hand, while condemning every successive NKR move to occupy more Azeri territory, Russia continued to supply arms to Azerbaijan, at the same time subtly taking advantage of Armenian victories in the field to help instal a government in Azerbaijan which would be more amenable to Russia's interests (i.e., that of Aliyev rather than that of Elcibey) - a gamble which proved to be an initial but not a long-term success. At the end of June 1993, Aliyev suspended a deal between Baku and a consortium of eight leading Western firms (including BP, Amoco and Pennzoil) to develop three Azerbaijani oil deposits. The route of the proposed pipeline, which was to go to the Turkish Mediterranean coast, would probably now pass through Novorossiysk (in Russia) - or so the Russians hoped. The Russian press suggested that the construction of the pipeline, if this were to bypass Russia, might effectively free Central Asia, Kazakhstan and possibly even the oil-rich Moslem republics of Russia itself from Russian influence, whereas, before, the oil riches of these regions came onto the world market through Russia alone.(45) The agreement between Azerbaijan and the mostly Western oil consortium (with 10 per cent of the shares to belong to the Russian Lukoil company) on the production of oil from the three offshore deposits in the Caspian sea was finally signed on 20 September 1994. Russia opposed the agreement, citing as its reason the unresolved question of the delimitation of the Caspian shelf.

At a meeting between Aliyev and Yeltsin in September 1993, an understanding was reached that Russia would guard Azerbaijan's borders with Turkey and Iran. However, by the end of 1994 Aliyev was still refusing to let Russian border guards in. For Russia, an unguarded border in Transcaucasia coupled with a transparent border between Russia and Azerbaijan meant that illegal immigrants, drug dealers or armed criminals might freely travel from, say, Iran straight to Moscow if they so wished. Afghan Mujahedeen reportedly appeared in the breakaway republic of Chechnya in the North Caucasus. This is the rationale behind Moscow's demands on Baku which, in the event of a refusal, could face the prospect of a closure of the Russian-Azerbaijani border, an act that would effectively divide the Lezghin people living in Daghestan, on the Russian side, from their kinsfolk south of the border in Azerbaijan. Thus a new ethnic crisis in Azerbaijan, now involving the Lezghins, could be sparked off.

At the Bishkek CIS summit in May 1994, the NKR was for the first time recognized de facto as a warring party. An agreement approved in Bishkek by the Azeri and Russian delegations on the deployment of Russian troops in Azerbaijan as peacekeepers from 24 May 1994, was, however, never signed by the Azeri government, due to internal and Western opposition. The Azeri opposition felt that Russian peacekeepers might endanger the independence of Azerbaijan, while the West would have preferred a CSCE-brokered settlement. After the signing of the historic oil deal in September 1994, the most likely prospect was that the Western states which acquired tangible interests in the region would take concrete steps to ensure stability in the area, including the sending of international peacekeepers.

Methods of Army-Building in Armenia and Azerbaijan (1992-94)

Armenia started to form army units earlier than Azerbaijan which, under Mutalibov, relied more on Soviet troops. At an initial stage, in 1989-90, a dozen self-styled military organizations and self-defence units appeared, the largest of which bore the name of the Armenian National Army (ANA, commander: Razmik Vasilian). Their chief occupation was raiding Soviet Army depots in search of arms and waging a power struggle against the APNM.(46) From 1 January 1990 to June 1992, large quantities of arms were seized by raiding the Soviet and then Russian military depots and posts (356 raids in the whole of Transcaucasia, of which 164 were in the territory of Azerbaijan and 130 in that of Armenia).(47) In Armenia, "informal" units were largely brought under control after Ter-Petrosian was elected president. In Azerbaijan, the formative stage of the national army lasted well into 1992 and 1993.

The methods of army-building used by the two republics on gaining independence were different. Armenia preferred to keep the 7th Russian Army stationed on its territory under Russian jurisdiction, thus guaranteeing its security. Russia has continued to finance and equip this nominal Russian Army which, lacking new conscripts from Russia, has been increasingly staffed by Armenian officers and men. Armenian officers returned from other parts of the Soviet Union to serve in the 7th Army. In contrast, the 4th CIS/Russian Army in Azerbaijan was staffed by Russian officers and men and more strictly controlled by the CIS, then Russian command. Azeri officers returning to their native republic had to serve in the disparate units which comprised the 20-thousand strong Azerbaijani Army: APF units, the OMON and the National Army (a separate military formation), all without a unified command.(48) The lack of co-ordination began to be eliminated under Elcibey and the process continued under Aliyev. The logistical support and combat missions accomplished by the Russian 4th Army's officers for the Azerbaijani army proceeded on a mercenary basis, not as regular service. Besides Turkish instructors, the Azeris were helped by Afghan Mujahedeen. The Azerbaijani Army's weak spot was the use of national minorities: Lezghins, Kurds and others, who had their own national aspirations and were reluctant to fight.

The brunt of the fighting on the Armenian side was borne by the Armenian forces of Nagorno-Karabakh. By the end of 1992, the NKR forces numbered no less than 7,000. In August 1992, the NKR leadership called a general mobilization of the citizens of Nagorno-Karabakh, a move that could have brought 30,000 under the colours.(49) In fact, this is the maximum the Karabakh Armenian forces could muster, and their actual number was probably smaller. The NKR Army was assisted (especially until summer 1992) by small voluntary contingents from Armenia proper, sent to Karabakh on a rotational basis. Armenian authorities flatly deny official involvement of forces from Armenia proper in the Karabakh conflict, and there is little evidence to prove otherwise. A general mobilization in Armenia has not been announced to this day. Until summer 1992, Armenia was officially against the formation of individual armies in the CIS republics and in favour of unified CIS armed forces under Moscow's command. When this stance found no backing in other CIS states, the formation of separate Armenian armed forces was announced in summer 1992. This period also marks the watershed between purely voluntary Armenian Karabakh forces reinforced by volunteers from Armenia (of which an unspecified number, by some accounts the majority, came from Armenians of Karabakh origin living outside Karabakh) and an organized NKR Army with its central command and military structure distinct from the Armenian Army in Armenia proper.

In keeping with the Tashkent Treaty, which provided for the distribution of the military hardware of the former USSR among CIS members, Armenia and Azerbaijan were to receive an equal share of tanks, armoured cars, ordnance items, attack planes and helicopters, although in practice weapons were divided according to the amounts stored in army dumps on each republic's territory. This explains Azerbaijan's greater share of weapons allocated.(50) Later, the Armenians made good the discrepancy by diplomatic means: by allowing the Russian Army to be stationed in Armenia to ward off the Turkish threat, the Armenians poured materiel and volunteers (but, they claim, not conscripts) into the well-equipped and experienced army of Nagorno-Karabakh.

The extent of Armenia's (and Russia's) involvement in the Karabakh war is still unclear. Armenian sources claimed that in 1994 the NKR accounted for 40 per cent of its budget, the same proportion as before the conflict, with the rest provided by Armenia (formerly, Azerbaijan had made up the difference).(51) Furman recalls that, at a meeting between the Azeri and Armenian representatives shown on Russian TV in 1993, the then Azeri ambassador to Russia, Hikmet Gaji-zadeh, accused the Russian Army of being engaged on the Armenian side during the capture of Kelbajar in spring 1993. His Armenian counterpart did not deny his statement, but reminded the audience that Russia had also helped Azerbaijan during the Azeri offensive in summer 1992.(52)

The war in Nagorno-Karabakh is a low-intensity one, with relatively little manpower and almost no aviation used in combat. This has enabled the Armenians to offset the superior numbers and equipment of their adversary's disorganized units by greater cohesion, discipline and morale. The superior quality of Armenian soldiers was largely responsible for their success in battle, resulting in the capture of Khojaly (February 1992), Shusha and the Lachin corridor (May). Despite setbacks in July (the capture of Mardakert Raion by Azerbaijani troops commanded by Suret Guseinov), the NKR units recaptured the Mardakert Raion in early 1993, then striking deep into Azeri-populated territory: they took Kelbajar (March), Agdam (July), Jebrail and Fizuli (August). In September 1993, they took Kubatly and approached the Iranian border at Goradiz, taking control of 160 km of the Azeri-Iranian border. Further fighting took place in October 1993 (when the Armenians took the Zanghelan Raion) and December 1993-January 1994, this time with the Azerbaijani Army reorganized by Turkish instructors and reinforced by Russian mercenaries and Afghan Mujahedeen (1,500 at the end of 1993, according to the Armenians). Despite heavy losses, the Azerbaijani Army achieved only limited territorial gains, although it recaptured Goradiz and some territory in the Mardakert Raion and Kelbajar Raions. In April 1994, the Karabakh side again scored a victory, posing a threat to Ganja.

The Armenian gamble in the war has apparently been to use their military victories to compel Azerbaijan to recognize the independence of Nagorno-Karabakh, and then to return most of the captured Azeri-populated regions (probably excepting Shusha and the Lachin corridor) in return for peace, possibly brokered by some sort of Pax Russica. So far, the Armenian victories, gained at a cost of at least one person dead in every Karabakh family, have achieved only one goal: the NKR has survived, although Armenia's economy is largely inoperative and the population nearing starvation, while the NKR is still far from being recognized by the outside world. As hundreds of thousands of Azeri refugees have lost their homes and livelihood, the aims set by Azerbaijan are equally far from being reached. A cease-fire, in effect from 12 May 1994, was still holding in December 1994, and the scene was set for new peacemaking efforts.

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Contested Borders in the Caucasus, by Bruno Coppieters (ed.)
© 1996, VUB University Press