After Sumgayit, the conflict around Nagorno-Karabakh escalated dramatically. An anti-Azerbaijani propaganda campaign was also launched on an all-Union and international scale using an expertly simulated image of the Azerbaijani nation.
Thus, an important, one might say, strategic goal was being achieved—the Armenian side, which provoked an explosive process of interethnic confrontation, appeared in the post-Sumgayit situation as its victim, while Azerbaijan began to be perceived from that moment on as nothing but the reactionary, irreconcilable aggressor.
The Sumgayit events gave an excuse to the Armenian nationalists to begin consistently driving Azerbaijanis out of their lands in Armenia. A few days after the events, on March 2, 1988, a new wave of Azerbaijani refugees from Armenia was documented: many Azerbaijani families expelled from the rural areas of Armenia appeared in the Zangilan and neighboring regions of Azerbaijan.
Facing an acute political crisis in Armenian-Azerbaijani relations, the Soviet authorities desperately sought a way out of this situation. The Kremlin hoped to curb the raging separatist passions by budgetary allocations, by changing the local leadership, by attributing everything that was happening to the actions of irresponsible individuals.
G.P. Razumovsky and P.N. Demichev’a (the Secretary of the Central Committee of the CPSU and the First Deputy Chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR, respectively) visits to Armenia and Azerbaijan, including the NKAO, were followed by the dismissal of B.S. Kevorkov, who had headed the NKAO party organization for 14 years in a row and made no secret of the fact that he had completely lost control of the situation in the region.
Then the decree of the Central Committee of the CPSU and the Council of Ministers of the USSR “On measures to accelerate the socio-economic development of the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast of the Azerbaijan SSR in 1988-1995” was issued on March 24, 1988. 500 million rubles, a colossal amount for that time, was allocated for the implementation of the decree. However, the launch of the relevant work in the autonomous region ran into resistance from the regional leadership, which, with the blessing of Moscow, now consisted of new people closely connected to the separatist movement.
Both in Armenia and in the NKAO, the decree was received with hostility, since a political solution to the issue had been expected there first and foremost. The ideologists of the Karabakh movement were not interested in solving the urgent real problems of the daily life of the Armenian population in the NKAO.
At the same time, the new authorities of the NKAO were working to demonstratively cut economic and industrial ties with Baku, other cities and regions of Azerbaijan, and refused to cooperate with the superior authorities of the republic.
In parallel with this, the Azerbaijanis were being increasingly squeezed out of their places of residence in the NKAO. Mass dismissals of Azerbaijanis from institutions and enterprises in Khankendi were carried out, Azerbaijanis were expelled from educational institutions with a mixed composition of students, and Azerbaijanis were evicted from their apartments and houses in the capital of the region. Thus, the struggle for the free self-determination of the region inevitably turned into discrimination of the Azerbaijani population, an ethnic cleansing in the NKAO.
The Armenian-Azerbaijani interethnic ties and relations that had been taking shape and developing for decades were breaking on a massive scale. The more the autonomous region distanced itself from the republic, the less authority the leaders of Azerbaijan enjoyed among the public.
It is true that from the first years of perestroika, the leadership of Azerbaijan headed by K. Baghirov did not take seriously the processes in the country, viewing the calls for acceleration, democratization, glasnost coming “from the top” mainly as another publicity campaign, as a new form of political ploy.
Inertia and conservatism were the words that described the behavior of the supreme party and Soviet leadership of the republic best. Pets of the command and administration system, most of the party and Soviet officials were not capable of independent, unconventional actions. Rather, they were policymakers who followed guidelines and acted in accordance with their talent and experience. As a result, when the events in Nagorno-Karabakh began, the leadership of Azerbaijan took an indecisive position at this crucial moment, perceiving every protest action in Azerbaijan as undermining the friendship of peoples.
Amidst the tensions running high and mass rallies resuming in the republics, the central authorities again tried to react to the events in Armenia and Azerbaijan.
Thus, a change of leadership took place in both republics in May 1988. The introduction of new first secretaries to the party activists of the republics was a pretext for Moscow to send its representatives there. Ye. Ligachyov was sent to Baku, and A. Yakovlev to Yerevan.
Contrary to the expectations of the Kremlin, the replacement of the leaders of the conflicting republics did not produce the expected effect, did not stop the rapid development of the political crisis. However, unlike the new Azerbaijani leadership, the new Armenian leader S. Harutyunyan quickly grasped the dominant nationalist sentiments. On May 28, 1988, a week after taking office, Harutyunyan allowed the banned flag of the first Armenian Republic to be hung in Yerevan for the first time in almost seventy years.
With his tacit consent, the Karabakh movement continued to take on new organizational forms. Following “Krunk”, the “Karabakh” Committee was formed, headed by the future President of Armenia Levon Ter-Petrosyan. From the very beginning of the conflict, the official leadership of Armenia did the bidding of the separatists, covering up their crimes before Moscow.
In the meantime, the Azerbaijani population of Armenia continued to be subjected to power pressure and massive violence. 16 houses were destroyed by Armenians in the village of Shirazly, Ararat region of the Armenian SSR in the first days of May 1988, two houses and one car were burned. 210 families (880 people) from this village lived out in the open on the banks of the Araz River in the border zone for 4 months.
The head of the regional Department of Internal Affairs, the chairman of the regional executive committee, and the deputy chairman of the KGB of Spitak region of Armenia arrived in the village of Saral of the same region, gathered the Azerbaijani residents and announced to them that they must leave the village within two hours. The same suggestion was made to the residents of the village of Gursaly. However, the residents of these villages refused to comply. Two hours later, both villages were cordoned off by 500 trucks and cars. After several shots in the air, shelling of the village began. Units of the USSR border troops arrived from Kirovakan just in time to disperse the attackers.
From June 19 to June 25, 1988, a group of high-ranking party and Soviet officials from Azerbaijan was visiting Armenia.
The report on the results of the trip sent for information to the Central Committee of the CPSU said: “Demonstrating dissatisfaction with the negative decision of the session of the Supreme Soviet of the Azerbaijan SSR of June 17 this year on the issue of transferring the NKAO from the Azerbaijan SSR to the Armenian SSR, groups of hooligans of Armenian nationality committed a number of illegal acts against the Azerbaijani population of Armenia. Thus, on June 17 this year, they committed a pogrom and mass beating of residents of the villages of Masis, Sayat-Nova, Dashtavan, Zangilyar, Sarvanlyar and others. 18 apartments were vandalized, 7 private houses of Azerbaijanis were burned, 11 people were seriously injured, and faces of many of them were disfigured.
Windows and doors are broken in dozens of houses and apartments, fences, garages, cars are smashed, outbuildings are destroyed. More than 8,000 residents have abandoned their homes. The thugs who arrived in buses accompanied by trucks and dump trucks loaded with rebars, stones, sticks and other instruments of beating were particularly brutal. What happened was largely facilitated by publications in the local press, republican television and radio broadcasts, numerous inflammatory speeches at rallies and gatherings in Yerevan and other settlements of the Armenian SSR. Noteworthy is the impunity of the hooligan actions, the inaction of local Soviet and law enforcement agencies, who do nothing to prevent the acts of violence.
A similar pogrom also took place on May 11 this year in the village of Shirazly, Ararat region, where Armenians and Azerbaijanis live everywhere. 57 houses of Azerbaijanis were destroyed, one house was burned down completely and two houses partially. Residents of the Azerbaijani nationality of Shirazly and other devastated villages found protection with the border guards. These refugees have been camping practically in the open air for 45 days now. There are also many children here. The situation is aggravated by the fact that many Azerbaijanis are being fired from their jobs, removed from the permanent passport registration, regularly blackmailed with the threat of physical violence. All this exacerbates anxiety and fear, affecting the people’s morale. Similar incidents are being witnessed in many other regions, especially Amasis, Vardenis, Yeghegnadzor and Azizbekov. All this resulted in many Azerbaijani families leaving Armenia and being currently in the Azerbaijan SSR and other regions.”
Despite these official statements, the new leadership of Azerbaijan still lacked tactical flexibility and wisdom in resolving the Karabakh problem and the issue of refugees from Armenia.
Meanwhile, the continued flow of refugees from Armenia to the republic kept the situation on the verge of a social explosion. Having decided to accommodate refugees outside Karabakh, the new head of Azerbaijan’s party organization A. Vezirov took the Kremlin’s cue in this matter. Vezirov’s constant ingratiating himself with Moscow and his ill-conceived moves aroused discontent among some of the republic’s high-ranking officials, who considered it their duty to speak out.
Let us get back to Fuad Musayev’s interview: “My first conflict with Vezirov occurred when I left for Moscow to attend the session of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR, because I was also a people’s deputy. In Moscow, I suddenly found out that the Armenians of Karabakh had appealed to Gorbachev regarding settling the Azerbaijani refugees from Armenia in the region. The Armenians of the region were very frightened then, because we had sent refugees expelled from Armenia, people who had lost everything overnight, to Karabakh. However, there were people in the Central Committee who began to put spokes in my wheels. For example, I forbade trains packed with refugees from Armenia to arrive at the Baku railway station. All trains coming from Armenia to Baku were stopped in Nakhchivan.
And then Vladimir Dolgikh, member of the Politburo of the Central Committee of the CPSU called from Moscow to voice his indignation to Vasily Konovalov, then Second Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Azerbaijan. The latter called me, indignant that I did not let trains with refugees from Armenia in Baku, saying that Moscow was already unhappy about this. But I stuck to my guns. We managed to send 10,000 refugees from Armenia to Nagorno-Karabakh, some of them were accommodated in Khojaly, others in hostels, in vacant houses.
I still believe that the policy of settling Nagorno-Karabakh with refugees from Armenia was absolutely correct. This was exactly what the Armenians of Karabakh were afraid of. We had already developed at Integrated House-Building Factory 1 a project for building cottages in Nagorno-Karabakh to accommodate refugees from Armenia. 100 cottages were expected to be built every month. At this time, Boris Shcherbina, Vice Chairman of the USSR Council of Ministers, arrived in Baku at the head of a large delegation and gathered everyone for a meeting at the Central Committee. Shcherbina, who had visited Armenia first, began to tell us about how bad the situation with the Azerbaijanis living there was. He laid out in front of him the information on the empty houses in Baku, which we were building very quickly.
Without hesitation, Shcherbina offered to settle the Armenian Azerbaijanis in those houses, saying that Azerbaijanis were being kicked out of Armenia, and they could provide planes and trains to transport them to Baku and accommodate them in the empty houses. At this point I could not take it anymore, I sprang from my seat and rudely interrupted him. I said, “What are you talking about?! We need to move the Azerbaijanis expelled from Armenia to Nagorno-Karabakh, the Armenians are terrified of this. After all, NKAO is an Azerbaijani territory, and we can accommodate refugees from Armenia wherever we want. Have you come to teach us how and where to settle refugees? Houses in Baku are being built for the people on the list who have been waiting for their homes for 25 years. Why settle refugees in these houses? Do you suggest we do the Armenians’ bidding instead of making an authoritative decision and stopping the forcible expulsion of Azerbaijanis from Armenia?”
Shcherbina looked at Vezirov in surprise, meaning, “who is this man anyway?” And Vezirov just said casually, “Oh, it’s the First Secretary of the Baku City Committee.” After some time, Vezirov summoned me to his office. I entered the room, and at that exact moment he received a phone call from Moscow. It turned out that it was Gorbachev himself calling to ask Vezirov when we would move the refugees from Armenia from the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh. Vezirov began to report that he had already sent responsible officials there to deal with this issue.
I couldn’t help myself again: “What are you doing? Do you understand that you are playing right into the separatists’ hands? Why don’t you tell Gorbachev that Karabakh is our territory, and we are free to settle whoever we want there? Why won’t Gorbachev prevent the forcible expulsion of Azerbaijanis from Armenia but prevents us instead from solving this issue on our own?” You see, we could have resolved the issue of Nagorno-Karabakh once and for all as early as in June 1988 by settling there the Azerbaijanis expelled from Armenia. And that would have been it. The Armenians would have fled from Karabakh on their own. But Vezirov did what Gorbachev demanded of him. And after that, we began to lose Karabakh.”
Of course, the position of the head of the largest party organization in the republic was logical. He proposed hurling all effort into the construction of townships, settlements on the vacant lands of Karabakh, where the natural and climatic conditions were close to the cool mountainous areas of Armenia, from where most of the settlers were coming.
In addition, the settlers were fluent in Armenian, which was also important. The following fact also supports Musayev’s judgment: thousands of Azerbaijani settlements in the Karabakh zone would have had a sobering effect on Moscow and Yerevan, who indulged the extremists.