Gorbachev’s attempt to respond to Armenians
On June 15, 1988, the Supreme Soviet of Armenia passed a resolution that formally approved the idea of annexing Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia.
Following this, on June 17, the Supreme Soviet of Azerbaijan adopted a counter-resolution, reiterating that Nagorno-Karabakh was part of Azerbaijan. Then on July 12, the Regional Council in Stepanakert approved a resolution even more hardline than the one that was adopted in February: it voted for the unilateral secession of the region from Azerbaijan and for renaming Nagorno-Karabakh to the “Artsakh Armenian Autonomous Oblast”.
The logical progression of events and the unwillingness to offend any of the conflicting parties inevitably led the Kremlin to what it had been trying to avoid: bringing the discussion of the Nagorno-Karabakh problem to a high all-Union level—to a meeting of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR. On July 18, 1988, a special meeting of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR was held in the Kremlin to discuss the situation resulting from the resolution of the Supreme Soviet of the Armenian SSR of June 15, 1988 on the unilateral annexation of the NKAO.
For all intents and purposes, the heads of the Union republics, prominent public and political figures representing the peoples and regions of the entire Soviet Union in the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet were to discuss finding a way out of the conflict situation between Azerbaijan and Armenia. In accordance with the provisions of the existing Constitution of the USSR, the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR could not make a decision allowing the change of the borders of Azerbaijan without its voluntary consent. Therefore, before the meeting, its participants received copies of the prepared draft resolution of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet, according to which the status of the NKAO was confirmed as part of the Azerbaijan SSR.
It was clear from the speeches of the representatives of Azerbaijan at the meeting that the strategy of the Azerbaijani delegation in this difficult dialogue was to focus the Kremlin’s attention on the current crisis situation in and around Nagorno-Karabakh, to show the willingness of the Azerbaijani side to solve the socio-economic and cultural problems of the autonomous region, to contribute to overcoming the crisis and not get involved in fruitless discussions hard-sold by the Armenian side.
However, Gorbachev, who took the floor next, instead of supporting the completely constitutional proposals of the Azerbaijani delegation, tried to launch into a discussion of the idea of a compromise, i.e., resubordinating the NKAO to a representative of Moscow, who wouls sit in Stepanakert and control the implementation of decisions passed from the top.
This meant that, while formally remaining a part of the Azerbaijan SSR, the NKAO would be directly subordinate to Moscow. Gorbachev strongly suggested that this proposal be considered again together with representatives of Armenia, which thereby officially received the right to openly interfere in the affairs of the NKAO in the future. However, the speeches of the Armenia and NKAO representatives were, for the most part, so inadequate to the general tone of the meeting of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet that the General Secretary of the CPSU Central Committee would often engage in a bitter dispute with them, occasionally demonstrating superior knowledge of the history of Armenian-Azerbaijani relations.
Of course, the idea of raising the status of the NKAO to the level of an autonomous republic did not come from Azerbaijan. This was Moscow’s idea and it had been discussed even as the conflict was only gaining momentum. Gorbachev himself writes about it in his memoirs, attributing this idea to the Minister of Foreign Affairs of the USSR, G. Shevardnadze. A similar proposal was also put forward by the Secretary for Ideology of the CPSU Central Committee A. Yakovlev in January 1988.
However, Gorbachev wanted this initiative to come from Azerbaijan. In fact, Gorbachev’s approach to solving the issue put the Azerbaijani leadership in a stalemate, attributing to them an idea that did not belong to them. All was missing was the reaction of the Armenian side.
In response to the voice from the audience saying that this idea had been rejected at the rally in Stepanakert, Gorbachev decided to put pressure on the Armenian representatives: “It was proposed to abolish the oblast altogether. Moreover, it is a fact that there are no fewer Azerbaijanis living in Armenia than Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh. Are we going to create an autonomous oblast there as well?”
Addressing Ambartsumian, Gorbachev asked him bluntly, “The demography and the composition of the population changing are often emphasized here. This is presented as an important argument and even as a result of certain policies. Tell me, how many Azerbaijanis were there in Yerevan at the beginning of the century?” The Armenian academician was at a loss and failed to give the exact figure. Gorbachev said, “You should know. Let me remind you: Azerbaijanis made up 43 percent in Yerevan at the beginning of the century. What is the percentage of Azerbaijanis there now? “
Such familiarity of the Secretary General with the subject forced Ambartsumian to admit that only 1 percent of Azerbaijanis currently remained in the capital of Armenia. Further, Gorbachev sharply opposed the Secretary of the Board of the USSR Union of Writers, Deputy of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR V.A. Petrosian assessing the events in Sumgayit as an attempt at genocide.
Gorbachev also reminded Petrosian that if the problem of Nagorno-Karabakh was to be solved only by annexing the territory with a compact Armenian population to the neighboring republic, i.e., by changing the borders, as the Armenian representative suggested, then the issue of 500,000 Azerbaijanis living in Georgia, Tajiks living in Uzbekistan and vice versa, etc., would have to be considered as well.
It seemed that the central leadership finally showed a firm stance and the conflict would end. However, Gorbachev’s concluding speech, which was supposed to sum up the meeting, and the final decisions demonstrated once again that Moscow remained undecided.
As for Gorbachev’s speech, it should be noted that the logic of its structure, the course of his long-winded reasoning, as well as the key points he highlighted and the opinions he expressed, his insights into the past were so vague, multifaceted, and often ambiguous that they could be interpreted in more ways than one.
The overall result of the discussion was the Decree of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR “On the resolutions of the Supreme Soviets of the Armenian SSR and the Azerbaijan SSR on the issue of Nagorno-Karabakh”, which said that the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR, having considered the request of the Supreme Soviet of the Armenian SSR dated June 15, 1988, to annex the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast to the Armenian SSR, considered it impossible to change the borders and the constitutionally established national-territorial division of the Azerbaijan SSR and the Armenian SSR.
Further, the decree said that the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR considered it expedient to send its representatives to Nagorno-Karabakh to act in close cooperation with representatives of the Azerbaijan SSR and the Armenian SSR to ensure the unconditional implementation of the decisions taken.
The decree ended with general, non-committal calls for the restoration of “good, fraternal relations between the Azerbaijani and Armenian populations”, and the hopelessly belated recommendation that “emerging issues of interethnic relations should be resolved in a timely manner, with maximum consideration of both the interests of each nation and ethnic group and our entire socialist Fatherland”.
The confirmation of the constitutional status of the NKAO within the Azerbaijan SSR in the decree of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR was accompanied by ambiguous stipulations, which allowed the Armenian side of the conflict to treat Nagorno-Karabakh being part of Azerbaijan as an annoying formality and ignore it, working with redoubled energy to achieve de facto re-subordination of the region to the authorities of the Armenian SSR.
Thus, despite the center’s efforts, the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict continued to escalate. The fire of intercommunal enmity between the Armenian and Azerbaijani populations of Nagorno-Karabakh flared up increasingly higher, and the Azerbaijani population of Armenia continued to remain in a critical situation.
The final stage
By November 1988, the social and political tension in Azerbaijan reached the point when any political provocation of the Armenian side could cause an avalanche of consequences.
On November 17, a several-day rally marathon began in Baku, quickly spreading throughout the republic. People demanded again and again firm security guarantees for the Azerbaijani population of Armenia. For the first time, demands were made to grant autonomy to the Azerbaijani population of Armenia. The issue of the quickest possible restoration of law and order in the NKAO was raised, some seeing the elimination of the administrative autonomy of the region as a solution.
In this situation, the authorities had to go to extremes. It was decided to introduce a state of emergency and impose a curfew in the capital and some other places. This was a serious political move, meaning the acknowledgment of the crisis of the government, who turned out to be indeed unable to conduct an open dialogue with the people, control the difficult socio-political situation in the republic and had to resort to extraordinary measures.
The decision to impose a curfew in Baku did not provoke an aggressive protest from the population. Moreover, a respectful attitude was shown to the military performing this function. But it was clear that the political, ideological and moral resources of the authorities were on the verge of exhaustion by late 1988. The roots of the crisis that gripped the republic were so deep that the introduction of a state of emergency and a curfew in a significant part of the territory of Azerbaijan could not automatically stop strikes and rallies.
Meanwhile, new issues kept piling up, adding to the complex unsolved interethnic, political, national, socio-economic problems, with which the central and republican authorities could no longer cope. The problem of refugees became the most obvious and urgent of them.
Late November and December of 1988 occupy a special place in the complex centuries-old history of the Armenian-Azerbaijani relations. This period marked the final stage of the complete and now final expulsion of the Azerbaijani ethnos from Armenia. The year 1988 had come a long way from the mass demonstrations in Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh under the slogan of “reunification” in February and was ending with a total ethnic cleansing of the Azerbaijani population of Armenia. The coveted slogan “Armenia for Armenians” was now reality.
The riots in Gugark, Goris, Stepanavan, Kalinin, Vardenis and some other regions of Armenia, with pogroms and burning houses, violence, and dozens of people killed, became the immediate reason for the exodus of Azerbaijanis.
In just three days, from November 27 to 29, 1988, 33 Azerbaijanis were killed in Gugark, Spitak and Stepanavan, and more than 100 people in total. 21 Azerbaijanis were killed in the village of Gezaldara in Gugark region of Armenia. A total of 70 Azerbaijanis were killed in Gugark. In total, 188 Azerbaijanis were killed by Armenians during this period.
Many state officials of Armenia were actively involved in the deportation of Azerbaijanis.
Azerinform’s report dated December 3, 1988 says: “On the night of December 1–2, 3,800 people were taken out of Masis region, 400 people from Spitak, 450 people from Ararat, 150 people from Kalinin, 482 from Kirovakan, 614 from Stepanavan. As reported in the Council of Ministers of the Azerbaijan SSR, the number of refugees exceeded 78,000 people as of December 2. Most of them are now in the Nakhichevan Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic, Kirovabad, Kalbajar, Absheron, Zangilan, Mir-Bashir, Shamkhor, Khanlar, Tauz regions.”
At the numerous requests of Azerbaijani refugees wanting to know about the fate of their relatives and friends who had not been able to leave Armenia in time, groups of officers with authorized representatives of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Azerbaijan and representatives of former inhabitants of Gugark, Ijevan, Krasnoselsky, Vardenis and Kafan regions of Armenia were sent there.
In view of the tense situation in the Armenian SSR and the Azerbaijan SSR, the Council of Ministers of the USSR formed on December 2, 1988 a government commission to provide assistance to refugees, provide them with food, housing, medical, other types of social and everyday services, as well as employment. The commission was headed by the Deputy Chairman of the Council of Ministers of the USSR B.E. Shcherbina and included the Chairmen of the Councils of Ministers of the Armenian SSR, Azerbaijan SSR and Georgian SSR F.T. Sarkisyan, G.N. Seidov and O.E. Cherkezia, and representatives of a number of Union ministries and agencies.
On December 6, 1988, the new decree of the Council of Ministers of the USSR “On unacceptable actions of individual officials in the local authorities of the Azerbaijan SSR and the Armenian SSR forcing citizens to leave their permanent places of residence” was adopted.
This document was not adequate to the real situation in the republics neither in terms of scale, nor in its understanding of the events, nor in terms of the proposed recommendations. The text of the decree was a dramatic proof that even in their good intentions the central government invariably followed the principle of equalizing the responsibility of the parties to the conflict in all critical situations, regardless of who initiated the conflict, where the first refugees came from.
The decree sidestepped the fact of the complete deportation of Azerbaijanis from Armenia. The real topography of the conflict, its temporal and spatial dynamics were also ignored.
Besides, the authorities neglected the fact that, first, the number of Azerbaijanis who had fled from Armenia many times exceeded the number of Armenians who had left Azerbaijan. Second, the Azerbaijanis were leaving the territory of their historical habitation—pastures, croplands, meadows, etc.—that had belonged to their fathers, grandfathers, great-grandfathers, while the Armenians who left Sumgayit and a number of other industrial centers of Azerbaijan, left mainly apartments in panel buildings.
The haste with which this decree was drafted and implemented indicated that Moscow had no intention to restore the ethnic status quo in the republics.
According to the State Statistics Committee of the Azerbaijan SSR, by the beginning of February 1990, 186,000 Azerbaijanis, as well as 11,000 Kurds and 3,500 Russians, had fled from Armenia to Azerbaijan. In mid-1990s, the State Statistics Committee of Azerbaijan registered 233,000 refugees from Armenia and Uzbekistan (Meskhetian Turks) living in the republic.
The review of 1988 showed that regardless of the intentions of the Soviet leadership, the ambiguous nature of its political and organizational efforts increasingly provoked fierce polemics between the conflicting parties, fueling the distrust of the central authorities on both sides. It was obvious by the end of 1988 that the line pursued by the Central Committee of the CPSU on the Karabakh issue not only failed to yield positive effects, but also resulted in grave political miscalculations and losses.
As a result, both Baku and Moscow completely lost control over the autonomous region. Following the deportation of Azerbaijanis from Armenia, intercommunal clashes trended towards purposeful expulsion of the entire Azerbaijani population from the NKAO.