The Revival of the Karabakh Conflict

Fall of Soviet Union

Karabakh issue came to light again in the late 1980s, when Mikahil Gorbachev launched his policy of perestroika (reconstruction and economic reform) and glasnost (openness and freedom of expression). This relaxation of the highly authoritarian Soviet rule was the catalyst which various repressed conflicts and issues in the Soviet Union needed to be re-triggered.

The beginning of the modern Karabakh conflict is usually traced to the glasnost effect when the population of the Armenian-dominated village of Chardakli in northwestern Azerbaijan refused to accept the appointment of an ethnic Azeri as the village's director (October 1987). This led to the local Azeri authorities begining to impose harsh measures against the Armenian villagers and it all ended in clashes between Armenians and Azeris.[51] Armenian sources state that the purpose of these measures was to force out the Armenian population. The news got about 1,000 demonstrators in Yerevan to protest against the treatment of Armenians in Azerbaijan.[52] It was not long before Azerbaijanis in Armenia began to feel the ethnic tension in the country and many were forced eventually to abandon their homes or chose to emigrate in fear of the negative developments of the conflict. The first wave of these refugees reached Azerbaijan at the end of January 1988 and settled in the industrial city of Sumgait in the Caspian Sea.

On February 13, 1988, Karabakh Armenians began to demonstrate in their capital, Stepanakert, and called for unification with the Armenian Soviet Socialist Republic. Six days later, they received the support of mass demonstrations in the Armenian capital, Yerevan. On February 20, 1988 the Karabakh Soviet of People's Representatives (the equivalent of a parliament), with the votes 110 to 17, passed a resolution for transferring the region to Armenia. This action of a regional soviet was unprecedented in Soviet history, but it was in full accordance with the USSR Constitution, specifically the article on the right of secession.[53] The decision brought out tens of thousands of demonstrators, both in Stepanakert and in Yerevan, but Moscow decided eventually to reject (March 23) Karabakh's demands for reunification. IN Azerbaijan, the answer to those requirements became brutal deeds, implemented on February 26, 1988 by Azerbaijani nationalists in Sumgait, country's third largest city and its second largest industrial city on the Caspian Sea. The Armenians of Sumgait were attacked in their homes, their jobs and on the streets. The virulent persecution of the Armenians lasted for two days without the slightest intervention of the Azeri authorities. According to official figures at least 32 people (26 Armenians and 6 Azeris) lost their lives before Soviet troops put an end to the carnage. The massacres in Sumgait were the first of their kind in Soviet history, where the Azeri people took part in the massacring of Azerbaijani Armenians. The Azerbaijani authorities' involvement in the pogroms in Sumgait has been mentioned in various reports in which, among others, where the events in Sumgait were described as "natural and even noble" for the ordinary Azerbaijani people. The violence was also encouraged by Azerbaijani intellectuals.[54]

After the events in Sumgait, a peaceful transfer of Karabakh to Armenia became impossible. In the following year, while Moscow hesitated as to how to act in the matter, the Armenians became increasingly disillusioned with Gorbachev and his program of perestroika, while Azerbaijanis were organized in a strong anti-Armenian nationalist movement. It is appropriate to point out an extremely important and fundamental point of the conflict, namely the cat that how a process of a democratic decision-making turned into an armed conflict and especially in view of Azerbaijan's accusation of Armenia being the "aggressor" and "occupier". Notwithstanding, as it is clear from the mentioned chain of events, it should be clear that neither Armenia or Armenians took up arms, started an armed conflict or an occupation of the neighboring country. The Karabakh population, in full accordance with Soviet laws, but more importantly, in a democratic and peaceful means, exercised their right to self-determination when they on February 20, 1988 voted for the unification of Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast (NKAO) with Armenian SSR. It was only when the government in Baku resorted to violence to subdue the Karabakh movement which the armed conflict with its tragic consequences became a reality.

Soon, the attacks on Armenians spread to other Azeri cities. The unrest culminated in an attempted large-scale pogrom in the town of Kirovabad (today Ganja) which had an Armenian population of about 100,000. On November 23, 1988, aggressive Azeri groups clashed with Soviet troops, who this time were trying to protect the Armenian population. There are various reports on the number of victims, mainly because of the Soviet establishment wanted to avoid any escalation of the conflict by revealing the exact number of victims. The Ukrainian reporter Yuri Rost cites 40 deaths, of which about a third were ethnic Azeris who were killed in the clashes with Soviet troops.[55] Soon, the pogroms also hit Armenians in the capital of Baku. For seven days, starting on January 13, 1990, Armenians were attacked on the streets, but mostly in their homes. The events have been called "Black January" where up to 90 Armenians were brutally murdered, most of them with knife stbbings and beatings. The reporter Robert Kushen from Human Rights Watch writes that "the event was not entirely (or perhaps not at all) spontaneously when the attackers had lists of Armenians and their addresses." [56] New York Times reporter Francis X. Clines, who visited Baku after the events, wrote: "Here and there, boarded windows or soot-blackened walls mark an apartment where Armenians were driven out by mobs and their belongings set afire on the balcony. The Armenian Orthodox Church, whose congregation has been depleted over the past two years by an emigration based on fear, is now a charred ruin. A neighbor said firefighters and the police watched without intervening as vandals destroyed the building at the beginning of the year."[57] What started as a democratic process, with a majority decision by NKAO Deputies, had ended in brutal massacres. The majority of Armenians compared the massacres in Sumgait, Baku and Kirovabad with the prelude to the genocide in Turkey during WWI. But this time they had no intention to sit defenseless and silent until the disaster was upon them.

At this time, the last census in the Soviet auspices was conducted. The 1989 census indicated that there were 192,000 people in Karabakh: 76% of whom were Armenians, 23% Azeris, and the rest were Russians, Kurds, Greeks and Assyrians (see Figure 1).[58] The same figures in 2008 indicated that the population was 139,900 and consisted of 95% Armenians and 5% Assyrians, Greeks and Kurds.[59] All Azeris had been forced to leave the region.

Figure 1

1991 was a dramatic and decisive year for the Soviet Union and its republics. In the spring, attempts were made by introducing new reforms to save the Union from dissolution. However, the discontent with Gorbachev's policy increased constantly within the Communist Party. This resulted in a failed coup which sought to remove Gorbachev from power. Soon it became obvious that the Soviet Union was beyond salvaging when several Soviet republics began to leave the Union. Armenian SSR declared its separation from the union on 23 August and a week later the Azerbaijani SSR announced the same decision. On September 21, 1991 Armenia declared its independence, while Azerbaijan hesitated with its proclaimed on 18 October. On December 25, 1991 the Soviet Union ceased to exist when Gorbachev declared the dissolution of the Union.

During this chaotic time the tension between Armenians and Azeris increased. As the harassments and the assualts escalated on both sides, hundreds of thousands of refugees to were forced to leave Armenia and Azerbaijan. On December 10, 1991, the majority of the Armenians in the autonomous enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh, like other former Soviet republics, participated in a referendum on whether or not the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Republic would proclaim its independence. International observers were invited to monitor the vote which took place in Stepanakert and the regions Askeran, Hadrut, Martakert, Martuni and Shahumian. The list of eligible voters comprised of 132,328 names. 108,736 inhabitants, 82.2% of the total number of registered voters, participated in the referendum. An overwhelming majority of those who did not participate were people in Azeri communities, who boycotted the referrendum by exhortations from Baku. The ballot papers and related information were printed in Armenian, Azeri and Russian with the issue in question and the word "Yes" and "No". The results were not surprising and reflected well the Armenian majority's view: 108,615 had voted "Yes" (99.89% of total votes), while 24 votes (0.02% of total votes) had been put on "No". 95 votes were declared void.[60] AT the same time attempts were made by Moscow to work out a compromise in the form of a proposal for increased autonomy for Karabakh within Azerbaijan's borders, which was dismissed by both sides. Azerbaijan now initiated an open and full-scale military attack on Karabakh, which at that time had neither its own army nor any other armed forces. Armed with hunting rifles and weapons gradually confiscated from police stations and defeated Azerbaijani army units, the Karabakh Armenians began to arm themselves. Soon, the already independent Armenia could no longer remain passive, and Armenians forming voluntary groups from different towns and villages came into the conflict to defend of Karabakh's Armenian population. A full-scale war between Nagorno-Karabakh and Azerbaijan had started.

As already mentioned, the decision by Karabakh's people was fully in line with the Soviet Constitution, specifically the 1977 Soviet Constitution, and more importantly, the constitutional amendment that had been added in 1990, prior to the dissolution of the Soviet Union. According to an analysis performed in June 2000 by the New England School of Law's Center for International Law & Policy (NESL), "Nagorno Karabagh has a right of self-determination, including the attendant right to independence, according to the criteria recognized under international law..." The analysis adds:
The Azerbaijanis argue that political independence for Nagorno Karabagh violates the right of Azerbaijan to territorial integrity. But the claim to territorial integrity can be negated where a state does not conduct itself "in compliance with the principle of equal rights and self-determination of peoples" and does not allow a subject people "to pursue their economic, social and cultural development" as required by United Nations General Assembly Resolution 2625(XXV). [61]

This states that the Karabakh population's decision for independence was, in addition to its compatibility with the existing Soviet laws, also compliant with UN laws.

It should also be noted that when Azerbaijan declared its independence from the Soviet Union, it declared to be the successor to the Republic of Azerbaijan 1918-1920.[62] The interesting point about this statement is that, in those days the League of Nations never recognized the Azerbaijan's incorporation of Nagorno-Karabakh within Azerbaijan's territory. Furthermore, the new declaration of independence (Article 3) clearly declines the contract between Azerbaijan and the Soviet Union, i.e. declares all agreements and decisions taken by Moscow on Azerbaijan to be void, including the one on the inclusion of Nagorno-Karabakh in Azerbaijani SSR. NESL's analysis also establishes the fact that the Nagorno-Karabakh Secession was in accordance with existing Soviet laws. Soon after the Soviet Azerbaijan's proclamation of independence, on August 30, 1991, Nagorno-Karabakh initiated the same process through a unanimous adoption of "The Proclamation of the Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh" in the local legislative councils of Nagorno-Karabakh and the adjacent Armenian populated district of Shahumian. The only difference was that, in Karabakh's case, the independence was proclaimed not from the Soviet Union but from Azerbaijan. This act was in full compliance with existing laws. In fact, the 1990 Soviet law entitled "Law of the USSR Concerning the Procedure of Secession of a Soviet Republic from the USSR" provides that the secession of a Soviet republic from the body of the USSR allows an autonomous region and compactly settled minority regions in the same republic's territory also to trigger its own process of independence.[63]

The analysis also notes that:
On December 10, 1991, the Nagorno Karabagh Republic held its own referendum on independence in the presence of international observers. The vote overwhelmingly approved Karabagh's sovereignty. This action of Nagorno Karabagh, which at that time was part of a still existent and internationally recognized Soviet Union, corresponded fully with the relevant Soviet law pertaining to leaving the USSR. [64]


51) See Claire Mouradian, The Mountainous Karabakh Question: Inter-Ethnic Conflict or decolonization Crisis in Armenian Review, Vol. 43 no. 2-3, 1990, p. 15.
52) See Elizabeth Fuller, Armenians Demonstrate for Return of Territories from Azerbaijan, in Radio Liberty Bulletin, October 20, 1987, p. 1.
53) See Chapter 8, Article 72 in Soviet Union, the 1977 Constitution , (Bucknell University: Lewisburg, PA, 1996);
54) Leonid Ia. Gozman, Elena Grigorenko, Patricia Ruzgis, and Robert J. Sternberg, The Last Empire: A Divorce in the Family of Nations, in Psychology of Russia: past, present, future (New York: Nova Publishers, 1997), p. 399.
55) Richard G. Hovannisian, Etiology and Sequelae of the Armenian Genocide, in George J. Andreopoulos (ed.), Genocide: Conceptual and Historical Dimensions (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1994), pp. 111-140.
56) Robert Kushen, Conflict in the Soviet Union: Black January in Azerbaidzhan (Human Rights Watch, 1991), p. 7.
57) Francis X. Clines, Evolution in Europe; Russians Denied Refuge in Own Country, in The New York Times , 24 April, 1990.
58) Donald E. Miller and Lorna Touryan Miller, Armenia: Portraits of Survival and Hope (Berkley: University of California Press, 2003), p. 7.
59) The National Statistical Service of Nagorno-Karabakh Republic , Year Books: 2002-2008: Population, Stepanakert, 2010;
60) List of observers, the results with other information are available on Nagorno-Karabakh Republic: Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Refferendum: Report: On the Result of the Refferendum on the Independence of the Nagorno Karabakh Republic, Stepanakert, 1991;
61) Public International Law and Policy Group and the New England Center for International Law and Policy, The Nagorno-Karabakh Crisis: A Blueprint for Resolution, Boston, June 2000, p. 22;
62) The Constitutional Act on the State Independence of the Republic of Azerbaijan, Baku, 18 October 1991;
63) Public International Law and Policy Group and the New England Center for International Law and Policy, The Nagorno-Karabakh Crisis: A Blueprint for Resolution , Boston, June 2000.
64) Ibid. However, it should be noted that no country, including Armenia, has recognized Karabakh's independence. One might think that at least the Armenian government should have recognized Karabakh's independence in support of its Armenian population. Nonetheless, despite Armenia's last two presidents being ethnic Karabakh Armenians (R. Kotcharian and S. Sargsyan ), the government has in respect to the ongoing mediation process of the Minsk Group of OSCE refrained from unilaterally take the decision and has declared its intention to instead wait until all parties have reached an agreement.