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Gorbachev’s Perestroika and Karabakh

In March 1985, Gorbachev, who realized that the socialist system was experiencing the strongest crisis and that serious reforms were necessary to keep the authority of the CPSS, came to the power. That is why he declared a “revolutionary perestroika” in all spheres, “a new way of thinking”, “glasnost (publicity) and the democratization” of soviet society.

However, not all communists, particularly representatives of the higher echelon, liked the new “general line” of the CPSS leadership. Per se, yesterday‟s reactionaries but from different generations, took up perestroika of the USSR. On one hand, the senior generation of the CPSS, spiritually educated on Stalin, made up the central basis of Brezhnev‟s guard. Headed by Yegor Ligach, they came forward for merely cosmetic reforms that would not touch the foundation of the soviet system and were against declaring Stalin anathema. O n the other hand, “the young,” headed by Gorbachev, whom Khrushev had time to infect with anti-Stalinism. They did not think of perestroika other than as a complete break with the Stalinist past. Thus, it was already the second time since Khrushev that one‟s attitude toward the personality of Stalin became the watershed in the leadership of the CPSS.

The conflict between “the seniors” and “the young” was unavoidable and only CC CPSS was authorized to solve that dispute. But, as it mainly consisted of the CC members of Brezhnev‟s time, their sympathies were on the side of Stalinists in the Politburo. Very soon, the invisible outward struggle in the Politburo touched every level of Soviet society and the Stalin theme became the most popular at that period of time. Under these circumstances, Gorbachev began cleaning out the upper echelon of the CPSS. In response, the first blow of Brezhnev‟s old guard followed in December 1986 in Kazakhstan. Then blows followed in Azerbaijan and Armenia.

On the one hand, even a measured “glasnost” caused a real explosion in the national self-consciousness of Azeris and Armenians. Consequently, since 1986 numerous informal organizations engaged in prob lems of history, culture and ecology appeared in both republics. On the other hand, as earlier, both republics were headed by representatives of Brezhnev‟s old guard.

Heydar Aliyev, once almighty head of Azerbaijan, was in Moscow as a Politburo member since 1982 and his discharge from power was only a matter of time after Gorbachev decided, first of all, to discharge Karen Demirchyan from the post of the first secretary of the communist party of Armenia.

In the middle of 1986, the CC of the communist party of Armenia received a document from the CC CPSS on the “serious shortages of the ideological and organizational activity existing in the republic,” but Demirchyan simply did not pay attention to that. Then, at the end of the same year, careful critics of the leadership of Armenia began to appear in the central vehicle of the Mass Media. In response, Demirchyan stated in one of his interviews that perestroika in Armenia began long before April 1985, i.e. before the official announcement of Gorbachev. That was an open call. In the spring of 1987, Gorbachev did not simply criticize but made fun of Demirchyan in public and, according to unwritten soviet law, that meant the inevitable displacement of the latter.

It was urgently necessary to deflect the blow from themselves. Meetings of the communists were held with the resolution of reuniting Karabakh with Armenia. Those meetings were held in the Academy of Sciences of Armenia and in the university in Yerevan on the initiative of the CC of the communist party.

Gorbachev, strengthened by summer, began a determined response and, at the June plenum of the CC CPSS in 1987, with one blow got rid of a big group of Brezhnev‟s old guard. Heydar Aliyev was among them, and he was sent “to pension due to his state of health”, i.e. retirement. A very strong blow was delivered to Demirchyan as well: at the same plenum critical material about the leadership of Armenia, and personally about Demirchyan, began to appear one after another in the central newspapers. And in July 1987, i.e. only a month after the appearance of Gorbachev in Moscow, the first secretary of the Hrazdan district committee of the party Haik Kotanjian demanded, still unsuccessfully, the retirement of Demirchyan at a plenum of the CC of the communist party of the republic held in Yerevan.

After that, events began to take on the character of an avalanche: in August a petition on behalf of 75,000 Karabakh Armenians was sent to Gorbachev. The petition was on joining that area to Armenia. In September, Zoriy Balayan and in October the son of Anastas Mikoyan, Sergey, appeared in the foreign press on the Karabakh theme, pointing out to the Armenian diaspora that the conditions for a fundamental solution of the problem were then very favorable. On 17-18 October the first sparsely attended demonstrations were held in Yerevan (110).

It is clear today that the countdown to this century„s third Armenian-Azeri conflict would be started: namely, in the summer of 1987. As so many years past, it is undoubted that Gorbachev and his opponents in the Politburo and the leadership of the republics hardly realized fully at that time what kind of genie they had let out of the bottle. Certa inly Gorbachev was well informed about events taking place in Armenia and Azerbaijan, but he did not see any particular danger to himself and the Soviet system. On the contrary, he obviously hoped to use the incipient Karabakh movement as a cause to subvert representatives of Brezhnev‟s old guard in both republics. However, the actions of his opponents in the field and in Moscow were also understandable: they hoped to kindle a big fire and take advantage of that as an excuse to displace Gorbachev and to stop perestroika, which was becoming dangerous for them. It did not seem difficult to stop the movement after the implementation of their plans, considering previous soviet experience.

The position of Gorbachev at that time was evidently preferable: he was considered both in the country and outside it as a reformer and a fighter for democracy and for this reason he was very popular. That is why he began the decisive attack: on 18 November 1987 in Paris his advisor on economic issues, Abel G. Aganbegiyan, appeared with the economic rationale for the necessity of joining the NKAA to Armenia. Two weeks later, during his visit to the USA, Gorbachev himself stated in his interview with CNN that in the past serious mistakes were made in determining the borders of the republics and he assured them that he was looking for approaches to solve the issues connected with that.

In an interview given to the Russian newspaper Express-Chronicle, Karen O hadjanyan, one of the activists of the Karabakh movement, very clearly described the mood and reaction of Armenians at that time: “O ur hearts quailed: we took that on our own account. Then the delegation from Nagorny Karabakh went to Moscow where Demichev, the deputy of Gromyko, received two of them: the deputy of the Supreme Council, the notable tractor driver Vazgen Balayan and with him Arthur Mkrtchyan, 28 year-old director of the museum. Demichev told them: “Your affair is right”. And a month later the deputy department of the CC CPSS Mikhaylov, to the question of the writer Gurgen Gabrielyan “Do we have the least pink chance?” answered: “Why pink one? You have the biggest red chance.” That was the beginning of 1988 (111).

This is very reminiscent of the state of Armenian society at the beginning of the century, so clearly noted then by O.Kachaznuni: and that is very natural, as no principle changes on the main issue were made in the Armenian public consciousness even during the seven decades of Soviet propaganda of internationalism. The same Karen O hadjanyan directly pointed out in the same interview that the thought of the possible acquisition of Nagorny Karabakh from Azerbaijan came to his mind when he was “9 or 10 years old. I read and dreamed a lot about the Great Armenia. I thought about the reasons for such historical injustice? And a romantic hope for the rebirth of the nation lived in me” (112). The Armenian publicist A. Yegiazaryan echoed him, mentioning that until February 1988 “We were doomed and sighed while remembering not only the grief of Ararat, which was our emblem, but also for our border, about Karabakh and Nakhchevan” and that‟s why the hearts of Armenians “were poured with blood once we looked at the map” (113). That is why in Moscow, both Tsarist and Soviet, it was not difficult at all to provoke the appearance of Armenians in the necessary riverbed in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, as well as in our civilized century. Thus, in the “epoch of perestroika,” having forgotten history and not understanding that Moscow offered a “red chance,” Armenians a gain believed in the literal, not in the figurative, meaning and started a strong propaganda campaign in the Soviet and foreign mass media.

Meanwhile, the public consciousness and stereotypes that were formed by that time were wonderfully taken into account. The role of Stalin in the Karabakh issue and so-called “Islamic fundamentalism” of the Azeris were used and incredibly overblown, particularly at that period of time and later.

All that immediately affected the position of Azeris in Armenia which, eve n without that, was very hard. In November and December of 1987 and in January of 1988 it led to mass clashes and disorders in the Kafan and Megri districts of Armenia and the first several hundred Azeris were forced to leave their homes and to escape to Azerbaijan. In November 1987, the first buses of Azeri refugees from those districts arrived in Baku. However, the authorities of Azerbaijan, obedient to Moscow, did everything in their means then; thus, those refugees would be quickly sent to Sumgayit and other places and the public, neither in Azerbaijan nor especially outside the country, would know about it (114).

However the situation in the Azeri districts of Armenia, as earlier, remained tense. By 25 January 1988, the number of Azeri refugees increased to 4 thousand people and 3 thousand of them were from the NKAA (115). Thus, for the first time in the post war era, refugees appeared in the territory of the USSR. However, all this became widely known much later, but, for a while, neither the Azeri pub lic nor societies abroad had any information about it.

On 12 February the first demonstrations by Armenians in the NKAA began. O n 20 February a session of the Regional Council of Deputies applied to the Supreme Councils of Armenia and Azerbaijan with a request to transfer NKAA to Armenia. In Yerevan, rallies involving many thousand people immediately began to support that request. Those demonstrations, according to one of the activists of that period “turned out to be thunder in the clear sky for many Armenians… The KGB, especially the Armenian KGB, headed the organization of the demonstrations. It gathered people for rallies, promoted the leaders, provided the necessary information, slogans and all other necessary elements such as the place, buildings, security, etc” (116).

Certainly, the overwhelming majority of Armenians went to those rallies sincerely believing in the slogans declared in the squares. Not only Armenians believed in Gorbachev and perestroika. Azeris, who came out in counter protest rallie s, had the same mood and hope for justice. But a conflict, moreover an interethnic one, has its own laws. Blood was necessary and it very soon poured: on 22 February there was a clash of parties in Nagorny Karabakh near the settlement of Askeran. As a result, two people died and 19 people were injured on both sides. Thus, the account of the first victims of the third Armenian-Azeri conflict was opened. Young Azeries –Ali Hadjiyev and Bakhtiyar Guliyev, inhabitants of Agdam became those victims.

In five days, information about that bloody confrontation below Askeran literally exploded the situation in Sumgayit – the city that was founded four decades ago by Azeri refugees from Armenia and where a new wave of refugees from the Kafan district of Armenia had lately arrived. Late in the evening of 27 February in Sumgayit, the beatings of Armenians began, which, on the next day, grew into pogroms which were stopped by troops and militia only on 1 March. The outcome was the following: 26 Armenians and 6 Azeries died, about 130 inhabitants (54 out of them were Azeri and 34 Armenians) and 275 soldiers and militia officers were wounded. 97 people (93 Azeries, and an Armenian, two Russians and a Lezgins) were arrested, 63 of them were sentenced (117). Unfortunately, the investigation of those two bloody events was not brought to an end and to this day there are no answers to the numerous questions. Among the main questions are the following: who specifically stood behind whom, on whose instruction the firing started, why the militia and troops that had been informed about it beforehand were on the scene too late and how an Armenian, Eduard Grigoryan, who was guilty of the death of five of his countrymen turned out to be among the most active participants of the Sumgayit pogroms? Sentenced to 12 years of imprisonment, after a few years he was released

…on amnesty (!?).

After those bloody events, the socio-political situation in both republics fundamentally changed and the third confrontation of the parties to the co nflict officially began. Even after all this happened, Gorbachev hardly realized the character of the conflict in its full extent: in March 1988, while in Yugoslavia, he stated that “nothing anti-constitutional is happening in Nagorny Karabakh and everything corresponds to the goals and objectives of perestroika.” He achieved what he wanted very soon: on 21 May Karen Demirchyan and Kamran Bagirov retired from their positions at the same time and Gorbachev‟s people, Suren Arutyunyan and Abdurrahman Vezirov, sent from Moscow, headed to both republics.

At the beginning of March 1988, a committee of the movement “Karabakh” that was headed first by KGB intimate Igor Muradyan serving many important ends but mainly as a disguise for the KGB, and supported by a number of representative figures from the intelligentsia, was established (118). However, after May new faces such as Levon Ter- Petrosyan, who were very critical of the power of the communists and paid more attention to social problems and issues of democracy in Armenia and who forced back such persons as Zoriy Balayan, Silva Kaputikyan and Igor Muradyan, began to appear on the committee (119). Nonetheless, according to their contemporary Lilia Grigoryan, no matter how much “the committee Karabakh” did, it disappointed its “godfathers.” The latter considered the movement their brainchild and, while pinning different hopes on it right up to provoking a putsch, in due time they continued to secretly protect it and at the same time carefully and skillfully led the ir game. On the one hand, they prevented any deviation from the Karabakh problem and, with the help of their numerous agents, continually stopped any attempt to raise social issues as tangential matters that would raise obstacles to the reuniting of Karabakh. On the other hand, they provided different services, such as assistance in organizing demonstrations and protection by law enforcement bodies (120).

They provided not only services. South of Yerevan on March 10, five Azeri inhabitants of the Mekhmanlyar settlement were killed. After that, numerous attacks on Azeri villages began to take place in many districts of Armenia, particularly in the Gukark and Kafan districts. That repeatedly led to the victims. Unable to stand it, the inhabitants of seven Azeri villages (about 10 thousand people) of the Ararat district of Armenia escaped to the soviet-Turkish border and lived for four months on the bank of Ara xes river. The violence against Azeris in Armenia continued. By the autumn of 1988, Armenians began to form battle units “according to the principles of partnership and place of residence” (121). The main events that year developed in November and December. First, at a demonstration held on 4 November Rafael Kazaryan, one of the activists of the committee “Karabakh,” openly called “to support the emigration in every way. For the first time in decades we have been given a unique opportunity to cleanse (thus in the text – A.Y.) Armenia …with the help of units …that were established beforehand. I think this is the biggest achievement of our struggle in ten months” (122).

That process of “cleansing” took place throughout November of 1988: Azeri and Kurdish villages were surrounded and almost every day they were exposed to shootings. From 27 November on, attacks on surrounding villages were carried out almost simultaneously in 19 districts of the republic. Evidently, it was done by plan. Meanwhile the attacks were headed by the responsible leaders of the districts with the direct participation of the KGB and militia. The first secretaries of Gukark, Vardenis, Spitak, Idjevan and a number of other district committees of the communist party in Armenia showed particularly great zeal. In total, 186 Azeries and Kurds died or were frozen in the mountain passes during es cape that year. As the attacks on the Muslim population in Armenia continued the following year as well, the total number of the victims of pogroms in Armenia reached 216 people, the overwhelming majority Azeris (123).

Repression and personnel changes in both republics were the response of Gorbachev and his supporters to those bloody events. From December 1988 to January 1989 the leaders of the Karabakh movement were arrested in Armenia and the NKAA. Supporters of Demirchyan were dismissed from their positions. Among them were “Public Prosecutor of the Republic Osipyan and Chairman of the KGB Yuzbashyan, the two initiators and secret supporters of the “Karabakh” movement” (124).

Analogous measures were implemented in Azerbaijan. Many leaders and participants of the November events were arrested. At the same, time by order of Moscow, Vezirov carried out a mass cleaning of the leadership of the communist party, KGB and the MIA. According to the press, 22 first secretaries of the district committees of the par ty were replaced. 612 leaders of different ranks were deprived of their posts in powerful ministries, especially the KGB. On January 12, 1989, a new form of governance – the Committee for Special Governance, headed by Gorbachev supporter Arkadiy Volskiy – was introduced in the NKAA area to stabilize the situation.

However, it was already very difficult to put the genie back in the bottle. Awakened by glasnost, peoples‟ movements in both republics were very popular and growing quickly. At the same time, Armenians did not consider the struggle for Karabakh lost at all. But then, they already distrusted Gorbachev and began to diligently form armed forces. Thus, the Karabakh conflict passed into another stage and it began to increasingly take on the characteris tics of an interethnic conflict. Moreover, in the summer of 1989 Pan-Armenian National Movement (PANM) and the Popular Front of Azerbaijan (PFA) were formed almost simultaneously in both republics. These movements led their people not only in the struggle for Nagorny Karabakh, but also against the communist system. The latter was more dangerous for Moscow. Azerbaijan began to raise more concerns at that time. The authority of the communist party there was plummeting catastrophically, while the rating of the PFA was getting very high. Meanwhile, parliamentarian elections in Azerbaijan were approaching, the outcome of which was not very difficult to predict.

Beginning in the summer of 1989, the situation suddenly became tense in the NKAA and peaceful people often died. In late August, special services tried to play the “Armenian card” for the first time in Baku: they intended to introduce about 300 criminals to the city at the very peak of demonstrations held on August 27 and to organize pogroms against the Ar menians and then to put the responsibility for it on the PFA. But the leaders of the PFA, warned beforehand, applied to the authorities with a demand to prevent it. Thus, the first attempt of pogroms in Baku was prevented.

The KGB took that blunder into account and began to prepare operations more thoroughly. By the end of 1989, the leadership of the KGB in Azerbaijan consisted almost completely of officers sent there from Moscow. In early January 1990, a new landing (of about 30 people) consisting of the highest leadership of the KGB of the USSR and headed by First Deputy of the Chairman of the KGB – General, F.Bobkov, arrived in Baku. A little bit later, representatives of the higher echelon of the CC CPSS – Y.Primakov, A.Girenko and V.Mikhaylov – as well as the leaders of the army (the Minister of Defense D. Yazov ) and of the internal troops (Minister V.Bakatin) arrived. On 13 January the pogroms against Armenians began at the very peak of the demonstrations held in Baku. Meanwhile, the militia and milit ary units did not openly intervene. As a result, 66 Armenians and 2 Azeris died. O nly on 20 January a week after the beginning of pogroms, did Soviet troops, destroying everything in their way, enter Baku amidst accompanying propaganda about “Muslim fundamentalism.” According to official data, 131 Baku inhabitants died and 744 were injured (125). A serious blow was delivered to the PFA. The communists then kept their authority in Azerbaijan under the guard of soviet bayonets. However, Gorbachev, engaged with Azerbaijan, overlooked Armenia: on August 04 1990, Levon Ter-Petrosyan, the leader of the ANM became the speaker of parliament and headed the republic. Fearing that, Gorbachev moved on to a “carrot and stick” policy. O n 27 and 28 August 1990, a confrontation between citizens and soviet troops was provoked in Yerevan and, as a result, 23 Armenians and 2 soldiers died. The soviet army began active operations against Armenian military units, which by that time had formed in the NKAA and in Armenia. An awesome ultimatum from Gorbachev demanding the surrender of weapons followed from Moscow. The pragmatic Ter-Petrosyan made the necessary concessions: he started active negotiations with Gorbachev and introduced significant corrections in the personnel policy, providing communists with the lion‟s share of ministerial posts. In response, Gorbachev “softened” and no longer remembered his ultimatum on the surrender of weapons. Moreover, the command of the Soviet Army secretly began to provide the Armenians with weapons. O ne of the leaders of the Karabakh movement, Ashot Manucharyan, who later became the chief advisor of President Ter-Petrosyan on strategic issues of national security, confirmed this, stating that “the storieswhich presented the attacks as an attempt to seize automatic guns and technology only camouflaged the collusion involved in the sale” (126).

After the PANM came to power, the first official negotiations also began between the struggling parties. In September 1990, negotiations between leaders of t he USSR and both republics were held in Moscow. However, the outcome was unfavorable, as the main contradictions, which play a defining role even today, were revealed: both parties refer to international law and the Final Clause of the 1975 Helsinki agreement; however they proceed from different principles. Azeris defend territorial integrity and Armenians consider a nation‟s right of self determination the priority.

Meanwhile, in April 1991, Ter-Petrosyan signed a resolution nationalizing the property of the Communist Party of Armenia. Moscow‟s response followed immediately: in May and June of 1991, soviet troops deported Armenians from 22 villages in the NKAA and Shaumyan‟s district of Azerbaijan. Meanwhile, dozens of peaceful inhabitants died. At the same time, the situation on the Armenian-Azeri border became more tense.

After the failure of the August putsch, beginning in the fall of 1991, the second post-soviet stage of the conflict began. That occurred when the collapse of the USSR, legally documented in December 1991, occurred and Gorbachev retired as the last leader of that huge communist power. Azerbaijan and Armenia became independent republics and the Karabakh conflict entered a new stage, quickly taking on the character of a war between two republics.

The aforementioned events immediately affected the nature of negotiations: the head of Russia, Boris Yeltsin, and the head of Kazakhstan, Nursultan Nazarbayev, most popular at that period of time, arrived in the region in September 1991 and offered their services as mediators. As a result, on 23 September 1991, an agreement to peace negotiations with the mediation of Russia and Kazakhstan was signed for the first time between Azerbaijan and Armenia in the city of Zheleznovodsk, situated in the North Caucasus. O n 16 November 1991, a new agreement on a phased breaking of blockades on transport pathways was signed by the two parties. However, on November 20, battle-hardened Armenians from Nagorny Karabakh damaged an M-8 helicopter on board which were not only high ranking officials of Azerbaijan but also representatives of Russia and Kazakhstan. All the passengers (21 persons) died. That terrorist act inflamed the situation in the region. On 23 November the parliament of Azerbaijan abolished the NKAA as an administrative unit and a little later, on 10 December 1991 Karabakh Armenians organized a referendum on the independence from Azerbaijan of the self-proclaimed Nagorny-Karabakh Republic. In late December, the USSR also ceased to exist. All that fundame ntally changed the geopolitical situation in the region.

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