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Why did the Soviet Union “support” Azerbaijan in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict in the summer of 1991?

Ayaz Mutallibov became First Secretary of the Azerbaijani Communist Party as a result of the intervention by the Soviet military troops in Baku on January 20, 1990 (Black January), which set out to end the national movement in Azerbaijan that had begun in 1988 with the outbreak of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia.[1] After coming to power as a head of the AzCP Mutallibov changed its policy strategy in order to increase the legitimacy of the Communist Party among the people. His rule from January 1990 to August 1991 was therefore called “enlightened authoritarianism” by the local nomenklatura (the system of bureaucratic patronage in the former Soviet Union), through which he tried to merge communist ideology with national symbols and traditions in order to protect his position.[2]

Despite his necessary (but never serious) criticism of Moscow, Mutallibov was considered to be a man loyal to Gorbachev. The AzCP, headed by Mutallibov, therefore became an early supporter of Gorbachev’s New Union Treaty efforts, which set out to revive the Soviet Union, while giving greater autonomous power to the Union republics.[3] While Armenia, together with Georgia, Moldova, and three Baltic republics, rejected Gorbachev’s plan, Azerbaijan agreed to vote in favour of staying in the Union. Supporters of the Soviet Union and Communist ideology argued that being part of the Soviet Union as a sovereign Azerbaijan would be beneficial for Azerbaijan in terms of its security, because an independent Armenia would not dare to claim the territory of Azerbaijan under a renewed Soviet Union.[4] When considering that information, on March 7, 1991, the Azerbaijan Supreme Soviet agreed to participate in the all-Union referendum that would take place ten days later. On March 17, 1991, a nationwide referendum was held to decide on the future of the Soviet Union. The result was a victory for President Gorbachev, who obtained more than 75 per cent of the votes. Azerbaijan also contributed “yes” votes in favour of the New Union Treaty.

On the other hand, on January 31 neighbouring Armenia, which was ruled by the Armenian National Movement (ANM) at that time, boycotted the all-Union referendum. A month later, on March 1, Armenia declared that the referendum result would not be legally recognised in its territory, and it expressed its desire to begin the formal process of secession from the Soviet Union.[5] In this context, the referendum result allowed the Soviet leadership to understand that these two South Caucasus republics had fundamentally different views on their future. Regarding the loyalty of the AzCP to the central government, Moscow “rewarded” Mutallibov with political and military support, at the expense of conflict over the Nagorno Karabakh for threatening the intention of Armenia for independence. Thus, as a result of this support, the so-called “Operation Ring” was born, which lasted from April 1991 until the summer of the same year. Regarding the “Operation Ring”, Thomas de Waal explains that “in the short-term, this played to the advantage of the Azerbaijani leadership as Soviet army and police units were deployed against the Karabakh Armenians. In the longer-term, however, it proved disastrous for Azerbaijan, as the republic lagged behind Armenia in building its own security forces”.[6]

Therefore, Mutallibov’s “successful” policy ended up being a fiasco as a result of the August 1991 putsch in Moscow. The failed coup attempt by the conservative members of the Russian Communist Party and the KGB to depose Gorbachev on August 19, 1991 had a big impact on the later development of Soviet “support” towards Azerbaijan. At the time of that coup, Mutallibov was in Iran and he condemned Gorbachev in a statement and supported the coup in Moscow.[7] However, within three days the coup failed and those behind the coup, supported by Mutallibov, were arrested, Boris Yeltsin replaced Gorbachev, and this brought to an end the short-lived Soviet “support” for Azerbaijan.[8]

[1] Hunter, Shireen T., Islam in Russia: The Politics of Identity and Security (Me Sharpe Inc, 2004), p. 344.

[2] Zverev, Alexei, “Ethnic Conflicts in the Caucasus 1988-1994”, in Bruno Coppieters (ed.), Contested Borders in the Caucasus (VUB Press, 1996).

[3] Croissant, Michael P., The Armenia-Azerbaijan Conflict: Causes and Implications (Praeger Publisher, 1998), p. 40.

[4] Mekhtiev, Elkhan, “Security Policy in Azerbaijan”; http://www.nato.int/acad/fellow/99-01/mekhtiev.pdf. Accessed on October 2, 2020.

[5] Croissant, The Armenia-Azerbaijan Conflict, p. 40.

[6] De Waal, Thomas, Black Garden (New York University Press, 2003), p. 114.

[7] De Waal, Black Garden, p. 160.

[8] Horowitz, Shale Asher, From Ethnic Conflict to Stillborn Reform: The Former Soviet Union and Yugoslavia (Texas A&M University Press, 2005), p. 64.