What was the Soviet government’s reaction to the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh?

The outbreak of the conflict was not expected by the Soviet government, since it was not assumed that the new “Glasnost” policy could lead to an increase in tensions between ethnic groups. All inter-ethnic disputes were ignored or skillfully hidden during the Soviet era.[1] Therefore, Politburo adviser Vyacheslav Mikhailov, while shedding light on the conflict, admitted that this was a completely new issue for them. The Soviet government did not hesitate, and immediately became involved in the process. However, the conventional methods that used to halt mass demonstrations were deemed obsolete in the framework of the new Soviet reforms of that time. The Politburo accordingly advised the Azerbaijani party leader to use persuasion as a method, instead of force.[2]

Armenia’s claims on Azerbaijani territory directly challenged Soviet government interests. Mikhail Gorbachov, in his speech on Nagorno-Karabakh, stated that there were nineteen potential territorial conflicts in the Soviet Union and he did not want to set a precedent by making concessions on any of them. Soviet leaders were aware that the domino effect of Nagorno-Karabakh could reach other parts of the Union, which ultimately could be drastic for the state as a whole. The first official initiative by Moscow on this matter was to establish a dialogue between Baku and Khankendi (Stepanakert). Therefore, two large delegations were sent to the region.[3]

However, their visit was not able to prevent the Armenian protests in Khankendi from escalating, and at the result of this escalation the first violence was perpetrated by Armenians against Azerbaijanis.[4] Later, when the protests spread outside Nagorno-Karabakh, around one million people joined the demonstrations in Yerevan. Gorbachov welcomed the Armenian delegate, so that the issue could be discussed. Nevertheless, he refused to accept Armenians demands that the Nagorno-Karabakh be united with Armenia. On March 23, 1988, the Supreme Soviet of the Soviet Union Presidium rejected demands by the NKAO Soviet to be united with Armenia. On July 18, the Presidium again reacted in a similar manner and annulled the decision by the NKAO Soviet regarding unification with Armenia, and it reaffirmed the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan.[5] Additionally, Moscow officially established a special commission in order to monitor how the situation developed in Azerbaijan and Armenia.[6] On January 12, 1989, in order to stop the escalation of the conflict, the official Moscow pulled out NKAO from control of Azerbiajan without having discussion with it and imposed a “special government administration” that would be dependent on Moscow.[7] The decision was accepted by Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh as a step towards unification with Armenia.[8] Later, it was clear that Moscow was officially incapable of resolving the conflict between the communities and it therefore annulled the special administration decision on the region and returned it to the jurisdiction of Azerbaijan.[9] After the conflict had escalated in this way, and particularly during the spring and summer of 1991, when Armenians attacked Azerbaijani settlements, Moscow responded to this process by carrying out military and police operations by joint Soviet and Azerbaijani forces.[10] But in December 1991, when the Soviet Union officially collapsed, Soviet troops were withdrawn from the region before the problem could be resolved.[11]

The Soviet government was unable to resolve the Nagorno-Karabakh issue, and the policy that was implemented during that period by Soviet authority was even one of the main reasons why the conflict escalated further. Moreover, the inadequate reaction to the conflict by high-ranking Soviet Union officials caused tensions to increase between the communities and ended up in an armed conflict.

[1] Horowitz, Shale, “Identities Unbound Escalating Ethnic Conflicts in Post-Soviet Azerbaijan, Georgia, Moldova, and Tajikistan”, in Lobell, Steven L. and Maucery, Philip (eds.), Ethnic Conflicts and International Politics (Palgrave MacMillan, 2004), p. 54.

[2] De Waal, Thomas, Black Garden (New York University Press, 2003), pp. 11-13.

[3] De Waal, Black Garden, p. 13.

[4] Dragadze, Tamara, “The Armenian: Azerbaijani Conflict: Structure and Sentiment”, Third World Quarterly, Vol. 11, No. 1, 1989, p. 56.

[5] Cornell, Svante E., The Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict (Report no. 46, Department of East European Studies, Uppsala University, 1999), p. 20.

[6] Altstadt, Audrey, The Azerbaijani Turks: Power and Identity under the Russian Rule (Hoover Institution Press, 1992), p. 198.

[7] Baser, Bahar, “Third Party Mediation in Nagorno Karabakh: Part of the Cure or Part of the Disease?”, Journal of Central Asian & Caucasian Studies, Vol, 3, No. 5, 2008 p. 90.

[8] Cornell, Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict, p. 21.

[9] Baser, “Third Party Mediation in Nagorno Karabakh”, p. 90.

[10] Cornell, Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict, p. 21.

[11] Baser, “Third Party Mediation in Nagorno Karabakh”, p. 90.