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What were the results of attempts to annex Nagorno-Karabakh to the Armenian SSR in the 1970s and 1980s?

After their groundless demands in the 1950s and 1960s failed, Armenians continued thier activities aimed at annexing Nagorno-Karabakh to the Armenian SSR in the 1970s and 1980s. During that period certain Armenian groups began to re-raise question of Nagorno-Karabakh. Therefore, in August 1973 the 5th department of the State Security Committee of the Azerbaijan SSR conducted an operation in the name of “Armenian nationalists”, which resulted in a group of people who had ties with Dashnakstyun being arrested. However, when the constitutions of the USSR and the Azerbaijan SSR were adopted respectfully in 1977 and 1978 Armenians again appealed to the central authorities of the Soviet Union with petitions for annexing Nagorno-Karabakh to the Armenian SSR. These petitions were unsuccessful, because they were made at the time when Haydar Aliyev was First Secretary of the Central Committee of the Azerbaijan Communist Party. Haydar Aliyev met Leonid Ilich Brezhnev, the General Secretary of the Central Committee (CC) of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU), in Crimea when the latter was on holiday and succeeded in preventing Armenia’s groundless demands on Nagorno-Karabakh being met.[1] The reason why Haydar Aliyev managed to control the situation was that special attention was focussed on the socioeconomic development of the region when he was in power. It was therefore during that period that the Aghdam-Stepenakert railway began running, a university was opened in Stepanakert, and a large network of cultural-educational institutions was established in the region, which showed no ethnic or national discrimination against the local Armenian population that was perceived by Armenians as a positive attitude by the Azerbaijan SSR to the Armenian community. Meanwhile, in 1978 the Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh celebrated the 150th anniversary of the resettlement in this region. Furthermore, they erected monument in Leninavan (Maraghashen) village of Mardakert (Aghdere) district in this regard. The village was named Maragashen because its first inhabitants were immigrants from Maragha, a village in Iran. The monument had a legend “150 years of the transfer”.

However, despite these developments, some Armenian scholars, politicians, writers and journalists did not give up their anti-Azerbaijan beliefs and wrote complaint letters to various central bodies in the Soviet Union regarding the ‘discrimination’ of Armenians by the Azerbaijan SSR.[2] For example, as a result of the hostilities between two ethnic groups in Nagorno-Karabakh, Armenian novelist and Armenian Communist Party member Sero Khanzation sent a strongly-worded letter to the Soviet leadership in 1977. However, Brezhnev did not support the Armenian case and declared the Armenian protest and demonstrations illegal.[3] Consequently, those complaint letters that had been written until the mid 1980s were checked by the special Russian-soviet inspectors and declared that those letters had not grounds by showing important facts and materials as a proof.[4]

It was after Gorbachev’s glasnost and perestroika reform programs that Armenia’s long-standing desire to annex Nagorno-Karabakh to the Armenian SSR found a new momentum and provided the country with the opportunity to openly express its territorial claims against the Azerbaijan SSR. The number of protests in Armenia relating to the Nagorno-Karabakh issue grew between 1985 and 1987. A number of meetings were held in late 1987 and early 1988 between delegates from Nagorno-Karabakh and senior officials in Moscow on the status of the Autonomous Region.[5] Meanwhile, the Soviet leadership was battling the serious economic and political crisis in all parts of the Union. It therefore began to use their timely tasted policy to let the increasing tension between the Armenian and Azerbaijan SSR order to keep region under its control. As Haydar Aliyev uttered his thoughts against this behaviours of the Soviet Union that would give way to national conflicts resulted with his removal from the post in 1987. After removal of Haydar Aliyev from the post, within the possibilities of reform policy of Gorbachev, Nagorno-Karabakh turned to be the national conflict spot in the South Caucasus.

Additionally, the books by Armenian author Zori Balayan, which were full of insults agains Azerbaijan, fanned the national conflict. Meanwhile, the Armenian campaign against Azerbaijan was launched in the Western and Soviet Union news media. With support from internal and external forces, Armenia began to express its territorial claims openly and expanded its activities with a view to establishing a “Greater Armenia” in Azerbaijan. However, the Soviet leadership not only remained silent, it also did not reveal the several terrorist attacks perpetrated by Armenians against Azerbaijanis at that time.

In August 1987, the Armenian Academy of Science sent a petition signed by thousands of people to the Supreme Soviet of the USSR, asking it to correct a ‘historical mistake’ the Soviet Union had made in 1921, in the Kavbureau CC RCP(b) decree, and to annex Nagorno-Karabakh to the Armenian SSR. However, the Supreme Soviet of the Soviet Union rejected Armenia’s demand for Nagorno-Karabakh to be annexed to the Armenian SSR, and this increased tension and led to a mass protest and demonstrations in February 1988 in Yerevan and Khankendi, where hundreds of thousands of people had gathered.[6] On February 20, 1988, the Nagorno-Karabakh Regional Soviet decided to transfer the region to the sovereignty of Armenia, a decision that was rejected not only by the Azerbaijan SSR, but also by the Supreme Soviet of the Soviet Union and the Central Committee of the CPSU, which referred to Article 78 in the Soviet Union constitution. Article 78 clearly stated that territorial alterations were unacceptable without the agreement of the affected union republic.[7] According to the Soviet Union constitution, only 15 Soviet Union republics had the right to secede from the Soviet Union, and the autonomous republics or oblasts belonging to a union republic were not entitled to secede or unify with other(s) without the consent of the union republic to which they were subjected.[8]

Despite this, the Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh adopted a secessionist policy and began to create their political structures with direct support from the Armenian SSR. Meanwhile, during the winter of 1987-1988, Armenia systematically deported Azerbaijanis, who were living in Armenia. In January 1988, the first wave of Azerbaijani refugees from Armenia arrived in Baku.[9] The departure of Azerbaijanis from Armenia continued in February, and during these months two further waves of Azerbaijani refugees reached Baku. The increasing tensions over Nagorno-Karabakh also had a negative effect on the Azerbaijani people, who criticized the government for its failure to react to Armenia’s separatist claims. On February 24, two Azerbaijanis were killed and 19 were wounded in Askeran in clashes with Armenians and police. This incident was the crucial event that turned the issue into a major conflict.[10] With a view to reducing tension, the Soviet leadership changed the First Secretaries of the Communist Party in Azerbaijan and Armenia. However, this political step by Moscow did not put a stop to Armenia’s secessionist policy, and at a joint session on July 12, 1988 with the Supreme Soviet of the Armenian SSR, the Supreme Soviet of the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast unilaterally proclaimed its secession from the Azerbaijan SSR,[11] which duly increased tension between the two South Caucasus states and led to war after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

[1] Qasımlı, Musa, Heydər Əliyev-İstiqlala gedən yol (1969-1987-ci illər) (Bakı, 2006), pp. 329-331.

[2] Qasımlı, Musa, “Ermənilərin Azərbaycan torpaqlarına yerləşdirilməsi və Dağlıq Qarabağa əsassız iddiaları”, in Yılmaz, Reha (ed.), Qarabağ bildiklərimiz və bilmədiklərimiz (Qafqaz Universiteti, 2010), pp. 13-15.

[3] Demirtepe, Turgut and Laciner, Sedat, “The Role of the Karabakh issue in Restoration of Azerbaijani Nationalism”, Yönetim Bilimleri Dergisi, Vol. 2, Issue 1, 2004, pp. 195-196.

[4] Qasımlı, “Ermənilərin Azərbaycan torpaqlarına yerləşdirilməsi”, pp. 13-15.

[5] Fraser, Niall M., Hipel, Keith W., Jaworsky, John and Zuljan, Ralph, “A Conflict Analysis of the Armenian-Azerbaijani Dispute”, The Journal of Conflict Resolution, Vol. 34, No. 4, 1990, pp. 657-658.

[6] Özkan, Güner, “Nagorno-Karabakh Problems: Claims, Counterclaims and Impasse”, The Journal of Central Asian and Caucasian Studies, No.1, Vol. 1, 2006, p. 126.

[7] Krüger, Heiko, The Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict: A Legal Analysis (Heidelberg: Springer, 2010), p. 18.

[8] Zürcher, Christoph, The post-Soviet Wars: Rebellion, Ethnic Conflict, and Nationhood in the Caucasus (New York: New York University Press, 2007), pp. 25-26.

[9] Dragadze, Tamara, “The Armenian: Azerbaijani Conflict: Structure and Sentiment”, Third World Quarterly, Vol. 11, No. 1, 1989, p. 59.

[10] Azərbaycan tarixi, Vol. 7, (2008), p. 236-238.

[11] Özkan, “Nagorno-Karabakh Problems”, p. 127.