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Which events led to the conflict breaking out in Nagorno-Karabakh?

After Mikhail Gorbachov carried out his “Glasnost policy” in the Soviet Union, Armenia’s long-standing desire to annex the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast found a new momentum and provided the country with the opportunity to openly express its territorial claims towards Azerbaijan. There was an increase in Armenian protests relating to the NKAO between 1985 and 1987. In late 1987 and early 1988, a number of meetings were held between delegates from the NKAO and senior officials in Moscow on the status of the autonomous region.[1] In August 1987, the Armenian Academy of Science prepared a petition, signed by thousands of people, asking for the annexation of the NKAO and the Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic to the Armenian SSR.[2]

The first mass protests by Armenians took place in October 1987, when the Armenian population in the village of Chardagli refused to accept the nomination of the Azerbaijani Sovxoz director.[3] Soon, the wave of protestors from Chardagli reached Yerevan, where an environmental demonstration was being held to protest against the closure of the chemical plant and Metzamor nuclear power station. The following day, however, the peaceful environmental demonstration became a political movement that demanded the annexation of the NKAO and Nakhchivan to Armenia.[4] Later, in November 1987, Abel Aganbeyan, an Armenian academician and economic advisor to Gorbachev, announced in Paris that he had presented a proposal regarding the status of the NKAO and hoped that it would be received positively.[5]

After the event in Chardagli, Azerbaijanis in Armenia began to fear attacks by Armenians, and this led to their being forced to leave this country. In January1988, the first wave of Azerbaijani refugees from Armenia arrived in Baku, and most of them settled in Sumgait.[6] The departure of Azerbaijanis from Armenia also continued in February, and during these months two additional waves of Azerbaijani refugees reached Baku.[7]

From then onwards, Armenian demands for the unification of the NKAO increased. On February 10, 1988, the Azerbaijan Information Agency announced that Azerbaijan would never agree to the secession of its territory and unification with Armenia.[8] The following day, the first demonstration was organized in Khankendi (Stepanakert) in order to protest against the cultural, economic and social ‘policy’ of the Azerbaijan government towards the NKAO. On February 20, the Soviet of the NKAO passed a resolution, which was appealed against by Azerbaijan, and the USSR for transferring Nagorno-Karabakh to the control of the Armenian SSR.[9]

The increase in tensions regarding Nagorno-Karabakh also negatively affected the Azerbaijani population, 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.[10] This incident was the crucial event that turned the issue into a major conflict.

The Chardagli event, the transformation of the environmental demonstration in Yeravan into a political movement demanding the unification of NKAO with Armenia, the forced displacement of Azerbaijanis from Erevan and the killing of two Azerbaijanis in Askeran were the key factors that led to the conflict breaking out.

[1] 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.

[2] Cornell, Svante E., The Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict (Report no. 46, Department of East European Studies, Uppsala University, 1999), p. 13.

[3] Mouradian, Claire, ”The Mountainous Karabakh Question: Inter-Ethnic Conflict or Decolonization

Crisis”, Armenian Review, Vol. 43, No. 2-3, 1990, p. 15.

[4] “Reports of demonstrations in Yerevan and Clashes in Mountainous Karabagh”, Asbarez, October 24, 1987, Retrieved from: http://web.archive.org/web/20070914104126/http://www.armeniaforeignministry.com/fr/nk/nk_file/article/49.html. Accessed on October 1, 2020.

[5] Babanly, Yusif, “The Debacle: From Kafan To Khojaly”, Azerbaijani Vision, February 17, 2016; https://en.azvision.az/news/30539/the-debacle-from-kafan-to-khojaly.html. Accessed on October 1, 2020.

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

[7] Cornell, Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict, p. 14.

[8] Fraser, Hipel, Jaworsky, and Zuljan, “A Conflict Analysis of the Armenian-Azerbaijani Dispute”, p. 658.

[9] Quinn-Judge, Paul, “Gorbachev treads fine line on Armenian issue. Soviet leader’s conciliatory line may fuel more nationalism, but crackdown would stymie reform”, The Christian Science Monitor, February 29, 1988, p. 10.

[10] Babanly, “The Debacle: From Kafan To Khojaly”.