Thinking about the prospect of change in the Soviet Union in 1985, the architects of reform did not suspect how much importance the national question will have in the history of perestroika.
Gorbachev’s policies in many respects provided an impetus for ethno-national processes, the direction of which was pre-set by earlier contradictions. These contradictions had historical roots and stemmed from both ethnic and other social and political factors. Contradictions resulted in national movements that developed based on two classical models - the Baltic and Caucasus models. The first option was characterized by the growing tendency of the Baltic republics toward autonomy from the Union center until independence, which would change the external borders of the country. The second option was characterized by the versatility of conflicts (Union center - republic - autonomy) and an attempt to change internal Soviet borders.
If the first option was characterized by relatively non-violent actions, in the second case, nonviolent actions gradually escalated into violent clashes with significant casualties in the opposing forces. In the ethno-national conflicts of the perestroika period, there were two main forces: 1. Emotional mass people’s element led by radical fringe elements and the national intelligentsia; 2. Republican nomenklatura that came under pressure from mass demonstrations, but was ready to use it to their advantage if need be. The situation became unprecedented because conflicts, once started, continued to develop.
The protracted nature of conflicts gradually radicalized the masses. Perestroika changed the political climate in the country and set a higher bar for the international image of the USSR, which did not allow it to use mass violence to crack down on unrest. Permission to use troops and make mass arrests of national movement activists had to be more thoroughly justified. Naturally, this facilitated the development of national movements.
December 1986, Alma-Ata
The December 1986 events in Alma-Ata were a harbinger of the coming storm. They can be considered the first Gorbachev provocation in the field of “national and ethnic conflicts”. Moscow then decried the Kazakhs and Kyrgyz for “their tendency toward national isolation and the mood of national conceit” and “nationalist individual manifestations”. Later such accusations would be made against Azerbaijanis. Following the events in Kazakhstan, the Institute of Ethnography of the USSR established a Center for the Study of Interethnic Issues and Interethnic Relations. In autumn 1987, it prepared for the CPSU a special note on the national question, in which it named 19 “hot spots” in the country. Among them was also the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Region.
The decision to establish an Armenian autonomy in Nagorno-Karabakh in the Azerbaijan SSR in 1923 was a compromise formula and put an end to the bloody clashes of previous years between Armenia and Azerbaijan. But, as subsequent events showed, in strategic terms the formation of a territorial autonomy for the Armenian population of Nagorno-Karabakh within the Azerbaijan SSR despite the existence of a separate Armenian republic invariably preserved the threat of separatism and the potential for conflict between the two peoples. The existence of two identical ethnic Armenian national entities within one state, i.e. the Soviet Union, near each other, was similar to a delayed action mine, which definitely had to explode. In Soviet historical retrospect, one can highlight several most acute phases of the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh in the post-Stalin period.
The first phase belongs to the period of the “Khrushchev thaw” and was associated with the decisions of the Twentieth Congress of the CPSU Central Committee to address the serious consequences of Stalin’s personality cult, which put the idea of territorial claims to neighboring republics and Turkey on the agenda in Armenia. The second phase of the exacerbation of the situation relates to the 1965 events in Armenia connected with the anniversary of the so-called “Armenian genocide”, which allegedly took place in the Ottoman Empire during World War I.
From 1965 when the Soviet authorities sanctioned the official cultivation of anti-Turkish (including anti-Azerbaijani) sentiment in the Armenian SSR, for which the communist leadership organized events to commemorate “the victims of genocide”, the seeds of hatred toward Azerbaijanis fell on already fertilized soil. From that time, the moral and psychological expulsion of Azerbaijanis who lived in their historical lands within Soviet Armenia became more intense. Until the 1980s, except for isolated cases of growing tension mainly initiated from Armenia and expressed in collecting signatures and addresses of Armenian intellectuals to the Soviet leadership, as well as at clashes at the domestic level, which took place between Armenians and Azerbaijanis in Nagorno Karabakh, the Soviet authorities managed, keeping their hand on the pulse, not to allow information about these facts to go beyond the boundaries of the autonomy and get on the pages of the Soviet press.
During the last phase of the conflict that began in the second half of the 1980s, the Armenian-Azerbaijani territorial conflict broke out on the pages of the Soviet and republican press for the first time, thereby getting out of the latent state and becoming a subject of extensive discussion. For the first time since the 1920s, a demand was put forward not in closed offices or during feasts but openly and officially to change the administrative-territorial structure of the Soviet state, which was one of the main truths on which the “unbreakable alliance” was based. At the same time, for the first time the Armenian leadership, along with political support for the separatist movement in Nagorno-Karabakh, took concrete legal steps to merge Nagorno-Karabakh with Armenia.
Ilgar Niftaliyev, PhD in History, is from the Institute of History of the Azerbaijan National Academy of Sciences