How did the internal turmoil of 1993 in Azerbaijan affect the results of the First Karabakh War?

The political turmoil of 1993 in Azerbaijan was the result of the internal and external factors that led to the toppling of President Elchibey, the second president of Azerbaijan with the national sentiments and democratic ideas, from his presidential post and increased the political and military leverage of Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh with the direct support of Russia. The reason that pushed Russia towards Armenia during Elchibey’s presidential term was his pro-Western and anti-Russian policy.

It should be mentioned that the main foreign policy priority for the Elchibey government was to develop high-level relations with Turkey and Western countries and to disassociate Azerbaijan from its Russian legacy.[1] Azerbaijan’s “Turkification” policy and frequent refusal to join the CIS angered Russia, pushing it to improve its relations with Armenia. Analyses have indicated that Russia saw the CIS as a starting point for recovering its exclusive dominance in the South Caucasus. However, Russia’s strategic approach was blocked by the unwillingness of the Elchibey government to ratify the Tashkent treaty of 1991 and join the CIS.[2]

Another factor that increased tension between Russia and Azerbaijan was the growing role of western countries and western-based organizations in the region. Primarily, the domination of the mediation process on the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict by the OSCE increased concerns of Russia. Therefore, Russia intended to deploy its troops to the border region of two belligerent countries of the South Caucasus. The OSCE was coordinating its activities with Russia and, in its draft proposals, always considered “the deployment of Russian observers under the CIS framework into the front-line or concretely in the Azerbaijan-Armenian border area in the occupied Lachin region.”[3] Nonetheless, following the decision by the Azerbaijan parliament on the CIS, the government in Azerbaijan ignored the CIS Minsk summit on January 17, 1993, and rejected Russia’s military proposal. From the Elchibey government’s viewpoint, Russia’s goal by deploying its military in the region as a peacekeeping force was to isolate Nagorno-Karabakh from the rest of the country to use this as a political tool against Azerbaijan.[4] The Elchibey government, therefore, insisted that Russian troops be withdrawn from Azerbaijan territory.[5]

The energy policy of the Elchibey government was another factor that worsened the situation at that time. The key priorities in that energy policy were to attract Western multinational companies who might be interested in extracting Azerbaijan’s energy resources in the Caspian Sea. To this end, various oil companies were invited to form a consortium. However, Russia did not participate in the consortium due to Elchibey’s antagonistic stance toward Russia.[6] It was expected that the final energy agreement between the Azerbaijan government and the various foreign oil drilling companies to exploit Azerbaijani oil deposits would be signed in London in June 1993.

Russia, therefore, began to use its traditional “divide and rule” policy. The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict was perceived as a chance to pressure Azerbaijan into accepting Russian demands. Despite the ongoing defeats on the Karabakh front, “Elchibey’s government exhibited no signs of flexibility, and it was still unwilling to accept even the mildest of Russian demands.”[7] Hence, the Elchibey government paid a very high price because of its hostile position against Russia.

Russian assistance to Armenia in the First Karabakh War and its support to the anti-government coup by Suret Huseynov resulted in losing control of the Elchibey government on the military forces. Despite a successful counter-attack by the Elchibey government in 1992, the government could no longer keep the situation under control because the military bases in Nagorno-Karabakh were ruled by Azerbaijani warlords, who had their own private army. When these warlords withdrew their military bases from the front under pressure from Russia, the regular army of the Azerbaijan government was too weak to resist the Armenian forces. Moreover, there were also ethnic uprisings in the country, such as the Sadval movement of Lezgins in the northern part and an uprising in the southern part of Azerbaijan led by Alikram Humbatov. These factors paved the way for the territorial losses in Nagorno-Karabakh and the public protest against the new military failure.[8] As a result, Elchibey was toppled from his post in June 1993, and Heydar Aliyev came to power. Consequently, during the political turmoil in Azerbaijan in 1993, Armenian military forces managed to occupy the whole region outside Nagorno-Karabakh (Kalbajar, Agdam, Fuzuli, Jabrayil, Gubatli, and Zangilan) with the support of Russia. Hundreds of thousands of Azerbaijani civilians were forced to flee from these regions and move to other parts of Azerbaijan.

[1] Gül, Murat, “Russia and Azerbaijan: Relations after 1989,” Alternatives: Turkish Journal of International Relations, Vol. 7, No. 2-3, 2008, pp. 56-57.

[2] Souleimanov, Emil and Evoyan, Lia, “Two Position on the Nagorno Karabakh war: Russian and Turkish (1990-1994),” Central Asia and the Caucasus: Journal of Social and Political Studies, Vol. 13, Issue 4, 2012, p. 11.

[3] Mekhtiev, Elkhan, “Security Policy in Azerbaijan”; Accessed on December 2, 2022.

[4] Mekhtiev, “Security Policy in Azerbaijan”.

[5] Ismailzade, Fariz, “Azerbaijan’s Tough foreign Policy Choices,” UNISCI Discussion Papers, 2004, p. 4.

[6] Top, Gözde, “Azerbaijan in Post-Independence Period,” Platform for Global Challenges, 2012, p. 3.

[7] Souleimanov, Emil and Evoyan, Lia, “Two Position on the Nagorno Karabakh war: Russian and Turkish (1990-1994),” Central Asia and the Caucasus: Journal of Social and Political Studies, Vol. 13, Issue 4, 2012, p. 11.

[8] Aliyeva, Leila, “The Institutions, Orientations, and Conduct of Foreign Policy in Post Soviet Azerbaijan,” in Dawisha, Adeed and Dawisha, Karen (eds.), The Making of Foreign Policy in Russia and New States of Eurasia (M.E. Sharpe, 1995), p. 295.