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

The government of the Soviet Union did not expect the outbreak of the conflict since it was not assumed that the new “Glasnost” policy could increase tensions between ethnic groups. All inter-ethnic disputes were ignored or skillfully hidden during the Soviet era.[1] Therefore, while shedding light on the conflict, Politburo adviser Vyacheslav Mikhailov admitted that this was a completely new issue for them. The government of the Soviet Union did not hesitate and immediately became involved in the process. However, the conventional methods that were 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 Union interests. In his speech on Nagorno-Karabakh, Mikhail Gorbachev 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 unable to prevent the Armenian protests in Khankendi from escalating. As a result of this escalation, Armenians perpetrated the first violence against Azerbaijanis.[4] Later, when the protests spread outside Nagorno-Karabakh, around one million people joined the demonstrations in Yerevan. Gorbachev welcomed the Armenian delegate so that the issue could be discussed. Nevertheless, he refused to accept Armenians’ demands for the unification of Nagorno-Karabakh to 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 to monitor how the situation developed in Azerbaijan and Armenia.[6] On January 12, 1989, to stop the escalation of the conflict, the official Moscow pulled out NKAO from the control of Azerbaijan without discussing with it and imposed a “special government administration” that would depend on Moscow.[7] Nagorno-Karabakh Armenians accepted the decision as a step towards unification with Armenia.[8] Later, it became clear that Moscow was officially incapable of resolving the conflict between the communities. Therefore it annulled the special administration decision on the region and returned it to the jurisdiction of Azerbaijan.[9] After the conflict escalated in this way, 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] However, 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 authority was unable to resolve the Nagorno-Karabakh issue, and the policy implemented during that period by the 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: Explaining Diffusion and Escalation (Palgrave MacMillan, 2004), p. 54.

[2] De Waal, Thomas, Black Garden: Armenia and Azerbaijan through Peace and War (New York University Press, 2003), p. 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, 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.

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

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