What was the relation between the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and the Sumgait events of 1988?

The “Sumgait events” took place on February 28, 1988, and resulted in the death of 32 people: 26 Armenians and 6 Azerbaijanis.[1] The Armenian side insisted on describing the “Sumgait” events as a pogrom by the Azerbaijanis against the Armenians that was organized by the Azerbaijani government of the time as part of the country’s ethnic-cleansing policy. On the other hand, Azerbaijan was convinced that Russian and Armenian special services were behind the “Sumgait events” to justify the NKAO being unified with Armenia.[2]

Firstly, it is essential to state that the “Sumgait events” must be analyzed from the perspective of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. It occurred while the dispute escalated and was the only reason for the inter-community tensions between Azerbaijanis and Armenians. Indeed, until the events, Armenians had already raised their demands over Nagorno-Karabakh. In Stepanakert and Yerevan, there had been ongoing political demonstrations with the participation of large numbers of Armenians. Due to the inter-community clashes, two Azerbaijanis were killed, and the first wave of Azerbaijani refugees was deported from Armenia. Of course, despite the government’s cover-up policy, Azerbaijani society and the first wave of refugees from Armenia who were violently deported and settled in Sumgait were also aware of the situation in Nagorno-Karabakh, and it was therefore apparent that negative attitudes formed in society about the processes.

Most of those refugees from Armenia were resettled in Sumgait, a city founded in the 1950s as one of the Union’s chemical industrial centers, inhabited by many Armenians. Another typical feature of the city was that, by that time, it was filled with the “lowest ranks of Soviet society,” such as criminals and former prisoners.[3] Consequently, these facts were the key elements that led to the outbreak of events, especially in this city.

The events started on February 26, 1988, with a demonstration in the city’s central square against the violence perpetrated against Azerbaijanis in Armenia and Armenia’s claims over Nagorno-Karabakh. On February 28, as a result of the provocation, the process followed with the violence that caused the death of not only Armenians but also Azerbaijanis. Interestingly, during the events, the police and other security forces made no effort to stop the violence and even allowed it to increase further. After these developments, the relations between the affected communities could not return to normal.

Later, when the group that organized the events was arrested, it was revealed that most of them were former prisoners and that the group leader, Eduard Grigorian, was an Armenian who had killed five Armenians during the events.[4] According to the Azerbaijani version of the Sumgait events, it was organized by Armenia, and the participation of Eduard Grigorian in the events was clear evidence of this assumption.[5] Another fact that was identified as suspicioun by Azerbaijan was how information about the events spread rapidly. How could news agencies, particularly foreign ones, get information quickly from the USSR, a country that still controlled the mass media, irrespective of the “Glasnost” policy?

Consequently, in the aftermath of the events, those responsible were arrested and prosecuted by a Soviet court. As a result, eighty men were convicted of crimes, and one man, Akhmed Akhmedov, was executed. Although it was given a legal assessment of Sumgait events, the Armenian side continues to justify its aggression policy against Azerbaijan by using the “Sumgait events” as evidence of ethnic cleansing of Armenians by Azerbaijanis.

[1] Tuncerli, Özge, “Dağlık Karabağ Sorunu Kapsamında 1988 Sumgayıt Olayları,” Ulisa: Uluslararası Çalışmalar Dergisi, Vol. 3, No. 2, p. 132.

[2] Tuncerli, “Dağlık Karabağ Sorunu Kapsamında 1988 Sumgayıt Olayları,” pp. 136-137.

[3] De Waal, Thomas, Black Garden: Armenia and Azerbaijan through Peace and War (New York University Press, 2003), p. 31.

[4] De Waal, Black Garden, p. 42.

[5] Tuncerli, “Dağlık Karabağ Sorunu Kapsamında 1988 Sumgayıt Olayları,” p. 139.