What was the role of Gorbachev’s “Perestroika” and “Glasnost” policies in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict?

In 1985, when Mikhail Gorbachev came to power in the USSR, he began implementing new policies called “Glasnost” and “Perestroika,” which set out to help solve problems within the Union.[1] At the time, the USSR was still considered one of the great world powers, together with the US. However, it was also a fact that due to high military expenditure, the economic situation in the country was worsening dramatically.[2] Gorbachev’s principal aim was to resolve these economic issues, and he, therefore, understood that social reform in the Soviet Union was inevitable if he wanted to achieve his economic goals. To this end, he mentioned that without democratization, it would be difficult to realize “Glasnost” and “Perestroika.” In particular, the “Glasnost” policy sought to develop democracy in the country by guaranteeing freedom of speech and a multi-party system.

Nationalist ideologies were crucially revived after the USSR’s democratization endeavors. According to Beissinger, “nationalism exercised an unusual force of attraction within the Soviet society during the “Perestroika” and “Glasnost” years that was unparalleled by any other set of issues.”[3] In the early stages, the “Glasnost” did not contain a strong nationalist component. However, later on, when Armenia raised protests over Karabakh in 1988, it entered a new stage, and the government could not manage to control it. Due to these endeavors, the outburst of ethnic group mobilization spread to the Baltic States, Transcaucasia, Ukraine, and Moldova.[4] Before “Glasnost,” tensions among ethnic groups in the USSR were not considered. However, the “Glasnost” policy led to the rise of nationalism, which ultimately revealed hidden disputes among ethnic groups that had remained frozen for a long time.[5]

Indeed, it should be remembered that Armenia’s claim over Nagorno-Karabakh was not a new issue. Even during Soviet times, Nagorno-Karabakh Armenians periodically asked the central government for unification with the Armenian SSR,[6] and Gorbachev’s “Glasnost” policy only created a suitable opportunity for Armenia to realize their goals.

On the one hand, the normalization of relations between the USSR and western countries allowed Armenia to directly communicate with the Armenian diaspora, strengthening its position in the international arena.[7] On the other hand, the Armenian diaspora played a significant role in developing propaganda in favor of Armenia and against Azerbaijan regarding the issue.[8] Moreover, after the dispute intensified, the Armenian diaspora began to assist Armenia financially and militarily by supplying weapons and militants.[9]

The democratization process in the USSR allowed Armenian mass media to express Armenia’s position on the Nagorno-Karabakh issue freely. Furthermore, Armenian intellectuals who were the main driving force in the Karabakh movement stressed, in both local and international media outlets, the need to annex Karabakh to Armenia in order to restore ‘historical justice.’ “Inspired” by democratization, Armenians began to organize an ecological demonstration that later turned into a political movement with the involvement of 1/3 of the country’s population.[10] The political mobilization of Armenians resulted in the establishment of organizations such as “Karabakh Committee,” “Krunk,”[11] and the Pan-Armenian National Movement political party, founded by Levon Ter-Petrosyan, who later became the first president of Armenia and played a leading role in the Karabakh movement. Therefore, Gorbachev’s “Glasnost” and “Perestroika” policies were crucial in establishing suitable conditions for separatist Armenians to undertake previously planned projects.

[1] Siegelbaum, Lewis, “Perestroika and Glasnost,” Seventeen Moments in Soviet History: An on-line archive of primary source; http://soviethistory.msu.edu/1985-2/perestroika-and-glasnost/. Accessed on December 2, 2022.

[2] Gitomirski, Sasha, “Glasnost And Perestroika,” The Cold War Museum; http://www.coldwar.org/articles/80s/glasnostandperestroika.asp. Accessed on December 2, 2022.

[3] Beissinger, Mark R., “Nationalism and the Collapse of the Soviet Communism,” Contemporary European History, Vol. 18, No. 03, 2009, p. 336.

[4] Beissinger, “Nationalism and the Collapse of the Soviet Communism,” p. 338.

[5] 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.

[6] De Waal, Thomas, Black Garden: Armenia and Azerbaijan through Peace and War (New York University Press, 2003), p. 16.

[7] Shain, Yossi and Barth, Aharon, “Diasporas and International Relations Theory,” International Organization, Vol. 57, No. 3, 2003, pp. 468-471.

[8] Shain and Barth, “Diasporas and International Relations Theory,” p. 109.

[9] De Waal, Black Garden, p. 16.

[10] De Waal, Black Garden, p. 16.

[11] Suny, Ronald Grigor, “Soviet Armenia, 1921-91,” in Herzig, Edmund and Kurkchiyan, Marina (eds.), The Armenians: Past and Present in the Making of National Identity (New York: RoutledgeCurzon, 2005), p. 122.