What were the results of attempts to annex Nagorno-Karabakh to the Armenian SSR in the 1970s and 1980s?

After their groundless demands in the 1950s and 1960s failed, Armenians continued their activities to annex Nagorno-Karabakh to the Armenian SSR in the 1970s and 1980s. During that period, certain Armenian groups began to re-raise the question of Nagorno-Karabakh. Therefore, in August 1973, the fifth department of the State Security Committee of the Azerbaijan SSR conducted an operation in the name of “Armenian nationalists,” which resulted in a group of people who had ties with Dashnakstyun being arrested. However, when the constitutions of the USSR and the Azerbaijan SSR were adopted respectfully in 1977 and 1978, Armenians again appealed to the central authorities of the Soviet Union with petitions for annexing Nagorno-Karabakh to the Armenian SSR. These petitions were unsuccessful because they were made when Heydar Aliyev was the First Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Azerbaijan. Heydar Aliyev met Leonid Ilich Brezhnev, the General Secretary of the Central Committee (CC) of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU), in Crimea when the latter was on holiday and succeeded in preventing Armenia’s groundless demands on Nagorno-Karabakh being met.[1]

Heydar Aliyev managed to control the situation because special attention was focused on the region’s socioeconomic development when he was in power. It was, therefore, during that period that the Aghdam-Stepenakert railway began running, a university was opened in Stepanakert, and an extensive network of cultural-educational institutions was established in the region, which showed no ethnic or national discrimination against the local Armenian population that was perceived by Armenians as a positive attitude by the Azerbaijan SSR to the Armenian community. Meanwhile, in 1978 the Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh celebrated the 150th anniversary of the resettlement in this region. Furthermore, they erected a monument in the Leninavan (Maraghashen) village of the Mardakert (Aghdara) district in this regard. The village was named Maragashen because its first inhabitants were immigrants from Maragha, a village in Iran. The monument had a legend “150 years of the transfer.”

However, despite these developments, some Armenian scholars, politicians, writers, and journalists did not give up their anti-Azerbaijan beliefs. They wrote complaint letters to various central bodies in the Soviet Union regarding the ‘discrimination’ of Armenians by the Azerbaijan SSR.[2] For example, due to the hostilities between two ethnic groups in Nagorno-Karabakh, Armenian novelist and Armenian Communist Party member Sero Khanzation sent a strongly-worded letter to the Soviet leadership in 1977. However, Brezhnev did not support the Armenian case and declared the Armenian protest and demonstrations illegal.[3] Consequently, those complaint letters that had been written until the mid-1980s were checked by the special Russian-soviet inspectors and declared that those letters had no grounds for showing important facts and materials as proof.[4]

After Gorbachev’s glasnost and perestroika reform programs, Armenia’s long-standing desire to annex Nagorno-Karabakh to the Armenian SSR found new momentum. It allowed the country to express its territorial claims against the Azerbaijan SSR openly. The number of protests in Armenia relating to the Nagorno-Karabakh issue grew between 1985 and 1987. Several meetings were held in late 1987 and early 1988 between delegates from Nagorno-Karabakh and senior officials in Moscow on the status of the Autonomous Region.[5] Meanwhile, the Soviet leadership was battling serious economic and political crises in all of the Union. Therefore, it began using its timely tasted policy to let the increasing tension between the Armenian and Azerbaijan SSR for keeping the region under its control. As Heydar Aliyev uttered his thoughts against this kind of destructing behavior of the Soviet Union that would give way to national conflicts, it resulted in his removal from the post in 1987. After the removal of Heydar Aliyev from the post, Nagorno-Karabakh turned out to be the national conflict spot in the South Caucasus again.

Additionally, the books by Armenian author Zori Balayan, full of insults against Azerbaijan, fanned the national conflict. Meanwhile, the Armenian campaign against Azerbaijan was launched in the Western and Soviet Union news media. With support from internal and external forces, Armenia began to express its territorial claims openly and expanded its activities to establish a “Greater Armenia” in Azerbaijan. Meanwhile, the Soviet leadership remained silent and did not reveal the several terrorist attacks perpetrated by Armenians against Azerbaijanis at that time.

In August 1987, the Armenian Academy of Science sent a petition signed by thousands of people to the Supreme Soviet of the USSR. By the petition Armenian side was asking Moscow to correct a ‘historical mistake’ that the Soviet Union had made in 1921, in the Kavbureau CC RCP(b) decree, and to annex Nagorno-Karabakh to the Armenian SSR. However, the Supreme Soviet of the Soviet Union rejected Armenia’s demand for annexing Nagorno-Karabakh to the Armenian SSR. This action increased tension and led to mass protests and demonstrations in February 1988 in Yerevan and Khankendi, where hundreds of thousands of people had gathered.[6] On February 20, 1988, the Nagorno-Karabakh Regional Soviet decided to transfer the region to the sovereignty of Armenia. This decision was rejected by the Azerbaijan SSR, the Supreme Soviet of the Soviet Union, and the Central Committee of the CPSU while referring to Article 78 in the Soviet Union constitution. Article 78 clearly stated that territorial alterations were unacceptable without the agreement of the affected union republic.[7]

According to the Soviet Union constitution, only 15 Soviet Union republics had the right to secede from the Soviet Union. The autonomous republics or oblasts belonging to a union republic were not entitled to secede or unify with other(s) without the consent of the union republic to which they were subjected.[8]

Despite this, the Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh adopted a secessionist policy and began to create their political structures with direct support from the Armenian SSR. Meanwhile, during the winter of 1987-1988, Armenia systematically deported Azerbaijanis who were living in Armenia. In January 1988, the first wave of Azerbaijani refugees from Armenia arrived in Baku.[9]

The departure of Azerbaijanis from Armenia continued in February, and during these months, two further waves of Azerbaijani refugees reached Baku. The increasing tensions over Nagorno-Karabakh also affected the Azerbaijani people negatively, who criticized the government for its failure to react to Armenia’s separatist claims. On February 24, 2 Azerbaijanis were killed, and 19 were wounded in Askeran in clashes with Armenians and police. This incident was the crucial event that turned the issue into a major conflict.[10]

To reduce increasing tension in the region, the Soviet leadership changed the First Secretaries of the Communist Party in Azerbaijan and Armenia. However, this political step by Moscow did not stop Armenia’s secessionist policy. At a joint session on July 12, 1988, with the Supreme Soviet of the Armenian SSR, the Supreme Soviet of the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast unilaterally proclaimed its secession from the Azerbaijan SSR,[11] which duly increased tension further between the two South Caucasus states and led to war after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

[1] Qasımlı, Musa, Heydər Əliyev-İstiqlala gedən yol (1969-1987-ci illər) (Bakı, 2006), pp. 329-331.

[2] Qasımlı, Musa, “Ermənilərin Azərbaycan torpaqlarına yerləşdirilməsi və Dağlıq Qarabağa əsassız iddiaları,” in Yılmaz, Reha (ed.), Qarabağ bildiklərimiz və bilmədiklərimiz (Qafqaz Universiteti, 2010), pp. 13-15.

[3] Demirtepe, Turgut and Laciner, Sedat, “The Role of the Karabakh issue in Restoration of Azerbaijani Nationalism,” Yönetim Bilimleri Dergisi, Vol. 2, Issue 1, 2004, pp. 195-196.

[4] Qasımlı, “Ermənilərin Azərbaycan torpaqlarına yerləşdirilməsi,” pp. 13-15.

[5] Fraser, Niall M., Hipel, Keith W., Jaworsky, John, and Zuljan, Ralph, “A Conflict Analysis of the Armenian-Azerbaijani Dispute,” The Journal of Conflict Resolution, Vol. 34, No. 4, 1990, pp. 657-658.

[6] Özkan, Güner, “Nagorno-Karabakh Problems: Claims, Counterclaims and Impasse,” The Journal of Central Asian and Caucasian Studies, No.1, Vol. 1, 2006, p. 126.

[7] Krüger, Heiko, The Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict: A Legal Analysis (Heidelberg: Springer, 2010), p. 18.

[8] Zürcher, Christoph, The post-Soviet Wars: Rebellion, Ethnic Conflict, and Nationhood in the Caucasus (New York: New York University Press, 2007), pp. 25-26.

[9] Dragadze, Tamara, “The Armenian: Azerbaijani Conflict: Structure and Sentiment,” Third World Quarterly, Vol. 11, No. 1, 1989, p. 59.

[10] Azərbaycan tarixi, Vol. 7, (Bakı: Elm, 2008), p. 236-238.

[11] Özkan, “Nagorno-Karabakh Problems,” p. 127.