Which events led to the breaking out of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict?

After Mikhail Gorbachev carried out his “Glasnost policy” in the Soviet Union, Armenia’s long-standing desire to annex the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast (NKAO) found new momentum. It allowed the country to express its territorial claims toward Azerbaijan openly. There was an increase in Armenian protests relating to the NKAO between 1985 and 1987. In late 1987 and early 1988, several meetings were held between delegates from the NKAO and senior officials in Moscow on the status of the autonomous region.[1]

In August 1987, the Armenian Academy of Science prepared a petition, signed by thousands of people, asking for annexing the NKAO and the Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic to the Armenian SSR.[2]

The first mass protests by Armenians took place in October 1987, when the Armenian population in the village of Chardagli refused to accept the nomination of the Azerbaijani Sovxoz director.[3] Soon, the wave of protestors from Chardagli reached Yerevan, where an environmental demonstration was being held to protest against the closure of the chemical plant and Metsamor nuclear power station. The following day, however, the peaceful environmental demonstration became a political movement that demanded the annexation of the NKAO and Nakhchivan to Armenia.[4]

Later, in November 1987, Abel Aganbeyan, an Armenian academician and economic advisor to Gorbachev, announced in Paris that he had presented a proposal regarding the status of the NKAO and hoped it would be received positively.[5]

After the event in Chardagli, Azerbaijanis in Armenia began to fear attacks by Armenians, which led to their being forced to leave this country. In January 1988, the first wave of Azerbaijani refugees from Armenia arrived in Baku, most of whom settled in Baku and Sumgait.[6] Azerbaijanis’ departure from Armenia continued in February, and during these months, two additional waves of Azerbaijani refugees reached Baku.[7]

From then onwards, Armenian demands for the unification of the NKAO increased. On February 10, 1988, the Azerbaijan Information Agency announced that Azerbaijan would never agree to the secession of its territory and unification with Armenia.[8] The following day, the first demonstration was organized in Khankendi (Stepanakert) to protest against the Azerbaijan government’s cultural, economic, and social ‘policy’ toward the NKAO. On February 20, the regional soviet of the NKAO passed a resolution for transferring Nagorno-Karabakh to the control of the Armenian SSR and sent the appeal to Azerbaijan SSR and the USSR.[9]

The tensions that increased in Nagorno-Karabakh also affected the Azerbaijani population negatively, who criticized their government for its failure to react to the separatist claims of Armenia. On February 24, 2 Azerbaijanis were killed, and 19 were wounded in Askeran in clashes with Armenians and police.[10] This incident was the crucial event that turned the issue into a major conflict.

The Chardagli event, the transformation of the environmental demonstration in Yerevan into a political movement demanding the unification of NKAO with Armenia, the forced displacement of Azerbaijanis from Erevan, and the killing of two Azerbaijanis in Askeran were the key factors that led to the conflict breaking out.

[1] 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.

[2] Cornell, Svante E., The Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict (Report no. 46, Department of East European Studies, Uppsala University, 1999), p. 13.

[3] Mouradian, Claire, “The Mountainous Karabakh Question: Inter-Ethnic Conflict or Decolonization Crisis,” Armenian Review, Vol. 43, No. 2-3, 1990, p. 15.

[4] “Reports of demonstrations in Yerevan and Clashes in Mountainous Karabagh,” Asbarez, October 24, 1987; http://web.archive.org/web/20070914104126/http://www.armeniaforeignministry.com/fr/nk/nk_file/article/49.html. Accessed on December 2, 2022.

[5] Babanly, Yusif, “The Debacle: From Kafan To Khojaly,” Azerbaijani Vision, February 17, 2016; https://en.azvision.az/news/30539/the-debacle-from-kafan-to-khojaly.html. Accessed on December 2, 2022.

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

[7] Cornell, Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict, p. 14.

[8] Fraser, Hipel, Jaworsky, and Zuljan, “A Conflict Analysis of the Armenian-Azerbaijani Dispute,” p. 658.

[9] Quinn-Judge, Paul, “Gorbachev treads fine line on Armenian issue. Soviet leader’s conciliatory line may fuel more nationalism, but crackdown would stymie reform,” The Christian Science Monitor, February 29, 1988, p. 10.

[10] Babanly, “The Debacle: From Kafan To Khojaly”.