By Ronald Grigor Suny
Crowds moved quietly through the streets of Yerevan. Well into the night they marched, silently, confidently. Tens – even hundreds – of thousands of Armenians reverently engaged in the struggle for Karabagh had answered the first call for support from demonstrators in Stepanakert, Karabagh.
Now the Yerevantsis were responding with the most massive protests that Soviet society had witnessed in half a century. But unknown to the demonstrators that fateful February of 1988 were the violence and bloodshed that lay ahead.
The world had not yet heard of Nagorno-Karabagh or Sumgait and had little knowledge about Baku or Yerevan.
When the now chronic crisis over Nogorno-Karabagh erupted more than two years ago, it signalled a revival of massive nationalism that spread from the Caucasus to the Baltic republics.
Ethnic conflicts merged with movements for the democratic renewal of Soviet society initiated by Gorbachev. But at the same time, resentment and past bitterness bubbled out into the open and long latent hostilities between the Armenians and Azerbaijanis soon emerged as extremely violent confrontations.
In the Caspian town of Sumgait, where an Armenian minority had lived in peace with the Azerbaijani majority, Muslim mobs rampaged through the streets killing Armenians. By the end of 1988 shootings and sabotage had become routine and hundreds of thousands of refugees fled from one Soviet republic to another.
Armenia was emptied of Azerbaijanis and Azerbaijan, except for the contested region of Karabagh and the large colony of Armenians in Baku, was mostly free of Armenians. In January 1990, a second series of riots, this time in the Azerbaijani capital of Baku, forced the remaining Armenians to flee the city.
With marauding mobs seeking out Armenian victims, the Soviet government decided to launch an all-out attack on Azerbaijan to bring the nationalist movement under control.
For historians, events of the last few years echoed clashes that occurred earlier in the century and were rooted more in the uneven social and political development of two peoples than in religious differences. Armenians have lived in Trans-Caucasia and eastern Anatolia (southwestern edge of the Soviet Union and eastern Turkey) since the sixth century B.C.
In the Middle Ages their neighbor to the west was a now-extinct Christian people, the Caucasian Albanians, who in the fourth century A.D. adopted Armenian Christianity and eventually blended into the Armenian culture.
When the Seljuk Turks invaded Trans-caucasia in the eleventh century, a process of Islamization ended with their conversion to Islam. In time the Karabagh Albanians merged completely with the Armenians, while those to the east became the core population of Azerbaijan.
The Azerbaijanis, Turkish-speaking people, lived in the Iranian political orbit governed by khans appointed by Iran and adopting the Shi’i Islam of Persia. At the same time, semi-independent Armenian princes governed in the mountains of Karabagh, called Artsakh by the Armenians, until the early nineteenth century, when the Russian empire annexed the region from Iran.
The majority of Azerbaijanis were poor peasants, cut off from the rapid development of industry in oil-rich Baku. Armenia, on the other hand, rose to prominence in the industrial environment of Baku, Russia’s major oil producing region. A sense of inferiority by the Azerbaijanis coalesced into anti-Armenian feelings. In 1905, during the first Russian revolution, Azerbaijanis and Armenians engaged in bloody clashes in Baku.
During the century of Russian rule, Karabagh was linked administratively to the Azerbaijani plain. When Azerbaijan became an independent state briefly from 1918 to 1920, Karabagh Armenians were compelled to enter the new republic. Then Soviet power was established in April 1920 and the region was declared a part of Armenia in a gesture of fraternal solidarity. But in 1923, the Soviet authorities decided that for economic and logistical reasons Karabagh must become an autonomous region with Azerbaijan.
For 65 years Karabagh Armenians lived in uneasy relations with the dominant Azerbaijanis, occasionally protesting their separation from the Armenian republic. The region remained more than three-quarters Armenian in population, but as Azerbaijanis migrated to Karabagh and many Armenians left, fear rose that Karabagh would suffer the fate of once-Armenian Nakhichevan, which now is almost totally Azerbaijani. Not until February 1988, in the new environment of perestroika and glasnost, did the Karabagh Armenians organize mass rallies to demand publicly their right to merge with Armenia.
In 1988-1989 both the Armenian and Azerbaijani Soviet republics were the scene of massive nationalist movements. Remembering the genocide of 1915 by the Ottoman Turks, Armenians saw themselves as a beleaguered people, victims of their Muslim neighbors and neglected by their Russian protectors.
At first sympathetic to the aims of the Soviet reformer Mikhail Gorbachev, the Armenians more recently showed their disillusionment with perestroika. They saw grievances. Even his well publicized visit to Yerevan after the earthquake of Dec. 7, 1988 ended with mutual recriminations and with Gorbachev cracking down hard on Armenian opposition.
Reacting to Armenian protests, the Azerbaijanis rallied around the Karabagh question and directed their frustrations toward Armenians, whom they saw as an aggressive foreign threat to their republic. In 1989 they organized a blockade of the Armenian republic which prevented food, fuel and building material from reaching Armenia. Quake reconstruction efforts came to a halt. As Azerbaijanis became even more militant in their anti-Armenian stance, their Popular Front seemed to be the principal political force, eclipsing the Communist Party in Azerbaijan.
The Azerbaijani nationalists in Nakhichevan tore down border posts in an effort to link up with their compatriots in Iran. Strangely, Soviet authorities passively watched as the nationalists grew more aggressive. In desperation and fear, Armenians began arming themselves.
Unexpectedly, the two Soviet republics moved toward a de facto state of civil war in late 1989. In mid-January 1990. Azerbaijani militants stormed through Baku, invading more than 400 Armenian homes. Innocent people were butchered, set afire and their corpses left in the streets. The pogrom continued for three days as the world watched.
The Kremlin finally sent troops into the city of Baku. Dozens of Azerbaijanis were killed to quell the uprising. Armenians were relieved that the immediate danger had passed, but unhappy with the presence of Soviet troops.
After two years of struggle over Karabagh, a political solution seems as distant as it has ever been.