The Tragedy of Nagorno-Karabakh – The end of the “Pax Sovietica”.

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Revenge, at first though sweet,

Bitter ere long back on itself recoils.

John Milton, Paradise Lost (1667; 1674), Book IX, lines 171-172

Emblem of the TSFSR 1930-1936. The only difference compared to version 1924-1930 is that the azeri text is in latin script.

Welcome back to this excursus through the history of Nagorno-Karabakh, and, more generally, of the countries of the Caucasian area.

But before we begin, I have to admit a mistake: it was my initial intention to divide the story into three parts, but while writing, I realized that this is impossible, so a fourth will be added: if the goal of these articles is understanding, I don’t feel like leaving out some episodes for the sake of synthesis, otherwise it will be impossible for you who read me to understand how things went and how deep are the roots of modern events. As a historian, it is my job to ensure that history is simple to understand, but not simplified.

That said, we can proceed.

Last week we left in a very specific historical moment: the end of hostilities between Turkey and the Soviet Union, with the Kars Treaty of 1921, while the 11th Red Army occupied Azerbaijan, Armenia and Georgia without too many problems.

On March 12 of the following year, on the proposal of Vladimir Lenin, the new Soviet Republics proclaimed in the three states were reunited into the Federative Union of Socialist Soviet Republics of Transcaucasia, which on December 13 of that same year became a single federal state, the Transcaucasian Socialist Federative Soviet Republic. the All-Caucasian Congress of Soviet, whose intention should have been to maintain formal autonomy for the three republics, adopted a common constitution, appointed the Central Executive Committee (the highest legislative body) and the Council of Commissioners of the People (who exercised executive power, and was therefore the government). Mamia Orakhelashvili, one of the leaders of the Bolsheviks, of Georgian origin, became the first President of the TSFRS, whose capital was established in Tbilisi.

In 1936, the Transcaucasian SFRS was again divided into three autonomous republics (Azerbaijan, Armenia and Georgia), with the formation of several autonomous Oblasts (Regions): Adijeian, Karachai-Cerkess, South Ossetia (in Georgian territory), Nakhichevan (under Azerbaijani protectorate), and Nagorno-Karabakh (in the territory of the Azerbaijan SSR).

Soviet Caucasus: from 1957 to 1991

It was the People’s Commissariat for Nationalities or Narkomnaz (from russian Народный комиссариат по делам национальностей, Нар.ком.нац.) chaired (among others) by Josif Stalin, that dealt with the issue of peacekeeping in the Caucasus. The hypotheses concerning the conception of such an administrative structure vary: some scholars believe that the Soviets have played, as in the episode of the Baku Soviet, “Divide and Impera” (ancient Latin expression meaning “Divide and Command”), pitting the local ethnic groups against each other, so that they would not fight against the Soviets: Nagorno-Karaback, in particular, was placed under the control of the Azerbaijan SSR, while retaining 94% of the Armenian population. The same can be said of the Nakhichevan exclave, separated from Azerbaijan by a “corridor” of Armenian territory.

It is a plausible and coherent explanation, also taking into account the historical precedent of the Baku Soviet, which, as we saw last time, was an active part on behalf of the Soviets, in fomenting the First Armenian-Azerrbaijan War. But there would be another: the idea that Stalin, subsequently head of the Soviet Union, had of the relationship between national identities and Soviet communist identity. I have already mentioned this issue and I apologize for postponing it each time, but it is a complex issue that had affect the entire USSR, and which deserves to be treated separately, with with due consideration.

Despite the desire for unification between Armenia and Karabakh remained in question throughout the Soviet period, the control exercised by the Eastern Bloc Superpower kept the situation substantially stable, mainly through its own military strength. It will be with the coming to power of Mikhail Gorbachev and with the implementation of the “glasnost” (openness or transparency) policy that the Nagorno-Karabakh question forcefully made itself felt again: the Armenians of Karabakh now free to express a certain level of dissent, began to demand reunification with the Armenian SSR, accusing the local government of trying to culturally “Azerify” the region, finding support both in Russia and in the international community.

Despite Gorbachev’s attempts at mediation, and unfortunately for Armenians, the Soviet constitution contained a sort of “Comma 22”, which relegated the situation to a perpetual stalemate: while Article 70 of the so called “Brezhnev Constitution” of 1977 states that “the USSR is an integral , federal, multinational State formed on the principle of socialist federalism” and also that “the USSR is the result of the free self-determination of nations and the voluntary association of equal Soviet Socialist Republics” and Article 72 recalls that “each republic shall retain the right freely to secede from the USSR“, Article 78 otherwise states that “The territory of a Union Republic may not be altered without its consent. The boundaries between Union Republics may be altered by mutual agreement of the Republics concerned, subject to ratification by the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics“.

The question of the territorial integrity of the Soviet Union was the great problem of its entire history, so great, that even after its dissolution the Russian Federation had to take it upon itself (always think of the Caucasus: Georgia, Chechnya, Ossetia) and it always reacted in the same way: with violence. A possible explanation can be found in the geography of the country itself: if the countries of the Caucasus had begun to become autonomous, Russia would have risked losing its “bridgehead” towards the Middle and Far East and towards the Black Sea, and with it is the continuous flow of resources, especially raw materials, to and from abroad.

Thus, the situation was left unresolved. But “Dum Romae consulitur, Saguntum expugnatur” (from Latin: “While Rome discusses, Sagunto is conquered”): says a bitter comment that can be found in book 21o of the work “Ab Urbe Condita ” written by the Roman historian Titus Livius.

It is a reference to those who waste a lot of time in continuous consultations without deciding, in a context that would require quick decisions. And this is precisely our case: from 1985 to 1987 the tensions between Armenians and Azerbaijans in Nagorno-Karabakh continued to grow, while the the Soviet government had forgotten about the issue (or rather, it had a problem of general collapse to deal with, and the affairs of the small Caucasian Oblast were certainly not at the top of the list).

Television images showing burnt automobiles and marauding rioters on the streets of the city of Sumgait during the pogrom in February 1988.

“Peace cannot be kept by force. It can only be achieved by understanding. You cannot subjugate a nation forcibly unless you wipe out every man, woman, and child. Unless you wish to use such drastic measures, you must find a way of settling your disputes without resort to arms.”

(A. Einstein, in a speech to the New History Society, 14 December 1930)

On February 22, 1988, after several months of small clashes and forced displacement on both sides, there was the first real skirmish between Azeri and Armenians in Karabakh, in the city of Askeran: two days earlier, two Azerbaijani trainee female students denounced being raped by Armenians and two other young Azeri died in clashes with the police.

But this was only the prelude: during a demonstration in Sumgait, in support of Azeri refugees driven out of their villages from Karabakh, anger over news of “murders and atrocities” committed by Armenians rose to the point of unleashing a real pogrom against the Armenian community, resulting in 26 deaths. Armenians were beaten, raped, mutilated and killed both on the streets of Sumgait and inside their apartments during three days of violence, with no intervention from the police, that only subsided when Soviet armed forces entered the city and quelled much of the rioting on 1 March. Nearly all of Sumgait’s Armenian population left the city after the pogrom.

On March 23, 1988, the Supreme Soviet refused for the umpteenth time the request for the annexation of Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia, sending the army to Yerevan to face any protests. The Armenians of Karabakh were now convinced that they would face the same fate of those of the Nakhichevan exclave, in which the Armenian population had gone from 40% before absorption into the Soviet Union to total disappearance in the late 1980s.

No one seemed to realize it, but The Second Nagorno-Karabakh War had begun.

The parties in dispute then began a harsh diplomatic confrontation, and neither of them (Armenia in particular) trusted more in Gorbachev’s mediation. The years between 1988 and 1990 were characterized by the exponential growth of inter-ethnic tensions: in addition to the episodes of violence on both sides, just think that, in that period, fear led to a massive exodus from one country to the other, in which Armenia and Azerbaijan “exchanged” large sections of the population. From Armenia alone, in the period 88-89, more than 200,000 people left, including Azeri and Kurds of Muslim religion. The latter, despite not having taken part in the conflict, preferred to leave the villages where they lived because located in a “potentially hostile” territory.

In 1990 the situation worsened further: Armenia imposed an embargo on the Nakhichevan ASSR, while the newly formed Azerbaijan Popular Front first organized sabotages on the Armenian railway network bound for the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast, and then attempted a “risky move” to break away from the dissolving Soviet Union anytime soon: the wrong “timing” led the Soviet authorities to declare a state of emergency in the region (also due to the pogroms unleashed against the Armenian population of Sumgait, Kirovabad and Baku) and, in what comes Known as “Black January“, 26,000 Soviet Army soldiers brought an end to the uprising by force, shooting at protesters and causing more than 90 deaths.

Victims of Black January in Martyrs’ Lane, Baku.

The Soviets also tried to keep this intervention secret, destroying the lines of communication to and from Baku: despite this, the journalist Mizra Kazar and the staff of Radio Liberty / Radio Free Europe, managed to send a daily bulletin outside the occupied zone.

At that point the Armenian army and paramilitary militias decided to fight back: several Azerbaijani exclaves in Armenian territory, or near its border, were attacked by paramilitary troops and even bombed with artillery during a series of night raids. that lasted from March to August, until once again the intervention of the Soviet army drove back the aggressors and temporarily put an end to the massacres, with more violence.

On March 17, 1991, Mikhail Gorbachev held the famous “Referendum on the future of the Soviet Union“, also known as the “Union Treaty“, which was to decide whether the republics of the USSR should remain together. With the success of the Referendum, the structure of the Union was changed, allowing even non-communist leaders to compete for the presidency of the republics, which brought to power, for example, Boris Yelstin in Russia and Ayaz Mutalibov in Azerbaijan, while Gorbachev remained in office as President of the Soviet Union.

Voting bulletin for the “Union Treaty”, March 17, 1991

The Armenians boycotted the referendum (in fact they declared themselves independent on August 23, 1990) while the Azeris voted in favor. The prediction of new clashes led to an arms race in Nagorno-Karabakh on both sides, but this time the newly elected Azerbaijani president Mutalibov decided to exploit the post-reorganization situation to his advantage: he thus convinced Gorbachev to organize a pre-emptive strike to disarm the ‘Armenia and make it desist from its proposal of reunification with the Karabakh region.

Thus, on April 30, the Soviet and Azerbaijani forces launched Operation “Ring”, which resulted in the deportation of all Armenian inhabitants of the Shahumyan region, a process which was joined by indiscriminate violence, kidnapping, looting, murder, rape and torture. and that forced 17,000 people to exodus, until July 4th Gorbachev announced the end of the Operation as the area had been “pacified”. Obviously, everything turned out to be counterproductive: from that moment on, the thought became clear in the minds of the Armenians that the only solution for reunification with Karabakh was armed resistance against the Soviets and the war against the Azerbaijans.

In September 1991, there was a first attempt to mediate a peace, promoted by the Russian President Boris Yeltsin and by the Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev: after a series of talks, between 20 and 23 September the Železnovodsk Communiquè was signed, in which the parties undertook to respect mutual territorial integrity, national sovereignty and respect for human rights. But they were just nice words on a sheet of paper.

While Yeltsin, Nazarbayev, Mutalibov and Armenian President Ter-Petrosian signed the agreement, the Azerbaijani OMON forces continued to bomb Armenian towns and villages, such as Stepanakert and Chapar. The Armenians, for their part, certainly did not stand and watch: at the end of 1991 an offensive was launched in which the militias broke the siege of the bombed areas, and then concentrated on the destruction of the Azerbaijani villages, considered as hidden posts for the artillery, again with an escalation of violence and ever greater rancor, which involved numerous civilians who had little to do with the bombing done by Azerbaijani troops.

Finally, when the Soviet Union imploded, the Ministry of the Interior ordered the withdrawal of troops from the region, completed between 19 and 27 December 1991. With the end of the Soviet military presence, the situation in the region literally went out of control.

So here ends the second part of our story, e story of an only apparent “peace”, guaranteed by the heavy shadow of the Soviet Union, which at the same time created the basis for the actual conflict: by feeding a local nationalism in the hope of a future “Soviet Nationalism” it left the field free to violence, pogroms and reciprocal feuds, which in addition to a high number of deaths, continued to stifle the embers that would later flare up in the fire of war.

In the next writing, we will deal with the military clash that broke out in the years following 1991, I hope that so far the explanation has been clear and stimulating, as usual, for any question you can contact me.

Thanks to all those who have had the patience to read these lines.

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