The Political Consequences of the 1988 Armenian Earthquake

The earthquake of December 7th, 1988 claimed thousands of lives and destroyed thousands of homes. It also had far-reaching political consequences. The relief effort that followed became a symbol of the end of the Cold War, as Western countries rushed to help their former enemy, the Soviet Union. Yet, the wide scale of damage from the earthquake and the disorganized nature of the relief effort also showed the world the degree to which the Soviet system had been plagued by corruption and inefficiency. Finally, the earthquake was followed by a crackdown on the national-democratic movement in Armenia, further eroding the trust in the Soviet system.

Text : Mikayel Zolyan / Photos : Ruben Mangasaryan

Gorbachev in New York: A Triumph Turned Sour
December 7th, 1988 was supposed to become a day of triumph for the Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. On that day Gorbachev gave a speech at the United Nations, which was supposed to go down in history as the speech that would end the Cold War. He talked about new principles of international relations, announced that the USSR would reduce the armed forces by half a million and would withdraw 50,000 troops from Eastern Europe. On the streets of New York Gorbachev was greeted by people waving Soviet flags and chanting ‘Gor-by’, the nickname that Gorbachev had received in the West. After the speech he was scheduled to have a meeting with the outgoing president Ronald Reagan and the president-elect George H.W. Brush. On his way to the meeting he received a call from Soviet prime minister Nikolay Ryzhkov; a terrible earthquake had struck Armenia, destroying several cities and probably claiming the lives of thousands of people.

There are various estimates of the number of casualties, from 25,000 to 50,000 . Journalist Yuri Rost in his book ‘Armenian Tragedy’ put the number of victims at 24,817, 1500 villages and 35,000 buildings were destroyed or damaged. The reaction of the Soviet leadership and the media reflected the changes that had taken place in the USSR during Gorbachev’s rule. Two years before that, in April 1986, when the accident at the Chernobyl nuclear power took place, the authorities tried to cover up the disaster in order “to avoid panic”. This only led to more damage as thousands of people were exposed to radiation. Chernobyl had been a major blow to the image of the Soviet Union and the Soviet leadership was determined not to repeat the mistakes of the past.

The news of the terrible tragedy in Armenia spread immediately across the world, sparking an effort to help the victims. Initially, when the scale of the destruction was not clear, Gorbachev was planning to continue his visit to the US, which was to be followed by a meeting in London with British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. As news of the utter devastation and massive loss of life began to surface, Gorbachev decided to cut his visit short and return to the USSR. However, he had enough time to meet with Reagan and Bush and Reagan offered American aid to Armenia. The international effort to help Armenia, particularly the aid offered by the West, became a powerful symbol of the end of the Cold War. This was the first time since World War II that the USSR received aid from the USA and other Western countries. In a development, unimaginable even a couple of years earlier, George H. W. Bush encouraged his son Jeb Bush (the same Jeb Bush, who recently competed unsuccessfully with Donald Trump for the Republican nomination) to visit Armenia, accompanying humanitarian aid. Jeb Bush took his son to Armenia, where they visited children injured in the earthquake in hospitals and offered them Christmas gifts. Images of Jeb and his son with tears in their eyes, overwhelmed by the grief they had witnessed in Armenia, spread all over the world.

Of course, it was not only the West that had offered help. Other Soviet republics and countries of the Socialist block were at the forefront of the effort. The only Soviet republic, where the reaction to the earthquake was far from unanimous was Azerbaijan. By that time the two republics were already locked in a conflict over the region of Nagorno-Karabakh. To this day the response to the Armenian earthquake in Azerbaijan remains a subject of controversy. There were reports that aid was collected in Azerbaijan for Armenia but apparently there were people in Azerbaijan who celebrated the news of the earthquake. The Russian general Aleksandr Lebed’ who at the time served in the South Caucasus, wrote in his memoirs that some people in Baku even used fireworks to celebrate “Armenians’ punishment by God”.

Natural Disaster or a Man-Made Tragedy?

From the point of view of the Soviet authorities, the tremendous relief effort that brought together the East and the West was an important achievement, a sign that the Cold War had indeed ended and a new era in the relations with the West was to come. There was however, a downside to the wide coverage of the earthquake and the relief effort; it exposed to the world the corruption and mismanagement that existed within the Soviet system. Of course, by the late 1980s it was no secret that the Soviet economy was in dire straits and the Soviet system of government was not as efficient as it had tried to present itself. However, the images of the destruction and misery that were broadcast all over the world became irrefutable evidence that the Soviet Union lagged far behind the West. Victor Sebestyen, author of the book ‘1989: The Revolution’, argues that the scale of destruction of the earthquake, as well as the poor organization of the relief effort seemed to confirm the characterization once given by Helmut Schmidt (The chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany) who called the USSR an “Upper Volta with nukes”, i. e. A third world country that has nuclear weapons.

While the earthquake was indeed strong, the scale of destruction and casualties that was witnessed in Armenia could have been avoided. Even though it was widely known that Armenia is part of a seismically active zone, many of the buildings constructed in Armenia were not prepared for an earthquake of that magnitude. In addition to this, the quality of construction of many of the buildings was extremely poor because of the corruption and mismanagement that had plagued the Soviet system during the years of the so-called ‘Stagnation’. Thus, questionable urban planning on the one hand, and corruption and simple mismanagement on the other, led to a situation where whole cities were left vulnerable to a catastrophe that could have been avoided. In order to illustrate the degree to which the scale of casualties was a result of the human factor, one could compare the Armenian earthquake to the ‘Loma Prieta’ earthquake in the San-Francisco Bay area, which took place less than a year later in October 1989. While the earthquake was of roughly the same magnitude (6.8-6.9), it left 63 people dead and 3757 people injured. It is true that there were other factors at play, which aided in helping to reduce the number of victims (thousands of people were at an open air stadium watching a baseball game, reducing the traffic that would otherwise have been on the collapsed freeways) but in any case, the difference in the scale of damage is remarkable.

Furthermore, the Armenian earthquake relief effort was also poorly managed. It turned out that there was a lack of both equipment and specialists who were needed to deal with the immediate consequences of the earthquake. As the situation in the earthquake area was chaotic and the weather conditions were severe, the aircraft transporting aid faced a deadly risk. A Soviet military plane carrying 77 people and a Yugoslavian plane with 7 crew members crashed, killing everyone on board. In his book ‘Armenia in Crisis’ author Pierre Verluise quotes a French doctor who claimed that dozens of people died of kidney failure as there were not enough dialysis machines. Meanwhile, as reported by ‘Time’ magazine (December 26, 1988), an American designed flying medical center with 20 dialysis machines could not start operating until four days after the disaster because the crew encountered bureaucratic barriers and had to wait for visas to enter the Soviet Union.

There were also logistical problems related to the distribution of humanitarian aid. There were even rumors that some of the humanitarian aid was stolen and sold on the black market. The construction crews that came to rebuild Armenian cities after the earthquake often faced difficulties and some of them left without completing their jobs. In his book ‘1989’ Victor Sebestyen describes how the prime minister Ryzhkov, who was actively involved in the reconstruction efforts, reprimanded Soviet officials for the lack of assistance they gave to foreign volunteers. “Some of the foreign groups are leaving now with heavy hearts” Ryzhkov said, “not because of what they have seen, but because of the treatment they received here”. To be fair to the Soviets, many of these problems remained even after Armenia became independent, and the reconstruction effort dragged on for years and even decades.

At the time, the level of distrust in the Soviet system was so high, that some people in Armenia even went further and accused the Soviet government of being deliberately behind the earthquake. A theory emerged that the earthquake had been deliberately caused by Moscow through an underground detonation of nuclear weapons and was a reaction to the Karabakh movement, a protest movement that demanded the unification of the region of Nagorno-Karabakh with Armenia. According to this explanation, the Kremlin wanted to punish Armenia for protesting and to distract Armenians’ attention from the issue of Karabakh. To this day, no solid evidence to support this theory has ever materialized. Vazgen Manukyan, one of the leaders of the movement at the time, was asked about this conspiracy theory by Russian magazine ‘Slon’and said that he had thought about it a lot but he did not think it was true: “all the secrets of the Soviet Union had been revealed… when [former] KGB guys living in US started writing their memoirs they would have mentioned that… at least someone would have”. Most probably, if the Soviet system was indeed to blame for the thousands of deaths, it was not through direct action, but through the incompetence and corruption that had plagued the Soviet government system by this time.

Earthquake and the Karabakh Movement

Cutting short his trip to the West, Mikhail Gorbachev came to Armenia to oversee the relief effort. Here, however, he had to not only deal with the consequences of the earthquake but also with the complicated political situation. The Karabakh movement had become a major challenge to the Soviet leadership. At first, the movement had only one demand: the unification (‘miatsum’) of Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh. However, the list of demands of the movement became wider, as the movement started to raise issues of democratic reform and demanded an end to one-party rule. Soviet leadership did not know how to deal with the movement; the protests were largely peaceful, the protesters respected all Soviet laws, and phrased their demands using Gorbachev’s rhetoric of “glasnost” and “perestroika”. However, the movement presented a mortal danger for the Soviet system: by December 1988 the Communist authorities of Armenia had virtually lost control of the country. For the majority of Armenians, the highest authority was not Armenia’s Communist leadership but instead the ‘Karabakh committee’, the body that was formed to coordinate the popular movement.

The level of mistrust toward Communist leadership on the one hand, and the influence of the ‘Karabakh Committee’ on the other was so highthat when international aid started pouring in, many Armenians argued that it would have been better for the ‘Karabakh Committee’, rather than the Communist authorities to manage it. One of the committee’s members, Rafael Ghazaryan later told British journalist Thomas de Waal: “Immediately after the earthquake, imperceptibly to ourselves, we discovered that we were in charge of the people and even in charge of the rescue work, aid to the victims and so on… It was unexpected. The levers of power went from the government to us”.

When Gorbachev arrived in Armenia he was overwhelmed by the images of destruction, but he was also enraged by the fact that some Armenians attempted to raise the issue of Nagorno-Karabakh in conversation with him. As he often did in other cities, Gorbachev went out to talk to people in the street, most likely expecting gratitude for the relief effort. Instead, some Armenians, for whom this was an exceptional chance to voice their concerns with the Soviet leader personally, tried to raise the issue of Karabakh. This was something Gorbachev did not expect and was consequently infuriated.

Several days later the members of the ‘Karabakh Committee’ were arrested. Among them was the future president of Armenia Levon Ter-Petrosyan, future prime minister Vazgen Manukyan, renowned physicist Rafael Ghazaryan and others. It is still not clear whether the crackdown on the Karabakh movement was planned by the Kremlin or it was a reaction to the events. Gorbachev’s unpleasant experience may have been the last straw which triggered the crackdown. Manukyan, in his aforementioned interview, said he believed that apart from political calculations the fact that Gorbachev felt insulted, played a role in the decision to arrest the opposition leaders: “later when I was prime minister I had a chance to talk with Gorbachev one on one… he told me ‘I came [to Armenia] with my wife, I thought after the earthquake everything else would be forgotten, people would be preoccupied only with that, but wherever we went people were raising the issue of Karabakh and were insulting me and my wife’ ”.

Whatever the causes for the crackdown on the “Karabakh” committee, it did help the authorities to regain control for some time. In the long run this move proved to be counter-productive. Political prisoners, the members of “Karabakh” Committee received a hero’s status in Armenia and became a cherished cause for human rights campaigners in the USSR and abroad, among them were such prominent voices as the physicist and dissident Andrey Sakharov. The arrest of the leaders of Armenia’s democratic movement contradicted everything Gorbachev and his entourage said about democratic reform in the country. Inside Armenia, the protest movement was not crushed and it became revitalized as new activists took the place of arrested leaders. As a result, several months later the members of the Karabakh Committee were released. By this time it had become clear that trust in the Soviet system in Armenia had disappeared entirely. The demand for independence, which only a year before would have been perceived as dangerous radicalism had become the main rallying cry of the popular movement.