Imposed peace and unleashed war

Imposed peace and unleashed war

The prehistory and history of the First Karabakh War (1992-1994)

An essential source of the might of empires throughout history has been their capacity to establish peace – no matter at what cost – between yesterday’s foes. This pattern was active in ancient Rome and is still practiced by regional and global powers. The Soviet Union came into being as a new power with a promise of an eternal peace between different ethnic groups and nations and vanished from the stage of history with a failure to live up to its promise.  
The case of Artsakh (Nagorno-Karabakh) was a flagrant illustration of how an arbitrarily enforced peace failed to contain internal tensions and collapsed as soon as the imperial power waned giving way to local nationalist agendas.

Text : Tigran Zakaryan    Photo : Armenpress 

 

Pax Sovietica? 
The peace in Karabakh was established by the Soviets through an arbitrary decision of transferring the almost exclusively Armenian district to Azerbaijani SSR in 1921. The decision adopted by the Caucasian bureau of the Russian Communist party however did not specify the ultimate status and borders of the region. It took two years until on 7 July 1923, after two years of lingering, an ultimate decision was passed by the Azerbaijani authorities to create the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast/District (NKAO) in the mountainous part of the province. It looked like a compromising decision as autonomy was granted to the local Armenians, yet there a cunning twist in this: Nagorno-Karabakh had no common border with Armenia. Moreover, in an attempt to legitimize this arbitrary decision, the Azerbaijani authorities simultaneously created the so-called Red Kurdistan – a sparsely populated mountainous district between Armenian SSR and Nagorno-Karabakh with no known Kurdish national aspirations in stark contrast to Armenians in Karabakh. The sole purpose of this move was definitely to delegitimize any attempt at having a common border between Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh, making any future attempt at reunification with Armenia territorially unfeasible. The fictitiousness of Red Kurdistan was more than obvious from the fact that by 1926 but only a tiny faction of the 41,000 Kurds in Azerbaijan – a bare 17 per cent – considered the Kurdish as their mother tongue, the rest, along with other ethnic groups, like Tats, Talysh, Lezgins, Udins, Tsakhurs and others, engaged a process of accelerated and sometimes forced Azerbaijanization. Very soon in 1929 Red Kurdistan was abolished with its main mission accomplished and the number of Kurds residing in the region dropping dramatically.

 

While Azerbaijani authorities very quickly conducted a successful campaign of Azerbaijanizing the Muslim minorities of the republic, who had small to none tradition of own literature and statehood, things were quite different in Karabakh. Here Baku had to try hard to eliminate or at least restrict the spread of education, literature, and press in Armenian language. Instead of forcing Azerbaijani language and education, considered as “less developed” even by the urban Azerbaijani population, the education in Russian language was promoted with virtually no opposition. 
The soviet years of Nagorno-Karabakh were marked with steady de-Armenization of the province and relative increase of the presence of Azerbaijani population in the province. The low level of investment in the local infrastructure, education, health care and other areas contributed to a steady migration of Armenians from the NKAO. 
In the meantime Azerbaijani soviet authorities conducted a policy of cultural de-Armenization (no possibility of accessing Armenian TV, newspapers, literature while having very limited and underfinanced local production), appropriation and vandalizing of local Armenian cultural heritage (the latter point was ascribing Armenian monuments to the vaguely defined Caucasian Albanian culture, which was quite ahistorically considered as the direct predecessor of the modern Azerbaijani one). 

 

From the current perspective it seems that everything national was suppressed in Soviet Union and that even a mere mentioning of nationality under the soviet authorities could entangle disastrous consequences for the person who raised the issue. Yet this was not uniformly true for all the periods and we can even assume that at times the Kremlin encouraged some limited forms of nationalisms for its pragmatic interests. 
As it is known from archival documents that in November 1945, months after the Second World War was over, the Soviet Armenian leader Grigor Harutyunyan sent a letter to the All-Union Communist (Bolsheviks) Party’s Central Committee suggesting to include Nagorno-Karabakh into Soviet Armenia. It is hardly imaginable that it was a merely bold move by an Armenian communist leader, rather than a move approved by Stalin as part of his postwar aims of reclaiming the 1914 border with Turkey, under which the Kars district would have been annexed to Armenia. 
There were other attempts throughout the 1960’s to 1980’s at petitioning Moscow to review the decision of 1921. Among them stands out the joint letter by the Armenian Communist Party’s First Secretary Anton Kochinyan and the head of the Council of Ministers (an equivalent of the prime minister) Badal Muradyan in September 1966 addressed to the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and suggesting to annex Karabakh and Nakhijevan autonomies to the Armenian SSR. 
However, the soviet authorities were not inclined to make room for territorial changes as this could open way to free expression of long simmering territorial and national grievances with a potential of seriously destabilizing the soviet regime. 
Meanwhile the pax sovietica – the relative peace which enjoyed the Armenian population of Nagorno-Karabakh – came at a rather high price, which was the effacement of the Armenian character of the region. 

 

The first blood 
The Soviet model of peace was a shaky one and it showed its weakness at every occasion. There were instances in the 1960's, 1970’s and 1980’s in Karabakh of Azerbaijanis seemingly committing hate crimes against Armenians with justice being presumably too mild towards them. Such cases stirred indignation of the local Armenian population, with some individuals attempting to take justice into their own hands. 
A case of anti-Armenian vandalism by the Azerbaijani authorities was the 1969 demolition of a monument to the World War 2 soldiers in the Armenian village of Banants to the north of Karabakh, because of the monument’s architecture was inspired by the Armenian traditional style. 
While many mention 1988 as the starting point of the Armenian-Azerbaijani hostile relations, with pogroms and mass exodus of population on both sides, it turns out that the first acts of violence on a sizable scale were carried out in Azerbaijan as early as 1987. Namely it was the pogrom in the historic Armenian village of Chardakhlu (Khachisar) in Azerbaijan – famed for having among its natives Soviet marshals Hovhannes Baghramyan and Hamazasp Babajanyan. The local district head, M. Asadov who had a conflict with a local Armenian person backed by the village community, organized a police raid, beating, terrorizing and having arrested a number of locals with the purpose of crushing their protest and forcing the local Armenian population out of the village. This was in fact an attempted ethnic cleansing, albeit on a limited scale, and what was revolting, its organizer got away with this kind of crime, and even got a promotion in the Communist Party of Azerbaijan. 
The violence in Chardakhlu was no coincidence, as the local Armenian population in Nagorno-Karabakh, Armenia and other places in 1987 were signing a widely circulated petition demanding that Nagorno-Karabakh joined the Armenian SSR. It can hardly be believed that the officials in Moscow remained unaware of such a crime and arbitrariness, so there is a reasonable ground to believe that the “punishment” was tacitly approved by the Kremlin. 
A more ominous and bloody warning came after the popular demands for unification grew into mass street protests in Yerevan and Stepanakert as the local parliament of the Nagorno-Karabakh autonomous oblast passed a decision on 20 February 1988 on unification with Armenia. 


The ethnic tensions immediately surged in Armenia and Azerbaijan as a mass brawl and clash occurred between Armenians and Azerbaijanis near the town of Askeran in Nagorno-Karabakh and some Azerbaijanis temporarily left their homes in Armenia’s southern city of Kapan. 
The hell broke loose several days later when in the Azerbaijani industrial city of Sumgait, a massacre and pogroms occurred against its sizeable Armenian population. There is all evidence that the city’s administration not only did nothing to prevent mass violence, but on the contrary, incited, orchestrated and guided the angry mob to the neighborhoods and individual apartments of Armenians. As a result of anarchy in the city on 27-29 February scores of Armenians were killed and hundreds wounded, mutilated with the survivors chased out of their homes.
Moscow was surprisingly very slow to react, which gives room to some researchers to suppose that at least some in the higher ranks of the security services or the army accepted the idea of “punishing” Armenians who took the ideas of perestroika or glasnost too literally. It is also worth to note that the Kremlin’s propaganda machine from the very first days of the popular movement showed its hostility towards it, calling the protesters in Yerevan “a group of extremists” while the phrase coined as “perestroika is not perekroika (in Russian in this context: “redrawing of borders”) went viral in the “central” press published in Russian. 

 

Empire crumbing 
By mid-1988 the central Soviet authorities seemed to have lost part of the previous total control they exercised on the vast territory of the empire of the USSR, including Azerbaijan and Armenia. People in both soviet republics raised contradicting, overlapping demands and Moscow, clearly unable to undertake anything close to Stalin-style repressions or mass arrests, found itself in a predicament, taking the path of least resistance, that is preserving the status quo while trying to silence the Armenian side through a combination of repression and reward. 

Armenian refugees fled from Baku massacres


The Soviet leadership in an attempt to take the control of the developments unfolding in Nagorno-Karabakh, introduced an “emergency governance regime” there appointing a special emissary Arkadi Volski as its head. It was planned to make substantial financial and other investments into the region to address the economic and social grievances of the local Armenians, which according to the officials in Moscow were the main reason for the sweeping dissatisfaction with the state of affairs then. This “emergency” regime suppressed the local parliament and administration, the allocated funds were partially pocketed by Baku officials or used for the ethnic Azerbaijani community in the region and all this understandably brought about the total failure of the Volski administration in its main mission – persuade the Karabakh Armenians to drop their demands. 
Such interventions by Moscow became even more inefficient as a result of the unleashed spiral of violence, a most remarkable instance in the long row of such acts being the almost one-month-long siege of the Armenian quarter in Kirovabad (Gandzak). There the local Armenians managed to organize a coordinated resistance since 21 November 1988 until the soviet troops arrived in the city almost a month later to ensure the safe passage of Armenians from the city and neighboring villages to Armenia. 

 

In December 1988 to January 1989 Moscow also attempted to take firmly under its control the situation in Armenia by detaining the leading members of Karabakh Committee coordinating the protest movement, however under the popular pressure and possible pressure from without they had to set them free after a few months. The Armenian society by that time became even more radical in its demands of more freedom from Moscow eyeing the possibility of an independent national statehood. 
In August 1989 the Karabakh Armenians elected their own representative body, which in its turn, selected the National Council, an executive body in a move that challenged the Moscow-backed administration in the region. 
Meanwhile the soviet authorities had to confront with the quickly growing national sentiment in different constituent entities, in some cases adopting repressive attitude and Karabakh was one of those focal points of repression by that time. 


In late November 1989 the Supreme Council of the USSR discussed the issue of the NKAO adopting a resolution which declined the demand of incorporating the autonomy into the Armenian SSR and instead established a direct Azerbaijani rule (called “Organizational Committee” under Viktor Polyanichko, the second secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Azerbaijan) over the province. 
The situation became one of confrontation between the authorities in Yerevan and Moscow, as the legislative bodies of Soviet Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh in a joint session on 1 December 1988 adopted a resolution confirming NKAO’s unification with Armenia. Moscow was quick to react by sending troops to Yerevan and establishing a curfew regime to avert street protests. 
A much more violent response came from Azerbaijan. Since 13 January 1990 angry mobs under the guidance of the Popular Front and others sympathizing them killed, raped, beat and mutilated hundreds of Armenians in the capital city of Baku, while tens of thousands of others, who lived in the city for many generations had to flee for their lives, in most cases with no penny in the pocket leaving behind all their valuables and homes. The Soviet troops intervened almost a week later only when the Soviet power in the city and Azerbaijan on the whole all but collapsed. 

Arkadi Ter-Tadevosyan, a military leader of the Armenian forces during the First Nagorno-Karabakh War 

 


Yet the mission of ensuring peace between Armenians and Azerbaijanis failed completely. In January 1990 just after the massacres and pogrom in Baku and the exodus of Armenians from the big cities of Azerbaijan, small-scale armed clashes started between barely organized bands on the border between the two republics as Azerbaijan imposed a transportation blockade on Armenia. 
While the Armenian parliament on 23 August 1990 renamed the Armenian SSR into the Republic of Armenia and proclaimed on starting a process of independence from the USSR, the central authorities in Moscow became increasingly supportive of the loyal Azerbaijani authorities in their efforts at conducting ethnic cleansing of Armenians inside and around Nagorno-Karabakh. 

Refugees from the Getashen village


In the so-called operation “Koltso” (in Russian “Ring”) in the spring and summer months of 1991 the Soviet troops along with Azerbaijani paramilitary forces committed numerous crimes against humanity in the Armenian villages in the north of Karabakh and inside it. As a result of those – by the way left unpunished by Soviet and other authorities – hundreds of Armenians were illegally detained, abducted, wounded or killed while the population of dozens of historic Armenian villages were forcibly removed from their homes for good. 
Fortunately enough the Soviet Union did not survive long to continue this perilous course however with the removal of the last barriers on the way of an all-out war between Armenians and Azerbaijanis the conflict evolved into a true war with thousands of people killed and cities and villages destroyed and burnt.

Armenian soldiers during the First Karabakh War

 

 

War unleashed 
The process of the demise of the Soviet Union became irreversible and gained momentum with the failed August coup in 1991. The union republics, one after another declared independence. Armenia announced its independence after a referendum on 21 September, while Nagorno-Karabakh proclaimed itself independent on 3 September 1991, days after Azerbaijan announced its own independence. The legal bases for the latter was the Soviet law, which entitled autonomous entities to secede from former Soviet republics, in case they choose to leave the Soviet Union.
Despite the peace-brokering mission in September 1991 by the Russian and Kazakh leaders Boris Yeltsin and Nursultan Nazarbayev, the fighting intensified in which initially the better equipped and numerically superior Azerbaijani paramilitary and nascent regular forces had the upper hand. 

Protests demanding union of Nagorno-Karabakh with Soviet Armenia


Yet the Armenian defense forces in Nagorno-Karabakh beefed up with the volunteers from Armenia managed quickly to organize into a real armed force who scored its first defensive victories in the north and south of Karabakh as early as the end of 1991. 
In January 1992 fighting intensified in Nagorno-Karabakh as the Azerbaijani forces kept the region in almost complete isolation from the rest of the world. While the capital of Stepanakert, including its residential area was constantly shelled from the Azerbaijani-held city of Shushi, the Armenian forces managed to take under their control some of the surrounding villages and towns serving as bases for Azerbaijani offensives. In the major operation in February 1992 in Khojalu scores of local residents – mostly Meskhetian Turks, who had been recently transferred there by the Azerbaijani authorities with an aim of changing the demographic balance of the region in their favor) were killed in what appeared to be crossfire between Armenian and Azerbaijani forces. Although Azerbaijani leader Ayaz Mutalibov shortly thereafter blamed the opposition Popular Front for the tragedy, later Baku’s foreign policy decision makers chose to turn this tragedy into a justification of their anti-Armenian rhetoric and actions.
Meanwhile a new tragedy, a massacre occurred in the village of Maragha in April 1992, as the village was unexpectedly invaded by Azerbaijani forces, who wrought their vengeance on the peaceful population, including elderly people, women and children. 


In the meantime the defense forces of Nagorno-Karabakh scored several decisive victories aimed at breaking Baku’s mortal grip on the region, and on 8/9 May 1992 took control over the historic city of Shushi, the main Azerbaijani stronghold in the region. Several days later the town of Lachin was taken and a land corridor with Armenia was established. 
Military setbacks in Nagorno-Karabakh prompted a political turmoil in Azerbaijan as a result of which former soviet leader Mutalibov was forced to resign and leave the country. Abulfaz Elchibey, the next Azerbaijani president was a convinced pan-Turkist who believed that Russia and Iran were Azerbaijan’s main security threats. Immediately after assuming his office in June 1992, Elchibey undertook an attempt to resolve the Karabakh issue through a large army mustered with the help of Turkish and other foreign military councilors and bolstered by mercenaries from disparate areas (like Chechnya, Afghanistan, Ukraine, Russia) and putting into use the freshly acquired military equipment. 
The offensive launched in June-July 1992 and continuing until the end of the summer initially was successful for the Azerbaijani side particularly in the north and at some point the Armenian forces held merely 60 per cent of the Nagorno-Karabakh territory. However the offensive soon ground to a halt with the Azerbaijani forces and their mercenaries sustaining disproportionate losses in manpower and military hardware. 
Moreover, Elchibey’s open anti-Russian policies and anti-Iranian rhetoric with the stabilization of the frontline in Karabakh placed Azerbaijan’s foreign policy in a deadlock. All this paved the way for turning the tide of war. 
It came in the beginning of 1993 as the Armenian side took the strategic initiative, eliminating the threatening gap of Kelbajar district between Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh in end of March beginning of April of that year. This was an impressive success of the Armenian side, which continued the counteroffensive restoring control over the northern Martakert district of Nagorno-Karabakh. 


In the meantime, in view of those successive military failures, the internal political situation in Azerbaijan grew tense once more. President Elchibey was ousted from his position in June and after a somewhat protracted period of uncertainty the former communist leader Heydar Aliyev emerged victorious in the squabble for presidency scoring a sweeping victory in the election on 3 October 1993. 
By that time the Azerbaijani armed forces had suffered major defeats and had to retreat not only from almost the entire territory of the former Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast, but also from its neighboring regions to the south and east. The Nagorno-Karabakh defense army established control over the southern border with Iran as well as the city of Aghdam, a major base for operations against Askeran and Stepanakert during the previous several years. 
Although military setbacks did not come to an end with Aliyev’s assumption of power, the new president of Azerbaijan took vigorous efforts to restore the fighting potential of his army. Yet he succeeded only partially in his endeavor, meeting stiff resistance on the Armenian side. The Azerbaijani counteroffensive mounted in Kelbajar in January 1994 after an initial success was totally crushed and the former frontline was restored in less than a month’s period. The months of April and May 1994 witnessed bloody warfare along the whole frontline, as it became clear that neither side could hope for a major breakthrough. 

 

Ceasefire
By the spring of 1994 the military forces of both sides had reached at a point of a balance with no clear advantage over the adversary. Moreover, the regional and global players, including Russia, Iran, EU and the USA were expressing their interest in some sort of peace in the region on one hand fearing a further escalation and expansion of the conflict and on the other hand having economic and strategic interest in the peace. Azerbaijan, which already had agreements or was negotiating them with major oil companies on the research and extraction of oil and gas from its rich Caspian reserves, was also interested in peace. The frontline for the Armenian side looked as most beneficial and peace was in the interest of all sides. 
The ceasefire, brokered by Russia, the traditional player in the region, was signed on 4/5 May in Bishkek by the representatives of Russia, Kyrgyzstan as well as the conflicting parties – Azerbaijan, Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh. 
This document signed in Bishkek was the main legal document which ensured relative peace in the region for the coming two and more decades.