As we mark the 30th anniversary of the Karabakh Movement, it is interesting to consider the impact the movement had on Azerbaijan and how 1988 played a crucial role in the process of Azerbaijan’s subsequent independence.
The process of reforms initiated by Mikhael Gorbachev (1985-1991), the last General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, is frequently perceived as a top-down process initiated at the center (Moscow) and extending to the periphery. By contrast, the impulse for political change in Azerbaijan came not from Moscow, but from Azerbaijan's own, namely the Armenian-populated Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast (NKAO). As a response to the reunification movement launched in Karabakh and Armenia, the first reactions came from a group of Azerbaijani intellectuals. The poet Bakhtiar Vahabzade and the historian Suleiman Aliarov published an “Open Letter” in the newspaper “Azerbaijan,” in which they declared that “Karabakh was historical Azerbaijani territory” and that “the Azerbaijani people and Karabakhis have the same origin--their ancestors are Caucasus Albanians.”
Right after the well-known February 20, petition by the NKAO Council of People’s Deputies, protests began in Azerbaijan as well. On February 21, a few activists and students from the informal “Yurd” movement organized a small gathering in front of the Central Committee of the Azerbaijani Communist Party building. Contradicting news and propaganda about developments in NKAO reached Baku, which contributed to the fast rise of anti-Armenian sentiment among the population. On February 20, Fuad Musayev, head of Baku’s local Communist Party, was called back to Baku from a vacation and found the city tense: “Someone was provoking them, propaganda work was going on.” That night, Musayev and his Party Committee decided to restrict outsiders’ access into Baku. Volunteer groups were formed and patrolled the streets with wooden staves, keeping a careful watch on the Armenian quarter. Through his actions, Musayev had only moved the trouble on to the town of Sumgait, twenty miles away. The Sumgait pogroms, lasting from February 26 to 28, left at least 30 people dead, most of them Armenians, who were killed as gangs went door to door looking for their victims. "The pogrom was a nightmare," said Yashar Mamedov, a witness. "And what has come after, the hatred between Azerbaijanis and Armenians, is even worse. We see no way out. We cannot talk to each other." Many insist that at least 200, not 30, people were killed. The reaction from Moscow was very slow; the violence was considered to be simply “hooliganism,” however, this resulted in further anti-Armenian pogroms in other Armenian-populated cities of Azerbaijan. It’s noteworthy that Etibar Mamedov, one of the most active organizers of the protests in Baku and Sumgait, who would later become a member of the Azerbaijani Popular Front, stated, “The people of Sumgait, from the very first day of the Azerbaijani national freedom movement, chose the most determined way of struggle.” So, the Sumgait Pogroms were considered an “important step” on the path of the “Azerbaijani national movement.”
After the Sumgait pogroms, the situation became unstable in Baku. On May 15, 1988, a demonstration took place in Lenin Square (currently “Azadlıq”) and was attended by more than 15,000 people, mostly young people and students. They demanded measures by the local Communist party to prevent “further actions by Karabakhi separatists.” Three days later, on May 18, the number of demonstrators doubled, reaching 30,000. On May 21, as a result of the Baku protests, Kamran Bagirov, First Secretary of Azerbaijan’s Communist Party (AzCP), resigned and was replaced by Abdurrahman Vezirov.
In contrast with Armenia, alternative forces in Azerbaijan couldn’t find a way to collaborate with the local Communist Party. An important benchmark was established: Karabakh didn’t play a uniting role in Azerbaijan and vice versa. This made the newly-emerging political players use the issue of Karabakh in their struggle against the Communist regime of Azerbaijan.
Starting in May 1988, mass protests in Baku were led by the inflammatory and fanatical “Varlıg” organization, headed by Neimat Panakhov. Meanwhile, Baku’s intelligentsia gathered around the Baku Scientists Club, which in the summer 1988, formed a group to set up the Azerbaijani Popular Front (APF).
After the Kremlin rejected the appeal of NKAO for reunification with Armenia, Vezirov invited the representatives of the Scientists Club for a meeting to understand their demands. Zardush Azizade, Leyla Yunusova, Eldar Namazov, Araz Alizade and Tofik Kasimov made an effort to convince the AzCP leader to initiate reforms in the Party and in the ruling system, which would help to meet the requirements of Azerbaijani society. However, their efforts to collaborate with the local Communist party failed and the results of the meeting with Vezirov were disappointing. Leila Yunusova confessed that Vezirov had been even more conservative and unwavering than she had expected. The physicist Tofik Qasimov, remarked that the best course of action he could think of was going home and finishing repairs on his apartment. A third, the Arab scholar Zardusht Alizade, declared that the only way forward was to set up a rival political movement to the Communist Party, a Popular Front of Azerbaijan. Some of the others were skeptical, but Alizade recalls, “We went to Leila’s house, bought a cake on the way, had the cake and some tea. And from the next day I began to work on creating a Popular Front.”
This meeting with the local Communist party leader was an important moment for further developments in Azerbaijan. In contrast with Armenia, alternative forces in Azerbaijan couldn’t find a way to collaborate with the local Communist Party. An important benchmark was established: Karabakh didn’t play a uniting role in Azerbaijan and vice versa. This made the newly-emerging political players use the issue of Karabakh in their struggle against the Communist regime of Azerbaijan.
The failed meeting forced the Baku Scientists Club to accept an invitation of unification by the more extremist “Varlıq.” As a result, the Popular Front of Azerbaijan was formed in October 1988. At this time, unrest in Azerbaijan was sparked by news about the possible construction of a rest house for Armenians who worked at the Aluminum Plant in Yerevan in the Topkhana area in NKAO. This was seen as a blatant case of a "creeping Armenian annexation" in Azerbaijani eyes. A mass protest began in Baku on November 17. The Central Committee, Communist Party of the Soviet Union representative in NKAO, Arkadi Volsky, gave orders to stop the construction. But the Baku protests continued. Demands soon ranged from the abolition of the autonomous status of Karabakh to the creation of an Azerbaijani autonomous region in Armenia, the arrest of the Krunk and Karabakh Committees, and the removal of Henrikh Pogosian as NKAO party leader. Slogans like, "Glory to the heroes of Sumgait," also appeared.
Karabakh became an important issue in the struggle against the Communist regime of Azerbaijan, which was accompanied by harsh propaganda and deepening animosity towards the Armenian population of the country. Violence in Baku stopped with the state of emergency, but unlike the case of Sumgait in early 1988, this time the target of anti-Armenian propaganda became the Armenian population of Kirovabad (Gandzak).
On November 21, the publication of “Bakinski Rabochi” read: “Several thousand people in Baku came to express their dissatisfaction not only about Topkhana, but also the recent developments in NKAO and surrounding regions…These protests are used by some anti-government segments to change the direction of the demands; sometimes very extremist slogans appear during the meetings. Later the flag of the “Azerbaijani Democratic Republic” (1918-1920) appeared at the protests. This was a clear sign that the movement was turning against the Communist regime. Because of the Karabakh Movement, Azerbaijan was taking steps toward independence from the Soviet Union.
The November protests in Lenin Square lasted around-the-clock for more than a week. “At nighttime the number of demonstrators was about 20,000, while more than a half million people were attending the protests during the day.” As the protests turned strongly against Vezirov and the Communist regime, steps were taken to stop them. During the night of November 23-24, Soviet troops entered Baku and a state of emergency was declared. On December 5, based on orders from Vezirov, the troops, using force, dispersed and arrested the last protesters who remained in the square.
The protests from November 17 to December 5, known as the “Meydan” demonstrations, played a crucial role in the process of the further formation and establishment of APF. These demonstrations were the largest ones against the Azerbaijani Communist regime, and Nagorno Karabakh was mostly used as a tool by APF to blame Vezirov and the local Communist Party. Karabakh became an important issue in the struggle against the Communist regime of Azerbaijan, which was accompanied by harsh propaganda and deepening animosity towards the Armenian population of the country. Violence in Baku stopped with the state of emergency, but unlike the case of Sumgait in early 1988, this time the target of anti-Armenian propaganda became the Armenian population of Kirovabad (Gandzak).
From the beginning of 1988, the Karabakh Movement was a catalyst for domestic developments of Azerbaijan. The newly emerged Azerbaijani Popular Front and the Communist Party couldn’t find a way to collaborate, which made Karabakh and anti-Armenian propaganda be used in the further struggle against the Communist regime. Moreover, it defined post-independent relations between the Azerbaijani government and its opposition. This peculiarity of using Karabakh as a political tool for a power struggle in Azerbaijan took the country toward the next complicated phases of pre-independent and post-independent developments.
EVN Report wishes to thank the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung (FES) for their cooperation and support.