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A recreation of two posters from the Karabakh Movement: Air filled rubber gloves representing elections, originally with the inscription, "The deputy was elected by a pressing majority" and the word Constitution in Russian that eventually becomes only one letter, "я" meaning "I" (Form Harutyun Marutyan's archives). 

In 1989, social and political upheavals shook one Eastern European country after another, something historians would later characterize as “Eastern European Revolutions” or simply the “Revolutions of 1989.” The Berlin Wall, in the heart of Europe, which had symbolized the dividing line between the “democratic” West and the “communist” East, came down. With this, the socialist camp disintegrated; within two years the Soviet Empire disappeared from the world map; the ghost of communism, roaming in Europe from the times of Marx and Engels was confined to the pages of history and merely became the subject of study. 

A year before these developments, a powerful democratic movement began in the smallest of the Soviet Republics, in Soviet Armenia. In academic literature, with a few exceptions, it is considered only within the context of what was seen as an “ethno-territorial” conflict, an Armenian-Azerbaijani one. In my opinion, what took place in Armenia as part of the Karabakh Movement, was the first of the Eastern European revolutions and as such, played a considerable role in the democratization of Soviet society, had a substantial part in the deconstruction of the Soviet Union and consequently the elimination of the threat of communism. As the first, it was not regarded or perceived as a revolution, and as such, remained obscure in academic circles, whereas the formulations of the “unrecognized revolution”[1] can shed new light on the study and evaluation of democracies that emerged in Eastern Europe in the late 20th century.

However, let’s start at the beginning.

In their search of the roots of the Karabakh issue, Armenian historians go back in time stretching from a century to a several hundred years. This is normal depending on the context the conflict is being regarded in. But as far as the 1988 Movement is concerned, the base of the problem starts with the establishment of the Nagorno Karabakh Autonomous Oblast (NKAO) as a separate territorial unit. This was the July 5, 1921 decision of the plenum of the Caucasus Bureau of the Communist (Bolshevik) Party of Russia, a decision, ratified without discussion or a vote, to “leave Nagorno Karabakh within the borders of the Azerbaijani SSR and grant it wide regional autonomy,” disregarding the fact that at the time, Armenians constituted 94.73 percent [2] of the region’s population. Around six decades later, according to a 1979 census, Armenians constituted only 75.9 percent of the population of NKAO, registering an almost 20 percent decrease. In 1939-1979, the Armenian population of Karabakh decreased by 7.3 percent and the Azerbaijani population increased 2.6 times. Researchers believe the mass outflow of Armenians from NKAO as well as Azerbaijan proper was the result of the implementation of an economic, social and cultural policy, which created preconditions prompting Armenians to permanently leave. [3]

 In the mid-1980s, the leadership of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) declared the policy of Perestroika (reconstruction), democratization and Glasnost (openness). This, following other developments, greatly contributed to the February 20,1988 resolution of the Regional Soviet of the People’s Deputies of NKAO, to leave Azerbaijani SSR and join the Armenian SSR. On the same day, mass protests with the participation of hundreds of thousands, took place in Yerevan. Some time later, as the protest drew in almost all layers of Armenian society, the protests became known as the “Karabakh Movement” (February 1988 - August 1990). An analysis of the Movement shows that the Karabakh issue, as the ultimate political priority of the Movement, often served as the backbone for revealing and trying to resolve many other vital issues concerning society in Armenia. One can notice two parallel, interconnected directions: the struggle for national-liberation and the realization of democratic reformation. It gradually became clear that the success of the national liberation struggle, i.e. the solution to the Karabakh issue, depended on the accomplishments of the democratic reformation process.  

perestroika briefmarke 1988
ussr perestroika stamp 1988 restructuring is the reliance on the living creativity of the masses
Postage stamps issued in 1988.
1."Perestroika: The Continuation of the October  Mission," "The Acceleration of the Democratization of Openness (Glasnost)."                                                          2. "Perestroika: Reliance on the Vital Creativity of the Masses."

The most distinctive characteristic of the Karabakh Movement was that it was pan-national. The only social class that in one way or another opposed the developments of the Movement was the nomenclature bureaucratic elite of the Communist Party of Armenia. They clearly understood that democratic transformation was the path chosen by the Movement to solve the issue of Karabakh’s reunification with Armenia. In this regard, the Movement did not become pan-national overnight. Other than the February 1988 decision not to support Karabakh’s right to self-determination, another contributing factor was the behavior of the Union authorites and the leadership of the Republic which was clearly demonstrated by the following actions: the Party media and television news program “Vremya” were reporting about the developments in NKAO and Yerevan in a manner, according to Armenian citizens, that was incompatible with the truth and incomplete, and describing them as “extremist.”  Secondly,  CPSU Central Committee Bureau Candidate Vladimir Dolgikh, who was in Yerevan, described the rallies of hundreds of thousands as a “group of people,” which was perceived simply as an insult.

The main indicators of the Movement’s pan-national nature were:

a) Protests and rallies with the participation of several hundred thousand people for more than two continuous years;

b) Already by March 1988, “Karabakh” committees were set up among hundreds of working collectives of the Republic to support the leadership of the Karabakh Movement. This became the prototype for the People’s Fronts that later came into existence in several other USSR Republics; unique alternatives to Party, Komsomol and Trade Union committees regulating Soviet enterprises and institutions. These newly established bodies were more than just “support groups” - in a short time, a majority managed to take on the task of organizing and directing public activity. Several years later, hundreds of officials of the state apparatus of varying positions emerged from their ranks;

c) The plurality of the “carnaval” elements. As studies show, [4] starting from the very first days of the Movement, any disparity between young-old, woman-man, city resident-villager, Armenian speaker-Russian speaker subsided and was eventually eliminated in Opera (Freedom) Square, the central scene of the action. These disparities, sometime later, by the second-half of 1989 returned;

d) A variety and diversity of visual material (posters, signs, transparencies) was produced in large quantities (I have managed to archive about 1000 samples, which can be subcategorized into 20 groups) [5]. Such abundance of material is evidence of a high degree of pluralism in a deeply national movement and one that was not purely political in character, as for example, was the case in Baltic Republics. A researcher can see the emergence of a large group of people who are diverse, who increasingly subscribe to liberal ways of thinking and at the same time are unified in regards to principal issues.

As mentioned above, the Karabakh Movement was developing under the policy of Perestroika, Democratization and Glasnost adopted by the leadership of the USSR. In academic literature, these reforms are described as a “revolution from above.”[6] In general, as was characteristic to the Soviet system, whatever was initiated at the bottom would eventually have to be directed from above by the leadership of the country. Any divergence from this line, despite the activity and the constant urgent calls of the masses, would be considered a hindrance to the process of reformation/Perestroika. In this regard, from beginning to end, the Karabakh Movement was initiated from the bottom up. And for this reason, from its very first days, the Movement was subject to attacks by the supreme leadership of the USSR.

a) The bottom up direction of the Movement was manifested in different ways. Its most important characteristic from the outset was that it would be a peaceful struggle, adhering to the letter and spirit of the Constitution. If prior to the Movement, the Constitution was regarded as a useless piece of paper and the Supreme Council a place where deputies were occupied with superficial discussions and unanimously voted for bills authored from above, then during the Movement, people also gradually learned to appreciate the existing laws, the Supreme Council was considered a body that had to express the people’s will through its decisions and deputies were obliged, by mandate, to make that will be heard. Special groups called “Constitutional” were created to coordinate the work done with the deputies.  

Soviet propaganda poster, “The press is the weapon of the proletariat." 

Starting from February 1988, the main forms of citizen disobedience, relaying of demands were peaceful protests, rallies, sit-ins and hunger strikes that featured many slogans, however without violence or clashes with the police. It was during the Karabakh Movement (February, July, September 1988) that as a sign of protest against the actions of the Central Government, and for the first time in the history of the Soviet Union, a general nationwide strike was announced. The February 1988 strike had its peculiarities and perhaps that is why it was not mentioned as one of the first strikes in the USSR even by the progressive party media.

An indicator of the constitutional nature of the Movement was the May 1988 demand that the Armenian parliament convene. This demand was accompanied  by sit-ins, hunger strikes, and efforts to work with the deputies to explain the situation. Eventually, the session took place and by the request of the deputies themselves.

The same scenario played out again at the end of November 1988, this time on a larger scale. At that time, the leadership of the parliament did not consider convening a special session expedient because of their own attitude on issues to be discussed. However, on the insistence of a considerable group of people’s deputies, the session convened in the Opera building, the very heart of the Movement. During the session, the deputies objected to the proposed draft on elections in the USSR (a directive from Moscow) and did not agree to ratify the decision to make amendments to the USSR Constitution, considering these amendments anti-democratic. Convening the session at the epicenter of the democratic movement and the decisions made by the session were testaments to the people’s victory. Indeed, for the first time on that day, since the formation of the democratic parliament, the people convened the session they wanted, discussed the issues they wanted, ratified the decisions they wanted and all this without the presence of those from “above;” it was an indication of the abyss that existed between the central leadership and the people. However, that same night martial law and a curfew were imposed in Yerevan and the decisions of the democratized parliament were deemed unconstitutional and illegal by the central government.

The fact that during that session, the issue of Nagorno Karabakh was secondary meant that the Movement was truely commencing in the spirit of reconstruction (perestroika) (in its real sense and not as meant by Gorbachev), it was serving the general democratization of the country and was not a narrow nationalistic movement. People believed a solution to the Karabakh issue would be possible only through real reformations across the USSR.

b) It was during the Karabakh Movement, in October 1988, when for the first time in the Soviet Union and possibly in the Eastern bloc countries, that alternative elections were organized. Karabakh Committee members Ashot Marucharyan and Khatchik Stambultsyan, head of the “Charity” benevolent organization were elected to parliament.

Here, it is important to mention that in 1988-1989 (even on the eve of the 1990 spring parliamentary elections) the Karabakh Committee did not strive to come to power at any price, which is what the Party leadership and the media were accusing them of. If that was the priority of the Committee, then they would have taken the course of recalling a number of parliamentarians. But the priority was to convince deputies to implement the people’s will within the possibilities afforded by the laws in place. This was achieved in the fall of 1988 by managing to get two representatives into parliament, where they (as well as several other Committee members invited as observers) managed to make the voice of the people heard. Within only a month and a half in parliament, the activity of the two parliamentarians and what is most important, the dominating pathos of democratization played such an important role in the work of the parliament that it led to its general democratization. The November 24, 1988 session mentioned above was overwhelmingly the result of this process.  

The November 7 “parade” (marking the Soviet anniversary of the October Revolution of 1917) compared with the hundreds of thousands who rallied on November 18, illustrated that the Movement was truly stirred from the bottom up. It also underscored the Constitutional approach to the struggle adopted by the Karabakh Committee that resulted in establishing the de facto rule of the people and both the Committee leading the people’s struggle and the November 22-24 parliament sessions registered that the people and the Committee had also secured de jure rule. This meant that the constitutional approach to the struggle had yielded positive results despite it being rejected by the USSR leadership keen on implementing a “revolution from above.”

The height of the efficiency of this constitutional struggle came during the parliamentary elections of May-June 1990 that saw the creation of a parliament where non-communists had the majority and when following several rounds of voting, Karabakh Committee member, Levon Ter-Petrosyan was elected Chairman of the Supreme Council. The “Declaration of Independence” was adopted on August 23,1990 marking the beginning of a transition from a country with a Soviet style rule to the process of building an independent democratic republic.

c) Unlike the Baltic countries, where the movements were directed toward independence from the beginning, [7] anti-Soviet sentiments in Armenia grew gradually; an indication of the bottom up makeup of the Movement. The main “blame” for this process fell on the actions of the democratic reform proclaiming USSR and CPSU leadership that also included resistance to the implementation of Lenin’s principle of people’s right to self-determination, the failure to give a political and legal evaluation to the Sumgait events (which in people’s consciousness were irreversibly associated with the 1915 Genocide), the punitive actions of the Soviet-Russian military units in Armenia and so on.


...to be continued.

[1] Ronald Suny was the first who used the word “Revolution” to describe the Karabakh Movement. To my knowledge, he was the first to professionally and comprehensively base the events unfolding during the Movement in Armenia, Nagorno Karabakh, Azerbaijan and generally in the USSR on social-economic and national developments. See, Ronald Grigor Suny. Looking Toward Ararat: Armenia in Modern History (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1993), 192-212, 231-246։
[2] M. M. Karapetyan. Ethnic Structure of the Nagorno-Karabakh Population in 1921 (According to the agricultural census of Azerbaijan,1921). Yerevan, 1991. Including the population of the city of Shushi (where the Armenian population was slaughtered in April 1920), the Armenians were calculated to have made up 88.6% of the population of NKAO (138.4 thousand people). Hamlet Sarkissian, The Population of Nagorno Karabakh Over 100 years (1823-1923). (Ethno - demographic research). - Journal of "Issues of Armenology", 2016, # 2, page 76. link, link.
[3] Regarding publications on the subject, I would recommend two:  B. S. Mirzoyan. Nagorno-Karabakh (reflections on statistics) Lraber Hasarakakan Gitutynneri (Herald of Social Sciences), 1988, N 8, pp. 43-56 source: L. A. Valesyan, Yu. A. Muradyan. About the Results and Problems of the Economic Development of Nagorno-Karabakh, Lraber Hasarakakan Gitutynneri, 1989, n5N 5, pp. 3-18, source
[4] Levon Abrahamyan, “Ritual: The Pre-Theater and the Theatrical Square,” published in Bem, 1990, N 1, page 7-9. “Chaos and the Cosmos in the Structure of Mass Popular Demonstrations: The Karabakh Movement as in the Eyes of an Ethnographer Anthropologist,” published in Mshakuyt, 1990, March-June, N 2-3, page 14-21. The Armenian Review 43: 2-3 (1990): 67-80. Link, link
[5] Harutyun Marutyan, “Iconography of Armenian Identity-Volume1: The Memory of Genocide and the Karabakh Movement” Yerevan, 2009, pp. 22-23.
[6] See Nathan Eydelman, "Revolution from Above in Russia," Moscow, 1989. link 
[7] Levon Abrahamyan, Harutyun Marutyan, “The Struggle for National Independence in Baltic and Transcaucasian Republics: Differences and Similarities,” Report presented at the conference, "Interethnic Problems and Conflicts: Finding Solutions." Bishkek, 1991, part 1, pp. 36-37.

EVN Report wishes to thank the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung (FES) for their cooperation and support.   

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