Ethnic Cleansing in Progress: War in Nagorno Karabakh - The Karabakh Question Revived
Ethnic cleansings
Roots of conflicts
Legal aspects
Press archive
Operation Ring

Sumgait 1988
Baku 1990
Maraghar 1992


Caroline Cox and John Eibner

Ethnic Cleansing in Progress: War in Nagorno Karabakh

[Contents] [Preface] [Introduction] [Basic Facts] [A Conflict of Civilizations] [The Genocide] [The Pincers of Pan-Turkism] [Soviet Rule] [The Karabakh Question Revived] [Operation Ring] [The Post-Soviet Conflict] [The Characteristics of the People of Nagorno Karabakh] [The Prognosis: Continuing Bloodshed] [Conclusions] [Recommendations]

The Karabakh Question Revived


Glasnost and Perestroika
Anti-Armenian Violence
The Blockade
Armenian Retaliation
Moscow's Reaction
The Sakharov Mission


Glasnost and Perestroika

Mikhail Gorbachev's slogans 'glasnost' and 'perestroika' - openess and restructuring -had enormous repercussions throughout the world. In the West they were viewed as signals of an end to over four decades of cold war. Within the Soviet. Union they were seen as signs that the Kremlin was prepared to make substantial readjustments to the rigid totalitarian system devised by Lenin and Stalin. The prospect of restructuring encouraged the belief that the injustices imposed upon the repressed Soviet nationalities could be put right. Throughout the Soviet Union glasnost and perestroika unleashed powerful centrifugal forces. Gorbachev aimed to strengthen and revitalize the Soviet empire by means of glasnost and perestroika. But in the end he lost control over the forces of nationalism that he unleashed. The Soviet President's efforts at restructuring failed to overcome the innate conservatism of the system and keep pace with the glasnost-fueled explosion of national sentiment. Nowhere was this stronger than amongst the Armenians of Nagorno Karabakh. The response of the Soviet and Azeri-Turk authorities in Azerbaijan was strikingly reminiscent of the traditional Turkic reaction to Armenian aspirations for freedom. The genocide process once more gained pace.


Bishop of Nagorno Karabakh, Parkev Martirosian: Narrowly escaped death when his home was hit by an Azerbaijani Ala-zan rocket in December 1991. (CSI)

The Armenians, together with the Lithuanians, Latvians and Estonians, were amongst the first of the national minorities to use the freedom offered by glasnost to press for the overthrow of settlements arbitrarily imposed by Stalin. Throughout 1987 Armenian leaders sent protest after protest to Moscow. In October several Karabakhi Armenians instituted legal proceedings against the Azeri-Turk authorities in Baku for having "perpetrated genocide against the Armenian population between 1920 and 1987" (Walker, 1991, p. 121). Sensing a historic opportunity to escape from the stranglehold of Azerbaijan, the normally docile Supreme Soviet of the Autonomous Region of Nagorno Karabakh passed a resolution on February 20, 1988 calling on Armenia and Azerbaijan to strive to reach "a positive decision concerning the transfer of the region from the SSR of Azerbaijan to the SSR of Armenia" (Walker, 1991, p. 123). The resolution had an electric effect both within and outside the enclave. The Armenians of Karabakh were ecstatic. The Azeri-Turks were angered. Interethnic relations rapidly deteriorated. Several days after the passing of the resolution for unification, furious Azeri-Turk demonstrators marched on Stepanakert where they encountered a crowd of Armenians and the police. Two Azeri-Turks died in the confrontation. One was hit by a stone and the other was shot by an Azeri-Turk policeman.


Armenia overwhelmingly supported the wishes of the Armenian majority of Nagorno Karabakh. Massive demonstrations took place in support of the resolution, with the number of participants ranging from 700,000 to one million. Fifteen prominent intellectuals in Yerevan formed a 'Karabakh Committee', which, in addition to campaigning on behalf of Karabakh, gradually assumed the role of leading Armenia's opposition to communist rule. Two Armenian writers, Sylvia Kaputikian and Dr. Zori Balayan - a native of Karabakh - were dispatched to Moscow for meetings with Gorbachev and other senior officials.


Anti-Armenian Violence

Sumgait: The vigorous but mainly peaceful political activity in Karabakh and Yerevan was accompanied by a resumption of killings. On February 27, fanatical Azeri-Turks went on a three day rampage in Sumgait, a new industrial town 20 miles from Baku, murdering members of the town's large Armenian minority and destroying their property. According to the official Soviet account 32 died, but eyewitness reports strongly suggest the true figure runs into the hundreds. Marina Pogosyan, a young survivor of the Sumgait massacre, testified:


"On the twenty-sixth, a Friday, a friend of mine warned me to stay inside over the weekend. Still, I went to work - I taught in a nursery schood - and walked home at noon. That afternoon, there was another Azerbaijani rally, in downtown Sumgait, and then crowds of people went through the shopping area where Armenians worked, and broke windows and smashed things. I heard cries of 'Death to Armenians! Blood for blood!' It was mostly young people, and the police didn't stop them. Late that night, after we had gone to bed, we heard yelling on the street, and through the window I saw thousands of people in a mob marching through the street, most dressed in black, carrying clubs and Turkish flags with the half-moon. They were yelling, 'Get out! Armenians are killing our people and you're sitting here! We must purge our city! The next day, we went to a neighbor's in the building for her birthday party. We talked about what we had seen, but we thought it was just young hooligans. Then a neighbor boy came in, looking pale. We asked him what was happening, and he said: 'You don't know? They're killing and burning people out there, breaking into people's apartments.' We called the police, and they said: 'Stay where you are. You're not the only ones. We can't help you.' A Russian neighbor came to us and invited us to wait in her apartment. There were about three families with her - fifteen people. We spent the whole night there. The mob came and knocked on our door, and she went outside and told them that we were not there - that we'd moved a week ago. A few times after that, they passed by and broke into neighbors' apartments. By that time, no Armenians were home. So there were no killings (in her building - ed.), but there was a lot of destruction. They threw the chairs and the dishes out of the window. I had absolutely no hope that we'd survive. I figured they'd kill us all sooner or later. The mob came again, but on Monday soldiers came in tanks and took us to the Party committee building." (Cullen, 1991, pp. 66-7)


Marina Pogosyan and her family were allowed to collect money and a few possessions before being flown to Yerevan. Most of Sumgait's Armenian community survived the attacks. Many, like Miss Pogosyan, were sheltered by brave Russian and Azeri-Turk neighbours. But the fate of those who fell into the hands of the mob was cruel. Lola Avakyan, a 37-year-old Armenian resident of Sumgait was one of the unfortunate. Seized by an Azeri-Turk crowd, she was stripped and forced to dance before having her breasts slashed and body burned with cigarettes. She was raped and then killed. Several Azeri-Turks were arrested and convicted for their involvement in the mayhem.

Sumgait postscript: On March 2, 1993, the Office of Azerbaijan's Procurator announced that it had recommended that President Elchibey grant an amnesty to those convicted of violent offenses against Armenians during the Sumgait pogrom. The Procurator's Office reported that it expected the President to act according to its recommendation. On the same day, a proposal for the amnesty to be announced on May 28, 1993 - the 74th anniversary of the founding of the first Republic of Azerbaijan - was made in Azerbaijan's parliament.

Kirovabad: The Sumgait massacre was but the first of a series of anti-Armenian pogroms in Azerbaijan. On November 21, 1988 the 40,000 Armenians of Azerbaijan's second largest city, Kirovabad (Elizavetpol, Ganja), were driven out of their homes and forced to flee to Armenia by Azeri-Turk mobs. The Kirovabad pogrom was apparently sparked by false reports in Azerbaijan's press that Armenians in Karabakh had desecrated a sacred grove and were building on it an environmentally hazardous factory. In one incident in Kirovabad, hundreds of Armenian women and children were forced to seek refuge in a church, which some courageous, unarmed Soviet soldiers tried to defend. Several of the soldiers were killed. The Soviet media censored all information about the pogrom in Kirovabad.

Baku: The Kirovabad pogrom coincided with an upsurge of anti-Armenian activity in Baku. On November 18, 1988 an Azeri-Turk was sentenced to death in Moscow for his role in the Sumgait massacre. The next day a mass demonstration took place in Baku, protesting against the death sentence. For the next three weeks such nationalist demonstrations were regular occurrences in Baku. The rallies involved over 500,000 Azeri-Turks. 'Death to Armenians' and 'Armenians out of Azerbaijan' and other anti-Armenian slogans featured prominently. But it was not till January 1990 that Armenian blood was shed in Baku on a mass scale. On January 12, the eve of a mass rally in the city's Lenin Square, radical Azeri-Turk nationalists of Azerbaijan's anti-communist Popular Front were allowed to broadcast appeals for the defense of Azerbaijan's sovereignty from the demands of the Armenians. Meanwhile, groups of young Azeri-Turks began to roam the streets, terrorizing Armenians and warning them to leave town. On the 13th the murders got under way. The police failed to intervene. The Armenian Abram Kazaryan, a war veteran and resident of Baku since 1920 reported:


"The pogrom started on the tenth of January. A man came to my door and said: 'Leave, old man. Your time is up. Your people have left, and you should leave.' If he had been alone, I'd have chased him away. But there were three of them. I said: 'I'm an old man, I have no place to go.' On the twelfth, about twenty of them came, and they broke down the door. I tried to fight them, and yelled for help. On the morning of the thirteenth, I went to the police and filed a complaint. They said 'O.K.' and did nothing. I stayed at home and propped the door up as best I could, but there was nothing to repair it with. That evening, at six, they came again. They rang the bell and knocked. I could see there were a lot of them in the courtyard. I put my coat on and went to open the door. As I got there, it came down on me. It fell on me. I think they had an axe. There were four of them, and then it seemed like forty. They beat me and threw me on the floor and started trampling me. They broke three ribs, right... and threw me down the stairs. I lost consciousness. When I opened my eyes, they were carrying my things away - the rugs, the TV, everything. My pockets and clothes were torn, and they'd taken my documents. Two of them stood guard over me to keep me from running away. I said to them: 'Why are you beating up an old man?' They didn't answer. They put me in a car and took me to a movie theatre and threw me into a basement with some others. We were there for a day and a half." (Cullen, pp. 69-70)


Mr. Kazaryan was deported across the Caspian Sea to Turkmenistan on a steamer together with 1,500 other Armenians. Eventually he reached Yerevan. Azaddin Gyulmamedov, a young Azeri-Turk who witnessed the outbreak of anti-Armenian violence while he attended the Popular Front rally in Baku on the 13th, gave the following account:


"We went to see what was happening. We saw these guys in the streets. I don't know who they were -drug addicts, maybe. They had sticks and clubs, and lists of Armenians and where they lived. They wanted to break down the doors of Armenian apartments and chase them out. The police didn't do anything. They just stood and watched. Same with the soldiers, who had weapons. We asked them to help. There were about a dozen soldiers and ten of us, and there were about twenty in the gang, but the soldiers wouldn't help. They said: 'You can do it yourself, Blackie. We're not getting involved." (Cullen, p. 70)


Soviet troops moved into Baku on January 19, leaving death and destruction in their wake. The anti-Armenian crowds had turned anti-Soviet and surrounded the building of the Central Committee of the Azerbaijani Communist Party. But the anti-Armenian pogrom had already run its course, leaving 68 dead, according to the customarily low official figures. A mere 1,800 Armenians remain in Baku. Most are believed to be married to Azeri-Turks or are the offspring of mixed marriages. Within months of the Baku pogrom, Azerbaijan had been virtually 'cleansed' of Armenians.


The Blockade

The deportation of Armenians from Azerbaijan, if not orchestrated by the Azeri-Turk authorities, was undertaken with their tacit consent. The then First Secretary of Azerbaijan's Communist Party, Ayaz Mutalibov, has admitted that there were "a few thousand" Interior Ministry troops in Baku at the onset of the pogrom (Cullen, p. 71). The strategy of the Azerbaijani government was to use its own limited power gradually to intensify pressure on the Republic's Armenian community, while pressing the Kremlin to apply massive force against what it viewed as Armenian separatists in Karabakh. Violence against Armenian 'hostages' in Azerbaijani towns and villages was one method that did not depend on political or material support from Moscow. A blockade of the enclave was another. No sooner had Nagorno-Karabakh's Supreme Soviet expressed the wish to unite with Armenia than the government in Baku began to interrupt supply lines to Karabakh. Azeri-Turk armed bands attacked traffic on the two roads linking Armenia with Karabakh. By the summer of 1989 both were entirely blocked to traffic. So too were the enclave's rail links to the outside world. The Armenians of Karabakh became dependent almost entirely on their own meagre resources and aid flown in from Armenia. But the Azerbaijani authorities kept open the road from Azerbaijan to Shusha. Thus, while the Armenian community was deprived of food and basic medicines, essential supplies continued to reach the Azeri-Turk population and armed units. The noose around the Armenians of Karabakh slowly tightened. Armenia too was punished economically. Azerbaijan reduced vital gas and oil deliveries to its western neighbour.


Armenian Retaliation

The initial Armenian reaction to the Sumgait massacre and the blockade of Karabakh was muted. Hundreds of thousands of Armenians processed to Yerevan's monument to the victims of the 1915-16 genocide in honour of the Sumgait victims. Armenians in both Armenia and Karabakh looked to Moscow for a solution. The demonstrations and strikes of the Armenians remained essentially peaceful. But interethnic violence flared in Nago-rno Karabakh in September 1988. The Azeri-Turk authorities were then in the process of 'cleansing' Shusha of Armenians by means of deportations. On September 18, Azeri-Turk terrorists ambushed a bus carrying Armenian school children near Stepanakert. Upon receiving news of the incident, a crowd of Armenians rushed to the scene. A gun battle ensued leaving one dead and more than 40 injured. The use of guns marked a major escalation of the conflict. Thereafter the pace of expulsions of Armenians and Azeri-Turks from each other's neighbourhoods quickened.

The mass deportations of Azeri-Turks from Armenia got under way in the autumn of 1988. The Armenians were not quick to retaliate in response to the Sumgait massacre. But Armenian restraint crumbled in response to the Kirovabad pogrom and the anti-Armenian demonstrations in Baku. Throughout Armenia Azeri-Turks were forced to leave their homes. Muzeib Imamaliev, an Azeri-Turk local government official in Armenia, recalled being told by his employer one day in November to leave the country immediately:


"He said I should leave right away. I said: 'What's happening? They have nothing against me.' And he said they would kill me, because they were angry about Armenians being expelled from Kirovabad. In a matter of hours, there were ten thousand people in the streets, yelling 'Get out, Turks!' I tried to call the police, the Central Committee in Yerevan, the Council of Ministers. My phones suddenly didn't work. I called together the people who had worked for me. They said I should go or they'd be killed, too. Then they took me out through a back door and put me in a car. It wasn't my black Volga - it was a Zhiguli. The deputy director of the Police Department was driving, and he took me home. A crowd of about a thousand people surrounded the house, yelling and throwing rocks. The police protected us, but they didn't disperse the crowd. It was like that for two days." (Cullen, p. 68)


Imamaliev was then driven by the police to Yerevan, where he bought a plane ticket to Baku. Eventually he sent a helicopter back to Armenia to retrieve his family.

On December 7, 1988 Armenia was rocked by a powerful earthquake. At least 25,000 people died and 500,000 were made homeless. 10,000 children became orphans. The massive death and destruction traumatized the Armenian people and exacerbated political tension. Many of the victims were refugees from Azerbaijan who had been resettled in northern Armenia near the epicentre of the earthquake. The emotional strain caused by the natural disaster quickened the pace of deportations of Azeri-Turks from Armenia. Over the next eighteen months virtually all of Armenia's 300,000-plus Azeri-Turks were driven out of Armenia.


Moscow's Reaction

The eruption of the conflict in Karabakh in February 1988 caught the Soviet leadership off guard. Gorbachev's initial instinct was to buy time. In his meeting with the Armenian representatives Silva Kaputikyan and Zori Balayan on February 27, the General Secretary lent a sympathetic ear. He promised that he would personally supervise an implementation of reforms in Nagorno Karabakh as a part of a general solution to the Soviet Union's various nationality problems. Gorbachev promised, according to Kaputikyan, to make sure the "autonomous republics receive more freedom", and concluded by pledging to "create great conditions for the flourishing of culture and the economy" (Cullen, p. 65). But Gorbachev stopped short of promising a constitutional mechanism by which the desire of the people of Nagorno Karabakh for union with Armenia could be fulfilled.

Gorbachev's tactic succeeded. News of Gorbachev's commitment to unspecified reform was sufficient to cool the political temperature in Stepanakert and Yerevan. High hopes were pinned on Gorbachev and his commitment to perestroika.

When put to the test in Nagorno Karabakh, Gorbachev's concept of perestroika proved to be bankrupt. Perestroika had little to offer the Soviet Union's oppressed nationalities. On March 21, the number-two man in the Kremlin hierarchy and co-architect of Gorbachev's reforms, Alexander Yakovlev, revealed to Andrei Sakharov the limits of perestroika. When asked by the distinguished physicist and human rights activist why the Kremlin did not announce immediately that the wishes of the Armenians of Nagorno Karabakh were justified and would be fulfilled, Yakovlev replied:


"The national structure of the state can't be changed in any respect. Any revision would create a dangerous precedent; there are too many flash points where ethnic passions could explode. And besides, the particular case of Nagorno Karabakh is incredibly complex. The four hundred thousand Armenians living in Azerbaijan are to all intents and purposes hostages. The Caucasus is flooded with arms, they're being brought across the border in great quantities. One match would be sufficient to ignite a firestorm." (Sakharov, p. 49)


Two days after Sakharov's meeting with Yakovlev, the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR passed a resolution rejecting the transfer of Nagorno Karabakh to Armenia. The resolution was standard Marxist-Leninist window dressing. The Presidium made a vague pledge to "solve the urgent problems of the economic, social and cultural development" of Nagorno Karabakh. But instead of looking for solutions based on the will of the people, the Presidium declared it "inadmissible to strive to solve complex national and territorial problems by exercising pressure on the organs of state power..." The Presidium also ominously threatened "administrative and penal proceedings" against those acting contrary to its policy. The Presidium's solution was for the Soviet Republics of Armenia and Azerbaijan to "improve their mass political and educational work amongst the population, always using Leninist principles as the basis for the nationalities policy and for friendship and unity between the peoples of the USSR." (Walker, 1991, p. 131)

The Presidium's resolution had a powerful impact in Armenia and Azerbaijan. In Armenia the widely-held illusions about perestroika were shattered. Both in Karabakh and in Armenia it became clear that the deliverance of the Armenian enclave from Azerbaijan would not come as a gift from the Soviet leadership. The Presidium's decision emboldened the leaders of the Azeri-Turks to intensify their efforts to crush the aspirations of the Armenians of Nagorno Karabakh. Henceforth the Azerbaijani authorities in Baku viewed the Soviet Union's conservative organs of repression - i.e. the KGB, the Interior Ministry and the army - as their natural allies against the Armenians who were striving to overturn Stalin's settlement of the Karabakh question.

The December 1988 earthquake forced Gorbachev to turn once again his attention to the Karabakh issue. The Soviet leader was forced to cut short a trip to the United States and visit the scene of the disaster. Instead of evoking sympathy, the tragedy of the Armenians had a negative effect on him. Andrei Sakharov recalled:


"Gorbachev's trip to the disaster area didn't go well. He was harangued by a desperate, grieving people with nothing left to lose. He may have hoped that the earthquake would at least dispose of the Karabakh issue, but that didn't happen. Unfortunately, Gorbachev's reaction was irritable - I would even call it childishly peevish - and not sufficiently sensitive to the tragic circumstances. He spoke about bearded men, but a beard in Armenia is a sign of mourning." (Sakharov,II, p. 79)


Hard on the heels of Gorbachev's disagreeable visit to Armenia, the leaders of the opposition Karabakh Committee were arrested in a futile bid to bolster the plummeting authority of Armenia's Communist Party. Gorbachev's next move was to suspend the Supreme Soviet of Nagorno Karabakh. Following its resolution in favour of union with Armenia in February 1988, the enclave's Supreme Soviet had replaced its Baku-appointed leadership with one committed to ending its subservience to Azerbaijan. On July 12, it voted to secede from Azerbaijan, and henceforth govern the enclave without reference to the Azeri-Turk authorities in Baku. Thus on January 12, 1989 the Kremlim placed Nagorno Karabakh under its own direct rule. The administration of Karabakh was placed in the hands of a nine-member commission headed by the Russian Arkady Volsky. The commission was directly responsible to the central government in Moscow. But while the new arrangement bypassed Baku, the Soviet authorities re-emphasised that the Armenian enclave remained part of Azerbaijan.

Direct rule from Moscow failed to produce more than a temporary relaxation of tension between Armenians and Azeri-Turks. While the commission made some concessions to the Armenians - such as the return to the enclave of several priests - the people of Nagorno Karabakh were deprived of any form of democratic representation. On August 16, 1989, the representatives of the Armenians of Nagorno Karabakh held a constitutional convention and established a National Council to articulate the views of the community. The National Council stood as a rival to the Soviet-imposed special commission. The Kremlin tried to end the stalemate in Nagorno Karabakh by abolishing the special commission and returning Nagorno Karabakh to Azeri-Turk rule on November 28, 1989.

This decision to return Nagorno Karabakh to Azerbaijani rule marked the beginning of a coordinated effort by the KGB and Azerbaijan's communist leadership to destroy the Armenian community. The members of Nagorno Karabakh's National Council were arrested on January 19, 1990. Ten days later, a four-man delegation of Azerbaijani officials arrived in the enclave to establish their authority. The delegation was headed by Viktor Polianichko, the Second Secretary of Azerbaijan's Communist Party, a KGB officer who reportedly supervised the destruction of villages in Afghanistan. On the day of Polianichko's arrival in Karabakh, strict censorship was imposed and the enclave's only Armenian daily was closed down. Within a week, dozens of Armenian leaders were behind bars on Polianichko's orders. On February 2, Azeri-Turk units attacked Armenian villages in the Shaumyan district. The next day Armenians of two villages in the district received an ultimatum from the Azerbaijani Popular Front to leave their homes so that Azeri-Turk refugees could be settled there. Polianichko's rule was backed by Soviet Interior Ministry troops under the command of Major-General Safonov and OMON units under the command of Azerbaijan's Interior Ministry. Attacks on Armenian villages increased in the guise of weapons searches. On May 25, 3,000 protested peacefully in Stepanakert against the strong-arm tactics of the Soviet and Azeri-Turk authorities. Soviet troops broke up the demonstration with batons. In August 2,000 armed Azeri-Turks entered Stepanakert and conducted house-to-house searches and made arbitrary arrests. On November 18, Azeri-Turk troops attacked four Armenian villages near the Lachin corridor.

At the end of 1990 an Armenian social worker reported on conditions in the enclave to the Helsinki Watch human rights organization in New York:


"The capital's (Stepanakert's -ed.) phone lines are turned off, and the water is systematically poisoned, with the Azeris putting sewer water and bacteria in the drinking water. In addition, the roads to the villages - the food lifeline to the capital - are cut off. The Azeri government does, but the Soviet government knows. The Soviet troops and the Azeri militia are working together... The Azeri depopulation program is systematically going on in Shaumyan, Khanlar, Gamo, Azad and Bertatzor, with already 10,000 Armenian refugees, most going to overburdened Stepanakert or Armenia. Simultaneously, houses for Azeris are mushrooming all over the area in an effort by Azeri authorities to change the demographics." (Balian, p. 55)


The year 1990 closed with the familiar spectre of genocide looming above Nagorno Karabakh's Armenian community.


The Sakharov Mission

The eruption of the crisis in Nagorno Karabakh in February 1988 coincided with the first serious doubts entertained by the Nobel Peace Prize winner, Andrei Sakharov, about Gorbachev's perestroika policy. He saw in the Kremlin's Karabakh policy, which he regarded as "unjust, one-sided and provocative", the seeds of perestroika's failure (Sakharov, p. 46). He was struck by its flagrant disregard for basic principles of human rights. If Gorbachev intended to restructure the Soviet Union on the basis of the principles that underpinned his policy on Nagorno Karabakh, the outlook would be very bleak indeed, Sakharov thought. Within a month of the Sumgait massacre, Sakharov wrote in protest to Gorbachev and presented the case for an end to Azerbaijani rule in Nagorno Karbakh at a meeting with the Politburo member Alexander Yakovlev.

In the run-up to the session of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet on Nagorno Karabakh scheduled for July 1988, Sakharov initiated a campaign to end the enclave's subordination to Azerbaijan, and, as an interim measure, place its administration directly under the supervision of the central authorities in Moscow. In his first Soviet television appearance since his release from house arrest in 1986, the former dissident spoke about Nagorno Karabakh on the popular programme 'The Fifth Wheel'. But all his remarks about the conflict were cut from the broadcast. Yakovlev, who was the most progressive member of the Soviet leadership, confirmed to Sakharov that the party reserved the right under glasnost to censor information that it deemed "dangerous".

The inauspicious outcome of the July session of the Presidium did not deter Sakharov from working toward a just settlement of the Karabakh question, which he regarded as a litmus test of the viability of Gorbachev's reforms. The Kirovabad pogrom and the ensuing deportations from Azerbaijan and Armenia motivated him to intensify his efforts. While travelling in the United States in November 1988, Sakharov warned that the "Armenian people are again facing the threat of genocide", and called on the Soviet authorities to implement a four-point programme:


1) The publication of complete and objective information about events in Azerbaijan and Armenia and permission for journalists to work without restriction in the region - i.e. a genuine application of glasnost.

2) The stationing of sufficient troops in Azerbaijan to defend the Armenian population.

3) Permission for Armenians in Nagorno Karabakh and Azerbaijan to organize self-defense units.

4) The termination of Azerbaijan's control over the administration of Nagorno Karabakh and the introduction of provisional administrative supervision by the central government in Moscow. (Balian, 1991, p.22-23)


In December 1988, Sakharov briefed the UN Secretary General, Perez de Cuellar, and President Mitterand in Paris about Nagorno Karabakh and encouraged them to work for a just solution on the international level. At the end of the month Sakharov led a group of academics on a fact-finding mission to Azerbaijan, Armenia and Nagorno Karabakh. One of the aims of the group was to get reactions to a peace plan calling on both Armenia and Azerbaijan to trade territory on the basis of the nationality of the majority of inhabitants.

In Baku, Sakharov's group met with the members of Azerbaijan's Academy of Sciences and other prominent Azeri-Turk intellectuals. The meeting soon degenerated from a routine Soviet-style propaganda exercise to a shouting match. Sakharov recalled:


"The session was depressing. One after another, scientists and writers spoke at length, some sentimentally, others aggressively, about the friendship of peoples and its value. They assured us that no real problem existed in Nagorno Karabakh, that it had always been Azerbaijani territory and that the issue was invented by Abel Aganbegian (an Armenian, and one of Gorbachev's chief economic advisers) and the journalist Zori Balayan and kept alive by extremists. Moreover, any past mistakes had been corrected after the July session of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet: all that was needed for the restoration of complete peace was the imprisonment of Genrikh Pogosian, the recently-elected first secretary of Nagorno Karabakh.
The audience didn't want to listen to Batkin and Zubov (two of Sakharov's companions - ed.) when they spoke about holding a referendum. They were continually interrupted, and Academician Zia Buniatov (a staunchly nationalistic Azeri-Turk historian - ed.) was particularly belligerent. In speaking of Sumgait, he tried to depict the pogrom there as a provocation initiated by Armenian extremists and black-market speculators seeking to exacerbate the situation. He emphasised the participation of some man with an Armenian surname. When he interrupted Batkin in an insulting manner, I called Buniatov to order... Lusia (Sakharov's wife, Elena Bonner - ed.) supported me energetically, and then Buniatov attacked her... shouting that (she - ed.) had been brought here to take notes. 'So sit and write, and don't talk'."(Sakharov, p. 81)


On the same day the Sakharov group had a highly-charged encounter with Azeri-Turk refugees from Armenia. Several hundred peasants had been assembled in an auditorium and the speakers among them, Sakharov noted, appeared to have been carefully screened. Their tragic stories were of beating, burning, looting and deportation. Many testified to the participation of the Armenian police and Communist Party officials. Sakharov concluded that, despite some obvious fabrications, a "great tragedy" had befallen the Azeri-Turk deportees.

The next day the group held talks with the newly-appointed First Secretary of the Azerbaijani Communist Partry, Abdul-Rakhman Vezirov. The meeting was virtually a monologue with the verbose Vezirov claiming that he had improved interethnic relations and denying that there were any unresolved problems with Azerbaijan's Armenian minority. Towards the end of the meeting, Elena Bonner intervened and spoke from the heart:


"You speak of friendship with the Armenians", she said. "They've suffered a great national tragedy. Thousands of people lost relatives, their possessions. The very existence of the Armenian nation is threatened." Then she proposed: "Eastern people are famed for their generosity. Do something noble - give Karabakh to Armenia, a gift to a friend in need. The whole world will be awed by this act. It will be remembered for generations!" (Sakharov, p. 83-4)


Vezirov's answer revealed a powerful attitude that militates against a peaceful settlement of the conflict. Sakharov records: "'Land isn't given,' he said disdainfully. 'It's conquered.' (He may have added, 'by blood', but I'm not absolutely certain of that.)" (Sakharov, p. 84)

From Baku, Sakharov's group flew to Yerevan. They arrived a fortnight after the Armenian earthquake. This tragedy had a profound effect on the Armenians. Sakharov found them in "a state of shock and panic, almost mass psychosis" (Sakharov, p. 84). As in Baku, Sakharov met in Yerevan with prominent political leaders and academic figures. But it was the post-earthquake relief work and consultations about the safety of Armenia's Medzamor nuclear reactor rather than Karabakh that was the focus of Sakharov's attention there. Nevertheless, he was able to ascertain that the Armenians were not willing to consider abandoning Shusha to Azerbaijan as part of a compromise settlement, and that the Armenian deportees from Azerbaijan had been subjected to horrifying treatment.

Sakharov's group flew from Yerevan to Nagorno Karabakh. The pattern of meetings was similar to those in Baku and Yerevan. Two of Sakharov's companions, the ethnographer Galina Starovoitova and Zori Balayan, were not allowed to accompany him to a meeting with Azeri-Turks in Shusha because of fears for their safety. Sakharov's Soviet communist host, Arkady Volsky, skillfully managed to keep passions under control by periodically reminding the agitated Azeri-Turks of the misdeeds of members of their own community. After the meeting in Shusha, Sakharov and his group were taken to the resort at Topkhana to investigate the allegations that had contributed to the eruption of the Kirovabad pogrom and mass anti-Armenian demonstrations in Baku in November 1988. It was in Topkhana that the sacred grove had been allegedly desecrated by the Armenians and that an environmentally hazardous factory was due to be built, according to the Azerbaijani press. At Topkhana Sakharov viewed the lovely hills peppered with the dachas of the Azerbaijani elite and saw a "rather bare" hill where a camp for the children of the workers of a nearby metalworking factory was due to be built. Sakharov discovered "there was never talk of locating anything ecologically harmful in Topkhana or chopping down a nonexistent grove."

Refugees from anti-Armenian pogroms in Azerbaijan in 1989. (CSI)

Sakharov was dismayed that such a malicious rumour could produce such deadly results. Sakharov concluded his visit to Nagorno Karabakh with a meeting with the local Armenian community leaders. They informed him that they were opposed to proposals for the separation of Shusha from Nagorno Karabakh, which, in their view, would be an acknowledgement of the legitimacy of the 'cleansing' of the town of Armenians. The Armenian community leaders also expressed misgivings about theproposal of direct rule from Moscow.

The effect of such a measure, they argued, would be to undermine all the enclave's existing representative political structures without providing any real guarantees for the defense of basic human rights. Back in Moscow, Sakharov briefed Yakovlev on his trip. But he found that "the authorities weren't really interested". (Sakharov, p. 91)








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