Ethnic Cleansing in Progress: War in Nagorno Karabakh - Soviet Rule
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]

Soviet Rule


The genocide of Armenians in Transcaucasia was suspended by the Soviet occupation of the region in 1920. The heavy concentration of Azeri-Turk troops in Karabakh at the time of the destruction of Shusha enabled the Red Army to take Baku and topple the government of Azerbaijan at the end of April 1920 with relative ease. Within a month Soviet troops had occupied Karabakh. By the end of 1920 the Republic of Armenia, which had been subjected to yet another military offensive by Turkey that autumn, had also been conquered by the Red Army. The status of Nagorno Karabakh ceased to be a question of international law. Instead it became one of internal Soviet politics.

Armenian hopes soared when the Azeri-Turk communist leader Nariman Narimanov announced on November 30, 1920 that "Nagorno Karabakh, Zangezur and Nakhichevan (two disputed regions to the southwest of Karabakh - ed.) are recognized to be integral parts of the Socialist Republic of Armenia" (Walker, 1991, p. 105). But this was little more than a propaganda ploy to encourage Armenians to view the Red Army as a saviour on the eve of its occupation of the Republic of Armenia. Once the Republic of Armenia was firmly under communist control, Narimanov repudiated his concession and reasserted Azerbaijan's claim to Nagorno Karabakh.

The Karabakh question went before the Transcaucasia Bureau of the Communist Party for settlement. The Bureau decreed on June 3, 1921 that Nagorno Karabakh belonged to Armenia. Narimanov threatened an upsurge of anti-Soviet activity from the side of Azeri-Turk nationalists if Nagorno Karabakh were given to the Armenian SSR. The Transcaucasian Bureau reaffirmed its decision on July 4, much to the dismay of the Azeri-Turks. But at this point Stalin, then Commissar for Nationality Affairs, intervened. On the next day, in Stalin's presence, the Transcaucasian Bureau reversed its decision without debate. The Bureau resolved to "leave Nagorno Karabakh inside the frontiers of Azerbaijan, giving it a large measure of regional autonomy, and having as its centre the town of Shusha" (Walker, 1991, p. 108). This decision conformed to Stalin's divide-and-rule policy for nationalities. By placing the Armenians of Karabakh inside Azerbaijan as 'hostages' the Armenian SSR would be less likely to act contrary to the wishes of the Kremlin. Likewise, an 'autonomous' Armenian enclave within Azerbaijan could be activated as a pro-Soviet fifth column in the event of disloyalty by the Azeri-Turks.

The "large measure of regional autonomy" promised to Nagorno Karabakh proved to be fictitious. The government of the Azerbaijani SSR defined the status of the Armenian enclave in the summer of 1923. It established an 'Autonomous Region of Nagorno Karabakh' with a local administration composed mainly of Armenian communist officials. But the northern tip of Karabakh - the Shaumyan district - whose population was 80% Armenian and the 4 mile wide Lachin corridor leading to the Armenian SSR were detached from the Autonomous Region and placed under direct Azerbaijani rule. The government of the Autonomous Region was entirely dependent on Baku and Moscow.

Soviet terror produced a precarious balance between the Armenians and Azeri-Turks. Manifestations of national aspirations were ruthlessly suppressed. Soviet policy aimed at the evolution of a new socialist man, devoid of nationalist yearnings. One of the key aspects of this policy was the campaign against religion. Marxist-Leninist ideology identified religion as one of the vital cultural roots of nationalism which had to be severed. Both the Armenian and Azeri-Turk communities in Karabakh suffered grievously from the communists' anti-religious policies. During the Stalinist era the Armenian church was obliterated. The Christians of Karabakh were left without a priest or bishop, who had all been murdered, imprisoned, or sent into exile. All of the enclave's churches and monasteries were closed. Any public manifestation of the Christian faith became a punishable offense. The bravest of the faithful risked their lives and liberty by meeting in small groups in private homes. Official Islam also ceased to exist in Nagorno Karabakh. The closure of Shusha's three mosques left the enclave's Muslim minority without a public place of worship. The only option for Muslims wishing to practice their faith communally was to do so within the framework of semi-secret sufi orders.

Under Soviet rule the Turkification of Nagorno Karabakh continued. While the Kremlin was no more hostile towards Armenian than Azeri-Turk nationalism, the Azeri-Turk authorities in Baku were successful in fulfilling nationalist aims under the cover of communism. During the Soviet era the demographic balance shifted markedly in favour of the Azeri-Turks. The main factors were the emigration of Armenians, the immigration of Azeri-Turks and the Azeri-Turks' high birth-rate. In 1921 when the enclave was awarded to Azerbaijan, 94.4% of the population was Armenian. Since then the percentage of Armenians has steadily diminished. By 1979, it was down to 75.9%. The shift of the demographic balance in Nagorno Karabakh was linked to the parallel process of Turkification in the rest of the Azerbaijani SSR where the non-Turkic communities have been rapidly shrinking. In 1959, the Azeri-Turk population of Azerbaijan was 2.5 million or 67.5% of the population, while in 1979 it had increased to 4.7 million or 78.1% of the population. During the same period the Armenian population of Azerbaijan decreased from 11.9% to 7.9%. Particularly worrying to the Armenians of Karabakh was the depopulation of Nakhichevan of Armenians.

12-year-old Armenian boy shot by Azeri-Turk gunmen on outskirts of Stepankert on October 18, 1991. (CSI)

Wreckage of Armenian Yak 40 civilian jet aircraft: Shot down while ferrying humanitarian aid to besieged Stepanakert in May 1992. (CSI)

Nakhichevan - a disputed region wedged between Iran, Armenia and Turkey - was granted by the Soviets to Azerbaijan, with which it has no common border. Armenians made up 40% of Nakhichevan's population in 1917. By 1987 Nakhichevan was virtually devoid of Armenians with only two Armenian villages remaining. The Armenians feared that within a generation the Azeri-Turk authorities would succeed in rendering their community in Nagorno Karabakh unviable as they had done in Nakhichevan. The weakening of the demographic position of Azerbaijan's national minorities, according to Profs. Bennigsen and Wimbush, gives Azeri-Turk nationalists "the feeling that 'we' (the Muslims) are stronger than 'they' (the aliens) and that 'time is working for us'." (Bennigsen & Wimbush, p. 145)

The Armenians of Karabakh never accepted the settlement imposed on them by Stalin in 1921. A slow death for the community was all that could be reasonably expected from it. The 1920s witnessed the operation of a clandestine organization called 'Karabakh for Armenia'.

It distributed tracts throughout the enclave protesting against the oppressive policies of the Soviet and Azeri-Turk authorities and calling for unification with Armenia. Stalin's secret police successfully liquidated the organization in 1927.

In the 30s and 40s prominent Armenian communist figures would periodically lobby the Kremlin on behalf of Nagorno Karabakh, but without significant result. The relaxation of Soviet terror following the death of Stalin resulted in more frequent and more open appeals to the Soviet leadership in Moscow. In 1963, 2,500 Karabakhi Armenians boldly signed a petition accusing Azeri-Turk officials of trying to destroy the Armenian community and asking for annexation to either Armenia or the Russian Federation. Eighteen Armenian residents of Karabakh were murdered by Azeri-Turks as a reprisal. Many Armenian intellectuals were forced to flee the enclave under the threat of death.

Remains of Azerbaijani rocket fired at civilian population of Stepanakert on Jan. 8, 1993. (CSI)






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