The Quest for Identity


On February 21, 1988, a startling announcement appeared in the Nagorno-Karabagh daily newspaper:

The special session of the regional council...of Nagorno-Karabagh request the supreme soviets of the Azerbaidzhani and Armenian Soviet Socialist Republics that they appreciate the deep aspirations of the Armenian population of Nagorno-Karabagh and transfer the Autonomous Region of Nagorno-Karabagh from the Azerbaidzhani Soviet Socialist Republic to the Armenian Soviet Socialist Republic.

The decision of the council of Nagorno-Karabagh, an Armenian-populated region administered by Azerbaidzhan, had profound and unforeseen consequences. In Armenia, the campaign was perceived as a courageous stand against a traditional enemy; in Azerbaidzhan, it represented an intolerable threat to national and territorial integrity.

The national movements in Armenian and Azerbaidzhan that emerged in response to the struggle in Nagorno-Karabagh have transformed political life in these republics and brought the region to the brink of all-out war. Yet the roots of these complex events go back at least 70 years, to the date when Nagorno ("highland") Karabagh, a fertile, mountainous territory of 1,694 square miles, was officially incorporated into Azerbaidzhan. We must look back even further, to the early nineteenth century, when Russia annexed what is now Armenia and Azerbaidzhan from Persia, to understand how Nagorno-Karabagh, with a majority Armenian population (94 percent in 1920, 75.9 percent in 1979) and separated from Armenian by only a few miles in some places, came to be attached to Azerbaidzhan.

Until its annexation by Russia, Armenia spanned a large territory whose western region was ruled by the Ottoman Empire, and whose eastern portion, including Yerevan and Karabagh, was ruled by local khans under Persian hegemony. In exchange for fealty to the Muslim khans, Armenian princes maintained a relative autonomy in the highland area. Russia annexed northern Azerbaidzhan and the khanates of karabagh, Nakhijevan, and Yerevan, incorporating Karabagh and northern Azerbaidzhan formed part of Soviet Azerbaidzhan.

After the Russian Revolution, Russia withdrew from World War I, abandoned the Transcaucasus, and Armenia and Azerbaidzhan briefly became independent. Karabagh became the object of a bitter armed struggle between the Armenian, Azerbaidzhan, and Ottoman armies until the Red Army established Soviet power in both Armenia and Azerbaidzhan in 1920. Azerbaidzhan agreed to cede the Karabagh highlands to Armenia, but it soon reversed this decision, allegedly due to Stalin's interference. Thus, despite the Karabagh Armenians' resistance, borders drawn in 1923 established Nagorno-Karabagh as an "autonomous region" administered by Azerbaidzhan, with guaranteed but limited cultural and administrative local rights.

The federal structure of the Soviet Union, in which small, ethnically defined territories such as Nagorno-Karabagh might be administered by republics dominated by a different ethnic group, provided further reasons for conflict. Soviet policies favored the majority ethnic group within each republic, which, in its turn, tended to restrict or simply neglect the cultural and economic development even of ethnic groups that form large local minorities.

With Stalin's death, Armenians in Nagorno-Karabagh began to protest that Azerbaidzhan systematically neglected investment in the region, noting that local living standards lagged behind those in Azerbaidzhan as a whole. Armenians also voiced alarm about the decline of the region's Armenian population as Armenian youth sought work in Armenia, Russia, or other regions in Azerbaidzhan. Cultural discrimination compounded the lack of economic opportunities: Armenian history was not taught in school, Armenian textbooks and cultural materials were virtually unavailable, and it was impossible to receive television broadcasts from Armenia. Letters of protest and delegations to Baku and Moscow met with severe sanctions, such as exclusion from the Communist Party, loss of employment, even imprisonment.

After Gorbachev came to power in 1985, these sanctions diminished, and in Karabagh, a mass movement arose that included government and Communist Party officials, directors of enterprises, and intellectuals. Supported by strikes and demonstrations, the movement began the campaign that culminated in the February 1988 resolution requesting Nagorno-Karabagh's transfer to Armenia.

This unprecedented step by a previously rubber-stamp parliament was met with a powerful surge of support in Armenia, where hundreds of thousands of men and women gathered in the Opera square in Yerevan. The Karabagh protests against political and cultural discrimination resonated deeply in Armenia, where they evoked the collective memory of massacres and deportations of 1915-1918, when most of the Armenia, where they evoked the collective memory of massacres and deportations of 1915-1918, when most of the Armenian community in the Ottoman Empire was decimated and the remainder evicted from its homeland and left with only the small portion in the Russian Empire.

Armenians also feared that events in Karabagh would parallel those in Nakhijevan, once home to Armenians, Azeris, Persians, and Kurds. In the Soviet Union, Nakhijevan acquired the status of an "autonomous republic" under Azerbaidzhan administration, even though it lay entirely within the boundaries of the Armenian republic. Its sizable Armenian population shrank to almost nothing by 1980.


The rapidity with which demonstrations of support in Armenia evolved into a national movement reflected widespread dissatisfaction with life in an economically and ideologically bankrupt empire. The standard of living had begun declining in the late 1970s, and rising inflation cut into already inadequate salaries just when opportunities for comparisons with the West opened up. Armenians complained bitterly about entrenched corruption, and intellectuals expressed concern about the Russification of Armenian culture, the poor quality of Armenian schools, and the reduced use of Armenian in government, education, and even cultural activities.

As in other Soviet republics, long before a political movement emerged, an informal basis for dissent had coalesced in interest groups and networks of friends, relatives, and colleagues. Through these routes, information, rumor, and illegally published material circulated. In Armenia, this informal activity tended to cover cultural, linguistic, and environmental - as opposed to overtly political - issues, and the immediate prehistory of the national movement began with an ecology group. In the 1980s, this group had begun gathering around itself many of the intellectuals who later became active in the Armenian national movement, and the events in Nagorno-Karabagh were first announced publicly at demonstrations it organized.

At the end of February 1988, after a week of massive demonstrations and strikes in Yerevan, Armenians agreed to return to work and wait for Moscow to consider the issue. But at the same time, anti-Armenian violence broke out in the industrial city of Sumgait, Azerbaidzhan, in response to the militancy of Karabagh Armenians and an announcement by the Soviet Union's deputy prosecutor that two Azerbaidzhanis had been killed in Nagorno-Karabagh. Thirty-two people died in the ensuing violence, including 26 Armenians, and Azeri mobs injured hundreds of Armenians. (Participants consider that these figures, as well as other official death tallies in Nagorno-Karabagh, Armenia, and Azerbaidzhan, are low.)

In Armenia, this event stimulated political activity that broadened in scope and organization, coalescing around the adhoc "Karabagh Committee," a loosely organized group of scientists, historians, writers, and teachers. The movement demanded an investigation of the role of Azerbaidzhan authorities in the Sumgait pogrom, and it pressured the Armenian Supreme Soviet into ratifying Nagorno-Karabagh's request for transfer to Armenia (a move countered by the Supreme Soviet of Azerbaidzhan). In March 1988, acknowledging the severe economic problems in Nagorno-Karabagh, the Soviet Union allocated four billion rubles for the region's development. But four months later, in a great blow to Armenian hopes, it rejected any border changes, and anti-Armenians violence broke out anew in November in Kirovabad, Baku, and other Azerbaidzhan cities and towns. As Armenians fled that republic, Armenia's mainly rural Azerbaidzhan population, harassed in turn and fearing further reprisals, abandoned their villages for Azerbaidzhan.

One month later, further catastrophe struck Armenia in the form of a massive earthquake that levelled two major cities and hundreds of villages, killed at least 25,000 people, and left half a million people homeless. While Armenians were preoccupied with this tragedy, local authorities arrested 11 members of the Karabagh Committee, hoping to end its challenge to the Armenian Communist Party's crumbling legitimacy. But neither the massive influx of refugees, the earthquake, nor the arrests could restore Communist Party authority. A campaign to release the Karabagh Committee provided yet another focus for protest, and when the committee members were released six months later, they replaced the Communist Party as the trusted, legitimate leaders of Armenians.

In the autumn of 1989, the various political opposition groups came together under one umbrella, the Armenian National Movement. This organization initially focused on getting its candidates elected to Armenia's Supreme Soviet in order to achieve a broad agenda of political and cultural goals. By the summer of 1990, the ANM had replaced the Communist government, with movement members elected to the parliament and a member of the Karabagh Committee, Levon Ter-Petrosian, a scholar of ancient Middle Eastern languages, selected as its president.

Throughout this period, strikes and demonstrations continued in Nagorno-Karabagh. In January 1989, acting too little and too late, Moscow dissolved the local government and placed Nagorno-Karabagh under direct Moscow rule. Less than a year later, having failed to halt the bloodshed, Moscow turned the administration of the region over to a military administration that Armenians accused of backing Azerbaidzhan attempts to control Nagorno-Karabagh.


Ironically, in Azerbaidzhan as in Armenia, the struggle in Nagorno-Karabagh stimulated the birth of a political movement. Perceived as a challenge to Azerbaidzhan's activism constituted an emotional issue that various political interests could use to garner support. But because it couldn't break the Azerbaidzhan Communist Party's grip on political life, the nascent Azerbaidzhan National Front failed to generate grassroots support for its initial agenda of democratic reforms.

Ultimately, the front narrowed its focus to that of securing Azerbaidzhan sovereignty over its own territory, a goal defined in increasingly nationalist, anti-Armenian terms. In 1989, hoping to crush the Armenian challenge, the Azerbaidzhan National Front instituted a crippling rail blockade of Nagorno-Karabagh and Armenia. And while the blockade failed to halt the nationalist movement in Nagorno-Karabagh, it seriously disrupted reconstruction of earthquake-devastated areas and forced Armenia to airlift supplies to Nagorno-Karabagh. Moreover, in January 1990 anger among the Azerbaidzhanis who had fled Armenia and a sharpening competition between Azerbaidzhan's Communist Party and its National Front contributed to further outbreaks of anti-American violence in Baku and the final evacuation of its once large and well-established Armenian community.

In response to those new outbreaks in Azerbaidzhan, Armenians organized to protect the villages in Nagorno-Karabagh and on the border with Azerbaidzhan. Many of these units performed a defensive role, but by the summer of 1990 the growing number of arms and military groups, some with alleged KGB and underworld links, threatened Armenia's stability and may have actually provoked conflicts between Armenian and Azerbaidzhan villages. To store order and prevent a military crackdown by Soviet forces, Ter-Petrosian declared a state of emergency and ordered the armed groups to either submit themselves to parliament or disband.

this reestablished government control in Armenia, but in the mean-time the situation in Karabagh deteriorated into a series of ambushes, reprisals, counter-reprisals, and hostage-taking between Armenians and Azerbaidzhanis. In April 1991, special Azerbaidzhan police, aided by Soviet Army troops, began evacuating Armenian villages, first from districts just outside Nagorno-Karabagh and then in Nagorno-Karabagh itself. Allegedly searching for armed Armenian militants, the troops violently attacked whole villages, sending a new flood of refugees into Armenia. Armenians concluded that Moscow had directed the Soviet Army to help Azerbaidzhan evict its troublesome Armenian population in exchange for a promise to sign the proposed union treaty.


When the Armenian national movement began, its participants had what they now characterize as the naive conviction that justice would prevail once Moscow understood the situation in Nagorno-Karabagh and acknowledged the historical injustice. With Moscow's failure to resolving the Karabagh issue and resolving the republic's internal problems. Although many people were concerned about the military vulnerability of an independent Armenia, they voted resoundingly for independence in September 1991 when confronted with the Soviet Union's imminent collapse.

Nevertheless, the struggle for self-determination in Nagorno-Karabagh, and the tragic conflict that has resulted, remain central issues in both Armenia and Azerbaidzhan. Moreover, the new Armenian government confronts a severe economic crisis, made worse by the presence of over 200,000 Armenian refugees from Azerbaidzhan, an acute lack of energy resources, massive earthquake damage, and shortages caused by Azerbaidzhan's continuing rail blockade. An important step toward putting the economy in its feet was made in the spring of 1991, when the government broke up the collective farms and sold them to private owners. It remains to be seen what benefits the new commonwealth will bring.

For Armenians and other peoples who have been disenfranchised, the belief that humanity is naturally divided into distinct nations, each with immutable characteristics, an original homeland, and the moral right to statehood is a potent idea. The question in the wake of the Soviet Union's collapse is to what extent the emerging states can move beyond the ethnic, linguistic, and cultural nationalism that provided impetus and solidarity to their nationalism that makes residence, not ethnicity, the criteria of citizenship. In Armenia, the small Russian, Jewish, Kurdish, and Greek communities, together constituting 5 percent of the population, may, in fact, begin to feel like outsiders themselves as a result of the surge of national feeling accompanying the independence drive.

One positive sign is the fact that the Armenian government's declaration of independence makes residence the basis of citizenship and affirms support for the principles expressed in the Universal Declaration on Human Rights. It is to be hoped that this commitment will allow Armenia to maintain the solidarity necessary in a difficult transition, while avoiding the ethnic chauvinism and antagonisms that have manifested themselves so often in this region.


Gerard Libaridian, ed., Armenia at the Crossroads: Democracy and Nationhood in the Post-Soviet Era, Blue Crane Books, 1991.

Gerard Libaridan, ed., The Karabagh File: Documents and Facts on the Question of Mountainous Karabagh 1919-1988, The Zoryan Institute, 1988.

Mark Saroyan, "The Karabagh Syndrome in Azerbaidzhani Politics," Problems of Communism, September-October 1990.

Christopher Walker, ed., Armenia and the Struggle for Unity, Minority Rights Publications, 1991.

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

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