Karabakh in 1988: The beginning of the modern stage of national-liberation struggle

The “Perestroika” (“restructuring”)1, declared by Michael Gorbachev, Secretary-General of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in 1987, started the liberalization of Soviet political system, and was perceived by the people of Nagorno Karabakh as an opportunity to correct mistakes of the past. The modern phase of the struggle for national liberation for Artsakh people started; it took place in a context of new processes not common under the previous system: national movements emerged, the power passed from party structures to the Councils (Soviets) of People's Deputies, and the role of the union republics increased.

During 1987 almost all enterprises, institutions, “kolkhozes” (collective farms) and “sovkhozes” (“Soviet or state farms”) of NKAO held meetings of collectives, which decided that NKAO’s reunification with the Armenian SSR was a necessity. 80,000 signatures were collected under the petition with a similar demand to USSR authorities that same year. Tens of thousands of people participated in mass demonstrations that started on February 13, 1988 in Stepanakert.

On February 20, 1988, the extraordinary session of the Council of People's Deputies 20th convocation of NKAO passed a decision to appeal to the Supreme Councils of the Azerbaijani SSR and Armenian SSR “to demonstrate a sense of deep understanding of the aspirations of the Armenian population of Nagorno Karabakh and resolve the question of transferring NKAO from the Azerbaijani SSR to the Armenian SSR, at the same time to intercede with the Supreme Council of the USSR to reach a positive resolution on the issue of transferring the region from the Azerbaijani SSR to the Armenian SSR”.

In response to the democratic expression of will by the Armenians of Artsakh, Azerbaijan tried to intimidate the NKAO population with violence and force them to relinquish their quest of realizing their rights.

On February 22, 1988, after a demonstration in Aghdam, according to various estimates, a crowd of two to three thousand young Azerbaijanis headed to Askeran, an Armenian town on the territory of NKAO. The crowd destroyed everything on its way and was only stopped on the outskirts of Askeran, through police intervention. Tens of Armenians were wounded and two Azerbaijanis were killed as a result of the clashes. According to the testimony of Azerbaijanis themselves, at least one of the killed Azerbaijanis was shot by an Azerbaijani police officer, however, the official investigation did not reveal the person who fired2.

On February 27-29, massacres of the Armenian population were organized in the Azerbaijani city of Sumgait, which was followed by killings, rapes, pogroms and looting. After Sumgait a wave of pogroms swept across the whole territory of Azerbaijan.

In March 1988, to coordinate the national liberation movement of Artsakh, the “Krunk” (Crane) organization was established in Stepanakert.

On June 13, 1988, the Presidium of the Supreme Council of Azerbaijani SSR flatly refused to satisfy the request of the Armenian population of Nagorno Karabakh about the transfer of the region from Azerbaijani SSR to Armenian SSR. Two days later the Supreme Council of Armenian SSR “consented to the entry of Nagorno Karabakh to Armenian SSR”. On July 12, 1988, the eighth session of the NKAO Council of People's Deputies of the 20th convocation declared the “withdrawal of Nagorno Karabakh Autonomous Region from Azerbaijani SSR”.

Under these circumstances, the Presidium of the Supreme Council of USSR, by its decree of January 12, 1989, temporally introduced a special form of government in NKAO. By that decree, the powers of the NKAO Council of People's Deputies and its Executive Committee were suspended until the elections of a new Council. Its powers were fully transferred to the newly formed Committee of Special Administration (CSA) of NKAO, which was directly subordinate to the supreme bodies of state power and governance of the USSR. Arkady Volsky3, who was appointed head of the CSA, proposed to ease tensions through the economic development of Karabakh, the establishment of strong economic and cultural ties between Armenia and NKAO and the prevention of discrimination against the Armenian population4.

The CSA, which replaced the legally elected authorities in Nagorno Karabakh and gained unlimited administrative powers, was however deprived of any levers to manage the economic life of the region. Funds allocated to NKAO remained at the disposal of Azerbaijani authorities. The Azerbaijani authorities launched a large-scale construction in Azerbaijani settlements, providing housing and jobs for Azerbaijani settlers. The attempts of the Committee of Special Administration to remove or at least to ease the blockade carried out by Azerbaijan towards Nagorno Karabakh were also unsuccessful.

The decision to dissolve the regional structures was perceived negatively in NKAO since that measure obstructed the possibility of a fair dialogue. The only possible solution seemed to be the establishment of a National Council, following the model that existed in Karabkh in 1918-1920.

On August 16, 1989, the congress of national representatives formed the National Council of Nagorno Karabakh. All plenary sessions of the party committees and councils of deputies decided to recognize the National Council of NKAO as the highest authority on the territory of Artsakh and to delegate to it the right to govern the official structures.

However, as the process of acquiring sovereignty by the soviet republics started, the timid attempts of the USSR authorities to find a solution to the Karabakh problem on the basis of balance of interests of the parties were replaced by the explicit stance to suppress the expression of the will of the people of Artsakh.

On November 28, by the Resolution of the Supreme Council of the USSR the Committee of Special Administration of the NKAO was terminated and replaced by the Organizing Committee, headed by the 2nd Secretary of the Communist Party of Azerbaijan Victor Polyanichko5.

This decision of the Supreme Council of the USSR caused an extremely negative reaction both in Karabakh and in Armenia. Mass rallies took place in NKAO, where decisions were adopted calling for civil disobedience, the boycotte of the resolution, refusal to cooperate with the central authorities. Petitions to the National Council of Nagorno Karabakh and the Supreme Council of the Armenian SSR demanding to declare the reunification of Armenia and the NKAO were adopted. These sentiments were reflected in the resolution on ”Reunification of the Armenian SSR and Nagorno Karabakh", adopted on December 1, 1989, at the joint session of Supreme Council of the Armenian SSR and the National Council of Nagorno Karabakh in Yerevan.

On January 15, 1990, at the very time when massacres of the Armenian population were taking place in Baku, the capital city of Azerbaijan, the Presidium of the Council of the USSR declared a state of emergency in Nagorno Karabakh.

Introducing of a state of emergency was in fact supporting the repressive measures of the Azerbaijani authorities against the Armenian population. The measure was directed against both Armenian authorities and individuals. Activities of the republican organizing committee were aimed at continuous intensification of terror and violence against the Armenian population. From March to December 1990, the martial law was made stricter and punitive actions expanded. They became particularly cruel and were accompanied by the killing of civilians. From December 1990 to April 1991, a campaign of wide-range intimidation and displacement of the Armenian population started through creation of unbearable conditions of life (continued violence, arrests, destruction of crops and vital infrastructure) . In the period from April to August 1991, military actions against the Armenian population of Nagorno Karabakh and their deportation started6.

After the failure of the August putsch7, a new situation emerged in Nagorno Karabakh. The Republican Organizing Committee, headed by Victor Polyanichko urgently left Stepanakert8. The military commandant of the city preferred to remain neutral. The activities of the Council of Deputies of the NKAO were restored. Thus, Azerbaijan was left without both bodies exercising government in the NKAO, and punitive mechanisms. Without the support of the Soviet Army and troops of the Ministry of Interior of the USSR, Azerbaijan was forced to halt the activities of OMON (the abbreviation of the Russian name for the notorious special police forces) and paramilitary groups of the National Front of Azerbaijan, were moved exclusively to the settlements inhabited by Azerbaijanis9.

On August 30, 1991, the Supreme Council of Azerbaijan adopted a declaration on the restoration of state independence of the Azerbaijani Republic as a successor of the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic, which existed from 1918 to 1920.

On September 2, 1991, based on the USSR Law on “The procedures of the resolution of problems on the Secession of a Union Republic from the USSR", a joint session of deputies of all levels of NKAO and the Shahumyan region proclaimed the independence of the Nagorno Karabakh Republic (NKR). The declaration, in particular, notes the expression of the "will of the people, manifested by the actual referendum and enshrines in the decisions of the NKAO authorities and the Shahumyan region in 1988-1991, its desire for freedom, independence, equality and good-neighbourliness"10.

In response, on November 26, 1991, Azerbaijan adopted a law on the "Abolition of the Nagorno Karabakh Autonomous Oblast of the Azerbaijan Republic", in which the creation of the autonomous oblast in 1923 was classified as a "factor contradicting the national interests of the Azerbaijani people".

However, on November 28 the Constitution Oversight Committee of the USSR declared this decision a breach of the Constitution. Nagorno Karabakh, according to the Constitution of the USSR, was assigned to the category of autonomies, considered in the constitutional law of the USSR a manifestation of the right to self-determination and having the right to self-determination. Since the autonomy of the Armenians of Nagorno Karabakh was a manifestation of the right of peoples to self-determination, both the abolition and change of the status of that autonomy could be only possible through the expression of the will of the people11.

On December 10, 1991, a referendum was held in the Nagorno Karabakh Republic. The question in the ballot paper was: "Do you accept that the proclaimed Nagorno Karabakh Republic be a sovereign state independently determining forms of cooperation with other states and communities?" Out of the estimated 132,328 eligible voters 108,736 people participated in the referendum (82,2%) and 108,615 people voted "in favour" (99.89% of the number of votes)12.

On January 6, 1992, the Supreme Soviet of the NKR13 adopted the Declaration on NKR State Independence and thus legally reinstated both the results of the referendum, and the previously adopted legal acts in which the right of the people of Nagorno Karabakh to determine their own political status was exercised. On January 8, 1992, the session of the Supreme Soviet of the NKR elected Arthur Mkrtchyan as the head of the legislative body of the Republic. Oleg Yessayan was appointed Chairman of the Council of Ministers.




1. The common name for the reforms and the new ideology of the Communist Party leadership used to refer to changes in the economic and political structure of the USSR, initiated by General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union Mikhail Gorbachev in 1987-1991.

2. Александр Василевский, «Туча в горах», «Аврора», № 10, 1988 (Alexander Vasilevsky, A Cloud in the Mountains. “Avrora”, №10, 1988)

3. Prior to his appointment as Chairman of the Committee of Special Administration of the NKAO, Arkady Volsky headed the department of mechanical engineering of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU). Since April 1988, he had visited Karabakh as a representative of the Central Committee of the CPSU on many occasions.

4. In the article «Мир земле Карабаха» (“Peace to Karabakh land”) published in the newspaper “Pravda” on January 15, 1989, Arkady Volsky very clearly sets out the reasons that caused the Karabakh crisis, “Let us recall how Karabakh movement arose and developed. Why did people raise the question about re-unification with Armenia? Because they have seen that the former leadership of Azerbaijan had been gradually pushing the region into a deadlock, seeking to break off the natural ties of the Armenian population with Armenia in the fields of culture, language, and raising certain difficulties for Armenian-intelligentsia (intellectuals). All of this is a reality! All of this is true!” (С. Золян. Нагорный Карабах: Проблема и конфликт. - Ереван. Издательство «Лингва», 2001 (S. Zolyan. Nagorno Karabakh: the Problem and the Conflict – Yerevan. “Lingva” Publishing house, 2001))

5. Prior to his appointment in 1990 as 2nd secretary of the Communist Party of Azerbaijani SSR, Victor Polyanichko worked as a CPSU Central Committee adviser to the Politburo of the Central Committee of the National Demo-cratic Party of Afghanistan in 1985-1988.

6. С. Золян. Нагорный Карабах: Проблема и конфликт. - Ереван. Издательство «Лингва», 2001 (S. Zolyan. Nagorno Karabakh: The Problem and the Conflict. Yerevan. “Lingva” Publishing house, 2001)

7. The attempt aimed at the dismissal of Mikhail Gorbachev from the post of President of the Soviet Union and changing the course of his policies, undertaken on August 19, 1991 by the State Committee on Emergencies (GKChP) - a group of conservative leaders from the leadership of the CPSU Central Committee, the USSR government, the army and the KGB. The coup ended on August 22, as most of the members of the GKChP were arrested.

8. During the August coup, the leadership of Azerbaijan supported GKChP. The Chairman of the organizing committee on the NKAO, the second secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Azerbaijan Victor Polyanichko shared Kharabakh experience through Baku radio, suggesting to utilize it all over the Soviet Union.

9. С. Золян. Нагорный Карабах: Проблема и конфликт. - Ереван. Издательство «Лингва», 2001 (S. Zolyan. Nagorno Karabakh: The Problem and the Conflict. Yerevan. “Lingva” Publishing house, 2001)

10. Declaration on “Proclamation of the Nagorno Karabakh Republic”

11. Ю. Барсегов. Нагорный Карабах в международном праве и мировой политике. Том 2. Москва. «МЕЛИХОВО» (Yuri Barseghov, Naghorno Karabakh in International Law and World Politics, Second Volume, Moscow. MELIKHOVO PUBLISHERS), p. 213

12. To monitor the process of the referendum on the status of the NKR, a group of independent observers arrived in the Republic, which documented its conclusion on the results of the referendum on the independence of the Nagorno Karabakh Republic in a relevant act, signed by 23 observers - People's Deputies of the USSR, the Russsian Soviet Socialist Federal Republic and the Moscow City Councils, heads and representatives of Soviet and foreign NGOs.

13. Elections to the Supreme Council of the NKR were held on December 28, 1991

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