Armenian Reporter – 2/16/2008 – The Karabakh Movement, 20 years on


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January 26, 2008 — Special Report: The Karabakh Movement, 20 years on

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1. Twenty years on: A story about the forgotten patriots (by Tatul Hakobian)

2. Karine Danielian: It started with the environment

3. Zori Balayan describes the transformation of the movement

4. Gorbachev blames the nationalists

5. Brutents decries half-measures

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1. Twenty years on: A story about the forgotten patriots

* February 20 is the anniversary of the Karabakh Movement

by Tatul Hakobian)

HADRUT, Nagorno Karabakh — The breeze of Mikhail Gorbachev’s
"reconstruction" and "openness" blew in the provincial town of Hadrut
at the end of 1985. That year Artur Mkrtchian returned from Yerevan
and was appointed the director of the Hadrut museum. In 1992 he would
go on to become the first elected leader of Nagorno-Karabakh, to die
four months after assuming office.

When Nelly Gasparova speaks of injustice, it’s as if she carries the
load of the whole world’s struggle against injustice on her fragile
shoulders. The daughter of Ashot Gasparov, pilot, hero of the Soviet
Union, she has dedicated more than 30 of her 55 years to the education
of children. She is the Russian-language teacher of the school in
Hadrut. Almost two decades ago she was a member of a group of young
intellectuals of the region who wrote letters about national issues to
the Kremlin, to Mr. Gorbachev.

Ms. Gasparova’s smile, which is as attractive as it is
disillusioned, points to her impotence in her struggle against
injustice. In Hadrut, on the cold winter evening of February 1, 2008,
sitting around a table, she and Gagik Avanesian remember those days
when the people of the region fought for the reunification of Karabakh
with Armenia by collecting signatures. At the mention of Artur
Mkrtchian, Mr. Avanesian’s face expresses regret, while Ms.
Gasparova’s bright smile immediately vanishes; she hides her head in
her delicate hands and starts to weep.

The first petition started from Hadrut, perhaps because the leaders
of the movement were either born in or had roots in that region:
Economist Igor Muradian, historian Arthur Mkrtchian, architect Manvel
Sargsian, painter Emil Abrahamian. A short time later Grisha
Hayrapetian, Gagik Avanesian, Nelly Gasparova, and others joined them.
The local communist leaders were worried that their superiors in Baku
would find out and fire them. At times, they applied pressure on the
activists of the movement. Other times they simply turned a blind eye,
pretending to be unaware of what was happening.

I spoke to Mr. Abrahamian in Yerevan. He had left Hadrut a few years
ago and unlike his comrade Nelly Gasparova, who has decided to spend
the rest of her life in Hadrut, the painter searches for justice in
his canvasses.

"From 1985 to 1988 the young officials of Nagorno-Karabakh made
their choices easily. The more mature party officials were strongly
allied with the authorities in Azerbaijan. Baku was a familiar city
for them; taking a position on national issues was harder for them;
and they could not even understand the essence of the issue. For
example, on February 12, when Hadrut rebelled, Armen Isagulov, who
later became Nagorno Karabakh’s chief of police, came to pressure us.
The next day he called us in to understand what it was we wanted. I
told him what we wanted. He said that we were crazy and it was
impossible to realize such things. He could not understand us. Some of
those in Karabakh’s authorities today were not with us at that time. I
am not saying that they were against us in spirit, but politically
they could not stand with us," Mr. Abrahamian recalls.

In November 1985, Mr. Abrahamian suggested that 24-year-old
university graduate Gagik Avanesian, who had just returned from
Yerevan, help in the petition process. Through it they hoped to appeal
to the powers that be for an antenna to be erected in Hadrut to allow
them to receive television broadcasts from Armenia. An antenna was not
erected, but the people of Hadrut had already caught the spirit of Mr.
Gorbachev’s perestroika or "reconstruction."

Mr. Avanesian recounts: "The process of petitioning for the erection
of an antenna was very difficult. Only 250 signatures were gathered
over several months. We spent days persuading people that there was
nothing anti-Soviet or nationalistic behind it. A year and half later,
Igor Muradian came to Hadrut. Manvel Sargsian introduced me, Nelly,
Emil, and the others to him. We had only heard about Igor. We knew
that he had sued [former and future Azerbaijani leader] Heydar Aliyev
for pursuing an anti-Armenian policy. And so, we started another
petition, this one for uniting Karabakh with Armenia. It was not that
hard anymore. People were persuaded more readily, since no one had
been punished during the previous petition drive."

During our conversation, which lasted three to four hours, Ms.
Gasparova did not utter a word about those days when patriotism was
blazing in the spirits of the youth of Hadrut. However the presence of
this lovely woman and Mr. Avanesian’s enthusiasm allowed one’s mind to
drift back more than 20 years.

In the spring and summer of 1987, the whole of Nagorno-Karabakh was
rife with petitions. The Armenians of Artsakh were demanding the
restoration of historical justice and the transfer of the
Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast (NKAO) to Armenia. They started
sending the petition papers, on which there were almost 80,000
signatures, to Moscow. Because Moscow was not responding, Igor
Muradian formed a group comprised of intellectuals from Artsakh and
led them to Moscow. They left to find out one thing: Moscow’s response
to the petition. Four such delegations left for Moscow. The
intellectuals of Artsakh were received by mid-level officials of the
Kremlin and the Supreme Soviet, but a clear answer was not

On November 16, 1987, Abel Aghanbekian, Mr. Gorbachev’s advisor on
economic issues, openly talked in Paris about handing over Karabakh to
Armenia. Even though Mr. Aghabekian did not have his boss’s approval
to make such an announcement, what he said in Paris was understood
within the circle of activists in the movement to be a positive sign
from the Kremlin.

The swift pace of the Karabakh Movement came as an unpleasant
surprise for Baku. On February 11-12, 1988, Baku tried to hinder the
further expansion of the movement by drawing on its previous
experience. In 1965, thirteen Armenian intellectuals had been accused
of nationalism and had been expelled from the region. The same thing
was expected this time. The Second Secretary of the Central Committee
of Azerbaijan’s Communist Party, Vasili Konovalov and some other high
ranking officials arrived in Stepanakert.

On the eve of February 11, the Bureau of the Regional Council
(Karabakh’s communist government) held a session in Stepanakert.
During this session it was decided to hold meetings of party activists
and heads of economic units in the capital and the districts to
condemn the events taking place in Nagorno-Karabakh: the petition, the
visits of the delegations from Karabakh to Moscow, and the calls for
uniting Karabakh with Armenia.

During the February 12 meeting of party and economic leaders in
Stepanakert, Mr. Konovalov, Karabakh’s First Secretary Boris Kevorkov,
and Stepanakert’s First Secretary Zaven Movsisian condemned the
Karabakh Movement and the "extremist separatists" behind it. Mr.
Movsisian considered the events taking place in the region to be the
handiwork of extremists. Mr. Kevorkov threatened that separatists have
no place in Karabakh and that the region had been and would remain an
inseparable part of Azerbaijan. Mr. Konovalov announced that he knew
all the extremists and separatists by name and that they had to be
isolated from society. But the meeting did not proceed according to
the scenario imagined in Baku. The heads of Stepanakert’s enterprises
gave speeches condemning Baku’s decades-long discriminatory policy
toward Nagorno-Karabakh.

By February 12 Mr. Abrahamian and his comrades began to sense that
they had popular support. That day different regional officials had
left for the districts of Nagorno-Karabakh to try to "extinguish" the
popular uprising.

"The head of the Executive Committee of the Regional Council,
Vladimir Osipov, came to Hadrut," Mr. Abrahamian recalls. "The purpose
of the meeting of the activists was to stop the movement and prepare a
minute to the effect that prohibited activities were taking place. We
decided not to permit it, as it could have led to uncertainty among
the people and processes could have gone in another direction. That
day approximately one thousand people gathered. That was something
unheard of for Hadrut."

And so, the first rally took place in Hadrut spontaneously.

The next day, on February 13, another rally took place in
Stepanakert; people did not leave Lenin Square for several days.
During this time the delegation of intellectuals from Karabakh had
returned from Moscow.

Writer Vardan Hakobian recalls, "We returned from Moscow and what
did we see? Artsakh had risen and the square was boiling over. Each
item of news that we brought from Moscow to the square raised a new
wave among the people, making them more resolute in their decision.
Arkadi Manucharov had become the head of the movement in Artsakh, and
he formed a group [which later became known as the Krunk Committee]
that initiated a move to hold a session of the Regional Council."

And so, as a result of these discussions, it was decided to call for
an extraordinary session of the Regional Council of Nagorno-Karabakh
— the parliament in the parlance of the time — and appeal to the
Supreme Councils of Armenia and Azerbaijan to take Karabakh out of
Azerbaijan’s jurisdiction and hand it over to Armenia.

On February 19 the first rally took place in Baku. A group of
students, intellectuals, and workers moved from the building of the
Academy of Science toward the Supreme Council. The slogan "Karabakh is
an inseparable part of Azerbaijan" was written on the banners of the

On February 20 Kamran Bagirov, the First Secretary of the Central
Committee of Azerbaijan’s Communist Party, and officials from the
Kremlin arrived in Stepanakert to halt the Karabakh Movement and
hinder the holding of the session of the Regional Council. While Mr.
Bagirov and local officials supporting him were trying to persuade the
members of parliament to refrain from holding their session, the
people gathered in the square were incessantly exclaiming "Session!
Session!" The leader of Azerbaijan left the hall, forlorn.

On February 21, 1988, the newspaper Soviet Karabakh published the
decision of the extraordinary session of the previous day on its first
page. The 110 ethnic Armenian members of the region’s parliament had
voted in favor, while the 30 ethnic Azerbaijani members stayed away.
The resolution stated, in part: "Responding to the wishes of the
workers of the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Region, [the council
resolves] to ask the Supreme Council of the Azerbaijani Soviet
Socialist Republic and the Supreme Council of the Armenian Soviet
Socialist Republic to demonstrate a sense of deep understanding of the
wishes of the Armenian population of Nagorno-Karabakh, and resolve the
issue of handing over the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Region from the
Azerbaijani SSR to the Armenian SSR, and at the same time to mediate
before the Supreme Council of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics
for the positive solution of the issue of handing over the
Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Region from the Azerbaijani SSR to the
Armenian SSR."

Since the decision was adopted on February 20, that date is now
marked as the anniversary of the Karabakh Movement. However, as the
readers of this story can see, ever since the Bolsheviks decided to
place Nagorno-Karabakh within Soviet Azerbaijan, the Karabakh
Movement, the struggle for union with Armenia really never really

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2. Karine Danielian: It started with the environment

[In the fall of 1987, rallies were organized in Yerevan dedicated
exclusively to environmental issues. It was at those rallies that
calls and demands for the unification of Mountainous Karabakh and
Armenia were first raised. Karine Danielian, who came to be Armenia’s
Minister of Environmental Affairs in 1991-94, recounted to Tatul

Ecological problems had become urgent in Armenia in the 80s. A large,
regional nuclear waste storage facility was to be built in 1985 at the
Metsamor Nuclear Power Plant for the plant’s waste; radioactive waste
from Georgia and Azerbaijan was to be buried there too. Georgi
Ter-Stepanian, a correspondent member of the Academy of Sciences,
raised the alarm. I joined him. The Institute of Scientific-Technical
Information, where I was working, helped me. On the basis of our
protests [First Secretary of the Armenian Communist Party] Karen
Demirchian stopped the plan. A core had now been formed, concerned
with such ecological issues.

The environmental movement started to take shape around a few
issues: nuclear waste, Lake Sevan, the Nairit factory, air pollution
in Yerevan, Alaverdi, and Vanadzor. In 1987 Zori Balayan’s "Yerevan
Catastrophe" appeared in Literaturnaya Gazeta, after which an
environmental rally was organized in Opera Square on the issue of
Yerevan’s air pollution. Zori spoke. I was very much surprised by the
final words of his speech. If I am not mistaken, he said, "Long live
Greater Armenia" or "Armenia from Sea to Sea." I got a bit frightened,
but the rally ended peacefully.

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3. Zori Balayan describes the transformation of the movement

We gathered on Theater Square with purely ecological slogans…. But
among them was, let’s say, one slogan saying "Karabakh is the historic
territory of Armenia." No one paid any attention to it. At the next
rally there were a few of those slogans. Igor Muradian, when he was
bringing people there, also brought portraits of Gorbachev. "Lenin,
Party, Gorbachev" was his slogan. He thought it up. Three weeks later
he thought up another one: "Stalin, Beria, Ligachev." In this way
people got used to the idea that they could talk about the national
question as well as [the rubber plant at] Nairit and [Lake] Sevan. A
month later, Nairit and Sevan would get mentioned only for five

[Quoted in Thomas de Waal, Black Garden: Armenia and Azerbaijan
through Peace and War (New York and London: NYU Press, 2003), pp.

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4. Gorbachev blames the nationalists

[The February 1988] demonstrations were carried out in an organized
way, without excesses. The marches carried large posters supporting
perestroika and glasnost. Law-enforcement agencies only maintained
order, without taking stronger measures — anyway, there was little
they could have done against this sea of people….

I believed that the problem had to be resolved by political means,
that the Central Committee should declare any change of borders
unacceptable, and that we needed to draft economic, social and
cultural proposals aimed at improving the situation in
Nagorno-Karabakh. We should let the Armenians and Azerbaijanis get
together and decide the status of Nagorno-Karabakh for themselves, and
we ought to accept any decision they made. I felt that the Russian
intelligentsia and workers should join in their discussions….

On 26 February I appealed to the peoples of Azerbaijan and Armenia,
asking them to show understanding, responsibility and prudence. I said
that we would not sidestep frank discussions of various proposals, but
that this must be done calmly, within the framework of the democratic
process and legality.

My speech contributed to some normalization. The continuous mass
meetings in Yerevan stopped, and reassured people returned to their
homes. I tried to get a dialogue going and explore ways of finding a
compromise, which I was firmly convinced was the only way out of the

Acts of violence broke out, the peak being the bloody pogrom of
27-29 February against Armenians in Sumgait, where there was a large
number of Azerbaijani refugees….

The massacres in Sumgait produced universal outrage, everyone was
shaken. At the same time, sympathy was shown in the Muslim republics
for the people of their faith. Events threatened to get out of

Under Stalin those who were in charge of nationality affairs lacked
subtlety. Problems and difficulties accumulated over the decades. The
Azerbaijan leadership did not treat the Karabakh population in the
spirit of the traditions of Lenin, and sometime they simply acted in
an inhumane way. Problems of language and culture arose, and serious
mistakes were made in the cadre policy. All of this was brought to
light under glasnost. Problems quickly came to a head….

The peacemaking process was extremely complicated. It was even made
more difficult by, among other things, the general atmosphere that had
developed in the country, in the Supreme Soviets of the USSR and
Russia. Essentially, there were two positions. One was that the moment
the conflict developed — especially after the events in Sumgait — it
was necessary to strike decisively against the ‘instigators’ of the
disturbances in Nagorno-Karabakh and nip the riots in the bud. The
other position was to ask: since the people of Karabakh wished to
reunite with their motherland, and we recognized the right of nations
to self-determination, why not allow this? After all, the Nakhichevan
autonomous republic is a part of Azerbaijan, even though separated
from Azerbaijan by Armenian territory. The Nagorno-Karabakh question
could be solved in exactly the same way.

At some point it seemed that a possible solution was to give
Karabakh, like Nakhichevan, the status of autonomous republic, while
keeping it as part of Azerbaijan. There was a time when this proposal
was on the point of being implemented. However, it was just at this
moment that the Supreme Soviet in Yerevan passed a resolution to
incorporate Nagorno-Karabakh as part of Armenia and so everything fell
apart. It fell apart because of internal antagonism, because the
battle for power, for replacement of the ruling elite, was already in
full swing there. It fell apart because the Armenian national
movement, which was formed on the basis of the Karabakh committee, was
in a hurry to seize power.

[Excerpted from Mikhail Gorbachev, Memoirs (New York and London:
Doubleday, 1996), pp. 333-40.]

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5. Brutents decries half-measures

[Karen Brutents, an ethnic Armenian, was an advisor to Mikhail
Gorbachev, the General Secretary of the Central Committee of the
Communist Party of the Soviet Union. In February 1988, on Mr.
Gorbachev’s suggestion, he went to Stepanakert to prepare a report for
the Politbureau of the Central Committee.]

Without question, the Karabakh problem was a most complex one for
the Soviet authorities. No political solution was imagined that would
satisfy Azerbaijan, the Armenian majority of Mountainous Karabakh, and
its "ally" Armenia. Even today, looking back, it is difficult to be
certain that any variant would have worked. But one thing is clear:
they chose the worst path, half-measures and passivity. They relied on
the expectation that the sides would tire, and they complemented that
bid with a far from confident assertion of force. I am left with the
impression in this case, as in others, some among the authorities
tended to use this problem as a tool to tie the two republics, Armenia
and Azerbaijan, to the Center (in the spirit of "divide and conquer.")

[Karen Brutents, Tridtsat’ let na Staroi Ploshchadi (Thirty years at
the Central Committee of the CPSU), p. 534. Trans. Vincent Lima.]

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