From the beginning of 1991 Azerbaijan embarked on attacks against the Armenian population of Nagorno-Karabakh and the Shahumyan region. (See Operation “Ring” ) Deportations, killings and overall violence aimed at ethnically cleansing Artsakh of Armenians followed Azerbaijani president Ajaz Mutalibov's decree on introducing presidential rule in the NKAO and the Azerbaijani regions adjacent to it, as well as the Azerbaijani Supreme Soviet’s decision on January 14 to unify the Armenian-populated Shahumyan with the neighbouring Azerbaijani-populated region. The central Soviet authorities did not intervene to prevent human rights violations on a mass scale; moreover, the USSR Ministry of the Interior in fact helped the Azerbaijani OMON to carry out the deportations of Armenian villages.

Appeals of the Armenian leaders to supreme authorities of the Soviet Union in Moscow fell on deaf ears. On June 24, the NKAO delegation left for Moscow to meet with the Soviet leadership to discuss restoring of the functions of the regional bodies of power and a possible dialogue with the Azerbaijani side on the peaceful settlement of the situation. Although they failed to meet USSR President M. Gorbachev, they were received by virtually all of the remaining top leaders:  G. Yanaev, the USSR Vice-President, A. Lukyanov, the Supreme Soviet Chairman, D. Yazov, the USSR Defence Minister, B. Pugou, Internal Affairs Minister, Deputy Prosecutor General Trubin, and E. Shevardnadze, the USSR Foreign Minister. They all approved of the initiative, agreed with the demand to restore the powers of self government and promised to promote the dialogue and peaceful resolution of the Karabakh problem. No practical steps followed, however. 

Azerbaijan continued its policy of deportation of Armenian population, calling them “voluntary departures” and accompanying those actions with atrocities, including torture, murder, looting, banditry and other means of violence. 

Karabakh authorities had to act to protect the rights and lives of the population: the Executive Committee of the Regional Soviet (Council) declared a state of emergency in the region and appealed to the UN and to a number of states to save the Armenian people from physical extermination. On July 19, 1991 a session of the Executive Committee of the Regional Soviet decided to hold new elections of the Regional Soviet, develop a survival program for Artsakh, and prepare for armed resistance. A delegation was created in order to hold negotiations with the Azerbaijani leadership. On July 20, the NKAO delegation held a meeting with President of Azerbaijan in Baku, but no concrete results were achieved. 

On September 2, in Stepanakert a joint session of the Nagorno Karabakh Regional Council and Shahumyan Region Council was held, where pursuant to the free expression of the will of the peoples residing within the boundaries of Nagorno Karabakh and the Shahumyan Region, so expressed by their elected representatives, the Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh was proclaimed within the boundaries of NKAO and the Shahumyan Region. Leonard Petrossyan was elected Chairman of the NKR Executive Committee. 

It was clear that statehood was the only way of ensuring the security of the population and the inviolability of their land.

Consequences of Azeri air raids on the peaceful settlements in Karabakh.

Photos by Martin Shahbazyan.

Azerbaijani retaliation followed almost immediately: Stepanakert was subjected to bombardment and shelling with ‘Alazan’ rockets. That Azeris considered NK to be a part of their country and NK residents to be citizens of Azerbaijan was obviously not an obstacle to try to kill them. The fact that the Soviet Union still formally existed was not an obstacle either. Such bombings were to become a regular event.

On September 22, Presidents B. Yeltsin of Russia and N. Nazarbaev of Kazakhstan, accompanied by the President of Azerbaijan, A. Mutalibov, arrived in Stepanakert on a peacemaking mission. Negotiations between the delegations of Armenia, Azerbaijan and Nagorno Karabakh (headed by Robert Kocharyan, one of the leaders of the national-liberation movement) followed in the town of Zheleznovodsk (Russia) and on September 23rd and the parties adopted a Joint Communiqué on the Nagorno Karabakh conflict settlement.

Yeltsin and Nazarbaev’s mediation initiative did not however lead to an improvement of the situation: on the contrary, Azeris rapidly escalated offensives, shelling, and attacks on the Armenian areas.  On October 15, representatives of the Presidents of Russia and Kazakhstan arrived in Baku for a follow-up in the implementation of the Zheleznovodsk document, however A. Mutalibov told them that only Azerbaijan was competent to resolve the Nagorno Karabakh conflict and no outsiders should intervene in Azerbaijan’s internal affairs. 

Presidents B. Yeltsin of the Russian Federation and N. Nazarbaev of Kazakhstan arrive in Stepanakert and meet the people, 

Photos courtesy of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Artsakh.

Against a background of anti-Armenian riots in Baku, organized by the Azerbaijani Popular Front, and the calls to create a regular army to capture Karabakh, the Azerbaijani Supreme Soviet adopted a bill on the dissolution of Nagorno Karabakh by which the NKAO was to become merely a territorial division, and its districts were renamed and subordinated to newly-created administrative centres. 

In its resolution of November 28, 1991, the USSR Committee of Constitutional Supervision condemned the act of Azerbaijani legislative body as violating the status of the NKAO, enshrined in the USSR Constitution.

It was only natural that under such circumstances radical measures were called for and an all-republican (NKR) referendum was held on December 10, 1991. 98% of the participants of the referendum voted for the independence of the Nagorno Karabakh Republic. On December 28, despite constant bombardment by the Azerbaijani army, parliamentary elections to the Supreme Soviet of the Republic were held in the NKR. On January 6, 1992, the newly elected legislature, acting upon the essential right of peoples for self-determination and the expression of Nagorno-Karabakh people's free will through a referendum, adopted the Declaration of the NKR Independence and appealed to the UN and to all the countries of the world, asking to recognize the NKR and help prevent the genocide of the Artsakh Armenians. The next day the session elected the chairman of the NKR Supreme Council, thirty-two-year old Arthur Mkrtchian and appointed Oleg Yessayan Chairman of the Council of Ministers (the Government). 

Schools during the war

The story of schools in Artsakh is a testimony to the spirit and aspirations of its people. Even under blockade and then under attacks, schooling was probably the most important thing. When the Azeris attacked the villages with hunting rifles and then Kalashnikov guns, and later sub-machine guns stolen or bought from the Soviet army, the schools went on with their business. They knew the shooting range of these weapons, and were certain that the villagers at the edge of the village would not allow anyone into the village. When the Soviet Army left with the demise of the empire, and Azeris started using artillery to destroy homes and buildings, the schools had to move to safer towns inland. When the Azeri air force started dropping 500–kilogram, and later cluster bombs (prohibited by international conventions) on Stepanakert, students moved to villages that were not primary targets. Closing down schools was not considered: for Artsakh Armenians, not going to school was not an option. The pupils went to school carrying their books and wood for the stoves. Whenever a village was forced to flee, textbooks and notebooks were packed among the most valuable items. When the villages were retaken, the population returned and restored normal life. Disinfecting the school and reopening it was the first thing following military tasks. First returned the adults and the pre-school children. Schoolchildren remained in safer places were schooling was provided. They arrived as soon as word was passed to them that the school was open and they could go on with their classes uninterrupted. In the Martuni district for example, through the entire war, 35 out of the 37 schools functioned. The two that had to close were under direct fire from the neighbouring Azerbaijani villages. Even wartime methodology was developed for the schools: in order not to assemble in big groups in one place and become subject to bombardment, class-time was reduced to the minimum and the proportion of homework was increased. Physical education was substituted by hard work that everyone was involved in and the noise of bombs and bullets came to replace music lessons. People were quoted as saying that ensuring normal schooling was the second most important thing after creating a reliable anti-aircraft defence system.

Taking advantage of the collapse of the Soviet Union, Azerbaijan unleashed a wide-scale military offensive against Nagorno-Karabakh. The Azeri-populated villages, surrounding Stepanakert, were turned into military bases from which the capital of the Republic was methodically destroyed by artillery shelling. Missiles from forty-tube “Grad” (BM-21) multiple rocket launchers were fired indiscriminately.  “Grads” are considered a weapon of mass destruction when used against civilian populations and their usage is forbidden by international conventions. In addition to bombing Stepanakert, Azerbaijanis shelled the Shahumyan region, killing children and women.

Late in 1991, the units of the former 4th USSR Army, which for the most part had not intervened in the conflict, were ordered to withdraw from Karabakh. The young Republic then remained face-to-face with the Azerbaijani armed units that were equipped with modern military equipment and weapons including aircraft piloted by foreign mercenaries. Early in 1992, the Azeris captured the former Soviet army’s warehouses of the Transcaucasian military region and significantly enriched their arsenal. Military experts asserted that there was enough ammunition at those warehouses to maintain an intensive military offensive for at least a year.