Continued Struggle: the Nagorno Karabakh Issue in the Soviet Period 

The creation of the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast within Azerbaijan SSR in 1923 did not resolve the Karabakh conflict. Since the early 1920s and during the entire Soviet period, the Armenians of Nagorno Karabakh never accepted this decision, and for decades struggled for reunification with the motherland. 

The authorities of Azerbaijan SSR systematically and persistently violated the rights and interests of the Armenian population of the Nagorno Karabakh Autonomous Oblast during the entire period of its existence under Azeri rule. Azerbaijan viewed Nagorno Karabakh primarily as a source for raw materials. Its policy of discrimination against Nagorno Karabakh was aimed at artificial suppression of its social-economic development and at active de-Armenianization. Discrimination by Azerbaijan had its impact on the demographics in Karabakh, becoming the main reason of Armenians’ outward migration. As a result, while in 1923 Armenians amounted to 94.4 percent of the population of Nagorno Karabakh, according to 1989 statistics they made up already 76.9 percent. Armenian monuments and cultural artefacts were destroyed or presented as being of Azeri origin. Trying to avoid the same predicament of Nakhijevan, an area once heavily populated by Armenians but eventually virtually void of them, Nagorno Karabakh Armenians saw secession as the only guarantee for a secure future, free from discrimination. 

Their struggle against the Azeri rule took different forms and did not cease even during the Stalinist years of repressions. Both the people of the NKAO and authorities of Armenian SSR made attempts to raise the Nagorno Karabakh issue with the central authorities of the USSR after WW II (such as in 1945, 1949, 1965, 1967, and 1977). The First Secretary of the Communist Party in Armenia, Grigor Harutunyan, as the leader of Armenia, submitted two formal proposals (1945 and 1949) to Stalin to reunify Karabakh with Armenia. Representatives of the people of Nagorno Karabakh appealed to Moscow with numerous letters and petitions demanding re-consideration of the unconstitutional decision of incorporating Nagorno Karabakh into Azerbaijan. In 1965, 45,000 people signed a petition. Based on this petition, the Secretariat of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) ordered the Communist Party Central Committees of Armenia and Azerbaijan to jointly investigate the Nagorno Karabakh problem.

All these petitions fell on deaf ears, and instead resulted in further persecution against the initiators. However, ignoring or rejecting the plea had the contrary effect: violent clashes that took place between Armenians and Azerbaijanis in Stepanakert, were a direct consequence.

The Azerbaijani authorities’ policies against the Armenians included the provocation of ethnic clashes. These were used as an excuse by Azerbaijani authorities to jail and shoot Armenians, as well as to force many families to leave Karabakh. Such events were planned and implemented particularly by the former head of the KGB and later president of Azerbaijan, Heydar Aliyev. 

When a new USSR Constitution was in the process of adoption in 1977, the Nagorno Karabakh issue could not be avoided. Top-level officials acknowledged the problem but a solution was deferred indefinitely. For example, the Presidium of the USSR Council of Ministers stated the following on November 23, 1977: “As a result of a number of historic circumstances, Nagorno Karabakh was artificially annexed to Azerbaijan several decades ago. In this process, the historic past of the oblast [region], its ethnic composition, the will of its people and economic interests were not taken into consideration. Decades passed, and the Karabakh problem continues to raise concern and cause moments of animosity between the two peoples, who are connected with an age-old friendship. Nagorno Karabakh (Armenian name Artsakh) should be made part of the Armenian SSR. In this case everything will fall into legal order.” (November 23, 1977. Session of the Presidium of the USSR Council of Ministers). Nevertheless, the Central Committee of the CPSU rejected this suggestion.


Azerbaijan’s Discriminatory Policy against Nagorno Karabakh 

The inclusion of Nagorno Karabakh and Nakhijevan in Soviet Azerbaijan meant the establishment of a discriminatory regime, aimed at a “quiet deportation” of Armenians from their ancient lands. A policy of suppression was applied to practically all spheres of economic, social and political life of the autonomous oblast. 

From 1921-24 the status of Nakhijevan was changed three times from a Soviet Republic, to a Land (Province), then to Autonomous Region. Azerbaijan officially prohibited the return to Nakhijevan of Armenians that were forced out of their lands and the region’s demographics changed drastically, the number of Armenians reducing from 53,900 in 1916 to 3,400 in 1974.

Changing the demographic picture in Karabakh was realized, among other means, by re-assigning borders between Armenian-populated administrative districts around the Autonomous Region of Nagorno Karabakh.

The Soviet economic system, based on centralized planning and command management, was a primary channel to apply pressure on the economy of Nagorno Karabakh. The NK economy depended on the demands from the USSR and the Soviet Republics. This meant dependence on the political goals of the government of Azerbaijan. As a result, neither the structure of the Nagorno Karabakh economy, nor the distribution of production, or the economic workload corresponded to the true economic potential of Nagorno Karabakh. 

Throughout the decades, the level of capital investments in the NKAO did not change significantly, while it doubled in Azerbaijan. For instance, more than half of the centrally-allocated funds[1] for all of Nagorno Karabakh were spent on the construction of the Sarsang reservoir which benefited Azerbaijani villages outside Karabakh, although it was built on Karabakh territory. Winemaking was, at one point, the most developed sphere of the economy. Nagorno Karabakh used to be a leader in the production of grapes per capita[2] (about one ton per capita and this figure reflected only grapes grown in the government sector), however, only 20-22% of the harvest was actually used to produce wine; the other 78-80% was sent to Azerbaijan as raw material. The largest industrial enterprise of the NKAO, the Karabakh Silk Factory, employed 2500 workers. The entire process of silk production was carried out in this facility, except for the dyeing of the final product. The fabric was taken to the Azeri town of Sheki, hundreds of kilometres away, to be dyed and shipped for sale from there, deliberately depriving Nagorno Karabakh from gaining profits from the export of silk. 

The government of Azerbaijan allocated almost no funds for the development of roads within the oblast, further hindering economic development in Nagorno Karabakh. Communication between the capital and regional centres of Nagorno Karabakh required travel on poorly maintained roads through remote regions.  Any construction of roads was virtually to connect Azeri villages and roads were designed in a way that Armenian towns could be connected only through Azeri territories, often outside the administrative area of Nagorno Karabakh.

The average annual rate of capital construction was 2.5 times lower than that in Azerbaijan, and despite the fact that vast deposits of various valuable minerals were discovered in Nagorno Karabakh, 93% of all construction material was imported to Karabakh from the surrounding regions of Azerbaijan. No labour-intensive or scientific technologies were introduced to Nagorno Karabakh, despite the fact that all the prerequisites existed, for instance for establishing a metal-mining industry. 

Introduction of hi-tech and know-how to Nagorno Karabakh was not allowed in order to keep the area agricultural and encourage the drain of the highly educated, encouraging instead the inflow of Azeris who were  mostly engaged in cattle-breeding and due to a very high birth rate, could change the demographic picture in a short period. 

Thus, while the Armenian population decreased, the Azeri population grew several times; growth was predominantly sustained by the influx of migrants from Azerbaijan. In 1923, Azeris constituted 3% of the population of the area; in 1953 their number grew to 13%, peaking at 24% in 1988. 

Interfering in the spiritual and cultural life of Armenians, and insulting the dignity of Armenians was also a persistent, government-led policy. In all reference books printed in the Azerbaijani SSR, Azeris were mentioned as the indigenous population of Nagorno Karabakh. Radio and television broadcasts from Yerevan were banned. Cultural and spiritual links with the Armenian SSR were severed. 

Education policies in regards to Nagorno Karabakh were similarly discriminative. Azerbaijani authorities shut down several Armenian schools beginning in 1960. In Baku the last Armenian school closed in 1983 while 250.000 Armenians lived in the city. The History of Armenia was taken out of the curricula of secondary schools and substituted with the History of Azerbaijan[3]; teaching of Armenian history, geography and literature was prohibited. The official language of the autonomous region was not mentioned in the Law of Azerbaijan on the NKAO. 

Armenian universities, libraries and theatres closed in Baku and Kirovabad. The Armenian departments of the Baku Pedagogical Institute, of the Pedagogical and Medical Colleges of Nakhijevan were closed down. The Armenian-language career-training institution in Baku was abolished. Although the central authorities of the USSR allocated special quotas to each republic to send students to other cities for upgrading their qualifications or to acquire professions not offered in those republics, not a single one of the 850-900 quotas allotted to the Azerbaijani SSR went to Nagorno Karabakh. Azerbaijani authorities insisted, deliberately incorrect as it was, that such programs were intended for indigenous inhabitants only and officially considered the Armenian population of NKAO non-indigenous (deliberately incorrect again). Every effort was exerted to create unbearable conditions in order to force the Armenians from the area. For the same reason, persons who received a higher education in Armenian SSR were denied employment. As a result, many promising individuals were forced to leave Nagorno Karabakh, as they were unable to find employment. Meanwhile Azeris were being sent to Nagorno Karabakh in large numbers to work in the local Communist Party, administrative, economic, law-enforcement, educational, cultural and health-care spheres. Using the pretext of building nation-wide industrial and energy giant enterprises, people were forcibly recruited in the NKAO and relocated to Baku, Sumgait, Mingechaur and other cities of Azerbaijani SSR. Those were the very people and their families who in 1988-1990 became the targets of the massacres and mass pogroms on the territory of Azerbaijan. 

Even the historic monuments of Nagorno Karabakh suffered from the anti-Armenian policy. Thousands of historic architectural monuments in Nagorno Karabakh, mostly churches and monasteries, were excluded from the official list of monuments protected by the government of Azerbaijani SSR. Instead, they were labelled “dangerous religious centres of the past” by a special commission of the Academy of Sciences of the Azerbaijani SSR. 

Many of these monuments were built in the Middle Ages and played a unique role in the history of the Armenian people. Armenian sources and Armenian writings carved into the walls of these monuments did not prevent Azerbaijani authorities from declaring that Nagorno Karabakh was not populated with Armenians until the 18th century. They insisted that these monuments were Albanian and, contrary to their own claims of being heirs to Caucasian Albanians went on to systematically destroy those monuments. Not only hundreds of churches, monasteries and cemeteries were bombed, blown up and wiped out, not only hundreds of khachkars (cross-stones) were crumbled and used as construction material, even pre-historic settlements of cavemen in the caverns of Tstsakhach, Mets Tagher and Azokh were damaged. The burial vault of St. Grigoris (AD 5th century) in the Amaras Monastery was vandalized. From 1930 on, no churches functioned in Nagorno Karabakh while mosques openly served the religious needs of the Azeri population. 

All demands by the Armenian population to rescind the unconstitutional decision of 1921 and transfer Nagorno Karabakh from the Azerbaijani SSR to the Armenian SSR remained unanswered, moreover, Azerbaijan responded with new repressions. The year of 1988 became a milestone in the history of Nagorno Karabakh, which awakened the hopes of the Armenians that historic justice would prevail. 

According to the 1979 census, 475,500 Armenians lived in Azerbaijan although in 1960-70 the regions of Ghazakh, Zaqatala and others, as well as the Nakhijevan Autonomous Republic were already deprived of their Armenian population.

Identity Problems and the Campaign against Other Nationalities

When the Soviet Socialist Republic of Azerbaijan came into being, it was created as an ‘internationalist’ country, practically a union between Christians and Muslims. When the Red Army was marching to Armenia and Georgia, leaders in Baku wrote a letter to the Communist Party Central Committee in Moscow and argued for creating a supra-national centre in Azerbaijan which was to be a common state of the peoples in the region. A nation-state for the Turks (Caucasian Tatars) of the region was not considered feasible. It was no coincidence then that “The Land Decree” and other main founding legal documents that followed the sovietisation of Azerbaijan were published in three languages: Russian, Turkish and Armenian. Even after the notorious ethnic cleansing campaign when the Armenian population was subject to massacres, Baku was predominantly a more Russian and Armenian town than a Turkish-Tatar one. Up until 1933 the Caucasian Tatars were not among the leaders of Azerbaijan. However, for an empire based on Marxism-Leninism and atheism, a division based on Christians-Muslims was becoming unacceptable and the use of the word Muslim concealed a potential danger of consolidating many Islamic nations which was not desirable. Moscow decided to split the Muslim community of the huge empire based on ethnic characteristics and also to transfer the education of personnel needed to run the territorial divisions to those very entities. While it was easy to act along these lines in places with indigenous populations, matters appeared to be more complex in the newly created country of Azerbaijan, the population of which, apart from Armenians and Russians, was a mixture of many ethnic Muslim groups: Talyshes, Tats, Lezgis (Lezgians, Lezgins or Lezgs), Kurds, and Caucasian Tatars. A new name, Azerbaijanis, was coined in 1930s. As Caucasian Tatars, who pursued Pan-Turkism, were a majority among these Muslim groups, soon a process of assimilation started. Moscow connived with arbitrary and often violent policies of Baku for at least two reasons: on the one hand, for those who struggled against assimilation and becoming Turkish speaking the alternative was to become Russian-speakers and on the other, formation of an Azeri “nation” would keep territorial aspirations for Iranian (true) Azerbaijan permanently on the agenda.

Azeris saw the benefit and were fast to act.  Classic writers of Iranian poetry Nisami, Khakani and others were declared to be representatives of classical “Azerbaijani” poetry. Many samples of Armenian music and dance, also those belonging to other Eastern peoples were declared to be Azerbaijani. Historical events in the region were re-written as history of Azerbaijan, although no such country had existed north of the Araks river. Attempts were made to ‘nationalize’ Armenian cross-stones and when no believers in that emerged, a campaign was launched to destroy them.

In order to expedite the assimilation of other Muslim groups, a special tax was introduced specially for them in the 1930s. People even called it “Lezgi tax”. The tax was to be paid if these groups wanted their children to receive education in their mother tongue. In order not to pay the tax, many Kurds, Talyshes, Lezgis, especially in the rural areas, “became” Azeris and took their children to Azeri schools.  According to a census conducted in the Soviet Union there were 77,300 people of Talysh origin living in Soviet Azerbaijan in 1926. In 1939 that number was reduced to 3,000.  Further censuses conducted in the USSR mentioned no Talysh people in Azerbaijani SSR at all. With a bit of “glasnost” in 1989, about 21,000 re-appeared.

Several years after Azerbaijan’s independence the Norwegian government decided to finance the restoration of a church in a village of the Udi minority who are considered to be the only Christian descendants of Caucasian Albanians. It is also known that Albanians, while they still existed as a separate nation, were under Armenian influence, their spiritual leaders were appointed by Armenian Catholicoi; Armenian was the language of their Liturgy, etc. It turned out soon that during the restoration works, Azerbaijani restorers chiselled away the inscription on the portal of the church because it was in Armenian. The Norwegian Ambassador announced that his government did not want to be in any way associated with that shameful act.