The Road to Freedom: 1988-1991


The year 1988 became a turning point in the history of Nagorno Karabakh. The perestroyka, declared by the General Secretary of the CPSU Central Committee, Mikhail Gorbachev, made liberalization of the political regime in the USSR look possible and was perceived as an opportunity to correct mistakes of the past. The people of Nagorno Karabakh acquired new hope for a democratic solution to their problem and implementation of international laws regarding inter-ethnic relations. In pursuing their goal they were resolute to act in full compliance with the existing laws and regulations, in the framework of the legitimate structures of power, through elected representatives.

The current stage of the national-liberation struggle of the people of Karabakh had begun at the end of 1987, when tens of thousands of people took to the streets of Nagorno Karabakh and signed (more than 80,000 people) a petition demanding reunification of the NKAO with Armenia. Representatives were sent to the central USSR party and government bodies to plead their case. 

On February 20, 1988, after rallies, demonstrations and delegations to Moscow, an Extraordinary Session of the Oblast (Regional) Soviet of People’s Deputies of the NKAO was convened. A representative of the Central Committee of the CPSU, the First Secretary of the Central Committee of Azerbaijan, the Secretary of the NKAO Oblast Committee, the Chairman of the Executive Committee of the Oblast Soviet, all attended to prevent an unwelcome outcome but, unable to influence the decision of the session, left it.

Rallies demanding the re-unification of Artsakh with Armenia were taking place in many towns of Armenia and the NKAO,

Photos by Martin Shahbazyan

44 deputies addressed the session.112 deputies appealed to the Supreme Soviets of Azerbaijan SSR and Armenian SSR for the transfer of the NKAO from Azerbaijan to Armenia. The decision said: “Meeting the requests of the workers of the NKAO, to ask the Supreme Soviets of the Azerbaijani SSR and Armenian SSR to show a deep sense of understanding of the aspirations of the Armenian population of Nagorno Karabakh and settle the issue of withdrawing the NKAO from the composition of the Azerbaijani SSR and including it in the composition of the Armenian SSR and also to solicit the Supreme Council of the USSR for a positive resolution of the issue of withdrawing the NKAO from the composition of the Azerbaijani SSR and including it in the composition of the Armenian SSR”. This appeal was preceded by six similar requests from regional Soviets. However, the Political Bureau of the Central Committee of the CPSU passed a decision on 21st of February 1988 describing the move as “nationalist” and “extremist” and deciding that social, economic and cultural measures would solve the problem. The people of Nagorno Karabakh reacted to this decision with categorical protests. 

The Communist authorities of the Azerbaijan SSR took advantage of the position of the USSR leaders, and by falsifying the history of the region and creating nationalistic hysteria in the mass media, transformed the problem into an ethnic conflict. A high-ranking Azerbaijani Communist Party official, Assadov, threatened an invasion of “100,000 armed Azeris” into Nagorno Karabakh. On February 22, a crowd numbering thousands of people, started to move towards Stepanakert from the neighbouring Azerbaijani region of Aghdam “to restore order.” Bloodshed was very narrowly avoided.

In fact violence had started earlier, when the Armenians of the Chardakhlu village were ousted by force in 1987. Heroes of the Soviet Union, renowned military leaders of the Soviet army in WWII, Marshalls Hovhannes Baghramyan and Hovhannes Babajanyan, were born in that village where the central Soviet authorities had later erected memorials in their honour. That had not been enough to stop Azerbaijan or attract Moscow’s attention. 

Mass pogroms and murders of Armenians on February 27-29, 1988 in Sumgait (an Azerbaijani town, situated hundreds of miles away from Nagorno Karabakh) continued the official policy of Azerbaijan to impede the possibility of a fair solution to the Karabakh problem. The pogroms in Sumgait were a scrupulously organized act of genocide against Armenians. Leaders of factories and organizations ordered their workers to attend anti-Armenian rallies where speakers were representatives of municipal authorities. The “rally” of  February 27 ended with the Sumgait city Communist Party Committee First Secretary Muslimzade raising the Azeri national flag and leading the crowd in a frenzied state. During the subsequent three days of massacres and pogroms, dozens of Armenians were murdered, many with extreme cruelty. Hundreds were injured, and a great number of Armenians were raped, tortured and persecuted. 18,000 people became refugees. (See the Pogroms subsection.)

However, Azerbaijan’s policy of using threats and violence did not force the people of Artsakh to abandon their goal. That the population and leadership were consolidated in their demands was once again proved when Henrikh Poghossian, leader of the NKAO Communist Party demanded that Nagorno Karabakh secede from Azerbaijan. 

At the wave of the national movement, a non-governmental organization called “Krunk” was formed under Arkady Manucharyan to coordinate the struggle.

Martial law was introduced in the NKAO in September. In December 1988 - January 1989, all the members of the Karabakh Committee, which was leading the Karabakh liberation movement in Armenia, were arrested and taken to different prisons in Moscow.


Taking into consideration the precarious situation, on January 12, 1989 the central authorities of the USSR introduced a special form of administration in the NKAO, the NKAO Special Administration Committee (SAC). It was headed by the Chairman of a CPSU Central Committee Department, Arkady Volsky. The NKAO was put under the direct control of Moscow, bypassing Baku. Even the activities of the Regional Committee of the Communist Party and the Regional Soviet of People’s Deputies were suspended. However, the Committee, which was initially created to prevent further deterioration of the situation, was inadequate for its mission. The Azeri SSR authorities took advantage of this and tried to force acts upon Nagorno Karabakh by bypassing the Committee. 

The suspension of the powers of NKAO’s Party and state bodies, as well as the introduction of other restrictive measures, grossly violated the rights of the NKAO people. In order to elect a representative authority of the people, an Assembly (Congress) of the NKAO population representatives was called. The Assembly, convened on August 16, addressed the people of Azerbaijan with a concern about the deepening alienation growing into ethnic enmity between the Armenians and Azeris. The address also called for the mutual recognition of the fundamental rights of each other. The Assembly proposed active cooperation with the Commandant of the Special region, officers and soldiers of the Soviet army and armed detachments of USSR Interior Ministry in order to guarantee peace in the region. The Assembly elected a National Council (chaired by the USSR People’s Deputy V.Grigoryan), with the goal of implementing the decisions of the NKAO Soviet of People’s Deputies session of February 20, 1988. 

As a response, the official Baku began an economic blockade not only of the NKAO but also of Armenia, an action unprecedented in the USSR. The NKAO was particularly isolated from the outside world as all goods had to pass through Azerbaijan to reach the territory. Food, fuel, and construction materials and even bare necessity essentials stopped entering NK, and as a result the majority of industrial enterprises, transport, and agricultural machinery were unable to function, and the harvest could not be exported. The population was on the verge of famine. 

The situation was worse in the Shahumyan region, an Armenian-populated part of Artsakh but left out of the boundaries of Nagorno Karabakh. Baku intensified punitive actions in the region where the Armenian population was now facing a serious threat of physical extermination. In order to prevent this, a special session of Oblast’s Soviet of People’s Deputies adopted a decision to include the Shahumyan region in the NKAO. 

Lacking necessary means to defend the oblast, the authorities of Nagorno Karabakh appealed to the USSR’s highest authorities for help on numerous occasions. However, the central authorities did not take any action to prevent bloodshed. The appeal of the National Council Presidium of Nagorno Karabakh to the UN Security Council to assist in the assurance of security for the Armenians in the region also remained unanswered. Furthermore, the USSR Supreme Soviet adopted a resolution on November 28, which all but ensured that Nagorno Karabakh forcefully remain in the Azerbaijani SSR. The Presidium of the USSR Supreme Soviet dissolved the NKAO Special Administration Committee and established the Republican Organizational Committee of the NKAO, appointing Second Secretary of the Azerbaijani Communist Party, V. Polyanichko as its head, although without making its goals or level of authority clear. Moscow’s attempts to return the NKAO to Azerbaijan were not successful: the Karabakh Armenians rejected this resolution. Later, deportation operations of the Armenian population of Nagorno Karabakh and surrounding regions were carried out with assistance from the USSR Interior Ministry, and the Soviet army. 

On December 1, 1989, a joint session of the Supreme Soviets of the Armenian SSR and the National Council of the NKAO adopted a resolution on reunification of Nagorno Karabakh and Armenian SSR, “based on the universal principle of self-determination of nations and responding to the just strive of the reunification of two forcefully separated parts of the Armenian people.” The reaction of the Azerbaijani authorities came in the form of new waves of violence and use of force. 


Conscious of the fact that the central authorities were not taking action to stop the killings of the Armenian people, the Popular Front of Azerbaijan, formed in 1989 as an opposition party, organized an armed assault on the Armenian villages of the Shahumyan and Khanlar regions. Military actions began along the borders of Armenia with Azerbaijan. 

Considering the situation, the Presidium of the USSR Supreme Soviet, introduced an emergency state in the NKAO, the bordering regions of Azerbaijani SSR, the Goris region of the Armenian SSR, and along the USSR state border of Azerbaijani SSR. The Military Commandant’s Headquarters took upon governance at all levels, relinquishing the authority of local representative government bodies and introducing martial law on the territory of Nagorno Karabakh. Supported by the Military Commandant’s Headquarters, the activity of Azerbaijani authorities intensified, along with their policy of suppression, ethnic cleansing and terror. Active members of the Karabakh movement were persecuted at increasing rates and arrested under the false pretence of “criminal cases”. 

Encouraged that earlier experiences went unpunished, Azerbaijanis attacked the villages of Azat, Getashen and Manashid in January 1990. 

Wide-spread everyday violence, arrests, threats and oppressions by the Azerbaijani special police forces and USSR Interior troops brought up the necessity for armed defence.

In 1990, to withstand the pressure and outright attacks by Azerbaijani special police detachments, to coordinate the actions of the voluntary self-defence groups and to provide material, organizational and military support, an Underground Committee for Self-defence was created on the basis of an ad-hoc committee at the NK National Council called “P” (from the word Pashtpanutyun, which means “defence”). Headquarters of Self-Defence Forces was also created which organized and armed quick response groups and coordinated the defence efforts of Armenian settlements.

Source: Centre for Cartography and Geodesy


The pogroms of January 1991 in Baku, the capital of Azerbaijani SSR, were a continuation of the campaign of ethnic cleansing. As a result, hundreds of Armenians were killed and a new wave of refugees emerged. The cruelty of the Sumgait pogroms was matched in Baku – people were burned alive, stabbed, and beaten to death.

On September 2, 1991, a joint session of the People’s Deputies of the Nagorno Karabakh and Shahumyan Regional Councils (Soviets), declared the establishment of the Republic of Mountainous Karabakh in the former borders of the NKAO(R) and the Shahumyan region. This was done in conformity with the April 3, 1990 USSR Law on “The Procedures of the Resolution of Problems on the Secession of a Union Republic from the USSR”. This law stipulated the right of national autonomies to independently decide their legal status when seceding from the USSR and set the procedures for the process. 

Contrary to all existing legal norms, the Supreme Soviet of Azerbaijan during the same period (November 1991), passed a law on the “Abolition of the Nagorno Karabakh Autonomous Oblast of the Azerbaijan Republic”. The USSR Committee of Constitutional Supervision declared this act unconstitutional. 

Just a few days before the official collapse of the Soviet Union, in a referendum on December 10, 1991 the overwhelming majority of the NK population reaffirmed the establishment of the Republic of Mountainous Karabakh (known also as the Nagorno Karabakh Republic). This move fully complied both with norms of international law and the letter and spirit of the USSR laws of that time. Thus, on the territory of the former Azerbaijani SSR, two equal state formations were created – the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic and the Azerbaijan Republic.

Parliamentary elections of the NKR were followed by forming of the first government. The independent NKR government went to work under conditions of a total blockade, aggression and a war unleashed by Azerbaijan that was to result in tens of thousands of deaths and cause immeasurable material damage. 

Legal Aspects for the Independence of Nagorno Karabakh

From the legal point of view Artsakh’s independence was invulnerable. It used the available legal mechanism to implement its rights and all the actions undertaken were in compliance with the existing Soviet laws. Azerbaijan availed itself of the same laws to exit the Soviet Union. When the Soviet Union broke up both Azerbaijan and NK received their independence, implementing the same legal tools and procedures. In fact, Artsakh has never been part of independent Azerbaijan. When Artsakh (Karabakh) was annexed to the Russian Empire, Azerbaijan did not yet exist as a state and there were no people called Azerbaijanis or Azeris. When it was incorporated into Azerbaijan, Azerbaijan was already under the Bolshevik rule, as were other former territories of the Russian Empire. When Azerbaijan became an independent country exiting the USSR, Karabakh proclaimed its own independence. In its Declaration on the “Re-establishment of the State Independence of the Republic of Azerbaijan” (which is considered an inseparable part of Azerbaijan’s Constitution adopted in 1995 and amended in 2002), Azerbaijan declared itself the successor of the 1918-1920 Republic of Democratic Azerbaijan. As it is well-known, Karabakh had never been a part of the 1918-1920 Azerbaijan: Karabakh and Nakhijevan were brought under its rule when it was already a Soviet Socialist republic. In fact, proclaiming the Azerbaijani Republic in 1991 a successor of the 1918-1920 one, would have been sufficient as a legal act to make all Azerbaijani claims over Nagorno Karabakh void. However, neither law nor history mattered as Azerbaijan set itself to establish control over Karabakh.