Early in 1988, the southern Soviet republics of Armenia and Azerbaijan witnessed large-scale political demonstrations and ethnic clashes. Renewed demonstrations and street confrontations in mid-May led to the dismissal of the Communist Party chiefs in both republics. Joe Stork spoke to Ronald Grigor Suny, who teaches Soviet and Armenian history at the University of Michigan, about the background to these clashes. Suny is the author of Armenia in the Twentieth Century (Scholars Press, 1983) and The Baku Commune, 1917-1918: Class and Nationality in the Russian Revolution (Princeton University Press, 1972).
What exactly happened early this year in Karabagh, when clashes erupted between Soviet Armenians and Azerbaijanis?
It’s necessary to begin with a little background. The Caucasus region has long been the scene of very serious social, religious and ethnic conflicts. Back in the Middle Ages, before the Turkish people migrated here from central Asia, eastern Transcaucasia was known as Caucasian Albania. No relation to the Balkan Albanians, these were a Christianized people quite close to the Armenians. Once the Seljuk Turks began arriving in the 11th century, the Albanians in the mountainous area — Karabagh up to historic Armenia — remained largely Christian and eventually merged with the Armenians. The Albanians in the eastern plain leading down to the Caspian Sea mixed with the Turkish population and eventually became Muslims.
Karabagh is a frontier between these two peoples. In the 18th century, Karabagh and eastern Transcaucasia (what is now Azerbaijan) was under Persian rule, but independent Armenian chiefs (meliks) in and around Karabagh had developed a sort of Russian orientation. Along with elements of the Armenian church, they wanted to liberate Armenia by linking up with the Christian tsar to the north.
In the early 19th century the Russians annexed this area. When they divided the area up into provinces, they linked the Karabagh region to the eastern plains — first the Caspian province, and later Elizavetpol province, separating Karabagh administratively from Yerevan province, which later would become the nucleus of Soviet Armenia.
The majority of Armenians, Georgians and Azerbaijanis were peasants, but within each population there was social differentiation. For Georgians the dominant class was the local nobility which eventually identified itself with the Russian nobility and became very important as soldiers and administrators. For the Armenians the leading class was an urban bourgeoisie — merchants and industrialists — who eventually dominated the developing market economy in the Caucasus. Baku, which would become the capital of independent Azerbaijan in late 1918, had a developing Armenian middle class, working and cooperating with the Russian administration, while the eastern Transcaucasian countryside was home to a very large Turkic-speaking Muslim population. The Russians referred to them as Tartars, but we now consider them Azerbaijanis, a distinct people with their own language and culture.
What was the demographic structure of this area?
In the whole of Transcaucasia the largest group is the Azerbaijanis, followed by the Armenians and then the Georgians.  The Azerbaijanis were, until the Russian revolution, not a very great presence in urban societies. When they came into urban societies they were always at the bottom. Azeri workers joined the absolute lowest ranks of the working class — unskilled field workers in the oil industry.
Class and nationality overlap. Christians — Russians or Armenians — are more likely to have a higher social status; if workers, they are likely to be more skilled. The 1905 revolution saw very severe and bloody clashes between Azerbaijanis and Armenians which come out of this social-cultural conflict.
What was the impact of the Bolshevik Revolution?
These factors came to a head then. The Ottoman Turks invaded Transcaucasia in February and March 1918, aiming to go to Baku. Baku itself was run by a Bolshevik-dominated soviet and in March of 1918 there was a clash between that soviet and local Azerbaijanis. The Armenians, led by the Dashnak Party, backed the Soviets and helped to put down this Azerbaijani uprising quite bloodily. What might have been a political, even class struggle, degenerated into an ethnic struggle. The Azerbaijanis were, of course, very pro- Turkish, while the Christian Armenians favored ties with Russia. In September of 1918, the Turkish army took Baku and Azerbaijanis avenged the “March Days” by massacring about 20,000 Armenians. The memories of these two peoples, Armenians and Azerbaijanis, lingered all through the Soviet period and are a factor in the latest developments.
The Azerbaijanis, who were not yet a self-conscious nationality in the tsarist period, began to develop in the Soviet period — their own national cadres of communists, educated people from their own culture and language, an opera, radio stations, theaters and so forth. They developed into a very coherent and conscious nationality. Despite the usual Western view that Soviet policy is one of assimilation and Russification, at least in the Soviet Caucasus the trend has been precisely the opposite, toward the consolidation of ethnic nations. The Soviet period has been one of nation-building and indeed creating a nation in Azerbaijan where one had not existed historically.
What was the strategy behind that policy?
Lenin was particularly sensitive to the need to compromise with the ethnic aspirations of the non-Russian nationalities. He believed that eventually nationalism would be overcome by economic development. Stalin was less sensitive to these things, even though he was an ethnic Georgian, and favored a Russian-dominated state. He established a very effective way of maintaining an empire: by co-opting ethnicity through local communist elites ultimately obedient to Moscow. By the time Stalin died in 1953, very coherent, self-conscious nations had formed in the Caucasus. For the Azerbaijanis, their making of a nation meant the gradual erosion of the Armenian presence in their republic. In the 1920s prominent Armenian and Russian communists still ruled in Azerbaijan. By the 1940s Azerbaijanis had taken over.
But there is this anomaly: a large enclave in Karabagh, which is 80 percent Armenian. Without question, Armenians in Karabagh felt discriminated against by the ruling Azerbaijani communist party. Their cultural development as Armenians was restricted by Baku.
Karabagh is not contiguous to the Armenian republic?
It is contiguous, though a somewhat artificial ten mile corridor separates Karabagh from the Armenian republic.
Why was it not just included in the Armenian republic?
Very good question. Right after the Sovietization of Azerbaijan in April 1920, local Azerbaijani communists proclaimed that Karabagh would go to the Soviet Armenian republic. But because Armenia was so poor — in 1920 Armenia was flooded by refugees from the Turkish massacres of 1915 — Karabagh ended up incorporated into more prosperous Azerbaijan. It made sense from an economic standpoint, though not from an ethnic or cultural perspective.
Armenians now feel that the development of Soviet Armenia into an industrial area has superceded the reasons for the original decision to include Karabagh in Azerbaijan. Now much more compelling is this sense of discrimination.
Has this been a matter of contention for long?
Armenians began to raise this issue publicly in 1964, when they petitioned Khrushchev. They got no response. Several times during the Brezhnev period, especially in 1977 during the discussions of the new constitution, the issue was raised through letters, articles and petitions. Again, no response from Moscow.
Did this represent a consensus view of Karabaghtis?
Yes, very much so.
Why do Azerbaijanis resist these demands?
I think it is mostly patriotic. Karabagh is not particularly important to the Azerbaijanis economically, but about 20-25 percent of Karabagh’s population is Azerbaijani. Hundreds of thousands of Armenians still live in many parts of Azerbaijan, and there is no love lost between these two peoples. Azerbaijanis think that Armenians have greater access to the central party, to the media and a historic sense of inferiority still prevails among many Azerbaijanis.
What triggered the demonstrations and clashes in February?
Last year, in 1987, there were again petitions and nothing happened. The Armenians felt that with glasnost it was possible to raise these demands more forcefully. What happened in Karabagh this year is unprecedented in Soviet history. First, Karabaghtis started to demonstrate and the local Karabagh soviet, the rubber-stamp parliament if you will, voted to incorporate with Armenia. It is unheard of that a local soviet would act against the policy of the central state.
Secondly, once the demonstrations got going in Karabagh, there were huge peaceful Armenian demonstrations in Yerevan, the capital of Armenia, hundreds of thousands of people organized by a small committee. The Communist Party of Karabagh then voted to join Armenia. That is also unheard of. These actions obviously owed much to the policies of glasnost and perestroika. The Armenians in Yerevan even forced the local Communist Party to request the Central Committee in Moscow to look at the issue.
The demonstrations continued and the crisis seemed to be getting out of hand. Gorbachev invited several Armenian writers, Zori Balayan and Silva Kaputikian, to the Kremlin and asked them to help call off the demonstrations for a month while Moscow discussed the issue. They returned to Yerevan and the demonstrations stopped.
At that point, riots broke out in Sumgait, an Azerbaijani industrial city on the Caspian which has an Armenian minority. This was really a pogrom, very spontaneous probably and quite vicious. Azerbaijanis went into the street, murdered at least 32 people, and beat up another 200 people. Very gory tales emerged about what happened there. We do not know whether they are all true, but at least in Armenian public understanding this was a horrible event.
At the end of March, the Central Committee and Gorbachev decided not to allow Karabagh to incorporate with Armenia. Instead they proclaimed a seven-year plan for economic and cultural development, recognizing that discrimination had taken place. The demonstrations in Armenia simmered down, but in Karabagh they went on for a while longer.
Why didn’t Moscow make a more extensive concession?
What Moscow said was that this would precipitate similar demands all through the Soviet Union, and that this wasn’t the time to try and solve this problem. There would be a Central Committee plenum this summer to look at the whole nationalities question and to deal with it in a comprehensive way.
Is this related to the street conflicts in Kazakhstan about a year ago?
These various nationalist or ethnic conflicts are really quite distinct. It is a mistake to lump them all together and suggest, as the Western media sometimes does, that the nationalist manifestations are anti-Soviet. There is a general problem for Gorbachev: in the years since Stalin, insofar as Moscow has allowed a degree of autonomy in the national republics, local communist parties of these ethnic majorities have taken control. Many of Moscow’s policies are thwarted in the republics by local well-entrenched leaderships, despite Moscow’s overall control. Indeed, in central Asia and the Caucasus particularly, the normal way of doing business has been through bribery, corruption, favoritism, distribution of benefits to one nationality over another. Gorbachev has been opposed to this corruption, and so he has systematically tried to remove these local leaderships and to institute more reformist leadership that can build efficient economic administrations. He wants little Gorbachevs, if he can find them.
When he can find these little Gorbachevs among the local nationalities, that is fine. In Kazakhstan, apparently, they couldn't find a Kazakh independent of the entrenched Kunayav machine, so they brought in a Russian who had served with distinction as a problem solver in Georgia. Kazakhs are, by the way, a minority in their own republic: Russians outnumber them, and this has created resentment. Still the appointment of Kolbin was an affront to the Kazakh nationalists and they rioted. Gorbachev is similarly trying to remove the local leadership in Armenia. The current party chief, Karen Demirchian, heads one of these well-entrenched mafias. The central authorities have vigorously criticized the Armenian party, yet the Armenian Communist bosses have so far defied the center. In the Gorbachev era local elites seem to have greater room to maneuver, negotiate with and even resist the center.
Because of the conflict over Karabagh?
The conflict over Karabagh has certainly delayed resolving the conflict over Demirchian though it has also foreshadowed the inevitability of his fall. You don’t allow things to get out of control this way and survive as a Soviet leader. [Demirchian was finally sacked on May 21.]
Why won’t Gorbachev grant Armenian demands?
First, it would be responding to popular demands and demonstrations. Secondly, once you start adjusting borders, almost every republic will have some ethnic enclave that they will say should be included in their republic. Lifting the lid on the Pandora’s box of the nationalities problem will create many more conflicts than Gorbachev needs at the moment.
It seems pretty clear that religious differences coincide with ethnic and class divisions but are not in any way the primary dimension here.
Right. So far any kind of Islamic religious expression has been relatively unimportant. Islamic identity, a sense that Islam is an inseparable part of Azerbaijani culture, is very strong, but there is not much overt religious activity. There is no great attraction in Azerbaijan, as far as I can tell, towards anything going on in Iran. If ethnic or economic or social or political grievances continue unresolved, though, then they can take all kinds of forms, including religious. Armenians have been demonstrating in large numbers in quite orderly fashion for specific demands within the context of glasnost and perestroika. This is a loyalist manifestation. If their interests and their aspirations are frustrated completely, one cannot predict whether they will continue in their loyal approach to the Soviet system.
Do you expect any momentous developments at the Soviet party plenum scheduled for June?
I will answer in a contradictory way. First of all, you never know what to expect in the Soviet Union today. Something incredibly important, radical, revolutionary is occurring under Gorbachev. Everyone who follows Soviet developments has been startled, stunned, and is running fast to catch up with developments there. This is really a world historical moment. Second, it is clear that since last fall the more radical reformers, including Gorbachev, have been somewhat stymied in their efforts to put together the broad political coalition needed to carry out these reforms. There has been a more moderate approach towards change in the last six months or so, as he tries to shore up his right — Ligachev and people like that. So one can’t predict that at June’s plenum Gorbachev will again be on top of things and able to push for more rapid solutions to problems.