The Crisis in the Caucasus

Against the Current, No. 26, May/June 1990

Suzi Weissman interview Ronald Suny

RONALD GRIGOR SUNY, Alex Manoogian Professor of Modern Armenian History at the University of Michigan and a specialist in Soviet history, was interviewed by Susan Weissman on the “Portraits of the USSR” program on KPFK-FM shortly after troops moved into Azerbaijan. Suny is the author of two important books pertaining to the subject of this interview: The Baku Commune (Princeton University Press) and The Making of the Georgian Nation (Indiana University Press). He is currently working on a biography of the young Stalin. This interview was edited and excerpted by ATC.

Susan Weissman: Could you give us some background on the nationalities crisis in the Soviet Union; an idea of what the tensions are all about; why this almost inexplicable level of violence that we saw on our nightly television newscasts?

Ronald Suny: This conflict goes back deep into history. To begin with, there are the religious differences that have existed between the two peoples ever since the first Turkish tribes entered the plains of Azerbaijan—until then controlled by a number of Christian Armenian kingdoms—in the eleventh century. Then, when in the tsarist period of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, capitalism and industry, markets, railroads and so forth developed, the two peoples—the Muslim Azerbaijanis and the Christian Armenians—began to differentiate socially as well.

The Armenians, particularly these in Azerbaijan, migrated to the city of Baku, which by 1900 had become the largest oil-producing area in the whole world. Around the turn of the century, Baku alone produced as much oil as did all the oil fields in the United States. It was a source of enormous wealth, and into that area came Armenians who became investors and industrialists in the oil industry as well as workers—particularly skilled workers—in the oil industries. A class or social differentiation developed between poor Muslim villagers and the predominantly Azerbaijani lowest echelon of the working class on the one hand and a skilled working class along with a middle class that was usually Armenian and Russian (Christian) on the other.

Hence by the time we get to the revolution, there is already considerable hostility—religious, ethnic, social, all mixed together—between an Azerbaijani population marginalized from the economic and political centers of power in Baku, and the Armenians who, with the Russians, dominated both spheres. In 1918, there were two very important events.

In March of that year Communists, who were largely Russian and Armenian, joined with Armenian nationalists to put down a Muslim revolt with a terrible loss of life. Then in September, when the Baku commune fell to the invading Turkish army, Azerbaijanis went on a rampage and massacred about 20,000 Armenians in the city of Baku.

SW: What happened during the period of the early 192Os when the borderlines were drawn and Nagorno Karabakh became part of Azerbaijan?

RS: In April 1920, Azerbaijan became the first Soviet republic in the region. Shortly after that sovietization, Azerbaijani Communists declared that Nagorno Karabakh would be part of an eventually sovietized Armenia. This was kind of a fraternal socialist gesture that was made. But in July 1923, when Armenia did become a Soviet republic, a decision was taken to leave Nagorno Karabakh in the richer, larger republic of Azerbaijan. Armenia, which was extremely poor, protested this move, although it made a kind of practical sense at the time. So as a resuit of that decision of 1923, Karabakh, with about 200,000 Armenians, was left in Azerbaijan.

One could not have necessarily predicted what would happen the next sixty-five to seventy years of Soviet rule, or that Azerbaijani authorities would underinvest in Karabakh and systematically cut off the Armenians of that region from their native republic, which was just about three kilometers away.

Armenian culture and schooling declined in this region; many Armenians left and went to Armenia.

Once glasnost developed, the latent hostilities and the desire of the Armenians to link up with the republic came out into the open. Hence the Armenian demonstrations in February 1988, which resulted a few days later in the massacres in the city of Sumgait, where crowds of young Azerbaijanis rampaged through the streets, invaded Armenians’ apartments, murdered them and set them on fire—something like what we are seeing in Baku today.

Sumgait really began, then, a cycle of violence that has gone on for the last two years.

Armenians have not given up their claim that Karabakh should be part of their republic. Karabakh itself has an 80 percent Armenian population and is desirous of joining with Armenia. And yet the Soviet government in Moscow, the Azerbaijani government, and now the Popular Front have all argued that no, Karabakh must stay within the Azerbaijani republic.

SW: It seemed that at the beginning of the conflict, especially after the massacre in Sumgait, Gorbachev was leaning more toward the Armenian side; now it seems the opposite. Do you think that’s true?

RS: Armenians, of course, don’t think so. When they first went into the streets, they had signs and placards with Gorbachev’s portrait. One Armenian in the Soviet Union said to me, “We Armenians, earlier than anyone else, believed in perestroika.” And their first action raising this issue was in the spirit of perestroika. So their general feeling has been one of disillusionment with perestroika and with Gorbachev personally. Azerbaijanis, of course, feel exactly the opposite: that Gorbachev has leaned over backwards for the Armenians.

SW: Why do you think that after the people themselves of Nagorno Karabakh voted to become part of Armenia, they were still ignored and the borders remained where they were?

RS: Without, the [1968] Sumgait massacre perhaps there would have been some constitutional solution. But Sumgait made it very difficult, if not impossible, to agree to Armenian demands, because then you would have had the whole republic of Azerbaijan up in arms. I’m perfectly willing to surmise that other Muslim republics would have been upset as well. Moreover, there are dozens of these ethnic abnormalities between republics in the Soviet Union.

SW: Is this Stalin’s nationalities policy coming home to roost— the consequence of borders drawn, as you say, in ways that left each republic with clusters of other nationalities?

RS: In a way you’re right. There was a general insensitivity to the demands and interests of some of these nationalities. Whatever its initial intentions—rooted in the idea that if you’re a nation, a people, you should have your own territory—it was implemented quite arbitrarily. These people obviously weren’t consulted; some new nations were created quite artificially, while others were blended into existing nations.

After Lenin’s death, Stalin took an increasingly harsh and arbitrary line toward nationalities, emphasizing instead economic productivity. The national question was basically buried under a lot of rhetoric about “friendship of nations” and “on soviet people.” Problems simply couldn’t be discussed and hence couldn’t be solved either.

Once Gorbachev opened tie lid on this Pandora’s box of the national question, he was confronted with all of these latent conflicts and aspirations that were dormant for decades.

SW: So now the lid has been opened, and the tension is being expressed. Was nationalism simply a focus for social tension during the years when no other political aspirations could be articulated, or, as you began to say, are there some other social and political underpinnings to these crises?

RS: I would certainly agree on one thing: one cannot reduce such manifestations to the idea, “Oh, it’s a religious struggle,” or “Oh, that’s ethnic nationalism,” and brush it off. Paradoxically, it was during the Soviet period that some peoples readied an ethnic, cultural or religious understanding that was more self-conscious and articulate—not to mention demographically more homogenous—than that which they possessed in 1917. This is certainly true, for example, of Armenians and Azerbaijanis.

Within administrative units real socio-political bases developed with which you could identify and on which you could build your national future Certainly nationalism could not be openly expressed during the Stalin period, but those nations in a sense were becoming stronger demographically, culturally, economically and so forth. End the Stalinist repression and you get, then, a more coherent and conscious nationalist expression.

It is certainly true that other social tensions are easily expressed in nationalist form, making the enemy less the real economic crisis of the Soviet Union or the difficulty of industrializing a country than ‘that Armenian,’ who is trying to take a piece of our territory.

SW: There are some analysts who claim that the Sumgait massacre was really planned by the ex-Brezhnevites who are trying to cause difficulties for Gorbachev. Is there anything to the view that the massacre was planned?

RS: While I’ve heard that charge—it is made repeatedly by intellectuals in the Soviet Union—I tend not to believe it myself. It has a ring of artificiality. Yes, the old-Brezhnevites have certainly dragged their heels and tried to make things difficult. But planning massacres? Creating chaos? There’s no real evidence of it.

Which is not to deny that perestroika is in danger because of the nationalist upsurge, among other things. Gorbachev, though he’s a skillful politician, is caught between, on the one hand, the more liberal, radical Moscow intelligentsia that is pulling him toward greater democracy, more autonomy for the regions and an end to the monopoly of the Communist Party, and, on the other hand, those conservatives who make up the bulk of the Communist Party, who want more order and less autonomy.

SW: Last week I interviewed Sergei Stankevich, who is a people’s deputy in the new Soviet Parliament. He said that he thought Gorbachev missed an opportunity two years ago when the trouble over Nagorno-Karabakh first began. Stankevich argued that at that point they should have made the area itself into an autonomous republic and that it is still not too late to do that. What do you think?

RS: Well, I think you could look at the history of this problem through 1988 and 1989 and say why didn’t Gorbachev act here, why didn’t he act there. But he simply didn’t have the kind of support, either in the Politburo or more likely in the Central Committee, to make that kind of move. The Central Committee Plenum that discussed the national question was delayed for over a year. And the statement that the Committee finally came up within September 1989, important as it is, Skirted the most important issue.

Now I have another solution that I would at least provisionally suggest. I don’t believe that Nagorno-Karabakh can exist as an entity. Armenians and Azerbaijanis at this point simply do not have any affection for each other.

But what’s happened in the last couple of years is that the mixed populations have voted with their feet to go back to their own respective republics. Armenians are either leaving en masse, or they are being driven out, or they are being killed. Azerbaijanis in Yerevan—where there has also been violence and where Azerbaijanis have been killed—are leaving Armenia. The same separation of the population is taking place in Karabakh. I would argue that a referendum should be held and Karabakh should be divided, partitioned between the larger part, which would be an Armenian section, and a smaller Azerbaijani section, each of which could be joined to its own republic.

SW: So in other words, making it contiguous with Armenia since only ten miles of mountain separate them?

RS: Right, which it would be, more or less. Then, put Soviet troops between the two peoples and allow for a long cooling off period. There may be some pockets of Azerbaijanis or Armenians in the wrong zone, so to speak, and there we might have to do the most harsh thing, involving forced movement of populations, population transfers. This way, there would be relatively homogeneous republics, and the problem could at least be stopped for the time being.

SW: But troops once introduced are not easily removed. You said yourself that it would take a long cooling off period. Are you saying then that Soviet troops will be there as much as British troops are in Northern Ireland?

RS: I think that the Northern Irish analogy is an apt one, and it will probably be a very long engagement there for Soviet troops. But don’t forget that those troops were there even before these struggles started. Troops were sent in periodically through 1988-89, although not in sufficient force.

SW: The question is what would stop the Azerbaijanis, if Soviet troops were to divide Nagorno-Karabakh from simply saying, “All right, we secede, and we’re taking it with us!

RS: Well, I think that could be done, for there have been a lot of symbolic gestures: Armenians have declared Karabakh part of their republic; the Azerbaijanis-have done the same. The Azerbaijanis have threatened secession, and there’s been talk of independence in Armenia as well. But with the troops there all of these gestures will be more symbolic than real.

SW: But the difference, I guess, between such declarations from the Baltic republics and in the Caucasus is that the Azerbaijanis seem to be well armed and capable of carrying on an armed conflict even with the Soviet troops.

KS: And also, it’s a mountainous region and it’s a border region, with a land border with Turkey and Iran; guerrilla warfare could occur here, as indeed it did at some points in Soviet history.

The real reason, it seems to me, that this situation is different from that in the Baltics is not so much who is armed and who is not-.Although that’s an important factor—but rather that the Estonians, Latvians and Lithuanians have acted in a constructive, astute political manner. They have not been provocative, they’ve held down ethnic hostilities, and they’ve tried to work in an almost constitutional way, never pushing too far, never retreating too far. It would have been extremely inappropriate for Gorbachev to have launched an armed attack on Lithuania when people were simply standing in the Cathedral Square with candles in their hand.

SW: Obviously Gorbachev is threatened with the disintegration and the breakup of the Soviet Union. It is being said with ever more frequency in the press here as well as there. Do you think Gorbachev will allow it?

RS: I don’t think any political leader can survive long if he or she allows the breakup of the country that he or she is governing. There is justification, in international law and elsewhere, for maintaining that kind of state authority. Now the Soviet Union is a peculiar state. According to Stalin’s old constitution, those republics are legally sovereign republics. They actually entered the Soviet Union by treaty, either fictitious or actual, and they have the right to secede.

So Gorbachev is caught between his obligation as a political leader to maintain the union, build a strong country and defend its borders, and his constitutional duties to respect the law as it’s written. But my sense is that the Soviet Union is not going to break up, that the West is too much taken by the current problems, which are quite severe. Gorbachev has lots of opportunities; there’s much connective tissue between these republics and the central Russian republic, and after these crises subside—and there will be a number more in the near future—there will be continued unity.

It may be that the Baltics will become so independent of the center that it will be merely a juridical point whether they’re in the Soviet confederation or outside, but my sense is that you are going to see a new Soviet Union, a different kind of confederation based on new state treaties between these republics with absolutely maximum rights and autonomy and independence of these republics, short of full state sovereignty.

SW: You have already mentioned that you see a sort of solution of the problem in Nagorno Karabakh in the partition at least until tempers cool down and people move voluntarily. What short- and long-term solutions do you see—not specifically for Nagorno Karabakh—but between the two republics? What solutions do you we for the Soviet nationalities crisis in general?

RS: I think that Soviet intervention was essential and that if it can bring peace to the region, not even total peace but relative peace, that would be a step forward. Secondly, I think that partition of Karabakh is necessary. It’s not going to satisfy anyone, but I don’t see any other solution Thirdly, I think this all has to be solved in a much larger context.

The Soviet government led by Gorbachev has to be much bolder in setting forth a new agenda and creating a real federation or confederation, a kind of Soviet Commonwealth perhaps, in which these countries, these republics, would be linked with one another by treaty; their rights and obligations would be carefully outlined so that they could engage in their own economic development and coordination, if they want, with one another, so that Soviet troops could eventually be withdrawn from some of these border regions. It wouldn’t surprise me eventually if the Baltic republics ended up, whether technically inside the Soviet Union or technically outside the Soviet Union, in a relation with Russia much like that of Finland with Russia.

SW: What would you say for the Caucasus? You touched on these republics needing more independence economically but also needing aid to develop their infrastructures?

RS: I think that the Baltic republics are very lucky geopolitically. They are in an affluent area, they are open to the West, they are windows to the West This is probably why the Soviets, like Peter the Great, would like to keep these areas.

The Caucasus on the other hand is a far less developed area of the world. Armenia itself is small and isolated; it really can’t go it alone without the Soviets. Certainly the Armenians would be the victims of the neighboring Muslims if they were alone, and their economic interrelationships and connections with Azerbaijan, Georgia and Russia are very great They need that kind of connection to develop their economy. So I see those regions as much more loosely connected with the central Soviet power [than is now the case], but certainly much more dependent than the Baltic may be.

May-June 1990, ATC 26

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