Crisis in the Caucasus: Independence & Its Discontents

Ronald Suny

MOUNTAINOUS KARABAGH IS remote even from the Armenian capital of Erevan. What began in the time of Gorbachev as peaceful demonstrations for the merger of the region with the neighboring Armenian republic, has widened into a four-sided war between the newly-independent republics of Armenia and Azerbaijan and the self-proclaimed states of Karabagh and Nakhichevan.

Beyond the borders of former Soviet Transcaucasia, Turkey sits anxiously watching as the Turkic people of Azerbaijan take on those who have been constituted as a “traditional enemy,” the Armenians. And Iran attempts to mediate for fear that Azerbaijanis within its borders, who outnumber their compatriots north of the border two-to-one, will be aroused by the pan-Azerbaijani passions. The intense conflict has cost at least three thousand lives, hundreds of thousands of displaced people and threatens to bring in other powers and further destabilize an already volatile region.

The positive effects of the revolutionary transformations that took place in the last few years in the Soviet Union are more than matched by the anxiety, shared alike by the former Soviet peoples and many Europeans and Americans, that economic collapse and militant nationalism will lead to unprecedented instability in the international order. For all its faults, Soviet-style Communism and imperialism managed a rough peace throughout the Soviet empire, both within the USSR and along its borders, that precluded interethnic warfare and interstate hostilities.

The end of the Cold War and the erosion of Pax Sovietica has led to enormous uncertainty and confusion about the future of the non-Russian peoples of the Soviet periphery and presented a dangerous opportunity for self-definition and determination that has been denied to most of these nationalities since the end of the Russian Civil War.

Though in all three Transcaucasian republics (Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia) at the moment, non-Communist, even anti-Communist, counter elites are now in power, the superficial similarities among the republics are outweighed by enormous differences. Among the commonalities, we might note the very weak social base for the new regimes and the growing fragmentation in the new elites.

The newly-empowered Transcaucasian national elites come from the same social background: academic and literary intellectuals (relatively cosmopolitan), outside the old power elite. They fit the stereotypic picture of a revolutionary elite—”overeducated outgroups,” “whose capital is [their] knowledge.(1) They came to power against the old ways of doing business—in Transcaucasia, this meant the mafia—but once in power have had to accommodate to existing structures of power.

Potentially powerful contenders for power are waiting in the wings (the Dashnaktsutiun [Armenian Revolutionary Federation] in Armenia; former Communists and the National Independence Party in Azerbaijan; followers of deposed president Zviad Gamsakhurdia and other factions in Georgia). Displaced Communists remain most powerful off stage in Azerbaijan, less in Armenia, and even less in Georgia. The nationalist elite is most securely in power in Armenia, less securely in Azerbaijan, and most precariously in Georgia.

In all three republics a deep and persistent substructure of regional and “clan” loyalties continues to be the touchstone of political identification and affiliation. Political, regional, familial and even criminal “mafias” offer powerful resistance to a sovereign law-based state in Transcaucasia. Perhaps the most notorious potential threat to the Azerbaijani government is the former party chief Heidar Aliev, who has his own power base in the semi-independent Nakhichevan region.

The project of statebuilding and building authority (legitimated power) for the new elites in all three republics goes on in conditions of extreme physical difficulty, economic collapse, inter-republic and civil war, and blockade. Perhaps it is nowhere more difficult than in the smallest of the former Soviet republics, Armenia.

Armenia’s Time of Mobilization

When Mikhail Gorbachev provided an opening for the pent-up political frustrations of Armenians, the Armenian intelligentsia mobilized around three major issues: the growing concern over the environmental pollution of the Armenian republic and the danger facing the Armenians from the nuclear plant at Metsamor, near Erevan; the perennial issue of Karabagh; and the growing corruption and stagnation in the republic connected with the long reign (1974-1988) of party chief Karen Demirchian.

In the early Gorbachev years, the environmental movement gave the Armenians a popular, broad-based issue capable of mobilizing significant numbers of people but without appearing to threaten political authority.(2) At the same time, the political leadership in Armenia was being undermined both from within and from above.

Following the accession of Gorbachev to power—and the unfolding of his campaigns against corruption, stagnation and bureaucratism—central party press reports were highly critical of the Armenian Communist party. With the outbreak of the Karabagh movement in February 1988, the Armenian Communist Party, largely discredited in the eyes of much of the population, rapidly lost authority to the growing movement in the streets. Demirchian fell in May, and his successor Suren Harutiunian attempted to find common language with the growing national movement.

Made up of nationalist intellectuals, many of them members of the Communist Party, the Karabagh Committee moved rapidly toward more radical positions, calling for full democratization and national sovereignty. Referring to itself as the “Popular Armenian Movement,” the Committee announced its objective as “a sovereign Armenian republic, in the framework of a Soviet confederation, and based on de facto autonomy and respect for equality between the republics.”

Moscow’s positions—refusal to agree to the merger of Karabagh with Armenia, failure to deal firmly with the perpetrators of the Sumgait pogrom [several days of Azeri nots in which Armenians were killed—ed.j—and the growing sense that Gorbachev favored the Azerbaijanis in a pragmatic calculation of Muslim strength drove the Armenians into an intransigent opposition.(3)

Shortly after the December 7 earthquake, Soviet officials decided to use the crisis as an opportunity to restore their authority and end the operation of the Karabagh committee.(4) The arrest of the leaders of the democratic movement launched an attempt—which lasted until the release of the Committee members at the end of May 1989—of the old authorities to rule, in a sense, “without the nation.”

Party chief Suren Harutiunian made a number of gestures to win over popular sentiment He agreed that May 28, the day the Dashnaktsutiun had proclaimed Armenian independence in 1918, be recognized as the anniversary of the restoration of Armenian statehood. The tricolor flag that had been identified with that republic (and by many with the Dashnaktsutiun) was accepted as the national flag of Armenia. Finally, on the last day of May the Karabagh Committee members were released to the joyful greetings of massive demonstrations in Erevan.

The next five months (June-October 1989) were marked by a kind of condominium of the Communists and the nationalists. As uncomfortable allies, much like the Popular Fronts and Communists in the Baltic republics, the competing Armenian elites actually made it possible for the popular nationalist movement to grow in a relatively free environment and for an eventual peaceful transfer of power. In June, the mushrooming unofficial organizations joined together to form the Pan-Armenian National Movement (Haiots Hamazgayin Sharzhum, HHSh), and the government gave them official recognition.

But, by the late fall of 1989, the cooperative relationship between the Armenian Communist authorities and the HHSh had come to an end, as the movement accelerated its efforts toward democratization and independence. In January, under HHSh pressure, the Armenian Supreme Soviet revised the republic’s constitution and gave itself the power to validate USSR laws.

Central state authority withered, and the writ of the Kremlin could only be enforced by police and soldiers. But after the killings of peaceful demonstrators in the Georgian capital Tbilisi (April 9, 1989) and the volatile reaction from the recently-convened Congress of People’s Deputies, Gorbachev restrained the use of armed force against protesters, except in the most extreme interethnic warfare and to prevent secession from the Soviet Union.

In the multi-party elections of the spring and summer of 1990, the old political elite gradually made way for a new political class that had matured in the two years of the Karabagh movement After several rounds of voting, the newly-elected Armenian parliament chose Levon Ter Petrosian as its chairman.(5) With the HHSh in power and the Communists in opposition, the transition from Soviet-style government to an independent democratic state accelerated.

When the anti-Gorbachev plotters in August 1991 delivered the coup de grace to what was left of Soviet unity, Armenian voters struck out on their own, first on September 20 reaffirming the commitment to independence and second on October 16 overwhelmingly electing (eighty-three percent of the vote), Levon Ter Petrosian president of the republic.(6)

The Karabagh Committee had by all 1991 been transformed into the popular government of an independent state with only a weak and divided opposition. Ideologically forged in the struggle for Karabagh, the movement had quickly developed into a movement against the mafia-like party in Armenia. But before it could carry Out its mandate for democratization and marketization, it needed to solve the very problem that had given birth to the movement—the struggle in Karabagh.

At War in Karabagh

Karabagh was an area where Armenians had lived for centuries, at the eastern end of the Armenian plateau. In the 19th century Russian authorities placed the region in provinces that opened to the east, toward the Muslim-populated plains. In the early 1920s, the Soviets formed Nagorno-Karabagh into an autonomous province within Azerbaijan. With its oil reserves near Baku, Azerbaijan was much richer than Armenia, and Azerbaijani Communist leaders prevailed upon the representatives of Moscow to include Karabagh in their republic. Thus Karabagh presented an anomaly in the Soviet nationality structure, a largely Armenian enclave cut off from its home republic just a few miles away.

In the spring of last year, while the Azerbaijanis fought among themselves in their capital over which party would rule the republic—the remnants of the former Communists or the nationalist Popular Front–Karabagh Armenians successfully drove most Azerbaijanis from mountainous Karabagh. The old capital Shushi was taken, and a corridor was driven through the Kurdish Lad-tin area to link Karabagh with Armenia.

Early in April of this year, another Armenian offensive widened the corridor by taking the Azerbaijani town of Kelbajar. Thousands of refugees fled the area, and for moving beyond Karabagh and Lachin into others parts of Azerbaijan, Armenia was depicted as an aggressor The United States, other Western countries and the United Nations criticized the Armenian advance. New attempts to mediate the conflict were discussed, though so far they may have as little success as the efforts by Iran and the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe in the past.

Armenia survived the bitter winter of 1992-1993 under blockade by Azerbaijan. Armenia’s supply of natural gas is carried by a pipeline running through Georgia, repeatedly blown up by Azerbaijanis living in Georgia. Many trees in Erevan, a city of parks and tree-lined avenues, were cut down to provide heat and fuel for cooking. The population was driven back to a virtually pre-modem form of life: hospitals operated without anesthesia; infant mortality and the deaths of the aged soared. Fear that epidemics might follow the spring thaw has not yet been alleviated. The prospects for next winter will be similar—unless there are successful negotiations to resolve the conflict.

Two opposing principles are at stake in Karabagh. From one side, the Armenians speak of national self-determination and advocate either the merger of Karabagh, which has an Armenian majority, with the Armenian republic, or the independence of the region from Azerbaijan. From the other, the Azerbaijanis speak of the territorial integrity of their national homeland and the inviolability of international borders.

Historical claims can be made by both sides for the territory. But the demography—the fact that Armenians have been, and are the overwhelming majority—argues that a democratic solution requires the recognition of Armenian claims to the region. Such a solution, however, also requires some degree of compromise. Neither side can achieve everything it wants; each side must have a stake in the viability of the settlement.

Besides the real threat of a wider war, involving an American ally (Turkey) and adversary (Iran), the war in Karabagh daily undermines the future of democratic politics in Armenia and Azerbaijan. Hard up against these republics, Georgia offers a warning how easily interethnic conflicts can corrupt elected leaders such as Gamsakhurdia, bring paramilitary pretenders to power, and complicate the regenerative work of mediators like Shevardnadze. While both Armenia and Azerbaijan have elected governments at the moment, each is threatened by politicians in the wings waiting for failure at the front and ready to impose more militant and authoritarian solutions.

Neither the Armenians nor the Azerbaijanis can impose a unilateral, militarily-secured hold on Karabagh without precipitating permanent warfare between these two peoples. Only a negotiated settlement, mediated and guaranteed by the United Nations and the Great Powers, can bring peace to the mountains of Transcaucasia. Russia is seen by both Armenia and Azerbaijan as an interested player in the region, rather than a disinterested mediator.

After four years of fighting it is clear that neither the original aspiration of the Armenians, to incorporate all of Mountainous Karabagh into their republic, nor the Gorbachev plan of Armenian autonomy within Azerbaijan, any longer provides a viable solution. The only feasible outcomes appear to be partition of the region along ethnic lines, with a new border between the republics, or (a far more utopian proposition) an independent Karabagh republic guaranteed by the United Nations.

If political intervention from outside does not occur, then the deadly little war will degenerate to the level of the war in Bosnia—an attempt to deport the Armenians from Karabagh and a fierce guerilla resistance—with unpredictable ripple effects.


  1. Robert D. Putnam, The Comparative Study of Political Elites (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1976), 13-194; Harold Lasswell, Daniel Lerner, and C. Easton Rothwell, The Comparative Study of Elites: An Introduction and Bibliography (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1952), 18.
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  2. Elizabeth Fuller, Is Armenia on the Brink of an Ecological Disaster?” Radio Liberty Research, RL 30761 August 5, 1986; “Armenian Authorities Appear to Yield to ‘Ecological Lobby’, ibid., RL 13(%’87, March 30, 1987 Armenian Journalist Links Air Pollution and Infant Mortality, WA, RL V5, 7, July 14, 1987 Ion Zori Balayan’s article in Literaturnaia gazeta, no. 26, June 24, 1987]; and Mass Demonstration in Armenia Against Environmental Pollution, ibid, RL42b7, October 18, 1987.
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  3. In mid-year Izvestiia attacked the Karabagh Committee as a subversive organization: Their primary aim was to seize power through destabilizing the economy and public life of Armenia Taking advantage of the fact that the previous leadership of the Armenian Communist Party Central Committee had let the initiative slip from its hands and had yielded its positions step by step, the members of the ‘committee’ created ramified organizational and political structures. ‘Karabagh sections’ are operating at virtually every enterprise, institution and educational establishment, and in a number of cases they have crushed Party organizations, councils of labor collectives, and management…. Local police are collaborating with the Committee. (Izvestiia, July 22, 1988, 6; are in CDSF, XL, 30, August 14, 1988, 16-17).
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  4. Committee leader Manucharian was released when he said that as an elected member of the Armenian Supreme Soviet he had immunity, and he immediately went into hiding.
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  5. Soon afterwards, the Armenian Communists regrouped at their Twenty-Ninth Congress in November 1990. A group of delegates that favored a completely independent Armenian CP left the Congress after losing in a vote. S. K. Poghosyan was elected First Secretary. On December 7, the party decided to remain within the CPSU and endorsed the move toward a market economy.
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  6. Among the defeated candidates the Ion-time militant Paruir Hairiklan received 7.2% of the vote; Sos Sarksian, the Dashnak candidate, 43%; and the others—Zori Balayan, Raphael Ghazarian, and Ashod Navasartian—less than 0.5% each.(The Armenian Mirror-Spectator, October 26, 1991, 1, 16).
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July-August 1993, ATC 45