By Emil Sanamyan, the article was published on Focus on Karabakh, a project of the USC Dornsife Institute of Armenian Studies
#KARABAKHMOVEMENT30 – The start of the Karabakh movement is typically dated to February 20, 1988, when Nagorno Karabakh’s regional council adopted a formal appeal to Moscow, Baku and Yerevan to re-assign the Oblast from Soviet Azerbaijan to Soviet Armenia. To be sure, that appeal proved highly consequential. However, it also had important prehistory.
An Oblast in contention
The establishment of the Nagorno Karabakh Autonomous Oblast (NKAO) inside the Azerbaijani Soviet Socialist Republic on July 7, 1923 was a compromise decision that was controversial for both local Armenians and Azerbaijanis and the political leaders of both Soviet republics. There was a lack of precedent or clarity on how an autonomous arrangement would work or even where exactly the autonomy’s borders would be drawn. Like much of the rest of the interior of the totalitarian Soviet Union, Karabakh remained mostly peaceful for the next sixty years, but the matter of its status did not go away and tensions occasionally resurfaced.
In late 1940s, reflecting the dispute’s persistence, Soviet Armenian leader Grigoriy Arutinov asked Stalin to consider including NKAO inside Armenia, Stalin’s feedback was not positive. Prominent Soviet Armenian and NKAO figures raised the matter with Khrushchev and Brezhnev as well, but were again rebuffed. The more persistent activists were banished from the Oblast and its ties to Armenia were restricted by Azerbaijan, particularly with the 1973 appointment of Boris Kevorkov as leader of the NKAO.
With the rise of Mikhail Gorbachev to political power and his policies of reform and transparency, the Soviet Union entered a period of public activism that previous Soviet leaders did not tolerate. In 1986 and 1987, there were unprecedented unofficial demonstrations throughout the Union, with activists seeking government’s attention to various historical and contemporary grievances.
In July 1987, Crimean Tatar activists staged three days of protests in the Red Square demanding state permission for their return to Crimea from where in 1944 the entire Tatar population was deported to Central Asia. As a result of these protests, Crimean Tatar leaders were received by senior Soviet officials Pyotr Demichev and Vyacheslav Mikhailov and the Soviet government agreed to set up a commission to consider the Crimean Tatar issue.
The three delegations
Karabakh Armenian activists saw the relative success of the Crimean Tatars as a key precedent. Just weeks later, a signature collection began in NKAO and Armenia under an appeal to the Soviet government to consider Karabakh’s reunification with Armenia. From December 1987 to February 1988 three Karabakh Armenian delegations went to Moscow, armed with the appeal and tens of thousands of signatures representing a majority of NKAO’s population.
The first delegation was in Moscow on December 1, handing their appeal to the head of public reception office of the Central Committee of the Communist Party. Soon the activists learned that their appeal did not go past the receptionist and a second delegation was put together. One of its 13 delegates, school teacher Jamil Martirosyan, shared the trip details in a 2006 interview with Stepanakert newspaper Azat Artsakh:
“We left separately for Yerevan, where we were joined by Igor Muradyan… [On January 5, 1988] we took separate flights to Moscow.. The first night we stayed in dorms with Armenian students then studying in Moscow. Then [writer] Zoriy Balayan and [doctor Valery] Marutyan helped us with hotel accommodations.”
In addition to Martirosyan from Noragyugh, “the delegation included Serzh Arushanyan, Khristophor Khachatryan and Arkady Karapetyan from Stepanakert, Artur Mkrtchyan from Hadrut, Robert Balayan from Togh, Vazgen Balayan from Sos, Armo Arustamyan and Yuri Grigoryan from Gishi, Gurgen Shahramanyan and Gevorg Saghyan from Martuni and Radik Asryan and Slavik Arushanyan from Askeran.”
Pyotr Demichev, the Politburo member and deputy head of the presidium of the Soviet Supreme Council who had received Crimean Tatars six months earlier, agreed to receive one of the delegates, Vazgen Balayan, because he was a member of the Supreme Council on behalf of the NKAO. But, since Balayan was not very fluent in Russian, director of the Hadrut museum, Artur Mkrtchyan, was allowed to join as well. (Five years later, Mkrtchyan was elected to lead the Nagorno Karabakh Republic.)
Mkrtchyan came out of the meeting hopeful that Politburo would not dismiss the Karabakh Armenian petition without giving it some consideration. More importantly, Soviet officials also promised to protect the Karabakh delegates from being branded as nationalist agitators and punished for their activism.
Upon their return to Karabakh, on the demand of Soviet Azerbaijani leaders, the delegates were called in for “conversations” with local Communist officials and the KGB. But, unlike in the past, there were no harsher measures and no one was fired from work or expelled from NKAO. Public support for the Karabakh Armenian cause continued to build.