Vol. 5, No. 14 (July 15, 2012)

Armenians sought control of NKAO 45 times during Soviet period

Paul Goble
Publications Advisor
Azerbaijan Diplomatic Academy

Prior to the outbreak of violence in 1988, Armenian nationalists unsuccessfully asked Moscow to transfer Nagorno-Karabakh from the Azerbaijan SSR to the Armenian SSR 45 times, an indication that the so-called Karabakh movement did not arise out of nothing.  Indeed, from the late 1960s on, Armenian officials and literary figures cited Soviet policy decisions elsewhere in support of their case.  However, only under Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev did the Armenians receive promises that their claims would be seriously considered.  And even then, Azerbaijani historians point out, most Soviet officials opposed the Armenian demands even if they were increasingly unwilling or unable to quash them. [1] 

Although Armenian SSR leaders had sought the transfer of Nagorno-Karabakh from Azerbaijani to Armenian control in the 1920s and in the years after World War II, they increased their efforts in this regard at the end of the 1960s and subsequently, sometimes violating the union republic borders in an effort to create a fait accompli and sometimes invoking Moscow’s decisions elsewhere as precedent.  In 1968, for example, Armenian officials encouraged collective farmers in the Shamshadin district of the Armenian SSR to encroach on the territory of the Gadabay district of Azerbaijan by driving their herds into Azerbaijani territory and engaging in construction work at the border that destroyed Azerbaijani farms. [2]

The threat that this very local conflict would escalate ultimately forced Moscow to intervene, with the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union adopting a decision on June 23, 1968, calling on the Azerbaijani and Armenian leadership to address the issue without changing the borders.  That forced the Armenian side to back down and pull its collective farmers away from the union republic border as established in 1928.  One outcome of this was that the Supreme Soviet of the Azerbaijan SSR on May 7, 1969, called for the preparation of a new and more accurate map at the scale of 1:25,000 showing with great precision where the border was.

That was done, but the borders so designated infuriated collective farmers in the Gadabay district of Azerbaijan who argued that the new line had deprived them of lands they had been using and who noted that the Armenian collective farmers in the Shamshadin district of Armenia were building facilities 500 to 700 meters from the Azerbaijani village.  Even if this construction was on the Armenian side of the border, the Azerbaijani collective farmers pointed out, it was leading to the cascading of stones from the explosions into Azerbaijan and affecting their production.

Armenian officials both in Shamshadin and Yerevan ignored this protest, and as a result, 41 Azerbaijani collective farmers travelled to Moscow to make their case to Soviet officials in June 1969.  With the assistance of the permanent plenipotentiary representative of the Azerbaijan SSR in Moscow, E. Huseynov, the group sought to meet CPSU General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev and Soviet Prime Minister Aleksey Kosygin.  In the event, they were received by A.I. Kiselev, an official of the organizational department of the CPSU Central Committee. 

The Azerbaijanis told Kiselev that the Armenian collective farmer continued to inflict “great harm” to their homes and fields and were in fact seeking to force the Azerbaijanis “to resettle to another place.”  They added that they “did not understand why [they] should be forced to leave their homes, gardens, and the graves of [their] ancestors and move.  Because that was not required [from them] even in tsarist times.”  The Azerbaijani collective farmers suggested that the Communist Party leadership of the Armenian republic stood behind the actions of the Armenian collective farmers, and they added that the local party secretary had even “organized an armed attack” against themselves.  Kiselev responded by saying that the CPSU Central Committee would tell the Communist Party leaders of Armenia and Azerbaijan to put an end to such tactics.

The result of this was that the Central Committees of the Communist Party in Azerbaijan and Armenia adopted a decision, together with the USSR Ministry of Agriculture, calling for Armenian collective farmers to refrain from using land near the border lest such exploitation lead to further “undesirable incidents.”  Yerevan conceded this point in a decision of the Council of Ministers of the Armenian SSR on December 26, 1969.

Although that decision ended this local conflict along the Armenia-Azerbaijani border, Armenian leaders three years later resumed their campaign to have Moscow transfer Nagorno-Karabakh from Azerbaijan to Armenia.  In early 1972, for example, representatives of the Armenian intelligentsia send a letter to Leonid Brezhnev calling for “a small change of republic borders” involving the transfer of Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia.  The authors of this appeal invoked not only the successful “friendship of the peoples” of Soviet times, but more specifically border changes between the Uzbek SSR and the Kyrgyz SSR and the Uzbek SSR and the Tajik SSR that Moscow had just approved.

More such letters followed in 1972 and 1973, all designed, Azerbaijani historians say, “to discredit in the eyes of the center the party leadership of the republic and to take Nagorno-Karabakh away from Azerbaijan.”  The chief consequence of this appears to be that Guren Melkumyan, who had been the first secretary of the Nagorno-Karabakh oblast party committee, was replaced by Boris Kevorkov, an ethnic Armenian, but—unlike Melkumyan and all his predecessors—not “from either Karabakh or Armenia.” 

In a March 1973 speech, Kevorkov signaled that he would oppose any examples of “bourgeois nationalism” and specifically calls by Armenians for transferring Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia.  He continued this policy until he was removed in February 1988 when the Karabakh conflict entered its violent phase.  Kevorkov’s forthright position, however, sparked even more Armenian appeals to Moscow in this regard, appeals that were in every case turned down flat by Soviet and Communist leaders until Mikhail Gorbachev came to power and promised “to review” the Karabakh question.

That shift in the Soviet center encouraged the Armenian side to ever greater radicalism and led to the violence whose consequences continue to inflict suffering on the Azerbaijani people and indeed the entire region.


[1] See http://news.day.az/politics/341240.html (accessed 14 July 2012).

[2] See http://news.day.az/politics/342633.html (accessed 14 July 2012).