The question of Karabagh started in the years of the first independent Republic of Armenia and was not solved after the South Caucasus became part of the Soviet Union. The arbitrary decision of the Caucasian Bureau of the Soviet Communist Party (July 5, 1921) to attach Karabagh to Azerbaijan only contributed to open a new Pandora’s box. Throughout the decades, the Azerbaijani discriminatory policy had the other historical Armenian region, the Autonomous Republic of Nakhichevan, as poster child: due to continuous emigration, its Armenian population went from 40% in 1926 to 2% in 1988.
It is not surprising then, that the Armenians of Mountainous Karabagh, who constituted 90% of its population in 1926, took every opportunity to address Moscow and ask for a fair solution of the issue. Various letters were sent in 1945, 1965, and 1977. The petition of 1965 was signed by 45,000 people. On its grounds, the Secretariat of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union assigned to the Central Committees of the party in Armenia and Azerbaijan the mission of preparing a proposal for the solution of the problem of Karabagh in 1966. However, Azerbaijan was able to put the brakes on any possible solution. The Azerbaijani KGB, led by Heydar Aliyev (future president in post-Soviet times) stimulated interethnic conflict. As a result, more than 150 Armenians were sent to prison, where 20 people were killed and ten others disappeared. More than a hundred families, after two years of persecution, were forced to leave Karabagh. The issue was again treated in 1977 during the discussions of the draft Soviet Constitution, but never went through.
After the proclamation of the policies of restructuring (perestroika) and transparency (glasnost) by the last Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, the movement for Karabagh entered a new phase in mid-1987. There were demonstrations and meetings, and the representatives of the autonomous region sent petitions to the party and state organs of the Soviet Union. A petition that asked for the reattachment of the autonomous region to Soviet Armenia was signed by 80,000 people.
This phase found its climax on February 20, 1988. The first secretary of the Central Committee of Azerbaijan, Kamran Baghirov; members of the Bureau of the Central Committee, and the instructor of the Soviet Communist Party, V. Yashin, arrived in Stepanakert, the capital of Mountainous Karabagh, with the intention of thwarting the extraordinary session of the Regional Council of the Nagorno (Mountainous) Karabagh Autonomous Region (NKAR), intended to pass a resolution on the issue. The visitors called for a session of the party regional committee, and the local party structure was held responsible the organization for the situation. Despite the pressure of representatives from Baku and of the first secretary of the Communist Party in Karabagh, Boris Kevorkov, the session was held on the same day and the Regional Council passed the following resolution, entitled “On a Petition to the Supreme Councils of the Azerbaijani SSR and the Armenian SSR on the NKAR’s Secession from Soviet Azerbaijan and Its Transfer to Soviet Armenia”:
After hearings and debates on a petition to the Supreme Councils of the Azerbaijani SSR and the Armenian SSR on the secession of the Nagorno Karabagh Autonomous Region from Soviet Azerbaijan and its transfer to Soviet Armenia, the special session of the Nagorno Karabagh Autonomous Oblast Regional Council of People’s Deputies have decided: “Meeting the requests of the NKAR workers, to appeal to the Supreme Councils of the Azerbaijani SSR and the Armenian SSR to show a profound understanding of the expectations of the Armenian population of Nagorno Karabagh and to resolve the issue of NKAR’s secession from the Azerbaijani SSR and its transfer to the Armenian SSR, and at the same time to submit a petition to the Supreme Council of the USSR on a positive resolution of the issue on NKAR’s secession from the Azerbaijani SSR and its transfer to the Armenian SSR.”
This document followed the legal procedures established by Soviet law and was backed by peaceful demonstrations held in Stepanakert and Yerevan in the same day. The Karabagh Movement, the “test of the perestroika,” had started. Three years later, it would end in the independence of the Republics of Armenia and Nagorno Karabagh.