BY RAZMIG SARKISSIAN AND ALIK OURFALIAN
The Artsakh movement was born thirty years ago. A movement grounded in the ever-present notions of justice and fairness, what was rightful and necessary. A people, exercising their basic human rights, the right of self-determination, to freely determine their political status and pursue their economic, social, and cultural development.
On February 13, 1988, the people of Artsakh gathered for a rally in Stepanakert. What precipitated quickly after that would lead to the liberation of Artsakh after what had been nearly 70 years of forced Soviet and Azeri rule.
The South Caucasus, which had been under some form of imperial rule by Russia, Turkey, or Persia since the 14th century, experienced a power vacuum after the First World War.
After Armenia, and with it, Artsakh, became Sovietized in 1920, the Caucasian Bureau of the Soviet Communist party decided to include Artsakh within Azerbaijan’s territory, partly because Moscow was careful not to upset Turkey, a possible strategic ally. In theory, part of Artsakh’s territory, dubbed the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast, was to be self-governing. But the people of Artsakh were nevertheless subject to Azeri oppression. A region inhabited by an overwhelming 95 percent Armenian population, taken from Armenia, given to Azerbaijan. Just like that.
The conflict was left in a semi-dormant state until Mikhail Gorbachev came into power in the late 1980s, and brought the policy of perestroika along with him. Perestroika promised the liberalization of Soviet society and a more democratic method of decision making. Traditionally, the tightly-controlled state media and strong centralization of power left little room for the population to demonstrate any unrest or agitate any disputes. As Marina Kurkchiyan, author of “The Karabagh Conflict” explains it, the introduction of this policy “provoked spontaneous political activity on a scale never seen before in the USSR, and the resulting mass demonstrations – notably in Armenia – created opportunities for new organized movements to form.”
The gripping fiction that the belligerent Armenians took Azerbaijani land, a notion much of the world has held onto for thirty years, is far from the reality of the situation.
Thirty years ago, the people of Artsakh rose and peacefully demanded reunification with Armenia, continuing to go through the proper procedures under Soviet law. Armenians in Artsakh and Soviet Armenia became politically mobilized with a new wave of efforts to reunite the two Armenian populations. In January 1988, Armenians on both sides of the border signed a petition of about 80,000 signatures and sent it to Moscow requesting the transfer of Artsakh to Soviet Armenia. A number of demonstrations were held in Yerevan, the capital city of Armenia, and Karabakh throughout February 1988, notably on February 13.
This was followed by a period of violence, pogroms, massacres aimed at Armenians who dared assert their rights. Azeris sought to cleanse their country of Armenians.
This same narrative had dawned on Nakhichevan. For Armenians, this patterned was all too familiar. When Stalin handed Nakhichevan to Azerbaijan in 1921, 75 percent of the population was Armenian. By the 1980s, Azeris had eradicated the region of its native Armenian population. There were no Armenians left in Nakhichevan to fight for it.
We would not let this be the fate of Artsakh.
When Azerbaijan declared its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, the people of Artsakh lawfully declined to be a part of the newly-independent Azerbaijan. A few months later, the people of Artsakh almost-unanimously voted for independence. This was all legal under the Soviet Constitution.
But Azerbaijan refused to comply and, instead, turned to more violence. But the people of Artsakh stood their ground. Armenians from all over the world joined in.
It seemed like an impossible feat: a tiny, landlocked, blockaded region, standing up against a giant.
But does our history know anything but resilience and resistance in the face of invading enemies? Our freedom fighters, knowing the terrain of the homelands better than the invading Azeri mercenaries and forces, and fighting for the very being of our people, were able to fight off the Azeris and liberate part of Artsakh.
Yet the rest of the world clung to the arbitrary borders drawn by Stalin around the centuries’-old Armenian land, as Azerbaijan called to preserve its supposed “territorial integrity.” The United Nations called on Armenians to turn over the “occupied territories of Azerbaijan.” The world only cared about politics. Countries only cared about their own interests.
Nobody seemed to care about the people or what was fair to them. Because if anyone cared about fairness, it would be plain to see that this was all unfair. The land that was home to a people for centuries was arbitrarily taken and given to others. It was subject to foreign rule and oppression for decades. Until thirty years ago, when the people stood up for their very existence.
Since an international ceasefire was signed in 1994, the Minsk Group of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) has been the primary mediator to the conflict. Currently co-chaired by the United States, France, and Russia, the Minsk Group has been fruitlessly attempting to forge a peace deal between the conflicting parties up until present day. Individual countries continue to push their own interests, Russia continues to sell weapons to both sides of the conflict, and the OSCE continues to respond with empty words of “dialogue” to growing Azeri threats of more violence.
As an old proverb states, our only friends are the mountains. Although we must certainly continue our appeals to the international community to recognize Artsakh and its people’s right of self-determination, although we must maintain our commitment to peace in the face of Azeri threats of aggression, we must never be naive nor forget that when all else fails, no one will hand us our liberation. Liberation will come to those who create the necessary conditions themselves, as we saw in Arstakh.
Today, whether from the front lines where men and women younger than most of us defend our homeland from countless Azeri invasion attempts, or from around the world on the international arena, each of us must personally take on the responsibility to push the cause of the people of Arstakh.
Thanks to the countless heroes who gave their lives to liberate Artsakh, and the ones who continue to give their lives to keep Artsakh safe today. We have a free and independent Artsakh Republic because 30 years ago, the people demanded their right of self-determination. The people, by taking their destiny into their own hands, made the impossible, possible. Let’s not take that for granted. Let’s not let that die in vain.