Nagorno Karabakh – The Road To Independence

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An Assassination Attempt on Polyanichko

TASS journalist Vladimir Gondusov hurried from the second floor of the NK regional committee building up to the third. Doctors were already bandaging Vladimir Polyanichko’s head. “I remember his words, ‘be sure to write that this is the second assassination attempt,’” recalls the journalist.

On May 10, 1991, a rocket was launched from the Stepanakert stadium towards the Regional Council building. Polyanichko was miraculously saved. The Armenians had many reasons for displaying such hostility towards him and to Commandant Safonov as well.

Polyanchikov was building the town of Khojalu for the Azerbaijanis and Meskhetian Turks and resettling Krkzhan, a suburb of Stepanakert, with Azerbaijanis. “We were stoning each other during the time of Volsky; during Polyanichko’s time, we started shooting each other. I remember that during a funeral in Shushi he urged us to take revenge on the Armenians,” says Ramil Ghambarov, an Azerbaijani from Shushi. The “Ring Operation” which Polyanichko had used for the first time in the city of Kandahar in Afghanistan, was reworked anew in NK. They gave the Armenians the opportunity to flee from the bombed villages, and Soviet TV station broadcast interviews of those who had been driven out, thanking the Soviet army for saving their lives.

During 1990-1991, NK had an Azerbaijani population of around 40,000, mostly centered in Shushi, Khojalu and several villages. They supported the activities of the Organizational Committee. The situation was different for the Armenian population.

In 1990, Rauf Rajabov headed a group of around ten experts that was established in NK and prepared reports for the leadership of the Organizational Committee and the central authorities in Baku. “Two buildings were side by side – Polyanichko, in the Regional Council building and the Armenians, in the Regional Executive Committee building. But there was no cooperation between them. There was a certain amount of cooperation between the Organizational Committee and the regions and villages. It was important to solve the many issues of the villages, right? It would have been more correct if the Organizational Committee had worked with the local Armenian leadership than with Moscow,” says Rajabov.

The actions of Polyanichko’s Organizational Committee and the “Ring Operation” were a forceful blow to the Karabakh movement. The first cracks in Movement’s ranks began in the spring and summer months. A segment of intellectuals and officials in NK, seeking a way out of the hellish situation, proposed coming to terms with the Azerbaijanis, thus saving NK from being cleared of Armenians altogether. Another group considered that any compromise was equivalent to betrayal. A third group held a central position of negotiating with the authorities in order to gain time.

A large group of activists in the Movement had previously decided to send a letter to Moscow, appealing for the cessation of the “Ring Operation”. The letter was supposed to have been delivered to Moscow in June. Delegation member Levon Melik-Shahnazaryan recounts: “The essence of the letter was that whatever we have done was wrong and that we apologize. Cease the massacre of Armenians and we will agree to your political decision. I angrily addressed the meeting, arguing that sending such a letter meant betraying not only NK, but all Armenians. It meant surrendering, and those who surrender are defeated to the very end. I suggested two modifications which changed the substance of the letter. The letter was sent. The delegation met with Ter-Petrosyan before it left for Moscow.”

On May 23, at the joint meeting of NK officials, Semyon Babayan offered an assessment of the situation created in the region. Afterwards, the participants discussed whether to immediately start negotiations with the Organizational Committee or to completely break all forms of ties with Azerbaijan. Henrikh Poghosyan noted that waging armed resistance against Azerbaijan and the Kremlin was not in the cards since the balance of forces was unequal and Armenia could not offer military assistance. He suggested choosing the route of negotiation. The leaders of the Askeran, Hadrut and Martakert regions naturally approved this proposal. Robert Kocharyan’s position was that Baku would, without doubt, consider the consent to negotiation with Azerbaijan, as a sign of surrender. The first thing that Azerbaijan would do is to demand that the NK void is previous political decisions and announcement. Was the population of NK in agreement? Kocharyan stressed that the idea of negotiations should be approached carefully and not be made into a public spectacle. Arkady Manucharov considered the proposal of entering into negotiations acceptable, in principle. However, he considered it necessary to first of all decide on the framework of the issues and only negotiate on those issues. Dashnaktsutytun representative Georgy Petrosyan did not support the idea of negotiations arguing that there was no guarantee that the Kremlin would soften its stance as a result.

The delegation that left for Moscow on June 24 was received by USSR Vice President Yanayev, Chairman of the Supreme Council Lukyanov, Defense Minister Yazov, Interior Minister Pugo and former Foreign Minister Shevardnadze. Apart from Shevardnadze, the others were well-known putschists who were preparing a coup d’état.

“Poghosyan was the head of the delegation. Our first meeting was with Yanayev. During the meeting with Pugo, Poghosyan appealed for the cessation of the operation against the Armenians,” says Melik-Shahnazaryan. “I spoke unflinchingly; I was nervous, scared. The point I was making was that, ‘we declare war on you.’ I repeated several times, ‘we declare war on you’, but I was in a trance. That was no longer diplomacy, but it was the right diplomacy for the moment.”

Gorbachev lifted the state of emergency on July 4, 1991, declaring that the situation in and around NK was returning to normal. A few days later, soldiers of the 23rd Division of the Soviet Fourth Army and Azerbaijan OMON units surrounded the Armenian villages of Buzlukh, Erkej and Manashid in the Shahumyan region. On July 13-14 these forced went in and occupied them.

A regional council meeting took place on July 19. Oleg Yesayan participated in that meeting. “The question remained – to accept Baku’s proposal and participate in the presidential elections, or not? Going to Baku for negotiations was proposed by Moscow. We discussed it and rejected the proposal to participate in the elections, but a decision to send a delegation to Baku was approved,” he said. “That was necessary to gain time. Leonard Petrosyan, Georgy Petrosyan, I and many others took part in the discussion. The political leaders of the Movement, including Serzh Sargsyan and Robert Kocharyan, were aware of this decision. It was decided to send a delegation, with the aim of gaining time and avoiding extreme measures. I was not against the delegation visiting Baku to gain time and to avoid further pressures, but I was against being in the actual delegation.”

Georgy Petrosyan was definitely against the proposal for negotiations with Baku. “In 1988, when the Karabakh Movement began, it had taken on the issue of rights repressed and restricted in the totalitarian state. Peacefully, via the Movement, we began to restore those rights back to life. The response to our efforts was Sumgait. The issue of rights was transferred to the arena of inter-ethnic clashes,” Petrosyan said. “I was against Baku deciding the issue of our rights. Not because one doesn’t want to have contact with Baku. The issue is whether or not we are going to hand over the issue of our rights to someone else. Should we go to Baku and say that we agree to them interfering in our internal life?”

Boris Arushanyan placed importance on the factor of rights. “Azerbaijan, with the help of Moscow, wanted to bring NK to its knees and, by emptying certain regions of NK, force us to remain within Azerbaijan in the form of an enclave,” he said. “One portion of our intellectuals felt that we should accept those compromises in order to save at least a tiny part. Others, including myself, held an extreme position. We were sure that no compromise to Azerbaijan would have any results. There was a third group who held a central position. They thought about gaining time. Those in the delegation to Baku were from that group. Of course those people did not savor the prospect of remaining a part of Azerbaijan, but they believed they could gain time.”

Approval was given for the NK delegation to visit Baku and negotiate with Mutalibov. It came after three days of heated debate in an Armenian parliament session and also with the intervention of Ter-Petrosyan. The delegation met with Mutalibov in Baku on July 20 and its members assured him that NK was prepared to negotiate “on the basis of the USSR and Azerbaijan Constitutions” and that it wanted to discuss a timetable for new NK elections. According to Zori Balayan, “Today, no one has the right to criticize the decision of the NK that was also approved by the Supreme Council of Armenia on July 16. They don’t have the right if only because one doesn’t judge winners. One of the participants of the delegation, Valery Grigoryan, was killed. He was killed on the way back to Stepanakert from Baku. Many did not know that this law-abiding man tragically became a victim of Polyanichko’s carefully developed campaign. To inflame passions, Polyanichko publicly praised the participants of the meeting in Baku, particularly Valery. He coldly calculated that this one patriot would receive ‘his sentence’.”

In the summer of 1999, Zhanna Galstyan, one of the activists of the Karabakh Movement, told Swedish researcher Erik Melander, “We would have threatened the life of anyone who signed such a document – a document that was invalid because neither we nor the people could have tolerated it. The person would simply have been shot, even if the individual was a close friend of ours.”

According to Melik-Shahnazaryan, there were no groups in NK that cooperated with Polyanchiko. But there were individuals that did and Valery Grigoryan was one. “That delegation heading to Baku in 1991 was breaking the nation’s backbone. I think that killing was necessary. I will say even more. Leonard Petrosyan, who was heading the delegation to Baku asked, ‘I’m not on the list, am I?’ Targeting Valery was not random. It was not only for his going to Baku, but for a series of other steps also.”

Grigoryan was killed on August 10, in Stepanakert on present-day Azatamartikneri Street. 18 bullets were fired at Grigoryan; 11 struck his chest and came out and 7 remained in his body. 5 of the bullets were sent to Baku for forensic examination. The attempt to cover up the crime by sending the case to the Baku was a clever, but also cynical and shameful, ploy.

Valery’s son, Arthur Grigoryan, a twice injured veteran of the Karabakh conflict, believes the murder of his father was political. “Presently, the criminal case has been curtailed since the identity of the perpetrators of the crime has not been discovered.” Arthur talked to many people and tried to gather information as to why his father was killed. All of them said that now is not the right time for that.

“Valery was in favor of a peaceful resolution to the NK issue. Two days prior to the killing, there was a meeting of regional leaders. He was disillusioned with some of the leaders,” says Arega Hayrapetyan, Valery’s wife. “Groups had developed, each wanting to advance its own concept they thought to be the right solution. My husband’s murder was the first political killing in NK. The second was that of Arthur Mkrtchyan. At one time, Volsky proposed that Valery go with him to Moscow. If he had gone, he would still be alive today and he would have helped NK. We have not come to our senses since Valery’s murder.”

Gorbachev: “I Returned to Another Country”

The unsuccessful coup d’état of 1991 accelerated the demise of the Soviet state. The Armenian and Azerbaijani authorities registered the events of August 19-21 differently. Ter-Petrosyan and the ruling ANM rejected the authority of the State Emergency Committee (SEC). Mutalibov and Polyanichko publicly declared their support, anticipating that the power-seeking hard-liners in Moscow would take a firmer line on the NK issue – to the advantage of Azerbaijan – which would give them the opportunity to finally destroy the Karabakh movement.

On October 19, Mutalibov was in Iran. Upon hearing the news about the Moscow coup, the leader of Azerbaijan declared solidarity with the rebels. Leaders of several countries – Saddam Hussein, Yasser Arafat, Muammar Gaddafi, and Slobodan Milosevic – did the same.

Mutalibov’s advisor, Vafa Guluzade, writes that he had requested that Mutalibov refrain from commenting on the events in Moscow. “We left for Tabriz. The Iranian side persuaded Mutalibov to give an interview, next to the Shahriyar’s monument, on purely cultural issues. We were standing a little to one side. The journalists asked one or two questions about culture. The next was about the coup d’état. Mutalibov expressed his support and criticized Gorbachev. I was in a state of shock. Then Polyanichko phoned, saying “Hurrah, our guys have taken it.” Mutalibov said, “I told you so, didn’t I, Vafa, the military hasn’t had its say.” When we returned to Baku, the coup d’état had failed.”

On April 23, 1991, in Novo-Ogaryovo, Gorbachev had met with the leaders of nine republics and declared the launch of the draft Union Treaty. The six republics, including Armenia, which had refused to take part in the referendum on maintaining the USSR in its old form, had not been invited. Ter-Petrosyan was in France during the second meeting on May 24 and did not participate in the third meeting which took place on June 2, in protest against the position held by Moscow on the NK issue.

Armenia participated in the last of the Novo-Ogaryovo meetings on July 23. Ter-Petrosyan emphasized that Armenia was striving for independence but that the referendum to be held on September 21 would express the people’s will. There were those who supported remaining within the renewed union’s structure. These were according to Ter-Petrosyan, “the Communist Party, Dashnaktsutyun, and some units of Karabakh-born Armenians who reside in Armenia.” “They declare that Armenia must sign the Union agreement; so that it has a chance to resolve the NK reunification issue. And the residents of that territory have approved a decision on May 16 to play the discussion and negotiation card with Azerbaijan. The first delegation, led by [Leonard] Petrosyan, head of the NK Executive Committee, has returned from Baku where Mutalibov has presented his program. The Armenian Parliament voted on June 16 approving that initiative.”

The text of the Union treaty was published in the press on August 16 and was to have been signed four days later. Since the beginning of August, Gorbachev had been vacationing at the Foros dacha in the Crimea. Kryuchkov assigned KGB Generals Alexei Yegorov and Vyacheslav Zhizhin and Commander of the Armed forces, Pavel Grachov, to draw up a list of measures to be taken in a state of emergency. On the morning of the coup, Kryuchkov informed the leadership of the KGB that, “restructuring is terminated”. Radio and television programs begin with a reading of the State Emergency Committee’s message.

Tatyana Dyachenko woke her father up. “They are showing something unintelligible on the TV.” Shortly after, several self-proclaimed democratic figures gathered in Yeltsin’s dacha. Yeltsin attempted in vain to contact Gorbachev and Yanayev. He’s able to contact Grachov. Putting the earpiece down, Yeltsin says, “Grachov is ours.” Troops start to move towards Moscow. Almost 4,000 soldiers and 800 tanks and armored vehicles enter the capital city. During a KGB debate, Kryuchkov expressed his hope that it will be possible to come to an agreement with Yeltsin.

A meeting in support of democracy and Yeltsin, who had been elected President of Russia on June 12, gathers steam by the statue of Yuri Dolgorukii. Yeltsin, in a telephone conversation with Kryuchkov, refuses to recognize the SEC. Then he calls on his supporters from the turret of a tank from the Tamanyan division, proclaiming the SEC illegal and labels the event a coup d’état.

Generals Achalov, Grushko, Adeyev, Gromov and Lebed, are preparing an attack on the White House, which was being defended by several thousand people. Three individuals are killed on the night of August 21. Achalov reports to Yazov, “Blood has been spilled”, to which Yazov replies, “Halt the attack”. On the same day, the SEC delegation goes to the Crimea, but Gorbachev refuses to see them, including Kryuchkov and Lukyanov. Gorbachev demands the immediate restoration of communications with the outside world. He calls Moscow and declares, “The situation is completely under control.”

Gorbachev travels to Moscow on the evening of August 22 on Alexander Rutskoy’s plane. The coup leaders travel on another. In Moscow, Kryuchkov and Yazov are arrested on the airport runway. Yanayev is arrested in his office. Pugo and his wife commit suicide. Then Pavlov, Starodubtsev, Lukyanov, and the other rebels, are arrested. In a session of the Supreme Council of Russia, Yeltsin signs the order for the disbanding of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.

Gorbachev, in his first press conference after the rebellion, makes his well-known comment, “I returned to another country.” He awarded posthumous Hero of the Union medals to three defenders of the White House – Dmitrii Komar, Vladimir Usov and Ilya Krychevski. The three defenders of the White House were the last heroes of the Soviet Union.

Independence Parade

On August 30, 1991, the Supreme Council in Baku approved the “Reestablishment of the State Independence of Azerbaijan” proclamation. There was no mention made of the two autonomous entities; NK and Nakhijevan. In the proclamation it notes that Azerbaijan was a “free, internationally recognized state” from 1918-1920.

If the proclamation applied to the 1918-1920 Democratic Republic of Azerbaijan’s borders, about which the proclamation makes no direct mention, then both NK and Nakhijevan were included later, in 1921 when the Musavatist Azerbaijan no longer existed. The proclamation did not refer to Soviet Azerbaijan (within whose structure NK and Nakhijevan existed). No such reference exists in the text. On the other hand, as was the case with all Soviet republics, they were internationally recognized having those borders with which they formed part of the Soviet Union.

On September 2, a joint meeting of the Regional Councils of NK and Shahumyan took place in Stepanakert. A declaration concerning the borders of NK and Shahumyan is approved, based on the law “Concerning the procedure of secession of a Soviet Republic from the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics,” which was passed by the USSR Supreme Council on April 3, 1990.

The crux of that law was the concept of a referendum for secession from the USSR. If a republic of the union wished to secede from the USSR, which was permitted in the Article 72 of the Constitution, the procedure was a referendum, a public vote. The decision to hold a referendum is taken by the Supreme Council of the republic of the union, either on its own initiative or based on the demand of a ‘yes’ vote by 10 percent of eligible voters in the population of the republic.

In a proclamation, the regional council and its executive committee are regarded as the temporary state authority and supreme governing body in NK until new elections and the formation of a new authority and governing structure. Leonard Petrosyan is elected President of the Executive Committee of NK.

Ter-Petrosyan was in Moscow on September 3. Regarding the Declaration of Independence of NK he stated, “Nothing will change from the legal point of view, since similar decisions have been taken over the past three years. But it is of political significance. In the list of enormous issues for the USSR, the Artsakh [Karabakh] issue becomes timely since there are moves afoot to find some temporary solution to the Artsakh issue for the Armenians, the Azerbaijanis and the Artsakh-Armenians. Yeltsin and Nazarbayev have presented such an initiative.”

On September 8, Mutalibov is elected president of Azerbaijan by 98.5 percent in an election boycotted by the Popular Front. In NK, 12 percent of the population (exclusively Azerbaijanis) participated in the election. Mutalibov signs the “Constitutional Act of State Independence of Azerbaijan” on October 18, in which the foundation of the state, political and economic structure of independent Azerbaijan is set. In this document, it clearly states that Azerbaijan is the legal successor to the 1918-1920 Musavatist Azerbaijan Republic. It declares that the document of December 30, 1922, on the formation of the USSR, is annulled in respect to Azerbaijan.

Armenia, in contrast to Azerbaijan and NK, had already adopted a declaration on August 23, 1990. On September 21 of the following year, the referendum on independence had taken place in Armenia. around 94.5 percent of those eligible to vote had participated and over 99 percent said ‘yes’ to the dream of the Armenian people of having a free, sovereign state.

The referendum took place – as do all of Armenia’s future elections – only in the territory of Soviet Armenia which meant that in essence the 1989, December 1st decision by the joint Supreme Council of Armenia and NK National Council meeting for reunification was considered null and void. Later in 1998, the President of Armenia, during an early election, used that decision for political purposes, to wit, selectively.

This chapter is from Tatul Hakobyan’s book – KARABAKH DIARY; GREEN and BLACK