Self Determination; or, who's whispering to the Armenians?

Marx didn't expect this!

By Metta Spencer | 1990-06-01 12:00:00

History has not turned out as Marx expected. For one thing, he saw it as a story of class struggles. He was wrong. Classes rarely fight; it's ethnic communities that do that. Nothing that Gorbachev learned from Marx prepared him for liberation struggles by national groups against a communist empire.

Nationalism is the most powerful social adhesive of our epoch-and also the most powerful social explosive. Its claims are bolstered by Article 2 of the United Nations Charter, which recognizes the principle of self-determination of "peoples." What exactly is self-determination? And what is a "people"? Canadians, Lithuanians, and Armenians, as "peoples," are all entitled to self-determination. However, such rights are not equally attainable in the three cases. The Armenian situation is especially difficult.

Armenian Nationalism

Some 1.5 million Armenians were massacred by Turks in 1915, and the Turks have never acknowledged guilt or offered reparations. Armenian/Turkish animosity remains unresolved, primarily because Armenians remain scattered throughout the world, while their lands are under the control of their ancient enemies. Still, much of the conflict between the two groups has been repressed by the Soviet Union, of which Armenia is a republic.

Armenia adjoins Azerbaijan, a republic populated mainly by a Turkish Muslim people, the Azeris. However, until recently some 400,000 Armenians also lived in Azerbaijan-mainly in the capital city, Baku-plus another 127,000 in a 4,000 square kilometer enclave, Nagorno-Karabakh.

Geographically separated from Armenia by a mountainous region populated by Kurds, Karabakh was prevented even under the Czar from uniting with Armenia. In 1921, against the wishes of its inhabitants (over 90 percent of whom were Christian Armenians) Karabakh was allocated by the Soviet government to Azerbaijan. It has since been governed as an "Autonomous Oblast" under two layers of government-its own and that of Azerbaijan. This system was meant to protect the rights of Karabakh's Armenians. In practice, however, according to Christopher J. Walker (London Times, Jan. 23), human rights and democracy have been ignored. The Karabakh people have been educated as Azeri Turks and deprived of medical facilities, roads, agricultural development, and books in their own language.

In February of 1988, unknown to their fellow Armenians in Armenia, the people of Karabakh put perestroika into action, as they thought, by non-violently demanding to be united with Armenia. Within days Azeri mobs responded with a pogrom against Armenians in Sumgait, a town in Azerbaijan. According to official reports, 32 Armenians were killed; unofficial estimates put the total well into the hundreds. A wave of refugees fled to Armenia.

Moscow intervened only tardily to stop the violence. When in November, 1988 the Soviet Supreme Court condemned one man to death for his role in the pogrom, Azeris in Baku reacted violently. The military had to evacuate women and children by helicopter and truck. In a month 140,000 Armenians fled from their ancestral homes in Azerbaijan to Armenia or Karabakh. Further pogroms in January 1990 forced almost all the remaining Armenians in Baku to flee to Armenia.

In November, 1989, the Armenian National Movement held a congress in the republic's capital, Yerevan. It adopted a constitution aiming toward democratic rule in Armenia and calling for unification with Karabakh.

The situation in Armenia is desperate. The December 1988 earthquake had already left 500,000 Armenians homeless prior to the refugee influx from Azerbaijan. Today, according to human rights activist Elena Bonner, a third of Armenia's population of three million is homeless. Few of the refugees have found employment there.

Worse yet, in the summer of 1988, the newly-created Azerbaijani Popular Front, demanding full Azerbaijani sovereignty over Karabakh, began blockading the main railroad to Armenia and Karabakh, subjecting the population to grave shortages. Armenia is supplied to a limited extent by another railway from Georgia, but Karabakh now must depend wholly on irregular shipments of supplies by helicopter and plane.

In January, 1990, Soviet authorities imposed a state of emergency in an attempt to break the blockade. This decree suspended rights of assembly, association, travel, and freedom of speech. Strikes are banned, and a curfew is imposed. The local government in Karabakh has been disbanded and military authorities, under Azerbaijani control, have the right to commandeer residences, draft civilians, confiscate private property, effect temporary evacuations, and expel refugees. Armenians fear that it is only a matter of time before all Armenians are deported from their ancestral lands in Karabakh. Nevertheless, the state of emergency has failed to break the blockade, as it was imposed to do.

President Gorbachev rejects changing any political boundaries within the Soviet Union on the grounds that doing so would likely result in civil war. However, Armenians are perplexed by Moscow's seeming reluctance to defend them. At first they appealed for military protection, but the army did not come until most refugees had already fled, and even then it did little to restrain the Azeri mobs. In some places the army watched without interfering while Azeris attacked Armenians. Pogroms remain unpunished.

A Dialogue: Armenia's Plight

Dr. Rafael Kazaryan is Vice President of the Armenian Supreme Soviet. This eminent physicist has held that job only since February; he spent six months in a Moscow prison in 1988, along with the other members of the Armenian National Democratic Movement. Dr. Kazaryan visited Canada in mid-April, after meeting with several Senators in Washington, where he requested American support for his people and their movement. We participated in a discussion with him and several University of Toronto academics, including Professor Richard Day, a political scientist with a special interest in Soviet affairs. Here is an edited version of part of that conversation.

Metta Spencer: When you speak of self-determination, what kind of change are you demanding?

Dr. Rafael Kazaryan: At first, it was an act of self-determination by Karabakh leaders, but Gorbachev portrayed it as a territorial dispute between Armenia and Azerbaijan. He says, "You see, the Armenians say, 'Give it to me.' The Azerbaijanis say: 'No, it's mine!' I am democratic. I cannot suppress it by violence."

Our movement calls only for re-unification, not independence. But Gorbachev's policy toward us makes more and more people in Armenia talk about independence.

Spencer: Suppose Georgia becomes independent. [Georgia is between landlocked Armenia and the rest of the Soviet Union.] What position would Armenia be in at that point?

Kazaryan: A difficult position. We think that we can make an agreement with Georgia for a way out to the Black Sea or even for use of a railway that crosses Georgia. I am not sure that we are able to be independent. Armenia is in a horrible economic situation because of a lack of raw materials, especially energy. Almost all our energy is oil and gas, which comes from outside the Republic.We have to think about this situation in a hurry. We must organize non-traditional sources of energy. Every nation dreams about independence-Armenians also. But to us it always seemed difficult, far away. But during this last year, the movement may have made it feasible, even if very hard for our people. Independence may be forced on us. There are several models which are more or less probable. Suppose such a republic as Ukraine or Byelorussia also thinks about independence; it will destroy the Soviet Union as a federal country, and then Moscow, with its own problems, may not be able to control the situation in the Middle East or in our region, and we will suddenly face chaos.

Professor Richard Day: You said that presidential rule might be a good solution for Nagorno-Karabakh. This frightens me. It would create a precedent, that many people would not want to see repeated in the Baltics-to rescue Russian minorities from Lithuanians, for example.

Kazaryan: Then you believe Gorbachev might not be an objective President, or that he is powerless against violence. Let's hope it's not so.

Day: I think he's desperate. His situation is hopeless. All of the institutions of the old system are being dismantled. The party is being marginalized. The central government under Prime Minister Ryzhkov is being marginalized. The program of economic consolidation of last December has been pushed aside. The trade unions in the RSFSR [Russian Republic] declared independence. The RSFSR wants to set up its own independent wing of the party. The Communist Party will split in June at the Congress. The old institutions are being dismantled and Gorbachev wants more personal power. But whatever policy he decides upon, he has no way to implement it because the local officials who have been elected are saying no.

If presidential rule were invited in Nagorno-Karabakh, I fear this would create a repressive situation which would be repeated elsewhere. It's desperate because there are no new institutions-no market, no banking system, no financial market, no taxation system, no way of regulating monopolies, etc. To create new economic institutions will take at least five years and I expect that this summer there will be many strikes by industrial workers. Either the people will take the government by the throat or the army will take the people by the throat.

Kazaryan: What do you think will happen, then?

Day: Gorbachev may be invited to remain as a figurehead. He has an important Western constituency. Some people in the West say that if Gorbachev were a CIA agent, he could not do a better job of weakening and destroying the Soviet Union.

Kazaryan: I say the same thing! It's how to do it without missiles or bloodshed. I am sure that the West likes him only for this.

Day: You're right. Many Westerners like him for this.

Kazaryan: Yes, but even being an Armenian, I also like him for this!

Day: But the danger is, we might get 15 independent countries, all having nuclear weapons!

Professor Safarian: The empire was destroying itself. All that Gorbachev did was to recognize it and open the system, precisely because he knew that the lag was so great!

Spencer: I think Professor Day is not speaking as a friend of Mr. Gorbachev, but there are friends of Gorbachev who say many of the same things-that it takes time to make the reforms that he is attempting.

Kazaryan: Excuse me, but when the President of U.S.A., in the four years given to him, doesn't fulfill his program, it means that he has failed. Gorbachev already has tried his perestroika and glasnost for six years. Today, glasnost is a reality, but not perestroika.

Spencer: But one who believes that it will take a long time, no matter who is in charge-

Kazaryan: I want to believe it.

Spencer:- might say that he might have more success if it weren't for people like you.

Kazaryan: Oh, so we are guilty?

Spencer: Some people will say that you make it hard to do the real work of the reforms, of perestroika, because nationalism creates such an uproar. What do you say to this?

Kazaryan: I'm sure that we have helped him. Some Moscow people whisper to Karabakh people, "It's your time. Begin!"

Spencer: Who said such a thing?

Kazaryan: High government persons.

Spencer: What was their intention?

Kazaryan: I don't know, but we see even now that when the movement becomes more peaceful, Moscow begins again to provoke in order to make the situation more acute. We see it clearly. Maybe it is necessary for him, in order to cover his economic failures. He can say, "These national problems! These wild people!"

Spencer: Are you sure that it's Gorbachev-and not his enemies-behind these provocations? I have a different theory. In a radio series, the Canadian journalist Gwynne Dyer reminded us that, besides the military, there are 18 million bureaucrats who will, in many cases, lose their jobs if Gorbachev's reforms succeed. There are no jobs for these people to go to, and they are desperate enough to fight hard. Dyer says that solutions are not usually attempted in the Soviet Union by means of a coup, but by other means. He predicts that there will be efforts to provoke situations that require martial law-because who will be in charge of martial law except the bureaucrats and the military? He believes that has already happened in Baku. The Popular Front was shortly going to win an election; why should they have made trouble and spoiled their election? A rally was to be held which might have turned violent, so the Popular Front tried to cancel it to prevent bloodshed, but the officials would not allow them to cancel it. Teams of people went around assaulting Armenians; they had lists of Armenian houses and names. This violence, thinks Dyer, was entirely a provocation-not by Gorbachev, but by the bureaucrats and military people to make it necessary to use force and create a role for themselves so they will not be dismissed.

Kazaryan: Maybe some members of the Popular Front were tricked. I don't want to say that it's wrong, but other pogroms took place earlier. It's true that bureaucrats want to keep their jobs. Gorbachev tries to change the country, but at the same time he tries to preserve his bureaucracy. He's surrounding himself now with persons who are not very progressive. Several of them received their posts in the new government under him, and he's trying to keep some of the old guard. I have no real answer for this.

Spencer: So could it be that his enemies are behind these provocations?

Kazaryan: Who are his enemies? He has the greatest power in his hands. I don't know what more he wants in order to dictate his will!

Spencer: But even with all the formal power he has, as Richard Day said, if he gives an order, it doesn't get obeyed by local officials.

Kazaryan: We see a connection between his will and the wicked action of the commanders of the army, for example. I wrote him. "I won't ask your commanders about it because they are blindly under your control! It's your will, and you are guilty! No Armenians have been aggressive. We only defended ourselves against attack.

Spencer: Then why does he do it? If he is provoking, if he gets the army to-

Kazaryan: Ah! Ask Gorbachev, not me!

Spencer: But you wanted the army to come and defend you.

Kazaryan: No, no, no. They didn't come to defend us. If they wanted to defend us, they would have prevented the Sumgait pogrom. We asked them to go away, as they only made obstacles for us! We could defend ourselves, but when the army is there, it is impossible.

Spencer: You did not want the army to come and protect you from Azeris?

Kazaryan: Explain to me why Gorbachev was so tolerant when the Azeris destroyed all the order. Why?

Spencer: But you wanted the army to protect you, right?

Kazaryan: You are right, we wanted it. Now we don't want it. There is no protection. There is no secure place in all our regions except in Karabakh. Karabakh will defend itself and we will help, if necessary, but the army is there now, and it only pains the Karabakh people. They tried to put Baku rulers in charge of Stepanakert [the capital of Karabakh]. Only on the Soviet building in Stepanakert is there the flag of Soviet Azerbaijan. In other places the national flag is flying. The army forces those people to be ruled under the Baku government. Why? This is the purpose of the army in Stepanakert? Then take them away!

Spencer: Okay, if they go away, what will happen?

Kazaryan: Nothing will happen.

Spencer: There'll be no massacre?

Kazaryan: Now we are not bleeding as when they were beating women, old men, children in Sumgait. I now think we are able to defend ourselves.

Spencer: When the army came to Baku, we saw on our television that the Azeris were angry. They must not have thought the army was on their side.

Kazaryan: Yes, the Azeris tried to destroy all Soviet power there, and the army prevented it. And of course Azeris were also very angry when the army interfered with them and didn't let them make pogroms. But the army didn't prevent them. It was too late. They came only when it became dangerous for Soviet power.

Spencer: The more I listen, the less I understand!

Kazaryan: I also!

What is Self-Determination?

These conflicts illustrate the difficulty of translating the claim for self-determination into practical policies.

No right, however sacred, can be pursued without regard to its practical consequences for other rights. Self-determination can be defined as an absolute right. It can only be attained, however, as a pragmatic approximation.

Whose Provocation?

If Dr. Kazaryan is right, the Soviet army is not protecting Armenians, but allowing Azeris to abuse them. If so, why? Are the army commanders defying Gorbachev's instructions and keeping the violence up to block perestroika and preserve a role for themselves and for the bureaucrats? This would fit Gwynne Dyer's interpretation.

Or is Gorbachev himself withholding military protection? If so, why? To remind Armenian nationalists how much they need the Soviet Union? To punish them for demanding that boundaries be changed? To give them a sample of the civil war that he believes their success would launch? If civil war is a real danger, should the Armenian nationalists accept the separateness of Nagorno-Karabakh?

Who is organizing violence by Azeris against Armenians? Who is "whispering" to Armenians: "Now is your time. Begin!"? Does Gorbachev himself want nationalistic confrontations because they distract attention from the failure of economic reforms? Or, as Dyer suggests and as seems more plausible, may the enemies of perestroika have their own reasons for keeping the pot boiling? Are Gorbachev's enemies behind this?

This question, says Kazaryan, deserves investigation. Exactly so!

Peace Magazine Jun-Jul 1990

Peace Magazine Jun-Jul 1990, page 8. Some rights reserved.

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