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Nagorno Karabakh until 1918
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Developments of 1988-1990, Liberation Movement

1988 | 1989 | 1990

The Perestroyka, declared by the General Secretary of the CPSU Central Committee, Mikhail Gorbachev, laid grounds for liberalization of the political regime in the USSR and was perceived as an opportunity to correct for mistakes made in the past. The people of Nagorno Karabakh had new hope for a democratic solution to the problem and implementation of international law regarding interethnic relations.

The current stage of the national-liberation struggle of the people of Karabakh began in the end of 1987, when tens of thousands of people took to the streets of Nagorno Karabakh and signed a petition demanding reunification of NKAO with Armenia. Representatives were sent to the central USSR party and government bodies to plea their case.

On February 20, 1988 the session of the Nagorno Karabakh Oblast Soviet (Regional Council) of People's Deputies appealed to the Supreme Soviets of Azerbaijan SSR and Armenian SSR for the transfer of NKAO from Azerbaijan to Armenia. This appeal was preceded by six similar requests from regional Soviets. However, the CPSU Central Committee adopted a resolution on February 21, contradicting the international principle of people's self-determination - the central authorities substituted a political resolution to the problem with social and economic measures. This was greeted with categorical protests from the people of Nagorno Karabakh.

Taking advantage of the undecided political body of the USSR, Communist authorities of Azerbaijan USSR falsified the history of the region and created nationalistic hysteria in the mass media, thus transforming the problem into an ethnic conflict. The high-ranking Azerbaijani official, Asadov, threatened an invasion of "100,000 armed Azeris" in Nagorno Karabakh.

In an attempt to block a scheduled session of the NKAO ObCom (Oblast Committee) the First Secretary of Azerbaijani Central Committee of CP Bagirov, members of the Bureau of Azerbaijani CP, the Instructor of the Propaganda Department of CC of CPSU, tried to pass a resolution placing all responsibility for the situation on the Party organization of the oblast. The Bureau did not accept the resolution. Despite the efforts of the representatives from Baku and the First Secretary of ObCom, the session of the Council of Oblast's People's Deputies was held and a resolution demanding reunification of NKAO with Armenia was adopted. The Azerbaijani side responded with aggression. On February 22, a crowd numbering thousands of people, started to move towards Stepanakert from the neighboring Azerbaijani region of Agdam "to restore order." Bloodshed was very narrowly avoided.

Mass pogroms and murders of Armenians on February 27-29, 1988 in Sumgait [Azerbaijani town, situated hundreds of miles away from Nagorno Karabakh] continued the official policy of Azerbaijan to impede the possibility of a fair solution to the Karabakh problem. The act of genocide against Armenians in Sumgait, which was not properly assessed by Azerbaijan or the international community, was scrupulously organized. Leaders of factories and organizations ordered their workers to attend anti-Armenian rallies where speakers were representatives of municipal authorities. The "rally" of February 27 ended with the Soumgait city Communist Party Committee First Secretary Muslimzade raising the Azeri national flag and leading the crowd in a frenzied state. During the subsequent three days of massacres and pogroms, dozens of Armenians were murdered, many with extreme cruelty. Hundreds were injured, and a great number of Armenians were raped, tortured and persecuted. 18,000 people became refugees.

However, Azerbaijan's policy of using threats and violence did not force the people of Artsakh abandon their goal. The Armenian dedication to the cause was culminated when Henrikh Poghossian, the Plenum of Communist Party's ObCom head demanded that Nagorno Karabakh secede from Azerbaijan.


Taking into consideration the precarious situation the central authorities of the USSR introduced a special form of administration in the NKAO on January 12, 1989. A Special Governing Committee for NKAO was created, which was headed by Chairman of the CPSU Central Committee Department, Arkady Volsky. However, the Committee, which was initially created to prevent further deterioration of the situation, was inadequate for its mission. The Azeri SSR authorities took advantage of this and tried to force its conditions upon Nagorno Karabakh by circumventing the Committee.

The suspension of the powers of NKAO's Party and state bodies and grossly violated the rights of NKAO and its people. In order to elect a representative authority of the people, a congress of NKAO population representatives was called. The congress, convened on August 16, and addressed the people of Azerbaijan with concern about the deepening alienation, and ethnic enmity between the Armenian and Azeri people. The address also appealed to mutual recognition of fundamental rights of each other. The congress proposed active cooperation with the Commandant of the Special region, officers and soldiers of the Soviet Army and armed detachments of USSR Interior Ministry in order to guarantee peace in the region. The congress elected National Council (chaired by the USSR People's Deputy V.Grigorian), with the goal of implementing the decisions of the OblSoviet People's Deputies session of February 20, 1988.

Officials in Baku chose not to heed the words of the congress and began an economic blockade of NKAO and Armenia, unprecedented in the USSR. NKAO was particularly isolated from the outside world as all goods had to pass through Azerbaijan to reach the territory. Food, fuel, and construction materials stopped entering NKAO, and as a result the majority of industrial enterprises, transport, and agricultural machinery were unable to function, and the harvest could not be exported. The population was on the verge of famine.

Simultaneously, punitive actions intensified in the Shahoumian district, where the Armenian population continued to face a serious threat of physical extermination. In order to prevent this, a special session of Oblast's Peoples Deputies Soviet adopted a decision to include the Shahoumian region in the NKAO.

Lacking necessary means to defend the oblast, the authorities of Nagorno Karabakh appealed to help from the USSR's highest authorities on numerous occasions. However, the Central authorities did not take any action to prevent bloodshed. The appeal of the National Council Presidium of Nagorno Karabakh to the UN Security Council to assist in the assurance of security for the Armenians in the region remained unanswered. Furthermore, the USSR Supreme Soviet adopted a resolution on November 28, which all but ensured that Nagorno Karabakh forcefully remain in the Azerbaijani SSR. The USSR Supreme Soviet disbanded the Special Governing Committee and established an Organizational Committee of Azerbaijan SSR on NKAO, without directly outlining its goals or level of authority. It became known later that the Organization Committee carried out deportation operations aimed against the Armenian population of Nagorno Karabakh and surrounding regions with assistance from the USSR Interior Ministry, and the Soviet Army.

On December 1, 1989, the joint session of the Supreme Soviets of the Armenian SSR and the National Council of NKAO adopted a resolution on reunification of Nagorno Karabakh and Armenian SSR, "based on the universal principle of self-determination of nations and responding to the just strive of the reunification of two forcefully separated parts of the Armenian peoples." The reaction of the Azerbaijani authorities was felt as new waves of violence and use of forces were employed.


The pogroms of January 1991 in Baku, the capital of Azerbaijani SSR, were a continuation of a campaign of ethnic cleansing. As a result, hundreds of Armenians were killed and a new wave of refugees emerged. The cruelty of Sumgait pogroms was matched in Baku - people were burned alive, stabbed, and beaten to death. Instances of cannibalism were reported. Realizing that the central authorities were not taking action to stop the killings of the Armenian people, the Popular Front of Azerbaijan, which was formed in 1989 as an opposition party, organized an armed assault on the Armenian villages of Shahoumian and Khanlar regions. Military actions began along the border of Armenia and Azerbaijani territories.
Considering the situation, the Presidium of the USSR Supreme Soviet, introduced an emergency state in NKAO, the bordering regions of Azerbaijani SSR, Goris region of the Armenian SSR, and along the USSR state border of Azerbaijani SSR territory. The Military Commandant's Headquarters took upon governance at all levels, relinquishing the authority of local representative government bodies and introducing martial law on the territory of Nagorno Karabakh. Supported by the Military Commandant's Headquarters, the activity of Azerbaijani authorities intensified, along with their policy of suppression, ethnic cleansing and terror. Active members of the Karabakh movement were persecuted at increasing rates and arrested under the false pretense of real "criminal cases".

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