In February 1988, the Armenian majority of the Soviet of the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Province passed a resolution requesting that the province be made part of Armenia.
The resolution sparked massive demonstrations and strikes of support in Yerevan. Another outcome was a pogromagainst Armenians in the Azerbaijani industrial city of Sumgait,organized by factory workers living in communal factory dormitories who alledgedly planned to occupy the homes of their victims. Lack of housing, the arrival of Azeri refugees from Armenia, and organized demonstrations in favor of Karabakh joining Armenia were all factors that helped fuel the tragic events in Sumgait.
The Soviet leadership quelled the unrest by deploying troops to Sumgait, after the police were unable to bring the rioters under control.
The events in Sumgait took Gorbachev and the politburo by surprise. They were not prepared to deal with issues of ethnic tension and nationalist movements. A change in republic borders was ruled out, but demands were made of Baku to take steps to satisfy the grievances of the Karabakh Armenians.
Confrontation moved to a higher level in June 1988 when Armenia’s Supreme Soviet voted unanimously in favor of the unification of Karabakh with Armenia, followed a couple of days later by a contrary unanimous vote of Azerbaijan’s Supreme Soviet.
In January 1989, the USSR Supreme Soviet placed Karabakh provisionally under a special form of administration. While remaining formally within Azerbaijan, the province was to be run by an official answering directly to Moscow.
In November 1989, the special administration was abolished and the province put under military rule. In the same month, the congress of theArmenian Pan-National Movement was organized. It would come to power nine months later.
In January 1990, another pogrom against Armenians took place, this time in Baku. The city’s remaining Armenians were evacuated from Azerbaijan by the Soviet army. All but 10,000 of Azerbaijan’s quarter million Armenians outside Karabakh fled to Russia or Armenia, while 200,000 Azerbaijanis and Kurds from Armenia (mainly Zangezur) became refugees in Azerbaijan.
Breakup of the USSR
In the fall of 1991, the breakup of the USSR and political confusion in Moscow left the Soviet army in limbo. It ceased to act as a coherent force, resulting in individual soldiers and even units opting to fight on one side or the other on their own initiative. At the same time, the heavy weaponry of the Soviet army found its way into the arsenals of Armenian and Azerbaijani paramilitaries, facilitating a transition from low-intensity to high-intensity warfare.
In October 1991, the Supreme Soviet of now independent Azerbaijan voted to deprive Nagorno-Karabakh of its autonomous status within Azerbaijan.