From perestroika to independence

Gorbachev’s perestroika ushered in change in Armenia, as elsewhere in the Soviet Union in the mid-1980s. Political organizers in Armenia first focused on environmental issues —a dangerous chemical factory in Yerevan, the falling water level of Lake Sevan,and the Medzamor nuclear power station, located in an area at high risk of earthquakes. (Medzamor was closed down, but shortage of energy later forced it to be put back into operation.) During rallies placards with environmental and pro-communist slogans were soon accompanied by slogans addressing the nationalities question in Karabakh.

From 1987 on, protests focused increasingly on Karabakh. At the same time, some Armenian politicians were actively lobbying Moscow to transfer Karabakh to the Armenain Soviet Socialist Republic. Ethnic tensions between Azeris and Armenians were rising and as early as 1987 Azerbaijanis living in some Armenian villages were forced to leave, although Soviet authorities did not publiclly report these events in the media. 

Increased inter-ethnic fighting between the two ethnic groups broke out shortly after the parliament of the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast in Azerbaijan voted to unify the region with Armenia on 20 February 1988. Fighting soon spread to inter-ethnic villages in both Armenia and Azerbaijan and atrocities were committed on both sides.

Soon after the Azerbaijani Popular Front successfully pressed the Azerbaijan SSR to launch a rail and air blockade against Armenia. This was a major step since Armenia received 85% of its cargo through rail traffic. In1993, Turkey joined the blockade against Armenia. In 1994, a Russian-brokered ceasefire ended the Karabakh war. At that point, Karabakh Armenians held 14% of Azerbaijan’s internationally recognized territory, including Nagorno-Karabakh itself.