WORLD

Explosive protests

Violence escalates in a southern republic

Anthony Wilson-Smith January 15 1990
WORLD

Explosive protests

Violence escalates in a southern republic

Anthony Wilson-Smith January 15 1990

Explosive protests

WORLD

THE SOVIET UNION

Violence escalates in a southern republic

The first report from the Soviet news agency TASS said that a "drunken or drugged" mob had carried out "Un-

precedented barbarous actions.” In demonstrations last week along the southern border dividing the Soviet republic of Azerbaijan from the nation of Iran, the agency reported that rampaging Azerbaijanis “burned and destroyed engineering facilities, signalling systems and communication lines” to protest the separation of Moslems by the closed border. Those allegations were denied by the grassroots Azerbaijani Popular Front, which, according to many observers, organized the events. The group accused the Soviet media of offering misleading information to justify a crackdown on nationalists. But as reports of violence spread and Soviet troops rushed into the republic, the group’s leaders acknowledged strong antiMoscow feelings. Front organizer Sokhab Bairomov told Maclean’s, “People are filled with indignation at the behavior of the government.” With that explosive beginning, the new year seemed unlikely to bring Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev a respite from the often-bloody interethnic tensions that have plagued his rule. The Kremlin announced that the Communist party chief in the Azerbaijan border region, Geider Isayev, had been forced to step down, and it closed the area to foreign journalists. Along with the turmoil on the southern border, the Azerbaijanis—most of them Moslem—and neighboring Armenians, who are predominantly Christian, continued their battle over the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh in Azerbaijan. On Jan. 2, more than 5,000 people took part in a skirmish between ethnic Armenians and Azerbaijanis, and at least one person was killed.

Meanwhile, the Kremlin faced a dramatic challenge from the Baltic republic of Lithuania. Last month, the republic’s legislature voted to abolish a Soviet law giving the Communist party a monopoly on power. Then, the local party declared itself independent from the national party. A clearly distressed Gorbachev was expected to fly this week to Vilnius, the republic’s capital, to try to repair the break. So pressing were Gorbachev’s domestic problems that he postponed all visits by foreign politicians this month, although foreign ministry spokesman Gennadi Gerasimov attributed the action to the Soviet leader’s “tight schedule.” Whatever the case, Soviet officials were clearly concerned about the southern Transcaucasian republics of Azerbaijan, Armenia and Georgia. All three have been the scenes of recent, large-scale nationalist demonstrations

and have long histories of conflicts between ethnic groups. And the means by which they disagree are increasingly sophisticated—and lethal. Last month, in Georgia’s capital of Tbilisi, police arrested two men selling three-

inch-long, West German-made cylinders of deadly poison gas to nationalist groups.

The reality behind such ethnic tensions is complex. In the early 1800s, Russia annexed Azerbaijan after defeating Persia, as Iran was then called, in three wars. Now, Soviet Azerbaijanis—there are seven million in all—estimate that up to 20 million Iranians share their religious and ethnic background. In recent increased

freedom in the Soviet Union, coupled with burgeoning Islamic fundamentalism in Iran, has caused Moslems on both sides to push for reunion.

Many Azerbaijanis said that last week’s unrest was aimed at winning freer cross-border travel. As well, the Popular Front last month tabled a list of demands, including a referendum to determine whether the republic should stay a part of the Soviet Union.

Soviet authorities have recently granted concessions aimed at soothing nationalist

sentiments. Many Azerbaijanis complain that their centuries-old language and cultural traditions have been ignored or eradicated. But recently, the republic’s legislature, which is traditionally obedient to Moscow, has allowed increased use of the old Arabic alphabet that was suppressed in 1939 in favor of the Russian Cyrillic alphabet. Last week, the legislature also said that it has restored the original names of several cities and regions that were renamed in the decades after the Russian Revolution of 1917. Still, many Azerbaijanis argue that the Kremlin, along with the republic’s 560,000 ethnic Russian residents, has played too dominant a role in their region. Said Muhammad Nabiev, another Popular Front organizer: “The Azerbaijani people do not need any help

from Moscow in deciding how our lives should be lived.”

Further disturbances within the republic appear unavoidable. Although the arrival of KGB reinforcements helped to calm last week’s protests, the Moscow-based newspaper Rabochaya Tribuna said that rioters had declared a vendetta against border guards and their families. And there were reports that turmoil was

spreading to other parts of the republic. The Popular Front’s Bairomov was openly defiant of government efforts to stop the protests. “If the authorities have the power, they should use it,” he declared. “If not, the people will solve their problems themselves.” Clearly, the nationalists were inflamed with a heady mix of exhilaration and determination that was likely to plague Gorbachev for some time to come.

ANTHONY WILSON-SMITH

in Moscow