Anthony Wilson-Smith January 29 1990



Anthony Wilson-Smith January 29 1990




The nightmarish experience began with a knock on the door. Elvira Vartanava, a divorced, 50-year-old teacher, and her daughter, 12-yearold Denelanera, were alone in their apartment in Baku, the capital of the Soviet republic of Azerbaijan, when they heard the hammering. Vartanava, an ethnic Armenian, said that when she opened the door, she faced a mob of men and women who shouted anti-Armenian curses as they stormed in. As they pushed her daughter into another room, Vartanava was alternately beaten and raped. They were saved, she said, when their Azerbaijani neighbors rushed in and pleaded for their lives. After their attackers left, the mother and daughter, leaving their possessions behind, fled to a friend’s home. Three days later, they bribed their way onto a fully booked flight to Moscow and took up temporary residence at Armenia’s diplomatic mission. Said a weeping, severely bruised Vartanava last week: “These were animals, not people.” By late Saturday, Red Army troops appeared to be gaining control in one of the worst inter-ethnic conflicts in the Soviet Union’s history.

On Saturday, soldiers moved into Baku by land and sea and, driving tanks, smashed Azeri blockades erected to try to keep them out. Then, they opened fire on militants. One eyewitness said that the city’s main street was a “river of blood.” Another, Mahmoud Kesamanly, a spokesman for Azerbaijan’s nationalist Popular Front movement, told a reporter by telephone that there were “many dead and injured.” A front spokesman in Baku said that at least 120 people had died, while others placed the death toll as high as 500.

Kesamanly added that three people had been killed when soldiers fired at a bus, and two people injured in the incident were being treat-

ed at his home. “People started resistance right away,” Kesamanly said. Soviet Defence Minister Dmitri Yazov told his forces that they could fire on gunmen who were attacking them or trying to steal weapons. Then, on Saturday night, an unusually sombre President Mikhail Gorbachev said in an unscheduled national TV broadcast, “At this hour, I call upon the people of Azerbaijan and Armenia to show peace and reason.”

The conflict presented the Soviet leader, already facing numerous ethnic and nationalist crises in the country’s 14 non-Russian republics, with a full-blown conflagration and the possibility of his own overthrow by conservative forces in the Communist party. Gorbachev appealed to the nation for understanding in the crisis. He said that he had agreed to military action only after all peaceful methods of resolving the conflict had failed. Gorbachev, who looked pale and somewhat shaken on TV, added that there had been “pogroms and murders in Baku” and he said that “military units were met by the fire of terrorists.” But, declared the Soviet president, “I believe

that peace and reason will overcome.”

After more than a week of pitched battles between residents of the two southern republics, in which hundreds were killed and wounded, more than 7,000 ethnic Armenians were hastily evacuated from Baku. Azerbaijan remained closed to foreign reporters, making independent analysis difficult. But after the Kremlin declared a formal state of emergency early in the week and rushed troops into the republics, Interior Minister Vadim Bakatin described the fighting as “civil war.”

For Gorbachev, the heated ethnic clash in the south was one of a series of explosive crises. Less than a week after the Soviet leader visited the Baltic republic of Lithuania in an attempt to dampen growing separatist sentiment, that republic’s ruling Communist party voted to call for the “restoration of the free and democratic state of Lithuania” in elections next month. As well, the legislature of neighboring Latvia voted to restore the official emblem that the republic used before its annexation by the Soviet Union in 1940. Kremlin

officials also acknowledged that they were concerned over nationalist movements in almost all of the non-Russian republics. Declared Laurence Black, director of Soviet and Eastern European studies at Ottawa’s Çarleton University: “Gorbachev’s concern is the chipping away at centralist control.”

That chipping away is readily apparent in Armenia and Azerbaijan. The largely Christian Armenians and the Azeris—most of whom are Moslem—have a long history of bitter differences that predate the 1917 Russian Revolution. The divisions increased after a 1923 Kremlin decision to award control of the largely Armenian enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh to Azerbaijan, which fully surrounds it. In the past two years, the two republics have fought openly over the Nagorno-Karabakh region. That conflict has resulted in more than 200 deaths, and internal ministry soldiers serving in the area report that conditions often resemble a war zone.

The new outbreaks of violence in Azerbaijan are also tied to more complex issues. In recent months, residents of the republic have expressed increasing interest in reopening ties with an estimated 16 million ethnic Azeris living in neighboring Iran. Earlier this month, thousands of Azeris demanding an open border with Iran attacked border installations and tore down communications lines, fences and guard towers. Since then, Soviet officials have said that they are prepared to work with Iran to facilitate border crossings. The Armenians have grievances of their own. The republic has been suffering severe food and fuel shortages as a result of an Azeri blockade of trains bringing sorely needed supplies. And many Armenians maintain that the Kremlin is responsible for letting the Azeris get out of control. Said Eduard Shakhnazarov, an editor with the staterun Armenpress news agency: “The bloodshed here is a result of indecision by Moscow.”

Soviet interior ministry officials say that Armenian activists have matched their Azeri counterparts in aggressive tactics. In the past month, troops stationed in Armenia have reported that gangs of Armenians have raided police stations to steal weapons. Dmitri Seleznev, a senior inspector with the ministry, said that Armenian demonstrators stole four army tanks, which were later recovered, and used Armenian government contacts to commandeer helicopters. The ministry also reported that bands of as many as 3,000 armed Armenians had been sighted in Azerbaijan.

For the most part, however, interior ministry officials say that Azeri violence against Armenians in Baku has been the worst of all. More than 4,600 Armenians were evacuated

overnight from the city as pogroms directed against them mounted. When they arrived in Moscow, many Armenians brought only the clothes they wore—and reports of violence and narrow escapes. Lila Barashan, 49, said that she watched helplessly as a mob threw a woman into a bonfire. Said Gorbachev: “The tragic events show the price of nationalistic feelings.”

Other refugees reported that Azeris had broken down doors, beaten people with wooden poles and heaved others out of windows. Daniel Levee, 29, said that he was at Baku’s airport awaiting a flight to Moscow when Azeri insurgents began checking the documents of passengers. He said that he escaped only because he had previously acquired a forged passport that did not show his Armenian roots. Interior ministry troops also said that Azeri insurgents sealed off the roads to the airport and railroad station for two days to prevent Armenians from leaving.

Both Soviet and Western analysts say that it is unclear whether Gorbachev’s actions will enhance his standing in the eyes of most Soviets. Said Peter Roberts, a former Canadian ambassador to Moscow: “There are people who will blame him for not containing the situation, because this whole thing happened while he was in charge.” But,

Roberts added, “I think most people realize that the forces were already there.” Still, other analysts say that Gorbachev, the first Soviet leader who has lived exclusively in Russian areas, has shown his inexperience. Thane Gustafson, a Soviet specialist and professor at Washington’s Georgetown University, said that the fighting is “a crisis of his own making, and glasnost [openness] compounded it.”

Many conservative Soviets have privately criticized Gorbachev for his refusal to take tougher measures to stamp out dissent. Before Gorbachev’s trip to Lithuania, an adviser to the Central Committee’s propaganda department told Maclean’s: “There are an awful lot of people in Moscow who think he is letting the country fall apart.” However, Jerry Hough, a noted sovietologist at Duke University in Durham, N.C., claimed that Gorbachev has deliberately allowed matters in Azerbaijan and the Baltics to become extreme in order to isolate his more radical political opponents, including maverick Supreme Soviet Deputy Boris Yeltsin, who have called for a more hands-off approach to the republics’ internal affairs.


Said Hough: “He will use the national unrest to arouse national patriotism against the radicals. There is a lot of calculation going on.”

Among Western governments, Gorbachev’s decision to send additional troops to the southern republics won widespread approval. U.S. officials, who once routinely condemned any Soviet use of force, said that although they disapprove of the repression of political movements, they recognize the right to control ethnic unrest. Said White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater: “We understand the need

to restore order where order has broken down.”

The Canadian government’s view, expressed by external affairs department spokesman Mark Entwistle, was that Soviet actions “to date have been admirably restrained.” He added, “In terms of preventing further bloodshed, we would support the Soviet government’s effort.” About 600 ethnic Armenians rallied outside the Soviet Embassy in Ottawa last week to protest what they viewed as Moscow’s slow response to Armenian deaths. The Armenians also began a relief drive in Canada to raise money for victims. “We are worried sick,” said Sohne Chamlian, 28, an ethnic Armenian living in Montreal. “The problem is getting out of hand.”

That opinion was even shared by Soviets in

other regions. “It is hard to interfere in the affairs of republics,” said Vytautas Astrauskas, a Lithuanian member of the Supreme Soviet who is demanding that his republic become independent. “But when people are being killed, such measures are quite timely.”

Even if troops manage to stop the current fighting, new problems will likely arise. Thirty per cent of Soviet soldiers come from the Transcaucasus republics of Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia, and they are not assigned to duties there because their loyalties are consid-

ered to be suspect. And Defence Minister Yazov acknowledged last week that cutbacks this year in the Soviet military have left it unprepared for the present crisis.

As the fighting continued last week, many Armenians were not willing to settle for an uneasy peace. Levan Ter-Petrossian, a member of Armenia’s grassroots Popular Front, told Maclean’s, “Even if Moscow can somehow manage to calm down the Azeris, it will hardly be able to do the same with Armenians.” As Gorbachev concluded on Saturday night: “Neither side listened to the voice of reason.”