WORLD

A SEETHING RAGE

THE FOCUS OF THE INTERETHNIC ANGER IN ARMENIA AND AZERBAIJAN SUDDENLY SHIFTS TO MOSCOW

Anthony Wilson-Smith February 5 1990
WORLD

A SEETHING RAGE

THE FOCUS OF THE INTERETHNIC ANGER IN ARMENIA AND AZERBAIJAN SUDDENLY SHIFTS TO MOSCOW

Anthony Wilson-Smith February 5 1990

From his office in Baku, the capital of the strife-torn Soviet republic of Azerbaijan, Asilgar Guseinov said that he could see Soviet troops “everywhere”—and that their appearance infuriated him. The reason for 52-year-old Guseinov’s anger: Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s recent decision to declare martial law in the republic and send soldiers into Baku to stop interethnic clashes. Declared the Soviet army veteran, who now works for the Azerbaijan government’s information department: “Calling in the troops was a fatal mistake.” Last week, Soviet troops continued to encounter stiff resistance as they tried to consolidate control in Baku. And Azeri nationalists said that, unless Moscow’s forces were withdrawn immediately, they could find themselves embroiled in a protracted guerrilla war. At a news conference in the Soviet capital, Ekhtibar Mamedov, a leader of the southern republic’s powerful Popular Front, declared, “If Gorbachev wants a second Afghanistan, he will get it in Azerbaijan.”

The seething rage in the southern republics of Azerbaijan and Armenia, which touched off the worst crisis of Gorbachev’s nearly five years in power, is suddenly aimed squarely at the Kremlin. Until recently, the conflict was almost entirely an interethnic clash between Armenians—most of them Christian—and Moslem Azeris. But the Kremlin crackdown has aroused bitter resentment from both sides: the Armenians say that Gorbachev responded too slowly; the Azeris say he reacted too harshly. In an apparent attempt to deflect such criticism, Defence Minister Dmitri Yazov, quoted in the government newspaper Izvestia late last week, provided another explanation for the Red Army’s move into Baku: to destroy the structure of the Popular Front and other nationalist groups that, Yazov claimed, were about to seize power in the southern republic.

However, even some countries that had supported the deployment of troops to the region expressed concern over Moscow’s apparent inability to control the situation, which has left at least 80 people dead and hundreds wounded. President George Bush said that Gorbachev faces “an internal problem of enormous dimensions.” He added, “I cannot make predictions, but hope [Gorbachev] not only survives, but stays strong.”

Bush’s remarks reflected the revived debate internationally and internally over Gorbachev’s political future. The new crisis has arisen at a time when the country is wracked by other ethnic divisions, as well as by economic problems, which government officials acknowledge have reached disastrous proportions. On the economic front, a study by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, made public last week, concluded that the Kremlin’s present policies make “survival prospects for economic reforms increasingly doubtful.”

At the same time, Supreme Soviet Deputy Boris Yeltsin, a onetime Gorbachev ally who is now one of his fiercest critics, said during a visit to Japan that the Soviet leader “will not last long” unless he allows increased rights for the country’s 103 ethnic nationalities. “Gorbachev is in a very difficult position,” declared the blunt-spoken Yeltsin. “And the blame should be put mainly on him.” But, in response, foreign ministry spokesman Gennady Gerasimov said that “there are no alternatives” to either Gorbachev or his policies.

In fact, since Gorbachev came to power in 1985, he has consolidated his power with a series of gradual, but critical, political moves. He has purged the ruling Politburo of its longest-standing members, so that he is now the only member to have served directly under now-disgraced former leader Leonid Brezhnev. As a result, none of the new members can rival him in stature. In addition, Gorbachev has weakened the potential political strength of the army by downgrading the status of Defence Minister Yazov. He has also replaced a potential rival, Viktor Chebrikov, as head of the KGB secret police, with a political ally, Vladimir Kryuchkov. And by strengthening the powers of the previously ceremonial position of president—and assuming the post himself, in addition to his title as general secretary of the Communist party—Gorbachev has written himself an important insurance policy.

But, although the Soviet leader remains well insulated politically in Moscow, he is more exposed in the southern republics. The emergency measures in Azerbaijan, which include a nightly curfew and banning of strikes, have provoked deep controversy. For one thing, the Azeris maintain that many of the deaths were the direct result of Soviet troops forcibly smashing their way into Baku through insurgents’ barricades on Jan. 19. Early last week, Azerbaijan’s KGB issued an extraordinary public statement warning that the republic was “on the edge of an abyss, beyond which lies chaos and anarchy.” At least three people died as violent clashes between Armenians and Azeris continued in various parts of the republic. Two Soviet servicemen were reportedly injured when Soviet warships and artillery broke a blockade by Azeri commercial ships in Baku’s Caspian Sea harbor.

Azeri anger was evident soon after the Soviet troops arrived. Four days later, the republic’s legislature declared that the Kremlin’s martial law did not apply, and said it would hold a referendum on declaring full sovereignty unless troops left immediately. The first secretary of the republic’s Communist party, AbdulRakhman Vezirov, was dismissed from his position and expelled from the party for his failure to prevent violence. And Azeri Communists threatened to declare their party independent from Moscow.

The Armenians, meanwhile, contend that Gorbachev has been too slow in dealing with the ethnic clashes, which first broke out two years ago. They regularly express bitter resentment of a Kremlin decision to leave the largely Armenian enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh under the control of Azerbaijan, which surrounds it. And they blame Moscow for allowing Azerbaijan to stage long-standing blockades of trains carrying badly needed supplies to Armenia. Ram Ananikyan, the editor-in-chief of the republic’s Armenpress news agency, told Maclean’s by phone (Western correspondents are prohibited from travel in the southern republics during the crisis) that those events even make some people nostalgic for the authoritarian rule of Josef Stalin. Although Ananikyan said that he supports Gorbachev, he added, “There are people who say that, under Stalin, not even a fly could interfere with a border.”

Some Armenians resorted to extreme tactics of their own. Soviet interior ministry officials said that in the Aboyan district of Armenia last week, local insurgents stole 90,000 electric detonators and more than three tons of explosives. Other insurgents burglarized buildings near the republic’s capital of Yerevan, walking off with submachine-guns, pistols and ammunition belonging to the government’s interior ministry troops.

In fact, both Armenian and Azeri fighters have demonstrated notable tactical sophistication. The Soviet media recently reported that groups of insurgents are led by embittered Armenian or Azeri veterans of the Soviet military occupation of Afghanistan, which ended less than one year ago. Interior ministry officials say that the insurgents sometimes dress in regulation Soviet army uniforms. Those fighters, hardened by combat and equipped with light-and medium-range weapons, can provide a lethal challenge to inexperienced regular troops, said Artyom Borovik, a journalist at the weekly magazine Ogonyok. In Baku, troops allowed Azeris to hold public meetings, despite a ban on such gatherings. But, declared Borovik, “Since the insurgents are better armed than the troops, the question is not why the troops are allowing rallies, but what is it that the insurgents are allowing the troops?”

Even Soviet officials say that they are encountering severe problems in getting accurate reports from the region, and rumors have been numerous—and explosive. Azeri diplomats in Moscow told foreign journalists that Soviet troops had shot at least 10,000 Azeris and were storing their bodies in an offshore tanker. That led to the blockade of ships in Baku’s harbor, forcing Soviet warships to shoot their way out. TASS, the official Soviet news agency, described the rumored killings as “a cynical lie.”

The continuing unrest gave rise to a variety of reactions abroad. Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, citing the increase in anti-Semitic slogans on Baku walls, said that he was speeding up efforts to help an estimated 20,000 Jews living in Azerbaijan to emigrate to Israel. But the most fractious remarks came from neighboring Iran, where as many as 20 million people share a linguistic and ethnic heritage with Soviet Azeris. Since parts of the Iran-Azerbaijan border were opened by insurgents in early January, people from the two countries have been crossing freely, and the Azeris have reportedly been bringing back arms. Last week, the Soviets rushed in additional troops to seal the border. At the same time, the speaker of Iran’s parliament, Mahdi Karrubi, said that violent Soviet actions in Azerbaijan could “create more problems for the Soviet Union.”

Still, most Soviet analysts said that Gorbachev remains politically strong. “The decision to send in á troops was undoubtedly correct,” said Viktor Loshak, deputy editor of the liberal weekly Moscow News. “People who believe in Gorbachev will follow him on this.” That seemed to be the general reaction of Soviets whom Maclean’s interviewed on the streets of Moscow and by telephone in other cities. Even those who said they did not agree with the emergency measures in Azerbaijan added that they support Gorbachev’s overall policies. Viktor Zimon, for one, a 32-year-old Moscow aviation worker, said, “I do not like using troops, but Gorbachev is a good leader, and if you can judge by my friends and me, more popular than ever.”

Some Western experts say that, in the current crisis, ethnic Russians will continue to support Gorbachev partly because of widespread bias. Larry Black, director of Soviet and East European studies at Carleton University in Ottawa, said that the Russian attitude is “Azeris and Armenians are just savages, and it is only Soviet power that keeps the country together.” Other experts say that the crisis could actually strengthen Gorbachev’s position by demonstrating the positive side of government strength. But the issue now is whether Soviet troops can quickly restore order, or whether they will become involved in a long— and murderous—guerrilla war.