The 1988 movement "Demonstrations of the unification of Artsakh with Armenia"

Ahmed Ibrahim
4 min readMar 17, 2022

Artsakh is a de facto independent state, calling itself the Republic of Artsakh. It has close relations with Armenia and uses the same currency, the dram.


The conflict returns to the events following World War I. Shortly before the Ottoman Empire's capitulation in the war, the Russian Empire collapsed in November 1917 and fell under the control of the Bolsheviks. The three nations of the Caucasus, Armenians, Azerbaijanis, and Georgians, previously under the rule of the Russian Empire, declared the formation of the Transcaucasian Federation, which dissolved after only three months of existence.

Divide and rule plan

In April 1920, the Soviet 11th Army invaded the Caucasus, and within two years, the Caucasian republics were formed into the Transcaucasian SFSR of the Soviet Union. The Bolsheviks thereafter created a seven-member committee, the Caucasus Bureau (the Kavburo). Under the supervision of the People’s Commissar for Nationalities, Joseph Stalin, born and raised in Georgia, the Kavburo was tasked with heading up matters in the Caucasus.
On July 4, 1921, the committee voted 4–3 in favor of allocating Karabakh to the newly created Soviet Socialist Republic of Armenia, but a day later the Kavburo reversed its decision and voted to leave the region within the Azerbaijan SSR. In accordance with Soviet policy aimed at provoking dissent between Armenia and Azerbaijan and making sure that they fight against each other and not against the Soviets, the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast (NKAO) was created in 1923, strategically leaving it with a 94% Armenian population. The reversal was substantiated by the economic connections the region had with Azerbaijan. The capital was moved from Shusha to Khankendi, “the Azeri names," which was later renamed Stepanakert after 1923; before that, the name was Vararakn, “the Armenian names."

The Soviet Union - Turkey relationships

The odd placement of the Nakhichevan exclave, which is separated by Armenia but is a part of Azerbaijan, Others have also postulated that the decision was a goodwill gesture by the Soviet government to help maintain "good relations with Atatürk's Turkey."

The desire for unification with the motherland

After decades of Soviet rule, the Armenians retained a strong desire for the unification of Nagorno-Karabakh with Armenia, an aim that some members of the Armenian Communist Party attempted to accomplish.
First Secretary of the Communist Party of Armenia Aghasi Khanjian was murdered by Deputy Head—later Head—of the NKVD Lavrentiy Beria after submitting Armenian grievances to Stalin, which included requests to return Nagorno-Karabakh and Nakhichevan to Armenia.
The Armenians insisted that their national rights had been suppressed and that their cultural and economic freedoms were being curtailed.

The first spark

After Stalin's death, Armenian discontent began to be voiced. In 1963, around 2,500 Karabakh Armenians signed a petition calling for Karabakh to be put under Armenian control or transferred to Russia. The same year saw violent clashes in Stepanakert, leading to the deaths of 18 Armenians. In 1965 and 1977, there were large demonstrations in Yerevan calling to unify Karabakh with Armenia.

In 1985, Mikhail Gorbachev, the new general secretary of the Soviet Union, began implementing plans to reform the Soviet Union, encapsulated in two policies: perestroika and glasnost. While perestroika had to do with structural and economic reform, glasnost, or "openness," granted limited freedom to Soviet citizens to express grievances about the Soviet system and leaders. Capitalizing on this, the leaders of the Regional Soviet of Karabakh decided to vote in favour of unifying the autonomous region with Armenia on February 20, 1988.

Karabakh Armenian leaders complained that the region had neither Armenian language textbooks in schools nor television broadcasting and that Azerbaijan's Communist Party General Secretary Heydar Aliyev had attempted to extensively "Azerify" the region, increasing the influence and number of Azerbaijanis living in Nagorno-Karabakh while at the same time reducing the region's Armenian population.

The 1988 movement

In February 1988, Armenians began protesting and staging workers' strikes in Yerevan, demanding unification with the enclave. The movement was spearheaded by popular Armenian figures. Some members of the Russian intelligence community expressed support for Armenians, including the dissident Andrei Sakharov.

This prompted Azerbaijani counter-protests in Baku on February 19, 1988 (the seventh day of Armenian rallies). The poet Bakhtiyar Vahabzadeh and the historian Suleyman Aliyarov published an open letter in the newspaper Azerbaijan, declaring that Karabakh was historically Azerbaijani territory.
On February 20, 1988, the leaders of the regional Soviet of Karabakh voted in favour of unifying the autonomous region with Armenia by decree.

Welcoming the wishes of the workers of the Nagorny Karabakh Autonomous Region to request the Supreme Soviets of the Azerbaijani SSR and the Armenian SSR to display a feeling of deep understanding of the aspirations of the Armenian population of Nagorny Karabakh and to resolve the question of transferring the Nagorny Karabakh Autonomous Region from the Azerbaijani SSR to the Armenian SSR, at the same time to intercede with the Supreme Soviet of the USSR to reach a positive resolution on the issue of transferring the region from the Azerbaijani SSR to the Armenian SSR.
On February 24, Boris Kevorkov, the Nagorno-Karabakh autonomous region party secretary, and an Azerbaijan loyalist were dismissed.

On February 26, Gorbachev met with two leaders of the Karabakh movement, Zori Balayan and Silva Kaputikyan, and asked them for a one-month moratorium on demonstrations.

On March 10, Gorbachev stated that the borders between the republics would not change, following Article 78 of the Soviet constitution. Gorbachev said that several other regions in the Soviet Union were longing for territorial changes and that redrawing the boundaries in Karabakh would thus set a dangerous precedent. While the Armenians viewed the 1921 Kavburo decision with disdain and felt they were correcting a historical error through the principle of self-determination (a right also granted in the constitution), Azerbaijanis found calls to give up their territory incomprehensible and aligned themselves with Gorbachev's position.



Ahmed Ibrahim

Full-fledged Content Creator & Tech Journalist. Worked previously with top publishers like AkhbarTech, Abda Adv, and RobbReportArabia.