(Used to be available at URL under
"Occasional Papers").

By Alan F. Fogelquist, Ph. D.

Eurasia Research Center, Los Angeles California

In the discussion below I will outline what I believe to be the main
obstacles to acquiring an objective and accurate understanding of the
causes of the Karabakh war. Without a correct diagnosis of the nature of
this conflict there can be no reasonable or just solution. Only a just
solution which takes into consideration the legitimate concerns of each
party to the conflict and which assigns individual responsibility to all
those persons on either side who have committed crimes of violence in
violation of recognized rules of warfare can there be a lasting settlement
to the conflict. As long as one or more parties to the conflict refuses to
accept this reality the war will continue and there will be no return to a
normal life, know healing, no economic reconstruction and no rebuilding of
destroyed communities.

Although the general causes of the Azeri-Armenian conflict over Nagorno
Karabakh are known, many details about the origins of the conflict are
clouded in mystery. At the beginning of 1988 when violence first erupted
on a large scale the Soviet Press was not yet free. Foreign reporters were
not allowed to visit the locations where violence began. Much of the
written information about the origins of the conflict is of dubious
reliability. In general it may be said that the Armenian nationalists,
have been much more energetic and effective in making their interpretation
of the Karabakh events known to the wider world than have the
Azerbaijanis. The Azerbaijanis have few spokesmen in western countries
except indirectly through Turkey and Turkish lobbying organizations. 

Armenians of the large Diaspora communities in Europe and the Middle East
have numerous cultural and political organizations, newspapers and
journals through which to make their views known. Armenians have also
established significant political influence in Western Europe and the
Untied States through their organizations and individual members of their
communities who have been elected to public office. It is not surprising
that Armenian points of view about the Karabakh crisis are better known
than those of Azerbaijan. The government of Azerbaijan and Azerbaijani
nationals have not been effective in making their views understood in the
west and have not produced any systematic and comprehensive documentation
to substantiate their views. Any individual trying to learn the Azeri
positions and their factual basis will have a great deal of difficulty
finding the necessary information. Most books in western languages dealing
in any detail with the Azeri-Armenian war over Nagorno Karabakh are
written by authors generally supporting the positions of the Armenian

Two scholarly works by non-Armenians, the study by Audreay Alstadt and
that by Tadeusz Swietochowski, have only short chapters on the Karabakh
crisis in which the authors attempt to summarize the Azeri point of view
as well as their own interpretation of the crisis. Even these two scholars
are unable to reach a definitive judgment about several important
questions on the Karabakh war because of a lack of detailed reliable

In my own efforts to understand the origins and development of the
Karabakh war and possible solutions to the conflict, I have faced some of
the same problems as these two authors. I have already conducted a review
of documentary evidence on the Nagorno Karabakh conflict which availbale
in to the researchers in western countries. This in icludes the many
articles and daily radio broadcasts from Baku, Moscow and Erevan gathered
by the Foreign Broadcasting Information Service of the United States
government and collections of documents such as that on Black January
published in Baku. My own interest in the Karabakh conflict stems from a
general interest in the frontier region between the Turko-Iranian Islamic
world and the Russian and Balkan Slavic world as well as a deep personal
concern to bring an end to the conflicts which have erupted in the region
during the collapse of Communist rule and the multi-national state. Of the
conflicts in this area I have a first hand personal knowledge of the
conflict in former Yugoslavia about which there is a great deal of
evidence available even to a scholar who does not visit the region.  In
comparing these conflicts I am struck by the lack of detailed and reliable
information on the beginning of the Karabakh conflict. In this short
commentary I will list some of the main areas about which there is
currently a lack of detailed written evidence. A lot of this evidence may
be available in classified documents and reports in Russia, Azerbaijan,
and Armenia which are kept secret and are not available to investigative
journalists, researchers, and scholars of any nationality. Part of the
evidence is in the memory of all those who have directly experienced the
Karabakh war as observers, victims or executors of warfare. A major
problem is that part of what has been revealed to the public about this
conflict appears to be based on hearsay, one sided and selective
presentation of facts, exaggerated propaganda, popular myth, and in some
cases deliberate lies or disinformation. Because the conflict has involved
unspeakable atrocities and violation of international norms of
warfare,there is good reason for people on either side who are responsible
for these crimes of war to distort the facts and lie about what has
happened.  Propagandists on either side will exaggerate and distort
reality to suit the needs of their cause. Ultimately lies and distortions
will backfire, for in the long run, the only effective propaganda is the

Among the most important subjects about which primary documents or
testimony is scarce is the expulsion or exodus of Azerbaijanis from
Armenia and Armenian controlled regions of Nagorno Karabakh from the end
of 1987 until the Black January events of 1990. This is one of the least
understood and least documented aspects of the escalation of tensions
between Azeris and Armenians in the early stage of the Karabakh conflict. 
When exactly did the exodus of Azeris take place?  Under what conditions
did it occur? What exactly occurred to make these people feel so
threatened that they had to leave Armenia. Did the Azeri government
encourage the exodus? What was the role of the Armenian government
authorities and local organs of the Armenian Communist Party during the
early exodus of Azeris. Were the Azeris who left Armenia threatened or
mistreated by members of the non-Communist Armenian natinalist movement. 
What was the role of rumor, fear, and panic in precipitating these events?

The exodus of Armenians from Azerbaijan after the Sumgait riots and the
escalation of conflict between communities in Karabakh is much better
known than the departure of the Azeris from Armenia. It is surprising that
so little testimony or documentation is available on this subject. It
would still be possible to systematically gather, cross reference, and
verify the testimony of Azeris who fled in fear from Armenian controlled
areas during the initial stages of the conflict. This evidence would be
more credible if it were gathered systematically with some participation
of non-Azeri researchers or human rights experts according to the
interviewing techniques and standards of internationally recognized human
rights organizations. Professional historians, specialists in
international law, and researchers would be able to use such material with
the confidence that it was not obtained in a sloppy and biased fashion for
purposes of political propaganda. One of the serious problems of any
researcher and analyst of wartime events is that much reporting during
such times of intense conflict and emotion may be inaccurate, distorted,
or simply untrue.

Another important subject on which detailed evidence is lacking concerns
the early stages in the development of the Armenian nationalist movement
in Nagorno Karabakh and its evolution from a partly spontaneous protest
movement to an organized revolutionary nationalist movement with its own
military formations.  Armenian sources written in western languages or
Russian contain some information on the origins of the Karabakh movement
and its leaders, but there are few Azerbaijani sources on this subject and
no credible effort appears to have been made to systematically gather,
compare, and verify testimony from Azeris from Nagorno Karabakh on the
attitudes and behavior of the Armenian nationalists towards the Azeri
population during the early stages of the movement for unification of
Nagorno Karabakh with Armenia. Azerbaijani scholars have not gathered any
precise documentaion which would tell us how this behavior changed or
worsened as tensions rose. How peaceful was the Armenian protest movement
in its earliest stages and when did it turn more violent?

Documentation needs to be gathered on the role of local Armenians from
Nagorno Karabakh in the early stages of the movement for unification with
Armenia as well as the role of nationalist activists from Armenia or
Moscow. Such evidence is necessary to understand how and when the Karabakh
Armenians began forming organized military formations. Evidence is needed
on the levels of outside support the Nagorno Karabakh Armenians were
receiving at various stages in the conflict.  Who were the first military
leaders of the Karabakh Armenian movement? How many of them were local
people? How many were from the Soviet Republic of Armenia and how many
from the Armenian Diaspora? At what point, if any, is there reliable
evidence of participation by volunteers from the Armenian Diaspora outside
the former Soviet Union? Evidence on these questions must exist not only
in Armenian sources, but also in Azeri or Soviet police or military
archives.  Especially valuable would be the testimony of Russian soldiers
and military personnel or any independent Russian or foreign journalists
who were present in Nagorno Karabakh during the first stage of the
conflict. How did the program, goals, strategy, and tactics of the
Armenian nationalists change as tensions escalated and the conflict
developed from violence between communities to organized warfare?

It may never be possible at this late moment for an impartial researcher
to learn exactly what occurred immediately before, during, and after the
Sumgait riots. There has been much speculation about the reasons for the
failure of the Soviet Army or local Azeri authorities to intervene in a
timely fashion to stop the looting, destruction and killing. About the
Sumgait riots there are many conspiracy theories but very little concrete
evidence. At the time of the actual Sumgait events, the
governement-controlled Soviet, Azerbaijani, and Armenian media provided
only scant information to the public, ostensibly in order to prevent the
spread of rumors and further aggravation of tensions between the Armenian
and Azeri communities. Foreign reporters were not allowed to enter either
Armenia or Azerbaijan at this time. What is certain is that the relations
between the Azerbaijani and Armenian communities were severely damaged as
the result of the Sumgait violence, the Soviet and Azeri government's
handling of the disturbances, and the use made of this event by political

The trial of those accused of violent and criminal behavior at Sumgait was
not open to the public and detailed transcripts of the court hearings and
all of the testimony and evidence are unavailable. There may be
"classified" or secret documents in Moscow, Baku, and Erevan which could
provide the honest and systematic historian or investigator with concrete
evidence about this tragedy which is still shrouded in mystery. Until this
evidence is made available to the world public, it is absurd to concoct
conspiracy theories. The available evidence is too flimsy to prove any
such theory.

An accurate assessment of the Sumgait affair, its causes and consequences
would require careful examinination and comparison of numerous classified
reports and court documents as well as the testimony of eye witnesses of
all nationalities both victims, perpatrators and observers of the
destruction and violence. Even after careful examination of what it may be
impossible to establish the identity the "50 hooligans" who suddenly
appeared at the Sumgait bus station or whether it is true or untrue that
some group of conspirators arranged for 50 hardened criminals to be
released from prison and bussed them into Sumgait to organize the killing
and destruction.

Although evidence about Black January in Baku is more abundant than that
about Sumgait, there are still many unanswered questions. Probably the
most important unanswered questions are the role of the Vazirov government
and various Azeri political factions during the events and the real
reasons for the Soviet Army intervention in Baku. Here again there is a
lack of detailed evidence from reliable sources.

President Aliev of Azerbaijan has has on several occasions stated in a
succinct and systematic fashion his government's position on the Nagorno
Karabakh conflict and possible solutions to it. Azerbaijani shcolars,
journalists, and legal experts now need to begin a systematic effort to
gather documentation and testimony on the history of the Nagorno Karabakh
conflict to convincingly substantiate these positions and make them
available to the world. Only then will outsider really be able to get a
balanced view of what has happened in Karabakh and understand the Azeri
point of view.

Copyright (c) December 1996 Eurasia Research Center and Alan Fogelquist.
Published at VAR with permission from the author. All rights reserved. 

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