Ethnic Riots Erupt in Armenia Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

An Armenian enclave within the Azerbaijan Republic of the Soviet Union was claimed by the Armenian Republic at the cost of considerable bloodshed over several years.

Summary of Event

Armenia’s history can be told largely in terms of conquests and subdivisions by foreign powers. In 1988, the Armenian diaspora extended over much of the Middle East and, indeed, much of the world. Of 5.4 million Armenians worldwide, approximately 4.7 million lived in the Armenian Republic, located in the Caucasus, a major region in the southwestern part of the Soviet Union. The largely Armenian region of Nagorno-Karabakh and the neighboring Muslim area of Nakhichevan were given to Armenia when the Soviets took power. Partly in response to protests from Turkey, Nakhichevan was then given to neighboring Azerbaijan because most of Nakhichevan’s population was Azerbaijani. In 1923, Nakhichevan and Nagorno-Karabakh became autonomous regions within the Azerbaijan (or Azerbaidzhan) Republic. Racial and ethnic conflict;Armenia Riots;Armenia Armenia;ethnic riots [kw]Ethnic Riots Erupt in Armenia (Feb., 1988) [kw]Riots Erupt in Armenia, Ethnic (Feb., 1988) [kw]Armenia, Ethnic Riots Erupt in (Feb., 1988) Racial and ethnic conflict;Armenia Riots;Armenia Armenia;ethnic riots [g]Central Asia;Feb., 1988: Ethnic Riots Erupt in Armenia[06740] [g]Soviet Union;Feb., 1988: Ethnic Riots Erupt in Armenia[06740] [g]Armenia;Feb., 1988: Ethnic Riots Erupt in Armenia[06740] [c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Feb., 1988: Ethnic Riots Erupt in Armenia[06740] Gorbachev, Mikhail Stalin, Joseph Pogosyan, Henrik Demirchyan, Karen S. Arutyunyan, Suren

Cultural and religious factors were not the only factors driving Soviet policy. In general, the Soviet Union did not consider religion as a factor in determining republic boundaries, given that the Soviet government in the early days of the union wanted to obliterate religious influence in society. At the same time, the Soviet leaders were interested in good relations with neighboring Islamic countries as part of their policy on the “Eastern question,” or the problems of peoples in less-developed countries.

It is also believed that when the republics were created in the 1920’s, Joseph Stalin, the Soviet Union’s first commissar for nationalities and later the general secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, wanted to ensure that the republics would never unite against the central government. Stalin, himself of Georgian origin, was no stranger to the historic divisions among the Caucasian peoples. For this reason, it is believed that he consciously created republic boundaries designed to perpetuate long-term ethnic tensions and thus prevent a united front of the republics against the center. The new Soviet government hoped that ethnic differences would disappear as a united Soviet people evolved.

To cement the union, Stalin dispersed industrial and agricultural production in such a way as to maximize interdependence among the republics and make it virtually impossible for any republic to survive alone. These two policies were especially significant as the Soviet Union tried to form a new, looser confederation among the constituent republics in the 1990’s, only to discover that the republics’ economic interdependence and border irregularities made the process of redefinition much more complicated than it might have been otherwise. Armenia and Azerbaijan were among the areas most affected by Stalin’s policies of “divide and conquer.”

The Soviet Union pursued a variety of policies toward the many nationalities residing within the union. In the early years, nationalism was strongly discouraged. Later, Russian nationalism was encouraged, and nationalist views that were not hostile to Russia were tolerated. Although after Stalin the Soviet Union was considerably more free, the leadership still discouraged nationalist sentiments. In the periods when the Soviet Union was led by Nikita S. Khrushchev, Khrushchev, Nikita S. Leonid Brezhnev, Brezhnev, Leonid and Mikhail Gorbachev, the numerous nationalities were allowed to maintain their cultural traditions as long as those traditions did not threaten the union.

Armenia serves as an excellent case study of Soviet policy toward the nationalities. After World War II, the Soviet government extended an invitation to Armenians all over the world to come back to their Armenian homeland in the Soviet Union. At first, many responded to the call; some later regretted their decision. A certain amount of autonomy was allowed in Armenia. The autonomous Armenian Apostolic Church, in particular, played a significant role as a symbol of independent Armenia and, later, as a supporter of Nagorno-Karabakh’s union with Armenia. Like the other Caucasian republics, Armenia enjoyed gradual increases in its autonomy from Moscow beginning in the 1960’s. Armenia submitted a number of requests to Moscow that Nagorno-Karabakh, which the Armenians call Artsakh, become part of Armenia, but nothing happened.





Greater liberalization occurred under Mikhail Gorbachev in 1985, marked by the gradual introduction of the policies of glasnost (openness), perestroika (restructuring), and democratization. National and ethnic sentiments throughout the Soviet Union came to the surface. Among these were feelings regarding the status of the region of Azerbaijan known as Nagorno-Karabakh, the majority of whose people were Armenian. The struggle of the republics for complete independence from, or in some cases greater autonomy within, the overall union became a major political force, as did some of the disputed boundary issues. In the north, for example, the three Baltic republics worked together and separately for the common cause of independence.

In the south, although the three Caucasian republics—Armenia, Georgia, and Azerbaijan—were also natural allies in the struggle for independence or greater autonomy, the divisive issue of Nagorno-Karabakh prevented full cooperation. On the contrary, civil strife, bloodshed, and considerable unrest began in early 1988, when the issue first exploded. The reasons for the outbreak of conflict in 1988 were several, one of the most serious of which was the accusation that Azerbaijanis were beating, raping, and killing Armenian nationals in Nagorno-Karabakh.

Pro-Armenia demonstrations began in Stepanakert (now Xankändi), the capital of Nagorno-Karabakh, on February 11, 1988. They soon spread to Yerevan, the capital of Armenia. The 120,000 Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh asked to be united with Armenia. On February 28, the demonstrations spread to Sumqayit, an Azerbaijani city on the Caspian Sea, and exploded into rioting and violence. Perhaps coincidentally, the first major demonstrations on behalf of Nagorno-Karabakh erupted at a time when Karen S. Demirchyan, the leader of the Communist Party of Armenia, was under attack from Moscow for not doing enough to curb corruption in Armenia. The proximity of the two developments has led some observers to suggest that the Armenian communist leadership may have encouraged ethnic discontent in order to buttress its own position in Armenia vis-à-vis the central authorities in Moscow. On February 26, the Armenian Communist Party asked Moscow to establish a commission to study the problem of Nagorno-Karabakh.

The Nagorno-Karabakh issue quickly became the main agenda of Armenia. Violence erupted on a number of occasions, and both Armenians and Azerbaijanis lost their lives or were wounded. The Soviet military intervened several times to restore order, but its role was questioned by both Armenians and Azerbaijanis. In June, 1988, the Armenian Republic voted to annex Nagorno-Karabakh as part of Armenia, a resolution not recognized by Azerbaijan or by the central Soviet government. In July, the Soviet government stated that Nagorno-Karabakh would remain part of the Azerbaijan Republic.

Demonstrations in Yerevan became virtually a daily event in the second half of 1988. In early December, 1988, Moscow sent troops with tanks to Baku to control the increasingly violent demonstrations there. The Armenian earthquake of December 7, 1988, which killed at least twenty-five thousand people and left perhaps a half million without homes, deepened the sadness and discontent within Armenia and strengthened Armenians’ resolve. Although attention temporarily shifted from the issue of Nagorno-Karabakh to coping with the earthquake’s damage and fatalities, Nagorno-Karabakh continued to be a central concern of Armenians.

The unrest in Nagorno-Karabakh played a major role in the development of the All-Armenian National Movement (AAM), an outgrowth of the nationalist movement in Nagorno-Karabakh uniting approximately forty groups throughout Armenia. The AAM’s goal was an independent Armenia; the organization also supported a cultural and religious renaissance for the Armenian people.

In the aftermath of the attempted coup d’état against Mikhail Gorbachev in August, 1991, both Armenia and Azerbaijan proclaimed their independence from the Soviet Union, as did a majority of the Soviet Union’s republics. The conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan continued to erupt intermittently, dismaying those who hoped that in the evolution of a new union old grievances could be put aside.


The plight of the Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh was a part of the dramatic and sometimes tragic historical struggle of Armenia to survive as a nation. This struggle was also a microcosm of the nationalities’ problems within the Soviet Union. Numerous similar cases lay dormant across the gigantic expanse of the Soviet Union, threatening to erupt as the process of redefining the union proceeded.

Nagorno-Karabakh was not an issue that would go away or be forgotten. It continued to gnaw at the peoples of the Caucasus and prevented their full cooperation in either forging a new union or seeking independent status. The violence affected both Armenians and Azerbaijanis and perpetuated the tense climate in the southern republics. The Armenians had a strong case for union with Nagorno-Karabakh on ethnic grounds, but the fact that the region was separated from Armenia by Azerbaijani territory complicated the issue, as did latent Muslim-Christian conflict in the region. The situtation bore numerous similarities to the Kosovo issue in Yugoslavia, which had also defied solution.

It has frequently been stated that were it not for the Armenian-Azerbaijani clash, Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia would have formed a cooperative movement toward the creation of a trans-Caucasus union. Such a hypothesis can be neither proven nor disproven, as the struggle remained a real one, unabated by attempts to find a compromise between the two warring republics. In the momentous events leading to the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the enormously complex struggle to construct a new political entity out of the remains of the old, the Nagorno-Karabakh issue did not emerge as a major agenda item for the central government. Furthermore, attempts by the central government to mediate politically or militarily were rebuffed by the two republics, each of which accused the center of favoring the other side in the conflict. For Gorbachev and the other national leaders, the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict was a no-win situation on which they could not afford to stake their own careers.

No resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh issue was achieved in the years following the initial uprising, and the area remained in dispute into the twenty-first century. The union that Stalin built, with its ingrained ethnic conflicts and economic interdependence designed to perpetuate Soviet power, reaped a harvest of discontent in the Caucasus that threatened to cloud the future of the region for the foreseeable future. Racial and ethnic conflict;Armenia Riots;Armenia Armenia;ethnic riots

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Barry, Donald D., and Carol Barner-Barry. Contemporary Soviet Politics: An Introduction. 4th ed. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1991. Well-respected text includes a chapter on the nationality problem that provides good background on the multinational Soviet state and the specific issues that affected Armenia, especially Nagorno-Karabakh.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Croissant, Michael P. The Armenia-Azerbaijan Conflict: Causes and Implications. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 1998. Presents comprehensive analysis of the reasons behind the conflict and its impacts. Includes bibliography and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hofheinz, Paul. “People Power, Soviet Style.” Time, December 5, 1988, 36-38. Describes the development of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict just prior to the earthquake of 1988. Includes illustrations.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hunter, Shireen T. “Nationalist Movements in Soviet Asia.” Current History 89 (October, 1990): 325-339. Discusses the various national movements, including the All-Armenian National Movement and the Azerbaijan National Front.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kaufman, Stuart J. Modern Hatreds: The Symbolic Politics of Ethnic War. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2001. Argues that the underlying causes of ethnic conflicts around the world are found in the stories ethnic groups tell themselves about who they are. Includes discussion of the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Rich, Vera. “Conflict Continues Between Armenians and Azerbaijanis.” Nature 332 (April 7, 1988): 477. Briefly analyzes and compares the socioeconomic status of Nagorno-Karabakh with that of Azerbaijan and Armenia. Informative in the light of charges about discrimination against Armenians in the region.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sancton, Thomas A. “The Armenian Challenge.” Time, March 14, 1988, 32-34. Focuses on some of the specific events in the conflict, including the Sumgait riots and the demonstrations in Yerevan.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. “Defiance in the Streets.” Time, March 7, 1988, 41. Examines the outbreak of the conflict and attempts by the central leadership of the Communist Party to resolve it.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wilson-Smith, Anthony. “Explosive Protests.” Maclean’s, January 14, 1990, 22. Provides an update on the conflict and presents the Azerbaijani side in the events.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. “A Struggle for New Life.” Maclean’s 102, April 24, 1989, 20-22. Reports on the impacts of the earthquake, including its effects on Armenian life and on the struggle for Nagorno-Karabakh.

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Categories: History