30th anniversary of Sumgait pogroms: black spots of Azerbaijan

I present to your attention the article by Sergei Markedonov, an associate professor of the Chair of Foreign Region Studies and Foreign Policy of the Russian State Humanitarian University.

The Sumgait tragedy, which occurred 30 years ago, became one of the bloodiest events in the history of the Armenian-Azerbaijani confrontation. It made the “divorce” of the two peoples uncontested.

Thirty years ago, at the end of February 1988, the word “pogrom” was included in the active political vocabulary of the Soviet man. Earlier, schoolchildren and students from the USSR used this term, referring to the legacy of “gloomy times,” referring to tsarist Russia or the “crystal night” in Germany. In the February days of 1988 it filled with an important social and political meaning, not an abstract one.

Breaking myths and stereotypes

However, the Armenian pogroms in Sumgait thirty years ago (they began on February 26, 1988, reached their peak on February 28 and ceased on February 29) became not just a human and national tragedy. They broke several fundamental ideological myths and identified a number of complex and unpleasant issues that have not lost their relevance even today.

Now many experts and journalists, referring to the origins of the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict, speak about the shock experienced by the then-political elite of the USSR, and the ordinary inhabitants of the Sumgayit news. Moreover, before the tragedy of 1988, Sumgayit was portrayed almost as an exemplary city of international friendship, called to confirm in practice the thesis about the formation of a new community – the “Soviet people”.

Meanwhile, the issue of the status of the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Region raised publicly at the session of the regional council on February 20, 1988, and the conflicts and clashes that followed, including Sumgait pogroms, did not arise from scratch. In the hot pursuit of these events at a meeting of the Politburo of the CPSU Central Committee, Mikhail Gorbachev rhetorically asked: “500 letters to the Central Committee were received in three years on the question of Nagorno-Karabakh.” Did anyone pay attention to this? We had a routine reaction. ”

The words of the first president and the last first secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Azerbaijan, Ayaz Mutalibov, testify to the fact that this was a reaction, who, at the beginning of the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh, served as chairman of the State Planning Committee of the republic. Recalling his reaction to the first mass protests in Nagorno-Karabakh, he stated: “The next day I spoke in the Baku Worker newspaper, where I told the readers about the technical and economic indicators of the autonomous region, comparing them with the corresponding figures for Azerbaijan, Armenia and the country The region did not look so bad, especially in comparison with the Nakhichevan Autonomous Republic, and in some ways surpassed both the Union republics and the USSR as a whole. ”

Unfortunately, adherence to ideological purity, and even the desire for banal varnishing of reality turned out to be more important than the rapid development of an effective anti-crisis plan. As a result, the loss of initiative. Moreover, the inclusion of the top of the republican communist parties and the “respondent” in the nationalist race.

The loss of initiative is fatal

It should also be noted that before the Sumgait tragedy, the Armenian-Azerbaijani relations have already moved from the plane of the academic and academic discussions about who has more rights to Karabakh, to the squares and streets. There was already an incident in the village of Chardokhlu, there were clashes in the Askeran area. Thus, in Sumgait 30 years ago, the Soviet leadership turned out to be helpless, not only because it did not use force in time (Mikhail Gorbachev’s famous phrase about “delaying troops for three hours”), but also because he could not intelligently interpret the events. Talks about “hooligan actions of individual irresponsible elements” caused only irritation.

There was no timely investigation, a correct diagnosis of the events of the “hot February”. And, on the contrary, it was the hardest defeat in the information war. In this case, it is not only about the clash of the “two truths” – Armenian and Azerbaijani.

The Soviet leadership could not provide adequate coverage of the “hot February” events of 1988. It preferred either to silence the tragedy altogether, or to give comments not to the time and place, after which the mutual bitterness of the warring parties only increased. In this way, Moscow tried to “reassure society”. What are the only recommendations of Mikhail Gorbachev at the meeting of the Politburo of the CPSU Central Committee on Feb. 29 (actually dedicated to the situation in Sumgait) to prepare for the press “information that Armenian enterprises began to work.” By the way, yesterday they had excellent broadcasts on local television. places, their good mood “…

The proposals on “mobilizing the working class” were the same ones cut off from reality (Mikhail Solomentsev supported this). As if there were no pogromists among the representatives of the “proletariat”!

At the same time, the Armenian side sought to portray the tragedy in Sumgait as a logical continuation of the Ottoman Genocide of 1915 (the events themselves were repeatedly called “Sumgait genocide”). And the Azerbaijani side spoke about the Armenian provocation and conspiracy of “world Armenians”. It was this party that the role of one of the thugs, Eduard Grigoryan, was inflated. This version was first voiced by Academician Ziya Bunyatov in the article “Why Sumgait”.
The authorities, thus, lost the monopoly on information and interpretation, but it was not able to create its own picture of events that provoked confidence.

Two “truths” – two tragedies

As a result, we witnessed the formation and cementation of two opposing narratives – Armenian and Azerbaijani. As Dmitry Furman, a well-known Russian historian and political scientist, rightly noted, “for the first time in perestroika”, Azerbaijan loudly declares itself and invades the Russian consciousness with the horror of the Sumgayit pogrom, no doubt, the tragic stories of Sumgait in 1988 and then in January 1990 in Baku still long years will be black spots on the reputation of the new Azerbaijan. However, one can not but see that the Armenian leaders who were plotting the project of “unifying Karabakh with Armenia” did not think too much, first, about the possible consequences of it and secondly, they were not interested in the fate of Azerbaijanis in Armenia and in Nagorno-Karabakh itself. In this respect, it is very revealing for an interview of one of the most prominent activists of the Karabakh movement Igor Muradyan to the British researcher Thomas de Waal. On the question of a foreign guest about whether the activists thought Armenian movement about Azerbaijanis, Muradin honestly replied: “Their fate did not interest us then and does not interest now.”

In February 1988, the tragic events in Sumgait became a kind of watershed for the Armenians of Azerbaijan. Subsequently, the Armenian pogroms in Baku in 1990 will make the process of de-Armenization of Azerbaijan irreversible. However, this medal had another side, which should not be ignored. Sumgait has also become a definite border for the Azerbaijanis of Armenia. After the “hot February” of 1988, they had no choice but to leave their homes for the sake of gaining a “historical homeland”.

Today historians and political scientists in Baku and Yerevan are arguing hard about what is primary and what is secondary. Did Sumgait respond to the expulsion of Azerbaijanis from the Kafansky region of Armenia or did it become a reaction to the Armenian pogroms in the territory of the Azerbaijani SSR? Both sides cite references, cite the opinions of eyewitnesses. But with complete certainty it can only be asserted that the actual “exchange of population” between the two Transcaucasian republics became inevitable after Sumgait. And this is also one of the unconditional results of the tragedy of February 26-29.

Ethnic “purity” as a principle won the upper hand. And Sumgait, in which Armenian pogroms passed, became a symbol of victory of this principle. Sumgayit was followed by other Armenian pogroms in Azerbaijan and the outcome of Azerbaijanis from Armenia. The escalation of mutual violence eventually led to a three-year Armenian-Azerbaijani war over Nagorno-Karabakh (in 1991-1994).

But, perhaps, the main result of the Sumgait tragedy was the formation of a special social psychology of the two conflicting societies. Its main features are heightened sensitivity to its tragedies and insensitivity to the tragedies of the enemy (even a willingness to deny this tragedy simply because it is “alien”). The author of this article has repeatedly had to answer the questions of Azerbaijani journalists about the role of the KGB (the CIA, the world Armenian backstage) in the tragedy of the “hot February” 1988 and at the same time argue with the Armenian colleagues that the tragedy of February (1992) in Khojaly) is not an invention of Azerbaijani propaganda.

In any case, today, all of us, regardless of our understanding of the nature and dynamics of the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict, it would be very useful to learn the lessons of Sumgait thirty years ago. And to realize that the “combing” of reality, the refusal to correctly diagnose a political disease, even for the most beautiful purposes, an appeal to ethnic values ​​and the use of xenophobia for “creative purposes” always lead to the same result – a pogrom that becomes the main (and sometimes sole) tool of nation-building.

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