20 Years of Statehood
20 Years of Statehood

The Quest for Independence

From the Birth of the Karabakh Committee until September 21, 1991

Twenty years have elapsed since Armenia attained independence. Twenty years that often threw back into darkness or cast into oblivion a certain number of personalities and significant events of an extraordinary adventure, characterized by "a frenzied sequence of events"[1] during almost four years, from 1988 to 1991. Here is a recapitulation of what happened, for our collective memory, in the simplest and fairest possible way.

The Premises

In order to seek the roots of Armenia's accession to independence, we need to go back to 1965, the year of the fiftieth anniversary of the Genocide, when Armenia raised its head through the First Secretary of the Communist Party, Yakov Zarobian, who lost his position after the Genocide Memorial was built and inaugurated in 1967 in Tzitzernakaberd[2].

Twenty years then elapsed, during which Paruyr Hayrikyan, who founded the Union for National Self-Determination (UNSD), mainly rotted in the gulag. His 'crime' was sharing, against all odds, the ideal of independence with other people, some of whom gave their life, later on. It is hard to ascertain how these little seeds of independence, sown here and there, managed to sprout on the infertile Soviet soil.

Then Gorbachev appeared, with his Glasnost. As early as 1986, the Armenians took incredible initiatives: they wrote letters, petitions, articles and memorandums and marched. Karabakh was in ferment. In January 1988, a delegation of Karabakhtsis went to Moscow to plead for the cause of self-determination of Karabakh. It came back empty-handed. The reaction in Stepanakert was a huge rally on February 13 that thunderstruck Moscow, Baku and Yerevan. Yerevan responded, still very timidly, on February 19.[3]

The Historic Vote of February 20, 1988

Those were the premises of the famous vote of February 20, 1988, that started it all. On that day, the Armenian deputies (who were the majority in the Soviet of Nagorno-Karabakh) adopted a motion whereby, addressing the Supreme Soviets of the Soviet Socialist Republics of Armenia and Azerbaijan, asked them in a civil manner to transmit to the Supreme Soviet of Transcaucasia and USSR their demand that the autonomous region of Nagorno-Karabakh be joined to the Armenian Soviet Socialist Republic, in accordance with the right to self-determination, provided by the Soviet Constitution.

Gorbachev did not wait for any official mediation on the part of the concerned republics. With the harshness he was known for, he flatly rejected the claims of those "crazy" people from Karabakh the next day and sent two emissaries to Stepanakert who immediately condemned the "passivity" of the local authorities in Nagorno-Karabakh and certain bureaucrats in Baku towards the "nationalist extremists"; the First Regional Secretary of Nagorno-Karabakh, Boris Gevorkov (Gevorkian), was dismissed and replaced by Henrik Poghossian; popular tension rose and military reinforcements were sent to Yerevan.

It was under that kind of pressure that on February 22, the First Secretary of the Armenian Communist Party, Karen Demirjian, thought he was doing the right thing by calling his compatriots on the other side of the frontier to come into line. On the 23rd, Dolguikh and Lukianov–members of the Political Bureau of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU)–arrived in Yerevan and headed directly to the headquarters of the Armenian Communist Party on Baghramian Avenue (which is currently the headquarters of the National Assembly), whereas on the opposite sidewalk, a small group of demonstrators led by Samson Ghazarian gathered in front of the building of the Academy of Sciences.

On the same day, Karen Demirjian agreed with Gorbachev's initial refusal, while asking that the situation in Nagorno-Karabakh be examined during the next plenary assembly devoted to national affairs.

For his part, on February 25th, Catholicos Vazgen I sent a message to Gorbachev, telling him he was hopeful he would bring about a just solution to the Nagorno-Karabakh question, in accordance with the Soviet Constitution, which meant, in fact, unification with Armenia.

One can better understand why Armenians rejected Karen Demirjian, who was forced into early political retirement for the next ten years (before the wind blew again in his favor in 1998), and on the other hand the immense respect enjoyed by Catholicos Vazgen I (up to the present day, even after his death).[4] At that stage, the Armenians were convinced they could obtain a swift and peaceful settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh question, based on the Constitution.

On the eve of Sumgait, during the first important demonstration that took place in Yerevan on February 24, aimed at protesting against the unfair position of the central authorities and the intense denigration campaign against the Armenians in the Soviet media, they chanted: "Lenin-The Party-Gorbachev!"

The First Karabakh Committee: Igor Muradyan

Who organized the demonstrations in Yerevan? Nobody remembers this today but three men, Igor Muradyan, Manvel Sargsian and Gaguik Safarian, played a historical role while launching in Yerevan the first demonstrations in support of their compatriots in Nagorno-Karabakh.

Vazgen Manukyan and Hambardzum Galstyan rallied the three men a week later. The five of them constituted the first Karabakh Committee, which was still secret and unknown to the public at the large.

Their leader was Igor Muradyan, about whom Raphael Ghazarian (physician and member of the Armenian Academy of Sciences, future member of the Karabakh Committee) said:

"Igor immediately elicited sympathy. This stout man exuded sincerity, confidence, and kindness. In short, he was a big-hearted man, while being at the same time unable to control his passions or resort to diplomacy. After a quarrel, he had no rancor, he would quickly forget about it, except for the resentment he harbored toward Baku.

He was really a patriot; he proved later on that he could sacrifice his personal ambitions for the sake of the Movement. I do not know how he managed to do so but he was able to have the meetings filmed by mobile television studios.

Unfortunately, the aforementioned character traits and his poor knowledge of the Armenian language prevented him from staying within the group of leaders of the Movement. Such a pity..."[5]

Parallel to the first Karabakh Committee, a much larger organizing Committee (Kazmkomité) regrouped all the active sympathizers of the Movement, who were around 500 and mainly intellectuals, such as the Karabakh journalist Zori Balayan and the famous poetess Silva Kaputikyan.

They held meetings and debates, prepared documents and published or sent letters; behaving in every way like they were part of a "forum."[6]

February 27 to February 29, 1988: Sumgait

One week after the February 20th vote, the town of Sumgait, in Azerbaijan, was the scene of a terrible event that suddenly raised the specter of 1915 and tremendously shocked Soviet Armenians who had been lulled for the past seventy years by the song of friendship between the peoples.

From February 27 to February 29, 1988, the Azerbaijanis, in a horrific, premeditated and methodical way, evicted the Armenians from the city. They perpetrated the crimes, but those who fomented the whole thing were the Russians.

This is, in any case, what an analysis of the facts suggests: the massacre (the Armenians plead up to this day so that it can be described as a "genocide") took place after the famous "Katusev Declaration" named after the Deputy Public Prosecutor of the USSR which, by its deliberately provocative content, manifestly acted as a detonator of the anti-Armenian charges, whereas the comments previously made by Lukianov in Yerevan on February 23rd eerily sounded, afterwards, like a warning.

It is clear that the Soviet leaders chose to break the Movement by blackmailing the physical security of the 355,000 Armenians residing in Azerbaijan, outside of the 145,000 Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh, a "policy" that also offered the advantage of demeaning the question of Nagorno-Karabakh by characterizing it as a matter of interethnic confrontation.

The Second Karabakh Committee: Vazgen Manukyan

The manifest of the Karabakh Committee dated March 19, 1988 and distributed through pamphlets contradicts that interpretation: " [...] the movement is not a conflict of nationalities or the expression of animosity but a fair, democratic, constitutional movement which uses in its fight the means and methods that are in force in the civilized world."

It is within this movement that we can find the following sentences which were wrongly attributed afterwards to Levon Ter-Petrossian and for which Vazgen Manukyan was responsible: "There is no such thing as eternal enemies or eternal friends, there are only eternal national interests. Our only support is the rallying force of our people."

Still, on March 23, the Supreme Soviet of the USSR categorically refused to envisage the slightest territorial administrative change. Gorbachev's "niet" was followed by the deputies of the Union's "niet," whereas additional military forces were deployed in Yerevan.

This was a hard blow for the Armenians who still believed that the matter could be settled by the central authorities, and who still chanted: "Lenin-the-Party-Gorbachev"!

The slogan became devoid of meaning. Between the end of April and mid-May, Igor Muradyan was ousted from the Karabakh Committee, which had already been led since March by Vazgen Manukyan and which constituted a second Karabakh Committee, composed of eleven famous intellectuals.

In it, Hambardzum Galstyan and himself were joined by the following new figures: Ashot Manucharyan, Rafael Ghazarian, Samson Ghazarian, Vano Sirateghyan, Babken Ararktsian, Aleksan Hakobyan, Samvel Gevorkian, David Vardanyan and...Levon Ter-Petrossian (see box).

And yet, the strategy did not change: the problem was still to convince the central authorities of the legitimacy of the Armenian claim, acting within the legal framework, in full compliance of the Soviet Constitution and the authorized use of the strike. It was not about confronting Moscow and even less seceding from it.

On June 2, on Opera Square, Vazgen Manukyan stressed: "Everything that steers us away from the constitutional path is an error and would lead to the downfall of the people and the question of Karabakh [...] Taking the constitutional path led us to resort to strikes as a weapon [...] I suggest the constitution of strike committees in all factories and companies."[7]

Let's recall that at that time, the USSR was still very much alive (as the ousting of Karen Demirjian in May and his replacement by Suren Harutiunian testify), and Armenia was still an industrial power, equipped with factories and combines, where resorting to the right of strike had a dreadful impact.

The Decisive Turning Point of the Summer of 1988

And thus, through reports, petitions, letters, telegrams, grievances, appeals, demonstrations, and strikes, the Armenians pursued the fight legally. Everything took place quietly but grave incidents could not be avoided, starting with the "incidents of Zvartnots," which led to the first casualty, Kachik Zakaryan, who was shot when the Soviet army brutally invaded the Yerevan Airport on July 5.

On July 18, the long-awaited meeting of the Presidency of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR, devoted to reviewing the question of Karabakh, buried permanently any hope of the central authorities redesigning the borders, whereas the Soviet media pursued their campaign of denigrating the Movement in general and the Karabakh Committee in particular.

Drawing the consequences of a deadlocked situation, Vazgen Manukyan became convinced it was important to break at once with the Communist regime and with Moscow. This is why he made the Movement take a decisive turning point, which consisted in linking, from then on, the problem of the self-determination of Karabakh to democratization in Armenia, introducing the perspective of independence, and creating a new structure: the Armenian National Movement (ANM).

The whole thing was the subject of a new manifest—the manifest of the ANM—which he conceived, wrote and made public on August 19 on Opera Square. There, while reminding people that "The primary aim of our Movement has been and continues to be the reunification of Artsakh and Armenia"[8], Vazgen Manukyan called for the establishment of democracy through free elections and getting the attributes of national sovereignty in the economic, military, diplomatic and linguistic fields (while restoring the status of the Armenian language as a State language).

He reminded the people that all those things were provided for through constitutional means but had not been implemented.

Moreover, he advocated giving priority to environmental questions by closing the Metsamor nuclear power station and the Nairit rubber factory.

He also pleaded for having the 1915 Genocide recognized by the Supreme Soviets of the Armenian Soviet Socialist Republic and the USSR; for having April 24th and May 28th declared as national holidays dedicated respectively to remembering the Genocide and the rebirth of the Armenian State; for putting back on the agenda the question of the Armenian historical territories; for adopting the tricolor flag as the national flag; for reviewing the (Soviet) ruling concerning political actors and national movements of the past; for guaranteeing the freedom of action of the Church, opening new churches, and restoring celebrations and religious and popular customs; and for restoring the Armenian names of towns.

He ended by inviting the population to rally massively around the ANM, including through "collective registrations" (khmbayin andamutiunner) by constituting groups and organizations. It was only in September, however, that he pronounced the word "independence" in Opera Square: "A people that does not aim for independence is condemned to die."[9]

Moscow Wanting to Finish with Yerevan

The context—the ideological and structural turning point—in the Movement is important in order to understand the successive collective ordeals the Armenians suffered at the same time, including the Kirovabad massacre (Azerbaijan) and the imposition of a ceasefire in Yerevan (November 1988).

To no avail: the Armenians did not give up, they maintained their initial claim, which was extended to democracy and independence and they continued unabated their strikes, their meetings, as well as sending letters, petitions, memorandums, telegrams, writing articles, etc.

Consequently, when the terrible earthquake struck Gyumri on December 7, 1988, Moscow, thinking it finally had the opportunity to wipe out the Movement, exploited the disaster by arresting and then imprisoning fourteen of its members, including the eleven members of the Karabakh Committee, who were sent to Moscow.[10]

It was another setback, because a "Shadow Committee" managed to stand in for the members of the true Committee, who were ultimately released after six months (May 31, 1989), owing to internal pressures (Andrei Sakharov, etc.) international pressures (Amnesty International, etc.) and the Diaspora (French-Armenian Solidarity, etc.)[11]

The ANM and the Conquest of Power (August 1989)

A new arm wrestling contest was engaged in between Armenia which, from then on, openly claimed its independence and proclaimed the United Republic of Armenia on December 1, 1989, and Soviet Russia, which did not hesitate to foment or allow a new anti-Armenian pogrom in Baku in January 1990.

Although Armenia was submerged by an influx of refugees who joined dozens of thousands of people stricken by the earthquake, it held its course. "The aim must be to create an independent State that alone can guarantee a settlement of the national issues," said Vazgen Manukyan in October 1989.

In order to do so, there was only one way: the ANM had to take over the highest state structures by imposing its program.

This was achieved in August 1990, when after obtaining a simple majority in the Supreme Soviet, the ANM managed to have Levon Ter-Petrossian elected as President of the Supreme Soviet on August 4 and then Vazgen Manukyan as head of the government on August 13.

The "Declaration of Independence" was proclaimed on August 20. It was a simple announcement since—for reasons of legality—the ANM decided to hold referendum consultations on that matter within a year. The Soviet Armenian flag was nevertheless taken down from the government building and the tricolor flag was raised instead (August 25, 1990) and Lenin's statue was taken down six months later (March 2, 1991).

In reality there was no longer any connection between Yerevan and Moscow, to such an extent that on March 17, 1991, Armenia boycotted the referendum on the Union, as did Georgia, Moldavia and the Baltic States.

Independence (September 21, 1991)

In August 1990, Russia immediately imposed a state of emergency in the face of the Armenian "Velvet Revolution."

That measure lasted a year and was finally lifted by the Supreme Soviet of Armenia itself, on August 16, 1991, in order to allow for the referendum campaign of September 21 to take place normally.

On that day, 95 per cent of the Armenians participated in the referendum, which was not surprising, and 99.4 per cent of them said "Yes" to independence. This was truly a plebiscite that successfully concluded a three-year period, during which an entire people progressively converted to the ideal of independence.


On September 23, 1991, an independent republic was promulgated. The euphoria was at its height and all eyes were on the next free presidential elections to be held on October 16, for the first President of the Republic to ever be elected by direct universal suffrage.

The presidential campaign marked the permanent victory of Levon Ter-Petrossian's leadership at the head of the ANM, at the expense of Vazgen Manukyan who withdrew his candidacy on September 25 (and resigned as Prime Minister). And yet, during that time, dark clouds starting looming above the land of Ararat, because after Karabakh also proclaimed its independence through the September 2nd declaration and the September 10 referendum, Azerbaijan wasted no time in abolishing its autonomy status, encircling it and submitting it to heavy shelling, which was the prelude to the war between Karabakh and Azerbaijan, and the blockade of Armenia.

For both Armenia and Karabakh, the joy surrounding the transition to independence was short-lived.

[1] Claire Mouradian, De Staline à Gorbatchev, Histoire d'une République Soviétique, l'Arménie, Ramsay, 1990, p. 406 (See Chapter IX on Karabakh). Also l'Histoire du Peuple Arménien, under the direction of Gérard Dedeyan, Privat, Toulouse, 2007, p. 651-654. [2] TS Mavian, « Tzitzernakaberd, History of a Memorial » in Nouvelles d'Arménie No. 119, May 2006, pp. 44-48. [3] Precision brought by Ashot Manucharyan (phone interview). [4] Catholicos Vazgen I refused nevertheless to sign the petition asking for the release of the Movement's members (including those of the Karabakh Committee) who were imprisoned by the Soviet authorities right after the earthquake, something that Raphael Ghazarian revealed in his memoirs: Raphael Ghazarian, Hashvétou Em (I Must Be Held Accountable), Yerevan, 2003, p. 256. [5] Raphael Ghazarian, op. cit. p. 141. [6] These clarifications were brought out by Ashot Manucharyan (phone interview). They help us rectify the inaccuracies in Ghazarian's memoirs, op. cit., p. 141-142, and the collection of Levon Ter-Petrossian's articles, speeches and interviews, Entrani [Selected pieces], Yerevan, 2006 , p. 124. [7] Vazgen Manukyan, Haykakan Yerazanke (The Armenian Dream), Yerevan, 2002, p. 5-6, 9-10, etc. [8] The text of the manifest is in V. Manukyan, op. cit. p. 17-23 (citation p. 20). The August 19, 1988 Manifest marks the birth of the ANM, which only took place on November 4, 1989, during the first general assembly. [9] Ibid. p.24. [10] The eleven members of the Karabakh Committee were imprisoned, as well as Igor Manukyan, Khachik Stambultsyan and Arkady Manucharyan. [11] See footnote 4.

Originally published in the December 2011 ​issue of AGBU Magazine. Archived content may appear distorted on your screen. end character

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