Gorbachev was secretary general of the Soviet Union’s ruling Communist Party when hundreds of thousands of Armenians took to the streets of Stepanakert and Yerevan to demand Armenia’s reunification with Karabakh, then an autonomous region within Soviet Azerbaijan.
The reformist leader rejected that demand out of hand but accepted the need to support the mostly Armenian-popular region economically and give it more self-rule. Karabakh was placed under a de facto direct rule from Moscow in 1989.
This stance put Gorbachev at odds with both Armenians and Azerbaijanis and failed to prevent a further escalation of the conflict. It degenerated into an all-out Armenian-Azerbaijani war immediately after the break-up of the Soviet Union.
The 74-year-old ex-Soviet president, widely revered in the West for liberalizing the now defunct empire, was asked by RFE/RL’s Armenian service to comment on the issue at the weekend as he presented a report by his Moscow-based Gorbachev Fund. The report was drawn up ahead of the 25th anniversary of the start of his historic economic and political reforms known as Perestroika.
According to Gorbachev, the Kremlin was ready in 1988 to give Karabakh the status of an autonomous republic and the then leadership of Soviet Azerbaijan nearly accepted the idea. “I kept saying that there can be no winners in such conflicts … and that agreement and cooperation is needed,” he said. “We were close to that. We were drawing up a proposal to create a Karabakh republic, and I think [Azerbaijan’s Communist leader Abdul-Rahman] Vezirov was in charge at the time. He was agreeing to that and we could already look for ways [of a peaceful settlement.]
“Now they are again threatening each other. What does that mean? Do they want to draw big states into a war? I think that should not be permitted.”
The long-running Armenian-Azerbaijani peace talks, continued Gorbachev, must go on “as long as it is necessary.” “I don’t know if that territory can now be returned to Azerbaijan,” he said. I don’t know how that can be done. Back then it was still possible to turn it into a republic, give it autonomy.”
Neither Gorbachev, nor any other Soviet leader is known to have publicly offered to upgrade Karabakh’s status to an autonomous republic within Azerbaijan at the time, however.
The Gorbachev Fund report notes that the Karabakh conflict was the result of controversial decisions made by the Soviet leadership in the early 1920s. Karabakh was formally incorporated into Soviet Azerbaijan at the time.
Gorbachev acknowledged that Soviet and Azerbaijani governments for decades “neglected” the socioeconomic needs and cultural rights of the Karabakh Armenians. “The situation in Karabakh was such that you couldn’t communicate with Yerevan,” he said. “We allocated half a billion rubles to develop Karabakh … Lots of things had been lacking there. It had been neglected.”
“My recommendations were portrayed as proof that I like Armenians and dislike Azerbaijanis,” he told RFE/RL’s Armenian service. “What a stupidity.”