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Russia: Analysis From Washington: An Anniversary Of Unintended Consequences

  • Paul Goble



Washington, 19 January 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Military intervention in Baku ten years ago this week exacerbated the three things it was supposed to quell: ethnic unrest between Azerbaijanis and Armenians, the influence of Islam in the Soviet Union, and support for independence movements across the non-Russian portions of the USSR.

As such, the events in Baku a decade ago call attention to the unintended consequences which characterized so many aspects of Mikhail Gorbachev's reign as the last Soviet leader. And they serve as an object lesson of the ways in which the incautious use of military force by any government to address political problems can backfire.

But even more, especially when viewed from the perspective of today, the gap between what Moscow said it wanted to do in Azerbaijan at that time and what it actually achieved suggests some almost eerie parallels between what the current Russian government says it is doing in Chechnya and what its actions there may ultimately lead to.

For that reason, if for no other, the events of January 1990 in the southern Caucasus are currently attracting more attention in the Caucasus, in Russia and in the West than might otherwise be the case.

The actual history is both complex and in some places still very much actively disputed.

On January 15, 1991, President Mikhail Gorbachev approved the airlift of some 11,000 military and security troops to Azerbaijan. The Soviet leader said he was taking this step to stop escalating violence between Armenians and Azerbaijanis.

Violence between these two nations had been percolating since 1988, but it flared up at the end of 1989 and the beginning of 1990, following Baku's decision to blockade the railroad leading into Armenia and Yerevan's declaration that Nagorno-Karabakh should be integrated into the Armenian economy and that Armenian laws took precedence over Soviet ones.

These actions in turn sparked demonstrations in Azerbaijan, some of which turned violent, and they led to the formation of volunteer militias and self-defense forces on both sides. In the face of this escalating violence, Gorbachev on January 17 ordered its troops to open fire in self-defense and to protect civilians.

But this measure, designed to be intimidating and to limit the violence, had just the opposite effect. Over the next week, hundreds of people were killed -- the exact numbers remain a matter of dispute -- and Moscow upped the ante by introducing still more of its forces into Azerbaijan.

Moscow's action initially enjoyed the support of major Western countries -- the United States, for example, said that it recognized Moscow's right to use force to protect its citizens and to oppose "age-old tensions" -- but that support ebbed as the violence continued.

At home, this process went far more quickly. Gorbachev soon faced mounting opposition from Russians who questioned the value of what he was doing. During the Soviet leader's visit to his native Stavropol krai on January 19, for example, one Russian woman told him that "I won't give you my son" for such campaigns in the Caucasus.

Non-Russians were even more outraged by this action. Most saw it as a reversal of the cautious approach Gorbachev had adopted following the massacre of demonstrators in the Georgian capital of Tbilisi in April 1989. But an increasing number decided that such a use of force meant that autonomy within the Soviet Union was no longer an attractive option for them and that outright independence might be a better choice.

Azerbaijani leaders indicated on January 22, nearly a week after Soviet forces arrived, that they were prepared to seek independence. And their move was followed within months by equally assertive actions from the Caucasus to the Baltics.

Faced with this challenge and hoping to send a message far beyond the borders of Azerbaijan, Soviet forces sealed the borders of that republic, imposed a state of emergency there, and sought to hide what they were doing there by denying entry to foreign journalists.

That show of force initially appeared very successful. For a few weeks, force appeared to have gained the upper hand. But in less than two years, Azerbaijan was independent, and the Soviet Union was no more.

At least part of the reason for that dramatic acceleration of the pace of history in Azerbaijan and elsewhere was the misplaced effort of those in Moscow who sought to slow it down.

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