Independence of Azerbaijan gained as a result of the collapse of the USSR in 1991 logically drew to a complicated political situation in Azerbaijan. The major competing forces in the country were the incumbent old Communist nomenklatura and the growing oppositional Popular Front (hereinafter – PFA). Both sides speculated over the developments in Nagorno-Karabakh and aspired to exploit them against one another in their power struggle.
In January 1990 violent pogroms and massacres against the Armenian population of Baku, numbering over 200 000, were organized. This made the Soviet authorities to bring Soviet army into the capital of Azerbaijan. The PFA interpreted the introduction of the Soviet army forces in Baku soundly as a menace to its growing influence, and decided for an armed resistance. The clashes between people from the PFA and the Soviet armed forces brought to tens of dead from both sides and served as cause for launching a large-scale anti-governmental campaign by the opposition. The PFA expected to gain sympathies of the majority of the population in Azerbaijan by this and prepare grounds for seizing power. The gap between the leadership of Azerbaijan and the opposition continuously grew; neither did the sides disdained dirty means in this political confrontation. According to the president of Azerbaijan A. Mutalibov the PFA “by extremism, by shape, by structure is a Communist, Bolshevik movement. They have supporting cells, functionaries – nothing new except for the name. The PFA has turned into a real ultra nationalistic movement.”1 Noteworthy, Mutalibov, an experienced Communist himself, had to be well aware that Communism is a supranational ideology recognizing only class differences. At the same time he had to be well aware also about the level of hatred towards the Communism among Azerbaijanis. That is the reason he labels his political opponents that way.
However, the influence and capabilities of the PFA in Azerbaijan were still growing, and already by the end of 1991 practically all the Azerbaijani armed forces and formations operating in Nagorno-Karabakh were oriented towards the PFA and were controlled directly from the center of that organization. It is also worth mentioning that the NF of Azerbaijan in its foreign policy landmarks held on to pro-Turkish line and received a significant amount of support from Ankara.
The PFA position solidified especially after the August coup attempt in Moscow. Being at the moment on an official visit to Iran A. Mutalibov did not manage to grasp the upheaval of political struggle in Moscow and quite unequivocally spoke in support of the GKChP, which remained unnoticed neither by the president of the USSR Gorbachev, nor in the pro-Yeltsin circles. Thus, deprived of the support from Moscow A. Mutalibov was left in his homeland to face the PFA alone.
Тhe peacemaking mission of B. Yeltsin and N. Nazarbaev and the signing of a joint communiqué between the presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan in Zheleznovodsk served to be a good opportunity to somewhat improve the situation and to get control over it.
However, the development of events in that direction obviously did not suit the oppositional forces in Azerbaijan and the PFA in particular, while Mutalibov still continued to demonstrate a lack of political foresight astonishing for a figure of his rank. The map of Karabakh still remained the strongest trump card in the anti-presidential struggle for power.
It did not take much effort to PFA to find new ways for political struggle. On November 19th on the frontline between the Martuni region of Karabakh and Agdam region of Azerbaijan an Azerbaijani helicopter crashed in enigmatic circumstances. Many state officials of Azerbaijan, the military superintendent of the Region in the State of Emergency General Zhinkin, as well as the representatives of the president of Kazakhstan and Russia, who had arrived in the conflict zone with observational mission died in the crash.
In Azerbaijan, probably mechanically, the accident was declared to be a diversion organized by the Karabakhis. However, the accusations against the Armenian side were proved to be groundless and no more or less weighty proofs of their connection to the catastrophe were found. Indirect proofs on the connections of the Azerbaijani side to the helicopter crash are brought in the book by Th. Goltz.2
The air crash in November 1991 shook Mutalibov’s position significantly. The thing was that A. Mutalibov’s most faithful brothers-in-arms were on board of the crashed helicopter. Deprived of the closest supporters A. Mutalibov realized that was losing the power confidence in Baku. According to K. Stolyarov, Mutalibov had no choice but to regret that he «did not bind in one the catastrophe in the Karabakh sky with the immediately increased activity of the opposition. It was there one should look for solution of the problem, which, unfortunately, did not and for which he soon had to pay».3
Catastrophe nearby the village of Berdashen (Karakend) sharply changed A. Mutalibov’s conduct and approaches, who by the time already was realizing a certain vulnerability of his positions in the Karabakh conflict settlement.
Disagreement between the president of Azerbaijan and the opposition in the person of the Popular Front became apparent also in the approaches and the methods of resolution of the Karabakh problem. In the first half of 1991 Mutalibov was supporting the most radical measures towards the Armenian population of Nagorno-Karabakh. Mutalibov’s position became apparent, particularly, in the operation Koltso (Ring in Russian), unprecedented by its scope and violence, when the Azerbaijani OMON and the Soviet troops in Karabakh deported the whole population of 24 Armenian villages. However after the autonomous status of Karabakh was abolished by the Azerbaijani Majlis (parliament), Mutalibov repeatedly spoke against activities aimed at full cessation of relations with Armenia.
As Stolyarov witnesses, since the beginning of the Stepanakert shelling by Grad artillery mounts from Shushi, A. Mutalibov was harshly criticizing the then defense minister of Azerbaijan Rahim Gaziev for irresponsibility and ignorance of the possible counteractions from the Armenian side. After being informed about the Stepanakert shelling by Grad artillery mounts, Mutalibov connected with R. Gaziev and said quite strictly: “What are you up to? I suppose you believe there is no such Grad with Armenians? Why, of course! Have you ever thought what would be with Shushi? … For the future, don’t you dare to do on your own!”4 But the Stepanakert bombardment not only did not stop, but, on the contrary, intensified from day to day. We can only suppose that gaziev continued «to do on his own», i.e. the army was already not controlled by its commander-in-chief. There another possible scenario also: well aware of the huge number of death toll among the civilians in Stepanakert and the tremendous damages of the NKR capital, Stolyarov simply tries to distance A. Mutalibov from the barbarous shelling of the city overcrowded with refugees. But here also Mutalibov did not look at his best. Worthy to mention, he was concerned with the possible adequate response against his compatriots rather than the fact of shelling a peaceful town with a numerous population with a banned weapon.
The fact remains that during the Karabakh war the Azerbaijani army was quite frequently used for political aims, which raises no doubts even among the Azerbaijanis themselves. This peculiarity of the Azerbaijani army is well known also in international organizations.5
1 I am humanist. Interview of president of Azerbaijan Ayaz Mutalibov, Nezavisimaya gazeta, Moscow. 02. 04. 1992.
2 Tomas Goltz, Azerbaijan Diary, New York, 1998, pp. 115-120.
3 Kiril Stolyarov, Raspad: ot Nagornovo Karabakha do Belovezhskoy Pushi, Moscow, 2001, pp. 271-272.
4 Kiril Stolyarov, op. cit. pp. 121-122, Respublika Armenia, Yerevan, 31. 01, 1992.
5 Azerbaijan. Seven Years of the Conflict in Nagorno Karabakh. Human Rights Watch/ Helsinki, New York, 1994, p. 7.