The 1988 Karabakh Movement and the Imperative for a New Artsakh Narrative

Illustration by Armine Shahbazyan.

1988 was a transformational year for the Armenian nation. As the Soviet Union began to unravel, widespread demonstrations erupted in Yerevan and in Stepanakert demanding the reunification of the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast (NKAO) with Soviet Armenia.

When the first raw footage of the massive demonstrations started to make their way beyond the Iron Curtain, my circle in the diaspora was spellbound. Watching the grainy black and white images of almost a million people chanting miatsum (unification) sparked the imagination of the Armenian people and led to a national reawakening. For those of us who witnessed it from afar, it was exhilarating, a flicker of light and hope after decades in exile from our ancestral homeland.

The roots of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict can be traced back to the territorial and political arrangements set up in the 1920s by the Bolsheviks, when the predominantly Armenian territory of Nagorno-Karabakh was placed under Azerbaijani administration. For decades, the Armenians of NKAO petitioned the authorities in Moscow, primarily after World War II, about the issue of Nagorno-Karabakh to no avail. However, the nationwide movement that began in the early months of 1988 and the subsequent war launched by Azerbaijan’s Operation Ring set into motion a series of events that would eventually lead to the Armenian side winning the war and the de facto independence of the Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh, also known as the Artsakh Republic.

More than 70 years after the 1915 Armenian Genocide that resulted in the extermination of 1.5 million Armenians and the ejection from historic lands, a small part of historic Armenia had been reclaimed. It was a salve to an open wound, an acknowledgment of historic injustice. But the conflict had not been resolved with the signing of the May 5, 1994 ceasefire agreement that ended the First Nagorno-Karabakh War. It continued to remain frozen, as it had been for decades under Soviet rule. From that moment on, we lived in a perpetual state of no war, no peace. And we got comfortable.

For almost 30 years, each successive administration in Armenia tried its hand at solving the conflict. Each administration failed. Contradictory international legal principles of territorial integrity and the right to self-determination based on the Helsinki Final Act put a stranglehold on a final resolution, as did the unwillingness of the sides to compromise. As the OSCE Minsk Group, the body set up to mediate a peaceful resolution to the conflict, shuttled from Yerevan to Baku, narratives were being developed in both capitals. While official Baku launched and entrenched state-sponsored anti-Armenian hysteria and carefully prepared for war, authorities in Yerevan carefully cultivated the narrative that the status quo could hold, that not a single inch of territory would be given back and in case of a war, the Armenian side would have the upper hand.

Today, still reeling from the defeat in the 2020 Artsakh War, it is not clear what the future holds for the indegenous Armenian population of Artsakh. Beyond the post-war shock and devastation, beyond the political posturing and the accusations, and now broader regional instability with Russia’s declaration of war and ongoing military operations in Ukraine, there is little public discourse about the future and the final status of the Republic of Artsakh, and what such developments entail for this small republic.

In October 2020, at the height of the war, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan floated the idea of remedial secession as a potential international instrument to protect the Armenian population of Artsakh from Azerbaijan. It was not mentioned again until his party’s platform for the early parliamentary election of June 2021. It is unclear at this point what steps Armenia’s government has taken in this regard. In his piece on EVN Report in December 2021, Dr. Nerses Kopalyan presented an alternative approach, remedial sovereignty, that might be a preferable option to pursue. Aside from individual initiatives, what is Armenia’s political establishment, including the opposition, proposing as a vision for the security and status of Artsakh? Equally important is the position of civil society, although they have yet to formulate one. 

Will the collective will of the Armenian nation produce a new chapter in the struggle of the Artsakh cause, or do we stand to repeat the errors of history? What does the future hold for Artsakh, and has Armenia lost agency in resolving the issue that has been the cornerstone of Armenian statehood? Where, as a people and as a nation, do we go from this point… and what are we prepared to tell our future generations?

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