From Caucasus: An Introduction, by Thomas de Waal (Oxford U. Press, 2010), Kindle Loc. 1889-1922:
When Nagorny Karabakh became the Soviet Union’s first dissident region in February 1988, it took almost everybody by surprise. Within the space of a week, the Karabakh Armenians had broken a series of Soviet taboos, staging public rallies, strikes, and effectively a public vote of no confidence in Moscow. Many Azerbaijanis have seen a high-level conspiracy in this. They argue that a remote province such as Karabakh could only have risen up and challenged the status quo on the critical issue of national borders after receiving strong positive signals from the top. This speaks to Azerbaijani fears about the power of the Armenian lobby—and Gorbachev did indeed have two Armenian advisers. Yet the fact that Gorbachev decisively rejected the Karabakhis’ demand suggests that there was no conspiracy—more a tangle of misunderstandings and mixed messages. The Karabakh Armenians and their Armenian lobbyists believed they had much more support than they actually had.
On February 20, 1988, after a series of petitions had been presented in Moscow, Armenian deputies in the local soviet voted to ask the central authorities to facilitate the transfer of the region to Soviet Armenia. Azerbaijani deputies abstained. The Politburo immediately rejected the request and said the soviet’s actions “contradict the interests of the working people in Soviet Azerbaijan and Armenia and damage interethnic relations.” The local soviet’s bold resolution had repercussions for the whole Soviet Union. Soviets, the basic building-blocks of the USSR’s system of government, had nominal power but were in practice supposed to be mere rubber-stamping bodies. Once the Karabakh soviet had challenged that consensus and dusted off Lenin’s concept of “all power to the soviets,” the system faced paralysis. It was the first shot in a “war of laws” between Soviet institutions—later Azerbaijan’s Supreme Soviet would reject the Karabakhi move, and Armenia’s Supreme Soviet would support it. The deadlock soon spread to Georgia and later to Russia in what came to be known as a “parade of sovereignties,” as autonomous entities across the Soviet Union tried to reinvest power in institutions that had been mere façades since the 1920s.
Gorbachev faced a dilemma in dealing with the Karabakh revolt. To have agreed to the soviet’s demand would have set a precedent he did not want to see. To have arrested the demonstrators would have been risky and against the spirit of glasnost he was trying otherwise to inculcate in the Soviet Union. In the event, he tried to smother the problem. The official media remained silent about it. A battalion of 160 Soviet Interior Ministry troops was sent to Karabakh, and a Politburo delegation traveled to the region to try and talk sense into the rebels. Appeals were made to the “brotherly solidarity” of the two peoples.
Gorbachev was far more liberal than any other Soviet leader before him, but his response revealed the limitations of the Soviet political system. Real political dialogue had effectively been banned in the Soviet Union for more than sixty years. “I had hundreds of conversations,” said a Moscow official who traveled between Armenia and Azerbaijan seeking compromise on the Karabakh issue in 1988. “I didn’t meet a single Armenian or a single Azerbaijani who held a compromise position on this question, from shepherds to academicians.” The expectation was that Moscow would rule decisively in favor of one side or the other. The party authorities in Baku never thought of inviting the Karabakh Armenians for talks on their demands—even if they had been allowed to—while the Karabakh Armenians traveled to Moscow, not Baku, to push their claims. Within months, dissatisfied with Moscow’s handling of the national issue, Armenians and Azerbaijanis were burning their party cards and openly defying the central authorities. Karabakh also exposed the weakness of the interconnected Soviet command economy. One of the first strikes in the Soviet Union in almost seventy years, at an electronic parts factory in the Karabakhi capital, Stepanakert, slowed or halted production in sixty-five radio and television factories across the Soviet Union. The overall effect was that as soon as the rigid, authoritarian Soviet system was challenged in a comprehensive way, it suddenly looked very brittle.