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The Rise of New Nationalism in Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia in the Late 1980s and Early 1990s

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Unbreakable Union of freeborn Republics,
Great Russia has welded forever to stand.
Created in struggle by will of the people,
United and mighty, our Soviet land!

– Soviet State Anthem

In Search of an Alternative
Disillusioned with communism, in the late 1980s, the activists and intelligentsia in a number of Soviet republics turned to nationalism as an alternative to the existing value system. “Perestroika” and “Glasnost” started by Gorbachev facilitated the end of the Soviet Union. The Baltic region was labeled by the Politburo as a “virus” endangering the entire country with rising nationalism[1]. Hikmat Hajizade, an intellectual from Baku, who joined the independence movement, underlines that “the ideas came from the Baltic countries as ‘a call for us’”[2]. Indeed, it did not take too long before “the call” echoed across the Caucasian Mountains. Jumber Kirvalidze, a political scientist in Tbilisi who was part of the independence movement in Georgia, states that the nationalist movement in Georgia was one of the strongest in the whole Union[3]. A mass mobilization in this magnitude could not have gone without impact on neighboring Armenia and Azerbaijan.

How did nationalism rise in the South Caucasus and what were the factors instigating the independence movements to turn to that particular ideology across the region?

While we conducted our own analysis in search of possible answers to this question, we also turned to those who have witnessed these independence movements firsthand. The videos below are built on the interviews with the leaders or active participants in the independence movements in Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia.

A number of key developments that took place during the Soviet years contributed to the rise of nationalism as the defining ideology of the Armenian independence movements in the late 1980s. After the Stalin era and a comparative easing of pressure on dissent in the USSR, some small groups of intellectuals engaged in the promotion of an ethno-national identity within Armenia. The ideas of a “historical homeland” and the “rebirth of an independent state” grew in power and captured the imagination of many. The Armenians from the Diaspora, who moved to Soviet Armenia after the World War Two “to find their homeland”, further contributed to the development of the idea. By 1965, mobilized by the symbolic 50th anniversary of the tragedy, people started to demand the recognition of the Armenian Genocide, and a monument was erected in Yerevan.

The nationalizing process, led by local intelligentsia, gradually grew in prominence. At the beginning of the 1990s, the president of the Supreme Soviet of Armenia Levon Ter-Petrosyan proclaimed that “the Armenian people finally woke up from the delightful slumber”[4]. It seems, however, that the “slumber” was disturbed before the 1990s. What eventually became the “independence movement” led by Ter-Petrosyan started as an ecological one in the 1980s and soon turned to the question of “self-determination of the people of Nagorno-Karabakh”. Renamed “Miatsum”, literally “unification” in reference to a political integration of Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia, the movement’s name was also a reference to the “unification” of Armenians of various walks of life, education levels, citizenships, and more. It signaled and advanced the cause of the primacy of ethnic identification compared to all others.

“All people were gathering right here, [“Theater Square”, now “Freedom Square”] all people of Armenia. People were coming here barefoot as supporters from Leninakan [Gyumri], Kirovakan [Vanadzor]. This area was full of people. More than a million people. They didn’t want to leave this square until the solution of their problem was solved. That was the power which was able to crack the Soviet regime and explode it”[5], says Ashot Mirzoyan, a trumpeter in Yerevan.

As the demonstrations started in the 1980s, the protesters at first adopted slogans supportive of Gorbachev’s “Perestroika” and “Glasnost”. Soon, however, they were replaced by posters demanding “unification” and “realization of national dreams”. On September 21 of 1991, almost 99 percent of the residents of Armenia voted “yes” on a referendum for independence from the Soviet Union and the creation of the third Republic of Armenia.

The declaration of independence was read from the tribune of the Supreme Soviet by parliamentarian Aram Manukyan. At a time when drawing parallels and continuity with the first Armenian Republic of 1918 was common, the move was symbolic. The person widely regarded as the founder of the first Republic of Armenia was also named Aram Manukyan.

Soon the Karabakh war started, and a number of new heroes and national leaders emerged. Most of them became the locomotives advancing the new national ideology. In 1996, after winning the presidential elections for the second time, Levon Ter-Petrosyan confessed that his victory in 1991 was on the romantic wave of the national liberation movement”[6] and that his last victory was more important for him. That “romantic wave” had also created the identity and ideology of the new state.

A few months before the 1991 referendum, Ter-Petrosyan had announced that the new generation “has the purpose to break the dictatorial regime which had bounded us to slavery and poverty for 70 years”[7]. With the announcement Armenia’s independence, the process of de-Sovietization began. While de-Sovietization meant the abolishment of the old structures and practices and adoption of new ones – from market economy and privatization to changes in the educational system, nationalism reverberated into all domains of life. One element of de-Sovietization that clearly marked the choice of nationalism as the new ideology was the overhaul of topography and symbolism. Most of the street signs and statues associated with Soviet politics disappeared and were replaced with the names and statues of national Armenian historical characters and heroes not associated with the Soviets.

Another element of de-Sovietization fraught with nationalist sentiment were the new language policies. In 1993, the new language law mandated the exclusive use of Armenian for instruction at state educational institutions. Soon after, all the Russian-language schools were converted to Armenian. The social stance of the Russian-speaking was suddenly reversed. From an elite language it suddenly became a marginal one.

While dealing with the Soviet heritage across many domains of life still remains a big challenge for Armenia, as well as other post-Soviet countries, these two elements, and particularly the one concerning symbolism and street names, resurfaces every now and then against the shifting internal and external political conjuncture. The de-Sovietization process that started in 1991 with the collapse of the Soviet Union is still an ongoing process. In the building of the parliament, where twenty-seven years ago the leaders who adopted nationalism as the new ideology and announced the independence of Armenia, they continue debating policies of de-Sovietization and replacement of street names with those who better fit the new symbolism.

The rising spirit of nationalism, typical for all Soviet republics, and later post-Soviet countries, consumed also Azerbaijan, giving a particular flavor to the process of de-Sovietization. “The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is central to any discussion of the development of the Azerbaijani national movement and national identity”, argues Ceylan Tokluoglu[8]. Elizabeth Fuller also states that the creation of the Azerbaijan Popular Front was largely due to this conflict and mobilizing forces against the Communist Party leadership in 1989[9]. Elmir Mirzoyev, a composer and publicist, also sees the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict as a stimulus that sparked the nationalist movement in Azerbaijan in 1988[10]. Moscow’s failure to stop the violence in the conflict zone ignited further anger towards the Soviet Union among the nationalists. “Freedom” became a popular slogan. In other words, nationalism was not a product of de-Sovietization, but compounded by the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and the dissatisfaction with the Soviet leadership’s handling of it. Later it gradually transformed into aspirations for independence.

Gorbachev’s political and economic reforms unleashed opportunities for the nations in the peripheries of the Union to voice up their dissent. Initially, the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict gave birth to a landmark democratization movement in the late Soviet Union, predominantly during the initial stages of the conflict, reflecting the pro-democratic character of both the Armenian and Azerbaijani nationalist movements[11].

Hikmat Hajizade highlights that the lack of freedom in the Soviet times was so devastating that the majority did not even imagine what freedom means, even if that was their demand. He further states that “Azadlyg” (Freedom) was the newspaper representing the modern democratic media in Azerbaijan[12]. This demonstrates that initially the democratization process was institutionalized whilst the independence movement was advancing. Even if the masses were largely unaware of what democracy and freedom entailed, the Azerbaijani intelligentsia in the late Soviet period was conscious about the grave limitations of political freedoms in the Soviet Union, which also gave incentives to organize mass protests to attain even more political space for civic activities.

Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh appealed to the Supreme Soviets of the USSR, Azerbaijani SSR and Armenian SSR in February 1988 to secede from Azerbaijan and unify with Armenia[13]. It caused indignation among the Azerbaijani activists and politicians, who started to gather to go to Nagorno-Karabakh and “restore the order”[14]. The protesters, among other things, demanded that Azeris living in the Armenian USSR were granted autonomy and voiced dissatisfaction that there were thirty-eight Armenians in the Supreme Soviet of Azerbaijan and two Azerbaijanis in the Supreme Soviet of Armenia[15]. In addition, Cameron Brown suggests that it was not only the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, but also the demand to open the Iranian-Soviet border to allow the families and relatives of ethnic Azeris from both sides to reunite that drove people to call for independence in Azerbaijan[16]. The rise of the political meaning of ethnic identity connected to a particular territory started playing an enormous role in the nationalist mobilization in Azerbaijan that culminated in the separation from the Soviet Union. However, the intellectuals who were active in the nationalist movement were the forerunners in highlighting freedom as an ultimate objective since democracy was the priority on a par with the Nagorno-Karabakh issue when Azerbaijan gained independence.

The independence movement in Azerbaijan aimed to bring political freedoms and democratic norms to the country, virtues associated with the first Republic of Azerbaijan of 1918. Despite the number of symbolic and practical de-Sovietization policies such as renaming of the streets, the replacement of monuments, transition to market economy and others, Hikmat Hajizade expresses dissatisfaction that nowadays freedom is restricted and considers most of the current government policies to be based on methods borrowed from the old Soviet governance, where the lack of real market economy and competition, as well as the shortage of political freedoms prevailed[17].

The current state of affairs seemingly does not match the aspirations of the intellectuals who initiated and led the nationalist movement. Although independence was achieved, de-Sovietization was not fully accomplished, and the political transformation did not come through as expected failing both to make the country democratic and to retain its territorial integrity.

In 1991, when the Soviet Union officially broke up, the stated goal by the Georgian independence movement was to build a national, democratic, and independent state. The ideology that the movement adopted, once again, was ethnic nationalism. This led to the politicization of ethnicity, the privileging of the majority population by the movement, the discrimination of minorities, and eventually to ethno-territorial conflicts.

The form of nationalism that evolved in Georgia from the end of the 1980s, was built on an idea contrary to that of the Soviet Union, namely on an idealized past of the Georgian nation, a prominent role of religion in it, and prioritization of the Georgian identity infamously expressed with the slogan “Georgia for Georgians” of the first president Zviad Gamsakhurdia. All of this was aimed at quickly replacing the socialist ideology with a new one, along with building market economy and a free state, developing democratic institutions and, in addition to everything else, pursuing a foreign policy independent from Russia.

The main nationalist narrative was filled with religious slogans[18] and historical motives, around which civilians were mobilized. Behind the calls for independence, national freedom and sovereignty, there were social issues, too, and, to the contrary, social issues were quickly translated into the language of nationalistic ideology. Jumber Kirvalidze argues, “all the events related to historical monuments or ecology or others ultimately resonated in political demands. The main demand that arose was the demand for national independence”[19].

The various leaders of the national movement that had developed in Georgia by the 1990s could not agree on the ways and methods of forming a political order. Some argued for the “Lithuanian way”: holding elections under the laws of the Soviet Union and proceeding ahead based on the results of such elections. Claiming that it will be impossible to gain independence through elections, others demanded that the Soviet troops pull out of Georgia and gathered around the slogan “First Freedom, Then Independence”.

The referendum of independence and the first-ever multi-party elections in Georgia were held in 1990. The “Round Table Free Georgia” led by Zviad Gamsakhurdia whose election campaign was notorious for radical nationalism came to power. “The first multi-party elections in Georgia were held on the 28th of October and it was exactly when Zviad Gamsakhurdia’s wing Round Table Free Georgia won. That was how we put ourselves to voting. It was due to the events of the 9th of April, it was on the 9th of April that we announced it and signed a document of the restoration of the national independence of Georgia”[20].

The rise of nationalistic ideology drew Georgia into bitter ethno-territorial conflicts. Ethnic minorities made up a considerable part of the Georgian population: according to the 1989 official census results, the non-Georgian population accounted for 30 percent[21] of the entire population of the country, and yet the nationalist government of that time aimed to create a state that catered to the majority only. This served as a fertile ground for whipping up ethnically-framed conflicts in the autonomous territorial units of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, especially in the light of the fact that ethnic mobilization was underway in these regions also. According to Nugzar Mgaloblishvili, “Russia made every effort to appropriate Abkhazia as an independent entity within its composition. Though, it would not be independent but part of Russia, no doubt about that”[22].

Moreover, the ethnic conflicts were not the only troubles that besieged the newly independent Georgia. The forces opposed to the Soviet regime were never united and their disagreements ultimately escalated into an armed standoff and a civil war.

In the end, radical, religious, ethnic, or other types of nationalisms in Georgia quickly replaced one another as official and competing for the mobilization of the population. The ideology did play a role in Georgia’s regaining independence from the Soviet Union, but it also provoked inter-ethnic and civil conflicts, a process that has not abated yet.

A common theme across the movements of the end of the 1980s in the South Caucasus countries was the existence of national intelligentsia, who were seeking freedom of thought and expression in the Soviet times. This group of people played a critical role in the leadership of the independence movements. Tsvonivar Movsisyan, a musical theorist from Yerevan says that despite the difficulties, the intelligentsia was reading the forbidden literature, listening to prohibited songs, and talking about themes that were not allowed[23]. Hikmat Hajizade also states that the lack of freedom was the most important aspect that the intellectuals in Azerbaijan were suffering from in the 1970-1980s[24]. In addition, rising nationalism in the South Caucasus countries was a process driven to a certain degree as a reaction to specific issues, which ultimately led to the independence movements. As Ashot Mirzoyan argues, the movement in Armenia grew into an independence movement spontaneously[25]. Jumber Kirvalidze states that in Georgia, the events related to historical monuments or ecology or others ultimately resonated in political demands[26]. The inability of the Soviet Union to address the demands of people across a wide spectrum of issues from ecology to freedom of thought sparked the independence movements.

Another common trend was conflict dynamics in the Caucasus that unfolded in a closed circle of causality with the rising nationalism. The local discontent, again across a big spectrum of issues, in the various autonomous territorial units brought to more nationalism in Baku, Tbilisi, and Yerevan, while more nationalism in the republican centers exacerbated the concerns and fears of the local discontent, routing it into a nationalist direction as well.

One more shared trend of a nationalist nature in the independence movements in the South Caucasus was the framing of the new republics as allusions or rather re-enactments of the first short-lived republics of 1918-1920/1921. The urge to build continuity of statehood, to frame the new as the oppressed old for the sake of legitimacy drove the nationalist movements.

A more recent common trend across the South Caucasus is a disillusionment with how the initial urge for democratization later lapsed, and undemocratic regimes or practices marred the era of independence. While de-Sovietization should have meant a gradual transition and a deliberate public process of dealing with the Soviet past and heritage, it has quite often meant a rise in nationalism.

Aren Melikyan
Jeyhun Veliyev
Katie Sartania
Saadat Abdullazade

The Rise of New Nationalism in Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia in the Late 1980s and Early 1990s


[1] Malkasian, Mark. 1989. “Back in the USSR: Gorbachev’s Reforms Have Unleashed a Torrent of Ethnic Unrest Throughout the Soviet Union.” Scholastic Update 122 (4), p.22.

[2] Interview with Hikmat Hajizade conducted by Saadat Abdullazade for this article in August 2017.

[3] Interview with Jumber Kirvalidze conducted by Katie Sartania for this article in August 2017.

[4] Dudwick, Nora. 1993. Nations and Politics in the Soviet Successor States. Edited by Ian Bremmer and Ray Taras. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, p.261.

[5] Interview with Ashot Mirzoyan conducted by Aren Melikyan for this paper in August 2017.

[6] 1996. “Ter-Petrosyan: On 1991 I Won on Romantic Wave of National Liberation (Տեր-Պետրոսյան․ 1991-ին հաղթել եմ ազգային ազատագրական ռոմանտիկ ալիքի վրա).” ANI Armenian Research Center. January 1. Accessed March 4, 2018. http://www.aniarc.am/2017/10/16/ltp-address-after-1996-elections/

[7] 1991. “Levon Ter-Petrosyan’s Speech on May 28, 1991 (Լևոն Տեր-Պետրոսյանի ելույթը 1991թ.-ի մայիսի 28-ին).” ANI Armenian Research Center. May 28. Accessed March 4, 2018. http://www.aniarc.am/2017/05/28/levon-ter-petrosyan-address-may-28-1991/.

[8] Tokluoglu, Ceylan. 2005. “Definitions of National Identity, Nationalism and Ethnicity in Post-Soviet Azerbaijan in the 1990s.” Ethnic and Racial Studies 8 (4), p. 725.

[9] Fuller, Elizabeth. 1996. “Azerbaijan at the Crossroads.” In Challenges for the Former Soviet South, edited by Roy Allison. Washington DC: Brookings Institute Press, p.117.

[10] Interview with Elmir Mirzoyev conducted by Saadat Abdullazade for this article in July 2017.

[12] Ayunts, Artak, Mikayel Zoyan, and Tigran Zakaryan. 2016. “Nagorny Karabakh Conflict: Prospects for Conflict Transformation.” Nationalities Papers 44 (4), p. 544.

[12] Interview with Hikmat Hajizade conducted by Saadat Abdullazade for this article in August 2017.

[13] Rasizade, Alec. 2011. “Azerbaijan’s Prospects in Nagorno-Karabakh with the End of Oil Boom.” Iran and the Caucasus 15 (1), p. 300.

[14] de Waal, Thomas. 2003. Black Garden: Armenia and Azerbaiijan through Peace and War. New York: New York University Press, p.39

[15] Tahirzade, Edalet. 1997. Meydan: 4 il, 4 ay. Baku: Ay-Ulduz Press.

[16] Brown, Cameron. 2004. “Wanting to Have Their Cake and Their Neighbor’s Too: Azerbaijani attitudes towards Karabakh and Iranian Azerbaijan.” The Middle East Journal 58 (44), p. 577.

[17] Interview with Hikmat Hajizade conducted by Saadat Abdullazade for this article in August 2017.

[18] In the election campaign for Zviad Gamsakhurdia, his closest associate Besarion Gugushvili says, “Brothers and sisters, Georgian people throughout the history pursued the thorny path of Christ”. 2009. “Z. Gamsakhurdia’s Election Clip 1 (ზ. გამსახურდიას საარჩევნო კლიპი 1).” YouTube. November 14. Accessed March 4, 2018. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FkiQ4wj7chA

[19] Interview with Jumber Kirvalidze conducted by Katie Sartania for this article in August 2017.

[20] Interview with Nugzar Mgaloblishvili conducted by Katie Sartania for this article in September 2017.

[21] n.d. “Ethnic Groups of Georgia, Census 1926-2002.” European Center for Minority Issues. Accessed March 4, 2018. http://www.ecmicaucasus.org/upload/stats/Censuses%201926-2002.pdf.

[22] Interview with Nugzar Mgaloblishvili conducted by Katie Sartania for this article in September 2017.

[23] Interview with Tsovinar Movsisyan conducted by Aren Melikyan for this article in August 2017.

[24] Interview with Hikmat Hajizade conducted by Saadat Abdullazade for this article in August 2017.

[25] Interview with Ashot Mirzoyan conducted by Aren Melikyan for this paper in August 2017.

[26] Interview with Jumber Kirvalidze conducted by Katie Sartania for this article in August 2017.

* This story has been produced with support from the US Embassies in the South Caucasus. The opinions expressed in the publication reflect the point of the view of the authors. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of the US Embassies.

** The cover photo of this story is a collage made from the following photographs.

Left: Demonstration on Theater Square (now Freedom Square), Yerevan, 1988. Photo Credits: Carl de Keyzer. Photo Source: http://www.carldekeyzer.com/projects/homo-sovieticus/XED5HRYO-erevan-armenia-russia-ussr-

Middle: Protest on Lenin Square (now Freedom Square), Baku, 1989. Banner reads “Where are you, democracy?”. Photo Credits: Dmitri Kalinin. Photo Source: http://riowang.blogspot.am/2010/08/autumn-in-baku.html

Right: Dismantling Lenin’s monument on Lenin’s Square (now Freedom Square), Tbilisi, 1991. Photo Credits: Jemal Kasradze. Photo Source: http://dspace.nplg.gov.ge/handle/1234/75953

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