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The Sumgait Massacre: Foreshadowing War in the Caucasus

Sofia Gevorgian

34 years have passed since the Sumgait Massacre, but little has changed in the South Caucasus to prevent the undertaking of a similar tragedy. From February 26-March 1, 1988, Armenians in the city of Sumgait, Azerbaijan, were targeted and killed amidst rising tensions between the Armenian and Azerbaijani populations of the Soviet Union.

To give some context, the question of ownership of the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast (NKAO) has been a highly contentious source of debate and violence since Stalin’s assignment of Nagorno-Karabakh (known by local Armenians as “Artsakh”) from Armenia SSR to Azerbaijan SSR in 1921. As Artsakh had maintained an ethinc-Armenian majority in that region for thousands of years, Armenians continuously hoped for Artsakh’s reunification with Armenia SSR, and with Mikhail Gorbachev’s reforms of 1985 creating such an opportunity, Armenians began advocating for just that. However, with the movement consistently shut down by Azerbaijani and Russian authorities, reunification was never achieved; even today, the Republic of Artsakh functions as an independent state, despite it lacking international recognition.

Protests in 1988 in Stepanakert, Artsakh (left) and map of Armenia SSR and the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast (right)

On February 20, 1988, tens of thousands of Armenians in Artsakh’s capital Stepanakert protested for Artsakh’s jurisdiction to be transferred to Armenia, and NKAO’s Supreme Court voted to do the same. However, while the Soviet government rejected this notion, it caused far more outrage in the Azerbaijani population than could be suppressed. Anti-Armenian sentiment soared, and leaders like Hidayat Orujov from the Communist Party of Azerbaijan demanded that if Armenians “do not stop campaigning for the unification of Nagorno Karabakh with Armenia, if you don't sober up, 100,000 Azeris from neighboring districts will break into your houses, torch your apartments, rape your women, and kill your children.” Only a few days later, the Sumgait Massacre commenced.

On February 26, a gathering of Azerbaijanis at Lenin Square in Sumgait quickly evolved into coordinated mobs, attacking Armenians, their homes, and businesses. The population of 18,000 Armenians was barricaded from leaving the city, and as lists of Armenian apartment addresses circulated, it was often only sympathetic Azerbaijanis that hid them to save their lives. The massacre perpetrators indiscriminately looted, burned, and mutilated Armenians, and the government and law enforcement made no attempt to put an end to the violence; medical aid was prevented from arriving at the scene, and local police and authorities ignored all calls for help. After three days of riots, Soviet authorities finally agreed to deploy troops and nearly 50 tanks to quelle the pogrom of Sumgait.

While according to USSR records only 32 people were killed, it this event in history marks the early developments of the growing hostilities between the two ethnic groups, for following close after this massacre were the Kirovabad, Baku, and Maraga Pogorms under the shadow of the First Karabakh War beginning in 1992. In 2016 and 2020, Azerbaijan then launched a war to retake this region lost in the 1990s, but nothing has changed to establish lasting peace.

Armenian family from Sumgait, Azerbaijan (left)

and map of Armenia’s border incursions 2021 and post-war borders of the Republic of Artsakh (right)

Notably, Sumgait was not in Artsakh, it was in Azerbaijan, and this highlights the true tragedy of the Sumgait Massacre: the fact that the Azerbaijani government encouraged and still encourages escalation between the two populations. Sumgait was not an isolated case. For instance, officer Ramil Safarov axed Armenian lieutenant Gurgen Margaryan to death at a NATO-sponsored training program in Hungary in 2019; upon extradition to Azerbaijan with its government's assurances to Hungary that Safarov would be imprisoned, Azerbaijan proceeded to not only pardon him, but also to give eight years of backpay, an apartment, and declare him a national hero. Their president Ilham Aliyev considers Artsakh to be an integral part of Azerbaijan and the Armenians to be its citizens, but with his commentary consistent along the lines of "I said that if they do not leave our lands of their own free will, we will chase them away like dogs and we are doing that" (10/17/2020), Armenian sovereignty and safety is at stake, in Armenia, the Republic of Artsakh, and evidently, even abroad. Their president has also gone on to declare that “Yerevan [the capital city of Armenia] is our historic land and we, Azerbaijanis, must return to these Azerbaijani lands.” Continuing on to May 2021, Azerbaijan’s military crossed into Armenia’s sovereign borders and occupied around 41 square kilometers.

The Sumgait Massacre foreshadowed what would soon be obvious: that it is unsafe for Armenians first in NKAO and then in the Republic of Artsakh to live under Azerbaijani rule, highlighting that self-determination is the only guarantee of safety. During the Sumagit Massacre then in 2020, Azerbaijan’s government established that would allow attack on innocent civilians in a heinous act of xenophobia to constitute an image of strength over its neighbor, and for this reason, Armenians today live under a constant threat of war. As Nobel Prize Laureate Andrei Sakharov said, "If anyone was in doubt before Sumgait whether Nagorno-Karabakh should belong to Azerbaijan, then after this tragedy no one can have the moral right to insist that it should." And until Artsakh’s international state status is resolved, the future of its people remains in turmoil.


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