25 years later, it’s clear that the breakup of the Soviet Union has had far-reaching consequences for Georgia, Nagorno-Karabakh, Azerbaijan and Chechnya.
The 1991 August coup failed in Russia, but it had serious implications for the Caucasus. Photo: RIA Novosti
This year marks the 25th anniversary of the August coup by the State Committee on the State of Emergency, the self-proclaimed authority that tried to preserve the Soviet Union in August 1991. Perhaps no other event in the recent history of Russia has led to so many diametrically opposed assessments of what actually happened.
By itself, the collapse of the Soviet Union, one of the two Cold War superpowers, was a historic event. One could argue that the breakup eventually led to conflicts in former Soviet republics such as Georgia and in autonomous regions in the Caucasus, including Chechnya.
Georgia: The birth of a dangerous precedent
In the days surrounding the August 1991 events, the president of Georgia, Zviad Gamsakhurdia, actually recognized the coup in Moscow. On Aug. 19, 1991, he agreed with the commander of the Trans-Caucasus District on the implementation of all requirements of the State Committee on the State of Emergency (“Emergency Committee”) by Aug. 24.
However, fear of opposition protests and his own people, as well as the uncertain position of the Moscow coup, prompted Gamsakhurdia on Aug. 21 (when the coup had already failed) to seek recognition of Georgian independence by Western nations.
This indecisiveness caused the first president of Georgia to lose his post. It provoked mass protests and clashes, and eventually led to the overthrow of Gamsakhurdia at the beginning of January 1992. However, this overthrow did not only mean the end of a personal career, it also meant a precedent was set in Georgia when it came to handing over power. It was now possible to overthrow a popularly elected president by force.
Subsequently, in 2003, President Eduard Shevardnadze was also removed from power with the help of the Rose Revolution, rather than through elections. The precedent of the transfer of power from one president to another, through elections, was established only in 2013.
At the beginning of the 1990s, the overthrow of Gamsakhurdia triggered an internal political split within Georgia, and the return to power of Shevardnadze (first as chairman of the State Council, then as the speaker of Parliament and head of state). This was considered by many to be an illegitimate act. And this politician found no better way to unite the nation, than by inciting the theme of a “separatist threat.”
Thus, Abkhazia was regarded as a tool to prevent a split between Georgians, and to achieve national unity. However, this recipe turned out to be horribly flawed. It not only did not help achieve national unity (as evidenced by the Georgian civil war), but it also led to the loss of Abkhazia during the armed conflict of 1992-1993, as well as the formation of armed confrontation between the peoples of the Caucasus for years to come.
Chechnya: A new challenge for Russia
August 1991 became an important milestone for Russia. Preoccupied with attempts at preventing a Communist restoration, the Russian government was faced with a separatist challenge that it severely underestimated. The adoption of the Law “On the Rehabilitation of Repressed Peoples” and support for the leader of the National Congress of the Chechen People (NCCP), Dzhokhar Dudayev, were vivid evidence of this.
As a result, Moscow could not avoid making tragic mistakes and suffering failures. Dudayev took full advantage of the support that the Emergency Committee was given from the leadership of the Chechen-Ingush Republic (formerly known as the Chechen-Ingush Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic), led by Doku Zavgaev. Supporters of the NCCP eliminated from the political scene the Supreme Soviet of the Chechen-Ingush ASSR. In fact, its building was taken by storm on Sept. 6, 1991.
There was no reaction to these events on the part of Moscow. This “silence” contributed to the escalation of violence, and ultimately led to the political isolation of Chechnya, and then to internal conflicts, and belated intervention of Moscow and two anti-separatist campaigns.
The “Chechen Revolution” in August-November 1991 did not become an extension of the August victory over the Emergency Committee, as it originally appeared to be in Moscow. Events in Chechnya in August-November 1991 radically changed the perestroika era ideas about freedom, democracy, the rule of law, the right to self-determination and the use of force, national integrity and the protection of national sovereignty.
The Chechen crisis destroyed the “Communist – anti-Communist” narrative, in which the only threat to freedom, democracy and liberal values was considered to be a Communist state. The events of August-November 1991 showed that challenges to the democratic rule of law could result from ethnic nationalism.
“The Chechen revolutionary experience” has clearly shown that weak state institutions cannot guarantee respect for the basic rights of citizens. The events of the summer and autumn of 1991 in Russia’s North Caucasus, thus, became the line that divided Communism and the Soviet regime from the interests of one’s own state.
Nagorno-Karabakh: Escalation in 1991
One of the most important consequences of the events of August 1991 was the escalation of the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh. On Aug. 30, 1991, the Supreme Soviet of Azerbaijan adopted a declaration on withdrawal from the Soviet Union and the independence of the republic. The “restoration” of Azerbaijan’s independence was declared, stressing the continuity with the first Azerbaijani state – the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic (which existed from 1918-1920).
In practice, it turned out that a “restoration” project, along with the obvious advantages of uniting people around a common national identity, has equally obvious shortcomings. In the case of Azerbaijan this was, first of all, the legal uncertainty.
During the period of the independent Azerbaijan state (1918-1920), the Azerbaijani Democratic Republic (ADR) did not have a constitution that would have defined the status of Nagorno-Karabakh. This definition was given in the 1977 Soviet Constitution and the Basic Law of the Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republic (SSR) in 1978. However, on Aug. 30, 1991, Azerbaijani politicians rejected the Soviet legacy, which called into question the legal status of Nagorno-Karabakh.
Secondly, the discourse on “restoration” inevitably actualized the “politics of history,” because during the period of the “first republic,” the relations between Baku and Karabakh Armenians, to put it mildly, were far from ideal. Moreover, the tragic stories of those years were maintained at the level of mass consciousness during the entire Soviet period – and these were brought onto the public level starting with the conflict in 1988.
Thus, the response of Karabakh Armenians was more or less predictable after the decision of the Supreme Soviet of Azerbaijan. On Sept. 2, 1991, a joint session of the Nagorno-Karabakh Regional Soviet and the Soviet of People’s Deputies of Shahumyan District proclaimed the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic (NKR) within the borders of the former autonomous region and district. At the same time it adopted a “Declaration on the Proclamation of the NKR.”
This decision was an important milestone in the evolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, and in the development of the Armenian National Movement. The idea of “miatsum” (unification) of Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh into one state was superseded by the idea of self-determination of the Karabakh Armenian community, albeit supported by Yerevan.
At the same time, there was talk about an ethnocentric state, and not formation, which would be based on the discourse of a civic nation. In any event, the failure of the State Emergency Committee sent a clear message to Baku, Yerevan and Stepanakert – the opinions of Moscow, as the center of the Soviet Union, already did not mean anything. It was now necessary to fight for the victory of one’s own political positions.
And this struggle was conceived, not as a compromise, but as the defeat of the opponent and confirmation of exclusive monopoly on the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh. All this left no other way to proceed, but to build up into a military confrontation.
In place of a unified Soviet Union came new national governments, with their historical conflicts and “skeletons in the closet.” August 1991 accelerated the process of disintegration of the former Soviet Union. This proceeded, unfortunately, not so much along a legal path, as through the adoption of politically expedient measures.
The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.