Azerbaijan's role in the Cold War was the result, in part, of its geostrategic position on the southern frontier of the Soviet Union, bordering Turkey and Iran. The large oil deposits in Azerbaijan were also a key strategic interest. During World War II, the Soviets and British occupied Iran. Azerbaijan was an important transit point and communications center for Soviet involvement in Iran.
Despite pledges to withdraw from Iran at the end of the war, Soviet leader Josef Stalin supported the creation of a puppet state in Iranian Azerbaijan as well as one in Iranian Kurdistan. The Soviet Azerbaijani leadership in Baku, with the encouragement of the central authorities in Moscow, undertook a propaganda campaign, portraying Iranian Azerbaijan as lost territory that eventually would be reunited with Soviet Azerbaijan. Soviet Azerbaijani Communist Party officials and security personnel were dispatched to Iranian Azerbaijan to help set up the new pro-Soviet government. The presence of large oil deposits in northern Iran also drew Soviet attention to the area.
Continued Soviet occupation of Iranian Azerbaijan as well as Stalin's demands against Turkey and his involvement in the Greek Civil War became important factors in the U.S. decision to announce the 1947 Truman Doctrine, designed to aid countries struggling against communist aggression. As a result of Western pressure and the Soviets' own political calculations, Soviet forces withdrew from Iranian Azerbaijan in 1947, which was soon reoccupied by Iranian forces and reintegrated into the Iranian state.
With the end of the Soviet occupation of Iranian Azerbaijan, this chapter of its history closed, and Soviet Azerbaijan underwent critical political, economic, and social changes, along with the rest of the USSR. The republic was ruled for twenty years (1933–1953) by Mir Jafar Bagirov. He was removed upon Stalin's death in 1953 and subsequently tried and executed in 1956.
During Soviet Premier Leonid Brezhnev's reign, the most prominent Azerbaijani figure was Haidar Aliev, a former Komitet Gosudarstvennoi Bezopasnosti (KGB) general who rose to the position of first secretary of the Azerbaijani Communist Party and eventually to the Politburo of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU). Aliev ruled Azerbaijan until 1982 and was intimately involved in all aspects of official life in the republic, especially in his native province of Nakhichevan. In general, there was little opposition to Soviet rule during the Brezhnev years. When Mikhail Gorbachev became general secretary of the CPSU in 1985, he embarked upon an ambitious program of renovating Soviet society and the economy through his glasnost and perestroika reform programs, which were slow to reach Azerbaijan and did not, initially, have a great impact on the republic.
That situation changed abruptly in February 1988 when the local legislature of the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast, populated mainly by Armenians but administratively attached to Azerbaijan, voted to secede from Azerbaijan and join Armenia. Moscow and Baku condemned this move, and shortly thereafter a pogrom against Armenians living in the Azerbaijani industrial city of Sumgait took place. For several days, mobs hunted down and killed Armenians until Soviet police reestablished order. This event led to a crescendo of violence in and around Nagorno-Karabakh, forcing hundreds of thousands of people from both republics.
Beginning in the autumn of 1989, the nationalist opposition organization, the Azerbaijani Popular Front (APF), put increasing pressure on the communist leadership in Azerbaijan to effectively deal with both the Nagorno-Karabakh question and the other major problems facing the country. In September 1989, the Supreme Court of Azerbaijan declared the country sovereign, a move that was rejected by Moscow that November. At the same time, important developments were taking place in the southern part of the country, along Azerbaijan's border with Iran. Demonstrators moved into the restricted border zone and tore down the border posts along the Aras River. They were protesting their separation from Iranian Azerbaijan and were demanding greater access to family members in neighboring Iran.
Azerbaijani intellectuals began comparing the division of their country to the division of Germany and Korea. In January 1990, while disturbances continued along the border with Iran, the large Armenian minority in the Azerbaijani capital of Baku and in other cities and towns became the target of organized violence. The unrest led to many deaths and injuries and to the emergency evacuation of the remaining Armenian population to safe havens in other parts of the Soviet Union. The APF declared its intent to overthrow communist rule in the country, resulting in Soviet armed intervention. Although Gorbachev claimed that the intervention was in response to pogroms against Armenians, violence against the Armenians had ended days earlier. Soviet armed forces assaulted Baku, shooting indiscriminately and in the process killing and wounding hundreds of innocent civilians. They also moved into other parts of Azerbaijan and took control of the southern border with Iran.
Moscow declared martial law, removed the Azerbaijani Communist Party chief, and cracked down on the opposition. These actions, however, served only to further exacerbate relations between Azerbaijan and Moscow. In May 1990, the Azerbaijani Supreme Soviet elected the communist leader Ayaz Mutalibov as president. Despite these changes, the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh continued, with no immediate end in sight.
In August 1991, during the failed coup against Gorbachev, Mutalibov initially supported the plotters but then quickly reversed his opinion when it became clear that the coup would fail. He promptly arranged to have himself elected president in September 1991 and then moved the country toward independence, which the Azerbaijani Supreme Soviet had declared in the midst of the coup. Independence was formally secured when the Soviet Union was dissolved on 31 December 1991.
Robert Owen Krikorian
Hunter, Shireen. The Transcaucasus in Transition: Nation-Building and Conflict. Washington, DC: CSIS, 1994.; Swietochowski, Tadeusz. Russia and Azerbaijan: A Borderland in Transition. New York: Columbia University Press, 1995.