Widespread political corruption was the underlying cause of the ethnic disturbances in the Soviet republic of Azerbaijan, including the predominantly Armenian region of Nagorno-Karabakh, which has sought to secede, the Communist Party newspaper Pravda said Monday.
In the most candid acknowledgement yet that the Armenians had genuine cause for complaint when they began their protests in Nagorno-Karabakh last February, Pravda characterized Azerbaijan as so rife with wrongdoing that party and government officials had become intertwined with organized crime.
Although reforms begun by new leaders have restored order to virtually all of Azerbaijan, Nagorno-Karabakh remains tense and is returning only slowly to normality, according to Pravda and a report Monday evening by Tass, the official news agency.
With stores reopening, public transport resuming and more factories returning to production in Stepanakert, the regional capital, Soviet authorities reduced the curfew there to five hours, from midnight to 5 a.m. Nonetheless, troops and police are maintaining a heavy presence.
More rapid progress could be made in improving conditions in Nagorno-Karabakh, an enclave of Christian Armenians surrounded by Muslim Azerbaijanis in the Caucasus Mountains, if regional officials would cooperate with the new leadership in Azerbaijan, Pravda commented.
A sweeping reform program has been put into effect by Abdul-Rahman Vezirov, the new Communist Party first secretary in Azerbaijan, but officials in Nagorno-Karabakh have yet to respond with matching moves, two Pravda special correspondents wrote.
“You cannot help those who will not accept help,” they said, “and indeed the Nagorno-Karabakh regional committee of the Azerbaijani Communist Party has adopted, to put it mildly, a strange attitude.”
This attitude included blaming Azerbaijani authorities for a lack of supplies in the region while “dozens of railway cars loaded with materials, goods and foodstuffs” stood abandoned at Stepanakert’s strikebound rail depot, the article said.
On Saturday, leaders of the Armenian Communist Party called for acceleration of the special development plan mapped out for the region last July, after the central government decided not to transfer the territory to Armenia but to leave it under Azerbaijan’s administration.
Armenian activists have accused the Azerbaijani authorities of moving slowly in implementing the program and of failing to take the promised measures to develop Armenian cultural and linguistic traditions in the region, where three-quarters of the 185,000 people are Armenians.
Tass reported that life in Stepanakert is gradually returning to normal after months of demonstrations and strikes and occasional violence, including riots last month in which a man was killed and more than 40 people were hurt. But it also stressed that the region’s stability remains very much in question.
Thus, after months of official equivocation about the grievances of the Nagorno-Karabakh residents, who contended that as Armenians they suffered the most under the old Azerbaijani leadership, Pravda left no doubt that they had cause to complain.
“Bribe taking, corruption and the abuse of power were widespread,” Pravda’s two correspondents wrote in a lengthy assessment of the situation in Azerbaijan.
Azerbaijan’s economy was based largely on what they called “shameless speculation,” and they said the production of meat, milk and grain fell by 50% to 70% between 1970 and 1987, despite an increasing population. More than 250,000 people are still without productive employment.
The political system was based on “protectionism, nepotism and parochialism,” according to Pravda, so that the whole Azerbaijani leadership, both in the government and the party, was effectively involved in a system that piled grievances one upon another and made them impossible to resolve.
When the program of national political, economic and social reforms was launched three years ago, it met with fierce resistance from Azerbaijani officials who feared the loss of their positions and privileges, Pravda said. This, in turn, intensified the republic’s “stagnation,” it added.
The new leadership under Vezirov, the former Soviet ambassador to Pakistan, has undertaken sweeping reforms, including a purge of corrupt officials, production of more consumer goods and a series of measures aimed at restoring “social justice” and improving ethnic relations.
Investigators From Moscow
Special investigators have been brought from Moscow to help reduce the black marketeering, embezzlement and other economic crimes. The local police have been “renovated,” as the Pravda correspondents put it. And the villas, country houses and special sanatoriums that the old leaders built for themselves are being turned into centers for children’s health care, resorts for workers and other public facilities.
To help the party and government re-establish contact with the people, Vezirov published the telephone numbers of local officials and instructed them to take calls between 4 p.m. and 6 p.m. each day and to follow up each complaint immediately and report the result to the caller.
Trials are continuing for the people arrested after ethnic riots in the Azerbaijani port city of Sumgait. More than 30 people, most of them Armenians, were killed there in what Soviet officials describe as a pogrom. So far, 25 people have been sentenced to prison terms in 19 cases, but more than 100 others are still to be tried.
Judges are being brought from other areas to ensure fair trials.