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From Nagorno-Karabakh to Belovezhskaya Pushcha: ULTIMATUM

Мемориал

Kirill Stolyarov, BREAKUP

Mutallibov remembered the end of 1991 and the beginning of 1992 not with euphoria from the independence, which was gained actually, but with a dense bundle of troubles that sometimes seemed unsolvable.

How to feed the people in the winter and spring, as there was absolutely no grain in the country's reserves and Russia and Kazakhstan had stopped the planned deliveries saying that they had a poor harvest?

Ankara came to help – in response to a request from Mutallibov, then Prime Minister of Turkey S. Demirel promptly ordered to dispatch one million tons of grain to Azerbaijan, registering one half as humanitarian aid and the other half as a long-term loan.

How to regulate the financial flows, at least at the first approach, so far as the emission center is beyond your country's borders, spinning the inflationary spiral, and the inter-republican liabilities are, as before, implemented on the basis of cashless transfer of funds that became senseless? To completely switch over to barter? And how, not being guilty, to make excuses to those old men and women whose savings depreciate day by day due to the swift fall of the ruble? Since at that time everything, in this or that way, rested against money circulation, Mutallibov understood that it was impossible to hold out in the ruble zone, which was in chaos, and, without delay, ordered new signs of national currency in France.

In short, Mutallibov had to mobilize his business grip so that Azerbaijan would not go to ruin. Representatives of the Popular Front did not hinder him in solving economic problems due to their incompetence. But they recouped themselves with usury in the political field, complicating the president's work and sometimes even driving him into a corner. That happened when Azerbaijan's entry into the system of collective security of CIS countries was being discussed in the parliament on the opposition's initiative.

"Why on earth shall we, an independent state, place our military units under the authority of a foreign man from remote Moscow, which will not lift a finger to protect our brothers and sisters in Nagorno-Karabakh from Armenia's impudent encroachments?" ultra-nationalist speakers from the faction of democrats shouted.
It is necessary to quickly drive the 4th Army of Transcaucasian Military District out of the republic, and to distribute its equipment and armament to self-defense battalions, which would raise the volunteers' morale and, surely, would create material preconditions for final victory over the enemy!

Alongside with the tension of emotions, their speeches had logic and therefore, none of the MPs dared to say anything against that, so, the respective decision was approved with a majority of votes.

Meanwhile, during a rally, the Popular Front's board adopted a nationwide address, which accused the country's leadership of failure and inability to ensure sovereignty and territorial integrity of Azerbaijan, beat the enemy in Nagorno-Karabakh and take the country out of economic and political crisis. It was an ultimatum, and it ended in an ominous warning: either the situation stabilizes by February 28 or the president will have to resign. And if Mutallibov does not resign voluntarily, he will be toppled with a bayonet and grenade.

This was what the situation in Azerbaijan looked like when Mutallibov was preparing for the meeting of heads of eleven states in Minsk, which was hosting the signing ceremony of an agreement on collective defense and creation of General Headquarters of United Armed Forces of CIS. What was he to do: to consider the opinion of parliament and demonstratively reject the Minsk agreement or, throwing down a challenge to oppositionists, place the national army, which was just getting to its feet, under the command of the General Headquarters of CIS?

Strictly speaking, Mutallibov had the right of choice – according to the Constitution, Azerbaijan was considered a presidential republic, not a parliamentary one, and the debates on the expediency of the country's joining the system of collective security of CIS were to take place not before the Minsk summit, but after it, during the ratification of the intergovernmental document signed by the president. Had he not signed the agreement, there would be nothing to discuss. However, thinking about the southern dilemma, Mutallibov took into consideration not the juridical aspects, but rather common sense.

Is the system of collective defense of CIS countries, forced by Russia, viable? Apparently no. It is unlikely to exist long. And whom will that system protect Azerbaijan from? From the United States? The U.S. does not threaten us, just as the other world powers do not fill us with apprehension, as we need not so much a nuclear umbrella as a protection from Armenian expansion, but it would be at least naïve to rely on Moscow – we cannot expect a real support, and we are fed up with promises, Mutallibov thought coolly. There is a reason to form joint forces of strategic control, but Russia does not need Azerbaijan for that – we have neither ballistic missiles nor nuclear bombs, and, perhaps, will never have. And, in general, why do republics need to place their military contingents under the command of Russia? The response lies on the surface – to thereby maintain Moscow's influence in the post-Soviet space. And what does that step promise to Azerbaijan? Nothing? We are very interested in mutually beneficial economic cooperation with Russia, but for that purpose, we don't need to place ourselves under the Kremlin's control and for no reason at all to be content with the status of a satellite.

Seemingly, everything was in favor of avoiding the signing of the Minsk agreements. Mutallibov, however, did not jump to conclusions. What did put him on the alert? First, the position of Yerevan that gave a positive response to Moscow's proposal. The Armenians always trim their sails to the wind and make no decisions offhand. Ter-Petrosyan's environment, which is able to leave in the dust the know-alls from the Popular Front, didn’t even breathe a word of withdrawing the 7th Army of Transcaucasian Military District beyond the borders of its republic. On the contrary, the leadership is noticed to have closer relations with the 7th Army's command. So, they found a benefit in the collective security system…Second, the Kazakhs and Uzbeks also stand up for the unification of the CIS armed forces. It means that there is something behind that as there is no denying that Nursultan Nazarbayev and Islam Karimov are shrewd, they both are able to calculate the situation several moves ahead…
True, the no less cunning Kravchuk ran counter, and declared that Ukraine will speak against the General Headquarters of CIS in Minsk…And lastly, Mutallibov's intuition told him that it was hardly necessary to allow himself to be led by the opposition: the steps it suggested were harmful to Azerbaijan's interests.

By February, the detachments of Armenian expedition corps toughened the blockade of Azerbaijani settlements in NKAO, forced residents of Kerkijahan to leave the village and tightened the grip around the settlement of Khojaly, near which the only airdrome of Nagorno-Karabakh was located. Therefore, before going to Minsk, Mutallibov ordered to redeploy the reserves of military equipment to Aghdam region. A total of 11 tanks and 12 IFVs were delivered to Aghdam swiftly, which, combined with 44 armored vehicles BRDM, equipped with 12 mm machine guns, were an impressive concentrated force that could quickly come to the rescue of Khojaly residents in case of an assault. In addition, Mutallibov ordered new Minister of Internal Affairs T. Kerimov and Deputy Minister of National Defense Sh. Musayev to disable, at any price, the landing strip and navigation equipment of the airdrome so that the enemy could not use them.

During the break between the sessions of heads of state on February 14 in Minsk, Burbulis came up to Mutallibov, asking to
back the draft decision on the appointment of Marshal of Aviation Shaposhnikov as Commander in Chief of Collective Armed Forces of CIS. Mutallibov said, "I will back provided that the 366th motorized infantry regiment is immediately withdrawn from Stepanakert." Burbulis agreed to it immediately. The easiness with which Burbulis gave in made Mutallibov suspect him of a trick, and therefore he asked Yeltsin to confirm the sanction to withdraw the 366th regiment. After listening to Mutallibov, Yeltsin ordered Shaposhnikov and Grachev, in an impressive tone, to study the issue raised by Azerbaijan, in other words, to shelve it, after which Mutallibov, who hesitated earlier, resolutely joined Kravchuk, refusing to sign the Minsk agreements.

Was that fateful for Mutallibov?

Quite possible. Subsequently chairman of Social Democratic Party of Azerbaijan A. Alizade told that while discussing the redeployment of the 366th regiment with Shaposhnikov, he suddenly heard a mysterious phrase from the Marshal: "Mutallibov will not be there soon." Of course, it was not Shaposhnikov who decided whether or not Mutallibov would be president; he could only let out a secret by chance, repeating somebody else’s words. Whose? I think either Yeltsin or someone from "the mighty handful," most likely Burbulis. There is no doubt that in Baku, the Russian "fighters for the national cause" impressed only the Azerbaijani democrats, irrespective of who the latter really were. Mutallibov looked like the relict of the collapsed empire in the eyes of "the mighty handful," i.e. a person from the enemy camp. What was needed was a convenient occasion to persuade Yeltsin not to assist Mutallibov and very likely the excess in Minsk became a reference point as the suggestible Russian president fell, hide and hair, under the hypnosis of Burbulis.

The heavy shelling of Khojaly that began on February 17 became the first sign of the impending collapse. The tactics of expelling residents from Azerbaijani settlements went on by the following pattern: at first days-long firing started in the outskirts, then "well-wishers" from the Armenians, enjoying confidence among their former neighbors, "as a great secret" told about the impending assault, which was often sufficient to cause panic and escape.
Mutallibov learned about the massive shellings of Khojaly in Iran, where he had gone from Minsk together with heads of state of Central Asia to attend the economic summit of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, and he had to return to Baku urgently to ensure assistance to the beleaguered. His efforts, however, did not crown with success – Aghdam was torn by intrigues between the leaders of the young and the field commanders. In addition, the Popular Front sent there the self-appointed Deputy Minister of Defense Fahmin Hajiyev, adding to the turmoil.

Rumors spread in Baku late in the day on February 25 that the Armenian fighters seized Khojaly and inflicted savage reprisal against the people, sparing neither women nor children. Mutallibov immediately summoned Minister of Internal Affairs Kerimov and Minister of Security Huseynov, who confirmed the rumors about the death of a great number of people. They explained that they could not verify the information that was received heaven knows from where – the territory bordering upon Khojaly was controlled by the Armenian expedition corps. The site of the slaughter could be investigated from air only and the republic did not have airplanes.

The only thing that could be done was to make inquiries from the enemy. Mutallibov immediately got in touch on the phone with head of NKAO Executive Committee Mkrtchyan and, without greeting him, spoke, raising his voice:

"What war is this?! Even the fascists did not allow themselves such atrocities towards civilians!" He named the number of victims – from 800 to 1,000. "What are you saying!" Mkrtchyan protested. "A corridor was left for the civilians. They left Khojaly before it was occupied. Some of your people left it and went to Stepanakert and they are in our town now. We feed them, despite the fact that we ourselves are in need of food. So look into it, you are being provided with wrong information."

Mkrtchyan's objections cooled Mutallibov's heat, but he did not accept them on faith. Some volunteers most probably died during the assault, it could not be another way, but the rumors of massive extermination of civilians were probably blown up by Popular Front propagandists as every tragic news echoes in the hearts of Azerbaijanis with pain and anger, aggravating the situation in the republic which is tense as it is.

"Isn't Isagulov with you?" Mutallibov asked after silence.

He knew Armen Isagulov well from Baku, where he for a long time worked in the law enforcement agencies and was known for his conscientiousness.

"Isagulov is here," Mkrtchyan replied. "I am passing the receiver to him." "Armen, tell me what happened in Khojaly," Mutallibov asked excitedly. "What I was told is terrible."

Isagulov refuted the rumors about murders of old people, women and children, repeating Mkrtchyan's arguments. As a result of the conversation, an agreement was reached that the Armenian side commits oneself not to impede objective verification of facts.

Now, the delay was only due to transport means; it was good that a group of journalists from Baku and abroad was nearby, in Aghdam. Mutallibov phoned Shaposhnikov, Moscow, to get his consent and then contacted commander of Transcaucasian Military District, general Patrikeev who knew what had happened and allocated two attack helicopters to the journalists.

Later, when Mutallibov was already out of office, renowned television journalist Cingiz Mustafayev gave him a detailed account of the flight to Khojaly. He failed to film corpses in Khojaly as there were no dead there and the journalists found bodies of several dozens of volunteers from Khojaly self-defense forces near the village of Nakhichevanik, where they had perhaps been ambushed while withdrawing and killed by heavy fire. Had they received assistance from Aghdam, the tragedy would not have happened. But the Khojaly commander did not inform Aghdam about the ways of withdrawal in advance and the special services worked awfully.

A strange thing: it happened so that the journalists examined the bodies of those killed near Nakhichevanik twice, and in the second case the position of the bodies on the ground and the extent of their injury changed strikingly compared with the preliminary examination. As regards Mutallibov's order to destroy the landing strip and airdrome equipment, it was never carried out.
Mustafayev did not pass over in silence the disgusting role of Fahmin Hajiyev: the Popular Front emissary impudently demanded a bribe for delivering the corpses from Nakhichevanik to Aghdam – the widows of the dead gave their rings and earrings to lay their husbands to rest in a proper manner…

Mutallibov listened to Mustafayev and said in a low voice, "Cingiz, don't tell anyone that you have noticed something wrong, otherwise you will be killed." Unfortunately, Mutallibov's warning did not save the brave journalist – he was soon killed by a shot in his back. Field commander Ala Yagub, whom the people nicknamed Gatir Mammad for his heroic deeds, suffered a similar fate. Once he accidentally said in the presence of an informer that he could shed light on the massacre near Nakhichevanik, as well as reveal important details about the recent loss of the helicopter over Karabakh carrying statesmen, for which in the summer of 1992 the Popular Front of Azerbaijan arrested him and he died in a prison cell under still unclarified circumstances… What happened in February after the surrender of Khojaly? The video shot by Cingiz Mustafayev, showing the bodies of self-defense fighters who died near Nakhichevanik, was shown on the Azerbaijani television and, naturally, caused general indignation.
The public demanded to name the culprit and the Popular Front leaders found that there could not be a better candidate than Mutallibov. Although the ultimatum deadline was ending, the opposition reasonably decided not to force the events as the date of Azerbaijan's admission to the UN was shifted from February 28 to March 2. From these very considerations, the National Council of the republic announced the convocation of an extraordinary parliament session on March 5, 1992.

What was Mutallibov doing before the session? Belatedly realizing that he took a false step in Minsk, he sent a cipher to the CIS Headquarters informing of Azerbaijan's firm intention to join the agreement on the collective armed forces of CIS countries. Marshal of aviation Shaposhnikov expressed satisfaction with Mutallibov's friendly gesture and immediately ordered to disband the 366th motorized infantry regiment of the 4th Army quartered in Stepanakert. The order was immediately accepted for execution and consequently, in early March, the regiment's armored vehicles were moved to Georgia and the officers openly went over to the Armenian expedition corps.

A military operation to return Khojaly, abandoned without fighting, was carefully planned and prepared at that time and the national army's subdivisions, led by general D. Rzayev, were to begin it on March 6. However, the operation did not take place and its reasons are revealed in the next chapter.

Moscow, OLMA-PRESS, 2001


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