In December 1988, with the Nagorno Karabakh conflict simmering and flows of refugees from both Azerbaijan and Armenia growing, a group of Soviet scholars proposed holding community-level referenda throughout the two republics to determine local residents’ preferences as to which republic their community should belong.
One of the scholars, prominent historian Andrey Zubov presented the idea to Andrei Sakharov, a nuclear physicist turned an influential democratic activist in the Soviet Union. Sakharov, who wrote about this in his Memoirs, thought the idea deserved consideration, raising it with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, as well as in Azerbaijan and Armenia.
The proposal was unanimously rejected. Gorbachev and then Azerbaijani leader Abdurahman Vezirov were opposed to territorial changes in principle, Armenians wanted Nagorno Karabakh Autonomous Oblast (NKAO)’s union with Armenia, but were opposed to transferring any of the Armenian republic’s or NKAO territory with majority Azerbaijani population to Azerbaijan.
Within a year, the proposal became moot as nearly all Azerbaijanis had been forced out of Armenia, and most Armenians out of Azerbaijan, with the exception of NKAO and adjacent Shaumyan and Getashen areas, whose residents organized for self-defense.
Sakharov also recalled his wife Yelena Bonner’s remarkable conversation with Vezirov during their trip to Baku:
“You are speaking of friendship with Armenians, but they are now facing a national tragedy [because of the earthquake days earlier]. Thousands of people lost their loved ones, their bare necessities. The very existence of their nation is in question. People in the Orient are known for their generosity, their big hearts. Take a generous step, give them Nagorno Karabakh, as a gift to a friend in distress. The whole world will admire this gesture, generations will point to it and will not forget it!”
According to Sakharov, Vezirov’s previously friendly facial expression changed and he responded coldly: “Land can not be gifted. It can only be conquered.”