Azerbaijan celebrates its centenary on May 28th 2018. That is the founding date of the Azerbaijani Democratic Republic in 1918.
During the couple of years of its initial existence the state proclaimed by the Azerbaijani Government struggled to exercise territorial integrity and independence in the conditions of the Great War that engulfed it. However, it was also born as a result of that War, out of the sheer necessity of organizing a people into nationhood to ensure their survival, as killing and destruction raged all around them.
That is how nations often come about – in adversity, in now or never moments of decision. And nations often are made not fully formed, with much to be done to ensure their survival and development. It is not a process that can be systematized.
All nations search for their foundations. It should never be assumed, however, that one nation is superior to another because it has an older narrative or is more ethnically pure. Such beliefs are characteristic of aggressive nationalism and the worst type of nations.
The area that forms the modern nation of Azerbaijan was invaded many times over the previous two millenia and had a number of rulers including the Persians, Macedonians, Romans, Seljuk Turks, Ottoman Turks and Russians. It is thought that the people who became the Azerbaijani nation had their origins in Caucasian Albania, a pre-Christian and early Christian people who were Islamized in the 7th Century. It is likely that those who remained Christian were absorbed by the Gregorian Church and became Armenians.
Clearly the people who became Azerbaijanis were exposed to a number of influences which had an impact on their character. The area in which these people lived was subject to western migrations by Turkic speaking peoples from the 6th Century onwards. The Oghuz Turks who came from the east inter-married with local people resulting in a rich mixture of Turkic culture, Zoroastrian and then Islamic values.
Persian rule from the 16th to the 18th Century and acceptance of Shia Islam marked the Azerbaijani Turks out from the Ottoman Turks with whom they shared a language and identified ethnically – although some remained Sunni Moslem. The Ottoman Turks themselves ruled Azerbaijan during a period toward the end of the 16th Century.
If the Ottomans had never come or had remained longer or the Russians had not taken control of the Southern Caucasus from the Persians, the Azerbaijanis would no doubt have been different than they are now. But that is history – and it is history that makes nations, not races.
It is sometimes suggested that Azerbaijan is a recent, twentieth century, artificial creation. The inference is that the Azerbaijanis are newcomers to the region and don’t deserve to be there or to be called a nation. Of course, the prime propagators of this narrative are the Armenian writers/propagandists who like to portray Azerbaijanis as mere products of the Ottoman Turks.
It should be first noted that whilst the Azerbaijani Turks are the dominant ethnic group in Azerbaijan, Azerbaijanis have consisted of a range of peoples, including Armenians, Russians, Jews, Talysh and Lezgins. Whilst Armenian nationalism has demonstrated in historical experience to be essentially a project aimed at building a pure homogeneous Armenian nation composed entirely of Armenians, Azerbaijani nationalism has, in contrast, been an inclusive and heterogeneous development aimed at blending a number of peoples into a nation.
As Ernest Renan (What is a Nation?) and later, Joseph Stalin, said a nation is a historically evolved mixture of things like race, religion, language, geography, economic interest and dynastic influence. These things are blended in various proportion to make up the nation through a historical process that gives a sense of communal affinity between a large number of people to form a nationality. The historically evolved blend is what becomes the nation.
Nations are not imagined or invented. They are generated by real historical events. They are not eternal either. They come about gradually and then emerge suddenly and may fall apart or become something different later.
The Azerbaijani nation emerged unexpectedly in 1917-18 as a result of a unique set of events. It had the pre-requisites of nationhood in a common possession of a rich heritage of memories and a desire of its people to live as a common community. In 1917-18 they were forced to stand together to ensure their survival as a people in the situation of extreme flux that had developed in the Caucasus out of the Russian collapse in the Great War. It was not a case of improvisation by the Ottomans or the small Azerbaijani national intelligencia. The material was there and it began to coalesce in the fire raging across the Caucasus.
In the case of Azerbaijan the blend making up the nation involved the inclusion of as many elements as possible in a rich, complex mix of peoples making up a common community. That made nation building more difficult in that cohesion was more difficult to achieve.
In the case of Armenia, on the other hand, the nation-nation-buiding process involved securing the maximum amount of territory for a state whilst reducing the non-Armenian elements as much as possible within that territory.
Perhaps it is the case that Armenian nationalism got its narrow racialist conception of nationhood from the Anglosphere which began promoting Armenians to a higher status than other peoples of the region, insisting that this special people become a nation among the less favoured parts of the majority of humanity. In the 19th Century Britain and its Anglo-Saxon offshoot across the Atlantic were saturated by racialist conceptions of the world. Such notions did not start to die until the admiring Hitler acted upon them with purpose in Europe and brought them into disrepute.
Armenian nationalism probably believed that in advancing the notions of ‘Magna Armenia’ that were expressed by the Anglosphere, as a civilised Christian Island in a sea of lesser humanity, they would gain an advantage among the other peoples of the region in which they lived. They, as a special people, would be resurrected and take their place among the nations of the world whilst others carried on in their mundane traditional existences, somewhere else.
The Armenian nationalists fully absorbed the ideas of their western patrons and they attempted a realisation of them through their project of Greater Armenia, with disastrous results for both their own people and those who lived around them.
It is natural to feel sympathy for the Armenians for what they ultimately suffered. They suffered catastrophe through the pursuit of Magna Armenia by their armed nationalists, the Dashnaks. Many innocents perished in the pursuit of the insane project of establishing a Great Armenia in a cataclysmic Great War out of a territory in which the Armenians constituted only a small minority. However, how Armenian nationalism has acted before and since 1915, and particularly in relation to their Azerbaijani neighbours, suggests that their nationalism is poisonous.
It is undoubtedly the case that nations which form themselves into homogeneous cores based on racial principles, using every opportunity to expel any elements that do not satisfy their requirements as pure breeds, should be confined to the minimum possible territory for the good of humanity around them.
I The Tsarist Period
Tsar Peter the Great conquered the Caspian coastal territories in 1723. The following year he issued an edict for the resettlement of Armenians on these lands to bolster the defences of his frontiers.
At that point, under Safavid rule, Azerbaijan was divided into a series of independent khanates who engaged in shifting local alliances and were often in conflict with each other. The peoples of these khanates were multi-ethnic and practiced a number of religions. The largest component, however, were a number of Turcoman tribes.
The Armenians in 1787 petitioned Catherine the Great to get rid of the Persians and establish a territory for Christian Armenians under Russian suzereignty. They placed their military forces at the Empress’s disposal but were disappointed when the Russians were more inclined just to conquer the area and Russify it.
Russia concluded treaties with the Tartar khanates in 1805 and 1828. Nicholas I then signed an edict on the establishment of Armenian colonies on the Erivan and Nakhchivan khanates. There is little doubt from Russian sources that the Azerbaijani Turks were the recognised possessors of these territories, rather than Armenians, and represented around three quarters of the population in the early nineteenth century in the area. However, the scattered Armenians were used to form a colony by the Tsar. When the Russians established an Armenian oblast on the territory of the Erivan and Nakhjivan khanates Armenian majorities began to be constructed – as tends to be the pattern with successful colonies.
The Tsarist policy of creating a buffer plantation of Armenians by drawing them in from Persia and Ottoman territories began to alter the population balance in the region.
Azerbaijanis undoubtedly regarded the Russians as foreigners and saw their policy as generally anti-Moslem and more favourable to Christians in the region. There was a long and bloody conflict at the start of the 19th Century between Russia and Iran over the khanates of the Southern Caucasus before the Tsarist State finally drove the Persians south of the Araz River. The Treaty of Turkmenchai transferred sovereignty over the khanates of Erivan, Nakhichevan and Ordubad to Russia, leaving about two thirds of Azerbaijanis and their territories with Iran, which is the situation up to the present day with the 20 million Azerbaijanis constituting about a third of Iran’s population.
So, the modern state of Azerbaijan is Russian Azerbaijan and its people.
Over the early decades of the 19th Century, up until the 1840s, what became Azerbaijan was under Tsarist military rule. It then came under Russian civil imperial administration until 1918. During this period Armenians tended to move North from Persia into the Russian Azerbaijani territory creating some local Armenian majorities. In most of the gubernia/provinces the Azerbaijani Turks constituted the majority of the populace, except in Erivan, which by 1900 had developed a two-thirds Armenian population. Erivan later became the Armenian state.
Whilst traditional life went on in most areas Tsarist rule Baku became an industrialised town in the 19th Century, arising from the oil industry. This produced a commercial bourgeoisie and proletariat and an influx of Russian and other settlers. Armenians also began to move into Shemakhi, Ganje and Karabakh from the mid-19th Century. Armenians in Baku were often the most wealthy merchants and oilmen and prominent in the professions. Armenians were favoured by the Russian administration over the local Moslems who were barred from a number of professions and limited to a minority of political posts.
Baku became a distinctive place as a result of the industrialising process with a high proportion of migrants and a cosmopolitan character. Whist some migrants began to see Baku as an island, in the ocean around it were Azerbaijani Turks and to these natives the ocean was the hinterland of the town.
In the late 19th Century Azerbaijan and Baku in particular were affected by a Turkish cultural renaissance centred on Turkic language development and education. The intellectual elite that developed was also Western-orientated, secular, reformist and nationalist with many socialist ideals. At this point a distinct Azerbaijani self-perception began to develop on top of the previous general Turkic or Moslem identity.
Azerbaijani nationalism had its own distinct character. It had nothing to do with the Pan-Islamic or Pan-Turanian obsessions of British Imperial writers. These notions were advanced on both British and Russian sides of the ‘Great Game’ as phantom menaces. The idea of Turks forming a common race from the Bosphorus to the Chinese Wall was invented in the 1860s by a Hungarian Orientalist, Arminius Vambery, who worked for British Intelligence. Enver Pasha of the Young Turks later flirted with it as a potential idea for mobilising people against the Imperialists to the West and North but it had few advocates in Azerbaijan.
The Azerbaijani Turks had a Caucasian and Persian character that made them complex and quite distinct from their Turkish brothers and sisters to the West. They had many divisions within themselves too: Northern Azerbaijanis were more affected by the Russian influence than their southern counterparts, who were more Iranian influenced.
Stalin once asked what “national character” was? He answered the question himself by stating that it was “the sum total of characteristics which distinguish the people of one nationality from the people of another nationality – the complex of physical and spiritual characteristics which distinguish one nation from another.” (Marxism and the National Question)
The Azerbaijanis had no desire to be Ottoman Turks, Iranians, Russians or Georgians and they certainly were not Armenians.
The Azerbaijani national forces that began taking shape coalesced into the Musavat (Equality) Party around 1911/12 but the Musavats only really came to political significance during the cataclysmic events of 1917-18.
Armenian Dashnaktsutiun activity, aimed at carving out an Armenian state in the region was the main instigator of conflict between the different communities, particularly in 1905 when it set off inter-communal violence in many areas. This set the pattern for later trouble. It was nearly always Armenian aggression over the possession of territory that provoked reprisals that took place against Armenians from the Azerbaijani Turks. Garegin Pasdermadjian, the Dashnak leader, boasts that the Armenians managed to kill 5 times as many of the Tartars than the Azerbaijanis managed to kill of the Armenians (Armenia and her claim to Freedom and National Independence) despite claiming self-defence!
The Dashnak activity had two major effects: Firstly, it led to a new sorting of populations in which majorities got larger and minorities declined. Secondly, it generated Azerbaijani nationalism beyond the intellectual elite as ordinary Moslems had to become a more coherent body to defend their existence and territory.
II The Great War
When Russia went to War on Austro-Hungary and Germany the Tsar exempted the Azerbaijan Turks from the general mobilisation for War in July 1914. Tatars had been traditionally distrusted by the Tsar and as a consequence had remained a largely unmilitarised people. On the other hand, the Armenians joined the Russian forces in large numbers (180,000 according to Pasdermadjian) as well as forming irregular forces to harass the Ottomans behind the lines in Anatolia. The Armenians went with the Tsar’s armies with the hope of inheriting a territory, or at least achieving the expulsion of the Moslems to make Armenia possible.
While the Armenians actively participated in the Great War to gain a territory the Azerbaijanis got on with their lives as best they could behind the front line. They remained loyal to Tsarist Russia despite being passed over for war service. In 1916 Azerbaijani leaders in Ganje offered their population for active military service to the Tsar but their offers were turned down and the Azerbaijani Turks were only admitted to labour battalions. Ganje was always the centre of the national movement and it was much more representative of Azerbaijanis than Baku.
The Musavat Party expressed support for the Russian Empire even when the Ottomans joined the conflict in November 1914 but there was little interest in the Great War until it came to Azerbaijan in 1917. The Azerbaijani population in the Western Caucasus seem to have suffered from some elements in the Tsarist army who rampaged behind the battle lines, but the Musavat Party continued its support of Russia.
The Azerbaijanis were essentially a quiescent people who still had to develop a national will, political program or direction. That was hardly surprising: Russia not only discouraged Azerbaijani military expressions but also political activity of any kind. In Baku all political tendencies from Liberals, to Left SRs, to Mensheviks and Bolsheviks excluded the Azerbaijanis, expecting them to stay as passive observers of political events. When the Musavat Party actually won the election to the Baku Soviet in October 1917 it came as a great shock and the Bolsheviks nullified the result and excluded them. Baku showed itself to be a Russian colonial outpost assembling all elements, including the Russian garrison and Armenians together to overcome the Moslem masses. Bolsheviks, Left SRs and Dashnaks combined to keep out the Musavat Party and “reactionary” forces from political influence.
In Ganje things were different and a national movement began to emerge. An Azerbaijani military expression, denied participation in the Russian army, also started to take shape. However, the Azerbaijanis were the least armed, organised and militarily experienced element in the region. And in the situation that was developing in 1917/18 that was a serious handicap.
The first Congress of Caucasian Moslems met in Baku in April 1917, in the aftermath of the February Revolution in Russia, and stood on a position of a democratic, federal new Russia. The Musavat Party which represented the main body of Azerbaijanis had a programme of national autonomy for an Azerbaijani state within a federal Russia. The Musavats sought to realise it at a Constituent Assembly, which was supported by the Mensheviks, Cadets and Social Revolutionaries. The Bolsheviks, whist determined to repress the Musavat, encouraged this development and similar ones elsewhere with the various decrees they issued encouraging national self-determination.
In November 1917 the main political forces in the South Caucasus, including the Georgians, Armenians and Azerbaijanis held a meeting in Tiflis, and refused to recognise the new Bolshevik government in Russia and set up the Transcaucasian Commissariat. However, this provisional government had no army to enforce its authority. The Armenians and Georgians began forming military forces but it was more difficult for the Azerbaijanis, who had no military traditions in the Tsar’s army.
At this point the Russian lines were collapsing upon Lenin’s Land for the people Decrees and the Ottoman army, which had been under serious pressure up until that point, saw an opportunity to advance eastwards. The Transcaucasian Commissariat signed an armistice with the Ottomans in Erzincan and then convened in Tiflis, Georgia, in February 1918 to announce the establishment of the Transcaucasian Seim, which claimed authority over the South Caucasus (Georgia/ Armenia/ Azerbaijan).
On March 3 1918 the Bolsheviks conceded to the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk and the German demands. Along with territorial concessions in Ukraine and Belarus the Bolsheviks handed over Kars, Ardahan and Batum to the Ottomans. Lenin’s Degree of January 1918, On Armenia, which declared in favour of an Armenian state, was nullified de facto by the Brest-Litosk Treaty.
However, both the Georgian and Armenian deputies in the Seim wished to continue the war with the Ottomans and declared a state of war with Istanbul, against the wishes of the Azerbaijanis. They tried to hold Batum against the Ottomans in defiance of the Treaty signed by the Bolsheviks. On the Turkish side Enver Pasha offered to recognise the Seim and the establishment of an Armenian state on the condition all hostilities against the Turks were ended.
At the end of March Ottoman forces reached the pre-War Turkish-Russian border and captured Batum on 14 April. On 22 April the Seim proclaimed the independent Transcaucasian Federative Republic. It entered into negotiations with the Ottomans at Batum.
At this point the Seim began to fall apart. The Georgians withdrew and declared independence under German protection on May 26. The Azeris concluded that they would have to do the same with the withdrawal of the Georgians and established a government on 28 May. The Armenians followed suit at the same time.
On 3 June the Batum Treaty was signed between the Ottomans, Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan. This settled the boundaries of the region including the recognition of the Armenian Republic by the Ottomans. However, the Armenians were very disappointed with the size of their Armenian state and had no intention to abide by the Treaty they had signed. Given the chance they would return to the Greater Armenia project and already there were defections.
III Massacres of Azerbaijani Turks
The fluid situation provoked a series of atrocities conducted against Azerbaijanis by the Armenian Dashnaks. The main reason for these massacres was the Dashnak attempt to carve out Magna Armenia – a great Armenian state – out of territory that was overwhelmingly Moslem. To accomplish such a thing what are today called Genocide and ethnic cleansing were essential. Terror was therefore brought to peaceful Moslem villages by roving heavily armed Armenian bands who would suddenly arrive, set fire to the settlements, steal all possessions, and kill the inhabitants, regardless of sex or age. Very few were spared. Those who escaped often perished in the open countryside through cold, starvation or disease. Prominent among the perpetrators were Generals Andranik and Dro.
The Dashnaks were let loose by the collapse of Russian control of them. Previously the Tsarist State had curbed the Armenians and prevented most excesses, which would have been against the Russian interest in their relations with Moslems. The Armenians were always resentful of Russian control of them, wanting the Russians to provide them with backing, but at the same time wanting to do what they thought fit with the Moslems. With the dissolving of the Tsarist command the Armenians found themselves the best armed and most militarised force in the region, being effectively able to do what they pleased to unarmed, defenceless Moslem populations who they wished to annihilate or drive out.
It should be stressed that this was a very different situation to that in Ottoman Turkey. Eastern Anatolia was part of the war-zone in which the Armenians were in active insurrection against the Ottoman State. Dashnak forces harassed the Turks behind the lines and hundreds of thousands of Armenians served in the invading Tsarist armies.
In the Caucasus there were just peaceful Moslem villages, not involved in the Great War and not in insurrection against any state. The Azerbaijanis had never used the Russian difficulty to advance their national objectives, unlike the Armenians who sought to use any chance to further their Greater Armenia project. The Moslem population had never been militarised and just wanted to live in peace and stability with its neighbours. There were no Azeri Turk irregulars engaged in guerrilla warfare, like the Dashnaks for generations. There was no literary tradition for armed insurrection like the Armenian Raffi. There was no desire to provoke atrocities and sacrifice their own people to secure outside intervention. Nobody had told the Azerbaijani Turks or “Tatars” as the Russians called them, that they were a nation and deserved to have a state. The Azerbaijanis were forced into nationhood by what was being done to them.
Another element in the massacres that were taking place was Britain. The British seeing their Russian ally collapse needed a new army forming a new front to keep the Ottomans from transferring troops to the defence of Mesopotamia and Palestine, where British forces were advancing. The heavily armed, trained and experienced Armenians were the obvious choice. They had cause to fight for a homeland and had always been encouraged to do so by the Liberal Anglosphere. Britain hinted that the Dashnak project would be supported by whatever means necessary and went into alliance with General Andranik and his Dashnak bands. Anything to win the War it had staked so much on.
The problem, however, lay in the baggage the Dashnaks brought to the battlefield. They were not content to be mere instruments of Britain. They wished to carve out as big a territory as they could for an Armenian State and extreme measures in the hinterland of war were essential to this. The fact that they were a highly militarised minority among an unmilitarised majority meant they had great power over the local inhabitants despite being fairly small in number. Britain decided to turn a blind eye to their ethnic cleansing activities and suppress reports of it in the United States. Without the Armenians there would be no Allied front.
Through 1918 and 1919 the massacres of Azerbaijanis took place to clear the area for Greater Armenia.
Firstly, there were mass killings of Azerbaijani Turks in and around 7 villages of the Shimakh when around 3,000 heavily armed Armenians arrived from Baku. They proceeded to murder around 4,000 men, women and children, claiming that they had British support for their operations. Andranik had indeed been assured of it.
Then there was the terrible massacre in Baku at the end of March 1918. This began as a Bolshevik assault on the Musavat Party ordered by the Armenian Bolshevik Stepan Shaumyan. However, the heavily armed Dasknak forces of up to 20,000 men, upon whom the Bolsheviks depended for their power in the city, availed of the Bolshevik attack to massacre around 11,000 Azeri civilians over the course of just a few days. There was a mass exodus of Azerbaijanis to the countryside to escape the days of killing.
In Quba more than 16,000 civilians were massacred by Armenian forces in 3 separate assaults on villages in early 1918. 35 villages were raised to the ground in the general area. Not only Moslems were killed as the Dashnaks also slaughtered the local Jewish community and other minorities. Two Thousand were also put to death in the Lankaran area.
In Zangezur province forces under the command of General Andranik surrounded the Moslem population in a large sweep and proceed to destroy 115 villages. Nearly 8,000 people were slaughtered, including 2,000 children.
The ethnic cleansing operations continued through 1919 and was aimed at extending the land of ‘Armenia’ for the purposes of staking a claim to greater territory at the Paris Peace Conference. General Dro, the feared Dashnak leader, was involved in devastating 60 villages in the Igdir and Echmiedzin uyezds. He later fought for Hitler and was taken into SS confidence in being allowed to witness einsatzsgruppen operations. Those who Dro’s men did not kill often perished in thousands on the mountains, fleeing their devastated homes without food or shelter.
Between 1918 and 1920 tens of thousands of Azerbaijanis were expelled from Zangezur. It then became part of the Soviet Republic of Armenia cutting off the Nakhjivan region from the rest of Azerbaijan. In the 1940s there was another substantial deportation of Moslems from the area and the remaining non-Armenians were driven out in 1988-89 as Greater Armenia went on.
Hundreds of Moslem villages in Erivan uyezds were also destroyed by Dashnak forces in 1918/19. The Azerbaijani population of roughly 565,000 people were either killed or cleared from the territory that became the Armenian Republic. Probably something around 132,000 perished in all.
Andranik was also involved in massacres in Maku, Khoy and Urmia. Azerbaijani and Turkish resistance prevented these killings from being even greater but thousands still perished from the assaults of the Armenian Dashnak forces.
IV Establishment of Azerbaijani Democratic Republic
On 28 May 1918 the Moslem National Council issued a Declaration of Independence (Misagi-Milli) and proclaimed the Azerbaijani Democratic Republic. The Declaration invested authority in the all people regardless of race, religion, class or gender. Separation of Powers and the rule of law were fundamental principles of the new state that was being born.
The following day in Tiflis at a second sitting of the Council the relationship with Armenians was discussed. It was decided to support the ceding of traditional Azerbaijani lands in Erivan to the Armenians so they could establish their own state in peace. This was a very difficult decision and was opposed by the Erivan delegates. It was, however, recognised that the Armenians needed a national centre and a proposal to establish a confederation between the new states of Azerbaijan and Armenia was passed by the Council.
It should be recognised that this was a really generous position, given that Dashnak forces continued their ethnic cleansing activities at this time in pursuit of Magna Armenia. The Azeri intention was to put an end to historic disputes and establish good relations with the Armenians, despite the latter’s belligerent attitude and thirst for territory. The Azerbaijani attitude was precisely the opposite to that of the Armenian Dashnaks.
The growing power in the region at this time, with the collapse of the Russian lines, however, were the Ottoman forces. The Azerbaijani Government signed a friendship treaty with Istanbul. The Ottomans promised to drive out the Armenian bands terrorising the territory of Azerbaijan and then take Baku off the Bolsheviks/Dashnaks.
On June 4 delegates from the newly independent states of the South Caucasus – Azerbaijan, Armenia and Georgia – signed the Treaty of Batum with the Ottomans. The Ottomans promised to give protection to the Azeribaijanis and military assistance to them to establish their state territory.
At this time the Azerbaijani national government had to function from Tiflis in Georgia due to the presence of foreign forces on Azerbaijani lands. It then relocated to Ganje province as a temporary capital in preparation for establishing itself in the desired capital of Baku, which had been the scene of the March massacres and was still under Bolshevik/Dashnak control, and occupied by an army of 20,000 Armenians.
The occupation of Baku by the Bolsheviks was much to do with the importance of its oil for the Soviet economy. Lenin struggled to maintain the state and knew it was vital to its defence. The problem lay in the alliance of convenience with the Dashnaks and the relegation of socialist principles to mere sloganising. This associated the Soviets with Armenian nationalism and its ethnic violence aimed at established a Greater Armenia at the expense of the Moslem population of the Caucasus. So, the Baku Soviet dismissed the Duma in the city and declared all opposition counter-revolutionary.
Stepan Shaumyan, the Armenian Bolshevik who was leader-in-waiting of the Armenia Lenin had declared support for, formed an alliance with General Andranik and pretended that the Dashnak commander was a Bolshevik. Andranik went along with the pretence as long as it suited his Greater Armenia programme. Far from being a Bolshevik, Andranik appeared on a platform with Lord Bryce and T.P. O’Connor and English Liberals in London shortly afterwards in support of an ethnic Magna Armenia.
It should be noted at this point that much of the reason for British arming and training of the Armenians was fear of pan-Turanianism and the obsession with a new German Railway through the Caucasus that would replace the Berlin-Baghdad proposal that Britain had frustrated by invading Mesopotamia. Actually there was very little support either among the Turks or Azerbaijanis for any unified state. The Azerbaijanis saw themselves as Caucasian as well as Turkic and Moslem. They were much more inclined to engage in confederation with the other peoples of the Caucasus and remain part of the Russian sphere of influence than become part of the Ottoman Empire or any Pan-Turanian project.
The Turkish advance into the Caucasus was not fundamentally based on Pan-Turanianism. It had some strategic and economic aspects and Enver Pasha had some dreams of linking up the Ottoman Empire with the Caucasian Moslems, but it was primarily about protecting fellow Moslems from massacre.
V The Battle for Baku
At this point the Bolshevik/Dashnak forces led by the Armenian Bolshevik Shaumyan launched an offensive against the Azerbaijanis of Ganje Province. At the same time the Armenians began massacring and ethnically cleansing their new state at Erivan of Moslems, despite the reconciliation efforts of the Azerbaijani Government. Having no military capacity to defend its interests Ottoman assistance had to be utilised by the Azerbaijan Government to save its population as best it could.
As has been noted, the Azerbaijanis were a peaceful, unmilitarised people, unlike the heavily armed Armenians who had years of experience of both regular and irregular warfare in the Tsarist armies and behind the lines as francs tireurs. So the Ottomans, who were themselves sorely pressed by the British Invasion of Palestine and Mesopotamia, began to assist the training and organisation of Azerbaijani forces alongside their small army in the Caucasus. At the start only around 1000 men were available to them. The Caucasus Army of Islam began to be established to liberate Azerbaijan and it came to have around 18,000 in its ranks. Only the Ottoman third of this army was trained and battle-experienced.
In May 1918 the Ottomans began to liberate the Zangezur Province, encountering the scenes of Dashnak massacre of Moslems as they advanced. The Ottoman force was led by Nuri Pasha, Enver Pasha’s brother, and Ganje was captured on 12 June. A Dashnak/Bolshevik counter-attack in Ganje was initially successful against the new Azerbaijani forces but the Army of Islam held its ground and the victory at Goychay had a great moral effect. In July further victories at Aghsu and Kurdemir against numerically superior forces of Dashnaks and Bolsheviks gave the momentum to the liberation army. The capture of Shamakhi from the Bolsheviks was another important milestone and when Lenin sent reinforcements from Ukraine they were defeated. The Army of Islam headed for Baku.
Enver Pasha provided corridors for Armenians to evacuate Baku and guaranteed safe passage for them to leave the city for Armenia. However, the Armenian will to fight was bolstered by the arrival of the British expeditionary force under General Dunsterville. This was a bad decision on the part of the Armenians. Given the experience of massacre of the Moslem population in March and the decision to resist the Ottoman forces there was very likely to be a retaliatory event when the city was taken. And so it proved.
General Dunsterville’s force had the objectives of leading the Dashnak forces in Baku against the Ottomans, winning control of the oil fields or destroying them, if necessary.
Meanwhile, the Bolsheviks in Baku were overthrown by an alliance of Dashnaks, the British and SR/Mensheviks. The Bolsheviks, including Shaumyan, were allowed to leave the city and cross the Caspian. They were subsequently murdered by non-Bolshevik Soviets after capture. The Bolsheviks claimed that British officers organised the killings of the 26 in the Karakum desert.
The battle of Baku was the most important event for the Azerbaijani people. If Baku was not captured their survival was problematic and their state would be stillborn. Attempts to liberate the city in August were unsuccessful as at first stern resistance was mounted by the Dashnak/British/Soviet army. However, the Armenians began to give up the fight, the British evacuated and on September 15 the city fell with an unconditional surrender to the Army of Islam.
At this point the Ottomans controlled not only Russian Azerbaijan and Dagestan but Persian Azerbaijan, which had been a Russian zone of influence as part of the British/Russian carve up of Iran in 1907.
The Ottoman victory was short lived, however. The Ottomans conceded to the British at Mudros in October 1918. The Mudros Armistice, which fast became a defeat, obliged Ottoman forces to evacuate Baku. Britain refused to recognise the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic and said all such matters needed to be brought to the Paris Peace Conference for settlement. When the Azerbaijani Government requested British forces leave General Thompson asked them where their army was, to compel him. Being reliant on the Ottoman Army, which had now conceded to Britain, nothing could be done.
General Thompson became Governor General of Baku. Britain, whilst refusing to recognise the Azerbaijani State, was content to let Azeribaijanis run it outside Baku on the understanding that the oil fields and infrastructure were under Thompson’s control. Britain used Baku as a base to support the Russian White armies of Denikin, Kolchak and Yudenich against the Bolsheviks. The Azeribaijanis were reluctant to support Denikin because the Russian General intended to reincorporate the Caucasus in the Russian State once the Bolsheviks were defeated. They attempted to preserve neutrality in the Russian civil war that was raging.
At this point Britain decided to withdraw its military forces from the Caucasus and hand military responsibility for the area over to the Italians – whist keeping the oil fields. Due to financial problems caused by fighting the Great War for so long beyond expectation and having to bail out their failing allies, Lloyd George’s decision to demobilise his Great War army and the fact that Britain’s military forces were becoming overstretched governing the additions to its Empire, the Caucasus had to be abandoned. Britain began withdrawing its forces from mid-May 1919 and completed its evacuation by August.
VI The Paris Peace Conference and after
The Azerbaijani Democratic Republic took their case for recognition to the Paris Peace Conference in 1919. The French, under Armenian influence, and White Russians obstructed the Azerbaijani delegations efforts for a number of months. The Peace Conference sent an investigatory mission headed by an American, Benjamin Moore, to the Caucasus to examine the situation there.
In a Memo to President Wilson the Azerbijani delegation put forward their claims to nationhood, including in it the sacrifices their people had made in the previous few years. The Memo stated that along with the destruction of 2 large towns, 500 villages had been razed and around 150,000 Moslem civilians had perished. President Wilson was requested to apply his Principles of Self Determination to the Azerbaijani people.
President Wilson was in favour of a confederation being established in the South Caucasus. Whilst the Georgians and Azerbaijanis found this acceptable the Armenians did not. They were out for a Greater Armenia composed of 6 and a half Vilayets of Turkey plus large areas of Georgia, Azerbaijan and Persia. They had many supporters in the Anglosphere but were, by now, militarily incapable of imposing their authority on the Moslem population of eastern Anatolia.
Britain’s position on Azerbaijan was based on events in Russia and on the fortunes of the Bolsheviks. Lord Curzon sent a telegram to the Foreign Office in London reporting that on his initiative, the Entente Supreme Council had decided to recognize Azerbaijan and Georgia as independent states. The Supreme Council recognised the Democratic Republic of Azerbaijan on January 11, 1920. In doing so they committed themselves to defending the 3 newly established national entities in the Caucasus against all foreign aggression.
The state of Azerbaijan had a population of just under 3 million in 1920, 70 per cent of whom were Moslem.
One of the first actions of the Azerbaijan Government was to establish an Extraordinary Investigation Commission, in June 1918, to investigate the activities of the Dashnak murder gangs and collect a large volume of evidence from survivors. It was not content, like the Armenians to issue great claims of sacrifice without documented evidence. The Azerbaijanis did not have sponsors and propagandists in the West willing to tell exaggerated and misleading tales about their experiences. They had to provide hard facts if they were to receive any audience at all.
The Azerbaijani Government had no experience in statecraft and in many ways the Azerbaijani people had been forced into nationhood in order to preserve their continued existence to a great extent. However, the new state made a good start in establishing democratic institutions and became one of only a handful of states in the world to enfranchise women, and the first in the region. Functional institutions of state were founded, foreign relations established and an embryonic army began to be organised.
However, greater events were about to engulf Azerbaijan again. Britain had sought to do business with the Bolsheviks through Bruce Lockhart. Halford Mackinder, the founding father of geopolitics, was sent through Eastern Europe and appointed as High Commissioner to Southern Russia. When the Bolsheviks refused to fight Britain’s Great War Mackinder gave support to General Denikin. From this experience Mackinder wrote his famous book Democratic Ideals and Reality, in 1919, which recommended the construction of a new giant buffer zone to constrict Russia, Britain’s traditional geopolitical enemy. This was meant as a cordon sanitaire composed of Poland, Belarus, Ukraine, Georgia, Armenia, Dagestan and Azerbaijan stretching from the Baltic to the Caspian Sea, in order to ring the Russian heartland.
Mackinder, analysing things in a geopolitical manner argued that Russia needed to be dismembered or the Bolsheviks would be capable of rejuvenating the Heartland as a powerful tellurocratic force. However, The Lloyd George Government decided not to give the Whites enough support in 1920, believing that the Bolsheviks would not last. This proved mistaken, along with the belief that the Turks were beaten and would not be capable of a resurgence.
With the withdrawal of Entente anti-Bolshevik forces from the Russian Civil War the Bolsheviks began to get the upper hand and the conflict moved toward the outskirts of Russia, to the Caucasus.
Both sides in the Russian civil war raging to the North sought alliances with the Azerbaijan Government. The Azerbaijanis replied that the political destiny of Russia was a matter for the Russian people alone. Chicherin, the Bolshevik Commissar for Foreign Affairs, exerted particular pressure on the Azerbaijani Government. And in March 1920 Lenin ordered the capture of Baku at all costs after the Red Army had defeated Denikin and the Whites.
The young Azeribaijani army was engaged in suppressing an Armenian insurrection in Karabakh when the Soviet army invaded in April 1920. The Paris Peace Conference had maintained Karabakh as part of Azerbaijan, finding the mountainous region having little connection with Erivan, despite the Armenian claims over the mixed region in which they now formed a majority.
No aid was forthcoming from the Powers who had guaranteed the sovereignty of the Caucasus Republics at Paris the year before. A two front war was impossible for the Azerbaijanis and the Armenians represented the greater threat to the people of the nation’s territory. There was a pro-Bolshevik faction within the Musavat and it was decided to concede to the Red Army.
With the Bolshevik Navy outside Baku on the Caspian Sea the Azerbaijani Parliament voted to hand over power to the newly formed Azeri Communist Party on a number of conditions. Firstly, in order to facilitate Bolshevik aid to the Turkish nationalists under Ataturk fighting the Imperialist Powers to the West. Secondly, on the promise that the Bolsheviks would respect the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan, particularly against the Armenian claims. Thirdly, that the Bolsheviks would allow the continuation of political activity by non-Bolsheviks.
Whilst the Bolsheviks honoured the first two of these conditions the third was not respected. There was little surprise in that.
The Democratic Republic of Azerbaijan lasted less than 2 years, before it was abolished by the Bolshevik Invasion of April 1920. The Commissar for Nationalities , Josef Stalin, who had taken charge of political affairs on Russia’s southern front, engineered the conquest of Azerbaijan. The Bolshevik army that conquered the Caucasus in 1920 was a very different beast than the forces commanded by Shaumyan a couple of years previously.
The handover of Baku did not completely end Azerbaijani resistance to Bolshevik occupation. Much of the resistance occurred in Ganje but there were battles in most towns and surrounding countryside. Thousands were killed and fighting continued for nearly 4 years before the Azerbaijanis was finally subdued by the new Red Army.
VII Red Nation
On 28 April 1920 the Soviet Socialist Republic of Azerbaijan was established. If Azerbaijan was cut off as an independent national entity in 1920, how did it emerge as a fully fledged nation in 1991, when that which cut it down dissolved itself?
The Azerbaijani nation was not aborted by the Bolsheviks. Nation building now took place over the following decades under Soviet auspices. From the start Stalin pointed to the difference between the Azerbaijanis under Tsarist rule and within Soviet authority. Tsarist Russia did nothing to help the Azerbaijanis to nationhood but Stalin’s intentions were very different:
“Under the old regime, the tsarist government did not strive, and could not strive, to develop the political life of the Ukraine, Azerbaidjan, Turkestan, and other border regions, just as it resisted their cultural development and endeavoured to assimilate the native population forcibly.” (Report on the Immediate tasks of the Party in connection with the National Problem. X Congress of Russian Communist Party)
Stalin’s intention was not to Russify the border regions but to develop national culture and regenerate and develop nations within the Soviet system. He did this through empowering native cadres, instituting national education programmes and stabilising and consolidating territories based on national principles.
The Soviet period may have restricted some aspects of Azerbaijani historical development in the overall interest of the Union. However, Azerbaijan undoubtedly functioned effectively as a national unit within the federal state of the Soviet Union. The historical narrative was researched, constructed and tended to in the Stalin period and the national identity of the Azerbaijani people was developed, albeit within the confines of the Union.
In his Report on National Factors in Party and State Development (1923) Stalin gave his reasons for preserving the Transcaucasian Federation of Socialist Republics between Georgia, Azerbaijan and Armenia as “an organ of national peace” to foster “genuine fruits of mutual amity”. In his Report he suggested that it was important to preserve the mixed nationalities nature of each nation and prevent population removal. The reason he gave for this was to prevent one Caucasian nationality manoeuvring against another directly with Moscow rather than resolving an issue first, locally.
The TSFSR held most of the important powers – military, foreign affairs, trade, finance and economic policy – rather than the 3 countries making it up. However, in 1936 the TSFRS was dissolved under the Stalin Constitution because it was felt that the old problem of national animosities had been solved. Karabakh remained a part of Azerbaijan under the 1937 Constitution of Azerbaijan.
The hope for the end of territorial disputes proved to be optimistic because Stalin underestimated the fundamentalist impulse of Armenian nationalism which the Soviet system never managed to eradicate. The Armenians waited, preserving their essential nature beneath the Soviet imposition and maintained themselves to apply their influence directly in Moscow to strengthen their nationalist agenda, particularly in relation to the disputed territories of Karabakh.
The national history of the Azerbaijanis developed in Soviet times encouraged them to believe they were a people who had long inhabited the region and had every right to remain there. A cultural revival under the chairmanship of Heidar Aliev, the Azerbaijani ex-KGB boss, promoted history investigation and the writing of national narratives. Aliev was an important figure in the Union and was elevated to the Politburo in 1982.
Armenian nationalist histories, however, which were often produced in the Anglosphere, argued that the Turkic people (Azerbaijanis included) were nomadic invaders who merely destroyed civilisations. This version of history was advanced in 19th Century England, but its racialist impulses are characteristic of Armenian writings today. The Soviet authorities failed to suppress Armenian nationalism from the Khruschev era and US Armenians were later astonished at what Armenian writers were getting away with. In contrast, the Azerbaijani historians remained much more firmly within the confines of Marxist-Leninist national principles, right up to the final collapse of the Union around 1992.
VIII The Karabakh Problem
Azerbaijan was one of the nationalities which were recognised as a reality and organised into component Republics of the Soviet Union and which became independent nation-states when the USSR was finally dissolved.
However, one problem that persisted was that of Karabakh, in Western Azerbaijan.
Josef Stalin reduced the original territory claimed by the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic, giving areas of it that had been depopulated of Azerbaijanis to Armenia. However, he also insisted that Karabakh remain part of Azerbaijan, with extensive autonomy, despite Armenian pressure to turn it over to them and an earlier Bolshevik decision to do so.
The minutes of the meeting of the Plenum of the Cavburo of the Central Committee of the RKP (b) of July 5, 1921, state clearly that Nagorny Karabakh was not joined, given or awarded, as some Armenians argue, to Azerbaijan, but was “left within” its territory, on the basis of its ′′permanent relationship with Azerbaijan”. Karabakh had been a part of the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic in 1918, The British occupation during 1918-19 had treated it as a part of Azerbaijan, and it had been remained a part of Azerbaijan when the British left in August 1920 and handed over power to Baku.
Armenians and Western sources have condemned Stalin for a “divide and conquer” approach but there was certainly an attempt to solve the national question in the Caucasus by the Commissar of nationalities. Karabakh was much more economically part of Azerbaijan than Armenia and had had an Azerbaijani majority before its Moslem depopulation. In some senses the decision balanced out the ceding of Zangazur to Armenia.
The head of the Communist Party in Armenia asked in 1945 for Karabakh to be attached to Armenia but Stalin always resisted Armenian attempts to hand it over to them. When Stalin died the Armenians sensed a weakening of Soviet resolve and the coaxing of Moscow increased. The Communist Revisionists permitted a nationalist upsurge in Yerevan with a replacing of Stalin’s statue with one of ‘Mother Armenia’. Moscow seemed to be taking the view that Armenian nationalism was not a threat to the Union, as it repressed the same thing elsewhere by tanks. How mistaken this judgement was only became apparant later.
The Armenians claimed Karabakh on the basis that it was “historic Armenian territory” and they were there first, before the time of Christ. They claimed it had been part of an Armenian Kingdom in the early centuries A.D. However, for most of the next millennium it was under Moslem control. In 1823, when the Karabakh Khanate was dissolved, and the area became part of the Elizabethpol Governate within the Russian Empire only 9 per cent of the population of Karabakh was Armenian. After the transfer of the Karabakh Khanate to the Tsar, many Muslims left for Persia and Armenians were induced by the Russian government to emigrate from Persia to Karabakh. More than 200,000 Armenians were resettled to the mountainous part of Karabakh in the 1830s. The Tsar’s population policy changed the population balance in the province. The Armenian population formed 35 per cent of the population in 1832, and 53% by 1880.
Travellers who came to Karabakh reported a mixed population with the mountainous part often having an Armenian majority only in winter when the more nomadic Moslems migrated to the Karabakh plains.
In 1917, the “Caucasian Calendar” reported that Karabakh was home to 199,000 Azerbaijanis (58 per cent of the province) and 142,000 Armenians (42 per cent). Despite the patronage of Tsarist Russia in settling Armenians over the century in Karabakh, the Azerbaijanis probably still formed the majority.
Karabakh was ravaged by Andranik’s Dashnaks in mid-1918 and the Armenian attempt to remove the Moslem population was only been ended by the Ottoman advance. With the removal of Ottoman forces after the Mudros Armistice the Armenians advanced their efforts to further reduce the non-Armenian population. The result of this was that the Azerbaijani population of the region declined to maybe as low as 10 per cent, according to Soviet statistics.
By the 1980s, after a half century of Soviet rule it had recovered to around 25 per cent. This was entirely a result of natural increase of the Moslem population. At that point there were serious concerns among the Armenians that the Azerbaijanis, under conditions of peace and stability, would once more become the majority. It was then that a new campaign of expulsion was organised in 1988.
The problem with the autonomy decision is that it enabled a strengthening of the Armenian grip over the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast, which was carved out to ensure an Armenian majority by including Armenian villages and excluding Azerbaijani ones. Nagorno means mountain and there had been an Armenian majority in the mountainous region of Karabakh for about half a century. The addition of the Nagorno tag legitimised the autonomy. The Communist Party there, the sole source of power, became overwhelmingly Armenian and the language of the administration was Armenian. Azerbaijanis began to migrate in the face of de facto Armenian cultural control despite the natural increase in their population. This all went to tighten Armenian control of the oblast.
“The national problem of the Transcaucasus was solved forever by the Soviet power. The principles of Soviet autonomy have been put into practice and have done away with all controversial questions. Those who profited by dissensions between the peoples are no more. The Soviet Transcaucasus has forgotten about national antagonism: this most difficult problem has been solved by the Socialist Revolution, on the basis of the teachings of Lenin and Stalin on the national question.” (Nicholas Mikhailov, Land of the Soviets: A Handbook of the U.S.S.R., p.240)
This was written in 1939. It would have been fine if the Soviets had actually managed to change the nature of Armenian nationalism, or if the Union had survived in a purposeful way. However, from the death of Stalin the Union began to lose purpose and it was increasingly reluctant to suppress the Armenian irredentism that had laid dormant in the Stalin era but which was about to erupt with the dissolving of the Union.
Soviet Communism was obliged to undertake the formation of national societies from fragmented and highly traditional communities that underlay the states. The Communists did not rely on spontaneous forces within these states but instead disrupted and disorganised civil society within in them, making the Communist Party the complete organiser of society. Relations between these states had many causes of friction that persisted and were exacerbated by the processes of economic and national development which the Communists were organising. A common Proletarian consciousness did not cut across these national states in any meaningful way. Inter-state relations were fundamentally relations between Central Committees, not the masses. Fraternal working class relations were largely an abstract concept switched on and off by the states.
The maintenance of a united Communist camp was a most difficult task which only Stalin really managed to achieve. The unity of the Communist states depended upon the political tact and skill of the Soviet Union. In the post-Stalin period unity was firstly disrupted by new democratic phrase mongers in Moscow. Without this unity the national antagonisms were going to reemerge and there is little doubt that Armenian nationalism, which was much deeper and assertive/aggressive than its Azerbaijani counterpart would have the advantage in a new situation where such forces were going to be unleashed on the world again.
IX The Karabakh War
Armenian nationalism had retained its devious and manipulative character throughout the Soviet period, always striving for its own narrow interest and against the overall good of the peoples of the region and the Union. Petitions to Moscow demanding the transferring of Karabakh to Armenia started during the Khrushchev period, after the Armenians sensed a weakening of things with the death of Stalin and the emergence of the Revisionists. The petitions gathered momentum when Gorbachev signaled a relaxing of things with his Glasnost and Peristroika, which were aimed at energizing the Soviet system, but which ended up destroying it.
By sabotaging the Party Secretariat in 1988, Gorbachev began to dismantle the Communist Party structures that were the most important foundation of the Union. He did so to prevent a conservative rolling back of his reform process. But it was the Communist Party structures which negated the federation that made up the Union, making it a centralized union under party control. In eliminating the cohesiveness of the Party Gorbachev undermined the Union by making it a real federation, in which the right to secede was provoked and inevitably followed. In the dispersal of power within the Union the Supreme Soviets of the republics began to act in accordance with the logic of Gorbachev’s reforms. And the Armenians were the first people to notice this and to test its application in practice. And what could Gorbachev do when they did so?
The sequence of events that led to the separation of Karabakh from Azerbaijan was as follows;
At the February 20, 1988 session of the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast Soviet of People’s Deputies, the Armenian majority passed a resolution to appeal to the Supreme Soviets of Azerbaijan SSR and Armenian SSR to annex NKAO and absorb it into the Armenian SSR. On February 22, 1988, Armenians fired on a peaceful demonstration staged by the Azerbaijanis near the town of Asgaran, who were protesting against this decision. This incident marked the beginning of the conflict beyond the constitutional, at military level. On December 1, 1989, the Supreme Soviet of Armenian SSR adopted an extraordinary resolution “On the unification of Armenian SSR and Nagorno-Karabakh” that challenged the whole basis of the territorial settlement made by the Union in the 1920s. In response, on January 10, 1990, the Presidium of the USSR Supreme Soviet adopted a resolution “On the nonconformity with the USSR Constitution of the acts on Nagorno-Karabakh adopted by Armenian SSR Supreme Soviet on December 1, 1989, and January 9, 1990”. This resolution described as illegal the Armenian SSR’s demand on the unification of Armenian SSR and Nagorno-Karabakh, emphasising that such an act could only come about with the Azerbaijan SSR’s full and legal consent.
Anticipating the collapsing of the Soviet Union the Armenians seized Karabakh and other areas of Azerbaijan gradually driving out, or killing, the entire non-Armenian population. That really is a shocking fact, largely ignored by the international community that makes tremendous noise about much less serious breeches of standards in the world. Despite 28 years of warfare in the North of Ireland such a thing would be almost inconceivable on all sides in Ulster.
The fact that Karabakh was not adjoined to Armenia but had a strip of Azerbaijan to its West meant that the Armenians seized that too to connect up the area occupied with Armenia proper.
About 18 per cent of Azerbaijan, including Karabakh and surrounding areas is today under illegal and internationally unrecognised Armenian occupation. Around 800,000 Azerbaijanis became displaced persons as a result of the ensuing conflict and about 300,000 Armenians have left Azerbaijan after the seizure of Karabakh polarised communities and produced ethnic violence.
The death toll in the war over Karabakh which raged from 1988 to 1994 was at least 17,000 – 11,000 Azerbaijanis and 6,000 Armenians. Some estimates put it much higher, up to 30,000. In 1980 the population of Karabakh was 162,000, with about three quarters being Armenian and one quarter Azerbaijani. Now it is around 60,000 Armenians and no Azerbaijanis. An Armenian army of 20,000 is necessary to defend its conquest.
The conflict began in late 1987 when the Armenians began demanding the transfer of Karabakh from the Azerbaijani Socialist Republic to Armenia. In October 1988 Soviet authorities had to disperse demonstrations demanding Karabakh’s annexation.
The irredentist campaign originated from Armenian nationalists outside Karabakh. One of the prime movers was Igor Muradian, an economist who worked for Gosplan in Erivan. He spent a decade lobbying senior Soviets against Azerbaijan to get Moscow to hand over Karabakh to Armenia. He organised discrediting campaigns against senior Azerbaijani Communists, including Heidar Aliev. From the Summer of 1986 Muradian began working with the terrorist nationalist group, the Dashnaktsution, importing weapons into Karabakh for a future assault on the non-Armenian populace.
In January 1988 Armenian leaders, including Gorbachev’s chief economic spokesman and Sergo Mikoyan, a son of Anastas, toured the US to organise the Armenian diaspora, accompanied by Simonyan, a member of the Soviet General Staff. They used inflammatory rhetoric to mobilise the diaspora for supporting a push for taking Karabakh off Azerbaijan. This campaign conducted in America was an extraordinary breach of Soviet discipline, demonstrating how much Gorbachev was losing control of things.
On February 20 1988 the NKAR voted to transfer the territory from the Azerbaijan SSR to the Armenian SSR. The next day 50,000 appeared on the streets of Erivan in support of the demand for secession. Up to 60 people were said to have been killed in Karabakh in the last 2 weeks of February, mainly Moslems. This sparked off the trouble in Sumgait.
The Armenians sensed weakness of resolve in Moscow and took to the streets in Yerevan and began attacking Moslems in Armenia and Karabakh. Behind it was the Karabakh Committee, the inspirers of the ‘Armenian Genocide’ campaign that began in Yerevan in 1965-7 and which promoted ‘April 24 Genocide Day’ and began to mobilise the Hai Dat – the worldwide Armenian race against Turkey. There is certainly a connection between the development of the Armenian lobby with its promotion of Turk hatred and the seizure of Karabakh.
The Armenian offensive within Karabakh that began the ethnic cleansing of Azerbaijanis from Armenian areas sparked off ethic violence in Azerbaijan in early 1988. A couple of dozen Armenians and some Azerbaijanis were victims of inter-communal violence in Sumgait, just north of Baku, a city mainly made up of Azerbaijani refugees forced out of Armenia in the 1940s and joined by a new influx in 1988 by those fleeing from Karabakh. 75,000 Azerbaijani refugees had left Armenia and Karabakh in the first half of 1988.
The incident in Sumgait was an obscure event in which there were strong suspicions of agent provocateur involvement. Thomas DeWaal comments in his book Black Garden that the only surprise was there were so few attacks on Armenians in Azerbaijan given what was starting to take place in Karabakh. Whatever the case serious attacks on Armenians in Azerbaijan were almost always carried out by those who had been driven out of Armenia previously. At the crux of it all was the Armenian drive to take over territory in Karabakh and elsewhere.
On July 12 the Karabakh Soviet announced it had unilaterally seceded from Azerbaijan. The war was on. Secessionist movements are nearly always crushed by armed force by states, whatever their character. But the Soviet State under Gorbachev seemed to be paralysed by the forces who were manoeuvring within it and who were more interested in manipulating the situation in their own interests than defending the State. Some factions actively supported the trouble to embarrass Gorbachev and create an explosion that would unseat him. The only purposeful and dynamic force in the situation was the Armenian nationalist one.
Huge protests of up to half a million people every day began to take place in Erivan in favour of annexing Karabakh. These events triggered large counter-demonstrations in November in Baku that threatened the existence of the Armenian community in the city. The KGB promoted the idea that armed Armenian settlers were pouring into Karabakh to drive out the Moslem population, making the situation in Azerbaijan incendiary.
The main murdering and ethnic cleansing of Moslems occurred in the latter part of 1988 when hundreds were killed and villages entirely emptied of their inhabitants by Armenian paramilitaries.
The Dashnaks reasserted their traditional demand for a Greater Armenia again in 1988, in anticipation of the region going into flux when the Soviet Union fell. This Greater Armenia was declared to include eastern Turkey, Georgia, Karabakh and Nakhichevan. Terrorist Bombings began to take place in Azerbaijan. In the decade previous there had been a campaign of assassination which resulted in the deaths of dozens of Turkish diplomats and civilians across the world. The Armenians availed of their terrorist cells across the world and their experienced fighters in the Lebanese civil war.
The Armenian land-grab in Karabakh put paid to the mixed populations of Azerbaijan, where formerly 350,000 Armenians had resided and Armenia, where 200,000 Azerbaijanis had lived. These populations were different: The Armenians in Azerbaijan had been scattered communities who had remained when Azerbaijan came into existence as components of a diverse mix of people. The Azerbaijanis had been people in formally Azerbaijani lands taken by the Armenians in 1918-20 which the Soviets then oversaw. When the Soviet presence began to dissolve Armenian nationalism set about purifying the populace. This process then influenced the population balance in Azerbaijan. There are, at least, 30,000 Armenians still present in Azerbaijan.
Armenian nationalism has produced the only mono-ethnic state in the region by both design and action.
A number of factors conspired for the Azerbaijanis to lose hold of Karabakh quite apart from the majority status that the Armenians had developed there. The Armenians were long prepared for the opportunity to seize the territory and their aggressive nationalism and irredentism took the Azerbaijanis completely by surprise. Armenian paramilitaries quickly took control of Karabakh and exerted their will. This was demonstrated by the incapability of the Azerbaijanis to prevent their people being driven out and Armenians being resettled in their villages during 1988.
The Azerbaijanis showed themselves to be a well-intentioned people in their history and regarded the Karabakh issue as having been settled by Stalin with the grant of autonomy. The long-held understanding was that Azerbaijan had given Zangezur to Armenia in return for Karabakh, as part of the solution to the national question in the region which Stalin presided over. However, the Armenians just claimed that Stalin had given Karabakh to the Azerbaijanis.
As the Soviet Union began to collapse the Azerbaijanis continued to base their arguments on Leninist/Stalinist principles of nationality and cited Article 78 of the USSR Constitution which barred territorial changes without the consent of Republics concerned. The Armenians simply asserted pure irredentist nationalism.
While the Armenians were in the forefront of bringing down the Soviet system with their protests and demonstrations in 1987-90 the Azerbaijanis remained loyal to Moscow much longer and became reliant on the Union to uphold the settlement of 1920.
In essence the Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republic was defending the Union settlement against a breakaway secessionist state whilst the Union itself was collapsing, with some of its army fighting on the side of the seceding state!
The demonstrations in Lenin Square in Baku that began in 1988 were motivated primarily by what was happening to Azerbaijanis in Armenia and Karabakh, the Soviet authorities failure to stop it and what was thought to be the one-sided approach of Moscow to events. It was felt that Azerbaijanis were being judged against strict Soviet standards while the Armenians were pursuing nationalist aggression with seeming impunity.
It was a great shock in 1990 when 17,000 Soviet troops entered Baku and killed 200 protesters using the excuse of communal conflict in the city (Black January). The Russian assault on Baku seemed a completely one-sided response given the violence against Moslems in Karabakh that the Soviets were failing to stamp out. What was happening was that in the absence of the Party, which Gorbachev had began to dismantle. the KGB, MVD and army were being used as routine political instruments with predictable effect. After the brutal military suppression, that seemed to be confined for use against Azerbaijan, Gorbachev did not follow through with political repression in the old Soviet style and invited members of the national front into a new government. He thereby negated the effects of his massacre, making it completely senseless as a forceful action.
As the Armenians began to fight the Azerbaijanis continued to put their trust in Gorbachev, who began to lose control under the welter of problems he had made for himself.
The senseless massacre of Black January undermined the Azerbaijan Communist Party. Azerbaijan was subject to military repression and occupation by the Red Army while Armenia was not. The view that Russia fundamentally favoured Christians rather than Moslems was bolstered by this new uneven treatment.
After Armenia made a declaration of sovereignty in mid-1990, Gorbachev announced plans for a new Union Treaty to replace the 1922 one. Armenia announced it would have nothing to do with the Union. And then Gorbachev lurched one way to another into 1991 with his new Treaty before announcing “negotiations” with the republics when his structural reform proposals received few takers. The upshot was that membership of the Union was to be deemed ‘voluntary’. This finally brought the tanks into Moscow, in a failed attempt by the military to rid the Union of the leader who was dissolving it, whether intentionally or through ineptitude. Azerbaijan’s first president Mutallibov sided with the Soviet hardliners who attempted the failed coup d’etat, precipitating the final collapse of the USSR and the shift of power in Moscow to Yeltsin and his supporters, who would take a much more pro-Armenian position.
A few months later Boris Yeltsin made his statement at Ufa on August 6 1990 to the national republics: “Take as much sovereignty as you can swallow!” This signalled a gradual transition from a federal union to a confederation and then complete independence of the national republics than the centre would respect.
The Azerbaijanis throughout the periods of Russian rule proved remarkably loyal to both the Tsar and the Soviet Union, despite the discriminatory treatment they often suffered. It seems that their good faith disabled them with regard to their own interests. The Azerbaijani Communist Party chose to suppress the extent of ethnic cleansing conducted against Azerbaijanis to assist Moscow in dealing with the crisis. Even the Azerbaijani opposition supported Gorbachev and his perestroika and saw the solution to the Karabakh issue as resting within the Union.
When the Armenians reverted to type at the first opportunity the Azerbaijanis were inclined to continue to support the Union as the existing legitimate order of things. Only when the Armenians decisively demonstrated that the Union would not uphold the existing order and nationalism was the new form of effective politics in the region did the Azerbaijanis respond in kind with their own movement, the Azerbaijan Popular Front which began to carry the flag of independent Azerbaijan (1918-20).
Stalin in his objective of building nations as part of a wider fraternal union was remarkably successful in relation to the Azerbaijanis but ultimately failed in relation to the persistent and pernicious nature of Armenian nationalism.
The Armenians began to put together a national army in preparation for the break up of the Soviet Union in mid-1990, a year and a half before the Azerbaijanis put any real effort into preparing a defence force of their own. The Azerbaijan National Army was only formed in November 1991, 3 months after the Putsch in Moscow which marked the end of the Soviet Union. Azerbaijan acted until the end as a Soviet Socialist Republic expecting the Union, the legitimate state authority, to defend its territory.
On August 30, 1991, the Supreme Soviet of Azerbaijan declared the restoration of state independence from the Union. After announcing this response to the failure of the Union to defend its settlement, the Supreme Soviet of the Republic of Azerbaijan adopted the Law ‘On the abolition of the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast of the Republic of Azerbaijan”.
In the late 1991-early 1992, the conflict entered into a full military stage with Armenia beginning military operations in Nagorno-Karabakh with some external military support.
The Armenians had proved very adept at irregular warfare in the opening phase of the Karabakh war and this enabled them to quickly terrorize the Azerbaijani population into flight. Fedayeen fighters from Armenian met no equivalent from Azerbaijan. The Armenians had a much greater military tradition than the Azerbaijanis both in the Tsarist armies and the Dashnak irregular forces. There was stubborn resistance by Azerbaijanis in defendable places but the situation of many Azerbaijani settlements made them vulnerable to attack by bands of guerrillas in the mountainous terrain, particularly at night. Azerbaijani civilians had to withdraw from their villages into larger places of Moslem habitation, like Shusha, for protection.
There were a number of points at which settlement could have been reached to prevent a fully-fledged war. In September 1991 Erivan seemed to agree to Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity in the Zheleznovodsk Communique. However, the settlement was immediately undermined when a helicopter taking high ranking Azerbaijani officials and Russian delegates was shot down over Armenian held territory. A further peace effort in May 1992, organised in Tehran, was subverted when Armenian Karabakh forces assaulted and captured the Azeri centre in Shusha the next day.
It is unclear whether these two subversions of peace were the handiwork of the more extreme Armenian militants in Karabakh or Russian agent provocateurs acting to provoke conflict. But they certainly succeeded in preventing a settlement before the tragedy worked itself out.
The massacre at Khojaly in February 1992 in which around 600 innocents were done to death in brutal fashion by the Armenians was the most devastating of the operations conducted by the Armenian paramilitaries against the Moslem population.
The brutal massacre at Khojaly had important political implications. It further undermined the Azerbaijani Communist leadership, which attempted to cover up the act. President Mutalibov, who had delayed forming an Azerbaijani army and had continued to rely on Moscow to uphold peace and security was forced to resign when news started to get out of the extent of the Armenian atrocity. It also undermined the more moderate Armenians in Yerevan who inclined toward a negotiated settlement. Khojaly paid dividends by producing a great flight of Moslems from Karabakh and strengthened the hands of the Armenians who wanted to pursue an extermination policy, which was increasingly seen as effective.
In early 1992 the course of the war nearly took a decisive turn in favour of the Azerbaijanis, who produced a meaningful offensive which recaptured half of Karabakh from the insurgents through regular warfare. Soviet units played a significant part in this success. After the Soviet units departed Azerbaijan the Armenian paramilitaries had free rein to empty the Moslem villages of Karabakh and the Azerbaijanis began suffering heavy defeats.
In early 1992 the future survival of Armenia was actually in doubt. However, Boris Yeltsin, who was favourable to the Armenians and who did not want the Armenian state itself to collapse, presented them with large quantities of Soviet hardware and weaponry. Soviet attack helicopters were used to scatter the advancing Azerbaijanis. This coincided with internal dissensions within the Azerbaijani leadership which at a crucial moment led to the withdrawal of some forces, and weakened the offensive. On May 8 1992 the Armenians captured the main Azerbaijani town in Karabakh, Shusha, the great cultural centre of Azerbaijani life. This was a devastating blow to the Azerbaijanis in Karabakh.
The new Azerbaijani Popular Front Government in Baku under Abulfaz Elchibey, which had come to power in June 1992, after the undermining of the Communist/Coalition government was a disaster. Elchibey refused to join the CIS while Armenia took the opportunity to outflank the Azerbaijanis. Yeltsin stopped military supplies to Azerbaijan whilst it was trying to construct an army and dramatically increased them to Armenia. Armenian victories increased. Only later did Azerbaijan join the CIS.
The Azerbaijanis had to improvise an army in the face of the Karabakh conflict which they were totally unprepared for. When it took the field late in the war it was made up of large numbers of inexperienced recruits and it was thrown into the conflict in a hurry. Azerbaijanis are by and large a plains people and the mountainous terrain of Karabakh also suited the Armenians. While the Azerbaijani army offensive initially made gains in the North of Karabakh when it came up against experienced and battle hardened Armenian units the young conscripts were driven back and surrounded in deep snows in the mountainous passes. Thousands perished when the Armenians devastated the Azerbaijani ranks with Soviet heavy weaponry.
In April 1993 the Armenians invaded Kelbejar, situated outside Karabakh, between it and Armenia. Its inhabitants, around 50,000 Azerbaijani Turks and Kurds were driven out or killed. President Elchibey was toppled by a military coup after the fall of Kelbejar.
In late 1993-94 Azerbaijani resistance totally collapsed and the Armenians cut a large chunk of Azerbaijan from the state which had counted it in its national territory for three quarters of a century. Most of the areas surrounding Karabakh were captured and depopulated of Moslems.
As well as holding the vast majority of the territory of Karabakh the Armenians currently hold seven occupied territories outside the province. They are Kelbajar (1,936 sq. km), Lachin (1,835 sq. km), Kubatly (802 sq. km), Jebrail (1,050 sq. km), and Zengelan (707 sq. km). They also occupy nearly 80 per cent (842 sq. km) of Aghdam region and approximately 30 per cent (462 sq. km) of the Fizuli region along with two enclaves of approximately (75 sq. km) in the Nakhichevan and Kazakh regions. This means that the combined area of Azerbaijan under Armenian control is approximately 12,000 sq. km, amounting to around 18 per cent of the territory.
The Armenian seizure of Karabakh has been disastrous for good relations in the region. It has created an issue that if it is not solved through a diplomatic settlement will in all probability lead to another war.
There was an opportunity to resolve the Karabakh issue peacefully through an honourable accommodation between 1988 and 1992, with the withdrawal of the Soviet Union from the region. The two communities had lived in relative peace for 60 years within Karabakh. The Armenians had substantial autonomy and the Azerbaijanis had to take account of the long standing historic presence of the Armenian community and its majority status in those 60 years. However, the worst possible action was taken by Armenian nationalism in seizing the territory and ethnically cleansing the Azerbaijani community en masse. Such events and their memory cannot be undone.
The Armenians gained territory to sate the long-standing appetite for expansion – territory that they will hardly give up easily, lest it add to their series of historic disasters. Any Armenian leader who has become open to compromise has been quickly removed from power. And yet the Armenian population declines, both in Armenia proper and Karabakh itself. And their economy is into meltdown as the price of their success.
Azerbaijan, which is recognised by the world as the de jure authority in Karabakh, will hardly let the issue be for any length of time. It has a large population of refugees demanding the right to return to their homes. And Azerbaijan grows stronger, population and economically wise, as Armenia weakens.
Until this issue is resolved peacefully there is tremendous potential for another, even greater, future catastrophe.
On May 28, 2018 the Democratic Republic of Azerbaijan marks the centenary of its birth in 1918.