Presentation made to Conference on the Events of 1915 organised by the Turkish Republic Directorate of Communications on 20th April 2021.
Today I’d like to talk about 1915 in the light of recent events in Karabakh. I will ask the question: What do events in Karabakh and the Southern Caucasus tell us about 1915?
I think what has happened in the Southern Caucasus has undermined the Armenian narrative. This narrative presents the Armenians as helpless, innocent victims of unwarranted Turkish activity. It describes the Ottoman state’s response to the situation in 1915 as unjustified. It is based on the presumption that Armenians deserved a national state. Finally, there is the inference that a different outcome in 1915 was both possible and preferable.
These are the ideas underlying the Armenian narrative of 1915, even though they are not always explicitly expressed.
The Armenian experience in the Southern Caucasus is relevant in judging whether the Ottomans were right in 1915 because their subsequent actions show what an Armenian victory in the 6 vilayets would have meant for the region and its peoples. It might be suggested that such a review departs from the principle of cause and effect within historical study (something the ahistorical Armenian narrative, itself, does not apply). However, we know that all the subsequent activity is rooted in the trends we can identify within Armenian nationalism from the 1880s, that were put into practice in the 1890-1915 period.
In judging if the Ottomans were right to do what they did in 1915 we should examine 3 main areas: What the Armenians have done with state power; whether Armenian nationalism is a positive force in the region; and how Armenians treat minorities they rule over. In doing this, we can get a good idea of what would have happened without the relocations in 1915.
Firstly, with regard to the Armenian state construction experience. Between 1918-20 we have the Yerevan Republic. Even Armenians see this as a disaster. Many apologetic works have been produced, like Richard Hovannisian’s, defending the record of the Dashnak government. However, the facts speak for themselves. Papazian notes there were 3 lost wars in succession against its neighbours. The first Armenian PM, Hovhannes Katchaznouni, told the party convention in 1923 about how necessary constructive state building work had been ignored in favour of dubious state expansion work. The result was widespread famine, disease, and hundreds of thousands of deaths among the Armenian population. A British report at the time reveals that:
“The politics of the Erivan Republic are dominated by notorious Armenian secret society known as ‘Dashnaktsution’… Its present policy in the Caucasus is centred on 1. The acquisition of territory for the Erivan Republic. 2. The extension and equipment of the Armenian armed forces; and 3. The propagation the doctrine of the Tashnaks… It seems impossible that sound democratic government will be attained in the Erivan Republic until the activities of this society have been ended. The society by its methods of terrorism prevent the better and broader-minded elements of Armenian society from taking up official positions.” (FO S81, to Oliver Wardrop, representative in Tiflis, 24.12.1919.)
The Bolsheviks saved Armenia in 1920-1 from self-destruction. The Soviets revived Armenia through curtailing its nationalism, particularly during the Stalin period. Afterwards as things were relaxed by Khrushchev and then by Gorbachev, Armenian nationalism was again unleashed and a process of self-destruction recommenced.
With regard to the Armenian state experience, the second republic, 1991-2021, follows much the same cycle and pattern. Territorial expansion was again given precedence over state building. Armenia grew in size as a result of its victory in the 1990’s, and the occupation of nearly 20 per cent of Azerbaijan’s territory, but it weakened all the time in substance.
The second republic was a story of economic, demographic and social disaster. In the economic sphere isolation brought about by the occupation of Karabakh, severely hit Armenia’s economic development. Inflation has been rampant and GDP halved since Soviet days. Demographic disaster has occurred with high migration, 1 million out of 4 million left, many to Russia, for employment. Social disaster has followed with high unemployment, and poverty. The 2020 war teaches the lesson that a functional state is needed to win wars. In 1991-4 Azerbaijan lacked this, in 2020 it had it and Armenia didn’t. Armenia did not understand this. Both its capacity and will to fight in Karabakh was depleted by the failure of state. Only Levon Ter Petrosyan understood but couldn’t curtail Armenian nationalism to make a functional settlement to arrest this process.
Armenia was incapable of developing occupied Karabakh. The ruins of Aghdam are testament to this. Instead there has been a surrender of independence to Russia. The question is whether territorial expansion is more importance than a functional state? That was, and still is the Pashinyan predicament! In the end a functional state is an imperative for all aspects of development.
Secondly, Armenian nationalism has produced the most ethnically and religiously homogeneous state in the region. It is still obsessed with territorial expansionism despite all the disasters it has brought. It has resulted in a strong, myopic sense of self-importance. Armenian nationalism has been disabled by own misinformation and disinformation, which leads to poor judgement and decision making in statecraft. Putting territorial acquisition before the welfare of one’s own people is a recipe for disaster. If it continues Armenia is doomed as an independent state. Armenian nationalism, as the period 1994-2020 showed, seemed incapable of compromise and accommodation. Armenia only seems capable of this when it is militarily subdued by exterior forces.
The Yerevan Republic became overwhelmingly Armenian. Erivan had been a khanate until 1820s and had a 50/50 Christian/Muslim population in 1900. In 1919 around a quarter of its population was still non-Armenian. Zengezur was largely depopulated of non-Armenians during 1918-21. Professor Malcolm Yapp of the London School of Oriental and African Studies has written the following summation, in a review of Richard Hovannisian’s admiring third volume of ‘The Republic of Armenia’:
“’Ethnic cleansing’ was a term not then used but its practice was everywhere. The Armenians of the Republic wanted to dominate Karabagh and to clear the Moslems out of the Arras valley and resettle the region with Armenians: the majority of Armenians of Nagorno Karabagh saw the dangers and advocated a much more moderate line of compromise. As in so many similar episodes the position of the moderates was undermined by the hotheads organized in partisan bands and in the end it was the moderates who suffered most in the abortive rising of March 1920. The militants blamed the British for the disaster. It is also clear that Armenian adventures in Karabagh and along the Arras contributed to the breakdown of government in Azerbaijan, the establishment of Soviet power in that Republic in April 1920 and eventually the subversion of Armenia itself.”(M. E. Yapp, Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, Vol. 60, No. 2 (1997), p. 371)
The same continued under the second republic. The non-Armenian population of Armenia was driven out, 1988-91. 800,000 Azerbaijanis were ethnically cleansed from Karabakh and surrounding areas, 1991-4.Massacres like Khojaly, in which hundreds of innocents died, were used to intimidate the non-Armenian populations into flight.
If we look at the result of militarized Armenians against vulnerable Muslim communities we see a litany of disaster for non-Armenians: 1915, Van and Eastern Anatolia; 1918-20 – Erzurum, Kars, Ardahan; 1918-20 Baku, Quba, Karabakh, Zengezur, Erivan; 1988-94 Yerevan, Karabakh.
The common factor –is that when the power of state is absent to protect ordinary citizens Armenian militants fill the vacuum with catastrophic results.
In conclusion, a number of things are apparent: Firstly, the experience in the Southern Caucasus has tended to confirm the correctness of the decision of the Ottomans to resist the establishment of an Armenian state in Eastern Anatolia. Secondly, how the Armenians have behaved since adds weight to the position that nothing else could have been done in 1915 that would have produced a better result, despite the tragedy that occurred. Thirdly, the Armenian state actually established has proved too much for the Armenians to manage effectively even in its existing size.
However, Armenian nationalism has proved incapable of learning these lessons. The consequences have been continued cycles of warfare and disaster for the Armenians and instability in the Southern Caucasus.
These facts need to be emphasized in information relayed to the West. They represent powerful obstacles to an acceptance of the Armenian narrative and the campaign for Genocide recognition. Parliaments may still pass motions, but states, which have to deal with reality, will be more swayed by factual information like this.
In terms of future prospects there are two possible scenarios. A positive one in which Armenia makes a functional peace that leads to good relations with its neighbours. The second republic becomes part of a developing regional economy, freed from the obstacles of the occupation of Azerbaijani territory, and develops economically. Armenia proceeds toward reaching an accommodation with Turkey over historical issues as part of a general reconciliation process. A more negative scenario would involve Armenia determining to rebuild for another war over Karabakh, with a hope that a future weakening of the Azerbaijan state might present another revanchist opportunity. In such a scenario, Armenia would subjugate itself and become almost a complete dependency of Russia, with the hope that Moscow would assist another push against Karabakh. This would obviously maintain the existing hostility toward Turkey and continue the Genocide recognition campaign.
Essentially, it is hope against history, with regard to future prospects.