28 May

On May 28th Azerbaijanis will commemorate the 103rd anniversary of the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic. They will celebrate this momentous event in 2021 with greater joy this year, after the liberation of Karabakh and the occupied territories fresh in the minds of the Azerbaijani people.

The Azerbaijan Republic emerged unexpectedly during as a result of a unique set of events. In 1917-18 the Azerbaijani people had to stand together to ensure their survival as a community in a situation of extreme flux that had developed in the Southern Caucasus out of the Tsarist collapse in the Great War. The Azerbaijani nation coalesced as a defensive measure in the fire raging across the region. At the end of March 1918, the Azerbaijanis of Baku, Quba and other areas had been the victims of horrendous massacres conducted by combined Armenian and Bolshevik forces directed by Stepan Shaumyan, in which around 20,000 were killed.

In early 1918 Azerbaijan, with Armenia and Georgia, were part of the Russian Empire. The hope was that a democratized Russian state would lead to autonomy in the region. However, in January 1918 the Bolsheviks dispersed the All-Russian Constituent Assembly signalling an end to democracy. This led to the South Caucasus breaking away and establishing the Transcaucasian Seim as a regional assembly. However, differences of opinion over the war, which the Armenians and Georgians still wanted to fight but the Azerbaijanis didn’t, led to its break up and the 3 nations deciding to go their own ways.

On 28th May 1918 the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic was proclaimed by Fathali Khan Khoyski, Azerbaijan’s first Prime Minister. It was decided to allow the ceding of traditional Azerbaijani lands in Erivan to the Armenians so they could establish their own state in peace. It was understood by the Azerbaijanis that in return for receiving Erivan the Armenians would give up their claims to Karabakh and Zangezur, so that there could be a peaceful territorial settlement. This was confirmed in the Batum Treaty of June 1918. However, the Armenians soon reneged on the understanding and began attempting to forcibly incorporate these Azerbaijani regions into the Erivan Republic in pursuit of Magna Armenia.

The Azerbaijani Government signed a friendship treaty with Istanbul. The Ottomans promised to drive out the Armenian bands who were terrorising Azerbaijan and then liberate Baku from the occupying Bolshevik/Dashnak forces. At this time the Azerbaijani national government had to function from Tiflis, due to the presence of these foreign forces on Azerbaijani lands. It was able to relocate to Ganja as a temporary capital in preparation for establishing itself in Baku, when Ottoman forces began a thrust through the Southern Caucasus.

The Azerbaijanis had, at that time, little military experience to oppose the well-armed and equipped Armenians and Bolsheviks. A small Ottoman army led by Nuri Pasha was formed and charged with constructing an Azerbaijani military force. It came to have around 18,000 in its ranks with two-thirds being Azerbaijanis. Only the Ottoman part of this army, however, was trained and battle-experienced. The new military expression however succeeded in fighting off a Bolshevik/Armenian offensive against the Azerbaijan Government in Ganja and it won further victories to open the road to Baku and liberation of Azerbaijan.

The Armenian will to fight was bolstered by the arrival of a British force under General Dunsterville in Baku. Dunsterville’s force led the Dashnak forces in Baku against the Ottomans, and winning control of the valuable oil fields or destroying them, if necessary. The capture of Baku on September 15th, 1918, by the combined Ottoman/Azerbaijani army was a most important event for the Azerbaijani people. As the Armenians began to give up the fight, the British evacuated and on September 15th the city fell to become the capital of the Azerbaijan Republic.

The Ottoman victory was short lived, however, after the Mudros Armistice in October 1918, obliged Ottoman forces to evacuate Azerbaijan. Britain refused to officially recognise the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic and said matters needed to be brought to the Paris Conference for settlement. However, General Thompson, the British Governor General of Baku, was content to let the Azerbaijan Republic co-exist with the British occupation and to run the country outside Baku, on the understanding that the oil fields and infrastructure were under Britain’s control. The British acknowledged that Karabakh and Zangezur were de facto Azerbaijan territory and appointed a Muslim governor there. The Azerbaijani army was used to maintain order in these areas against Armenian attempts at destabilization.

The Azerbaijanis did not resist the British occupation of their country but decided to use the British presence as an opportunity to build democratic institutions within relatively stable conditions, established by British military power. In the period from 28th May 1918 to November 1918, the Azerbaijani leadership of Mehmet Emin Razulzade, Fatali Khan Khoyski, Nesib Bey Yusifbeyli, Hasan Bey Aghayev, Mehemmedyusif Jafarov and Mammad Hajinski faced a multitude of problems in building a state from scratch.

An Azerbaijan Parliament was established with seats reserved for minorities, like the Armenians. Ministries were set up to administer areas like education, health, agriculture and the economy. A national bank and currency were established. The British authorities were impressed with the capabilities of the Azerbaijan Government and relied heavily on it to administer authority in the country. Although the Azerbaijani Government had little experience in statecraft 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. When Britain decided to withdraw its military forces from the Caucasus, from May 1919, the Azerbaijan Republic took control over its national territory.

The Azerbaijani Democratic Republic took their case for recognition to the Paris Conference during 1919. Its delegation was headed by Ali Marden Topchubashov and his deputy, Mammad Hasan Hajinski. In all respects the Azerbaijan Republic was a model of Western-style democracy in a region where such a form of governance proved problematic. The Supreme Council recognised the Democratic Republic of Azerbaijan on January 11th 1920. 

However, wider events engulfed Azerbaijan again. The withdrawal of Allied support from the White forces meant that the Bolsheviks began to get the upper hand in the Russian Civil War and the Red Army moved irresistibly across the Caucasus. In March 1920 Lenin ordered the capture of Baku at all costs after the Red Army had defeated General Denikin and his Whites.

The young Azerbaijani army was engaged in suppressing an Armenian insurrection in Karabakh when the Soviet army invaded in April 1920. No aid was forthcoming from the Western Powers, who had guaranteed the sovereignty of the South Caucasus Republics. A 2-front war against Armenians and Russians was impossible for the small Azerbaijani army. The Armenians in their relentless pursuit of territorial expansion disabled the Azerbaijani/Georgian defence of the Southern Caucasus allowing the Soviets to reconquer the entire region for Russia.

Turkey was fighting for its life against the Imperialist Powers and their Greek and Armenian proxies and could do little but smooth the Soviet takeover in Baku in the interests of a Turkish/Bolshevik alliance of convenience. If Winston Churchill had managed to persuade the British Prime Minister, Lloyd George, to adopt a different policy to Turkey, and a speedy honourable settlement, perhaps the Caucasus could have been defended against Soviet penetration. But it wasn’t to be. Lloyd George pursued his disastrous policy until Turkish resistance forced a British re-think in 1922. But by then it was too late for the Republic of Azerbaijan.

Azerbaijan then suffered 70 years of Bolshevik rule before re-emerging as an independent nation with the collapse of the Soviet Union, in August 1991. Unfortunately, during the break-up of the Soviet Union and the establishment of a new independent Azerbaijan revanchist Armenian nationalism was let loose on the region again. Armenia successfully seized not only Karabakh but surrounding territories amounting to nearly 20 per cent of Azerbaijan. The Azerbaijan state was chaotic and riven with internal conflict during this period rendering an effective defence impossible.

It was not until a government under Heydar Aliyev was established, late in the war with Armenia, in October 1993, that Azerbaijan began to begin to act as a functional state. But by then the war and Karabakh was lost and 800,000 Azerbaijanis had been ethnically cleansed by the Armenians.

Over the course of the following 26 years the new Azerbaijan Republic under, first, Heydar and then his son, Ilham Aliyev, built an economy and army aimed at liberating these occupied territories. When long drawn-out negotiations failed in the face of Armenian intransigence and increasing provocations were launched by the Pashinyan Government it was clear that only force could settle the issue. In October/November 2020 the 44 day war saw the Azerbaijan army comprehensively defeat the Armenian occupiers and achieve a new settlement brokered by Russia which returned the bulk of Azerbaijan’s national territories. Turkey was of great moral and material assistance to Azerbaijan, as in 1918. The highly effective statesmanship of President Aliyev secured a managed end to the conflict and the prospect for an enduring regional peace settlement.

This year, on 28th May, the Azerbaijan Republic will celebrate with great pride the nation state that was established 103 years ago, and which continues to fulfil its national development, by looking forward to the liberated territories and Azerbaijan’s cultural capital, Shusha, blooming once again, alongside the Xari bulbul, the flower of Karabakh.

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