Научная статья на тему 'Political relations between Azerbaijan and Armenia in 1917-1918'

Political relations between Azerbaijan and Armenia in 1917-1918 Текст научной статьи по специальности «Политологические науки»

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Аннотация научной статьи по политологическим наукам, автор научной работы — Alizade Zakhida

The author draws on analytical and factual data to look into the entanglements in the political relations between Azerbaijan and Armenia that predated the emergence of two independent states—the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic (ADP) and the Armenian Republic—in 1918. Zakhida Alizade describes the national policy of the Provisional Government that set up a Special Transcaucasian Committee, the activities of the Transcaucasian Seym, and the thorny road leading to national statehood; she dwells on the ethnic cleansing the Armenians organized in the Irevan uezd and offers facts about the tragic events of March-April 1918 in Northern Azerbaijan.

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Текст научной работы на тему «Political relations between Azerbaijan and Armenia in 1917-1918»


separatist claims of the Armenians. In short, Azerbaijan will continue living under Damocles’ sword.

-It seems that joint local self-administration in the ethnically mixed Azeri-Armenian districts is the shortest road to unity of the plain and mountainous parts of Karabakh and to normal relations between the local Azeris and Armenians.

Armenia’s socioeconomic and political development depends on its relations with Azerbaijan and its constructive approach to the Nagorno-Karabakh settlement.


Ph.D. (Hist.),

senior fellow at the Bakikhanov Institute of History, National Academy of Sciences of Azerbaijan (Baku, Azerbaijan Republic).



The author draws on analytical and factual data to look into the entanglements in the political relations between Azerbaijan and Armenia that predated the emergence of two independent states—the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic (ADP) and the Armenian Republic—in 1918. Zakhida Alizade describes the national policy of the

Provisional Government that set up a Special Transcaucasian Committee, the activities of the Transcaucasian Seym, and the thorny road leading to national statehood; she dwells on the ethnic cleansing the Armenians organized in the Irevan uezd and offers facts about the tragic events of March-April 1918 in Northern Azerbaijan.

I n t r o d u c t i o n

The defeats of the Russian army on the fronts of World War I, heavy losses, skyrocketing food prices, and the transportation crisis that created shortages stirred up public discontent. Socioeconomic and political confrontation intensified, while the ruling circles turned out to be even more displeased with the autocracy than the common people.

Czarism was doomed; on 2 (15) March, 1917 the Provisional Government came to power with major priorities: democratic freedoms and settlement of the agrarian, labor, and nationalities issues.


The new rulers, however, who found themselves in a quandary, proved unable to deal with these burning issues, which cannot be accepted as an excuse. The ministers were obviously unwilling to shoulder responsibility and were biding for time in expectation of the Constituent Assembly. In the meantime, the Provisional Government limited itself to palliatives.

The nationalities question, meanwhile, remained in the center of Russia’s public life: the czars had been oppressing the nations of Europe and Asia (which together formed the majority in their vast empire) far too long. The first steps of the new government, however, proved disappointing: the discriminatory laws that infringed on the rights of the nationalities and populations of the outlaying regions in the sphere of autonomy and school education in the native language remained intact.

On 20 March (2 April), 1917, the mounting national movements, however, forced the Provisional Government to pass a decision On Lifting All Religious and National Restrictions, which removed “all restrictions on the rights of Russian citizens under the acting laws due to their faith, religion, or nationality.”1 This was the first step in the right direction, but it could hardly satisfy the aspirations of Russia’s national minorities. Indeed, the document said nothing about the enslaved peoples’ right to self-determination, to educate their children in their native language, etc., however even these limited rights set the ball rolling. National movements in Russia’s margins (Northern Azerbaijan included) raised the country’s political temperature. Hitherto banned national parties, such as the Musavat in Azerbaijan, and organizations had their chance: scores of national political, cultural, and educational centers began mushrooming across the country.

The Transcaucasian Political Context and Emergence of Independent States

The state structures weakened by the 1917 February Revolution proved unable to cope with the rapidly unfolding developments in the nationalities sphere and to prevent a tragedy in the region. The entire pyramid of state power from the top to the regional level underwent considerable changes immediately after the revolution.

On 9 (22) March, 1917, the Provisional Government replaced the Caucasian Governorship with a Special Transcaucasian Committee of the Provisional Government (STCCOM) of five members, all of them deputies of the 4th State Duma: B. Kharlamov (Chairman), M. Papajanov, M.Yu. Jafarov, A. Chkhenkeli, and K. Abashidze.2 The local people treated it with much less respect than its predecessor: the post-February political processes in the Transcaucasus were too complicated. In fact, as distinct from Russia’s central regions, the local situation was infinitely more intricate: while central Russia received dual power in the form of the Provisional Government’s local structures and the Soviets of the Workers’, Soldiers’, and Peasants’ Deputies, the Transcaucasus had to cope with triple power represented by the STCCOM, Soviets, and all sorts of national committees, the de facto local power structures supported by their corresponding ethnic groups.

On 11 (24) November, 1917, after the Bolsheviks had deposed the Provisional Government on 25 October (7 November), 1917 in Russia and on 31 October (13 November), 1917 in Baku, Tiflis hosted a meeting of representatives of all political parties and national and public organiza-

1 Vestnik Vremennogo pravitel’stva, 22 March, 1917.

2 See: J. Gasanov, Azerbaijan in the System of International Relations. 1918-1920, Baku, 1993, p. 30 (in Azeri).


tions of the Transcaucasus, who joined their efforts to reject the Bolsheviks, and passed a decision on setting up a new executive structure.3 On 15 (28) November, 1917, the three key Transcaucasian nations (the Azeris, Georgians, and Armenians) set up a Transcaucasian Commissariat as an interim power structure that was to govern the region until the Constituent Assembly was elected and convened. (The Provisional Government fixed 12 (25) November, 1917 as election day.) The Bolsheviks, who were in power by that time in the Transcaucasus, could not bring themselves to cancel the election, keeping in mind the Constituent Assembly’s popularity, and lost with 23.9 percent of the votes.4 The prevailing anti-Bolshevik sentiments among the members of the Constituent Assembly forced the Bolsheviks to disband it and confirm this action with a decree that the All-Russia Central Executive Committee passed in small hours of 7 (20) January, 1918. This buried the hopes that the Constituent Assembly would be able to finally settle the most urgent sociopolitical and nationalities problems.

By doing away with the central government, the Bolsheviks gave the national forces in the Transcaucasus a carte-blanche. On 12 (25) January, 1918, the Transcaucasian Commissariat passed a decision on a Transcaucasian Seym made up of the deputies to the Constituent Assembly elected from the Transcaucasus: no election was possible in the turbulent Caucasian context. The mandates were thus distributed among the members of the ten political parties; the Georgian Mensheviks and Musa-vat formed the two largest factions; Dashnaktsutiun was the third. There were also Socialist-Revolu-tionaries, Cadets, Georgian Federalists, National-Democrats, Mensheviks, Gummet members, the Muslim Socialist Bloc, and Ittikhad.5

On 10 (23) February, the Seym met for its first sitting in Tiflis. Significantly, the regional legislature was set up on the initiative of the Georgian Mensheviks actively supported by the Musavat; the Dashnaks and the Socialist-Revolutionaries, who argued that the region would drift away from Russia, were dead set against the idea. The former continued counting on Russia as their main strategic ally, but when confronted with a fait accompli they had to take part in the Seym.

It came as no surprise that the Dashnaks and Socialist-Revolutionaries closed ranks to oppose all the initiatives designed to weaken the political ties with Russia. They vehemently objected to the idea of transforming the Transcaucasian Seym into a Constituent Assembly that was expected to create a Constitution of the Transcaucasus and specify the functions of territorial units.6 The Azeri and Armenian factions did not see eye to eye on entering a peace agreement with Turkey or on the nationalities and agrarian questions either.

It should be said that no matter how important the problems (agrarian, labor, a truce with Turkey, etc.) were that the Transcaucasian Seym had to cope with, peace and agreement among the Transcaucasian nations came first. Ethnic issues proved to be the test the Seym failed to endure.

The Azeri-Armenian political confrontation was mounting and nearly reached its highest point when the Armenians, supported by the Georgian faction, unfolded what can be described as ethnic cleansing on Azeri territory. When Russia’s power was completely liquidated in the region, the Armenians, who had expropriated most of the weapons and ammunition abandoned by the Russians, came down on the Azeris, whom they accused of sympathizing with the Turks. By mid-February 1918, Armenian-Azeri clashes had been going on everywhere in the Irevan uezd and the city of Irevan.

The punitive anti-Azeri actions attracted not only irregular Armenian units, but also the regular troops of the Transcaucasian Government under Colonel Pirumov and Commissar Dro (D. Kanaian). Between 17 and 21 February, 1918, Armenian units and artillery reduced 21 Azeri villages in the

3 See: S. Belen’kiy, Ia. Manvelov, Revoliutsia 1917 g. v Azerbaidzhane (khronika sobytiy), Baku, 1927, p. 201.

4 See: A. Balaev, Azerbaidzhanskoe natsional’noe dvizhenie v 1917-1918 gg., Baku, 1998, p. 68.

5 See: Zakavkazskiy Seym. Stenograficheskiy otchet, 19 fevralia 1918, Tiflis, 1919, p. 6.

6 See: Zakavkazskiy Seym. Stenograficheskiy otchet, 20 fevralia 1918, Tiflis, 1919, pp. 27-28.


Irevan uezd to rubble.7 On the whole, between early 1917 and March 1918, 197 Azeri villages in the Irevan uezd were plundered and destroyed.8

It should be said that lawlessness was not limited to the Irevan uezd —the Azeris of Zangezur and Karabakh also had their share of cruel persecutions. Throughout 1917, 109 Azeri villages in the Zangezur uezd and 157 Azeri villages in Karabakh were attacked by armed Armenian units and destroyed partially or completely.9 The Transcaucasian authorities did everything in their power to prevent the Azeris from setting up armed units, while the Georgians and Armenians were setting up theirs at a fast pace.

The Armenians concentrated on the Azeri villages of the Irevan uezd because of their highly advantageous strategic location. First, the Irevan uezd was situated between the Azeri- and Armenian-populated areas, which the Armenians planned to turn into a stronghold for their expansion deeper into Azerbaijan. Nakhchyvan was one of their central aims. O. Kachaznuni, one of the Dashnaktsu-tiun leaders, admitted later: “Armenia could not go on without the Tartar (Azeri.—Z.A.) Sharur-Na-khchyvan.”10

Second, the Armenians were resolved to turn the Azeri city of Irevan into the capital of their own Armenian state they planned to set up on the historical lands of Western Azerbaijan. The Armenian nationalists proceeded from the statement earlier issued by Chairman of the Transcaucasian Government E. Gegechkori, according to which the authorities planned, in the near future, to carry out national-territorial delimitation in the Transcaucasus to create several autonomous units. Having launched wide-scale ethnic cleansing in the Irevan uezd and other regions, the Armenians expected to acquire the best starting positions. So it is no wonder that those Azeris who wanted to go back home to the Irevan uezd once the cleansing had stopped heard: “This is impossible; only Armenians can move there” from Commissar Dro.11

The Georgian Mensheviks sided with the Dashnaks when the Irevan events were discussed in the Seym; thus encouraged, the Armenians expanded the territory of the ethnic cleansing to other Transcaucasian areas. They moved, in particular, against the Azeri population of the Baku Gubernia. One can even say that the leaders of the Transcaucasian Seym shared the responsibility for the March 1918 events in Baku and other regions of Azerbaijan with Dashnaktsutiun and the Baku Soviet headed by Stepan Shaumian. The Seym remained indifferent to the tragedy of the civilian Azeri population of the Irevan uezd, which the Bolsheviks and the Dashnaks interpreted as Tiflis’ unwillingness to interfere if they stirred up trouble in Baku.

The March 1918 events were caused by political antagonism between the Bolshevik- Dashnaktsutiun alliance and Musavat. On 15 June, 1918, soon after Azerbaijan had proclaimed its independence, the republic’s government passed a decision on setting up an extraordinary investigatory commission “to look into the incidences of violence against the Muslims and their property all over the Transcaucasus since the beginning of the European war.”12 Scores of criminal cases against the culprits were instituted on the basis of the data the commission had gathered. Unfortunately, the political events of April 1920 left the work unfinished.

While in power, the Bolsheviks worked hard to force the Azeris to forget the lessons of March 1918: for many decades Soviet historiography described them as a Musavat-provoked civil war.13 It was only in 1991, when the Soviet Union fell apart and when Azerbaijan regained

7 See: Zakavkazskiy Seym. Stenograficheskiy otchet, 7 marta 1918, Tiflis, 1919, p. 5.

8 State Archives of the Republic of Azerbaijan (SARA), rec. gr. 28, inv. 1, f. 185, sheet 7.

9 SARA, rec. gr. 970, , inv. 1, f. 253, sheets 10, 18-19.

10 Ov. Kachaznuni, Dashnaktsutiun bol’she nechego delat’, Baku, 1990, p. 18.

11 Zakavkazskiy Seym. Stenograficheskiy otchet, З marta 1918, Tiflis, 1919, p. 14.

12 SARA, rec. gr. 100, inv. 2, f. 7, sheet 20.

13 See: Ch.A. Tokarjeveli, Z.M. Isaev, Kritika sovetskoy kontseptsii istorii sotsialisticheskoy revoliutsii v Azerbaid-zhane. Revoliutsia i narody Rossii: polemika s zapadnymi istorikami, Moscow, 1989, p. 165.


its independence, that it became possible to reveal the truth about the March 1918 events: convinced that the nationalities issue detracted the toiling masses from the class struggle, the linchpin of their theory, the Bolsheviks pushed the national problems aside. They were obviously disturbed by Musavat’s steady progress toward its aim: liberation of Azeri territory from the Bol-shevik-Dashnak bands.

At the first stage of the legal activities, in February-March 1917, Musavat (which previously had to operate clandestinely) mainly strengthened its organizational structures and built up its following; at the second stage, after the 1917 October coup, it demonstrated more resolve. By the early 1918, having united “the absolute majority of the Muslim population of Azerbaijan,”14 it developed into the leading political force.

Musavat extended its control not only to the Ganja, but also to a greater part of the Baku Gubernia. Even its sworn opponents, such as notorious Stepan Shaumian who wrote that “by the beginning of the second year after the February revolution the Musavat Party became the strongest political force in the Transcaucasus,”15 had to accept the obvious.

The Bolsheviks and the Dashnaks were disturbed by the slow yet steady emergence of the Azeri armed units under Musavat leadership. The progress became obvious by early March 1918. Both sides knew that the party’s political authority underpinned by battle-worthy armed units would make it practically unassailable.

Unable to reconcile themselves to the course of events that led to Musavat’s domination in Northern Azerbaijan and being too weak in Baku, at the same time, to finally neutralize the party, the Bolsheviks had to seek the support of the Dashnak armed forces.

At that time, both the Dashnaks and the Bolsheviks (headed mainly by Armenians) were of one mind about the need to rout the Azeri national forces in Baku. They found Azerbaijanian autonomy (a Musavat-promoted idea) absolutely unpalatable. If realized, it would have delivered a deadly blow not only to the crazy idea of “greater Armenia” nurtured by the Armenian nationalists, but also to the Bolshevik plans of building a “red empire” on the ruins of its predecessor.

Baku oil—“the main nerve of Russia’s industry and transport”—and the city of Baku were the Bolsheviks’ cherished dream. They regarded the Azeri capital as an important foothold from which they could spread far and wide in the Transcaucasus and entrench themselves on the Caspian shores. In short, control over Baku was a life-and-death issue. No wonder the city, the epicenter of the Azerbaijanian National Movement, the main target of the Bolsheviks’ and Dashnaks’ concerted efforts, became the main political battlefield.

The Bolshevik-Dashnak alliance exploited an accident on the ship Evelina to engage in terror against the civilian population of the Azeri capital. Between 30 March and 1 April, 1918, over 12 thousand Azeris in Baku and its environs suffered from the unprecedented Bolshevik-Dashnak cruelty. The very scale of the atrocities testifies beyond doubt that those who launched them were determined to exterminate the Azeris, claim their property, and seize political power in Baku.

Historical facts testify: the Bolshevik leaders of the Baku Soviet provoked what they later called a civil war to undermine the political might of Musavat, their main, and most powerful, adversary. They drew Dashnaktsutiun to their side, which turned the “civil war” into nationalist bloodshed: the Bolsheviks and the Dashnaks were exterminating civilians irrespective of their political convictions and social status. Later, in an effort to justify the crimes, Soviet historians offered the following explanation: “This left the Baku Soviet with only one course of action: it had to seek support of one national group to fight the other and to exploit the already existing ethnic con-tradictions.”16

14 See: A. Balaev, op. cit., p. 164.

15 S. Shauamian, Izbrannye sochinenia, Vol. 2, Moscow, 1978, p. 271.

16 Bol’sheviki v bor’be za pobedu sotsialisticheskoy revoliutsii v Azerbaidzhane. Dokumenty i materialy. 19171918, Baku, 1957, p. 333.


The Bolsheviks with their allies, the Dashnaks, did not limit themselves to Baku—they went further into the provinces; in fact, massive extermination of the capital’s peaceful population was a prelude to even wider plans to exterminate all Azeris throughout their own country.

This is fully confirmed by the fact that mass killings in Baku were synchronized with a bloodbath in Shamakhy. In the early morning of 31 March, 1918, the Bolshevik-Dashnak forces shelled the practically defenseless city to later burst into it, set houses on fire, and kill the inhabitants seeking safety outside their burning homes. In the evening, the resistance ceased and the invaders moved on to the second stage: plunder and pogroms.17 Nearly the entire male population, including infants and boys, was exterminated; women were raped in front of husbands and parents. The city was completely ruined and burned down: out of five thousand buildings only the non-classical secondary school remained standing; none of the mosques survived.18

The same lot was in store for the populations of Guba, Lenkoran, Salyan, and Kyurdamir. Two thousand people in Guba were murdered by the Bolshevik-Dashnak units (the latter forming the striking force) under notorious Dashnak Amazasp. Contrary to what Soviet historians have been saying for several decades, two thousand people lost their lives not for the sake of Soviet power—they fell victim to the executioners’ hatred of the Azeris. In front of the local people Amazasp made no secret of his true aims: “I am a hero of the Armenians and the protector of their interests... I was ordered to exterminate all Muslims from the Caspian shores to Mt. Shahdag and raze your dwellings to the ground.”19

The massive extermination of Azeris in March 1918 allowed the Bolsheviks and Dashnaks20 to come to power in Baku for a while, however its remote consequences proved to be less favorable: their political prospects in the region were buried.

The Dashnaks and their allies never achieved their strategic aim, that of routing the Azerbaijanian National Movement: its main forces concentrated in the regions survived. Strange as it may seem, the March events strengthened the social basis of the national forces and resulted in political consolidation in the Azerbaijanian National Movement. Confronted with the threat to their continued national existence, the Azeri deputies of the Seym and various political factions closed their ranks. From that time on national independence became the main aim of all the political forces of Azerbaijan.21

The position of the Transcaucasian Seym during the March events and the problems that emerged during the peace talks with Turkey deprived this structure of the last vestiges of confidence the political forces of Azerbaijan had had in it. The Azeris persisted in their negative attitude toward the structure even after 9 April, 1918 when it declared the independence of Azerbaijan, on which the Azeri deputies insisted. It was growing clearer by the day that the three main factions—the Azeri, Georgian, and Armenian—could not find a common language or adopt a common program. Each of the nations was openly moving toward its own strategic, and often widely different if not opposing, aims. The Georgians relied on Germany to realize their national aims. The Armenians remained loyal to their pro-Russian orientation, while the Azeris were seeking Turkey’s support.

The Armenians resisted the disbandment of the Seym until the last minute because “the Armenians needed the Transcaucasian Federation more than their neighbors.” The Dashnak leaders feared that once freed from the Federation the Georgians and the Azeris would soon find a common language with Turkey, “leaving the Armenians alone to face the Turkish army. Russia (neither Bolshevik nor anti-Bolshevik) would have been unable to help even if it wanted.”22

The disbandment of the Transcaucasian Seym and state independence of Azerbaijan and Georgia left the Armenians with no other option than declaring their own state independence. In this way,

17 SARA, rec. gr. 1061, inv. 1, f. 3, sheet 56.

18 Ibidem.

19 SARA, rec. gr. 1061, inv. 1, f. 95, sheets 5-6.

20 See: A. Balaev, op. cit., p. 179.

21 Ibidem.

22 Ov. Kachaznuni, op. cit., p. 27.


by late May 1918, three independent states—Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Armenia—appeared in the Transcaucasus.

On 29 May, 1918, the National Council of Azerbaijan passed a decision on ceding Irevan to the Armenians: “To set up a state the Armenians need a political center; Erivan is the only option since Alexandropol now belongs to Turkey.”23 Azeri historians offer all sorts of explanations of this obviously erroneous decision by the ADR National Council. All details apart, one thing is clear: in contemporary history, the Armenian state emerged on historical Azeri territory with its capital in Irevan, an ancient Azeri city.

C o n c l u s i o n

The Transcaucasian Seym proved unable to govern the very specific and turbulent area living amid ethnic clashes and in a state of war with Turkey. Anarchy and chaos were mounting. An eyewitness wrote: “The Seym, the representative body, was nearly inactive, it was stalling. What was happening inside had nothing to do with the outside events during the stormy and most painful period of Transcaucasian developments. One could not but feel that everything that took place in the Seym had no meaning and that the Seym itself was not prepared to discuss the main and most disturbing issues; that the main developments were unfolding in the wings of each party and each group separately, and that there was no chance they could act together.”24

This structure was doomed. Its self-disbandment on 26 May, 1918 was a logical outcome of the regional political processes and another confirmation of the fact that the three Transcaucasian republics could not coexist within one state.

23 SARA, rec. gr. 970, , inv. 1, f. 1, sheets 51-52.

24 A. Stavrovskiy, Zakavkazie posle Oktiabria, Moscow, Leningrad, 1925, p. 49.

Alexander MURINSON

Ms.Sc. (LSE),

D.Phil. candidate (SOAS), University of London

(London, U.K.).




he long-standing tradition of tolerance and historical cross-pollination between the paths of the Azerbaijani and Jew-

ish peoples also creates a fertile milieu for strategic cooperation between the two countries. The mutual tolerance and amity

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