Научная статья на тему 'The conflict-prone potential of the disintegration and restoration of empires:political and geographic approach(a case study of the Russian Transcaucasia, 1917-1923)'

The conflict-prone potential of the disintegration and restoration of empires:political and geographic approach(a case study of the Russian Transcaucasia, 1917-1923) Текст научной статьи по специальности «История и археология»

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Аннотация научной статьи по истории и археологии, автор научной работы — Gachechiladze Revaz

The author discusses the emergence and development of the administrative-territorial division of the Transcaucasia when it was part of the Russian Empire, the problems created by the need to delineate the state borders during the First Independence (1918-1920/21) of the region's republics, and the border issues of the early Soviet period. The conflicts which emerged at that time and have survived until today were largely predetermined by the demographic and political-geographic processes that have been going on for a fairly long time.

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Текст научной работы на тему «The conflict-prone potential of the disintegration and restoration of empires:political and geographic approach(a case study of the Russian Transcaucasia, 1917-1923)»



Volume 6 Issue 3 2012


D.Sc. (Geography), Professor at Ivane Javakhishvili Tbilisi State University, Corresponding Member of the Georgian National Academy of Sciences

(Tbilisi, Georgia).




The author discusses the emergence and development of the administrative-territorial division of the Transcaucasia when it was part of the Russian Empire, the problems created by the need to delineate the state borders during the First Independence (1918-1920/21) of the re-

gion's republics, and the border issues of the early Soviet period.

The conflicts which emerged at that time and have survived until today were largely predetermined by the demographic and political-geographic processes that have been going on for a fairly long time.


Empires1 —large groups of states ruled by one monarch, an oligarchy, or one sovereign—were created by the force of arms.2 They emerged only to fall apart after a while (usually in three to five centuries); on rare occasions they changed. Empires took a long time to spread far and wide3; their disintegration, likewise, took some time to be completed. Empires with long histories behind them left vast political and/or cultural heritages, which was not necessarily a negative phenomenon; the Roman Empire, for example, left behind a strong cultural tradition, the fertile soil of European culture.

Nevertheless, the disintegration of empires was invariably accompanied by conflicts over "territorial legacy." In the 20th century, the autochthonous ethnicities living in the parts conquered and kept together by empires moved in to carry out post-imperial territorial redistribution with the argument (frequently well justified) that these parts were their "historical territories." Not infrequently the same stretch was claimed by several ethnicities who had either been living there from the very beginning or

1 The term "empire," which I will use extensively in this article, does not necessarily have a negative connotation: many empires were products of historical logic.

2 See: Oxford Dictionaries online; A. Giddens, Sociology, Polity Press, London, 1989.

3 For more on the way the Russian Empire expanded, see: Russian Colonial Expansion to 1917, ed. by M. Rywkin,

Mansell Publishing, London, 1988.

Volume 6 Issue 3 2012 PKWOTVPWPPIMQVVVVmViPQM 135


had been moved there by the imperial authorities. World War I and the resultant disintegration of four empires—the German, Austro-Hungarian, Russian, and Ottoman—were accompanied by numerous territorial conflicts. Those which cropped up in the 1920s in Asia Minor, the Balkans, and Central Europe were caused by what some ethnicities believed to be "unfaif' redistribution of the imperial inheritance, caused, among other things, by the fairly subjective policies of the Entente, which won the war.

While the German, Austro-Hungarian, and Ottoman empires left the historical stage forever, the Russian Empire merely changed its makeup. On 7 November, 1917, the Bolsheviks came to power in what for the last 300 years had been the Romanov Empire; on 1 September, 1917, it became the Russian Republic; and on 3 March, 1918, the new rulers of Russia signed the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk to withdraw from the World War. They de facto accepted the victory of the Central Powers while the former, in turn, several months later accepted the victory of the Entente. The empire survived, albeit modified; between 1920 and 1940, it totally restored its old territory under a new name—Soviet Rus-sia/R.S.F.S.R./U.S.S.R.—with a new ideology and a new capital in Moscow.

Very much like all other empires, the Russian Empire was a conglomerate of ethnic and confessional groups of all sorts. The two revolutions, which followed one another in 1917, weakened the central government (for some time it was practically non-existent) to the extent that the ethnic groups in the former empire's periphery tried, or even managed, to set up their own states. Ethnoterritorial nationalism (unknown or latent in the Russian Empire) came to the fore as one of the politically dominant factors.

It comes as no surprise that Soviet Russia (the new name of the restored empire) had to deal with very serious ethnic and territorial conflicts; its efforts only made things worse or, at best, achieved a temporary respite.

Here I will demonstrate how the state borders were drawn in the multinational Transcaucasia4: in 1918, three independent republics appeared; in 1920/1921, when Russia returned to the region as Soviet Russia, previously unknown administrative-territorial units (formally called "state units") emerged—the Soviet Socialist Republics (S.S.R.), Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republics (A.S.S.R.), and Autonomous Regions (A.R.)—their borders and statuses being finally settled in 1923. Delineation of the borders caused disagreements and even conflicts which remained smoldering (albeit latently) throughout the history of the Soviet Union. Late in 1991, when the Soviet Union toppled and then fell, conflicts and disagreements flared up with unprecedented violence.

I do not blame the Transcaucasian ethnopolitical conflicts on the Russian Empire or Soviet Russia, yet their policies inadvertently or (frequently) deliberately fanned them.

I intentionally left the problems related to the region's political and economic history outside the scope of my article to concentrate on the political-geographic approach which, in this case, means an analysis of the conflict-prone potential of political and administrative delimitation.

The Administrative-Territorial Division and Ethnic Structure of the Caucasus under the Russian Empire

In the 19th century,5 when the Russian Empire conquered the Caucasus, its administrative-territorial division followed, for a while, the traditional division into kingdoms, khanates, and princedoms. Very soon, however, the imperial government decided to move away from it and, to a certain

4 Here I do not use the terms the "Southern Caucasus" or more recent "Central Caucasus" because at the time I wrote about it was known as the Transcaucasia.

5 The historical-geographic facts about the administrative-territorial division of the Caucasus can be found in: A. Tsutsiev, Atlas etnopoliticheskoy istorii Kavkaza (1774-2004), Evropa, Moscow, 2006.

136 HVIWimVSPMQVWmWmM Volume 6 Issue 3 2012


extent, from the ethnic and sub-ethnic population structure; administrative units lost their ethnic indicators. For example, while until 1846 there was the Georgian-Imeretian Gubernia (which included Eastern Georgia, part of Western Georgia, and parts of the present northern territories of Azerbaijan and Armenia) and, until 1850, the Armenian region, later gubernias appeared (they disappeared together with the Empire) named according to their centers (Tiflis, Kutaisi, Erivan, Elisavetpol (Ganja), Shemakha/Baku, etc.). After the Polish uprising of 1863, the empire lost all other ethnic-related administrative names: the Abkhazian Princedom became the Sukhumi District (see Map 1).

Late in the 19th century, the Empire accelerated the process of assimilation of "non-Russians" to achieve unification. This suggests that manipulating the names of the administrative-territorial units in the Transcaucasia, better described as an ethnic and religious patchwork, was intended to destroy the people's identity with their "ethnic territory."

Migration policies served the same aim even though, unlike the Northern Caucasus, Russian migration to the Transcaucasia proved to be very limited. In the first half of the 19th century, the Empire encouraged migration of Orthodox Russians, Ukrainians, and members of Russian religious sects (Molokans, Dukhobors, and Sabbatarians) from European Russia. They came in relatively small numbers to settle in big cities like Baku and Tiflis. The Empire continued insisting on ethnic diversification: Armenians from Persia and the Ottoman Empire, Germans from German states, and Greeks from the Ottoman Empire were encouraged to settle in the Transcaucasia, while Poles were exiled there. In 1862-1878, large ethnic groups (Adighes from the northwestern Caucasus, Abkhazians from the Sukhumi District, and Muslim Georgians from the Batumi Region, etc.) were squeezed out of the Caucasus or encouraged to emigrate to the Ottoman Empire (earlier some of the Muslim Turks had been pushed out of the Russian Empire to Persia and Turkey).6 They left behind territories that were gradually filled with other ethnicities.

During the 19th century, the demographic makeup of the Transcaucasia changed a lot. If St. Petersburg intended to create an ethnic melting pot in the Transcaucasia, it succeeded, at least partially. Half a century later, all the administrative-territorial units in the region were polyethnic.

The Table below cites the data of the 1897 First All-Russia Population Census related to the main ethnic groups in the region; ethnic identification was based only on native language, a method not free from flaws, the results being relative rather than exact: the polled were asked about their native language but not about their ethnic or sub-ethnic affiliation. Ethnic and sub-ethnic groups were identified by indirect methods when the returns were processed in St. Petersburg.7

The result was not free from errors: for example, those who spoke "the Kartvelian languages" (Kartvelians are the Georgians' self-name) were divided into 11 "peoples," 8 of which spoke the same native tongue. For example, only information about territorial distribution makes it possible to distinguish between the "Georgians" (the blanket name for those who lived in the valleys of the Tiflis Gubernia) and the Tushins, Pshavs, and Khevsurs (small groups of mountain dwellers who used dialects of the Georgian language and whose written language and literature went back into antiquity). The same can be said about the Imeretians, Gurians, Ingiloyans, and Ajarians. Three "Kartvelian peoples" who used the Megrelian (and the kindred Laz) and the Svan language used the common Georgian literary language and demonstrated a clear Georgian identity. Those who organized the census pointed out that "the peoples of the Kartvelian or Iver group were a single whole to a great extent."8

The census was not free from shortcomings: while the majority of the Georgians were Orthodox Christians, in the Tiflis Gubernia, about 30 thousand who spoke Georgian as their native language pointed to Armenian Gregorianism as their religion, which raises the question: Were they Georgians or Armenians? Six thousand in the Elisavetpol Gubernia who used "the Lezghian language" as their

6 i

7 See: Pervaya vseobshchaia perepis naseleniia Rossiiskoy imperii, ed. by N.A. Troynitskiy, Vol. II, St. Peters-

See: A. Tsutsiev, op. cit., p. 34.

burg, 1905, p. 1.

8 Ibid., p. xxvi.

Map 1

Administrative-Territorial Division of the Transcaucasia in the Last Decades of the Russian Empire

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Volume 6 Issue 3 2012 Ш9Щ9ЩЩЩЩЩЩЩШШЩШЩЩШШШ9ШЩЩ 139

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native tongue (they were probably Udins) pointed to the same religion. Abkhazians had to be singled out from among the "Caucasian mountain people" who spoke "the Circassian language," that is, they were "Circassians" living in the Sukhumi District and Batumi Region. In the Sukhumi District they were counted together with the Samurzakans (the population of the present Gali District) who, in fact, spoke Megrelian, one of "the Kartvelian languages."9

The Table shows that the Kutaisi Gubernia (a large part of Western Georgia) was the only territory with a multinational population; in all the other regions, the largest ethnic-linguistic group accounted for no more than 60 percent. In the Erivan and Elisavetpol gubernias, the second largest groups were the Tatar-speakers in the Erivan Gubernia (37.8 percent) and the Armenian-speakers in the Elisavetpol Gubernia (33.3 percent).

In the Zakataly District, the "other" ethnic groups were in the relative majority: the Daghestani peoples in the Zakataly District; while in Kars and Batumi regions, people using the Turkic or Kurdish languages as their native tongue can be described as "others."

Despite certain faults, the Table confirms an obvious ethnic and linguistic melee, the consequences of which cropped up two decades later.

The Independent States Try to Delimitate their Territories

The February revolution in Russia, the fall of the monarchy and the Bolshevist revolution left many of the outlaying regions beyond the impact of the former imperial center. Germany and the Ottoman Empire tried to capitalize on the new Transcaucasian context before October-November 1918; having defeated them in World War I, the Entente either could not fill or had no intention of filling the "vacuum of imperial power" in the region; after several half-hearted attempts, in 19181919 Britain pulled out; the last British soldier left the Transcaucasia in the summer of1920. After the war, the U.S. went back to its traditional isolationism; Turkey was building a new Kemalist state on the ruins of the Ottoman Empire and fighting for its place in Asia Minor, while Russia remained divided by the civil war until late 1920.

Before 1917, there were no separatist sentiments to speak of in the Transcaucasia: the political parties with considerable ethnic support—the Mensheviks (Social-Democrats) among the Georgians; the Dashnaktsutyun among the Armenians, and the Musavat among the Azeris—did not seek independence from the Empire; their aims were limited to cultural or administrative autonomy for their ethnicities.10 In the short period of the Russian Republic, the Transcaucasian peoples willingly sent their deputies to the Constituent Assembly.

Political reality, however, was changing fast.

The Transcaucasian deputies elected to the Constituent Assembly in 1917 missed its first (and only) sitting. With the Bolsheviks in the minority in the new democratically elected structure, it stood no chance of meeting for a second sitting. On 5 January, 1918, the Bolsheviks used force to disperse it; later they signed the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, which cost them their influence in the Caucasus (they lingered in Baku for a while).

In these conditions, large ethnic groups (Azeris, Georgians, and Armenians) set up their own statehood in the form of the Transcaucasian Federative Republic with Tbilisi for the capital. It was proclaimed on 22 April, 1918 by the deputies from the Transcaucasia earlier elected to the Constituent Assembly of the Russian Republic.

9 R. Gachechiladze, The New Georgia: Space, Society, Politics, UCL Press, London, 1995, p. 83.

10 See: S.F. Jones, Socialism in Georgian Colors: The European Road to Social Democracy 1883-1917, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass., 2005, p. 17.

140 PfPWHPWPPIMQVP^mWfPQM Volume 6 Issue 3 2012


The project proved to be short-lived: under foreign pressure (from Germany and the Ottoman Republic)11 and their own inability to coordinate their foreign policy, the Georgian Democratic Republic, the Democratic Republic of Azerbaijan, and the Republic of Armenia (which preferred to keep the term "independence" out of its declaration)12 declared their independence one after another on 26, 27, and 28 May. It should be said that Azerbaijan was the first parliamentary republic in the Muslim world; in Azerbaijan the women got suffrage earlier than in Great Britain.13

National states came into being with a lot of unresolved problems in store for them.

They had to sort things out with the Ottoman Empire, which had annexed the Batumi and Kars regions under the Brest-Litovsk Treaty, captured parts of Georgian and Armenian territories, and occupied Baku on 15 September, 1918. (Late in 1918, however, Turkey as one of the defeated countries in World War I, pulled out.) The new states had to sort things out among themselves to delimitate their territories.

In the post-empire period, the newly formed states had to choose either the principle of "ethnic settlement" or "historical territory" or "imperial administrative-territorial division."

The first two are too subjective to be efficiently applied without the use of force. In 1939, Stalin relied on the "ethnic settlement" principle ("Western Ukrainian and Byelorussians reunited with their homeland") to justify occupation of part of Polish territory on the strength of the deal with Hitler (the so-called Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact14). After World War II, the Soviet Union used the far-fetched "historical territory" principle to justify the transfer of parts of Germany ("the zone the Slavs lived on one thousand years before") to Poland to compensate for the lost eastern territories.

These principles defy peaceful solutions—they are more likely to start a tug of war.

The U.N. and the former colonial powers applied the principle of "imperial administrative-territorial division" in Africa which, in most cases, preserved peace among the newly formed African states even though the borders left many ethnic groups divided among different states. The same principle was applied when the Soviet Union fell apart: the administrative borders of the Union republics became state borders. Formally, the Soviet Union consisted of fifteen Union republics ("sovereign states" under the Constitution of the U.S.S.R.), which could withdraw from the Union (this was not applicable to the autonomous republics and autonomous regions). In this way, peace was preserved (with the exception of cases when individual republics or autonomous units refused to comply).

In 1918, the "imperial administrative-territorial division" principle demanded a consensus of the three Transcaucasian states, which proved unattainable.

Georgia wanted the Tiflis and Kutaisi gubernias, the Batumi Region, and the Zakataly and Sukhumi districts. Under the Moscow Treaty of 7 May, 1920 between Georgia and Bolshevist Russia, Moscow accepted Georgian sovereignty within these regions (with the exception of the Zakataly District, which remained outside the deal). Tbilisi also claimed a chunk of the Kars Region as part of the Medieval Georgian Kingdom.

Azerbaijan looked at the Baku and Elisavetpol gubernias, the Zakataly District (which it controlled anyway), and parts of the Erivan and Tiflis gubernias as its territory. In 1918, for a while, it even hoped to reach the Black Sea coast, but later it dropped its claims to the Kars and Batumi regions.

Armenia regarded the Erivan Gubernia (including Nakhchivan and Sharur-Daralagez) and the Kars Region as its territory; it also wanted a large part of the Elisavetpol Gubernia (the Kazakh, Zange-zur, Shusha, Jevanshir, and Karyagino/Jabrail uezds) and the southern part of the Tiflis Gubernia.

Peace was obviously far away even though some countries made feeble attempts to bring it closer.

The newly formed republics of Georgia, Azerbaijan, and the Mountain Peoples of the Northern Caucasus and Daghestan (the latter existed in the Northern Caucasus for a short period between May

11 See: Z. Avalov (Avalishvili), Nezavisimost Gruzii v mezhdunarodnoy politike 1918-1921 godov, Paris, 1924; R. Hovannisian, The Republic of Armenia: The First Year 1918-1919, Vol. I, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1971.

12 See: R. Hovannisian, oS. cit., p. 33.

13 See: Th. De Waal, The Caucasus: An Introduction, University Press, Oxford, 2010, p. 64.

14 See: SSSR-Germania: dokumenty i materialy o sovetsko-germanskikh otnoshenoiakh s aprelia po oktiabr 1939 goda, Moklas, Vilnius, 1989, p. 120.

Volume 6 Issue 3 2012 ННННЯРМ^ОТШЯРН 141


1918 and February 1919) agreed to meet in Tbilisi in November 1918 to achieve mutual recognition and settle the border issues between the four Caucasian republics. American historian Richard Hovannisian established that the Republic of Armenia declined to participate in the conference.15 Erevan was convinced that the Entente would be more favorably disposed toward it than toward Georgia and Azerbaijan patronized by Germany and the Ottoman Empire, the Entente's sworn enemies. Armenia refused to join the "united front of the Caucasian republics" against White General Denikin who was fighting the Russian Bolsheviks and also intended to trim "Caucasian separatism:" the people in Erevan cherished the illusion that Russia (either "white" or "red") would support its independence. Armenia feared that in Tbilisi the three Caucasian republics would join forces on territorial issues since their border claims, unlike those of Armenia's which wanted vast territories demanded by Georgia and Azerbaijan and vice versa, were relatively unimportant and easily resolved.

The conference, the opening of which was postponed several times, never took place16; this meant that the chance to settle the territorial issues peacefully was lost.

The short Armenian-Georgian armed clash in December 1918 over the southern part of the former Borchali Uezd of the Tiflis Gubernia (Lori) was cut short by the Entente; the northern part of Lori became a neutral zone. The conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Zangezur and Nagorno-Karabakh (at that time part of the Elisavetpol Gubernia) was much longer and much bloodier.

The Treaty of Sèvres signed on 10 August, 1920, which the Entente imposed on its puppet, the government of the Ottoman Empire stationed in Istanbul (the real, Kemalist government was functioning in Ankara), spoiled the situation both for Armenia and Georgia. Under the treaty, Armenia acquired territories in Anatolia (the new possessions were not guaranteed either by the Entente or the United States). It is not surprising that soon afterwards Armenia lost not only the Kars region, but also the territories it had inherited from the Russian Empire (the Surmala Uezd, which until 1828 was part of Persia, not Turkey) in a short war with Turkey (24 September-2 December, 1920).

Early in 1921, the Turkish troops stationed in the area moved into the Batumi Region; it was after the talks with Russia that they returned the northern part of the Batumi Region and the port of Batumi to Georgia.

Sovietization of the Transcaucasia and the New Borders

In 1920, Russia (this time Soviet Russia) returned to the Caucasus: it was interested, economically and politically, in Baku with its oil fields and the port of Batumi on the Black Sea (through which oil products were exported).

Moscow found a common language with the Kemalists in Ankara busy fighting a brutal war against the Greeks and French in Western and Southern Anatolia.

During the talks in London, Soviet Russia realized that Great Britain would not interfere in the Caucasian developments.17 On 16 March, 1921, the sides signed an Anglo-Soviet trade treaty in which Russia promised not to meddle with India and Afghanistan; "the British Government gives a similar particular undertaking to the Russian Soviet Government in respect of the countries which formed part of the former Russian Empire and which have now become independent."18

By that time, the Caucasus had been totally Sovietized: on 28 April, 1920, Bolshevik armored trains entered Baku; on 2 December of the same year, Soviet power was established in Erevan; and on 25 February, 1921, the Bolsheviks took Tbilisi.

15 See: R. Hovannisian, op. cit., p. 96.

16 See: Ibid., p. 98.

[http://www.regnum.ru/news/1453778.html], 8 October, 2011.

17 I

18 R.H. Ulmann, The Anglo-Soviet Accord, Princeton University Press, 1972, pp. 474-478.

14^ ^^^^^^MBBipaaiffüPIll Volume 6 Issue 3 2012


Earlier, on 16 March, 1921, the Kemalists signed the Moscow Treaty with Soviet Russia to draw the borders between Turkey and the Caucasian republics; they were confirmed by the Kars Treaty of 13 November, 1921, signed by Turkey and the Azerbaijan, Armenian, and Georgian S.S.R., which while remaining de jure subjects of international law were acting on orders from Moscow.

The decisions were made in the Kremlin; in the republics the right of decision-making belonged to the Caucasian Bureau of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Russia (Bolsheviks).19 The right of political decision-making in the Caucasus belonged to this party and government authority, up to and including the border issues and political structure of the local republics.20

The Caucasian Bureau decided to transfer the neutral Lori zone to the Armenian S.S.R. It also confirmed that a large part of the Kazakh Uezd of the former Elisavetpol Gubernia and a larger part of the Zangezur Uezd of the same gubernia (which had been controlled by Armenian armed forces since 1918) belonged to Armenia. It also wanted the Akhalkalaki Uezd, which remained part of the Georgian S.S.R. The Zakataly District claimed by the Georgian S.S.R. became part of the Azerbaijan S.S.R., which also acquired small parts of the south of the Signakh Uezd of the Tiflis Gubernia.

The Caucasian Bureau of 6 or 7 members decided which republics should get chunks of territories and which parts should be transferred to the offended republics by way of compensation.

All the leaders (they were all Communists) of the new republics were offended: in no time each of the republican Communist parties became a vehicle of national interests while holding forth on internationalism. They resented the territorial shifts: each of the republics was convinced that it had not received enough or had been robbed of its territories.

No matter what, they had to accept the results; later neither the leaders nor the people showed their dissatisfaction. Other decisions proved to be an apple of discord.

In 1922, Moscow insisted on uniting the Transcaucasian republics into a Transcaucasian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic (T.S.F.S.R.) (see Map 2).

This was done to remedy a situation in which the local Communist parties, while remaining regional organizations of the R.C.P.(B.), had become too independent and too "nationalistically minded." In June 1921, Joseph Stalin, member of the Politburo of the R.C.P.(B.) and also the People's Commissar for Nationalities, visited the Caucasian republics where he was coldly received by workers in Tbilisi: "Now, upon my arrival in Tiflis, I am astounded by the absence of the former solidarity between the workers of the nationalities of Transcaucasia. Nationalism has developed among the workers and peasants."21

Many of the Communist leaders of Georgia were dead set against the T.S.F.S.R.; seen from the Kremlin they looked like "nationalist deviators" to be dissolved among other nationalities.

The Soviet republics of the Transcaucasia preserved all the formal attributes of independence— governments and parliaments; Communist parties complete with the Central Committees yet they took command from the Transcaucasian Territorial Committee of the R.C.P.(B.) with its headquarters in Tbilisi, the capital of the T.S.F.S.R.

The T.S.F.S.R. served as a prototype of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics set up on 30 December, 1922, partly because of the "stubbornness of the Caucasian comrades!"

19 The usual abbreviation R.C.P.(B.).

20 For a vast survey of how the parts of the borders were drawn in the Caucasus and related documents, see: S. Mustafaeva, "Soviet Russia and the Formation of Borders between the Caucasian States (Based on a Case Study of Azerbaijan and Armenia)," The Caucasus & Globalization, Vol. 4, Issue 1-2, 2010, pp. 196-205. The articles inviting discussion were published by Regnum Internet portal, which put numerous hitherto unknown or little known archival documents into circulation even if their interpretation looked fairly one-sided; these documents can be used as sources for those who are studying the political decisions that sealed the fates of the Transcaucasian states in the early 1920s (see: [http://www.r egnum.ru/news/1450393.html], 29 September, 2011; [http://www.regnum.ru/news/1453778.html], 8 October, 2011; [http://www.regnum.ru/news/1433956.html], 10 August, 2011; [http://www.regnum.ru/news/1433780.html], 9 August, 2011; [http://www.regnum.ru/news/1428477.html], 24 July, 2011]).

21 J. Stalin, "The Immediate Tasks of Communism in Georgia and Transcaucasia. Report to a General Meeting of the Tiflis Organization of the Communist Party of Georgia, 6 July, 1921," Works, Vol. 5, p. 97.

Map 2

Administrative Borders of the T.S.F.S.R. in 1923

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The Soviet Union was set up by the T.S.F.S.R. together with the R.S.F.S.R., Ukrainian S.S.R., and Byelorussian S.S.R.; earlier, some of the Communist leaders in the Kremlin (Stalin among them) had entertained the idea that all the republics should become autonomous republics of the R.S.F.S.R.

The territorial redistributions inside the republics, including newly created autonomies for some of the ethnic minorities, caused a lot of dissent as mutually unacceptable and frequently stirred up dissatisfaction in ethnic groups.

The Karabakh problem turned out to be toughest. Here is what the author of the Atlas etnopo-liticheskoy istorii Kavkaza (Atlas of the Ethnopolitical History of the Caucasus) has to say: "In 1921, the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh remained disputed: the Caucasian Bureau ... remained undecided. As a result the Bolshevik leaders relied on the strategy of 'acquiring allies among the peoples of the East.' Geopolitically, Armenia was no match to solidarity of the Muslims with Soviet Russia which meant that Nagorno-Karabakh would remain part of Azerbaijan. This was a compromise ... it was suggested that an autonomous region should be set up in the mountainous part of Karabakh which meant self-determination for the Armenians within Soviet Azerbaijan.

"The autonomy of the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh was not ethnic; in the same way the autonomy of Nakhchivan (an Azeri autonomy first under the protectorate of Azerbaijan and later part of the Azerbaijan) was not ethnic either."22 Until 1924, this autonomy remained the Nakhchivan S.S.R.

In 1923, Armenia tried to join Nagorno-Karabakh and failed because the territories were separated by a stretch populated by Azeris and Kurds; the Communist party structures discussed the issue for a while; on 7 July, 1923, however, the Azerbaijan Central Executive Committee issued a decree which set up the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Region with its center in Khankendi (later renamed Stepanakert).

In February-March 1921, in Moscow, Turkey agreed to transfer Nakhchivan (occupied by Turkey since late 1920) to Soviet Azerbaijan on the condition that it would not be transferred to a third party. Those who think that in this way Turkey acquired a common border with Azerbaijan are wrong; the common border appeared in 1932 when Turkey swapped territories with Iran.23 To avoid too close proximity between Turkey and Azerbaijan (the Kremlin probably suspected that Turkey might swap territories with Iran), the Caucasian Bureau agreed to include Zangezur (Syunik) in the Armenian S.S.R. to separate Nakhchivan from the rest of Azerbaijan. It became an exclave of Azerbaijan.

Georgia, with 21.5 percent of its territory removed from Tbilisi's jurisdiction as autonomous units of different levels, responded painfully to the process and the results.

Archival materials show that it was a well-planned project; as soon as Soviet power was established in Georgia, the military attaché at Soviet Russia's diplomatic mission in Tbilisi advised the central government "to set up in Georgia the largest possible number of autonomous units depending on Russia so as to prevent a flare up of the independence struggle in Georgia."24

After Soviet power had been established in Georgia, the Caucasian Bureau at first agreed to set up an Abkhazian Soviet Socialist Republic with a population of barely 250 thousand (legally equal to the Ukrainian S.S.R. with a population of 40 million). Several months later, however, the Kremlin realized that the Abkhazian S.S.R. with a titular population of about 60 thousand would have been too small and that it would serve as a precedent for all other much larger North Caucasian and Volga area peoples. On 16 December, 1921, under a special decree, Abkhazia became part of Georgia as a "Treaty Soviet Socialist Republic of Abkhazia." De facto it was an autonomous republic within Georgia; it was treated as such by the first Constitution of the Soviet Union of 1924.25 In 1931, it became the Abkhazian Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic.

It should be said that the Constitution of the Georgian Democratic Republic adopted shortly before Sovietization treated Abkhazia as an autonomous unit: the public opinion of Georgia obviously accepted Abkhazia's autonomous status.

22 A. Tsutsiev, op. cit., pp. 56-59.

23 See: The Encyclopedia of International Boundaries, ed. by G. Biger, Facts-on-File, New York, 1995, pp. 300-302.

24 P. Sitin, "Doklad pravitelstvu RSFSR, 22-30 aprelia 1912," The Central State Archives of Georgia, rec. gr. 1874, inv. 1, f. 4, Iveria-Express newspaper, 15-24 August, 1993.

25 See: Istoria Sovetskoy Konstitutsii (v dokumentakh), 1917-1956, Moscow, 1957, p. 463.

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The Georgians also accepted Ajaria's autonomous status even though the Ajarians were nothing more than Georgian Muslims who had adopted Islam in the 17th-18th centuries; the Georgian leaders had to take into account the provision of the Kars Treaty regarding Ajaria's autonomous status.

An autonomous status for the Ossets, who did not form a compact group in Eastern Georgia, invited vehement discussions. Some of the republic's Communist leaders were against it, although not because they were against the Ossets. On 27 September, 1921, the People's Commissariat of Internal Affairs of the Georgian S.S.R. submitted a memorandum to the Revolutionary Committee of Georgia in which it offered demographic, economic, and geographic arguments against an autonomous status for the Ossets26; twice as many Ossets in Georgia would be left outside the proposed autonomous unit; Ossetian villages were scattered across Georgia; the Ossetian population of Tbilisi was fairly large; and Ossets lived in ethnically mixed districts and in ethnically mixed families who never believed their rights to be infringed upon. In fact, the territory of the proposed autonomy populated by Ossets was economically and geographically fully integrated into Georgia with no reliable transportation routes with the other Soviet republics (the Caucasian passes remained closed for nine months out of twelve); there was not a single town or urban settlement in the territory of the proposed autonomy.

The Caucasian Bureau, Stalin, and the C.C. of the Communist Party of Georgia remained deaf to the arguments. On 20 April, 1922, a South-Ossetian Autonomous Region (SOAR) appeared with its center in the Georgian settlement of Tskhinvali. The administrative border ran alongside the settlement, which from that time on acquired the status of a town. Between 1934 and 1961, the town was known as Stalinir instead of its historical Georgian name.

The Akhalgori District with a predominantly Georgian population 30 km away from Tbilisi was included in the newly created SOAR. Nearly 100 years later, this political-geographic decision developed into a serious geopolitical problem when in August 2008 Russian troops occupied the region and set up a powerful military base there.

By 1923, the territorial-administrative division in the Transcaucasia, which survived until the end of the Soviet Union, was complete.


As British historian Geoffrey Hosking put it, "Britain had an empire, Russia was an empire."27 This is true: the Russian Empire spread to the neighboring lands and developed as a single state with the final aim of creating a homogenous population, which proved unattainable.

The Russian Transcaucasia was free from obvious separatism, yet the developing ethnoterrito-rial nationalism in the Caucasus and elsewhere sooner or later would have destroyed the multinational Empire. World War I, the fall of monarchy, and the Bolshevik revolution speeded up the Empire's disintegration.

The demographic processes in the Russian Empire and its administrative-territorial division did not leave the newly formed independent republics of the Transcaucasia a chance to follow the path of peaceful state-building, even though there were other negative factors, the discussion of which goes far beyond the limits of this article.

The Empire restored with a new name—Soviet Russia—regained its zones of influence. The very special nature of Transcaucasian statehood suggested not a unitary but an ethnofederal system (the Soviet Union) and autonomous units of different levels riveted to the one-party system and the Communist Party as the only governing body.

26 See: Iz istorii vzaimootnosheniy gruzinskogo i osetinskogo narodov (Zakliuchenie komissii po izucheniiu statusa Yugo-Osetinskoy oblasti), Tsodna, Tbilisi, 1991, pp. 59-62.


Quoted from: Th. De Waal, op. cit., p. 37.



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The Caucasian Bureau of the C.C. R.C.P.(B.) had the right of decision-making on all issues of territorial delimitation inside and outside the republics within the region; potential conflicts were smoothed over to become latent conflicts. This meant that in 1920-1923 the conflicts between the Transcaucasian republics were frozen but not resolved.

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