Emerging Azerbaijan and Its Claims to Artsakh

Emerging Azerbaijan and Its Claims to Artsakh

The struggle for self-determination of the Armenians of Nagorno Karabakh underwent dramatic developments during the establishment of the Soviet rule in the Transcaucasia (South Caucasus). Soviet rule led to a new political order. Immediately after the proclamation of Soviet Azerbaijan in 1920, the Foreign Commissar (Foreign Minister) of Soviet Azerbaijan, “on behalf of the government of workers and peasants of the Soviet Azerbaijani Republic” sent a note to the government of the Republic of Armenia demanding that Armenian armed forces leave the territory of Karabakh and Zangezur. In case of refusal, Armenia, and Karabakh, faced the prospect of clashes not only with armed forces of Azerbaijan but also the Red Army which was set on “exporting revolution.”

Faced with these circumstances, the Tenth Assembly of Karabakh Armenians proclaimed Karabakh to be Soviet on May 26, 1920, and Drastamat Kanayan, the Commander of the Armed Forces of Karabakh-Zangezur, and his units left Karabakh.

Nevertheless, even under these circumstances, Soviet Russia did not annex Nagorno Karabakh to Soviet Azerbaijan, taking into consideration the fact that the international community did not recognize the sovereignty of Azerbaijan over Nagorno Karabakh in 1918-1920. On August 10, 1920, Soviet Russia and the still independent Republic of Armenia signed a treaty, which stated that the regions of Karabakh, Zangezur and Nakhijevan would be occupied by Soviet troops but that fact would not predetermine the final possession of these regions. Thus, the territory was seen as disputed and not a part of Azerbaijan by Soviet Russia as well. 

Establishment of the Soviet rule in Karabakh marked the beginning of the policy of "peaceful" occupation of the region by the government of Azerbaijan. Gradually governmental positions in the Soviet and Party structures in Baku were occupied by Tatars (Azerbaijanis). However, this "peaceful" policy came across a decisive resistance from the Armenians of Karabakh. In June 1920, the Armenians began the struggle for independence, which in the fall of the same year grew into a powerful national uprising. From the beginning of January 1921, Artsakh was free and ndependent again. Presenting the liberation movement of the Karabakh Armenians as anti-Soviet, the government of Azerbaijan with the assistance of the Red Army was able to crush the movement at the end of April, 1921.

Immediately after the establishment of Soviet rule in Armenia, (November 29, 1920) the Revcom (Revolutionary Committee – the Bolsheviks’ main governing body at the time) of Azerbaijan renounced (November 30, 1920) any claims over the “disputed territories”, namely Nagorno Karabakh, Zangezur and Nakhijevan declaring them as inseparable parts of Armenia. 

November 30, 1920

To ALL, ALL, ALL                                                                                                                                                         

On behalf of the Soviet Socialistic Republic of Azerbaijan we convey to the Armenian people this decision of the Revcom of Azerbaijani of November 30: 

“The government of workers and peasants of Azerbaijan, having learned about the proclamation of a Soviet Socialistic Republic in Armenia by the rebelling peasantry, welcomes the victory of the brotherly people. From this day on, the borders between Armenia and Azerbaijan are annulled. Nagorno Karabakh, Zangezur, and Nakhijevan are recognized as integral parts of the Armenian Socialistic Republic. Long live the brotherhood and unity of the workers and peasants of Soviet Armenia and Azerbaijan.

Narimanov, Chairman of the Revcom of Azerbaijani,                                                                                                                    Huseynov, People’s Commissar of Foreign Affairs 

The telegram above was read at the solemn session of the Baku Soviet as a declaration on December 1. However, on December 2 of the same year, Narimanov published the same document with some changes: "The territories of Zangezur and Nakhijevan are inseparable parts of Soviet Armenia, while the working peasantry of Nagorno Karabakh is given a full right to self-determination." Having made these changes, Narimanov created grounds for his further disavowal from the decision made on November 30, although it was clear what the decision of Karabakh would be if they were asked.

On June 3, 1921, the Caucasus Bureau (Kavbureau) of the Russian Communist Party of Bolsheviks with the participation of Narimanov, unanimously resolved to mention in the declaration of the Azerbaijani government that Nagorno Karabakh belonged to Armenia.

Based on the withdrawal of Azerbaijan’s claims on the “disputed territories”, on the mentioned declaration of Kavbureau of November 30, 1921; the June 3, 1921 Kavbureau decision; and an agreement between the governments of Armenia and Azerbaijan, the Government of Soviet Armenia issued a decree on June 19, which stated that "based on the declaration of the Revcom of the Socialistic Soviet Republic of Azerbaijan and agreement between the Socialistic Republics of Armenia and Azerbaijan, it is declared that from now on Nagorno Karabakh is an inseparable part of the Soviet Socialistic Republic of Armenia".

The text of the Decree of the Armenian Government was published in the Armenian and Azerbaijani press (in Bakinsky Rabochy, the organ of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Azerbaijan, on June 22, 1921). 

Source: Centre for Cartography and Geodesy

The international community and Russia welcomed this act, which was reflected in a Resolution of the League of Nations Assembly, in the March 4, 1921 Reference Note of the League of Nations Secretary to its member-states. It was also noted in the 1920-1921 Annual Report of the People’s Commissariat (Ministry) of Soviet Russia’s Foreign Affairs to its highest governing body – the 19th Congress of Soviets. 

On July 4, 1921, in the capital of Georgia, Tbilisi, the Caucasian Bureau (Kavbureau) of the Communist Party of Russia-Bolsheviks convened a plenary session and reconfirmed that Nagorno-Karabakh was part of the Armenian SSR, deciding to "include Nagorno Karabakh in the Armenian SSR", but to recognize the need for a referendum in Nagorno Karabakh only in order to formally ensure the right of people to self-determination. The Chairman of the Azerbaijani Revcom Narimanov was against the unification of Nagorno Karabakh with Armenia and holding a referendum, and suggested to "leave the final decision up to the Central Committee of the Russian Communist Party (CCRCP) of Bolsheviks due to the importance of the Karabakhian problem to Azerbaijan." After this statement Kavbureau made the decision to leave the discussions of the problem up to the CCRCP. 

However, the Bolshevik leadership of Russia had changed its attitude on the issue of “disputed territories,” including Nagorno Karabakh. This political move was undertaken in consideration of the policy of assisting the “world-wide communist revolution”, in which Turkey, having ethnic  links with Azerbaijan, was entrusted the role of the “beacon of revolution in the East”. Following Moscow’s orders, Azerbaijani leadership renewed its claims on Nagorno Karabakh.

Instead of transferring the discussion of the problem to Moscow, an extraordinary Session of the Kavbureau was called on July 5, which, under Stalin's pressure, ignored the decision of the League of Nations and rejected referendum as a mechanism for determining borders between Armenia and Azerbaijan (an outcome would have been predictable).  In procedural violation, “proceeding from the necessity of establishing peace between Muslims and Armenians...”it adopted a decision to separate Nagorno Karabakh from Armenia and annex it to Soviet Azerbaijan, promising to establish a national autonomy on its Armenian-populated territories. 

The session of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Armenia (CCCPA) on July 16, 1921 expressed its disagreement with the decision of the Kavbureau.

Azerbaijan delayed granting autonomy to Karabakh. In 1923, after a two-year struggle and at the Russian Communist Party’s insistence, the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Azerbaijan granted a part of Karabakh the right to an autonomous oblast (a type of nation-state formation in the USSR Constitution).  This became known as the Nagorno Karabakh Autonomous Oblast (NKAO). However, by this act Karabakh was dismembered and only 4,400 square kilometres of its territory received autonomy.[3] The remaining parts[4] not included in the oblast were incorporated into the regions of Soviet Azerbaijan, thus creating physical-geographical separation of the Armenian populated areas from Armenia. Thus, a large portion of the territory recognized as “disputed” by the League of Nations was directly annexed to Azerbaijan, with the bulk of Karabakh left out of the autonomous oblast (Gyulistan, Kelbajar, Gharakhat aka Dashkesan, Lachin, Shamkhor, etc.). Only the Shahumyan region remained as a distinctive administrative entity within Azerbaijan, albeit with no autonomy of any kind. Administrative borders of other Armenian-populated territories were repeatedly changed and by 1988 were part of the Khanlar, Kedabek and Shamkhor regions. Besides, Armenia was now separated from Karabakh by a territory which was proclaimed [Red] Kurdistan. The latter was promptly abolished in 1929 and its territory was fully incorporated into Azerbaijan. 

The decision of the Kavbureau, an eight-person party organ, of July 5, 1921 was an unprecedented legal act in the history of international law, when the party organ of a third country (RK(b)P) without any legal basis or authority determined the status of an entity, ceding it from one country and annexing to another, with no regard to the will of its people.

Legitimacy had not been an important factor in March, 1921[5] either, when with the consideration of the "Turkish factor" and under Turkish pressure, the Armenian region of Nakhijevan (which ironically did not even have a common border with Azerbaijan) was transferred to Azerbaijan.

In the 1930s smaller strips of the Armenian territory from the Syunik (Zangezur) region were given to Azerbaijan as well. If Nagorno Karabakh and Nakhijevan were given some autonomy within Azerbaijan, albeit formal, these small strips of land were simply transferred to Azerbaijan and borders were changed on the maps. This was simple divide and rule in action.