The Karabakh issue, Early 20th Century: The Roots of the Current Conflict Grow

The Creation of Azerbaijan and its Territorial Claims, 1918

Historically, the name Azerbaijan was the name for the northwestern part of present-day Iran, south of the river Araxes (present-day border between Armenia and Iran). The name has its roots in the historical realm of Atropatkan (or Atropatene) which was part of the Kingdom of Media, and later Persia (around 10th to 6th century B.C.).[19] Present-day Azerbaijan has until 1918 instead been known as Albania or Caucasian Albania.[20] Albania was later splitted into different parts and was replaced by, among others, the provinces of Shirvan and Aran (see Map 2).[21] Until 1918, the terms "Muslims", "Caucasian Turks" or the most frequently used term, namely "Tatars" were used to refer to its inhabitants.[22] The term "Muslim" as a generic term for the various ethnic groups in the area can also be witnessed until 1921, when the Bolshevik Caucasian Bureau used the following formulation for the decision on the annexation of Nagorno Karabakh to Azerbaijani SSR: "...necessary for the establishment of peace between Armenians and Muslims."[23]

Map 2

The choice of the name Azerbaijan in 1918 angered the government in Persia (present-day Iran), who suspected that the republic was nothing more than a tool in the Ottoman Turks' plans to eventually lay claim to the Persian province of Azerbaijan in Persia's northwestern tip, adjacent to Turkey and the newly formed Republic of Azerbaijan. This suspicion was also confirmed in the Ottoman leaders' plans, among others, in the quote that the Turkish General Vehib Pasha stated during the negotiations with Armenia, which is dealt with in detail later in the text. History professor and Oriental expert Bert G. Fragner agrees with his colleague Tadeusz Swietochowski when he claims that the name Azerbaijan was chosen with the intention to eventually claim the Iranian Azerbaijan as well.[24] The historian and Near East expert Igor M. Diakonoff states that the then largest Muslim political party in the Transcaucasus, the Musavat Party, "relied on the total disintegration of Iran during this period, hoping that in a simple way to annex Iranian Azerbaijan into their state. Until the 20th century, the ancestors of today's Azeris were called Turki while the Russians called them Tatars."[25] This argument can also be corroborated by similar trends in present-day Azerbaijan. A concrete example is a resolution draft in Azerbaijan's Parliament on February 1, 2012, which proposes to change the official name of the Republic of Azerbaijan to the Republic of Northern Azerbaijan since "two-thirds of the historical Azerbaijani land is located in Iran." [26] Even the League of Nations (forerunner of present-day United Nations), refused to recognize the Republic of Azerbaijan and based its decision, inter alia, on the following statement:
... [Azerbaijan] seems never to have been a state, but instead has always been part of larger groups such as Mongol or Persian and since 1813, the Russian Empire. The name Azerbaijan which has been chosen for the new republic is also the name of the neighboring Persian province.[27]

Instead, the government in Tehran proposed the term Caucasian Azerbaijan, a name that Tehran itself used in its declarations and communiqu├ęs.[28]

The new Azeri government declared also the inclusion of Nagorno Karabakh and Zangezour (a mountainous area in the province of Siunik in southern Armenia) in its territory, but the Armenians in these two areas refused to accept the Azeri sovereignty. The Azeri claim was also supported by the Ottoman Turks who considered themselves the cousins of the Tatars, now turned Azeris. At the border negotiations with Armenia (1917), the Turkish General Vehib Pasha put forward the Ottoman position on the subject, which showed that the Young Turk leaders' devotion to the creation of Pan Turan (a new Turkish Empire which stretched from Black Sea to Central Asia) was burning stronger than ever:

You see that the destiny draws Turkey from the West to the East. We left the Balkans, were also leaving Africa, but we must extend toward the East. Our blood, our religion, our language is there. And this has an irresistible magnetism. Our brothers are in Baku, Daghestan, Turkestan, and Azerbaijan. We must have a road toward those areas. And you Armenians are standing in our way. By demanding Van, you block our road to Persia. By demanding Nakhichevan and Zangezour, you obstruct our descent into the Kur Valley and our access to Baku. Kars and Akhalkalak seal our routes to Kazakh and Gandzak [Ganja]. You must draw aside and give us room. Our basic dispute rests on these grounds. We need two broad avenues which allow us to advance our armies and to defend ourselves. One of these routes is Kars-Akhalkalak-Borchalu-Zangezour, leading to Gandzak; the route passes over Sharur-Nakhichevan-Zangezour to the Kur Valley. You may remain between these two, that is, around Novo Bayazid and Etchmiadzin.[29]

However, the Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh refused to give way, and instead held their own congress in which they chose a National Council and declared their independence under the name of Karabakh People's Government (July 1918).[30] With the ceasefire agreement in Mudros (October 1918), the Ottoman troops in Transcaucasia were replaced by British forces. Azerbaijan now tried to annex Nagorno-Karabakh with the help of the British. In order to establish full control over the oil exports from Baku (or rather prevent the Bolsheviks from gaining such control), the British leadership did everything in their power during the Paris Peace Conference (1919) to put Nagorno-Karabakh under Azerbaijani rule. With this support, the Baku government issued an ultimatum (January 15, 1919) to the Karabakh government to recognize the Azerbaijani sovereignty. The ultimatum was, nonetheless, dismissed by the Armenian population's Congress in February 19, 1919. The resolution stated, among others:
With the insistence on the principle of national self-determination, the Armenian population of Karabakh respects the neighboring Turkish people's right to self-determination and wishes with this decision to protest against the Azeri Government's attempt to eliminate this principle of Nagorno-Karabakh and will never recognize the Azerbaijani sovereignty.[31]

This episode reminds all too well of the current situation. But despite the protests of the Karabakh population, the British continued to support the Azerbaijani government's demand to include Karabakh and Zangezour within Azerbaijan's territory, which the Armenians continued to firmly reject (official statement at the Fifth Congress on April 23, 1919).[32] One thing should be noted, namely that the 1919 document reveals that the Karabakh Azeri population was often not allowed to express their opinion in these congresses on Karabakh's future and thus were not involved in the decisions, although their minority votes would hardly have changed the resulting decisions.[33]

After hearing the decision from the Fifth Congress, the government of Azerbaijan decided to conquer Karabakh by force. In June 1919 the Azeri Army launched an attacked on Karabakh while the British evacuated the area to give the Azerbaijanis free maneuverability, while the Turkish Army advanced from the west.[34] After having re-evaluated the situation, the Armenians, however, realized that they could not resist a united assault from the Azeri and Turkish armies. Thus, attempts were made to gain time by agreeing to temporarily be included within Azerbaijan's borders until such time when the peace negotiations in Paris had reached a final decision.[35] Karabakh thereby ended up formally under Azeri sovereignty and remained so until the sovietization of the region.

Map 4

During March-April 1920 there was a short-lived war between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh. Initially, the Azerbaijanis had the upper hand, but the Armenians managed soon to turn the situation to their advantage. However, it was not long before the advancing Red Army, having annexed Azerbaijan to Bolshevik Russia, intervened in the fighting and Soviet Azerbaijan regained the control of the area. Soviet archives indicate that nearly 20% of the region's population perished in the war (about 30,000), the majority of them Armenians.[36] Soon even Armenia fell in the hands of the Bolsheviks (December 2, 1920). At this point of time, the Republic of Armenia included two areas which Joseph Stalin would give away to Azerbaijan during the sovietization of the Caucasus: Karabakh and Nakhichivan (see Map 4). The name of Nakhichevan is Armenian, but there are various theories on its etymology (origin). One theory is that the name translates to "place of descent" (nakh-idje-van) and refers to the place where Noah is suposed to have descended from the nearby Mount Ararat.[37] Others say that the name consists of "Nakhtch" (site of the same name) and "avan", Armenian for city.[38]


19) E.g. see Igor M. Diakonoff and Geoffrey Alan Hosking, The Paths of History (Cambridge University Press, 1999), p. 100; Tadeusz Swietochowski, Russia and Azerbaijan: A Borderland in Transition (New York: Columbia University Press, 1995), p. 69; Ben Fowkes, Ethnicity and ethnic conflict in the post-communist world (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2002), p. 30.
20) George A. Bournoutian, Two Chronicles on The History of Karabakh: Mirza Jamal Javanshir's tarikh-e Karabakh and Adigozal Mirza Beg's Karabakh-name (Mazda Publisher, California, 2004), p. XV; John Bostock and H.T. Riley, The Natural History of Pliny, Vol. II, London, 1890, p. 27-28; V. Minorsky, Caucasica IV, Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies (University of London, Vol. 15, no. 3, 1953), p. 504.
21) James Bell, A System of Geography, Vol. IV, Glasgow, 1832, pp. 88, 89, 91, 263-264; Ben Fowkes, Ethnicity and ethnic conflict in the post-communist world (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2002), p. 30.
22) Michael P. Croissant, The Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict: causes and implications (Greenwood Publishing Group, 1998), p. 7, 8. See also Luigi Villari, Fire and sword in the Caucasus (TF Unwin, 1906), p. 20;; Viscount Bryce, The Treatment of Army Romanians in the Ottoman Empire 1915-16: Documents Presented to Viscount Grey of Fallodon Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs (London: Textor Verlag, 1916), p. 99;
23) Thomas De Waal, Black garden: Armenia and Azerbaijan through peace and war (NYU Press, 2003), p. 130; Tim Potier, Conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh, Abkhazia and South Ossetia: a legal appraisal (Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, 2001), p. 4.
24) Bert G. Fragner, Soviet Nationalism: An ideological Legacy to the Independent Republics of Central Asia, in Willem Van Schendel (ed.), Identity Politics in Central Asia and the Muslim World: Nationalism, Ethnicity and Labour in the Twentieth Century (London, GBR: IB Tauris & Company, 2001); Tadeusz Swietochowski, Russia and Azerbaijan: A Borderland in Transition (New York: Columbia University Press, 1995), p. 69.
25) Igor M. Diakonoff and Geoffrey Alan Hosking, The Paths of History (Cambridge University Press, 1999), p. 100.
26) E.g. see A new name for Azerbaijan?, The Messenger Online, 7 February 2012;
27) League of Nations, Admission of Azerbaijan to the League of Nations: Memorandum by the Secretary-General, November 1920, 20/48/108.
28) Swietochowski, p. 69.
29) Alexandre Khatisian, Hayastani Hanrapetoutian tzagoumn ou zargatsoume [The creation and development of the Republic of Armenia] (Athens, 1930), pp. 70.
30)Nagorno-Karabakh in 1918-1923 A collection of documents and materials, Yerevan, 1992, Document No. 8, p.13.
31)Nagorno-Karabakh in 1918-1923, Document No. 49, P. 79
32)Nagorno-Karabakh in 1918-1923, Document No. 105, p. 162-164
33)Nagorno-Karabakh in 1918-1923, Document No. 378, p. 257
34)Nagorno-Karabakh in 1918-1923, Document No. 172, 180, p. 259, 273
35)Nagorno-Karabakh in 1918-1923, Document No. 214, p. 323-326
36)Great Soviet Encyclopedia, Vol. 1, Chapter: "Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast", Moscow, 1939, p. 191. See also Thomas De Waal, Black garden: Armenia and Azerbaijan through Peace and War (New York: New York University Press, 2003), p. 130.
37) See Lloyd R. Bailey, Where is Noah's Ark, (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1978), p. 102. See also V. Kurkjian, A History of Armenia (New York: Armenian General Benevolent Union, 1959), pp. 1-2.
38) Heinrich Hubschmann, Armeniaca in Strassburger Festschrift zur XLVI Versammlung Deutscher Philolog und Schulmanner (Strassburg: Verlag von KarlTauberner, 1901), Section V, quoted in Lloyd R. Bailey, Noah (Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 1989) p. 190.