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Bolsheviks, Stalin and the Karabakh Issue

The establishment of Soviet power in the South Caucasus did not immediately take the Karabakh issue from the agenda. Although, at that time no combat operations were undertaken, as the Soviet army controlled the situation in both republics. However the situation was very complicated and Soviet power was completely established in the South Caucasus only by 1922. Before that, anti-Soviet rebellions broke out in one republic or another. That forced Moscow to still be as careful as possible in the solution of interethnic disputes. But the Karabakh issue was the most difficult, as mass pogroms and deportations were yet very fresh in the memories of both people. This explains the diplomatic fight between Russian and the South Caucasus communists over the territorial rights of Karabakh as well as Nakhchevan and Zangezur. Although from a strategic point of view, it did not have any special importance, since the independence of Soviet Armenia and Azerbaijan were fictitious as Moscow had the last word.

The issue of the lot of Soviet Karabakh appeared for the first time on 19 June 1920. On that day George Chicherin, acting Minister of Foreign Affairs of Soviet Russia, sent a telegram to Sergo Ordzhonikidze, who headed the Caucasian Bureau of the Central Committee of the Russian Communist Party (CC RCP) in which he raised the issue of the necessity of occupying Karabakh and Zangezur “with Russian occupational troops.” Although Ordzhonikidze immediately replied that “Azerbaijan can in no way do without Karabakh and Zangezur,” nevertheless Chicherin repeatedly indicated in many letters of that period to Lenin and communists of the South Caucasus that “Karabakh is an aboriginal Armenian area.”

In response, numerous telegrams were sent addressed to Chicherin as well as his supporter, The People‟s Commissar on National Issues – Stalin. As a result, Chicherin had to admit in a letter addressed to Lenin and dated 29 June 1920 that “he personally is not aware of the internal policy of Azerbaijan” and that his judgments were drawn from “the stories of Caucasian interlocutors” (89,) meaning representatives of the Dashnak government of Armenia, with whom negotiations were then held in Moscow and Yerevan.

Such narrowness was striking. That is why Ordzhonikidze, who was more familiar with the situation in the region and who could hardly be accused of sympathy with Azerbaijan, mentioned in his telegram to Moscow dated 19 June 1920 that Karabakh and Zangezur “consider themselves as a part of the Soviet Azerbaijan Republic” and advised Chicherin: “In general, from my point of view, a representative of Azerbaijan should be called to Moscow and all the issues referring to Azerbaijan and Armenia should be solved with him. It should be done before signing an agreement with Armenia” as our trust in the Dashnaks “will absolutely cause us to collapse here” (90). In another telegram from communists of the South Caucasus, N. Narimanov, B. Mdivani, A. Mikoyan, A. N uridjanyan pointed out to Chicherin: “But referring to the so-called debatable Zangezur and Karabakh that are already included in Soviet Azerbaijan, we categorically declare that those areas are indisputable and henceforward should be within the bounds of Azerbaijan” (91).

There were many such telegrams, reports and pieces of information addressed to the Center from the South Caucasus in June and July of 1920. As if summing up, Ordzhonikidze clearly stated in his note to Lenin, Stalin and Chicherin concerning the possession of the aforementioned areas by Azerbaijan and warned: “The Armenian government intentionally misinforms you… Such an attitude towards Azerbaijan seriously compromises us in the eyes of the wide masses of Azerbaijan” (92).

The establishment of soviet power in Armenia in November 1920 created favorable conditions for communists to solve the Karabakh problem. O n 30 November 1920 in a session of the leadership of the Communist party of Azerbaijan it was decided to apply to the government of Soviet Armenia by means of a Declaration which would mention that there were no longer any borders between the two republics. Meanwhile, Za ngezur passed to Armenia and Nagorny Karabakh was granted the right of self-determination. Having sent the telegram with this content, the head of the Azeri government, Narimanov, read the text of the declaration in a session of the Baku Commissariat in which was stated: “Henceforth no territorial issues can be the cause of mutual blood- letting between two centuries-old neighbors: Armenians and Muslims; the working peasantry of Nagorny Karabakh was granted the full right of self-determination” (93).

However, those documents were translated and published in another way. That extract from the Declaration published in the Communist newspaper in Yerevan on 2 December read thus: “From now on, no territorial issues can be the reason of the mutual blood- letting of two centuries-old neighboring nations, Armenians and Muslims. The territories of Zangezur and Nakhchevan uyezds are integral parts of Soviet Armenia and the working peasantry of Karabakh are granted the full right of self determination.” As we see, the passage about Zangezur and Nakhchevan appeared in the Armenian translation and the adjective “Nagorny” was thrown out of the concept “Nagorny Karabakh.” But apparently that seemed insufficient and, on 7 December, the text of the telegram of congratulation from Narimanov, dated 30 November 1920, was republished in the same newspaper where it was already mentioned: “Nagorny Karabakh, Zangezur and Nakhchevan are recognized as constituent parts of the Armenian Socialist Republic” (94).

Having found out about that, Azeri communists demanded a retraction. However no attention was paid to that in Soviet Armenia at that period of time. And there was an explanation for that. Even having lost authority in Armenia, the Dashnaks continued to play a very notable role in the life of the republic at that time. That is why the communists of Armenia left many of them, even if temporarily, in their previous posts. That was particularly the case in the Soviet Army, which was commanded by Dashnak general Dro, who was known for his atrocities against Azeris in Karabakh and Zangezur. However that Bolshevik-Dashnak alliance in Armenia ended with the rebellion of the latter in the middle of February 1921. Having captured Yerevan, the Dashnaks restored their authority over a part of Ar menia. By the middle of April 1921, units of the Soviet army urgently redeployed from Georgia kicked the Dashnaks out of Yerevan. The latter strengthened in Zangezur, where they had the support of the Armenian population, especially of the settlers from Turkey. Playing for time until additional forces arrived, the communists of Armenia granted amnesty to the participants of the rebellion and held negotiations with the Dashnaks, at the same time flirting with the local population. In consequence, in June 1921 the leadership of the communist party of Armenia raised the issue of Karabakh and Zangezur, hoping this would attract Turkish Armenians to their side.

On 12 June 1921, the government of Armenia passed a decree which stated: “It is declared on the basis of the declaration of the Revolutionary Committee of the Soviet Socialist Republic of Azerbaijan and the agreement between the Socialist Republics of Armenia and Azerbaijan that henceforth Nagorny Karabakh is part of the Soviet Socialist Republic of Armenia” (95).

On 27 June 1921, the Presidium of the Caucasian Bureau of the communist party of Russia was held. O n the eve of the meeting, a very important conversation between the members of the Azeri delegation in Tbilisi was held with Narimanov via telegrap h. The latter asked from Baku to bring to the attention of the members of the Presidium that if the Armenians “refer to my declaration, the following was literally stated in it: Nagorny Karabakh is granted the right of self determination.” Narimanov further stated that he would soon bring some material to Tbilisi and “then it will be clear that our Armenian comrades think only about territory, but not about the happiness of the poorest population of Armenians and Muslims and strengthening revolution” (96).

Meanwhile, it was decided in Tbilisi to call a special session of the Plenum of the Caucasian Bureau in early July. O n July 2 the Plenum began its work. For the first two days, the Armenians made territorial claims in Georgia, demanding the Akhalkalak and Borchaly uyezds.

Relations between the parties were tense and Stalin, who had been in Nalchik since May (97), had to cut his holiday short and rush to Tbilisi in late June. From the very beginning, he had taken an active part in the work of the Plenum of the Caucasian Bureau between 2 June and 7 June 1921.

The session of the Caucasian Bureau on the Karabakh issue began on the evening of 4 July. According to the minutes, besides the members of the Caucasian Bureau (Ordzhonikidze, Makharadze, Narimanov, Myasnikyan, Kirov, Nazaretyan and Figatner) Stalin, a member of the CC RCP and people‟s commissar of Russia on nationalities, as well as three members of the CC CP of Georgia and secretary of the Caucasian Bureau of Komsomol, took part in it without the right of deciding vote.

After a stormy debate, there was a vote in which four people with the right to vote (Ordzhonikidze, Myasnikyan, K irov and Figatner) voted for the Armenian position and three persons (Narimanov, Makharadze and Nazaretyan) voted to leave Nagorny Karabakh belonging to Azerbaijan. Meanwhile, the majority came forward against the participation of the Azeris of Nagorny Karabakh in a plebiscite on that issue. But Narimanov‟s statement followed it immediately: “O n account of the importance that the Karabakh issue has for Azerbaijan, I consider it necessary that it be passed for the final solution of the CC RCP (b).”

The concluding decision of the day ran: “On account of serious disagreement that the Karabakh issue caused, the Caucasian Bureau o f the CC RCP considered necessary to pass it for the final solution of the CC RCP” (86). Thus, on 4 July 1921, despite the claims of contemporary Armenian researchers, the session of the Caucasian Bureau did not pass the decision to hand over Nagorny Karabakh to Armenia but postponed that issue touching the interests and destinies of hundreds thousands of people in the region to the extended discussion of the CC RCP.

The next session of the Caucasian Bureau on the Nagorny Karabakh issue was held on the next day. That time, besides Stalin, only members of the Caucasian Bureau (only Orakhelashvili who was absent on the previous day joined them) and the people‟s commissar for foreign affairs of Azerbaijan, Guseynov, took part in its work. The issue of the dest iny of Nagorny Karabakh was again raised on the initiative of Ordzhonikidze and Nazaretyan. The new session passed the decision: “Proceeding from the necessity of national peace between Muslims and Armenians, the economic connections between Upper and Lower Karabakh, and its permanent connection with Azerbaijan, it has been decided to leave Nagorny Karabakh within the bounds of Azerbaijan SSR, having granted it broad regional autonomy with an administrative center in the city of Shusha, which is in the auto nomous area.” It was further informed in the protocol without personal mentioning of the names that four persons voted for that decision of the Caucasian Bureau, three persons abstained from it and no voice was against it. (98).

Thus at the earliest stages of soviet power in the South Caucasus, the plenum of the Caucasian Bureau concluded and the final “ I‟s” on the territorial possession of Nagorny Karabakh were dotted.


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