Home / Azerbaijan / The Second Arme nian-Azeri Conflict

The Second Arme nian-Azeri Conflict

The First World War, and after it the Russian revolution, sharply changed the situation in the South Caucasus. Truly, until 1917 the outward situation in the region was relatively stable. However, combat operations on the Russian-Turkish front prepared the ground for future shocks. Since the autumn of 1914, Armenian volunteer units, founded in the South Caucasus, came forward against the Turks. A little bit later in 1923, one of the leaders of the “Dashnaktsutun” party and the first prime- minister of independent Armenia, O. Kachaznuni, exactly described the situation that then existed in Armenian society: “We unconditionally orientated ourselves with Russia. Having no ground, we were keen for victory; we were sure that the tsarist government would grant the autonomy of Armenia that would consist of the released Armenian areas in Turkey and Transcaucasus Armenia for our loyalty, our efforts and support. O ur idea was cloaked in the mist. We imposed our own desires on others; we gave great importance to the insignificant words of irresponsible people and ceased to understand reality and, under the influence of self- hypnosis, lapsed into daydreams. We overestimated the power of the Armenian people, our political and military importance as well as the support that we provided the Russians. We also overestimated our pretty modest worth and, naturally, we exaggerated both our hopes and expectations (73).

That very strange wordy reasoning of one of the leaders of the Dashnaks and of Armenia in 1918-1920 was cited especially in order to illustrate how similar were both the reactions and psychology of Armenians in the initial stage of conflicts with Azeris early in, as well as at the end of, the twentieth century. That serious disappointment which, as usual, awaited the Armenians, was natural.

But then in 1917 the revolution burst upon Russia and the people of the Transcaucasus were left on their own. They used that opportunity very poorly and, mainly because of the policy of the leaders of “Dashnaktsutun,” who again turned out to be under the influence of the idea of establishing “Great Armenia from Sea to Sea” that had been cultivated for decades. That is why, having come to power on 28 May 1918, Dashnak leaders almost immediately made territorial claims to Georgia and Azerbaijan. Certainly there were also territorial disputes between Azeris and Georgians. Nevertheless, the leaders of Azerbaijan and Georgia held negotiations and on 25 April 1919, managed to solve territorial issues and later, on 27 June 1919, even signed a joint defense agreement against the aggression of Russia.

Unfortunately, they failed to analogously solve their problems with Armenia. Moreover, in early December 1918, Armenia suddenly launched a war against Georgia. Due solely to the intervention of the English, combat operations were stopped in three weeks.

Armenian-Azeri relations, which Armenians considered through the prism of events in Turkey and dreams of “Great Armenia,” were much worse. The fact that, in 1917 after the collapse of the Russian empire, only Armenians had serious armed forces in the South Caucasus–as many as 35,000 Armenians that fought with Russian troops against the Turks–played an important role (74) and they formed the basis of the Armenian army, which many Russian officers and soldiers joined. Besides that, the Dashnaks had armed units (four thousand) that also played a role in Azerbaijan, primarily in Baku. In November of 1917, soviet power was established in Baku. Meanwhile, Stepan Shaumyan headed the Baku Council of Commissars. All key posts, including the military, were also occupied by Armenians. A month later, the first Armenian units appeared in Karabakh and smashed twelve Azeri villages there. T hat forced Azeris to form self defense units. For that purpose, arms were obtained or forcibly captured from Russian soldiers who were retreating to their homeland through Azerbaijan.

The fast growth of popularity and influence of “Musavat,” the national party in Azerbaijan, made soviet power in Baku unsteady. The situation became complicated in the spring of 1918 when the Musavatists, who had been very loyal to the Bolsheviks, then demanded Russian communists advised Shaumyan to meet the demands of the Azeris. However, Shaumyan was an ardent opponent of providing autonomy, considering it “a dream of Azeri nationalists” to make Baku “the capital of an Azeri khanate” (75). The tragic conclusion was inevitable. On 30 March 1918, during a protest meeting of Azeris against the disarmament of several hundred soldiers of the former Russian “Muslim division” to the Soviet units that were returning through Baku to Lankaran, an incident occurred that served, in the words of Shaumyan, “as a cause” for large-scale operation against the peaceful Azeri population. Besides that, 6,000 soldiers of the Red Army as well as 4,000 people, including a unit of Dashnaks, were consciously used by Shaumyan and his associates and, as a result, those bloody events took on the “character of a national slaughter” even in the estimation of Shaumyan (76). And so it was, as the Red Army in Baku was also headed by Armenians and, at the same time, a number of them were Dashnaks. As a result, about 12,000 peaceful inhabitants died and tens of thousands of Azeris escaped from the city (77).

The mass slaughter of Azeris leaped over the borders of Baku. Units of Armenians under the command of Dashnak S. Lalayan organized a real pogrom in April in Shamakha city, killing 7,000 Azeris there and in 58 surrounding villages. At the same time, a unit of 2,000 Dashnaks under the command of Amazasp was sent to the north of Azerbaijan by the order of Shaumyan. There it smashed Guba city and 122 surrounding villages, killing 2 ,000 Azeris. The cities of Agdash, Goychay, Salyan Lankaran were smashed, or, as the soviet historians later wrote, “soviet power was established there.”

At the same time, Armenian military units began the mass massacre of Muslims (Azeris and Kurds) in the territory of Erivan province, trying to clear the territory of them and to marshall the compact Armenian population for the announcement of an independent Armenia. According to incomplete data, about 80,000 Muslims then escaped from Armenia to Azerbaijan. This led to the breakdown of the Transcaucasian Seym that formally carried out the authority in the region. Georgia on 26 May 1918, and Azerbaijan and Armenia on 28 May announced their independence. As Baku was under the control of the Bolsheviks and Dashnaks, Ganja became the temporary capital of Azerbaijan at that period of time.

The announcement of Azerbaijan‟s independence was met with extreme hostility in Baku and on 12 June, by Shaumyan‟s order, Red Army and Dashnak units began attacking Ganja. As Armenians constituted the majority of the attacking troops, events took on pronounced national character. That is why the Azeri population in the region rose up hand- in-hand for the struggle and, with the help of Turkish units, defeated the enemy by the 1st of July. Then, having assumed the offensive themselves, Turkish and Azeri units entered Baku by force. O n 15 September 1918, Turkish-Azeri units entered Baku. The March pogroms were yet fresh in memory and then it was the turn of Armenians: at least 9,000 Armenians died in the course of battles on the avenues of approach to the city and during slaughters in the city (78).

Meanwhile, the chief events developed in Karabakh. At the end of summer 1918, the Armenian army, under the command of Andranik, entered Zangezur and by October defeated 115 villages there, killing 7,700 and wounding 2,500 Azeris and K urds. 50,000 people escaped far inland into Azerbaijan. In Armenia itself, where 135,000 people lived in 199 Muslim villages were defeated. Many Muslims died and others escaped to Nakhchivan (79). At the end of September, Turkish units began an attack against Dashnak units and on the 1st of October they entered Shusha without a fight. The Dashnaks units retreated to the mountainous parts of Karabakh and declared the establishment there of “Nagorny-Karabakh Republic” (80). Thus, the term “Nagorny Karabakh” appeared for the first time.

Meanwhile, in November 1918 the First World War ended. Germany and its allies took second place. Turkish troops left the South Caucasus. Placing their hope in the allies, the Armenians stopped attacking Karabakh by the request of England and France. Moreover, in Tbilisi on 23 November 1918, representatives of the governments of Armenia and Azerbaijan, through the mediation of the allies, signed a ceasefire and agreed to solve their territorial disputes at the Paris Peace Conference.

However, resolute Dashnaks who also hoped to expand their territory were very soon disappointed by the actions of the allies in the South Caucasus. As O.Kachaznuni then mentioned, the English “showed such an absolutely unexpected and strange generosity to the Georgians and Azeris. Certainly we were dissatisfied with the English and discovered that they were ungrateful. That was the easiest way to explain to oneself this incomprehensible phenomenon. We found them ungrateful and alleviated our souls. But we did not look for the sources of their ingratitude anymore” (81). The response of the Dashnaks to the “ungrateful” allies soon followed: in early December 1918, Armenian troops almost simultaneously attacked Georgia and Azerbaijan. About 40 Muslim villages were destroyed in Zangezur. Combat operations were stopped only after a sudden protest by the English.

In early January 1919, Major-General V.M.Thomson, the commander of the allied troops in the region, sent Khosrov Sultanov, as a representative of the government of Azerbaijan in the capacity of Governor-General to Karabakh and Zangezur (82). In re sponse, on 19 January 1919, units of the Armenian army began an attack on Shusha and on the 21st of January the government of Armenia issued an edict announcing the establishment of a “Temporary administration of the Armenian units of Zangezur and Karabakh” headed by Arsen Shakhmazyan.

In February of the same year, the head of the allied mission in Karabakh, English Major- General D.I.Shuttleworth, put forward the project of governing that area. By his order, Kh.Sultanov was recognized as the general- governor of Karabakh and his assistant was Armenian. A Council consisting of three Armenians, three Azeris and an Englishman, a member of the allied mission, answered to them. However, Dashnak leaders in Karabakh rejected that project (83).

In March and April 1919 Thomson in Yerevan and Shuttleworth in Shusha unsuccessfully tried to find a compromise solution. The English, irritated by the confrontational position of the Karabakh Armenian national council, which was under the strong influence of dashnaks, promised to expel the latter from the region. The firm position of the allies had its results: on the 23d of April 1919, the fifth session of Armenians of Karabakh for the first time recognized the authority of Azeri general- governor although with a minor reservation. The conflict parties began to look for forms of cooperation. In order to resolve the contested issues, on 25 June 1919 the government of Azerbaijan offered the leadership of Armenia to establish a joint governmental-parliamentary commission consisting of representatives of both parties and representatives of the allied powers. In early July, Sh. Rustambekov, a member of the Azeri parliament, took part already as a member of the government in the work of the sixth session of Karabakh Armenians. Finally, on the seventh session, held on 15 August 1919, the Armenians of Nagorny Karabakh passed an agreement with Azerbaijan. According to it, the Armenian part of Nagorny Karabakh would be included in the territory of Azerbaijan on the basis of territorial autonomy of the whole Karabakh and national-cultural autonomy of its Armenian population until the final resolution of the issue at the Paris Peace Conference. Meanwhile the Shusha, Djevanshir and Djebrail uyezds constituted a special administrative unit of general Karabakh province and, at the same time, the administration in the mountainous, Armenian zone was appointed by Armenians. A council was established consisting of three Azeries and three Armenians under the general- governor himself. The latter were elected by the Congress of Armenians of Nagorny Karabakh. The functions of that council under the general- governor were very broad and thus the principal issues of interethnic character could not be implemented without prior discussion in the council. Under the general- governor himself there was an assistant on civil matters, to which position an Armenian was appointed. At the same time the Congress of Karabakh Armenians nominated two candidates to the Azeri government one of them would be approved. The limited military units would lodge only in Shusha and K hankendi and any their movements should be carried out according to the agreement of Armenians (84).

Contemporaries highly evaluated that agreement which formed the basis of the English draft with certain corrections. On 5 September 1919, the newspaper “Borba” (“Struggle”) in Tbilisi noted: “Maybe the Karabakh Agreement will not accomplish a lot. It should not be forgotten that a century long hatred cannot be eliminated so soon. Maybe it will be violated tomorrow. Maybe the mountain part of Karabakh will soon again become an arena of combat operations. While not overestimating the importance of that agreement, we can not help welcoming it. We can not help mentioning that in this case we see the first serio us experience in solving the Armenian-Muslim dispute by mutual agreement not slaughter…Life in Karabakh has made the conflict parties understand that even the worst peace is better than continuous slaughter… Armenian and Tatar (Azeri – A.Y.) masses everywhere should sooner or later understand that the sword is not capable of cutting the knot of contradictions that is known as Armenian-Tatar relations…” It was not without reason that the Dashnaks tried to defile and to annul the Karabakh agreement. The party, while living with the concept of national hatred, instinctively felt that there was even the most insignificant, even the least possibility to end the fatal hatred of the two nations”.

The Western powers decided not to rest on their laurels. American Co lonel William N. Haskel, appointed by the Union Supreme Commissariat of the South Caucasus, visited Yerevan

and then in early September he paid a visit to Baku, where he met with the head of the Azeri government, N. Usubbekov. In the course of their last meeting, Haskel rejected the words attributed to him by the Armenian press and mentioned “that he considered it necessary for Karabakh, including Zangezur, to ultimately pass to Azerbaijan. But as for Nakhchevan, Sharur and Daralgez, that territory should compose a neutral area. That zone should be governed by the local population itself through their elected people and the administration should be headed by a European or American general-governor. Meanwhile, Azeri currency should be used in that neutral zone.” Thus, the zone would be beyond any influence of the Armenian Republic and the Armenian armed forces would not be allowed there and only refugees can return there” (85).

After the negotiations and the receipt of the agreement by the leadership of both republics on 25 October 1919, the powers of Entente announced the establishment of the allied zone of governance under the command of an American general- governor in the Nakhchevan and Sharur uyezds. U.S. Army Colonel Edmund D. Daily, a US Army engineer, was appointed to that post. A month later in Tbilisi, on 23 November 1919, an agreement between Azerbaijan and Armenia was signed. According to it, the parties agreed to stop combat operations and to solve the disputed issues in a peaceful way. Meanwhile, according to that agreement, Armenia removed its troops from Zangezur. It was also decided to convene an Armenian-Azeri conference as soon as possible. O n 14 December 1919, the conference took place and the outcome of the November agreement between Armenia and Azerbaijan was confirmed.

On 11 January 1920, on the initiative of Lord George Kerzon, the Supreme Council of allied powers unanimously passed the decision on the de- facto recognition of the independence of Azerbaijan, as well as of Armenia and Georgia. At the same time, the peace conference in Paris recognized Azerbaijan‟s right to Karabakh.

Having already accused the allies of “ungratefulness and the betrayal” of their interests, Dashnak leaders again took up arms. While Armenian troops gathered in Zangezur, the Dashnaks launched a broad propaganda campaign in Karabakh. In the meantime, the situation of Azerbaijan was extremely difficult, as in January 1920 Soviet Russian troops approached the border of Azerbaijan. And so, on the night of March 23 1920, while Muslims were celebrating their New Year, Armenians suddenly attacked Azeris in Shusha and other populated areas of Karabakh (87). That aggression and the attack begun by Armenian units forced the government of Azerbaijan to send almost all their armed forces to Karabakh. Shusha suffered most of all in the course of the March battles in Karabakh. It was literally ruined. Both sides had big losses. Then, in April 1920, the 9th Congress of Armenians of Karabakh passed a decision to renege on the agreement concluded on the 7th congress about joining Azerbaijan.

The heavy fighting in Karabakh and other districts of the country served the communists of Azerbaijan as a cause to appeal to Russia. On 27 April 1920, Soviet troops captured Baku and a month later Karabakh. Thus, independent Azerbaijan ceased to exist. A little later the turn of Armenia and Georgia came and, after a two year break, the authority of Russia, now Soviet, was restored in the South Caucasus.

Summing up the outcome of the second Armenian-Azeri conflict, the following should be noted. On the one hand, the better orderliness and propagandist abilities of Armenians were confirmed once again. Moreover, the attention to that was paid not only outside Azerbaijan but also inside the republic. The newspaper Azerbaijan stated directly on 8 December 1918: “We Azeris are not yet experienced in politics and we can not use those methods which others do, particularly our evil- wishers. We could not make noise all over Europe, to importune the mighty of the earth and we even failed to get “good press” in Europe.”

At the same time, the important role of Russia in the lives of the nations of the South Caucasus was revealed. The revolution in Russia and the civil war that broke out drew the attention of Russia away from the region. The leading political forces of the nations of the South Caucasus, being left on their own, had no tradition or experience of independent state governance. That made their situation very shaky even against the background of a weakened Russia. However, instead of uniting their small forces, they immediately began combat operations against each other. That happened mainly because of the phantom and dangerous struggle of the leaders of the “Dashnaktsutun” party to restore the ancient “Great Armenia from sea to sea,” which made territorial clashes with Georgians and Azeris inevitable.

Finally, unlike the first Armenian-Azeri conflict, the leading countries of the West then played a certain role in the fate of the region. At a certain stage in 1919, the western powers even managed to restore peace for a short time in Nagorny Karabakh, which they considered part of Azerbaijan. However, the activity of the allies was not very active or consistent. That is why, when the authority of the communists became stronger in Russia, they established their power over the pallid republics of the South Caucasus without difficulty.


About oval