On the Zangezur Question – Part One

On the Zangezur Question – Part One

Azerbaijan’s state archive possesses numerous documents from the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic’s Extraordinary Investigation Commission on the massacres perpetrated against Azerbaijanis in the Zangezur region between 1918-1920 by Armenian armed groups led by Andranik, Dro, Nzhdeh and others. It is recorded that the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic asked the commander of British Forces in the Caucasus to take action to bring to an end the mass murder of Azerbaijani civilians. According to the findings of the Extraordinary Investigative Commission, more than 10,000 Azerbaijani civilians in Zangezur region were killed and 115 Azerbaijani villages razed to the ground and depopulated during the period.

Due to the demographic change brought about by the mass murder and ethnic cleansing of Azerbaijanis, the Bolsheviks awarded the Zangezur region to the Armenian Soviet Socialist Republic, after they occupied the Caucasus. The depopulation provided the justification for what was essentially a geopolitical policy of cutting Nakhchivan off from the rest of Azerbaijan. The Bolsheviks shared with the British Imperialists the objective of establishing an Armenian barrier between Turkey and Azerbaijan. The aim was to divide the Turkic world so it did not present a challenge to the Russian and British Empires.

British sources also give us a good picture of what happened in Zangezur during this period.

W.E.D. Allen gave the following description in a British survey of the region, edited by the famous John Buchan, in the early 1920s. Zangezur was in the Tsarist administrative area of Elisavetpol:

“The territories inhabited by a majority of the so-called Turks or Tatars of Azerbaijan comprise the ex-Russian Governments of Baku and Elisavetpol, and parts… of Daghestan, Tillis, Zakatali and Erivan… In the hilly regions of Zangezur and Kara Bagh, comprising the south-eastern part of the Government of Erivan and the south-western part of the Government of Elisavetpol, Tatar (Azerbaijani), Armenian, Kurdish and gipsy elements are intermingled. It is in this region that the racial and religious feud between Tatar and Armenian has assumed the most acute form.”[1]

The 1905-6 Massacres

During the inter-ethnic violence of 1905-6 Zangezur was affected by massacres, just like Baku and Karabakh. Mammad Said Ordubadi’s Years of Blood has detailed contemporary reports of what happened at the end of July 1906 in the village of Gatar. In the area, the Armenians “wanted to destroy the Muslim villages located along the road which led from Irevan to Nakhchivan, combine the Armenians of Irevan with their armed forces in Nakhchivan, destroy the Muslim villages located along the road from Nakhchivan to Zangezur and combine the Armenian volunteers of Zangezur with the armed forces in Nakhchivan.”[2]

The idea of the Armenian armed groups, therefore, was to carve out a proto-Armenian state in the area around Irevan, with as much territory as possible. To do this they had to create an Armenian majority from a mixed population, so they indulged in the co-ordinated ethnic cleansing and killing of the non-Armenian population. In 1905 at a conference convened by the Russian Viceroy, Armenians demanded the establishment of an autonomous Armenia consisting of territory including Irevan, Kars and parts of Tiflis province, Karabagh and Zangezur.[3] This was a direct challenge to the Tsar since the 1906 Constitution described the Russian State as “one and indivisible.”

The 1905-6 violence was the first attempt of Armenian nationalism to realise its territorial objectives. The Armenian offensive was defeated in Shusha so they attempted to regroup in Javanshir and Jebrail. An aim was to discourage Muslims living in the Gatar area from aiding their kin in Okhchu and Shabadak, villages that blocked the Armenian road to Zangezur, and which were besieged by numerous and well-armed Armenians. After valiant resistance over 4 days nearly the entire village of Okhchu – men, women and children – was massacred by the Armenians.

A large number of people had taken shelter in Gatar as Armenian forces destroyed their villages in the surrounding area. Gatar was surrounded on all sides and the 8,000 Armenians, aided by Cossacks (shades of Khojaly) assaulted it over 11 days. Although the village was completely destroyed and many of its outnumbered inhabitants killed, its defenders resisted until the end, driving the Armenian forces off from their ruined habitations.[4]

While order was restored in the latter part of 1906 this was only to be the start of the problems for the Azerbaijanis of Zangezur, who found themselves in the way of Armenian nationalism and its death squads.

After the Russian Collapse, 1918

The next emergency for the Azerbaijanis of Zangezur occurred in the instability after the Russian collapse in late 1917, when the Armenians saw another chance of carving out a homogenous state for themselves. However, disappointment came when the Ottoman army, driving through the collapsing Russian lines, imposed the treaty of Batum, in June 1918, on the Armenians, within a territory that greatly dissatisfied their appetite for expansion.

The establishment of such a small Armenian state was seen as a sell-out by some of the Dashnaks. When the Armenian National Council signed the Treaty of Batum with the Ottomans, giving up their demand for Western Armenia and settling for the Erivan Republic in the Caucasus, General Andranik took a die-hard position, refused to recognise the Armenian state and set out with his forces to realise the original demand for Magna Armenia. Blocked by the Turks in the west, Andranik took his “Special Striking Division” of 3,500 Dashnaks to Nakhchivan, Zangezur and Karabakh to extend the territories of the Armenian state he would not recognise. With the arrival of Turkish forces he moved his forces into Zangezur in order to put an Armenian territorial barrier between Turkey and Azerbaijan.

An admiring Armenian publication, Andranik – Armenian Hero is quite frank about the ethnic cleansing this involved, that denuded Zangezur of Muslims to make it a part of Armenia:

“Andranik’s irregulars remained in Zangezur surrounded by Muslim villages that controlled the key routes connecting the different parts of Zangezur. According to David Bloxham, Andranik initiated the change of Zangezur into a solidly Armenian land by destroying Muslim villages and trying to homogenize key areas of the Armenian state. In late 1918 Azerbaijan accused Andranik of killing innocent Azerbaijani peasants in Zangezur and demanded that he withdraw Armenian units from the area.”[5]

During the Spring and Summer of 1918 these attacks continued unabated in the areas menaced by Dashnak armed units, including in Nakhchivan and Karabakh.[6] Andranik’s forces remained in the area for most of the rest of the year, harassing, and burning Muslim villages. The instability caused by the Ottoman defeat in the Great War and the British entry into the Southern Caucasus as a victorious occupation force created a vacuum for these activities.

The British Occupation 1918-9

General Thomson, who commanded the British occupation forces, was opposed to any attempted Armenian land-grab in Karabakh and Zangezur on the grounds that all territorial differences between Armenia and Azerbaijan should be resolved at the future Peace Conference in Paris. He was particularly concerned at the prospect of inter-ethnic fighting destabilising the region. So, Thomson despatched a British-Armenian-Moslem delegation from Baku and warned the Dashnaks against aggressive actions towards the Muslim population.

After information had reached him from Azerbaijani Prime Minister Khoyski about atrocities committed by Andranik in the Jabrayil district, Thomson demanded that the Armenian leader cease all his military operations against the local population. As a result, Andranik issued orders to his commanders to suspend operations, not wanting to antagonise the British.[7] Andranik was persuaded to leave Erivan for Britain, to do a propaganda speaking tour.

The problem of maintaining order during this period had much to do with the lack of a serious military force and poor communications with the regions. Azerbaijan was in a kind of interregnum, under British military occupation with Azerbaijani authority restrained. Azerbaijani forces finally ousted Andranik’s forces in April 1919, when Britain utilized the local forces that were available to them to create stability. The British took up Khalil bey Khasmammadov’s decision, as Minister of Internal Affairs of the ADR, to appoint Sultanov Governor-General of Karabakh and Zangezur, and the Azerbaijani governor quickly restored order.[8]

General Thomson concluded, on the basis of reports from his officers in Zangezur and Karabakh, that Yerevan was inciting the Armenian inhabitants to disobey the lawful authorities through its agents and it was decided to expel their representatives from the area.[9]

While the new resolute approach had a temporary stabilising effect on the situation the British authorities in Baku were not able to overcome the destabilising effects of their government’s insistence that the borders of Azerbaijan would not be finally settled until the Peace Conference in Paris concluded. This had the effect of encouraging further Armenian territorial designs and their intentions of seizing any opportunity to occupy territories and drive out non-Armenians in order to influence a decision. Since the Peace Conference, sitting all through 1919, never came to any final decision this helped maintain a hugely unstable situation in which territory was constantly seen as up for grabs. When the British suddenly announced the departure of the bulk of their forces in mid-1919 this invariably compounded the problem.

The Azerbaijan Republic Period (1919-20)

The next period of destabilisation, brought about by the British withdrawal of military forces from the Southern Caucasus, in August 1919, brought the Armenian armed groups back into Zangezur and surrounding areas.

After the withdrawal the region was visited by Colonel William Haskell, Chief of Staff US Army, who was made High Commissioner for the South Caucasus on behalf of the Supreme Allied Council. Haskell, brushing aside Armenian protests, proceeded from the understanding that Zangezur and Karabakh were parts of Azerbaijan, having been delineated de facto as such by the British authorities.[10]

An Azerbaijani-Armenian peace conference was organised for late November 1919 in Tiflis by Haskell. As part of this the ADR government agreed to a demilitarisation of disputed territories to aid a permanent settlement through agreement. However, no sooner had this agreement been honoured by Baku that they found these areas being infiltrated again by armed Armenian formations. This proved a major problem because there were at time 60,000 Azerbaijani refugees from Zangezur requiring returning to their homes and the insecurity caused by the armed Armenian presence deterred them.[11] Further talks with the Armenians were arranged for Baku in mid-December, despite this. Azerbaijan was trying its best to reach a settlement which would end instability in the region.

The Prime Minister of the ADR, Nasib Yusifbeyli, sent a telegram to Oliver Wardrop, British High Commissioner for the South Caucasus, stating the position:

“Zangezur is inalienable part of Azerbaijan Republic and was always considered, not only by us but by Allies of British command and by Colonel Haskell, High Commissioner, Peace Conference, recognizing our inalienable rights to Zangezur district. In one of points of agreement Nakhchivan question demanded Armenian Government help Azerbaijan authorities peacefully liquidate rebellious movement Zangezur district and thus compel Armenian population that district to authority Azerbaijan Republic. According latest news received Azerbaijan Government, Armenian Government not only unfulfilled this obligation towards Colonel Haskell but the country sent regular troops to Zangezur to support and strengthen rebel rising.”[12]

The British High Commissioner cabled the Foreign Office in London emphasizing the seriousness of these breaches by the Armenians:

Azerbaijan Government informs me they have news from Zangezur and Deralageuz of recent action by regular Armenian troops culminating in massacres of hundreds of Mussulmans and destruction of fifteen villages. I am making representations in Erivan requesting immediate enquiry and punishment of guilty and departure of Armenian Delegates to meet Azerbaijanis without further delay.”[13]

During late 1919/early1920 ethnic cleansing operations conducted by the infiltrating Dashnak forces against Muslim villages resulted in much destruction and deaths.[14] The Armenian guerrilla leaders General Andranik (Ozanian), Dro (Drastamat Kenayan) and Colonel Garegin Nzhdeh (Harutunian), who were involved,

“carried out a programme of ethnic cleansing, slaughtering hundreds of Turks and Kurds in order to frighten the remainder into leaving so they could be replaced with Armenian settlers which would provide homogeneous Armenian populations to support their claims at the Peace Conference. Thousands of Turkish refugees from the east fled into Central Anatolia…”[15]

On 21st October 1919 the Persian Ministry of Foreign Affairs made representations to British government in Persia regarding the massacres of Caucasian Muslims by Armenians. The declaration complained about:

“…the recent events at Erivan, Nakhichevan, Kars and on the whole border of Armenia, atrocities committed by Armenians on the Moslems in those parts, by massacre and plunder…The Armenians have spared no acts of violence against the Moslems of those parts irrespective of their nationalities. Families of the Moslems have been scattered, innocent men and children have been massacred, women violated, properties plundered, and villages destroyed… The Foreign Office are sure that these atrocities, committed by the Armenians, which are most repugnant to equity and justice, will not remain unpunished.

The evil consequences of this news in Persia coupled with the odious memories left by the Nestorians, Assyrians, Jelus Ac in Urumia, Khoi, Salman and in fact on the whole border of Azerbaijan during the international war… will be of a most unpropitious and dangerous character.”

The Persian Ministry of Foreign Affairs asked the British Government “…to restrain the Armenians from their evil deeds and to protect the lives of the peaceful inhabitants on the borders of Armenia. Since the representatives of the Great Powers are witnesses to the barbarous practices of the Armenians they are expected to take measures for the prevention of the atrocities and for the punishment of the perpetrators”.[16]

Sir Percy Cox of the Mesopotamian Expeditionary Force, had been sent by the British Foreign Secretary to Tehran to impose a treaty on the Persians, in order to create a buffer state for the Indian Empire. Later he went to Iraq to sort out resistance there and organised an election in which he kidnapped the opposition candidate, after inviting him for tea. Cox was a ruthless Imperialist and he made excuses for the Armenian behaviour in his reply, suggesting Erivan might have been threatened, without knowing the facts of the matter. He dismissed the allegations, stating “the extent and nature of the alleged excesses are probably exaggerated” and washed his hands of the problem in the following way:

“In any case of course it is idle to maintain that the Allied governments can be held responsible for what is nothing but the latest incident in a blood feud on a large-scale between Christians and Mahommedans which was in existence long before the Armistice.”[17]

[1] W.E.D. Allen, The Caucasus and Caucasian Azerbaijan, in John Buchan (editor), The Baltic and Caucasian States.p.228.
[2] Mammad Said Ordubadi, Years of Blood, p.162
[3] R. Hovannisian, Armenia on the Road to Independence, 1918, p.15 and pp.186-91.
[4] Ibid, pp. 166-72.
[5] Patriot Publishing, Andranik, Armenian Hero, loc.191. 
[6] Mustafa Sari and Enis Shahin, Massacres of Muslims in Nakhchivan and Karabakh by Armenian Chieftain Antranik, from June to October 1918 in Azerbaijan Academy of Sciences, The Realities of Genocide, pp.135-184.
[7] Richard Hovannisian, The Republic of Armenia, Vol. 1, p. 89. Azerbaijan, 20.12.1918, p. 2.
[8] Nigar Gozalova, The Karabakh Issue in Relation with Armenia and Azerbaijan, AVIM Conference Book, No.24, 2019, p.48.
[9] Ilgar Niftaliyev, The Diplomatic Struggle around Karabakh and Zangezur under the ADR, IRS Spring 2018, p.38.
[10] Ibid, p.39
[11] Ibid, pp.39-40.
[12] FO 371/51882/ME88/7837/39, 20.11.2019.
[13] FO 371/51882/ME88/8215/451, 4.12.2019.
[14] Musa Gasimli, From the ‘Armenian Issue’ to the ‘Armenian Genocide’: In search of Historical Truth, pp.465-8.
[15] Stanford Shaw, From Empire to Republic, Vol III, Part 2, p.1443.
[16] ‘Massacre of Moslems by Armenians’, Persian Foreign Office. 21.10.1919. included in Nigar A. Maxwell, Azerbaijan Democratic Republic: Great Britain’s Archive Documents, pp.21-2.
[17] Persian Foreign Office, 7728/25.10.1919