Historical background of Armenian-Azerbaijan conflict

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The historical background, causes and essential elements of the present day Armenian-Azerbaijan conflict.

1. The resettlement of Armenians in the territory of Azerbaijan

The Russian Empire regarded the Armenian Christian population living in the Ottoman Empire and Iran as a key element in the achievement of its far-reaching Eastern policy, which was designed to secure for Russia access to the shores of the Persian Gulf. The Russian authorities began to exploit the Armenian factor as early as the eighteenth century.

Taking advantage of the weakened condition of the Safavid State, on 10 November 1724 Peter I (Peter the Great) issued a decree allowing the Armenians who were being assigned the role of a “fifth column” in implementing the Russian Empire’s plans to seize vast territories to the south of the Caucasus – as far as the Persian Gulf – to settle in a strip of Azerbaijani land located along the Caspian Sea and containing the cities of Derbent and Baki as well as the regions of Gilyan, Mazandaran and Gorgan. As part of this scheme, the Russian generals were instructed to “displace” the local Azerbaijani population in any way they could. However, Russia’s subsequent military reversals in the Caucasus blocked this planned resettlement of the Armenians.

Under the terms of the Turkmanchai Treaty, 40,000 Armenians were resettled in Azerbaijan. Following the conclusion in 1829 of the Peace Agreement in Edirne, 90,000 Armenians who had been living in the Ottoman Empire were also resettled in Azerbaijan. The Russian authorities resettled the Armenians primarily on the territory of the Nakhchivan, Iravan and Karabakh khanates.

As the well-known Russian diplomat and writer, A.S.Griboyedov, has written, “the Armenians have for the most part been settled on the lands of Muslim landowners… The settlers… are forcing out the Muslims… We also discussed at some length the work of persuasion to be done with the Muslims in order to reconcile them to their present hardships, which would not continue for a long time, and to rid them of the fear that the Armenians would maintain permanent possession of the lands to which they had once been allowed to move” [9].

2. Pogroms

In pursuing their colonial policy in the Southern Caucasus, the leaders of the Russian Empire banked heavily on the Armenians resettled in Azerbaijan. In the work of the American scholar, Justin McCarthy, the following data are given on the colonization of the Southern Caucasus or, more accurately, of Azerbaijan by the Armenians.

Between 1828 and 1920, when a policy was being implemented to alter the demographic structure of the population of Azerbaijan in favour of the Armenians and to the detriment of the Azerbaijanis, “over two million Muslims were forcibly exiled and an unknown number of them were killed… On two occasions, in 1828 and 1854, the Russians invaded Eastern Anatolia… and on both occasions they were forced to retreat, taking 100,000 Armenians with them to the Caucasus, where they were resettled in place of the Turks (Azerbaijanis) who had emigrated or perished.

In the war of 1877-1878, Russia seized the Kars-Ardagan district, forced out the Muslims and settled 70,000 Armenians there… During the events of 1895-1896, approximately 60,000 Armenians were resettled in the Caucasus… Migration during the First World War was fairly balanced. 400,000 Armenians from Eastern Anatolia were exchanged for 400,000 Muslims from the Caucasus” [10].

According to the figures given by this American academic, 560,000 Armenians were resettled in Azerbaijan between 1828 and 1920. In this way, it was precisely after the conquest of the Southern Caucasus by Russia that the Armenian population on the territory of Azerbaijan north of the River Araks began to increase rapidly.

Quite noteworthy in this same connection is also the admission of Z.Balaian: “Its (Yerevan’s) residents are people who have come from other places. There are practically no true Yerevanites” [11]. Academician A.I.Ionisian writes that “one-fourth of the population of the city of Erivan were Armenians, with the Azerbaijanis constituting a majority” [12].

In accordance with a decree of the Russian Emperor Nicholas I of 21 March 1828, the Nakhchivan and Iravan khanates in Azerbaijan were abolished and replaced by a new administrative unit known as the “Armenian Oblast [Region]”, governed by Russian officials. In 1849 this region was renamed the Erivan Guberniya [Province].

In pursuit of their far-reaching goals, the Armenians succeeded in bringing about the abolition by the Russian authorities in 1836 of the Albanian Christian Patriarchate, which had been operating in Azerbaijan, and the transfer of its property to the Armenian Church. Somewhat later, in a situation where the population in the western districts of the former Albania, namely the Karabakh region which Armenian elements were continuing to penetrate in the nineteenth century – had lost both statehood and ecclesiastical independence, there began a process of the Gregorianization (i.e. Armenianization) of the local Albanian population.

The truth of this situation was already well known in the nineteenth century. The famous Russian historian, V.L.Velichko, wrote: “An exception were the inhabitants of Karabakh, incorrectly called Armenians …, who professed the Armenian-Gregorian faith…and who had gone through the process of Armenianization only three to four centuries earlier.” This was also known by the Armenian author, B. Ishkhanian, who wrote: “The Armenians residing in Nagorno-Karabakh are partly aborigines and descendants of the ancient Albanians …, and partly refugees from Turkey and Iran, for whom Azerbaijani lands offered a refuge from persecution. and oppression.” [13]

The ideological justification for the territorial claims of the Armenians in the Southern Caucasus were linked to the formation of the nationalist parties “Armenakan” in 1885 in France, “Gnchak” (Bell) in 1887 in Geneva, and “Dashnakzutyun” (Union) in 1890 in Tiflis (Tbilisi). These parties set themselves the task of using armed uprisings and terrorist actions to unite the territories on which Armenians – who had been resettled from Iran and the Ottoman Empire – were living.

The “Gnchak” programme contains, in particular, the following call: “To kill Turks and Kurds under any conditions, never to spare Armenians who have betrayed their cause, and to take revenge upon them” [14].

“Dashnakzutyun” was an authentic Nazi-style party, which anticipated by 30 years the ideology of the National Socialist Party of Germany and whose programme contained the words: “The objective of the Dashnakzutyun Party is to form an anarchist, democratic republic. The means of achieving this objective are the following: 1) armed insurrection; 2) intensive work to develop a revolutionary mentality among not only the Armenians; 3) the arming and organization of the Armenians; 4) terror and the destruction of government persons and institutions” [15]. “To achieve this objective, everything is permitted: propaganda, terror, merciless guerrilla warfare.” [16]

Recounting the consequences of the activities of the Dashnakzutyun, the Georgian writer, Karibi, wrote with bitterness in 1919: “The Dashnaks arrived, bringing with them national hatred. And on such a soil, need it be said, nothing but Armenian-Muslim carnage and war between Armenia and Georgia was able to grow.” [17]

It was organizations of this kind, together with the authorities of the Russian Empire, who were intent on curbing the revolutionary and nationalist liberation movement in the Caucasus, that provoked the first confrontations between Armenians and Azerbaijanis in 1905. Between 1907 and 1912 approximately half a million Armenians from the Ottoman Empire and Iran moved to the Kars, Erivan and Elizavetpol regions, where a vast majority of the population was made up of Azerbaijanis. This movement of population took place with the connivance of the Russian administration, whose aim was to push the situation in the area of inter-ethnic relations to the limit and so strengthen Russia’s dominion over the region [18].

3. The transfer of Azerbaijani territories to Armenia

The migration of Armenians to the Southern Caucasus in the first half of the nineteenth century and their settlement mainly in Azerbaijan was accompanied by the separation of territory from Azerbaijan and its incorporation in the “Armenian Oblast” that had been created within the Russian Empire. The expansion of the territory of Armenia continued into the present century. As recently as 29 May 1918, the Government of the Azerbaijan Republic ceded part of the Erivan district (the former Iravan Khanate) to the Republic of Armenia. This also, however, proved to be too little for the Armenian Government. Between 1918 and 1920 part of Karabakh, Zangazur and the Lake Geicha (now Sevan) district. A total area of 9,000 square kilometres was seized by force of arms.

After the formation of the Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republic, its leaders at the time did not demand the return of the Azerbaijani territories. On the contrary, there then ensued the next “peaceful” stage of land seizure, realized with assistance from the Communist leadership of Russia and the Soviet Union. In 1921, Armenia’s “acquisition” of the Zangazur district and a significant part of the Gazakh district, totalling approximately 9,000 square kilometres and populated to a large extent by Azerbaijanis, was legalized [19]. As a result of the transfer of Zangazur to Armenia, the Nakhchivan area was cut off from Azerbaijan.

In 1922 the Bolsheviks dealt in similar fashion with the Azerbaijani lands of Dilijan and Geija. In 1929 a number of villages were taken from Nakhchivan and annexed to the Armenian SSR. In 1969 the Armenian SSR again expanded its territory at the expense of Azerbaijan by taking land as far east as the Gadabay district. Under pressure from the central authorities, Azerbaijan “transferred” a number of villages in the Gazakh district to Armenia.

4. The Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Region of the Azerbaijan SSR

The Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Region (NKAO) occupied the south-eastern part of the Lesser Caucasus and covered an area of 4,388 square kilometres. The territory of the region stretched for 120 kilometres from north to south and for 35-60 kilometres from east to west. It included five administrative areas – Askaran, Gadrut, Mardakert, Martuni and Shusha. The chief town was Khankandi (Stepanakert). The population of the NKAO, according to estimates for the beginning of 1989, was 187,000. It consisted of: 137,200 Armenians (73.4%), 47,400 Azerbaijanis (25.3%), 2,400 representatives of other nationalities (1.3%) [20].

Contrary to the assertions of Armenian nationalist leaders concerning violations of the rights of the Armenian minority in Azerbaijan, the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Region possessed all the fundamental attributes of self-government and achieved a high rate of development in the social, economic and cultural fields. The well-known historian and specialist in Turkic affairs, Audrey Alstadt, says that “…Armenian villages were incorporated within the territorial borders [of the former NKAO when it was artificially established by the Bolsheviks], whereas Azerbaijani villages were excluded in order to ensure an Armenian majority” [21].

Audrey Alstadt further notes that in the former NKAO “the Armenian language was designated as an official language for administrative purposes and in everyday life” and that “the staffs of territorial, legislative and party organs, as well as the senior staff members and employees of cultural and educational establishments, were, in the overwhelming majority, Armenians from the moment of the creation [of the former NKAO] [22].

From the facts in question, the writer concludes that “the cultural and administrative character of the region favoured Azerbaijani emigration … and, as regards the problems and abuses that existed [in the former NKAO], they should be laid at the door of the local Armenians who … were administering Nagorno-Karabakh, and not of Baku [23].

The legal status of the NKAO, under the Constitution of the Azerbaijan SSR, was defined by the Law on the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Region adopted on the recommendation of the Soviet of People’s Deputies of the NKAO by the Supreme Soviet of Azerbaijan.

The Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Region, as a national-territorial entity, enjoyed administrative autonomy and, accordingly, possessed a number of rights that in practice allowed the specific requirements of its population to be met. Under the Constitution of the former Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), the NKAO was guaranteed representation by five deputies in the Soviet of Nationalities (one of the two equal chambers of the parliament) of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR. Twelve deputies from the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Region sat in the Supreme Soviet of the Azerbaijan SSR.

The Soviet of People’s Deputies of the NKAO . the organ of State authority in the Region . was vested with a broad spectrum of powers. It took decisions on all local matters, on the basis of the interests of citizens living in the territory covered by the Soviet, bearing in mind national and other particularities of the Autonomous Region. The Council of People’s Deputies of the NKAO participated in the consideration of issues affecting the whole Republic and made its proposals concerning them. All organs of State authority and government administration, the judiciary and the Office of the Public Prosecutor, the managements of production enterprises, and the educational and cultural institutions conducted their work in the Armenian language, in line with the linguistic needs of the population.

During the rule of the Soviet Union, the Nagorno-Karabakh region developed faster than Azerbaijan as a whole. Thus, while the industrial output of the Republic as a whole rose by a factor of 3 in the period from 1970 to 1986, the figure for the NKAO was 3.3 (annual growth rates here were above 8.3 per cent). Capital investment rose by a factor of 3.1 in the period from 1970 to 1986 in the Region, and by a factor of 2.5 in the Republic. The basic indices for social development (living standards) in the NKAO exceeded the average indices for the Azerbaijan SSR and the Armenian SSR. Particularly noteworthy was the higher level, in comparison with the Republic, of the provision of housing, goods and services to the population. The housing space available to each inhabitant of the NKAO was nearly one-third greater than the average for the Republic. Per inhabitant of the Region, there were more intermediate-level medical personnel (by a factor of 1.3) and more hospital beds (by 3 per cent).

Possessing an advantage over practically all the other regions of Azerbaijan in terms of coverage by cultural and educational institutions (schools providing general education, specialised secondary educational establishments, general libraries, museums, clubs, and arts and crafts (page 19) centres) geared to the linguistic needs of the local population.

The Autonomous Region enjoyed the most favourable conditions for the preservation of the identity of the Karabakh Armenians and, in general, of the ethnic and cultural particularities of the area. Not only was there a network of music and drama clubs, but a professional company performed in the regional capital at the Drama Theatre, where most of the plays staged were by Armenian playwrights.

Persons passing the university qualification examination who wished to receive a higher education without leaving the country had the possibility of entering the Pedagogical Institute in Khankandi (Stepanakert). Scientific personnel were concentrated in two scientific institutions, in the Leninavan community and the main town of the NKAO. Five periodical publications in Armenian appeared in the Region. Unlike other administrative-territorial units of Azerbaijan located at a distance from the capital of the Republic in mountainous areas, the Region had its own infrastructure for the reception of television and radio programs.

The whole history of the development of the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Region within Azerbaijan, which became a kind of promised land for several generations of descendants of the Armenians who had earlier settled there, shows that this development was in conformity with the interests of the Armenian population of Nagorno Karabakh and the economic, social and demographic features of this area. Moreover, this region enjoyed, in accordance with the principle of “positive discrimination” that is widely applied in the civilised world, a privileged place in comparison to the rest of Azerbaijan.

The Armenians, who were first resettled during the nineteenth century by the Tsarist authorities in the Azerbaijani lands of Nakhchivan, Iravan and Karabakh, and who in the 1920s, with the support of the Bolsheviks, created the Armenian SSR on the territory of the former Iravan Khanate and an autonomous district in the Nagorno-Karabakh region of Azerbaijan, have now waxed insolent to the point where they are demanding independence for the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh, with a view to uniting them, at a later stage, with Armenia itself. Will there ever be an end to this expansion?

9. Griboyedov, A.S. Too Clever by Half. Letters and Notes. Baki, 1989, p. 387. (In Russian)
10. McCarthy, Justin. Armenian Terrorism. History as Poison and Antidote. Ankara, 1984, pp. 85-94. (In Russian)
11. Balaian, Z. Hearth. Yerevan, 1984, p. 110. (In Russian)
12. Yonisian, A.I. Armenian-Russian Relations in the 18th Century. Vol. 2, part I, Yerevan, 1964, p. 23. (In Russian)
13. Quoted from: Aliyev, I. Nagorno-Karabakh: History, Facts, Events. Baki, 1989, pp. 73-74. (In Russian)
14. Malevil, Georges. The Armenian Tragedy of 1915. Baki, 1990, p. 79. (In Russian)
15. Central State Archives of the October Revolution (TsGAOR) of the USSR, F. 102, op. 253, d. 280, l. 1-12. (In Russian)
16. Malevil, Georges. Op cit., p. 80. (In Russian)
17. Quoted from: Pompeyev, Yu. A. The Bloody Clamp of Karabakh. Baku, 1992, p. 67. (In Russian)
18. State Archives of Political Parties and Movements in the Azerbaijan Republic (GAPPODAR). F. 276, op. 8, d. 277, l. 48. (In Russian)
19. Ismailov, M., Tokarzhevsky, E. Truth and Fiction. The Conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh. Baki, 1990, p. 28. (In Russian)
20. This section presents data obtained from the State Committee on Statistics of the Azerbaijan Republic.
21. Levon Chorbajian, Patrick Donabedian, Claude Mutafian. The Caucasian Knot: The History and Geo-Politics of Nagorno-Karabakh. Zed Books, London and New Jersey, 1994, p. 13.
22. Ibid.
23. Ibid.

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