The Karabakh issue dates back to the period of the collapse of the Russian Empire and the formation of nation states in the South Caucasus (Transcaucasia). The aspiration for self-determination and re-unification within a united Armenian state in order to eliminate the permanent threat of physical annihilation lay at the core of the issue.
In autumn 1917, after the rise of the Bolsheviks to power and the outbreak of civil war in Russia, Transcaucasia became practically cut off from the rest of the territories of the Russian state. Under these conditions, the Transcaucasian Commissariat1 took control of Transcaucasia. It convened the Transcaucasian Sejm (parliament) on February 10 (23) 1918, set out to determine the organization of the government and form the authorities of the region.
Under pressure from Turkey2, the Sejm announced the secession of Transcaucasia from Russia and declared the independence of the Transcaucasian Democratic Federative Republic on April 9, 1918. However, the united federation was short-lived because of the severe contradictions – pertaining mostly to the Turkish invasion of Transcaucasia3 – that arose between the main parties from the very first days of independence. The stance of Muslim parties made it impossible to repel the Turkish troops in an organized manner, thus precipitating the collapse of the federation.
On May 26, 1918, "taking into consideration the diverging differences on the issues of peace and war between the peoples-architects of the Transcaucasian independent state", the Sejm proclaimed the breakup of the Transcaucasian Democratic Federative Republic and resigned. On the same day Georgia declared its independence; the Republic of Armenia and the Democratic Republic of Azerbaijan did so on May 28.
However, prior to the breakup of the Transcaucasian Sejm a secret delegation had been sent to Istanbul by the representatives of Azerbaijani political parties in order to negotiate the assistance of the Young Turks in the process of declaring the independence of "the second Turkish state". During the meeting with the Turkish leadership the sides agreed on further programmes of cooperation, particularly on the assistance of Turkish servicemen in creating and financing the armed forces of a future Azerbaijan and the support of the local Turkic population for the Turkish troops4.
By the end of May 1918, the advance troops of the 5th Turkish division had already entered Ganja (Gandzak), which had become the first capital of Azerbaijan Democratic Republic5. On the day following their entry, the Turkish general Nuri Pasha moved from Tabriz to Ganja and immediately launched the formation of the Islamic Army of the Caucasus. This combined the 5th Caucasian and the 15th Çanakkale divisions of the Turkish army, as well as units of the Muslim Corpus of the former Tsarist Army, renamed Azerbaijani Corpus by that time6. Under the command of Nuri Pasha, the Islamic Army of the Caucasus took up establishing Azerbaijani control over the territories that the Democratic Republic of Azerbaijan had claimed before.
Azerbaijan, which had never had statehood before, claimed not only territories compactly inhabited by Muslims, but also localities inhabited exclusively by Armenians. Artsakh (Karabakh) had a special importance among those regions due to its strategic position in the region and "could become either a corridor or a barrier between the Muslims of Eastern Transcaucasia and Turkey, depending on the fact under whose control it was"7.
Meanwhile, there had never existed any political and administrative entity called Azerbaijan in the South Caucasus before 1918. The very name was borrowed by the newly formed republic from the homonymous Iranian province located on the right bank of the Araks (Araxes) River.
At the time when the Treaty of Batum was imposed on Armenia, making it dependent on the Ottoman Empire, Karabakh had to rely on itself only. The First Assembly of Armenians of Karabakh convened on July 22, 1918, declared Karabakh a separate administrative and political entity and formed an independent government. On July 24, 1918, the Declaration of the Government, outlining the objectives of the newly formed state authorities, was adopted. The declaration emphasized Karabakh Government’s friendly attitude towards the democratic forces of other peoples and declared the right of peoples for self-determination as a starting point for its activities8. Forces of self-defense were formed to ensure the security of the population from external threats.
The capture of Baku by the Islamic Army of the Caucasus on September 15, 1918, was immediately followed by massacres of its Armenian population, after which the Azerbaijani government, assisted by Turkish forces, tried to subjugate Karabakh and to include it within the borders of Azerbaijan. To this end, the First Azerbaijani division (Caucasian Muslim) was formed from Turkish units under the command of Turkish colonel Cemil Cahit Bey9, who captured Shushi by the end of September. Yet, the attempts of Turkish troops to take military actions deep into the territory of Nagorno Karabakh, towards Varanda (Martuni), Khachen, Jraberd and Martakert, were thwarted by the local Armenian self-defence squads and ended in complete failure10.
Soon after its defeat in the World War I, the Ottoman Empire had to withdraw its troops from the South Caucasus in accordance with the Armistice of Mudros11; British troops replaced them.
Initially, the British Command, represented by General Thomson, the Commander of the British armed forces, refused to recognize the Azerbaijani government which, according to the Commander, was formed on the basis of Ottoman conspiracies and could not claim to represent the will of the people12. Nevertheless, in order to reinforce their positions in Azerbaijan, on January 15, 1919, the British Command informed the inhabitants of Zangezur and Karabakh that the Azerbaijani government appointed Khosrov bey Sultanov Interim Governor-General in the provinces of Zangezur, Shushi, Javanshir and Jabrayil of the former Russian Elizavetpol Governorate and that Sultanov enjoyed the support of the British Command13. The British military mission simultaneously demanded full disarmament of the Armenian population of Karabakh.
Since Armenians of Karabakh refused to recognize Sultanov as Governor-General, in effect, the latter’s authority extended over the Muslim population only, while the Armenians continued to be administered by their National Council.
On February 19, 1918, the Fourth Assembly of Armenians of Karabakh, representing participants from Varanda, Dizak (Hadrut), Khachen, Jraberd (Martakert) and Shushi dispatched telegrams to the government of Azerbaijan, the representative of the Allied Powers, General Thomson, to the Government of the Republic of Armenia and members of Armenian delegation to the Paris Peace Conference. In the telegram, the Assembly expressed its decisive protest with regard to the appointment of Sultanov as Governor-General and the intent of Azerbaijani government to subjugate Armenian Karabakh. The telegram read as follows:
“Proceeding from the right of peoples to self-determination, the Armenian population of Karabakh respects the right of self-determination of the neighboring people, yet decisively protests against the attempts of the Government of Azerbaijan aimed at violating this principle regarding Armenian Karabakh, which has never recognized and will never accept the authority of Azerbaijan"14.
The Assembly simultaneously drafted the Provisional Statute for Armenian Karabakh which "will establish Regional Council headquartered in Shushi and made up of 7 representatives from Armenians and 3 representatives from Muslims, in proportion to the population, before the Paris Peace Conference delivers its decision"15. On the basis of a special agreement, one representative each from the Republic of Armenia and the Republic of Azerbaijan could be included in the Council. The draft Provisional Statute provided the right for the Head of the British Mission to Shushi to exercise control over the activities of the Council.
The draft represented the extent of the concessions the Assembly was willing to make to the British Command, which, nonetheless, rejected the offer of the Karabakh side. The British Command continued to insist on the principle of Azerbaijani General-Governorship, though did make it conditional on the future decision by the Peace Conference.
To impose the resolution process, Azerbaijan once again resorted to the use of force. With the connivance of the British Command, Azerbaijani troops entered the disarmed Karabakh and perpetrated massacres in the capital of the region, Shushi, and the surrounding villages in early June, 191916.
Under the threat of further bloodshed17 and pressure from the British, the Seventh Assembly of Armenians of Karabakh, convened on August 22, 1919, and was forced to agree to be temporarily recognised within the borders of Azerbaijan until a decision by the Peace Conference. Self-governance, suspension of disarmament, military presence suited for peacetime and the control of Armenian Council over the movement of troops were guaranteed instead18.
On August 22, immediately after signing the Agreement, the British garrison left Karabakh, considering its mission complete. However, the Azerbaijani government did not fulfil its commitments and larger scale military and punitive operations followed.
On February 19, 1920, the Azerbaijani government issued an ultimatum to the National Council of Karabakh which proposed to review the Provisional Agreement, negating any conditionality on any decisions made at the Paris Peace Conference, considering the "issue of final incorporation of Karabakh into Azerbaijan as latter’s integral economic part". As a result, the Eighth Assembly of Armenians of Karabakh, convened from February 28 to March 4, 1920, expressed its discontent about these activities of the Azerbaijani government and armed forces and issued the warning that "recurrence of the events will force Karabakh Armenians to resort to adequate measures to protect their lives and dignity"19.
After the Assembly adjourned, the Azerbaijani government nonetheless continued its military buildup. By the spring of 1920, additional Azerbaijani troops, 5,000 personnel, 6 field guns and 8 mountain guns were moved to Karabakh and Zangezur20.
Under the impending Azerbaijani invasion, armed rebellion flared up in Karabakh. Half of the troops that Azerbaijan had at its disposal and non-regular squads of local Kurds were engaged in order to suppress the rebellion and occupy Karabakh21. In March 1920, Shushi was subjected to the third and most unmerciful massacre. Azerbaijani troops and military units looted and burnt the Armenian part of the city committing massacres and expelling the Armenian population. Using heavy artillery fire, Azerbaijani forces captured and destroyed the town of Askeran and numerous villages, especially in the north of Karabakh. At the insistence of the government of Armenia, the Allied Powers decided to dispatch a Special Commission to Karabakh in order to assess the situation on the ground and to end the bloodshed. The Allied Powers informed the governments of Armenia and Azerbaijan about their decision with a joint note on April 5, 1920, but the Azerbaijani government refused to accept the Commission.
By the beginning of April the Armenian self-defense forces of Karabakh managed not only to switch from defense to offense and to repel Azerbaijani troops, but also to reunite with Zangezur after three years of blockade.
The Ninth Assembly of Armenians of Karabakh, convened from 23 to 29 April 1920, passed a decision to consider the Provisional Agreement violated "due to the continued aggression of the Azerbaijani troops against peaceful Armenians of Karabakh" and declared "the unification of Nagorno Karabakh with Armenia as the latter’s inalienable part"22.
These well-documented facts indisputably confirm that the population of Karabakh did not recognize the authority of the Azerbaijani state in the period of 1918-1920. The aspiration of the Armenians of Karabakh for self-determination and their intention to be reunified and incorporated within the Armenian state were reflected in the national liberation struggle and were legally confirmed in the decisions of its representative bodies.
Azerbaijani claims on Karabakh had not been recognized at international level either. On December 1, 1920, the Fifth Committee of the League of Nations, after having considered the Report of its Third Sub-Committee, refused Azerbaijan’s request for admission to the League, arguing that it was impossible to precisely determine the frontiers of the territory within which the government of Azerbaijan exercised its authority.
In April 1920, the Red Army entered the South Caucasus and a new phase of the Karabakh issue started. After establishing the Soviet rule on the territory of Azerbaijan on April 28, 1920, the Red Army occupied Karabakh and declared it a disputed territory23.
With the announcement of Soviet rule in Armenia24, on November 30, 1920, the government of the Azerbaijan SSR issued "to All, to All, to All!" statement, whereby the Chairman of the Azerbaijani Revolutionary Committee (Azrevkom) Nariman Narimanov, and the Azerbaijani People’s Commissar of Foreign Affairs Mirza Huseynov stated that territorial disputes with Armenia were abrogated and that Nagorno Karabakh, Zangezur and Nakhijevan were recognized as integral parts of Soviet Armenia25.
On June 3, 1921, the Caucasus Bureau of the Russian Communist Party (Bolsheviks) (RCP)(B), attended by Nariman Narimanov, unanimously adopted a decision "to mention in the Armenian Government's declaration that Nagorno Karabakh belongs to Armenia". On June 12, 1921, in accordance with this decision, the government of the Armenian SSR issued a decree affirming the final legal status of the territories as part of Soviet Armenia. The text of the decree on the reunification of Karabakh with Armenia was also published in Baku ("Bakinskiy Rabochiy", June 22, 1921) and there was no objection raised.
The Azerbaijani declaration of 30 November of 1920 is a crucial point in the development of the Nagorno Karabakh issue. A full international agreement was reached between the two Soviet Republics through voluntary declarations issued by appropriate state authorities. From the perspective of international law, an act of voluntary cession – that is, relinquishment of a sovereignty claim over a disputed territory by one state (in this case, Azerbaijan) to another (in this case, Armenia), occurred. This meant that the disputed territories were henceforth legally part of the Armenian state and the territorial dispute was settled26.
Azerbaijan’s relinquishment of sovereignty claims over Nagorno Karabakh was officially endorsed by the government of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic (RSFSR). The 1920-1921 annual report of the RSFSR's People’s Commissariat of Foreign Affairs, addressed to the supreme authority of the land, the Eleventh Congress of the Soviets, read as follows: "In June (1921), an Agreement was signed (by Armenia) with Azerbaijan on Nagorno Karabakh to be part of Soviet Armenia"27.
Armenia's territorial structure, with Karabakh included, was registered in a series of official and working documents of the League of Nations28.
However, the Azerbaijani government, supported by People's Commissar of Nationalities Joseph Stalin, raised the Karabakh issue again in the framework of the discussion on the inner borders between the Republics of Transcaucasia.
On July 4, 1921, the plenary session of the Caucasus Bureau (Kavbureau) of the Central Committee of the RCP(B) decided "to include Nagorno Karabakh in the Armenian SSR and to conduct a plebiscite in Nagorno Karabakh only". However, at the insistence of Nariman Narimanov, the Caucasus Bureau agreed to submit the issue to the final decision of the Russian Communist Party's Central Committee (CC)29.
The issue, however, was not submitted to the Central Committee of the Russian Communist Party to be reviewed. On July 5, 1921, another plenary session of the Caucasus Bureau RCP(B) CC was convened with Joseph Stalin’s participation. The former decisions were nullified and a new one was adopted, stating that: “...proceeding from the necessity of establishing peace between Muslims and Armenians, the economic ties between Lower and Upper Karabakh, and the permanent ties of Nagorno Karabakh with Azerbaijan, leave Nagorno Karabakh in the Azerbaijan SSR, granting it wide regional autonomy, with the administrative centre of Shushi included in the autonomous region”30.
1. The Transcaucasian Commissariat was a coalition government between Georgian Menshevik (Social Democratic Party of Georgia), SR (Socialist Revolutionary Party, [eser]), Armenian Dashnaktsutyun (Armenian Revolutionary Federation) and Azerbaijani Musavat (Equality Party) parties, established in Tbilisi on 15(28) November 1917. Menshevik Evgeni Gegechkori was its Chairman.
2. The Transcaucasian Sejm, refusing to accept the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, sent a delegation to Trabzon for negotiations with the Turkish government. But the Turkish side conditioned the launch of negotiations by the declaration of independence of Transcaucasia.
3. Violating the Armistice of Erzincan of December 1917, Turkish troops launched an offensive on February 12, 1918. They broke through the front line and made headway into Transcaucasia.
5. By the time of proclaiming independence the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic exercised control only over a part of territories claimed before. Baku and Baku Governorate were under the Bolsheviks' control and upland areas of Elisabethpol Governorate (Elizavetpol) compactly inhabited by Armenians were controlled by the local National Councils.
6. Михаил Волхонский, Вадим Муханов. По следам Азербайджанской Демократической Республики. Москва, издательство «Европа», 2007. (M. Volkhonskiy, V. Mukhanov. Following the Traces of the Azerbaijani Democratic Republic. Moscow, 2007), p. 83
7. Tadeusz Swietochowski. Russian Azerbaijan, 1905-1920: The Shaping of a National Identity in a Muslim Community, p. 143
8. Декларация народного правительства Карабаха. «Нагорный Карабах в 1918-1923 гг. Сборник документов и материалов» / Под ред. В.А.Микаеляна. – Ереван: Академия наук Армении, 1992 (Declaration of People's Government of Karabakh, in Nagorno Karabakh in 1918-1923. Collection of Documents and Materials. V.A. Mikaelyan - Yerevan, Armenian Academy of Sciences, 1992). p. 13-15
9. Г.Демоян. Турция и карабахский конфликт в конце XX – начале XXI веков. Историко-сравнительный анализ. – Ереван: Авторское издание, 2006 (H. Demoyan, Turkey and the Karabakh Conflict in the late 20th and early 21st centuries: a Comparative Historical Analysis, Yerevan, 2006)
10. Докладная записка Карабахского армянского Национального Совета Правительству Армении о военных и политических событиях в Арцахе с декабря 1917 г. «Нагорный Карабах в 1918-1923 гг. Сборник документов и материалов» / Под ред. В.А.Микаеляна. – Ереван: Академия наук Армении, 1992 (Report of the Karabakh Armenian National Council to the Government of Armenia on the political and military events since December 1917, in Nagorno Karabakh in 1918-1923. Collection of Documents and Materials. Ed. By V.A. Mikaelyan - Yerevan, Armenian Academy of Sciences, 1992), p. 67
11. The Armistice of Mudros was concluded on October 30, 1918 between the representatives of the Ottoman Empire and the Allies of World War I, in the Moudros harbor on the Greek island of Lemnos.
12. Tadeusz Swietochowski. Russian Azerbaijan, 1905-1920: The Shaping of a National Identity in a Muslim Community, p. 141
13. Официальное извещение британской военной миссии населению Зангезура и Карабаха о назначении временного генерал-губернатора азербайджанским правительством. «Нагорный Карабах в 1918-1923 гг. Сборник документов и материалов» / Под ред. В.А.Микаеляна. – Ереван: Академия наук Армении, 1992 (British Military Mission's formal notice to the population of Zangezur and Karabakh on the appointment of Interim General-Governor by the Azerbaijani Government. Nagorno Karabakh in 1918-1923. Collection of Documents and Materials. Ed by V.A. Mikaelyan - Yerevan, Armenian Academy of Sciences, 1992), p. 62
14. Письмо председателя IV армянского национального съезда «Нагорный Карабах в 1918-1923 гг. Сборник документов и материалов» / Под ред. В.А.Микаеляна. – Ереван: Академия наук Армении, 1992. (Chairman's letter of the 4th National Assembly of Armenians. Nagorno Karabakh in 1918-1923. Collection of Documents and Materials. Ed. By V.A. Mikaelyan - Yerevan, Armenian Academy of Sciences, 1992), p. 79-80
15. «Нагорный Карабах в 1918-1923 гг. Сборник документов и материалов» / Под ред. В.А.Микаеляна. – Ереван: Академия наук Армении, 1992 (Draft Rules for Governing Armenian Karabakh. Nagorno Karabakh in 1918-1923. Collection of Documents and Materials. Ed. By V.A. Mikaelyan - Yerevan, Armenian Academy of Sciences, 1992, p. 80-81 (Rus.)
16. С. Золян. Нагорный Карабах: Проблема и конфликт. - Ереван. Издательство «Лингва», 2001 (Suren Zolyan, Nagorno Karabakh: the Problem and the Conflict, Yerevan, "Lingva" publishing house, 2001)
17. The representative of the Azerbaijani Government Sultanov ordered to point guns towards the Armenian village of Shosh (Shushekend) and the Armenian part of Shushi, to close the Yevlakh-Shushi road, then demanded from the delegates of the Assembly Session to endorse the text of the agreement on the recognition of the Azerbaijani authority within 48 hours.
18. Временное соглашение VII Карабахского армянского съезда с азербайджанским правительством. «Нагорный Карабах в 1918-1923 гг. Сборник документов и материалов» / Под ред. В.А.Микаеляна. – Ереван: Академия наук Армении, 1992 (Provisional Agreement between the 7th Assembly of Armenians of Karabakh and the Azerbaijani Government. Nagorno Karabakh in 1918-1923. Collection of Documents and Materials. V.A. Mikaelyan - Yerevan, Armenian Academy of Sciences, 1992), p. 323-327
19. Резолюция VIII съезда армян Карабаха. «Нагорный Карабах в 1918-1923 гг. Сборник документов и материалов» / Под ред. В.А.Микаеляна. – Ереван: Академия наук Армении (Resolution of the 8th Assembly of Armenians of Karabakh. Nagorno Karabakh in 1918-1923. Collection of Documents and Materials. Ed. by V.A. Mikaelyan - Yerevan, Armenian Academy of Sciences, 1992), p. 377-380
20. Из сводки разведывательного отдела штаба командующего армянскими войсками, 20 марта 1920. «Нагорный Карабах в 1918-1923 гг. Сборник документов и материалов» / Под ред. В.А.Микаеляна. – Ереван: Академия наук Армении, 1992 (From the March 20, 1920 report of the intelligence unit of the staff of the Armenian troops commander. Nagorno Karabakh in 1918-1923. Collection of Documents and Materials. Ed. by V.A. Mikaelyan - Yerevan, Armenian Academy of Sciences, 1992), p. 386
21. 15 000 Azerbaijani troops were sent to Karabakh from the total number of 25 000 / Михаил Волхонский, Вадим Муханов. По следам Азербайджанской Демократической Республики (M. Volkhonskiy, V. Mukhanov. Following the Traces of the Azerbaijani Democratic Republic)
22. Постановление IХ съезда крестьянства Нагорного Карабаха. «Нагорный Карабах в 1918-1923 гг. Сборник документов и материалов» / Под ред. В.А.Микаеляна. – Ереван: Академия наук Армении, 1992 (Regulation of the 9th Assembly of the Peasantry of Nagorno Karabakh. Nagorno Karabakh in 1918-1923. Collection of Documents and Materials. Ed. by V.A. Mikaelyan - Yerevan, Armenian Academy of Sciences, 1992), p. 486-487
23. On August 10, 1920 Soviet Russia and the Republic of Armenia signed an Agreement stating that "the occupation of the disputed territories by Soviet troops should not predetermine the issue of the right of the Republic of Armenia or Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republic over these territories".
24. On November 29, 1920, the Armenian Revolutionary Committee, assisted by the units of the 11th Red Army, crossed the border and entered the territory of Armenia declaring the establishment of the Soviet rule in Armenia. On December 2, Simon Vratsian's Government signed an agreement with the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic (Russian SFSR or RSFSR) on the transfer of power to the Revolutionary Committee and resigned.
25. Обращение Ревкома Азербайджана «Всем, всем, всем!». Нагорный Карабах в 1918-1923 гг. Сборник документов и материалов / Под ред. В.А.Микаеляна. – Ереван: Академия наук Армении, 1992 (Declaration of the Revolutionary Committee of Azerbaijan "To ALL, To ALL, To ALL!". Nagorno Karabakh in 1918-1920. Collection of documents and materials, Ed. by V.A. Mikaelyan - Yerevan. Armenian Academy of Sciences, 1992), p. 601-602
26. Ю. Барсегов. Нагорный Карабах в международном праве и мировой политике. Том 2. Москва. «МЕЛИХОВО» (Yuri Barseghov, Naghorno Karabakh in International Law and World Politics, Second Volume, Moscow. MELIKHOVO PUBLISHERS), p. 213
27. Ibid., First Volume, Doc. N676, p. 630
28. In the League of Nations' Assembly Resolution of 18 December 1920, 30th session; in the League of Nations' Secretary-General's Note to member states, March 1921
29. «Нагорный Карабах в 1918-1923 гг. Сборник документов и материалов» / Под ред. В.А.Микаеляна. – Ереван: Академия наук Армении, 1992 (Nagorno Karabakh in 1918-1923. Collection of Documents and Materials / V.A.Mikaelyan - Yerevan, Armenian Academy of Sciences, 1992), p. 649-650