Topchibashev and the idea of a Caucasus Federation
The idea of a federation of Caucasus states arose even before several of them achieved a brief period of independence following the collapse of the Russian Empire. It continued to be discussed during that period, and it was the focus of particular attention by political figures in the various emigrations after Soviet forces occupied the region and extinguished for 80 years the aspirations for independence among the peoples there.
One of the leading advocates of a Caucasus Federation in all three periods was Ali Mardan bek Topchibashev, who played a leading role in the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic and, after going into emigration, devoted particular efforts to promoting the idea of a regional federation.
Already on the eve of the first world war, Topchibashev saw in the creation of such a confederation the most effective means of warding off efforts of the Russian Empire to sow the seeds of discord among the peoples of the Caucasus. And U.S. President Woodrow Wilson's 14 Points, one of which was that there "must be established a union of nations on the basis of special status in order to provide a mutual guarantee of political independence and territorial integrity of both large and small states", only provided an additional argument for Topchibashev's position.
As early as 1914, he called for the unification of all three Trans-Caucasus republics and the North Caucasus republics into a single unified entity. Such a confederal combination, he considered, could be established on the Swiss Union model; and the Trans-Caucasus Seim, which declared the independence of the Trans-Caucasus and which created a single system of administration, represented the first attempt at the realization of this idea.
The underlying slogan of that institution became Topchibashev's statement that "every community of people which has the right to an independent existence must offer others the possibility of enjoying the same right." To that end, he insisted, the Azerbaijan Republic, on its way to independence and prosperity, was prepared to support the independence of both the Armenians and the Georgians, as well as “the peoples of the North Caucasus which also were forming their own institute statehood.” This idea became the capstone of his political activity.
After the establishment of Soviet power in Georgia in February 1921, and at the initiative of Topchibashev, the idea of creating a Caucasus Confederation of the republics of Azerbaijan, Georgia, Armenia and the North Caucasus was discussed in the office of the representative of the ADR in Paris. The four then made a common declaration on July 10 to the Western allies. Composed by Topchibashev, it consisted of 10 points, and explicitly called for the creation of “a political and economic union of the people of the Caucasus,” the defense of their independence, the creation of democracy, and the resolution of all disputes by peaceful means.
Not all Azerbaijani leaders in emigration accepted this declaration. Khalil Khasmamedov, for example, called it a mere “proclamation.” But all the same that this joint statement was one of the most successful joint actions of the Caucasus representatives because it attracted the attention of the European powers and after it was issued, the Allies did undertake several steps to provide moral and material support. French Prime Minister Aristide Briand, for example, assigned the French official responsible for liberated territories to consider what kind of support Paris might offer the émigré leaders of the Caucasus Federation in their national liberation struggle.
At a meeting on November 7, 1921, French officials said that they had prepared a package of measures for the government to consider. Topchibashev responded that “We are very grateful for the attention which you have shown to our declaration, and I want to direct your attention to the fact that although our countries are under the temporary occupation of Bolshevik forces and the Kemalists, the rule of the Bolsheviks is not based in any degree on the support of the population but only on the force of arms.” Chkhenkeli, the chief of the Georgian delegation, added that their national parties and forms of administration were deeply democratic and pursued the goals and tasks of a mature democracy, while respecting private property and acknowledging the Caucasus' share of Russian debts and international obligations.
French Minister Loucher posed a number of questions concerning how France might assist the émigrés and their national movements at home, and the delegates promised that they would respond after discussing them with their specialists and experts. But already at that meeting, Topchibashev noted that 95 percent of so-called “Russian” oil that Europe received was in fact coming from Azerbaijan via the Baku-Grozny pipeline and that England had already recognized Azerbaijan's ownership of its own natural resources by purchasing oil directly from Azerbaijani government during the short period of its independence.
Two days after meeting the French, the representatives of the four Caucasus republics held a session in the offices of the Armenian delegation under the chairmanship of A. Khatisyan, at which Topchibashev represented Azerbaijan, Kanchelani the Georgian, and A. Chernoyev the North Caucasus Republic. They created four commissions to work out the details of cooperation with the French and other Allied governments.
Following this agreement to cooperate more closely, Topchibashev initiated talks with representatives of the anti-Bolshevik Russian White Movement. The French government promoted this idea of forming a common anti-Bolshevik front of Caucasus and Russian émigrés. And on July 7, 1921, representatives of the Caucasus states met with leaders of the White Movement, and the French Government. At that session, Topchibashev pointed out that Azerbaijan had been one of the initiators of a Caucasus Confederation, adding that Turkey at one time had approved this idea and requesting that the Allies stop putting pressure on Turkey.
Any further pressure of that kind, he suggested, would drive Turkey into the arms of the Bolsheviks, even though Bolshevik and Islamic morality were completely contradictory things. This attempt to defend Turkey did not please the French government or the Armenian representatives. And Kerensky's ambassador in Paris Maklakov, after accusing the peoples of the Caucasus of ingratitude, shouted “Russia tomorrow will recover and again stand up!” and demonstratively left the hall.
The continuing series of popular uprisings in the Caucasus against Bolshevik rule drove the representatives of the four republics to more active and decisive measures. On September 23, 1924, in connection with the latest uprising of the Georgian government, the émigré representatives issued a declaration in which they said, “We will never cease to recognize the necessity for a close and fraternal union among the peoples of the Caucasus. This is entirely natural if one considers the centuries-long ties which arise from the experience of these peoples and the commonality of their interests. Our peoples will not cease our struggle for independence regardless of circumstances. These events put on the order of the day for our peoples to establish a political and economic unity.”
Topchibashev devoted much of his efforts during this period to the unification of all émigré organizations into a single center. That was no easy task, since at any one time, there were often several émigré centers for each nationality, a situation that complicated talks among these nations and especially conversations between them, on the one hand, and the Western powers, on the other.
Topchibashev believed that the main center of the Caucasus diasporas in general and of the Azerbaijani in particular ought to be in Paris because of the importance of the French capital in international affairs. To that end, he entered into correspondence with M. E. Rasulzade about creating a single Azerbaijan National Center in Istanbul with Topchibashev as its representative in Paris. But this system broke down as various others tried to play a larger role, something that undercut Topchibashev's own activities.
Despite such conflicts – and they existed in the case of the emigrations of the other three republics as well – Topchibashev's authority with European governments continued to be high. In November 1927, for example, the Union of Oil Industrialists sent Rasulzade a letter stating that the union considered the delegation headed by Topchibashev to continue to be the only legal organ of the Azerbaijan Republic and thus the only one that the Union was prepared to deal with.
Inspired by such support and furious about the ways in which the Istanbul Azerbaijanis had worked to undercut him, Topchibashev fired off a letter in early 1928 saying among other things that “the group responsible for the current misfortune of the country instead of being brought before a court and the people, has created in [Istanbul] an organization under the title the Azerbaijan Provisional National Center, the goal of which is to act officially in the name of Azerbaijan. The peace conference delegation of the Azerbaijan Republic, being the only competent institution in the course of nine years, which despite all kinds of deprivations and obstacles has defended the interests of the people considers it to be its responsibility to report that the pretensions and rights awarded to itself by the above named organization are not recognized by the peace conference delegation or by other groups and activists.”
This declaration shocked the emigration. Despite that, after much effort, Topchibashev was able to break down the resistance of the musavatists and achieve unification around a single body, a reflection of his authority as the most senior official not only among the Azerbaijanis but also among the Caucasus political émigrés. And thus, the establishment of the Committee for an Independent Caucasus in 1928 was a historic achievement by Topchibashev.
Topchibashev's dream of maintaining Caucasus unity was largely shattered by the increasingly nationalist and separatist position of the Armenians. In April 1933, for example, Armenian political parties supported the idea of confederation but expressed their concerns that an independent Caucasus was threatened by the “Turkish factor” - a view none of the other three participants in such a confederation accepted. Armenians, however, started to ally themselves with Russian political émigrés, and some of their leaders published articles in Kerensky's Dni arguing that the other three were in effect supporting pan-Turanism and even pan-Islamism.
The three remaining advocates of a Caucasus Federation – Azerbaijan, Georgia, and the North Caucasus – on July 14, 1934, signed in Brussels the Caucasus Confederation Pact, which called for the closest possible cooperation as all the peoples strove to recover their independence while guaranteeing the full protection of the uniqueness of each of its component parts. The pact was signed by Rasulzade and Topchibashev for Azerbaijan, by M. Girei Sundi, Ibragim Chulik and Tausultan Shokman for the North Caucasus, and Zhordaniya and Chkhenkeli for Georgia.
It proved to be Topchibashev's last political act. On November 5, 1934, he died at the age of 72 after a long illness. At his funeral at Saint Cloux, speakers praised his services to the peoples of the Caucasus and to all the Muslim population of the former Russian Empire. They stressed that his dominant idea was the independence and unity of the Caucasus. “We must consider [him] the first patriot of the Caucasus,” Georgia's Chkhenkeli said.
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