Vol. 5, No. 11 (June 01, 2012)

Karabakh dispute resurfaces after World War II

Paul Goble
Publications Advisor
Azerbaijan Diplomatic Academy

The Karabakh conflict has its roots in Soviet times, the result both of Stalin’s decision to draw the borders in the Caucasus the way that he did and of Armenia’s efforts to change them and Soviet leadership’s occasional willingness to appear open to such changes.  Those roots are important now not only because they inform how many in the region view the current standoff, but also because they help explain many of the deeply held suspicions about any resolution of the conflict between independent Azerbaijan and independent Armenia.

Between 1923 when Nagorno-Karabakh was established as an autonomous oblast within the Azerbaijan SSR and 1945, Azerbaijani historians argue, there was an apparent “moratorium” on discussions about the border between Azerbaijan and the Armenian SSR.  However, shortly after the end of World War II, the archives show, the leaders of Communist Armenia re-opened the debate in ways that suggested the previous two decades of relative quiet was entirely provisional from the point of view of Yerevan. [1] 

In November 1945, Grigory Arutinov, first secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Armenian SSR, sent a telegram to Giorgy Malenkov, secretary of the Central Committee of the All-Union Communist Party, arguing that Moscow should transfer Nagorno-Karabakh from Azerbaijan to Armenia.  This letter followed an earlier one at the end of October 1945, which had prompted Soviet leader Joseph Stalin to note that making such transfers was difficult and to ask whether Arutinov had asked the Azerbaijani Communist leaders about it, something Arutinov of course had to acknowledge he had not done.

But that doesn’t mean, Azerbaijani historians say, that Arutinov did not have good reason to think that Moscow might be open to his unilateral suggestion.  On the one hand, the Soviet government had denounced its 1925 friendship treaty with Turkey in March 1925, thereby appearing to open the way to territorial claims abroad.  And on the other, Arutinov almost certainly believed he could count on support in Moscow from Anastas Mikoyan.  Indeed, one Armenian researcher, Ruben Angaladyan, Baku historian say, has concluded that, “Arutinov could not have taken such a step without talking to Mikoyan.  One should not forget,” the Armenian researcher added, that Arutinov and Mikoyan had family ties: Arutinov’s daughter was the husband of Mikoyan’s son.  

But Arutinov may have had other reasons to believe he would be successful in his request.  According to longtime CPRU propagandist Karent Brutents, there are unconfirmed reports that there were discussions in 1945 involving Stalin and his secret police chief Lavrenty Beriya in which the idea of a grand “combined” swap of territories—Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia, Daghestan to Azerbaijan, and Sochi to Georgia” was raised.  Such discussions might have been part of Beriya’s own efforts to appeal to the non-Russians in 1950-53 and certainly would help explain some of the charges brought against him by the post-Stalin leadership.

M.G. Seidov, who in the late 1940s was a secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Azerbaijan, recalled in his memoirs that, “in one of the last days of 1945,” the first secretary of the CP of Azerbaijan, Mir Jafar Bagirov encountered Mikoyan and Beriya outside of Stalin’s office.  “They both asserted, Seidov wrote, that, “the issue regarding Southern Azerbaijan [in Iran] had already been resolved and soon the territory of the Azerbaijan SSR would be significantly increased.  Possibly as a joke but possibly in all seriousness, both expressed the hope,” Seidov said, “that Bagirov would possibly now be more generous and agree to hand over Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia and several regions in the north of the republic (Belokan, Zagatala, and others) to Georgia.”  Bagirov responded, according to Seidov, that, “it was still too soon to think about this.”

Whatever the case, Bagirov and the Azerbaijani leadership prepared in response to Arutiov’s proposal to Moscow a detailed history of the Karabakh region.  Bagirov then made a counter-proposal: He expressed a willingness to transfer Karabakh to Armenia, excluding only the Shusha district which was overwhelmingly ethnically Azerbaijani, if Yerevan would hand over to Azerbaijan the Azizbekov, Vedino and Karablar districts, then within the Armenian SSR, to Azerbaijan.

Arutinov then dropped the matter, at least at the level of exchanges with Moscow.  But lower-level Armenia officials continued the campaign, Azerbaijani historians have found.  In August 1946, for example, the Azerbaijan SSR state security ministry determined that the predominantly Armenian branch of the Azerbaijani Writers Union in Karabakh was conducting “a most active role” in spreading anti-Azerbaijani propaganda.  B. Dzhanyan, the head of that union branch, for example, said Karabakh should be handed over to Armenia.  In addition, ethnic Armenians in Armenian higher schools in the region and in Yerevan were promoting the same idea.

Moreover, in early 1946, Yerevan’s Armengiz publishing house issued a book of essays by Marietta Shaginyan, in which she described the ethnic Azerbaijanis of Karabakh as “backward” and “crude” and said that Azerbaijani control of the region had led to its degradation economically and culturally.  Not surprisingly, officials and scholars in Azerbaijan were furious.  Bagirov sent a letter to Andrey Zhdanov, secretary of the Central Committee of the All-Union Communist Party in Moscow.  As a result, Shaginyan’s book was banned, and she herself had to acknowledge that she had made errors in describing Azerbaijanis.

But even that case did not end the matter.  In the fall of 1947, Arutiov again raised the Karabakh issue, this time in terms of the need for land to resettle Armenians returning from abroad.  Moscow—and in this case, Stalin—agreed to a deportation of ethnic Azerbaijanis from parts of Armenia, but the Soviet leadership was unwilling to redraw the borders and transfer Karabakh to Armenia.  Arutinov’s failure meant that he did not raise the issue again, at least until after the death of the Soviet dictator. [2]


Savranskaya, Svetlana and Vladislav Zubok (1999) “Cold War in the Caucasus: Notes and Documents from a Conference,” Cold War International History Project Bulletin 14/15, available at http://www.wilsoncenter.org/sites/default/files/f-research_notes.pdf (accessed 29 May 2012).


[1] See http://news.day.az/politics/333427.html (accessed 29 May 2012).

[2] For more on this issue, see Savranskaya & Zubok (1999).