Vol. 5, No. 18 (September 15, 2012)

Failure of "neutralisation" of Nakhchivan in 1919 recalled

Paul Goble
Publications Advisor
Azerbaijan Diplomatic Academy

Even before the 1920 Treaty of Kars institutionalized Turkey’s role in the maintenance of Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity, various outside powers attempted to play a role in defining the borders of Nakhchivan, the non-contiguous portion of the Republic of Azerbaijan.  Most of these moves have been long forgotten outside the South Caucasus.  However, they remain important in the thinking of both Azerbaijani and Armenian elites, the former because of the risks potentially involved in the actions of such outsiders in this region and the latter precisely because the use of such outside actors represents the only way to achieve their desires to modify the internationally recognized borders of Azerbaijan.

In the latest installment of his “Historical Prism” series on the Day.az news website, Azerbaijani historian I. Niftaliyev outlines the complicated developments in the turbulent years of 1918 and 1919. [1] 

Niftaliyev begins by observing that after the collapse of the Russian empire in the 1917 revolutions, the South Caucasus was divided among “three young national states” and their borders “initially and to a decisive degree were defined by outside geopolitical and military forces.”  Russia and Turkey were the first of these, but they were soon joined by Britain and even, in what is now an almost forgotten episode, the United States.

Each of the countries in the region, the Azerbaijani writer continues, developed its own principles as far as the definition of state borders was concerned.  The Azerbaijani Republic, he notes, “used the principle of historical, ethno-confessional settlement as the chief criteria which legitimated the inclusion of this or that district into the republic.”  Unfortunately, he continued, the Armenian government ignored those principles and sought “by means of the use of military force” to establish control even over portions of the South Caucasus “where Armenians formed a significant minority relative to the Muslim population.”  This clash of approaches took its sharpest form in Nakhchivan, which had been part of Irevan guberniya in imperial times.

In 1918, 61 percent of the population of what became the Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic within Azerbaijan consisted of Azerbaijani Turks; ethnic Armenians formed almost all of the remainder.  The region itself was completely integrated in terms of irrigation, agriculture, and transportation into Karabakh.  Indeed, Niftaliyev suggests, Nakhchivan was “indivisible” from Karabakh economically.

Despite these obvious links between Nakhchivan and Azerbaijan proper, Bolshevik leader Stepan Shaumyan gave the go-ahead to Armenian general Andranik and his units to move into the region in the summer of 1918 and establish Soviet control.  Andranik did, but only at the price of widespread repression against the indigenous Azerbaijani Turkic population, more than 2500 of whom were killed. 

The situation for the Azerbaijani Turkic population would have been even worse, had it not been for the intervention by Turkish forces under the command of Kazim Karabeyov in August.  The presence of this force blocked Andranik’s men, but as Niftaliyev points out, “the presence of Turkish forces in Nakhchivan did not last very long.”  Under the terms of the Mudros Treaty of October 30, 1918, Karabekir pasha withdrew his forces, creating an immediate power vacuum in that region even as British forces assumed a dominant position in the South Caucasus as a whole.

A few weeks after the Turkish withdrawal, the Muslim Turkic population in the southern districts of Irevan gubernia (Nakhchivan, Sharur-Daralagez, Ordubad, Vedibasar, Zangibasar, and Kamarli) proclaimed the Araz Republic with a capital at Nakhchivan and with strong ties to the Azerbaijani Republic.  During its brief existence (December 1918-March 1919), the Araz Republic, together with some Turkish irregulars who remained behind, as Niftaliyev notes, “was able to resist Armenian aggression in the southwestern sections of the country.” 

In March 1919, however, the English command, “liquidated the government of the Araz Republic,” viewing that regime and its territory as a covert Turkish advance into the region.  Two months later, “the English transferred the Nakhchivan district to the administration of Armenia, having established there a governor-generalship, something like that which existed in Karabakh.”  But unlike in Karabakh, in Nakhchivan at that time, Muslim Turks formed an overwhelming majority of the population.  The Azerbaijani government protested this British decision, but the British military mission in Nakhchivan “required that all the Muslim population subordinate itself to the power of the Armenian government.”

On May 3, the British commander in the name of the allies declared that it considered the Armenian governance of Nakhchivan as provisional, something that was to be decided at the Paris Peace Conference.  The Armenian commanders on the scene in exchange said that Armenia “took upon itself to protect the security of the Muslim population of the kray and to allow the return of refugees.”

But the local Muslim Turkic population refused to go along.  Their resistance to Armenian rule prompted Armenian commanders to engage in further repressions with, as Niftali points out, “the full support and approval of the British administration.”  The Muslim Turkic resistance was successful and at the end of July 1919, Armenian regular army forces began to leave Nakhchivan just as British forces had.  In this situation, Baku assigned Samed Bek Jamilinsky governor general of Nakhchivan.  In response, the allies dispatched to the Azerbaijani capital Colonel William Gaskell as the supreme commissar of the allies in the South Caucasus, who proposed that the southern portion of Irevan gubernia, including Nakhchivan, should become a special “neutral” zone.

Gaskell subsequently proposed that Baku send an official representative with him to Nakhchivan in order to “show the population of that region that the Azerbaijani government had agreed to the establishment of an administration of [such a] neutral zone by the Americans.”  But the government of the Azerbaijan Republic refused, saying that it would not mislead the local Muslim Turkic population and would agree to a neutralization of the region only if “the population itself agreed” to that arrangement, something that the latter was unlikely to do.

Azerbaijan’s opposition did not stop the allies.  One of Gaskell’s assistants travelled to Nakhchivan, declared its “neutralization” and named US Colonel Edmund L. Daily governor of this zone.  Further, allied command called for the creation of a central council which was to “consist of Armenians and Azerbaijanis proportionally to the number of each nationality within the zone” and the governments of Azerbaijan and Armenia to withdraw their forces from Nakhchivan.  But these appeals did not have any effect, because the local population indicated that it wanted their area to be under the control of Azerbaijan.

This outcome, Niftaliyev notes, “strongly disappointed the government of Armenia, which considered the proposal for the establishment of an American governor-generalship in Nakhchivan as the next opportunity to extract the kray from under the control of Azerbaijan” and which viewed the rejection of this American plan as “the final resolution of the Karabakh and Zangazur issues in favor of the Azerbaijan government.”

The American mission remained in Nakhchivan until January 1920 when the council of the Paris Peace Conference gave de facto recognition of the independence of Azerbaijan.  Despite this, Armenian forces continued to invade Nakhchivan, efforts that ceased only after the introduction of Turkish forces in June 1920 and the sovietization of the region in July of that year.  Those two powers decided the borders of Nakhchivan and confirmed it as being part of the Azerbaijan Republic.


[1] See http://news.day.az/politics/353636.html (accessed 14 September 2012).