Vol. 5, No. 19 (October 1, 2012)

How Nakhchivan’s special status came to be

Paul Goble
Publications Advisor
Azerbaijan Diplomatic Academy

Few aspects of Azerbaijani statehood have a more complicated history than the way in which Nakhchivan, the non-contiguous autonomous republic, acquired its special status in 1921, a status that to this day makes both Ankara and Moscow guarantors of its remaining part of the Republic of Azerbaijan.  Both this complexity and the special status of Nakhchivan are little understood by many outside observers.  But like so many other things in Azerbaijan, they continue to play a key role in the understanding of Azerbaijanis about the role of outside powers in their national life, including in the ending of the Armenian occupation of one-fifth of Azerbaijan’s national territory.

In the latest installment of his “Historical Prism” series on the Day.az portal, I. Niftaliyev provides a concise description of what may seem to many long ago events.  He begins his survey by citing the November 30, 1920, decision of the Politburo of the Central Committee of the Azerbaijani Communist Party of Bolsheviks, a text that has been much misunderstood and misused because it appears to acknowledge the transfer of the Azerbaijani-dominated Nakhchivan region to Armenia. [1] 

“If one attentively reviews the text,” Niftaliyev says, “one can see” that the supposed transfer of Nakhchivan to Armenia was never intended.  Instead, the declaration spoke only of the withdrawal of Azerbaijani forces from Zangazur.  Indeed, the Armenians themselves on December 2, 1920, recognized that reality when they together with the Turks declared that “the districts of Nakhchivan, Shakhtakhty and Sharur are to be under local self-administration of Turkey” and that “Armenia does not have the right to interfere,” pending the results of a plebiscite.

That, in turn, means, Niftaliyev continues, that units of the Turkish Army should remain in Nakhchivan and in this way “Nakhchivan de facto remained within the Azerbaijan SSR and the plan about its transfer to Armenia, the author of which was Soviet Russia’s Commissar for Foreign Affairs G. Chicherin, was condemned to failure in advance.”

Officials in Baku understood this very well, Niftaliyev suggests, and the November 30 declaration about “transferring Nakhchivan to Armenia” represented no more than the hope of the Bolsheviks to demonstrate in propaganda their “proletarian solidarity” with the new communist regime in Yerevan.  That conclusion is further suggested, he says, by the declaration of the Armenian Revolutionary Committee, which on December 28 spoke of Nakhchivan as “an independent Soviet republic.”  But because Yerevan addressed this directly to Nakhchivan rather than to Baku, “the leadership of Armenia did not consider Nakhchivan to be part of the territory of the Azerbaijan SSR and as before hoped to join it to Armenia.”  Moreover, as the Azerbaijani historian points out, the Armenian SSR government even included a post for “the extraordinary commissar and plenipotentiary representative of the Central Committee of the Communist Party (Bolsheviks) for Nakhchivan.”

“The problem of the future status of Nakhchivan,” Niftaliyev continues, “as a constituent part of the much-ballyhooed ‘Armenian question,’ became one of the barriers to the establishment of a firm union between Turkey and Soviet Russia.”  The individual who played the key role in converting Moscow to the idea that it needed to support Azerbaijan’s position in Nakhchivan if it wanted good ties with Turkey was Boris Shakhtakhtinsky, then the plenipotentiary representative of the Azerbaijan SSR to the RSFSR.  He bombarded Soviet leaders like Lenin and Stalin with telegrams and letters insisting that Moscow would gain nothing and lose much if it came out in support of Armenia regarding the status of Nakhchivan. 

The Azerbaijani diplomats had their effect, even though many Bolshevik leaders retained “certain distrust” to the Turkish government.  Indeed, in January 1921, Ordzhonikidze and Kirov sent a cable to the Central Committee of the Russian Communist Party (Bolsheviks) arguing that “the Turks could create in Nakhchivan their own buffer zone; they want to establish their own khanate here.  Then the railroad will be in their hands, they will cut us off from Tabriz and Iran and dismember Armenia.”

By his own charges, Niftaliyev says, Ordzhonikidze “in fact revealed the future military-strategic plans of the Bolsheviks for exporting revolution to the Muslim East.”  But his views were challenged by Azerbaijani leader Nariman Narimanov who cabled Lenin in mid-February saying that in his view, “there is no doubt that the Ankara government sincerely wants to connect its fate with us against England.”  For Turkey, the Armenian question is extremely sensitive, and any suggestion that Moscow is siding with Yerevan against Baku would undermine everything the Soviets were trying to do in the East.

That observation played a key role in changing minds in Moscow, especially in advance of the arrival in the Russian capital of a Turkish delegation to negotiate a peace treaty.  Significantly, Niftaliyev notes, the delegation went to Moscow via Baku, where Narimanov gave them advice on how they should deal with Soviet officialdom.  He told its members that Georgy Chicherin, the Soviet foreign affairs commissar, was on the wrong side of many issues in the East and that the Turks should do everything possible to deal directly with Lenin or “if this was not achieved, to turn to I. Stalin for help.”

The Moscow talks began on February 26, 1921, and it devoted two sessions to the Nakhchivan issue on March 10 and 12.  At the insistence of the Turks, the first of these meetings agreed to a point to be included in the final treaty stating that Nakhchivan oblast “forms an autonomous territory under the protection of Azerbaijan with the condition that Azerbaijan not yield this protectorate to any third state.”  But the March 12 meeting was contentious—and ultimately even more important in defining the borders of the autonomy.

The Turkish side, “seeking to strengthen the security of its borders with Armenia,” called for expanding the territory of Nakhchivan to include Azerbaijani-majority districts adjoining the region.  But the Russian side rejected that, noting that Turkey was proposing more than even Azerbaijan had ever sought.  The Russians said that “the border between Nakhchivan should be considered provisional” and subject to future talks.

Had the Turks accepted this Russian position, there would have been “serious consequences above all for Azerbaijan since that would allow Armenia at some future point to reopen the question about the review of its borders with Azerbaijan and of the status of Nakhchivan.”  The Turkish side recognized this “real danger,” Niftaliyev says, and insisted that Nakhchivan be declared a part of Azerbaijan.  In the March 16 treaty, the borders between Turkey and the South Caucasus republics were declared fixed for all time.  And because that happened, Turkey has remained a guarantor of the status of Nakhchivan, something that allowed Ankara to withdraw its forces in the late spring of 1921. 


[1] See http://news.day.az/politics/357819.html (accessed 29 September 2012).