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The Tragedy of Nagorno-Karabakh – A Hundred years of Hatred
The Tragedy of Nagorno-Karabakh – A Hundred years of Hatred

The Tragedy of Nagorno-Karabakh – A Hundred years of Hatred


“For never can true reconcilement grow,

Where wounds of deadly hate have pierced so deep.”

(John Milton, Paradise Lost – 1667; 1674, Book IV, line 98)

Welcome back to our weekly appointment,

This week I wanted to tell you about another problematic place once linked to the USSR, and which has recently returned to talk about itself, unfortunately: I am referring to the region of Central Asia known as Nagorno – Karabakh.

Before starting, I would like to make a small premise: I was very undecided whether to address (and how) this topic. If, as I told you when talking about Belarus, the issues concerning the former Soviet Union countries are never as simple as they are seen from the outside, that of Nagorno-Karabaka is certainly one of the most intricate and obscure to foreigners observers.

So why talk about it? For the same reasons why I didn’t want to do it: because it is intricate and obscure, difficult for a foreign observer to understand. After all, it is the goal I set myself when I started writing, and I intend to keep it: in the pages that follow, I will try to make you understand a war that has been going on for more than a hundred years in the remote recesses of the Asian mountains.

Furthermore, this is a story that can make us better understand how exasperated nationalism contains within itself the germs of hatred by its very nature, and is capable of causing disasters that cannot be ended even after hundreds of years. As we did for Belarus, we will reserve the right to divide this complex story into several parts: one concerning the period of the First World War and the Russian Revolution, one following the collapse of the Soviet Union and finally one that will tell the events today.

The Tragedy of Nagorno-Karabakh – A Hundred years of Hatred, An Unpredictable Past
The Situation during the WWI and before the First Armenian-Azerbaijan War

The history of the conflict has centuries-old roots, and begins in the period of the dissolution of the great empires immediately after the end of the First World War. In that period the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the civil war within what was the Russian Empire, will lead to the formation of several independent republics: among them, the First Republic of Azerbaijan and the First Armenian Republic, both emerged from a period of uninterrupted conflict (in which the Armenians suffered a real Genocide, planned by the forces of the Ottoman Empire). We will not go further into the chaotic period tha preceded WWI, as we run the risk of muddying the waters, but it is not certain that the topic will not be treated more extensively in the future.

As has always happened in these situations, the new republics were fueled by a strong national sentiment: the Azerbaijani party of Müsavat (equality / parity) supported positions close to pan-Turkism and pan-Islamism; in Armenia, on the other hand, the Revolutionary Federation had succeeded in establishing the first independent government since the Middle Ages. Despite that, these entities were tied to the Russian Rvolution (February Revolution) and represented togheter in the Sejm, better known as the Transcaucasian Commissariat, of socialist inspiration but opposed to Bolshevism, and determined to separate from the nascent Soviet Russia.

After the October Revolution, the troops of the Red Army began to withdraw from the various war fronts to conduct the war within the territory of the former Russian Empire: this obviously included the Central Asian regions. Thus, between 10 and 24 February 1918 the Sejm declared independence and the birth of the Transcaucasian Federative Democratic Republic, and prepared to face the Bolshevik forces militarily. The problems began with the Brest-Litovsk Treaty of March 3, 1918, which formalized Russia’s exit from World War I: the independence, at least formal, of the Transcaucasian Federation worried the Soviet leaders, due to the oil produced in the region 7 million tons per year, (15% of world production at the time) so much so that it seems that Vladimir Lenin himself asserted that “Russia will not survive without Baku oil”.

To prevent the opening of a new front, the Bolsheviks and the Social Revolutionaries present there, under the leadership of Stepan Shahumyan, proclaimed the Soviet of Baku, and took control of the Governorate of the region.

The Soviet led by Shahumyan, to maintain the control of those precious resources, begins to be involved in the internal disputes of the region, playing at putting one faction against the other, fueling suspicion and hatred: they used the “bogeyman” of the presence of an huge Armenian contingent, who had fought the Ottomans in the region, (and which the Russians should have demobilized after the war, which obviously they did not), to scare the Azerbaijans, which were convinced to turn to the veterans of the Caucasian Native Cavalry Division (rus. Кавказская туземная конная дивизия) better known as the “Savage Division” (rus. Дикая дивизия), made up of mostly Caucasian Muslim volounteers and anti-Bolsheviks) for eventual aid.

When such strong nationalist sentiments arise in territories that until recently considered themselves part of a single state entity, disaster is only a matter of time.

And the disaster occurred in the days between March 30 and April 2, 1918, better known as “March Days“, when Bolsheviks, Armenians, Azeris and members of the Savage Division all met together in Baku. The American historian of Azerbaijani origins Firuz Kazemzadeh, claims that, despite Shahumyan having the possibility to mediate the situation, the powder keg was allowed to explode: it is not known who was to open the hostilities, but after the tensions of March 30, the 1 of April Baku had turned into a Battlefield.

The Armenian forces did not take part in the conflict initially, and indeed the Musravat Party proposed that they support the revolt of the Muslims against the Soviets, but received a refusal. When Shahumyan then declared a state of siege, the Dashnaktsutyun (the armed forces of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation, often abbreviated to Dashnak) intervened in the conflict with brutal ferocity, indiscriminately massacring military and civilians in the city and its surroundings. The Soviet leader himself was shaken, and in a letter stated: “The participation of the latter lent the civil war, to some extent, the character of an ethnic massacre, however, it was impossible to avoid it. We were going for it deliberately. The Muslim poor suffered severely, however they are now rallying around the Bolsheviks and the Soviet “.

On April 3, the clashes had ceased, causing more than 12,000 deaths among the Muslim population of Baku, also forced into a forced exodus, and 2,500 deaths between Armenians and Soviets. Always Firuz Kazemzadeh said: “The brutalities continued for weeks. No quarter was given by either side: neither age nor sex was respected. Enormous crowds roamed the streets, burning houses, killing every pass-by who was identified as an enemy, many innocent persons suffering death at the hands of both the Armenians and the Azerbaijanis. The struggle which had begun as a political contest between Musavat and the Soviet assumed the character of a gigantic race riot“.

Despite the violence mainly concentrated on the Muslim population, and Azerbaijani in particular, this episode did not, in my opinion, have an ethnic character, but a political one: on the one hand, the Dashnak only came to the aid of the Soviet when a state was declared there. siege, on the other hand, in the subsequently self-proclaimed Commune of Baku (13 April 1918) many socialists of Azerbaijani origin played important roles. Nevertheless, in the Azeri psyche, the Baku Commune symbolized the Bolshevik – Armenian collusion born out of the March Days bloodbath

But the “March Days” were only the beginning.

What is called the first Armenian-Azerbaijani war actually begins with the Baku massacre: the Azerian leaders in fact, after that episode, radically changed their political vision: they decided to abandon the ideals of the Revolution and to focus exclusively on their independence from Russia. When the Democratic Republic of Azerbaijan was proclaimed on May 28, 1918, they took care to immediately send embassies to Istanbul with requests for support for the young state entity from the Ottoman Empire. The Ottoman “triumvir” Enver Pasha decided to intervene, and instructed his brother to form a military unit, the Caucasus Army of Islam, and to go in support of Azerbaijan.

In July 1918, the Azerbaijani-Ottoman army defeated the patched-up “Red Army of Baku” in several key battles and, under internal pressure from Russian Socialist Revolutionaries, Dashnak, and British agents infiltrating the city (the British Empire had taken the nationalization of oil very badly) the power of the Bolsheviks began to collapse. On August 1, 1918, the Commune of Baku was replaced by the Centrocaspian Dictatorship, which for help the aid had to turn to a British contingent commanded by General Lionel Dunsterville, but to no avail: the Azero-Ottoman forces were too numerous and on September 15 they entered victorious in Baku. They were the terrible “September Days“, during which between 10,000 and 20,000 Armenians were killed as revenge for what happened in the “March Days”. The Bolshevik Commissioners of the Trans-Caspian government were intercepted while attempting to flee and shot on September 20, 1918. Days later, the capital of the Republic of Azerbaijan was moved from Ganja to Baku.

However, after the Armistice of Mudros of 30 October 1918, which sanctioned the end of hostilities between the United Kingdom and the Ottoman Empire, the Turkish troops stationed in Baku were replaced by a contingent of the Triple Entente, under the command of the British, who assumed control of Baku by imposing martial law on it. This gave the Armenian forces the opportunity to reorganize and plan the counterattack: first the so-called “Mountainous Republic of Armenia” was created and from there, under the leadership of Andranik Ozanian, the Armenian militias (fedayi) began to take control of the Karabakh during 1919, advancing towards the main city of the region, Shusha. The British attempted mediation, assuring Ozarian that the territorial question between Armenia and Azerbaijan would be resolved at the Paris Conference. Ozanian trusted and backed down, while the British entrusted the provisional government of the region to Khosrov bey Sultanov, a fervent nationalist of pan-Turkish ideas, who increased the Azerbaijani military presence in the region and attacked numerous Armenian villages, in order to cut connections direct from Armenia to the Karabakh.

The assignment of the governorship to Sultanov sparked the indignation of the Armenians, who gathered in the “Armenian National Council of Karabach“, a sort of Provisional Government of the Region, established between 1919 and 1920, refused to recognize the authority of the new governor (and Azerbaijan) on the region. At their second meeting in the city of Shusha, a detachment of the Azerbaijani army surrounded the Armenian quarter and demanded their unconditional surrender. The mediation of the British and the acceptance of the surrender by the Armenian National Council did not spare a series of pogroms against the Armenian population that were unleashed throughout the month of June, especially by the irregular Azerbaijani militias.

On February 19, 1920, Sultanov imposed an ultimatum on the Armenian National Council, which once again refused to recognize Azerbaijan’s sovereignty over Karabakh. The Armenian population of the region had no choice but to prepare for the insurrection, trying to take control of the city of Shusha by surprise with a night assault. But the attempt failed miserably, and the anger of the Azerbaijani troops and population spilled over the Armenians who inhabited the city: entire neighborhoods were set on fire, in a spiral of increasingly brutal violence, which went on for six days with Khosrov bey Sultanov’s consent, who urged not to spare anyone, including women and children. The victims of the Shusha Massacre were 20,000, and in fact the Armenian community of the city was uprooted.

The Tragedy of Nagorno-Karabakh – A Hundred years of Hatred, An Unpredictable Past
Ruins of the Armenian part of Shusha after the 1920 pogrom. In back is the church of the Holy Mother of God (Kanach Zham).

To make the hostilities “cease” was the return of Soviet Russia to the game: defeated the resistance of General Denikin and with the forces of the White Army in disarray, Moscow returned to focus its attention on the Caucasus. On April 27, 1920, the Azerbaijani government, already in serious trouble on the domestic front, received the news that the Red Army was preparing to invade the country and surrendered without practically a fight, leading to the creation of the Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republic.

The Armenian army and militias used the chaos to take control of the western territories of Azerbaijan, including Shusha and the Karabakh and Nakhchivan area. This lasted very little: in May 1920 the 11th Red Army conquered Karabackh, and placed it under the jurisdiction of Soviet Azerbaijan and then made it an autonomous region (the Nagorny Karabakh Autonomous Region, NKAO) in 1923, direct order of Stalin. Then on November 20, the Red Army used a pretext to wage war on the Armenian Republic itself, invading its territory: the Armenian army, weakened by years of interrupted conflicts, did not offer resistance exactly like the Azerbaijani one, and on December 4, 1920 the 11th Red Army entered Yerevan, followed by the Armenian and Azerbaijani revolutionaries on the 5th and by the Dzerzhinsky political police, the Cheka, on the 6th. After a last anti-Soviet gasp on February 18th 1921, the formation of the Armenian Soviet Socialist Republic was officially declared.

The Tragedy of Nagorno-Karabakh – A Hundred years of Hatred, An Unpredictable Past
The location of the Nagorno – Karabakh Autonoumos Oblast during the Soviet Period

The 1921 Treaty of Kars between Turkey and the Soviet Union put an end to the violence in the Transcaucasian area, in which, as a sign of peace, the Nachivan area was declared an Azerbaijani protectorate, and Turkey returned the city of Alexandroupolis to Armenia and Batumi to Georgia.

However, it will be a peace imposed by an imperial power like the Soviet Union, which, paradoxically, had fomented ethnic divisions in the area to avoid losing control over it. Something that from the beginning was destined to recur at the slightest sign of yielding of the hegemonic force in those territories. Exactly as it had begun, the question will rise up again with the collapse of the USSR, indeed, perhaps even anticipating it, as we will see in the next article.

Thank you for reading this long story, lost in time and in the Caucasus mountains: two more appointments await us, to be able to better understand what is happening today.

Thanks for your attention and see you next time.

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