Nagorno Karabakh in 1918-1920
The years of 1918-1920 proved to be some of the most difficult in the history of Karabakh Armenians, as the ancient Armenian region of Artsakh became a subject of territorial disputes.
After the demise of the Russian Empire, the Transcaucasian Assembly convened in Tiflis on February 10, 1918. Soon after, the Assembly announced the secession of the Transcaucasus from Russia, and proclaimed a Transcaucasian Democratic Federal Republic. However, an independent Transcaucasus did last long. A new offensive by Turkish armed forces following the withdrawal of the Russian army in the beginning of April 1918 accelerated the demise of the Transcaucasus Republic.
On May 26, 1918, "considering fundamental differences between the peoples comprising the Transcaucasus independent republic on issues regarding war and peace," the Assembly called for the dissolution of the Transcaucasus and terminated its own authority. On the same day, Georgia proclaimed its independence. On May 28, the Azerbaijani Democratic Republic and the Republic of Armenia were declared.
The administrative-territorial division by Czarist Russia did not take into account the ethnic composition of its territories. Until the end of May 1918 and the demise of the Transcaucasus Assembly, Nagorno Karabakh was part of the Elizavetpol Guberniya (Rus. "Province").
Under these circumstances, the government of Azerbaijan declared the inclusion of Baku and Elizavetpol provinces into the newly formed Azerbaijani Democratic Republic. In doing so, Azerbaijan tried to incorporate Karabakh and Zangezur, historic Armenian areas with predominantly Armenian populations into their own territory. The people of Nagorno Karabakh and Zangezur refused to acknowledge the Azerbaijani Republic's jurisdiction over their territories. Armenian National District Councils wielded power in these regions and spearheaded the struggle against Azerbaijan.
On July 22, 1918 the first Congress of Karabakh Armenians was summoned in Shoushi. The Congress proclaimed Nagorno Karabakh an independent administrative-territorial entity and elected the National Council along with the Peoples Government, consisting of seven people. On July 24, the Peoples Government of Karabakh ratified a declaration of objectives of the newly formed state authority.
After the gathering of the Congress, the Government of Azerbaijan tried to seize Nagorno Karabakh with the help of Turkish armed forces. Commander of the Turkish armed forces, Noury Pasha, issued an ultimatum to the National Council of Karabakh. Thereafter the Second Congress of Karabakh Armenians rejected the demands of the Turkish army and Azerbaijani government.
On September 15, 1918 the Turkish armed forces entered Baku. Massacres of the Armenians in the city began and left thirty thousand dead. Hundreds of villages in the Baku and Elizavetpol Provinces were looted and destroyed. Under these circumstances, the Headquarters of Turkish armed forces issued another ultimatum to the Karabakh People's Government demanding disarmament, acceptance of Azerbaijani rule, and passage of Turkish and Azeri armed forces into Shoushi.
The Third Congress of Karabakh Armenians convened on September 17, 1918, and discussed the demands made by the Turkish forces. The Congress rejected the ultimatum, resolutely refusing to disarm or accept Azeri rule. The Turkish demand to allow troops to enter Shoushi was rejected as well. Realizing that the defeat of Germany in World War I was only a matter of days away, the People's Government of Karabakh finally agreed to Turkey's demand let their troops enter Shoushi. However, the people of Karabakh were extremely unhappy about this decision and resisted the presence of the Turkish forces.
Having gained access to Shoushi, the Turks disarmed
the Armenian people and arrested prominent Armenians, prompting the
annulment of the decision of the Third Congress and preparation for
This time the government of Azerbaijan tried to seize Nagorno Karabakh with the aid of the British. The British soon announced that new state borders could not be established in the Transcaucasus without their consent, which would take place at the Paris Peace Conference. In the meantime, the British worked to make Nagorno Karabakh a part of Azerbaijan. By establishing total control over the Baku oil supply, the British worked to separate the Transcaucasus from Russia once and for all. Their goal was to make Azerbaijan the outpost of the West in South Caucasus and thus end further Sovietization in the region.
Because of this plan, the policy of allied nations towards the Transcaucasus was pro-Azerbaijani. The settlement of the Karabakh issue was delayed in the hope that the military-political situation would shift in favor of Azerbaijan.
On January 15, 1919 the Azerbaijani government "having notified the British command staff" appointed Khosrovbek Sultanov General-Governor of Nagorno Karabakh and simultaneously issued an ultimatum to the Karabakh National Council demanding acceptance of Azerbaijani rule.
On February 19, the Fourth Congress of Karabakh Armenians strongly rejected the Azerbaijani ultimatum and protested against Sultanov's appointment as General-Governor. The resolution adopted at the Congress read: "Insisting on the principle of self-determination of peoples, the Armenian population of Karabakh respects the right of self-determination of neighboring Turkish people. The Armenian population of Karabakh decisively protests before the entire world the attempts of Azerbaijani government to abolish this principle pertaining Nagorno Karabakh, which will never agree to be under Azerbaijani rule."
The British Mission made an official statement regarding the appointment of Sultanov, announcing, "With the consent of the British Command, Khosrovbek Sultanov is temporarily appointed General-Governor of Zangezur, Shoushi, Jivanshir and Jebrail uezds. The British Mission deems it necessary to assert once more that belonging of the mentioned regions to any entity will have to be decided at the peace conference".
The National Council of Karabakh issued the following statement: "The National Council of Karabakh Armenians in its entirety, along with the commanders of all regions of Karabakh has discussed the appointment of an Azerbaijani General-Governor. The Council came to a conclusion that Armenian Karabakh cannot accept this due to the fact the Armenian people of Karabakh sees dependence on the Azerbaijani government in any form impossible in the light of the hostilities against the Armenian people and violation of their rights by the government of Azerbaijan. Armenian Karabakh demonstrated to the entire world that that it had practically never accepted and did not accept the rule of the Azerbaijani government within its borders, as it was decided at the last Congress of Karabakh Armenians. Taking into account that the British Command recognizes Armenian Karabakh as a territory not belonging to any state, especially to Azerbaijan, before the decision of the peace conference, the National Council sees the appointment of a British General-Governor as the only acceptable form of government for the Armenian Karabakh. We ask that the Mission submit a petition with this request to the Supreme British Command."
However, even in the face of protests of the Karabakh people, the British Command continued supporting the Azerbaijani government in its policy of seizing Nagorno Karabakh. The Commander of British armed forces in Baku, Colonel Shatleworth, made the following announcement to the people of Karabakh: "Your roads are blocked, your dying people will not get bread, we will not help you at all until you recognize the rule of Musavat Azerbaijan."
Unable to suppress the Nagorno Karabakh Armenians with threats and force, Col. Shatleworth went to Shoushi himself in order to convince the National Council to accept Azeri rule. On April 23, the Fifth Congress of Karabakh Armenians rejected Col. Shatelworth's demands.
Sultanov decided to subdue Karabakh with the use of armed forces. Almost the entire Azerbaijani army concentrated its forces at the borders of Nagorno Karabakh. The British armed forces retreated from Nagorno Karabakh, giving the Azerbaijani army free access to the territory.
The Sixth Congress of Karabakh Armenians, along with participation from the British Mission, and the Azerbaijani government was held. The purpose of the gathering was to discuss Nagorno Karabakh and Azerbaijani relations before the Paris Peace Conference. However, the representatives of the British Mission and the Azerbaijani government arrived after the Congress had concluded its sessions and no such negotiations took place. A special commission, which was created to decide whether Nagorno Karabakh would be able to defend its independence in the face of war on its own, issued a statement that the territory was not in the state to do so. Under the threat of military aggression from Azerbaijan, the Congress was forced to begin negotiations.
In order to buy time and concentrate forces, the Seventh Congress of Karabakh Armenians, adopted a resolution on August 22, proclaiming that Nagorno Karabakh agreed to a temporary recognition of itself within the borders of the Azerbaijani Republic until the Paris Peace Conference. However, the August 22 agreement virtually did not change the status of Nagorno Karabakh, since it remained an independent political entity.
Sultanov, whose goal was to make Nagorno Karabakh part of Azerbaijan by altering its ethnic composition, was not satisfied with the current situation. Sultanov appealed to the National Council of Karabakh Armenians on February 19, 1920 with a demand to "immediately solve the issue of incorporating Karabakh into Azerbaijan."
The Eighth Congress of Karabakh Armenians rejected Sultanov's requests. The Congress criticized the policy of the Azerbaijani government for violating the terms of the temporary agreement of August 22. The Congress notified the diplomatic and military representatives of allied ANTANTA states, three Transcaucasus states, and temporary General-Governor of Nagorno Karabakh that "recurrence of the events will force Nagorno Karabakh Armenians to use certain measures to defend themselves." The Government of Azerbaijan was not prepared to stop and decided to quickly conquer and Azerbaijanize Nagorno Karabakh.
Karabakh Armenians were left with little option but to defend themselves. During the evening of March 22, Armenians in Nagorno Karabakh revolted. Fierce fighting continued until April 13. March 23, 1920, marked the most tragic day of fighting when Turkish-Azerbaijani forces looted and burned down Shoushi, the capital of Nagorno Karabakh and the fifth largest town in the Transcaucasus. Twenty thousand Armenians lost their lives on that day. During the fighting, dozens of churches and historic-architectural monuments were desecrated and destroyed.
Soon military units arrived from Armenia to assist the rebels and Nagorno Karabakh was completely liberated.
On April 23, 1920, the Ninth Congress of Karabakh Armenians proclaimed Nagorno Karabakh an inseparable part of Armenia. The final document of the Congress stated the following:
On December 1, 1920, based on the report of its 3rd subcommittee, the Fifth Committee of the League of Nations unanimously agreed to exclude Azerbaijani Democratic Republic from the League of Nations, taking into consideration Azerbaijan's territorial claims and massive anti-Armenian pogroms. At the same time, the League of Nations recognized Nagorno Karabakh as a disputed territory until the final settlement of the conflict at the Paris Peace Conference, to which all parties of the conflict, including Azerbaijan, agreed. Thus, during the emergence of the Azerbaijani Democratic Republic in 1918-1920, it did not have any sovereignty over Nagorno Karabakh.
The establishment of Soviet rule in the Transcaucasus led to a new political order. After the proclamation of Soviet Azerbaijan in 1920, an agreement between Soviet Russia and the Republic of Armenia, allowed the Russian army to temporarily take control of Nagorno Karabakh until a peaceful settlement to the conflict could be agreed upon.
However, immediately after the establishment of the
Soviet Rule in Armenia, the Revkom (Revolutionary Committee - the Bolsheviks'
main governing body at the time) of Azerbaijan declared the "disputed
territories", namely Nagorno Karabakh, Zangezur and Nakhichevan
as inseparable parts of Armenia.