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Why Autonomy? The Making of Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Region 1918–1925



Mountainous Karabakh—an Armenian-populated area within Elizavetpol’ guberniya with a Turkic majority—became a source of dispute between Armenia and Azerbaijan after the collapse of the Russian Empire. During the Soviet conquest of the region, the Bolshevik Party used the issue of Karabakh to promote its agenda by supporting at times the claims of its ally Azerbaijan, or those of Armenia when it needed to facilitate the capture of Zangezur. By 1921, when the Sovietisation of the region was complete, the Karabakh issue was still unresolved. The solution adopted was to leave Karabakh under Azerbaijani control on condition that it had autonomous status, but this  was  a solution that satisfied neither  side.

THE ARMENIAN–AZERBAIJANI CONFLICT OVER Nagorno-Karabakh is one of the oldest in the post-Soviet space—dating from 1988. As with many of the post-communist conflicts, it started with popular demands to transfer from one sovereignty to another: in this case to transfer the Nagorno-Karabakh region from Azerbaijan to Armenia. It almost immediately turned violent and, with the dissolution of the USSR, a full-scale war erupted between Armenians and Azerbaijanis. The ceasefire agreement signed in 1994 ended the active war and left the Armenians in control of most of the former Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Region as well as several adjacent districts. Ever since then the line of contact between Armenia, Nagorno-Karabakh and Azerbaijan has been reminiscent of the entrenched positions of the First World War. The Karabakh conflict has received wide academic attention. The Western literature addressing it has mainly concentrated on recent events as most works dealing with the conflict tend to focus mainly on the events of the post-Stalinist period, rarely venturing as far back as the period of the civil war of 1918–1921. Therefore, the reason behind the Bolsheviks’ decision to grant the autonomous status to Nagorno-Karabakh is left aside. It has become almost a cliché to blame the creation of the ethnic Armenian autonomy within Azerbaijan on Stalin, who by doing this created leverage against both republics. It seems that the absence of any Russian-language works  on  the subject is partially responsible for such lack of historical   insight.

Indeed, Karabakh occupies an unusual place within  the  Soviet historiography  of the civil war. Practically every autonomous formation in the USSR published its     own history of the Bolshevik struggle during the civil war as a mandatory exercise in Soviet propaganda; but not so in Karabakh, where not a single  volume  in  the Russian language dealing with these events appeared before the onset of the conflict   in 1988. In fact, were a Russian-speaking reader to have been interested in the civil war in Karabakh, it would have been next to impossible for him or her to find out about these events.1 It should be mentioned that several works in the Armenian language appeared in Erevan (Hovhannisian 1971) and Baku (Shakhnazarov 1960; Avagyan 1962; Lernain 1963; Hovhannisian 1963; Barse 1963). Some glimpses of information could also be found in Russian-language works on the history of the  region (Mil’man 1971; Kharmandaryan 1969). Nevertheless, it has remained an impossible task to understand the course of the civil war in Karabakh from the Russian-language sources. This perhaps explains the lack of historical analysis in Western  works on the  subject.

Towards the end of the Soviet Union the number of works addressing the Karabakh issue increased dramatically as both sides tried to back their political struggle with historical evidence. At the core of their debate lay the question of fairness and legitimacy. Armenian scholars saw the granting of Karabakh to Azerbaijan as unfair and illegitimate while their Azerbaijani colleagues quite naturally maintained the opposite view (Galoyan & Khudaverdyan 1988; Khurshudyan 1989; Kocharli 1989; Guliev 1989b). Several important collections of documents were published by both sides to prove their position (Libaridian 1988; Guliev 1989a; Mikaelyan 1992). After the dissolution of the USSR the debate continued along the same lines. In my opinion, the debate framed in terms of fairness compared to unfairness of the Bolshevik decision concerning Karabakh lacks an important element—the very logic informing that decision remains  unclear.

The historiography of this issue poses yet another methodological problem. The history of the region is traditionally studied within two distinct periods—one covering the Revolution and civil war until the establishment of Soviet rule (Kazemzadeh 1951; Kadishev 1960; Swietochowski 1985; Hovannisian 1996b); and the other focusing primarily on Soviet economic and state construction in the early 1920s and 1930s (Kilbourn Matossian 1962). There are very few studies that link these two periods together (Altstadt 1992). The result of such periodisation is that the reasons for the granting of autonomy are usually studied within the second period after the Sovietisation of the region and the possible impact of the civil war on the Bolshevik decision-making is neglected.

The goal of this article is to understand the reasons that led the Bolshevik leadership to grant Karabakh to Azerbaijan and at the same time award it an autonomous status.

My intention is to use the specific case of Karabakh to contribute to the evaluation of the general Bolshevik nationality policy in the early 1920s, particularly the principles that were used when shaping the Soviet administrative structure. During the  last decade a number of insightful studies have appeared that address the question of  Soviet boundary-making and nation-making, focusing mainly on Central Asia or the western borderlands of the USSR (Simon 1991; Roy 2000; Haugen 2003; Hirsch 2005). The South Caucasus is, however, notably absent from these works. One of the problems faced by anyone writing on the subject is that a number of strands must be analysed simultaneously. This includes the policy of the central Bolshevik administration towards the Caucasus and  its  relations  with  Kemalist  Turkey  as well as local communist activities both in Armenia and Azerbaijan. The existence of numerous anti-communist groups further complicates matters. Meanwhile,  the case of the South Caucasus is particularly important since its territorial delimitation was realised earlier than elsewhere—most territorial decisions were taken in 1921 and implemented at the latest by 1923–1924 thereby potentially providing an early example of the principles used in the Caucasus and how they differed from the later territorial  delimitations.

The civil war:  1918–1920
The  South Caucasus and the  international political situation  in  1917–1918

The Armenian–Azerbaijani conflict over Karabakh in    1918–1920

The struggle for Karabakh:  1917–April  1920

The Sovietisation of Azerbaijan: 28 April 1920

The Sovietisation of the South Caucasus

The Sovietisation of Azerbaijan: 28 April 1920

Sovietisation of Karabakh: May 1920

The Sovietisation of Armenia: April–December 1920

Karabakh: May 1920–May 1921

Soviet Armenia: December 1920–May 1921

Zangezur:  December  1920–July 1921

The Bolsheviks solve the conflicts: May–July 1921

Towards  autonomy: 1921–1925


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