The Provisional Revolutionary Committee of Azerbaijan (Azrevkom) announced the establishment of the Azerbaijan SSR and appealed to the RSFSR for emergency military assistance. While the government was changing in Baku, fierce fighting between Dashnaks and ADR troops continued in Karabakh and Zangezur.
Azrevkom established the Council of People’s Commissars of Azerbaijan on April 28, with Nariman Narimanov as its chairman. On the same day, Narimanov ordered the Azerbaijani troops in Karabakh and Zangezur to stop the attack and retreat. Chairman of the Presidium of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Azerbaijan Mirza Davud Huseynov sent a note to the Armenian government demanding the withdrawal of Armenian troops from Nagorno-Karabakh and Zangezur and a cessation of provocations that cause ethnic hatred. If the demands were not accepted, said the warning, Azrevkom would be at war with Armenia (Kocharli, 2009:100). As Armenia rejected these demands, Azrevkom declared war on Armenia.
In early May, units of the 11th Army began advancing in the direction of Nagorno-Karabakh, Ganja and Gazakh, passing through Yevlakh. By the first half of May, Soviet government had been established in almost all the territory of Azerbaijan. On May 12, the first Soviet troops arrived in Karabakh. Here, as it had been in Baku, Armenian soldiers under strong Bolshevik influence sided with the Bolsheviks. Thus, at the end of May, the Armenian troops led by Dro left Karabakh after some weak resistance. The advancing Soviet troops began Operation Zangezur in July and captured Goris on July 5. On July 7, the Grand National Assembly of Turkey (TBMM) and Soviet Russia signed an agreement on allied relations and cooperation. According to this agreement, the Turkish units of the Bayazid battalion came to the field headquarters of the Red Army in Goris (Azovtsev, 1974:335). The allies agreed to conduct a joint operation against the Dashnak groups on the Nakhchivan-Ordubad line.
First, Soviet Russia officially gave an ultimatum to Armenia, demanding that the Armenian groups in the south of Zangezur and Nakhchivan leave the area. Without waiting for the Armenian government’s response, Soviet troops launched military operations in Nakhchivan to establish Soviet government there. On July 17, the 11th Red Army began the attack on Nakhchivan and soon captured the city. The Armenian troops, squeezed on both sides, were retreating along the entire frontline. The retreating Armenian groups joined Garegin Nzhdeh’s army in Kapan. After the capture of Goris and the establishment of Soviet government in Karabakh, the Soviet army tried to seize control of the southern part of Zangezur, but Nzhdeh’s group near Kapan pushed the 11th Army back. Pursuing the Soviet army, Dro’s group forced them to retreat to the Karabakh border (Kadishev, 1960:296).
After the withdrawal of the Soviet army from Zangezur, Dro demanded Karabakh be returned to Armenia. However, on August 5, Soviet troops counterattacked, and two days later Goris was recaptured. The Shusha-Goris-Nakhchivan corridor between Turkey and Soviet Azerbaijan was reopened.
In early September, the Turkish army attacked from the direction of Nakhchivan, and the army of the Azerbaijan SSR, together with the 11th Red Army, launched an offensive from Jabrayil in the direction of Meghri. The allies captured Kapan and Qajar without encountering much resistance. However, the Armenian forces led by Nzhdeh counterattacked in mid-October and recaptured Kapan and Qajar. Thus, the Soviet-Turkish troops were forced to retreat to Nakhchivan. At that time, the situation in Armenia was already tense. Armenian troops claiming Eastern Anatolia under the Treaty of Sevres were severely defeated by the TBMM army in the city of Kars. Kazim Karabekir Pasha, who pushed the retreating Armenian army to Gyumri, defeated the Armenian troops here as well. Afraid that the Turkish army might enter Yerevan, the officials of the First Republic of Armenia proposed that the TBMM government urgently sign a peace treaty. Under the terms of the Treaty of Alexandropol signed on December 3, Armenia officially renounced its claim to Eastern Anatolia. Thus, Armenia was also forced to recognize the Turkish protectorate in Nakhchivan (Heifetz, 1968:112).
With this treaty, Armenia became the first state to be officially recognized by the TBMM. The loss of Eastern Anatolia and Nakhchivan caused a strong backlash in the Armenian capital, Yerevan. On November 29, 1920, a group of Armenian Bolsheviks, with the help of the troops of the 11th Army and Soviet Azerbaijan, entered the town of Ijevan and announced the establishment of the Armenian Revolutionary Committee there. After the Armenian Revolutionary Committee officially announced the establishment of the Soviet government in Ijevan, the Armenian army joined the Bolsheviks and began an offensive in the direction of Yerevan. Desperate, Dro signed an agreement with the leader of the Armenian Bolsheviks, Gevork Alikhanyan, and representatives of Soviet Russia to hand over the authority to the Bolsheviks. One of the terms of the agreement was Zangezur, part of Kars, Irevan Governorate (including Nakhchivan) being recognized by Soviet Russia as Armenian territory. Thus, on December 4, with the help of the 11th Army, which entered Yerevan, the Armenian Revkom was established. On December 6, the Armenian Revkom declared that it did not recognize the agreement signed with the Dashnaks (Volkhonsky, 2009:297). A civil war broke out in the country.
Dro and his group retreated from Yerevan to Zangezur, where they joined Nzhdeh’s forces. The Dashnaks united their forces and declared the establishment of the Syunik Republic in Zangezur and the establishment of the Republic of Mountainous Armenia with Goris as its capital in April 1921 (Saparov, 2014:104). Nzhdeh was elected the first president of the newly formed republic. In July 1921, the Soviet army, busy with suppressing the Dashnak uprisings in northern Armenia, turned its attention to Zangezur. This time, Nzhdeh crossed the Araz River to Iran without showing any serious resistance (Kadishev, 1960:306). Thus, in July 1921, the Republic of Mountainous Armenia collapsed.
After the establishment of Soviet government in Azerbaijan, there was a unanimous opinion in Soviet Russia that Zangezur would remain in Azerbaijan. This can be seen in the statements of officials of both Soviet Russia and Soviet Azerbaijan. Ordzhonikidze wrote in a letter to Lenin, Stalin, and Chicherin in July 1920: “Nakhchivan, Ordubad and the northern part of this region have been captured by the Turkish Bayazid battalion. We will meet the Turks in Goris. The main reason for the withdrawal of the Dashnak troops led by Dro from Nagorno-Karabakh is most likely our planned attack on Nakhchivan and surrounding areas. The Armenian government is deliberately giving us false information, and I see that the Central Committees of both Armenia and Azerbaijan use in the name of Communism to in fact claim nationalist aspirations. When a decision is made on the recommendation of the Central Committee and this decision is dictated to the Central Committees of Azerbaijan and Armenia, the nationalists in the party begin to protest. Today I spoke with Saak Ter-Gabrielyan. Gabrielyan told me that if Azerbaijan gave up the Sharur-Daralayaz Uyezd and Nakhchivan Province, the Armenian delegation would agree to Karabakh and Zangezur being annexed to Azerbaijan. We agreed that he would come to Baku and discuss this issue with Narimanov. As you can see, there is no uncertainty or misunderstanding. I can assure you that we present our peace policy very openly and continue it. However, in order for our peace policy to be clearer and the Soviet power in Azerbaijan to become stronger, Nagorno-Karabakh and Zangezur must belong to Azerbaijan. For the security of the Armenian population living in this region, it is necessary to declare autonomy in these areas” (Guliyeva, 1989:26). Besides this letter, the correspondence between Nariman Narimanov and Ordzhonikidze on the disputed territories shows that both Soviet Azerbaijan and the Caucasus Orgburo supported steps in favor of Azerbaijan in the Zangezur issue:
Nariman Narimanov: Dear Comrade Ordzhonikidze, have you not received a response to my telegram from Comrade Lenin? In your letter to him, you advised us against claiming other territories. What other territories did you mean? Karabakh and Zangezur are integral parts of Azerbaijan.
Ordzhonikidze: Dear Comrade Narimanov, I have just spoken to Chicherin about Karabakh and Zangezur. I said that these territories should be given to Azerbaijan immediately and unconditionally. But for this you need to give up claims to other territories (by other territories Ordzhonikidze means Sharur-Daralayaz and Nakhchivan) and give autonomy to Nagorno-Karabakh and Zangezur. This proposal must come from Azerbaijan and must not be specified in the contract on any account. I will meet with you regarding this tomorrow (Guliyeva, 1989:27).
In the autumn of 1920, members of the Central Committee of Armenia Anastas Mikoyan and Nurijanyan also sent a letter to Chicherin saying that Zangezur should stay in Azerbaijan: “The Dashnak government continues its attacks against Azerbaijan, and in some regions these attacks have been successful. Today, their army approached Gadabay and Gazakh. Armenian Communists retreating to Azerbaijan together with Muslims are fighting against the Dashnaks. For all intents and purposes, Armenia is currently at war with Azerbaijan. As for the alleged dispute over the inclusion of Zangezur and Karabakh in Soviet Azerbaijan, we state categorically that we have no claims to these territories and that these lands must remain part of Azerbaijan. Julfa and Nakhchivan regions have been governed by a council comprised of local Muslims for more than a year. The absolute majority of people living in this area are also Muslims. For direct contacts with Turkey to be established, this territory must be captured by Soviet troops and annexed to Azerbaijan” (Guliyeva, 1989:28).
However, as mentioned above, the situation changed with the stubborn resistance of Nzhdeh and Dro’s forces, who did not agree with the loss of Zangezur, and later with the establishment of Soviet Armenia. Soviet Russia wanted to strengthen the revolution in Turkey and the East through Azerbaijan by giving Karabakh, Zangezur and Nakhchivan to Azerbaijan. However, Soviet Russia, who wanted to make Azerbaijan stronger, did not want to lose Armenia either. Although Soviet Russia temporarily recognized Zangezur as Armenian territory in August 1920, it went back on its word after entering Yerevan in December 1920. From a historical perspective, this policy can be explained by the strong position of the Azerbaijani Communists on the Central Committee and the pro-Azerbaijani policy of almost all Bolsheviks, with the exception of Chicherin, in the Zangezur problem. But the violation of the 1920 agreement virtually led to the overthrow of the Soviet government in Armenia within 5 months. In this situation, Soviet Russia was forced to backtrack in the Zangezur issue.
Another reason for Soviet Russia’s withdrawal on this issue was the ultimatum of the Republic of Mountainous Armenia established by Nzhdeh in Zangezur. Nzhdeh threatened that Zangezur would fight to the end if it was not recognized by the Azerbaijan SSR and the Russian SFSR as Armenian territory. Following Russia’s and Azerbaijan’s statements on Zangezur, Nzhdeh left Armenia with almost no resistance. The “July operation” of Soviet troops in Zangezur was therefore carried out virtually without bloodshed. The Azerbaijani side could make a claim to Zangezur with the Bolshevik support for Azerbaijan in the Zangezur issue. The greatest factor weakening Azerbaijan’s claim in the region was the massacres of Azerbaijanis in Zangezur in 1918-1920. Changes in the ethnic composition of the region can be seen in the 1897 and 1926 censuses. In 1897, out of 137,900 people living here, 63,600 (46.2%) were Armenians, 71,200 (51.7%) were Azerbaijanis, and 1,800 (1.3%) were Kurds. According to the 1922 agricultural census, out of 63,500 people living in the Armenian part of Zangezur, 56,900 (89.5%) were Armenians and 6,500 (10.2%) were Azerbaijanis (Gardanov, 1969:13). If we look at the official census, we can conclude that 180,000 people in Armenia (two-thirds of the Azerbaijanis living in Irevan Governorate) were either killed or expelled in 1918-1921 (Mccarthy, 1997:380).
In this situation, the Azerbaijan SSR could not invoke the right of peoples of self-determination, as was the case in Nakhchivan and Zagatala regions. In 1921, according to the agreement in principle between the Armenian SSR and the Azerbaijan SSR, Zangezur Uyezd was divided in two: Lachin, Gubadli, Zangilan remained part of the Azerbaijan SSR, and four other districts (Kapan, Sisian, Meghri, Goris) were given to the Armenian SSR. With this agreement, the Zangezur problem between the two countries was resolved.
Тофик Кочарли, (2009), К истории карабахского вопроса: (вымыслы и действительность) (Tofik Kocharli, On the History of the Karabakh Issue: (fiction and reality))
Гулиева, Д. (1989), К истории образования Нагорно-Карабахской автономной области Азербайджанской ССР. 1918— 1925. Документы и материалы. (Guliyeva, D. On the History of the Formation of the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast of the Azerbaijan SSR. 1918-1925. Documents and Materials)
Николай Азовцев, (1974), Директивы командования фронтов Красной Армии, 1917-1922: сборник документов, Том 3 (Nikolai Azovtsev, Directives of the Front Command of the Red Army, 1917-1922: Collection of Documents, Volume 3)
Арнольд Кадишев, (1960), Интервенция и гражданская война в Закавказье (Arnold Kadishev, Intervention and Civil War in Transcaucasia)
Хейфец А.Н., (1968), Советская дипломатия и народы Востока. 1921-1927 (Heifetz A.N., Soviet Diplomacy and the Peoples of the East. 1921-1927)
Михаил Волхонский, (2009), Россия на Кавказе. Пять веков истории: научно-публицистические очерки (Mikhail Volkhonsky, Russia in the Caucasus. Five Centuries of History: Scientific and Journalistic Essays)
Arsene Saparov, (2014), From Conflict to Autonomy in the Caucasus: The Soviet Union and the Making of Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Nagorno Karabakh
В. К. Гарданов,(1969), Кавказский этнографический сборник, Том 4 (V.K. Gardanov, Caucasian Ethnographic Collection, Volume 4)
Justin Mccarthy, (1997), The Ottoman Turks: An Introductory History to 1923