Armenia: the Background to Events

The following is an abridged text of a contribution from a supporter to a recent Socialist Party meeting on the theme of “Ethnic Unrest in the Russian State Capitalist Empire”. It provides a background for understanding the current territorial dispute in the Caucasus.

Who are the Armenians?

As a major crossroads, a land rich in natural resources, and an excellent base for military operations against rival powers in the surrounding lowlands, Armenia has been coveted by powerful empires. Often its possession was the key to supremacy over much of Western Asia. From the West came the armies of the Macedonian, Roman and Byzantine empires; from the East, the armies of the Persian, Turkic and Mongol empires; from the South those of the Seleucid, Arab and Mameluk empires, and from the North the Russian empire. All the wars were similar in that they brought people suffering, destruction and death; what changed were the names of the foreign and “native” rulers.

The resulting insecurity of life ruined the country economically and culturally and prompted thousands of Armenians to flee. Colonies were established in Poland, Crimea, India, Constantinople, as well as commercial and cultural centres in Venice, Genoa, Amsterdam, Moscow and elsewhere. It was in these colonies that, centuries later, the first stirrings of the Armenian emancipatory notion took form, such as the demand for Armenian independence on the principle of constitutional rule.

In historical Armenia itself, Moslem settlements rose on the sites of former Armenian cities or adjacent to still existing Armenian villages. The process of ethnic transmutation gradually led to Turkic Moslem dominance. Of those Armenians who remained, most eventually lost their lands to the military feudal states that embraced the region. Accompanying loss of government, ethnic alteration and economic regression was intellectual, cultural and moral decline. Karl Marx mentions “the invasion of the Turks into Asia Minor as one of the direst calamities of the Middle Ages”.

The Eastern Question

Russian expansion into the Caucasus occurred when Modem Western capitalism was becoming the most pervasive force in international relations, and when technologically- backward states such as the Ottoman and Persian realms were being integrated into the world market system. What once were issues of local significance acquired implications for major power relations, and decisions taken in Europe affected the lives of peoples in remote areas of the globe.

The gradual decline of Turkish rule in the Balkans was to offer a vast field for Russian expansionism. The ultimate fate of these territories constituted the Eastern Question and particularly concerned two of the major powers, Great Britain and Austria.

For British capitalism the principal aim was to ensure that the Russian Black Sea fleet could not enter the eastern Mediterranean. So, Britain supported Turkey against Russian advancement. But when the emergence of the German Empire in 1871 was followed by the gradual succumbing of Turkey to German influence, Britain was to swing round to friendship and eventually wartime alliance with Russia, to whom by 1915 she was even ready to offer the control of the straits of Dardanelle.

For Austria, any kind of change in the Balkans was bound to be for the worse. The Hapsburgs naturally objected to further Russian expansion, and the carving of independent states out of Turkey-in-Europe would become a focal point for the Slav nationalist groups within the Hapsburg dominions.

Russian policy, in fact, did not aim at immediate acquisition. Given the imperialist rivalries, Russia’s plans were based rather on a gradual extension of influence under the guise of a protectorate over all orthodox Christians.

The emergence of Armenian national consciousness lagged behind that of the Balkan peoples, so that by the time the Armenians had formulated their programme for reform, self-rule and even political autonomy, the Ottoman Empire was entrenched in a period of reaction. To the Turkish government, threatened with the final partition of their dominions. Armenian demands were separatist, disloyal and dangerous.

But neither the British proposals for reform, nor the increase in the number of European consuls on the plateau, nor the subsequent notes of protest and warning from the six European powers against the deteriorating situation there improved things in Turkish Armenia. In fact, Abdul Hamid the ruler of the Ottoman Empire’s response to European meddling was the massacre of more than 200,000 Armenians during 1895-6.

The Armenian nationalist movement

The Ottoman constitutional reform movement and Armenian liberalism had both failed. Revolutionary political parties then emerged, organised primarily by elements from the peasants, artisans and radicalised segments of the intelligentsia.

The first Armenian political party, the Hunchak party, was founded in Geneva in 1887 by Eastern (or Russian) Armenians. The founders had all been born in the Russian Empire and had been members of Narodnik groups. They had a conceptual framework which related the particular Armenian experience to larger, universal historical forces and were committed to the cause of the common people. The Hunchak party claimed in fact to be socialist but wanted to keep the two struggles, national and class, apart. Thus national independence was seen as the first priority and the establishment of a socialist order the ultimate goal, to be established after the achievement of national independence.

The second Armenian political party was the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF) founded in 1890 in Tbilisi, in Russian Georgia.

Until 1900 Russian Armenians generally filled the role of suppliers and supporters of the struggle in Ottoman Armenia. But the Tsarist government’s edict ordering the expropriation of Armenian church properties and the Armano-Tartar conflict at the time of the 1905 Russian revolution brought to the surface the question of political and economic oppression in Russian Armenia.

The fourth General Congress of the ARF, in Vienna in 1907, drew the conclusion from this new development that in essence Armenians on both sides of the border were engaged in a single revolution since in both sectors the struggle was against political despotism, national oppression and economic exploitation; the differences in the levels of economic and political development between the two empires required a different emphasis of activities rather than a different struggle or organisation in each.

The programme adopted further stated that socialism strives toward the elimination of an barriers and discrimination among nations and toward the creation of a single harmonious humanity that would replace today’s divided and antagonistic contradictory world; but that socialism does not require the total assimilation of national entities which, through the inherited peculiarities of their history will enrich the future socialist humanity.

However, events beyond the control of the political parties of the Armenian people during and after the first world war overtook the theories, thwarting the national programme and pre-empting the socialist ideal.

Who recalls the Armenian massacres nowadays?

The Sultan’s rule had become unbearable for some Turkish patriotic groups who saw clearly the decline and destruction of their empire. Turkish leaders like Ahmed Riza believed that only the institution of efficient just government could save the Ottoman Empire from dissolution.

The Armenian parties, especially the ARF, found cause here to renew their hopes for reforms in the Ottoman Empire and its eastern provinces. They consulted, negotiated and co-operated with prominent Young Turks and in 1908 when the Young Turks took control of the Ottoman government and proclaimed a Constitution, jubilant Armenians welcomed the dawn of a new era; Armenian guerrillas laid down their arms.

The era of Armeno-Turkish co-operation did not last long. The more liberal-democratic elements in the Young Turk Committee of Union and Progress lost control and a new ruling clique gravitated towards extreme nationalism. The Committee of Union and Progress embraced the policy of Pan-Turkism and Pan-Islamism and began to entertain ideas of expansion towards the East. The first setback of the constitutional movement in 1909 was accompanied by the massacre of 30,000 Armenians.

In 1914 the European powers began their war for a re-division of the world market. An agreement had already been concluded between Germany and Turkey. The Turkish government sought to give the war a religious aspect and one pamphlet prepared with German help urged Moslems to slaughter Christians (except Germans and Austrians). The extermination of the Armenians was agreed upon and the means of carrying it out were devised.

The genocide started as early as January 1915. Three-and-a-half million Armenians lived in Western Armenia before the genocide and over two million were massacred, while those who miraculously remained alive fled abroad. The Turkish authorities hoped that, after the inevitable initial wave of international indignation, the massacres would soon be forgotten. They weren’t mistaken: twenty-five years later another assassin by the name of Adolf Hitler relied on the same “forgetfulness” when sending his SS butchers to invade Poland, urging them to be brutal and merciless with the remark “who recalls the Armenian massacres nowadays?”

The Armenian republic and Soviet rule

The collapse of Tsarism in 1917 led to the disintegration of its Empire in the Caucasus as elsewhere. In May 1918 following a brief and unsuccessful attempt at federation, the three major groups, the Georgians, the Azeris (Turkish-speaking Moslems) and the Armenians all declared their independence.

The Armenian Republic began its existence on about 12,000 square kilometres of bleak, rugged terrain, crammed with refugees, devoid of the bare essentials of life and surrounded by hostile forces. Famine and epidemics killed more than 200,000.

The defeat of the Central Powers in the war transformed Armenia’s disadvantages into seeming advantages. From the Allied point of view Georgia and Azerbaijan had collaborated with the defeated enemy powers whereas battered Armenia stood as the loyal martyred nation.

While the Allied Powers drew up plans to partition the Ottoman Empire without facing up to the fact that the terms would have to be enforced by military means in Turkish Armenia, Mustafa Kemal and other Turkish resistance leaders sought Soviet support in the struggle against their common enemies. The Soviet leaders, in their turn, recognised the potential aid that Turkish influence could play in stirring up the Muslim colonial world against the Western powers, thereby saving the Bolshevik government and the Soviet state.

On 2 December 1920 Armenia became a “Soviet Socialist Republic” and Soviet Russia acknowledged as indisputable parts of that state all lands that had been under the jurisdiction of the Armenian Independent Republic. But on the international level Soviet Russia sacrificed the Armenian question to cement the Turkish alliance. In 1921 it ceded Karabagh and Nakhidgevan to Soviet Azerbaidjani rule while the provinces of Kara and Ardahan, which were a part of Russian Armenia from 1878 to 1917, were ceded to Turkey. The European Powers too closed the Armenian question. It was bitterly ironic for the Armenians that of the several defeated Central Powers Turkey alone expanded beyond its pre-1914 boundaries and this only on the Armenian border.

Sovietisation has been acclaimed as the salvation of the Armenian people and the best defence available against Turkish expansion, which in 1920 could have resulted in the uprooting of the Russian Armenian population as had happened in Turkey. But Sovietisation has not prevented Armenian nationalist agitation. In 1965 the official commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the Genocide was interrupted by violent outbursts by young demonstrators in Yerevan demanding action “to recover lost lands”, in particular Karabagh. In the early 1970s Soviet courts tried, convicted and imprisoned a number of activists who had joined together as a “National Union Party”.

Consistent charges have been made against Soviet Azerbaidjan of a continued policy of cultural oppression, economic discrimination and ethnic disadvantages against the Armenians of Karabagh. In 1975 many Armenians were ousted from the Communist Party in Karabagh or imprisoned and charged with nationalist agitation. Since the coming to power of Gorbachev the demand for the transfer of Karabagh from Azerbaidjan to Armenia has been renewed with even more force, culminating in mass demonstrations in the streets of Yerevan of recent months.

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