Western Azerbaijan during the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic

During the period of the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic (1918–1920), the western regions of Azerbaijan faced border-related challenges. Although independent states of Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Armenia were established in the South Caucasus, their borders were not precisely defined. The complex situation of mixed population settlements in the territories of Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Armenia during the previous era of the Russian Empire contributed to the difficulty of determining clear borders.

Between 1918 and 1920, there were 11 disputed territory zones between Azerbaijan and Armenia, as well as between Azerbaijan and Georgia. While some of these disputes were resolved peacefully based on the principle of allowing the population to determine their fate freely, in many cases, armed clashes occurred due to the attempts of the Armenian and Georgian governments to settle the issue by force.

The area of the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic without border disputes was 97,297.67 km². This area included 39,075.15 km² for the Baku governorate, 44,371.29 km² for the Ganja governorate, 3992.54 km² for the Zaqatala governorate, and 9858.69 km² for the Irevan governorate. However, the disputed area of Azerbaijan between Armenia and Georgia was 16,598.30 km² (7,913.17 km² within the Irevan governorate and 8,685.30 km² within the Tiflis governorate). During this period, including the disputed territories, the total area of Azerbaijan reached 113,895.97 square kilometers.

After the establishment of the Soviet rule in Transcaucasia, the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic was compelled, under Moscow’s pressure, to cede approximately 10,000 km² of its undisputed territories to Armenia and Georgia during various periods.

Between 1918 and 1920, territorial disputes among the Transcaucasian republics took on a complex character. The characteristic feature of these conflicts was that the ethnic Muslim population of the disputed territories, as a rule, was the victim and was subjected to aggression by the neighboring republics, especially by the Armenian armed forces.

In 1918, Armenian armed forces eradicated 229 residential areas in the Baku governorate (including 58 in the Shamakhi district, 112 in the Quba district), 272 in the Ganja governorate (115 in Zangezur, 157 in Karabakh), 211 in the Irevan governorate (32 in Irevan district, 7 in Novo-Bayazid, 75 in Surmali, 84 in Etchmiadzin), and 82 residential areas in the Kars province. Hundreds of thousands of people were displaced and driven from their ethnic territories.

To address the refugee problem, the Muslim fraction of the Transcaucasian Seim established a refugee department in March of 1918. The Muslim fraction raised the issue with the Seim government, and a delegation was dispatched to put an end to the violence against Muslims in the Irevan governorate. The results of the investigation were discussed in the Seim session, and although some improvements were achieved in the refugees’ conditions, stopping the violence proved to be impossible.

In May 1918, when the Armenian state was established on the territory of the Iravan governorate, which included historical Azerbaijani lands, the choice of the capital city for this newly formed state was not determined. The Azerbaijani government, aiming to put an end to the national conflicts, declared on May 29 that they were willing to concede Iravan city for becoming the capital of the Armenians. However, the Iravan Muslim National Council immediately voiced its objection to this concession.

Based on the Batum Agreement signed on June 4, 1918, the territory of the Armenian Republic covered approximately 9,000 square kilometers, and the Armenian government announced that it had no territorial claims against Azerbaijan. Nevertheless, following massacres in Eastern Anatolia, Armenian armed forces under the command of General Andranik, fleeing the advancing Turkish forces, moved from Gyumri to Garakilse, then to Dilijan Valley and Goyche, and further to Nakhchivan and from there to Zangezur, leaving Muslim villages in ruins. The threat posed by the Armenian armed forces from Zangezur to Karabakh was a serious concern for the Azerbaijani government.

The Armenians living in the mountainous part of Karabakh armed themselves and sought to join the forces of Andranik, with the aim of uniting the Muslim-populated villages between Karabakh and Armenia by force. Andranik’s gang groups devastated the villages of Chamirli, Shorja, Gayabashy, Sariyaqub, Dashkend, Teze Qoshabulag, Gizilbulag, Yukhari Alchaly, and Kerkibash in the Goycha district of the Novo-Bayazid county, seizing property and forcing the surviving population to retreat to the mountains. Representatives of these villages came to Ganja and appealed to the head of the government, Fatali Khan Khoyski, requesting assistance to end the massacres against Muslims in the Novo-Bayazid county. As a result, the Azerbaijani government expressed its opposition to the Armenian government and demanded action to facilitate the return of the displaced population to their rightful lands.

After the Armenian armed forces wreaked havoc in Goycha, they occupied Nakhchivan and then entered the Zangezur district, capturing the Gorus district and the road to Shusha. In response, the Azerbaijani government sent a protest note to the Armenian government on August 15, condemning the Armenian armed forces’ actions as an invasion. The Azerbaijani government firmly stated that if no measures were taken to remove the Armenian forces from Azerbaijani territory, the responsibility for the subsequent developments would squarely fall on the Armenian government. However, the Armenian government used a ruse, claiming on August 1 that General Andranik and his detachment were not under the command of the Armenian government anymore. They explained that Andranik and his detachment had declared themselves independent from the Armenian government, and as a result, the Armenian government was not accountable for their actions. Furthermore, the Armenian government’s appointment of a representative to the Karvansara district (modern-day Ijevan) of the Gazakh county in October 1918, along with its assumption of control over that area, also sparked dissatisfaction from the Azerbaijani government. The Azerbaijani government protested against this action as well.

The Azerbaijani government, aiming to normalize relations with Armenia through peaceful means, put an end to internal conflicts and armed clashes, resolve territorial disputes fairly, and alleviate the situation of refugees, appointed Mammad Khan Takinski as a permanent representative to Armenia in early November 1918.

Despite numerous appeals from the Azerbaijani side to hold peace conferences in the autumn of 1918, the armenian side remained indifferent to this proposal. Taking advantage of the opportunity created by the withdrawal of Turkish and German forces from the Caucasus as a result of the Mudros Armistice signed on October 30 and the subsequent mandate given to British forces by the Allies to enter the Caucasus, Armenia opted to expand its territory at the expense of Azerbaijan and Georgia. However, the Armenian side was compelled to engage in peace talks due to the striking blows dealt by the local Muslim self-defense units in the Vedibasar and Zangibasar districts of the Iravan governorate, as well as the counterattacks by Georgian forces in the Borchaly and Loru regions.

To resolve the territorial disputes between Azerbaijan and Armenia in favor of Armenia, the Allied Commissariat sought to create neutral zones in the Nakhchivan and Sharur-Daralayaz districts, thereby removing these areas from Azerbaijani control. However, the Azerbaijani government rejected the pressures it faced and agreed to the creation of neutral zones on the condition that Azerbaijan’s sovereign rights would be preserved in those areas.

On November 23, 1919, the Prime Ministers of Azerbaijan and Armenia held a meeting in Tbilisi to resolve territorial disputes. During the meeting, the Armenian government pledged to withdraw its forces from Zangezur, which it had occupied, to ensure Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity. However, contrary to the promise made by the Armenian government about the withdrawal of the Armenian armed forces from the occupied settlements in Zangezur, on January 19-25, 1920, they destroyed 48 villages in the 3rd area of Zangezur district and 3 villages in the 4th area, subjected the local Muslim population to genocide.

In March 1920, as Bolshevik forces approached the northern borders of Azerbaijan, the secret arrival of members of the Armenian National Council from Armenia to Karabakh further escalated the situation with acts of sabotage and national atrocities. The Azerbaijani government took significant measures to expel Armenian emissaries from Karabakh and suppress separatist Armenians, ensuring the protection of its sovereign rights in the region. Despite the formal recognition of the independence of the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic by the Paris Peace Conference in January 1920, territorial disputes and internal conflicts remained unresolved. The refugee problem also persisted as a legacy of World War I and the national conflicts that occurred in the Baku and Iravan governorates in March-April 1918.

During World War I, Bakı governorate, particularly the city of Baku, had received thousands of refugees from Eastern Anatolia, the Balkans, and other conflict zones. The majority of these refugees were non-Muslims. During that period, alongside the Muslim Benevolent Society in Baku, committees and societies like the Armenian Refugee Assistance Committee, Latvian Refugee Assistance Committee, Committee for Assistance to the Dispersed Polish Population due to the War, Baku Office of the Committee for Registration of Refugees founded by Princess Tatyana Nikolayeva, and Baku branch of the General Commission for the Settlement of Refugees on the Caucasus Front were active. The information sent by the Baku Gradonachalnik to Petrograd on December 31, 1917, stated that there were 2,568 refugees in Baku, including 1,763 Armenians, 276 Latvians, 169 Russians, 157 Jews, 95 Greeks, 84 Poles, 13 Assyrians, 7 Hungarians, 3 Czechs, and 1 Bulgarian. It is apparent that the Baku Gradonachalnik intentionally excluded Muslim refugees from the registration, aiming to deprive them of aid. In reality, during that period, thousands of Turkish refugees, especially from Eastern Anatolia and Kars, found refuge in Baku. They were taken care of by the Muslim Benevolent Society of Baku. After the establishment of the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic’s government in Ganja, the Ministry of Health and Protection was formed, and Khudadat bey Rafibeyli was appointed as the Minister. 

In October, when the Azerbaijani government moved to Baku, this ministry was divided into two entities – the Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Protection. According to the information provided by the Ganja district inspector in 1919, in addition to Muslim refugees in Ganja, there were 3,928 Armenians (including 1,818 Turkish Armenians), and 427 Russian refugees who had sought refuge from the Saratovka and Novo-Ivanovka villages, which had been destroyed by Armenian armed forces. The Ministry of Protectorship had established a military hospital (lazaret) in Ganja to accommodate Armenian refugees. As mentioned, one of the directions of the Ministry of Protection’s activities was to assist compatriots living abroad and Muslim refugees.    

On June 4, 1919, the Azerbaijani government instructed its diplomatic representative in Irevan, M. Takinsky, to collect statistical data about the villages of Irevan governorate and Kars province that had been devastated by Armenian armed forces, including the names of those killed and their relatives, as well as information about those taken prisoner or stolen livestock. The Azerbaijani government intended to use these facts at the Paris Peace Conference. The Irevan Muslim National Council had also used these facts in its appeal to the heads of missions of major states in the Caucasus. To address the issue of Muslim refugees in Armenia, Zulfuqar bey Makinsky was appointed as a representative of the Ministry of Protection in Irevan, on July 8, 1919.

Even during World War I, the Baku Muslim Benevolent Society had opened a branch in Kars. This society had saved 40,000 Turks from famine and death as a result of the atrocities perpetrated by Armenians. During the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic era, a representative office was established on the basis of this branch in Kars. In January 1919, the South-West Caucasus government appealed to the Azerbaijani government, requesting financial assistance and officials to resolve the refugee problem. The Azerbaijani government had sent gold coins through several diplomatic figures (a delegation) to provide aid to the population of the Chyldyr and Aghbaba districts, and the refugees from Irevan governorate who had found shelter in these areas.

In 1918–1920, Azerbaijanis from Armenia and Kars province came to the border of Georgia mainly via the Irevan-Gyumru-Tbilisi and Kars-Gumri-Tbilisi railways, and from there they made their way to Azerbaijan via the Tbilisi-Ganja-Baku railway. In general, in 1919, the permanent representation of Azerbaijan in Georgia ordered 171 wagons from the Ministry of Roads of Georgia to send refugees from Armenia and Kars province to Tbilisi.

According to the information provided by the Permanent Representation of Azerbaijan in Armenia, the number of Muslim population whose houses were destroyed and were displaced by the Armenian armed forces in Novo-Beyazid, Etchmiadzin and Irevan districts in 1919 alone reached 200 thousand. Based on the information provided by the representative of the Ministry of Protection in Armenia, the ministry submitted a draft decision to the Parliament on providing assistance to the population in Armenia. In July 1919, 3 million manats were allocated for this purpose. At the expense of these funds, 15 wagons of flour, grain and barley were sent to Armenia. In addition, since September 1, 1919, a dispensary for Muslims was opened in Irevan, and an orphanage for 85 people was organized there. Later, this orphanage was placed at the disposal of the American Children’s Aid Committee. In order to provide assistance to Muslims fleeing from Armenia and Kars province, mobile food stations (free canteens) were opened on the roads they passed. According to the instructions of the Ministry of Defense, such food stations were opened at the Ashaghi Saral station and near Tbilisi.

On the eve of the fall of the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic, a little more than 10,000 Turkish (Azerbaijani) people remained out of the 575,000 Muslim population that lived in the territory of today’s Armenia until 1918. Therefore, from the more than half a million Azerbaijani population who were subjected to genocide in Armenia in 1918–1920, the main part of the population who could save their lives found refuge in Azerbaijan as refugees. However, the problem of the return of refugees to their ancestral lands was inherited by Soviet Azerbaijan from Azerbaijan Democratic Republic. Unfortunately, this problem was not solved fairly even during the Soviet rule in Azerbaijan. Until 1922, only 100,000 Azerbaijanis were able to return to present-day Armenia – to their historical ethnic lands.

Nazim Mustafa
Doctor of philosophy in history, recipient of the State Prize