Soviet Armenian History

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World War I and Its Consequences

As was the case for most of Europe, World War I changed Armenia's geopolitical situation. The war also precipitated an ethnic disaster of rare magnitude and brought the Armenians who remained in their native territory into a new type of empire.

Postwar Realignment

Between 1915 and 1917, Russia occupied virtually the entire Armenian part of the Ottoman Empire. Then in October 1917, the Bolshevik victory in Russia ended that country's involvement in World War I, and Russian troops left the Caucasus. In the vacuum that remained, the Armenians first joined a Transcaucasian federation with Azerbaijan and Georgia, both of which, however, soon proved to be unreliable partners. The danger posed by the territorial ambitions of the Ottoman Turks and the Azerbaijanis finally united the Caucasian Armenian population in support of the ARF program for autonomy. In May 1918, an independent Armenian republic was declared; its armies continued to fight on the Allied side south of the Caucasus until the Ottoman Empire surrendered in October 1918. The independent republic endured from May 1918 to December 1920. In the new government, ARF leaders R.I. Kachazuni and A.I. Khatisian became prime minister and foreign minister, respectively.

The Republic of Armenia included the northeastern part of present-day eastern Turkey, west along the Black Sea coast past Trabzon and southwest past Lake Van. But Armenia's precarious independence was threatened from within by the terrible economic conditions that followed the war in the former Ottoman Empire and, by 1920, by the territorial ambitions of Soviet Russia and the nationalist Turks under Mustafa Kemal (known as Ataturk). Atatürk had rehabilitated Turkey rapidly under a new democratic system, but the ruling party still hoped to create a larger state by taking territory in western Armenia from which Armenians had been driven. In defending its independence, the Republic of Armenia waited in vain, however, for the material and military aid promised at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919. The Allies' memories of the 1915 massacre faded as war weariness and isolationism dominated their foreign policy.

In agreeing to the 1920 Treaty of Sèvres, the World War I Allies and Turkey recognized Armenian independence; as part of the treaty, Armenia received some disputed territory in what had been the Ottoman Empire. However, most of western Armenia remained in Turkish hands. Eastern Armenia, ravaged by warfare, migration, and disease, had an Armenian population of only 720,000 by 1920. Caught between the advancing Turks and the Red Army, which had already occupied neighboring Azerbaijan, in November 1920 the ARF government made a political agreement with the communists to enter a coalition government. The Treaty of Aleksandropol', signed by this government with Turkey, returned Armenia's northern Kars District to Russia and repudiated the existence of Armenian populations in newly expanded Turkey.

Into the Soviet Union

In 1922 Armenia was combined with Azerbaijan and Georgia to form the Transcaucasian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic (TSFSR), which was a single republic of the Soviet Union until the federation was dissolved and each part given republic status in 1936. When the TSFSR was formed, the new Soviet government in the Armenian capital of Erevan ruled over a shrunken country with a devastated economy and few resources with which to feed the populace and rebuild itself. In integrating their republic into the newly forming Soviet Union, Armenian communists surrendered the sovereignty that the independent republic had enjoyed briefly. Although it eliminated rival political parties and restricted the range of public expression, the new government promoted Armenian culture and education, invited artists and intellectuals from abroad to return to Armenia, and managed to create an environment of greater security and material well-being than Armenians had known since the outbreak of World War I.

The Communist Era

During the rule of Joseph Stalin (in power 1926-53), Armenian society and its economy were changed dramatically by Moscow policy makers. In a period of twenty-five years, the Armenian Soviet Socialist Republic was industrialized and educated under strictly prescribed conditions, and nationalism was harshly suppressed. After Stalin's death, Moscow allowed greater expression of national feeling, but the corruption endemic in communist rule continued until the very end in 1991. The last years of communism also brought disillusionment in what had been one of the most loyal republics in the Soviet Union until the late 1980s.

Stalinist Restructuring

Stalin's radical restructuring of the Soviet economic and political systems at the end of the 1920s ended the brief period of moderate rule and mixed economy under what was known as the New Economic Policy (see Modern Economic History , this ch.). Under Stalin the Communist Party of Armenia (CPA) used police terror to strengthen its political hold on the population and suppress all expressions of nationalism. At the height of the Great Terror orchestrated by Stalin in 1936-37, the ranks of CPA leaders and intellectuals were decimated by Lavrenti Beria, political commissar for the Transcaucasian republics.

Stalin's enforced social and economic engineering improved literacy and education and built communications and industrial infrastructures where virtually none had existed in tsarist times. As they emerged from the Stalin era in the 1950s, Armenians were more mobile, better educated, and ready to benefit from the less repressive policies of Stalin's successor, Nikita Khrushchev (in power 1953-64). The years of industrialization had promoted an upward social mobility through which peasants became workers; workers became foremen or managers; and managers became party and state officials.

Communism after Stalin

After Stalin's death in 1953, Moscow granted the republic more autonomy in decision making, which meant that the local communist elite increased its power and became entrenched in Armenian politics in the 1950s and 1960s. Although overt political opposition remained tightly restricted, expressions of moderate nationalism were viewed with greater tolerance. Statues of Armenian national heroes were erected, including one of Saint Vartan, the fifth-century defender of Armenian Christianity.

Even as Armenia continued its transformation from a basically agrarian nation to an industrial, urban society--by the early 1980s, only a third of Armenians lived in the countryside--the ruling elite remained largely unchanged. As a result, corruption and favoritism spread, and an illegal "second economy" of black markets and bribery flourished. In 1974 Moscow sent a young engineer, Karen Demirchian, to [Yerevan]] to clean up the old party apparatus, but the new party chief soon accommodated himself to the corrupt political system he had inherited.

The New Nationalism

Three issues combined by 1988 to stimulate a broad-based Armenian nationalist movement. First, the urbanization and industrialization of Armenia had brought severe ecological problems, the most threatening of which was posed by a nuclear power plant at Metsamor, west of Yerevan. Second, many Armenians were angered by the pervasive corruption and arrogance of the communist elite, which had become entrenched as a privileged ruling class. Third and most immediate, Armenians were increasingly concerned about the status of Nagorno-Karabakh, an autonomous region of Azerbaijan having nearly 200,000 Armenians living within Azerbaijan under Azerbaijani rule, isolated from mainstream Armenian culture.

Control of Nagorno-Karabakh (the conventional geographic term is based on the Russian for the phrase "mountainous Karabakh") had been contested by the briefly independent republics of Armenia and Azerbaijan after World War I. In 1924 the Soviet government designated the region an autonomous region under Azerbaijani jurisdiction within the TSFSR. At the time, 94.4 percent of the estimated 131,500 people in the district were Armenian. Between 1923 and 1979, the Armenian population of the enclave dropped by about 1,000, comprising only about 76 percent of the population by the end of the period. In the same period, the Azerbaijani population quintupled to 37,000, or nearly 24 percent of the region's population. Armenians feared that their demographic decline in Nagorno-Karabakh would replicate the fate of another historically Armenian region, Nakhichevan, which the Soviet Union had designated an autonomous republic under Azerbaijani administration in 1924. In Nakhichevan the number of Armenians had declined from about 15,600 (15 percent of the total) in 1926 to about 3,000 (1.4 percent of the total) in 1979, while in the same period immigration and a higher birth rate had increased the Azerbaijani population from about 85,400 (85 percent) to 230,000, or nearly 96 percent of the total.

In addition to fearing the loss of their numerical superiority, Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh resented restrictions on the development of the Armenian language and culture in the region. Although the Armenians generally lived better than Azerbaijanis in neighboring districts, their standard of living was not as high as that of their countrymen in Armenia. Hostile to the Azerbaijanis, whom they blamed for their social and cultural problems, the vast majority of Karabakh Armenians preferred to learn Russian rather than Azerbaijani, the language of Azerbaijan. As early as the 1960s, clashes occurred between the Karabakh Armenians and the Azerbaijanis, and Armenian intellectuals petitioned Moscow for redress of their situation in Nagorno-Karabakh.

A series of escalating attacks and reprisals between the two sides began in early 1988. Taking advantage of the greater freedom introduced by the glasnost (see Glossary) and perestroika (see Glossary) policies of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev (in power 1985-91) in the late 1980s, Armenians held mass demonstrations in favor of uniting Nagorno-Karabakh with Armenia. In response to rumored Armenian demands, Azerbaijanis began fleeing the region. A two-day rampage in the industrial town of Sumgait, northwest of Baku, resulted in the deaths of more than 100 Armenians. During 1988, while Moscow hesitated to take decisive action, Armenians grew increasingly disillusioned with Gorbachev's programs, and Azerbaijanis sought to protect their interests by organizing a powerful anti-Armenian nationalist movement.

Nagorno-Karabakh and Independence

The conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh (often called simply Karabakh) served as a catalyst for nationalist movements following the precipitous decline of the Soviet Union in the late 1980s (see fig. 3). In the early 1990s, the struggle defied all negotiating efforts of the West and Russia.

Karabakh as a National Issue

The protests of the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh against Azerbaijani rule began in the spirit of perestroika, but the movement evolved quickly into a political organization, the Karabakh Committee, a broad anticommunist coalition for democracy and national sovereignty. In the confusion following the earthquake that devastated northern Armenia in December 1988, Soviet authorities tried to stem the growing opposition to their rule by arresting the leaders of the committee. The attempt by the CPA to rule in Armenia without support from Armenian nationalists only worsened the political crisis. In March 1989, many voters boycotted the general elections for the Soviet Union's Congress of People's Deputies. Massive demonstrations were held to demand the release of the members of the committee, and, in the elections to the Armenian Supreme Soviet, the legislative body of the republic, in May, Armenians chose delegates identified with the Karabakh cause. At that time, the flag of independent Armenia was flown for the first time since 1920. The release of the Karabakh Committee followed the 1989 election; for the next six months, the nationalist movement and the Armenian communist leadership worked as uncomfortable allies on the Karabakh issue.

Gorbachev's 1989 proposal for enhanced autonomy for Nagorno-Karabakh within Azerbaijan satisfied neither Armenians nor Azerbaijanis, and a long and inconclusive conflict erupted between the two peoples. In September 1989, Azerbaijan began an economic blockade of Armenia's vital fuel and supply lines through its territory, which until that time had carried about 90 percent of Armenia's imports from the other Soviet republics. In June 1989, numerous unofficial nationalist organizations joined together to form the Armenian Pannational Movement (APM), to which the Armenian government granted official recognition.

The Karabakh Crisis Escalates, 1989

The Azerbaijani-Armenian conflict escalated steadily in the summer and fall of 1989. Both the APM and the newly formed Azerbaijani Popular Front (APF) called for abolition of the Special Administrative Committee that Gorbachev had established to manage Nagorno-Karabakh. The Armenians held to their position that the region must become part of Armenia, and radical Azerbaijanis called for abolition of Karabakh autonomy. As hundreds of thousands of Azerbaijanis demonstrated in Baku, their government further restricted the flow of goods and fuel into Karabakh and Armenia. In August 1989, Karabakh Armenians responded by electing their own National Council, which declared the secession of Karabakh from Azerbaijan and its merger with Armenia. The Armenian Supreme Soviet then declared the Karabakh National Council the sole legitimate representative of the Karabakh people. The Azerbaijani Supreme Soviet responded by abrogating the autonomy of both Karabakh and Nakhichevan.

Although the declarations and counter declarations of mid1989 were ultimately declared invalid by the Supreme Soviet of the Soviet Union, and although both Armenia and Azerbaijan continued to be governed by communist parties, neither republic was willing to obey Moscow's directives on the Karabakh issue. In November 1989, in frustration at its inability to bring the parties together, the Supreme Soviet of the Soviet Union abolished the Special Administrative Committee and returned direct control of Karabakh to Azerbaijan. Rejecting Moscow's decision, the Armenian Supreme Soviet declared Karabakh a part of Armenia in December 1989.

After more than two years of the Karabakh conflict, Armenia had gone from being one of the most loyal Soviet republics to complete loss of confidence in Moscow. Gorbachev's unwillingness to grant Karabakh to Armenia and his failure to end the blockade convinced Armenians that the Kremlin considered it politically advantageous to back the more numerous Muslims. Even the invasion of Azerbaijan by Soviet troops in January 1990, ostensibly to stop pogroms against Armenians in Baku, failed to dampen the growing anti-Soviet mood among Armenians (see Within the Soviet Union, ch. 2).

A New Political Climate

The resignation of Suren Harutiunian as first secretary of the CPA in April 1990 and the triumph of the APM in the elections of the spring and summer of 1990 signaled the end of the old party elite and the rise of a new Armenian political class that had matured during the two years of tensions over Karabakh. The newly elected Armenian parliament (which retained the Soviet-era name Supreme Soviet or Supreme Council) chose Levon Ter Petrosian instead of the new CPA first secretary as its chairman, and hence as head of state of the republic.

With the APM in power and the communists in opposition, the transition from Soviet-style government to an independent democratic state began in earnest. The new government faced a nearly complete collapse of order in the republic. Buildings were seized by armed men in Erevan, and several independent militia groups operated in Erevan as well as on the Azerbaijani frontier. Frustrated by the Azerbaijani blockade and determined to defend their republic and Karabakh, members of Armenia's Fidain (whose name was taken from an Arabic term literally meaning "one who sacrifices himself" and recalling the Armenian freedom fighters of the turn of the century) raided arsenals and police stations to arm themselves for the coming battles. In July Gorbachev demanded immediate disarmament of the Armenian militias and threatened military intervention if they did not comply. In response, Ter-Petrosian's government itself disarmed the independent militias and restored order in Yerevan.

On August 23, 1990, Armenia formally declared its intention to become sovereign and independent, with Nagorno-Karabakh an integral part of what now would be known as the Republic of Armenia rather than the Armenian Soviet Socialist Republic. The Armenian nation was defined broadly to include not only those living in the territory of the republic but also the worldwide Armenian йmigrй population as well.

In redefining Armenian national interests, the government acknowledged--but temporarily put aside--the painful question of Armenian Genocide, having in mind improved relations with traditional enemies Turkey and Iran. This policy prompted strong criticism from extreme nationalist groups that wanted to recover territory lost to Turkey in World War I. The CPA was also vehemently critical.

Independence

In January 1991, the Armenian Supreme Soviet decided not to participate in Gorbachev's planned referendum on preserving the Soviet Union. In March the parliament announced that, instead, the republic would hold its own referendum in September, in compliance with the procedure outlined in the Soviet constitution for a republic to secede. Although literal compliance would mean that Armenia would not be fully independent for five years after the referendum, Moscow soon moved to change Armenia's course. Without notifying the Armenian government, Moscow sent paratroopers to the republic in early May, ostensibly to protect Soviet defense installations in Armenia. Ter-Petrosian's official statement in reaction characterized the move as a virtual declaration of war by the Soviet Union.

In August 1991, when a self-proclaimed emergency committee attempted to overthrow Gorbachev and take control in Moscow, the Armenian government refused to sanction its actions. Fearing an extension of the Soviet incursion of May, Ter-Petrosian approached the Moscow coup very cautiously. The republic's Defense Committee secretly resolved to have the Armenian armed forces go underground and wage guerrilla warfare. Ter-Petrosian, who believed that Gorbachev's personal blunders, indecisiveness, and concessions to conservative communists were to blame for the coup, was overjoyed when the conservatives were defeated. But the coup itself convinced Armenians of the need to move out of the Soviet Union as rapidly as possible, and it validated TerPetrosian 's refusal to participate in the revival of the Soviet Union advocated by Gorbachev.

Within two months of the coup, Armenians went to the polls twice. In September 1991, over 99 percent of voters approved the republic's commitment to independence. The immediate aftermath of that vote was the Armenian Supreme Soviet's declaration of full independence, on September 23, in disregard of the constitution's restraints on secession. Then in October, Ter-Petrosian was elected overwhelmingly as president of the republic. He now had a popular mandate to carry out his vision of Armenian independence and self-sufficiency.

As political changes occurred within the republic, armed conflict continued in Nagorno-Karabakh during 1991. Armenia officially denied supporting the "Nagorno-Karabakh defense forces" that were pushing Azerbaijani forces out of the region; Armenia also accused the Soviet Union of supporting Azerbaijan as punishment for Armenia's failure to sign Gorbachev's new Union Treaty. In turn, Azerbaijan called Armenia an aggressor state whose national policy included annexation of Azerbaijani territory.




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