Was Karabakh “transferred to” or retained within Azerbaijan in accordance with the decree of July 5, 1921, of the Caucasus Bureau?

After the occupation of the countries in the South Caucasus by Soviet Russia, Nagorno-Karabakh became the topic of discussion again, and it was granted autonomous status within the Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republic in 1923. Armenia argues that Nagorno-Karabakh was never part of independent Azerbaijan. It argues that Nagorno-Karabakh was a historical part of Armenia but was forcibly and illegally transferred to Soviet Azerbaijan as part of the Soviet “divide and rule” policy in the South Caucasus. According to Moorad Mooradian and Daniel Druckman, “in 1921, Joseph Stalin and Vladimir Lenin, working through the Caucasian Bureau of the Russian Communist Party, pacified Mustafa Kemal, the demanding leader of the Turkish Nationalist Army, by assigning the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh to Azerbaijan.”[1]

On the other hand, “Azerbaijanis maintain that the decision merely recognized a pre-existing reality.”[2] According to the Russian State Archive of Socio-Political History, Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin never ceded it to Azerbaijan, as many western scholars and news reports state. The most important document relating to this issue is the Kavbureau CC RCP(b) (Caucasus Bureau of the Central Committee of the Russian Communist Party of the Bolsheviks) plenum decree dated July 5, 1921, in which  Stalin, together with several Armenian members of Kavbureau CC RCP(b), namely A. Nazaretyan and A. Myasnikyan, decided “on “leaving” (or “retaining”; the term in original Russian that was used in the document: оставить (ostavit)) Nagorno-Karabakh within Azerbaijan and not “transferring” (or ceding; in Russian: отдать (otdat)) it to anyone: “Nagorno-Karabakh to leave within the borders of Azerbaijan SSR.”[3]

Referring to the first paragraph of the July 5 Kavbureau decision, Armenian Law professor Shahen Avakian also writes: “Proceedings from the necessity of establishing peace between Muslims and Armenians… leave Nagorno-Karabagh in the Azerbaijan SSR”.[4] Here, special emphasis should be put on the Russian word “оставить (ostavit),” which is translated as “leaving” or “retaining.” Translating it as “transferring” is a misleading historical fact. Hence, if Stalin decided, with the Kavbureau CC RCP(b) decree, to “retain” or “leave” Karabakh within the territory of Azerbaijan, it means that Karabakh belonged to Azerbaijan even before Sovietisation.

Concerning the subjection of Nagorno-Karabakh to Azerbaijan before the Soviet Union, Armenians also argue that during the independent period in the South Caucasus republics, between 1918 and 1920, the new-born League of Nations did not recognize the independence of Azerbaijan and its claims on Nagorno-Karabakh because of the fragility of the state.[5] On this aspect, Svante Cornell states that the new army of Great Britain entered Azerbaijan in October 1918 under the command of General William Thomson, according to the provision in the Mudros treaty that was signed on October 30, 1918, between the Ottoman Empire and the Allied countries. However, General Thomson later “warmed to the democratic credentials of the Azerbaijan People’s Republic, and came to recognize it as the legitimate government of Azerbaijan […], and granted Azerbaijan jurisdiction over Karabakh,” according to Cornell.[6] Moreover, in the early 1920s, the Versailles Peace Conference recognized the de-facto independence of Azerbaijan and its claims on Karabakh.[7]

While referring to the declaration of Soviet Azerbaijan on November 30, 1920, even the Armenian researcher Avakian is convinced that “according to this declaration, the borders previously accepted between Armenia and Azerbaijan were abrogated and Nagorno-Karabagh, Zanghezour, and [Nakhchivan] were recognized as an integral part of the Soviet Armenia.”[8] Here, attention should be drawn again to the word “abrogation.” If, as Armenians argue, Nagorno-Karabakh was not part of Azerbaijan before Sovietisation, how did Azerbaijan have a legal right to declare abrogation of the previously accepted border between Azerbaijan and Armenia and grant Armenia sovereignty over Nagorno-Karabakh? This declaration thus makes it crystal clear that the borders between Azerbaijan and Armenia were abrogated according to the declaration, i.e., there was an agreement on the border issues between these two republics, and Armenia recognized these territories as part of Azerbaijan before Sovietisation.

[1] Mooradian, Moorad and Druckman, Daniel, “Hurting Stalemate or Mediation? The Conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh, 1990-95,” Journal of Peace Research, Vol. 36, No. 6, 1999, p. 709.

[2] De Waal, Thomas, The Caucasus: An Introduction (Oxford University Press, 2010), p. 104.

[3] Russian State Archive of Socio-Political History (Moscow), f. 64, op. 2, d.1, p. 118-121-122. Retrieved from Baguirov, Adil, “Nagorno-Karabakh: Basis and Reality of Soviet-era Legal and Economic Claims used to Justify the Armenia-Azerbaijan War,” Caucasian Review of International Affairs, Vol. 2, No. 1, 2008, p. 5.

[4] Avakian, Shahen, Nagorno-Karabakh: Legal Aspects (Tigran Mets Publishing House, 2010), p. 13.

[5] Avetisyan, Aram, “Nagorno-Karabakh Republic: The First 20 Years of de-facto Independence,” Foreign Policy Journal, October 26, 2011; http://www.foreignpolicyjournal.com/2011/10/26/nagorno-karabakh-republic-the-first-20-years-of-de-facto-independence/. Accessed on December 1, 2022.

[6] Cornell, Svante E., Azerbaijan Since Independence (M. E. Sharpe, 2011), p. 27.

[7] Altstadt, Audrey, The Azerbaijani Turks: Power and Identity under the Russian Rule (Hoover Institution Press, 1992), p. 102.

[8] Avakian, Nagorno-Karabakh: Legal Aspects, p. 13.