Ethnic Cleansing in Progress: War in Nagorno Karabakh - The Pincers of Pan Turkism
Ethnic cleansings
Roots of conflicts
Legal aspects
Press archive
Operation Ring

Sumgait 1988
Baku 1990
Maraghar 1992


Caroline Cox and John Eibner

Ethnic Cleansing in Progress: War in Nagorno Karabakh

[Contents] [Preface] [Introduction] [Basic Facts] [A Conflict of Civilizations] [The Genocide] [The Pincers of Pan-Turkism] [Soviet Rule] [The Karabakh Question Revived] [Operation Ring] [The Post-Soviet Conflict] [The Characteristics of the People of Nagorno Karabakh] [The Prognosis: Continuing Bloodshed] [Conclusions] [Recommendations]

The Pincers of Pan Turkism


The Seeds of Genocide in Transcaucasia
The Pan-Turkic Offensive
Battle for Nagorno Karabakh


The Seeds of Genocide in Transcaucasia

Nagorno Karabakh was spared the worst excesses of the genocide in Turkey. Together with the rest of Transcaucasia, Nagorno Karabakh had been under Russian rule since the early 19th century. It therefore had a measure of protection from the Turkish government's policy of ethnic cleansing. But not complete protection. In 1905, Czarist Russia was rocked by revolutionary turbulence. Baku, the principal industrial town of Transcaucasia, was the scene of strikes and labour agitation. The Russian government's strategy for dealing with the class conflict was to exacerbate interethnic tensions - a divide and rule policy par excellence. Azeri-Turks made up under half of the city's population. Armenians and Russians together formed the majority. Virtually all the leaders of the radical Social Democratic movement were Armenians or Russians. Intercommunal relations had been tense since the turn of the century. In early February 1905, the tit-for-tat murder of an Armenian and an Azeri-Turk was used as a pretext for an organized armed attack on Baku's Armenian community. On February 6, thousands of Azeri-Turks, encouraged by the Russian authorities, went on the rampage in the town's Armenian quarter, murdering and pillaging as they went. Baku's Armenians fled or defended themselves as best they could. About 1,500 people died: three Armenians to every two Azeri-Turks. After days of intercommunal violence, the killing gradually subsided, thanks in large measure to the cooperation of the spiritual leaders of the Armenian and Azeri-Turk communities.

The massacres in Baku sparked a chain reaction of violence. In the spring of 1905 a pogrom atmosphere hovered above the town of Nakhichevan, which then had a population of 6,000 Azeri-Turks to 2,000 Armenians. The Armenians appealed to the Russian authorities for protection, but it was not forthcoming. On May 25, organized gangs of Azeri-Turks attacked Nakhichevan's Armenians. In only three hours 50 Armenians were killed. The violence then spread to the surrounding countryside.

By late August 1905 clashes between Azeri-Turks and Armenians were underway in Nagorno Karabakh. The town of Shusha was the focal point of the trouble. The population of Shusha was then evenly divided between the two ethnic groups. The violence began when Azeri-Turks fired on a busload of Armenians. The Armenians of Shusha were better prepared than those of Baku and Nakhichevan. A spiral of killings ensued leaving 300 dead, two-thirds of whom were Azeri-Turks. The conflict in Shusha sparked another round of violence in Baku in September. The interethnic violence in Transcaucasia subsided as the Russian authorities subdued the forces of revolution at the end of 1905. But the situation continued to be uneasy until the outbreak of World War I, which acted as a catalyst for renewed violence on a mass scale.


The Pan-Turkic Offensive

The 'Young Turk' regime plunged the Ottoman Empire into World War I on the side of Germany with a view to driving Russia out of Transcaucasia and Central Asia. Its ultimate war aim was the political unification of all Turkic peoples with Turkey. Priority was placed on union with the Azeri-Turks under Russian and Persian rule as the first stepping stone towards union with the Turkic peoples of Central Asia. The Armenians of Transcaucasia formed a barrier to the eastward expansion of the Turkish empire - a barrier that the regime of 'Young Turks' was determined to remove. Thus the process of genocide of Armenians was extended to Transcaucasia.

In the autumn of 1914 the 'Young Turk' regime hastily mobilized a Pan-Turkic army in eastern Anatolia facing Russian-ruled Armenia. In November the Pan-Turkic offensive was unleashed. The 'Young Turk' government then declared publicly its Pan-Turkic aim:


"Our participation in the world war represents the vindication of our national ideal. The ideal of our nation and people leads us towards the destruction of our Muscovite enemy, in order to obtain thereby a natural frontier to our empire, which should include and unite all branches of our race." (Walker, 1980, p. 198)


Once underway the offensive was personally led by the head of the 'Young Turk' leadership, Enver Pasha. Enver directed part of his army due east to engage the Russian army, while dispatching another part southeast into Persian Azerbaijan with the aim of conquering Baku from the south. He expected his troops would be aided along the way by uprisings of the Azeri-Turks against their Russian rulers. Enver's 'Pan-Turkic' army quickly penetrated Russian-ruled Armenia. But early Russian reverses proved short-lived. In mid-January 1915, the Russian army inflicted a massive defeat on Enver's troops 25 miles inside Russian Armenia at Sarikamish. 75,000 of Enver's 95,000 troops either died in combat or were frozen to death. The Ottoman troops dispatched to Azerbaijani Persia made greater headway. In southeastern Turkey and Persian Azerbaijan, the largest of the Christian communities was not the Armenians, but the Aramaic-speaking 'Assyrians'. Those that stood in the way of the advancing Ottoman army and its local Azeri-Turk supporters were subject to murder, rape and pillage. Thus began the great massacres of 'Assyrian' Christians, which ran parallel with the genocide of Armenians in Turkey. In January 1915 the Ottoman army occupied Tabriz. There the 'Young Turks' began to enlist the local Azeri-Turks for an assault on Baku. But in the spring the Ottoman troops in Persian Azerbaijan suffered a major defeat at the hands of the Russian army and beat a retreat to Anatolia.

The 'Young Turks' were able to resume the Pan-Turk offensive only when the Bolshevik revolution of November 1917 set in motion the decomposition of the Russian army in Transcaucasia. The Turkish government seized the opportunity to fulfil its Pan-Turkic war aims. Throughout the spring of 1918, while peace negotiations were in progress, Turkish troops advanced on Transcaucasia. An ineffectual and short-lived Confederation of Transcaucasia, made up of Georgian, Armenian and Azeri-Turk representatives, made a feeble attempt to fill the political vacuum left by the collapse of Russian power. The establishment of the independent Republics of Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan followed in the wake of the disintegration of the Confederation of Transcaucasia at the end of May 1918. The military vacuum was filled, on the one hand, by the invading Ottoman forces and, on the other, by newly formed Azeri-Turk, Armenian, and Baku-based Bolshevik armed units. All units were well armed from the appropriation of weapons of the disintegrating Russian army. The approaching Ottoman army was supported by Azeri-Turk military units. The 'Army of Islam' - a special mixed unit of Ottoman regulars and Azeri-Turk volunteers led by Enver Pasha's half-brother - was formed in the town of Ganja (Elizavetpol, Kirovabad), north of Nagorno Karabakh. The battle plan of the Ottoman and Azeri-Turks was to converge on Baku, then in the hands of the Bolshevik-led city Soviet. Wherever the Turkic army went the destruction of Armenian communities followed. Prof. Kazemzadeh writes of the Pan-Turk offensive:


"The greed of the conqueror knew no bounds. Drunk with their continued successes, aware of the helplessness of their victims, the Turks stopped at nothing to acquire as much territory as they could." (Kazemzadeh, p. 116)


The thrust towards Baku was designed to kill the new Armenian Republic at birth, not by a direct assault on the capital Yerevan, but by strangulation. Blockaded on all sides by the superior Turkic military forces, the remaining rump of Armenia grew steadily smaller and was deprived of the essentials for survival. A German diplomatic mission declared in August 1918:


"She (Armenia-ed.) is being deprived of her last productive area. The Turks have not given up their intention to exterminate the Armenians. The aim is to starve them out and to ruin them economically." (Sarkisyanz, p. 220)


The Pan-Turk offensive in Transcaucasia met with stiff organized resistance from the desperate Armenian troops.

The Turks' policy of massacring Armenians was returned in kind. But such extreme measures were to no avail. The Armenians were hopelessly outnumbered and outgunned. By September the combined Ottoman and Azeri-Turk forces were poised to take Baku. As the largest town in Azerbaijan and the centre of a rich oil industry, Baku was greatly coveted by the Turks. With memories of the atrocities of 1905 still fresh and with an acute awareness of the terrible fate of Armenian communities that stood in the path of the Pan-Turkic offensive, the Armenians and Russians of Baku were alarmed by the approach of the largely Azeri-Turk 'Savage Division' in March 1918. The 'Savage Division' was a special Transcaucasian unit formed within the Russian army on the eve of World War I. It became one of Transcaucasia's competing national armed units following the collapse of the Russian army in 1917. Troops loyal to the leftist Baku Soviet went into battle against the 'Savage Division' and fired artillery shells at Azeri-Turk residential areas. Armenian units joined the fray on the side of the Baku Soviet.

Mother and child: Armenian victims of the 1915-16 genocide. (Keystone)


The conflict took on the character of "gigantic race riot". Kazemzadeh writes:


"The brutalities continued for weeks. No quarter was given by either side: neither age nor sex was respected. Enormous crowds roamed the streets, burning houses, killing every passer-by who was identified as an enemy, many innocent persons suffering death at the hands of both the Armenians and the Azerbaijanis." (Kazemzadeh, p. 73)


The death toll amounted to several thousand. On this occasion the victims among the Azeri-Turks far outnumbered those amongst the Armenians. Half Baku's Muslim population fled the city.

Despite the defeat of the 'Savage Division', The Pan-Turkic offensive continued to make progress towards Baku. By the end of June 1918, the city was under siege. The arrival by sea of a small contingent of British troops from Mesopotamia in mid-August gave some hope to the Armenian and Russian defenders of Baku. But sensing the inevitability of a Turkic triumph, the British sailed away on September 14, 1918. Azeri-Turk irregulars burst into Baku in the wake of the departing British, while the Ottoman regulars remained outside for two days. The customary massacre of civilians ensued. A Russian survivor, Khristofor Mikhailovich Evangulov, recorded:


"In the whole town massacres of the Armenian population and robberies of all non-Muslim peoples were going on. They broke the doors and windows, entered the living quarters, dragged out men, women and children and killed them in the street. From all the houses the yells of people who were being attacked were heard... In some spots there were mountains of dead bodies, and many had terrible wounds from dum-dum bullets. The most appalling picture was at the entrance to the Treasury Lane from Surukhanskoi Street. The whole street was covered with dead bodies of children not older than nine or ten years. About eighty bodies carried wounds inflicted by swords or bayonets, and many had their throats cut; it was obvious that the wretched ones had been slaughtered like lambs." (Walker, 1980, p. 261)


Conservative estimates place the number of Armenian dead at 9,000. The Pan-Turkic offensive reached its peak with the occupation of Baku in September 1918. The 'Young Turks' had succeeded in forging a corridor between Turkey and Azerbaijan through Armenia. Meanwhile, the vanquished and famine-stricken Armenian Republic was forced to sign the humiliating Treaty of Batum. The Treaty reduced Armenia to less than 12,000 square miles of largely barren land devoid of industry. 600,000 Armenians, half of whom were refugees, and 100,000 Azeri-Turks were crowded into the unproductive and unprotected territory around Yerevan and Echmiadzin. The Treaty deprived Armenia of railway links to the outside world and forbade her from maintaining an army. The truncated Armenian Republic became in effect a vassal of Turkey.


Battle for Nagorno Karabakh

The devastating terms of the Treaty of Batum did not end Armenia's struggle for survival. It was carried on, not by the government in Yerevan, but by the Armenian fedayi leader, General Andranik. Contrary to the orders of his government, Andranik took up positions for the defense of Nagorno Karabakh, which became the last bastion of Armenian resistance to the Pan-Turk offensive. Nagorno Karabakh had at first been bypassed by the Ottoman-led 'Army of Islam' on its march to Baku. Nagorno Karabakh was then claimed by both the new Republics of Armenia and Azerbaijan. But the territory became de facto independent. The policy of Nagorno Karabakh's elected government was to cooperate with General Andranik in the defense of the territory from the threatened Pan-Turkic offensive.

By September 1918, Enver Pasha's sights were fixed on Nagorno Karabakh. Turkish troops murdered or expelled the Armenians of the region lying between Karabakh and the Republic of Armenia, thus transforming Nagorno Karabakh into an enclave. On September 22, 5,000 Turkish troops began an offensive towards the capital of Nagorno Karabakh, Shusha. Eleven days later they occupied and plundered the town with the assistance of some of its Azeri-Turk residents. From Shusha Turkish troops fanned out to subjugate the rest of the enclave. Villages were razed and civilians massacred. But the Pan-Turkic offensive in Nagorno Karabakh was checked by the stiff resistance of Armenian locals, and was terminated by Turkey's surrender to the Allies at the end of October 1918.

Turkey's defeat in World War I provided the Armenians of Nagorno Karabakh with a glimmer of hope for survival. British troops under the command of Major-General W.M. Thomson replaced the Ottoman Army in Transcaucasia, in accordance with the armistice. But British interests were not in harmony with those of Nagorno Karabakh. The British, with one eye on the Baku oil fields and the other on the Bolshevik menace north of the Caucasus Mountains, were interested in bolstering Azerbaijan. At the close of World War I, Britain looked favourably upon the creation of a Muslim Turkic barrier to the expansion of communist Russia in the Transcaucasus and Central Asia. Thomson ordered the Armenians of Nagorno Karabakh to submit to the Azeri-Turk authorities and appointed as provisional governor of Nagorno Karabakh Dr. Khosrov Bek Sultanov, who was, in Walker's words, "an ardent pan-Turkist, a friend of the Ittihadists (Young Turks - ed.) of Constantinople, and a terror to all Armenians". (Walker, 1980, p. 270)

Notwithstanding British threats to apply force, the Armenians of Karabakh were not prepared to deliver themselves to the Azeri-Turks. The Fifth Congress of Karabakhi Armenians declared:


"Azerbaijan is and has always been an ally of the Turks, and has taken part in all the atrocities committed by the Turks against the Armenians, and in particular the Armenians of Karabakh." (Walker, 1991, p. 95)


Backed by Britain, Azerbaijan initiated a policy of famine and terror against Nagorno Karabakh. In the spring of 1919 the enclave was placed under an economic blockade. Kurdish irregulars were organized into terrorist brigades to destroy Armenian villages. Hundreds of Armenians were massacred in Shusha, Kerkjan, Pahlou and other villages.

This policy had the desired effect. The Seventh Congress of Karabakhi Armenians agreed on August 22 to recognize "provisionally"' the authority of the Azerbaijani government until the final definition of Azerbaijan's borders by the post-war Peace Conference. In return the Armenians received the promised "territorial autonomy for all Karabakh and national-cultural autonomy for its Armenian populations." (Altstadt, p. 102) The agreement failed to bring peace. "Never had the Armenian population witnessed so many crimes, murders and economic offences", Nagorno Karabakh's leaders subsequently declared, "as after the signing of the agreement." (Walker, 1991, p. 98)

The Azeri-Turk authorities too were dissatisfied with provisional recognition. Most of Azerbaijan's army, including troops from Turkey, was transferred to Karabakh. After the withdrawal of British troops from Azerbaijan, Sultanov demanded acceptance of the unconditional incorporation of Karabakh into Azerbaijan. On March 22, 1920 fearing an imminent attack, the Armenians of Karabakh rose in revolt. On April 4, the Azeri-Turk army entered and destroyed most of Shusha. Half the town's residents were murdered. The heads of Bishop Vartan and other prominent Karabakhi Armenians were paraded on pikes in celebration of the Azeri-Turk triumph. Devoid of most of its Armenian residents, Shusha was effectively Turkified.

6-year-old Armenian girl: Critically wounded in Azerbaijani rocket attack on Stepanakert in Dec. 1991. (CSI)





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