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The Critical Corner - 07/09/2007

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Why we should read...
	`Khoja Capital: the social & political role of merchant
	       capital among Armenians'
	 by Leo (373pp, 1934, Yerevan, Armenia)

Armenian News Network / Groong
By Eddie Arnavoudian

July 9, 2007


A substantial portion of this work is devoted to the early 18th
century Armenian uprising in eastern Armenia, led most famously in
Karabagh by David Beg. In his evaluation Leo offers as opinion some of
the more preposterous Stalinist prejudices of the 1930s. The uprising
is dismissed as little more than a provincial ethnic squabble and
David Beg is characterised as an ethnic cleanser, one among others,
Armenians and non-Armenian (p307-8) acting at the behest of foreign
powers. But Leo's facts once again testify against him. The 1722-1728
rebellion was a critical, albeit short-lived moment in the revival of
an independent Armenian politics in a region where an indigenous
Armenian elite had retained a degree of independence when this had
vanished from all other part of Armenia.

For a short period during the first quarter of the 18th century
Armenian military and political forces emerged to play a commanding
role in the Karabagh and Yerevan regions. The disintegration and
retreat of the Persian Empire in the late 17th and early 18th
centuries left the Caucuses open to conquest by the neighbouring
Ottoman and Russian Empires. But the loosening grip of the old power,
alongside the as yet inconclusive contest between the new imperial
aspirants left room in which the Armenian lords of Karabagh in
alliance with Church leaders and local merchants took up battle to
advance their own rather than the interests of foreign powers.

That this movement failed was to prove something of a debacle for the
future of the Armenian people. The defeat of the last indigenous
politico-military force in Armenia proper paved the way for total
control of Armenian politics to pass to an alliance of Diaspora elites
and a section of the Church (p121) whose strategy of reliance upon
foreign power was to leave behind it a terrible wasteland.


Partly by virtue of those awesome natural barriers that isolate it
from surrounding areas, the Karabagh region (incorporating stretches
of classical Aghvank and Syunik) had across the centuries retained
its very particular Armenian identity as well as a relative political
independence. The area had assimilated into its Armenian physiognomy
during the 100BC - 700AD period, but was never completely drawn into
the mainstream of Armenian society and politics. Both during the reign
of Armenian monarchs and, albeit in increasingly weaker form, through
the destructive Mongol and Tatar invasions from the 13th to the 16th
centuries its elite retained a distinctive political presence even as
all other traces of a secular nobility had vanished.

When in other provinces the Armenian feudal principalities were
steadily replaced by Kurdish and Turkish ones, and when Armenian
territorial, religious and national homogeneity was being undermined
by non-Armenian and non-Christian population settlements, Armenian
Karabagh survived, though according to Leo, in a form that resembled a
relapse to an earlier primitive age. At its head were the Armenian
lords, or Meliks, of Karabagh. In comparison with even the minor
aristocracy of the Ottoman, Persian or European empires they were
provincial, impoverished, uncultured and rather brutish says Leo. But
locally their significance was immense.

Though Karabagh by the end of the 17th century was little more than a
minor outpost of the Persian Empire, the Armenian Meliks were
established feudal landlords and functioned as political officials for
the ruling state. They had the right to retain an army and collect
taxes on behalf of the state as well as administer local law and
order. Secondary in relation to the Persian state they still formed a
powerful stratum, their status suggested in the popular description of
them as the `eating class'. In the popular imagination it was believed
that they inherited their status, rights and privileges from the
ancient Armenian feudal order. One of their functions that perhaps
contributed to their emergence as a social and political force was
their responsibility for the organisation and regularisation of trade
- on their own behalf and on behalf of the state.

The Karabagh Meliks' social weight and political influence fluctuated
constantly depending both on the central government's strength and its
particular political strategy that sometimes sponsored provincial
privilege to obtain loyalty and at other times withheld it. By the
late 17th and early 18th centuries conditions drove the Karabagh
meliks to search for a greater degree of independent influence. So
long as they and their merchant and Church allies were allowed to
prosper they were not particularly interested in political struggle
and were content with their status within the Persian domain. But the
situation begins to change as the imperial state raised financial and
economic demands to intolerable levels. Confronted with an
increasingly rapacious Persian power that was in terminal decline and
encouraged by its contacts with Europe and the Russian Crown in
particular they began to cultivate notions of greater independence as
they searched for new protectors (p170-73)

By the end of the 17th century, the Karabagh Meliks became an
important political and military factor in an early stage of Armenian
national recovery. The signs of this recovery were both cultural and
political. The cultural was registered throughout different parts of
Armenia following the post-1500 period of relative (and the emphasis
must be on the term relative) stability in the region (p147-151)
following the lengthy periods of devastating Ottoman-Persian wars. The
political revival within the Armenian homelands was however unique to
Karabagh and determined by the existence of the Meliks who during the
1722-1728 wars in the region became key protagonists successfully
challenging Persian power and resisting Ottoman invasion.


>From 1722 to 1728 Armenian armed forces in Karabagh mounted a major
self-sustained resistance first to Persian and then to Ottoman
rule. Prompted by requirements of self-defence against rising
brigandage within the increasingly disordered Persian Empire and also
by promise of imminent Tsarist intervention and aid, the Armenian and
Georgian leaderships began, in the 1720s to organise their first
relatively independent and modern military formations. Leo describes
the emergence of Armenian battalions as they flowed from the
requirements of an Armenian-Georgian alliance initiated by the
quasi-nationalist, anti-Persian Georgian King Vakhtang VI. Preparing a
Georgian army to assist an expected Tsarist assault on Persia,
Vakhtang also separately mobilised units from Tbilisi's substantial
Armenian population as well as urging Armenian lords in Karabagh to
form their own.

So were born two famous Armenian military encampments known as the
Major Encampment, ensconced in the Mrav Mountain, and the Minor one in
the vicinity of Shushi. (p274, 277, 283-4) In heavily fortified
mountain regions these encampments along with other Armenian military
forces fielded anything up to 40,000 soldiers, a huge mass of them
being ordinary peasants ready for battle against unbearable state and
provincial plunder. Initially atomised, during the course of the wars
a substantial part of them were welded into a formidable fighting unit
with the arrival in 1722 of the subsequently legendary David Beg and
30-40 other officers from Vakhtang VI's Georgian army.

Though the two outstanding Karabagh leaders, David Beg and Mkhitar
Sparabed, were outsiders the Armenian forces and their leadership were
locally rooted and financed by the merchants based in Yerevan and by
indigenous Armenian wealth in the region.  Having first cleared the
area of agents of Persian power the Armenian leadership embarked on a
5-year resistance against Ottoman attempts to seize the Caucuses.
Despite numerical inferiority and huge logistical disadvantage the
Armenians registered battle successes that, in association with the
name of David Beg, have become the stuff of legend in the Armenian
nationalist tradition and are etched enduringly in the Armenian
imagination by Raffi's novel `David Beg'

In 1724 it took 30-40,000 Ottoman troops more than two months to
subdue Armenian detachments defending Yerevan. In the 1726-27 Battle
for Halidzor the Ottoman army suffered its greatest losses at the
hands of David Beg surrendering 148 flags and a vast amount of
military equipment. Similar victories were registered in Meghri and
elsewhere. Amid the regional chaos Karabagh with David Beg at its head
secured virtual independence from the Persian Empire (p351) whose
representatives he had routed in 1722. Armenian power became
significant enough for Ottoman state officials to propose separate
negotiations with the Karabagh leadership (p314).

Historically most remarkable was that this Armenian resistance was
achieved without Russians assistance. David Beg fought independently.
He was not given to beseeching or begging. He did not rely on any force
but his own. In the face of Tsarist indifference at best and sabotage
at worst Armenian military power and prowess was adequate proof of the
potential of an organic indigenous force, one that was more than just
a machine at the command of European/Tsarist power.

Opportunities during the war did however fall afoul of the strategic
political choices made by the Armenian leadership. Despite its
indubitable positions of strength it refused to negotiate directly
with the Ottoman state and instead prolonged wars in the hope that the
Russians would arrive to deliver such blows to their Ottoman foes as
would secure for the Armenians a more decisive advantage. Russian
forces however were never intended to arrive and never did. Meanwhile
the war prolonged in the expectation of the arrival of Tsarist help
proved to be the undoing of the Armenian side (p355-57). The Armenian
economy was devastated and the army weakened and demoralised. Together
with the resulting and rapidly growing internal schisms the ground was
thus set for the Armenian movement's eventual defeat (p354-5), a
defeat that was to lead to the final dissolution of the remarkably
resilient Armenian lords of Karabagh and the triumph of the political
template established by Israel Ori.


Throughout its intervention in the Caucuses the Tsarist state not for
a moment supported the Armenian liberation struggle - before the 1720s
wars or after. During the first quarter of the 18th century it was
never Tsarist intention to liberate Armenia or Georgia or even to help
Armenians and Georgians liberate themselves. At most the Tsarist Crown
intended to replace Ottoman and Persian occupation with Russian
occupation. Peter the Great readily promised generous aid but only in
order to persuade Armenians and Georgians to wage war and by thus
weakening Ottoman power to ease a future Russian conquest of the
Caucasus that promised Tsarist control over important trade routes and
over an area of strategic military importance.

Considering the period opportune for Tsarist ambition and despite
Israel Ori's death in 1711, Peter the Great sent his agents to court
the region's native Christian populations establishing links with
Vakhtang VI and assiduously cultivating the indomitable Armenian
Church leader Yessaia Hassan-Chalalian. To secure Armenian
collaboration Tsarist authorities enabled the establishment of new
Armenian Church sees and Bishoprics and after some prevarication
extended further privileges to Armenian merchants (p272). Encouraged
by Russian promises both Vakhtang and the Armenian leadership tailored
their ambitions to coincide with a Russian invasion and conquest of
the region.

The Tsarist Crown did not reciprocate. Its army on seizing decisive
trading posts on the western shores of the Caspian Sea and eager to
avoid war with the Ottoman Empire retreated, leaving Armenian and
Georgians to confront Ottoman power alone. As war raged between
Armenian and Ottoman forces the Tsarist state did everything possible
to block Armenians and Georgians from coming to any independent
agreements with the Sultan's representatives. In vast areas an
innocent Christian civilian population was left at the mercy of the
Ottoman and Persian armies who, deeming them guilty of `bringing in
the Russians', slaughtered thousands.

The Tsarist authorities had in mind other designs than liberation for
the Armenian people. Treating them as pawns in a demographic,
political and economic contest with Persian and Ottoman opponents
Peter the Great planned the deportation of entire Armenian
communities, along with its wealthy Armenian merchants class, (p310-11)
out of their native lands to resettle them in other regions they
conquered along the Caspian Sea. There they were expected to form a
social base for Tsarist rule (p326, 330). To its eternal shame,
segments of the Armenian Church proved to be the most subservient and
enthusiastic supporters of Tsarist deportation plans, pleading only
that the people be safeguarded from Ottoman or Persian attack. (p341)


Though the 1720s Armenian uprising constituted a defining moment of
modern Armenian history it cannot be considered a precursor of the
later, 19th century, Armenian revolutionary movement. The Karabagh
movement was of a qualitatively different order to that of the
nationalist movement of the late 19th and early 20th. Indeed the 19th
and early 20th century Armenian revolutionary movement had more in
common with the 20th century anti-colonial movements in Africa, Asia
and Latin America than it did with the earlier Armenian movement
headed by David Beg.

The Karabagh movement was an alliance of provincial Armenian feudal
estates, a section of the eastern Armenian Church and local sections
of Armenian merchants who seized the opportunity to extend their
privileges at the expense of others in the region. They had little
regard for the needs of the common people of various national groups
who lived cheek by jowl. However even in this feudal form, it was an
uprising against foreign rule that was supported by the mass of the
Armenian peasantry that suffered terribly at the hands of Persian
Shahs and Ottoman Sultans and their agents. But given its particular
character and the manner in which it was defeated and eliminated as a
force in the region it failed to develop into a modern democratic
national movement that would take into account the political, social,
economic and demographic realities of the region.

Though the politics of reliance upon the Tsarist state played some
role, the Karabagh defeat was primarily a function of the fact that
its elite had not evolved into a cohesive force capable of
constructing its own political state. The Armenian elite in eastern
Armenia remained fundamentally a conglomerate of disparate, provincial
and narrow-minded feudal estates that were held together by David Beg
for as long as he was in military ascendancy and for as long as
economic conditions allowed this. But its unity rapidly disintegrated
in the face of military setbacks and economic destruction. Then each
estate or faction reverted to seeking out favourable deals for itself
with whatever foreign power, even at the cost of betraying one's
previous Armenian allies.

The 1722-1728 defeat of the Armenian lords of Karabagh terminated any
prospect for its development into a cohesive national elite capable of
playing an independent and decisive role in the future Armenian
national movement. Primarily a function of the underdevelopment of the
Armenian nation, this defeat was in turn a function of the global
dispersal of the Armenian elites, a structural contradiction that to
this day shapes the development, underdevelopment and distortion of
the lives of the Armenian people in Armenia and even beyond.

				* * *

Leo's volume covers a great deal more and amid the sometimes lengthy
and unpleasant Stalinist diatribes are acute observations about other
areas of Armenian history and politics. One is worth noting here.

Leo does not entirely neglect the Armenian merchant class based in
Istanbul. This class he argues, in contrast to the cosmopolitan and
even internationalist character of Khoja capital, was narrow and
limited to the Ottoman Empire. It was integrated into the state and
government apparatus and wielded significant power, especially as
ruthless usurer. It had in its clutches many an Ottoman feudal lord as
well as large portions of Ottoman officialdom, regional governors, tax
collectors, army generals. The latter of course transferred the
usurers' demands to their serfs and taxable populations. Thus
indirectly and directly the Armenian usurer acted as a merciless
plunderer of the entire population independent of nationality or
religion. Leo in shameful manner suggests that it was the Amira class
and not the Ottoman state that was the real exploiter of the Armenian
people (p252).

The Amira class did not go unrivalled. Integrated into the decaying
Ottoman state and almost Turkified, it generated an opposition
movement from within the Ottoman-Armenian communities that developed
into a significant reformist secular and constitutional force
represented significantly by the figure of Yeremia Chelebi. Born of
the internal Armenian community struggles, this anti-Amira opposition
was in Leo's opinion, more progressive than Khoja capital.

Though one must read Leo with the aid of a hammer to knock away the
grotesque in his argument, it remains a volume of immense value that
permits a great deal more discussion than there is time and space for
at the moment.

Eddie Arnavoudian holds degrees in history and politics from
Manchester, England, and is Groong's commentator-in-residence on
Armenian literature.  His works on literary and political issues
have also appeared in Harach in Paris, Nairi in Beirut and Open
Letter in Los Angeles.

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