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The Critical Corner - 01/19/2010

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Armenian News Network / Groong
January 19, 2010

By Eddie Arnavoudian

The end of Soviet Armenia dealt a heavy blow to the publishing
industry. The republication of Armenian classics slumped. So did print
runs for new books. But the lifting of restrictions led to a flood of
new titles. Many are of no value. But there are plenty that, even when
hugely controversial, widen and even create new space for debate and
discussion of the manifold issues confronting men and women in the
21st century.

Will there be justice for the Armenians of Nakhichevan? Does anyone
remember, let alone care?

Argam Ayvazian's `Nakhichevan 1905 & 1918: the battle for survival
inside the ring of fire' (432pp, 2005, Yerevan) provides important
material for a discussion of the tragedy of the Armenians from the
province of Nakhichevan and on the problems of nationalism and state
formation in multiethnic regions such as the Caucuses.

Armenians from Nakhichevan, that is now under Azerbaijani jurisdiction,
have certainly suffered a terrible injustice. They have been expelled
from their homeland by Azerbaijani chauvinists operating first within
the ambit of Tsarist Russia and then during the Soviet era. Once a
centre of thriving Armenian communities Nakhichevan has today been
emptied of all Armenians. The current Azerbaijani government is
furthermore working to ensure that soon nothing will remain of its once
rich and ancient Armenian cultural legacy.

Recording an aspect of the historical background to the ethnic
cleansing of Armenians from a part of their ancient homeland Argam
Ayvazian's volume is remarkable for its readiness to also record
controversial historical truths. With a harsh objectivity his work
shows also that on the basis only of the Armenian sources that he
sites, Nakhichevan's Azeri community could construct its own narrative
of suffering, ethnic cleansing, murder and arson at Armenian hands.

Resting on memoirs, press reports and government documents Ayvazian
chronicles the 1905 chauvinist Azerbaijani anti-Armenian pogroms and
the bloody Armenian-Azeri clashes of 1918. The condition of the
Armenian community then recalled that of the Irish republican minority
in the British occupied 6 counties of north Ireland during the 1950s
and 1960s. Like the Irish republicans Armenians too were a beleaguered
minority, locked into isolated enclaves having to withstand the full
force of an imperial power and its local agents. Like sections of the
Loyalist population, sections of the Nakhichevani Azeris were also
whipped into a sectarian frenzy and transformed into mobs by the Azeri
leadership intent on denying Armenians in the province their legitimate
national democratic rights.


Armenian losses during the 1905 pogroms were huge. Armenian business
districts in Nakhichevan City were looted and put to flame. In villages
further into the hinterland Armenian homes were attacked and destroyed 
- sheep, cattle and domestic property stolen, men-folk murdered, many
women and girls raped and others abducted. With tacit suggestions of
Armenian counter-violence and arson, the 1905, No.5 issue of the
Armenian `Luma' states that:

    `A month after the bloodletting began 183 shops have been looted
    and destroyed in the (capital) with only 3 Armenian ones escaping.
    The number of Armenian dead has reached 50...Up to 50 villages,
    two thirds of them Armenian have also been destroyed. (p42)'

These pogroms were organised methodically by Nakhichevan's Azeri elite
in collaboration with its religious establishment. They did their
bloody deed furthermore under the watchful but indifferent eye of the
Tsarist constabulary and military who, at the behest of their masters
in Moscow, played one community off against the other. In the case of
anti-Armenian pogroms they frequently failed to respond to calls for
help until the damage was done.

Armenians did organise self-defence and even counter-attacked, in
conjunction sometimes with sympathetic or opportunist local Russian
troops. But they remained at a significant disadvantage. They
constituted only an overall minority of the province's population and
their demographic distribution left them fragmented with their villages
dispersed and encircled by hostile Azeri, Persian and Kurdish villages.
In 1829 Armenians constituted 41.2% of the province's population. This
dropped to 34.4% in 1897. An official 1912 census registers 58,552
Armenian compared to 108,407 Azeris. At the outbreak of World War One
Armenians form 39.3% of the region's population. And in 1917 they
number 83,374 compared to 139,684 Azeris. (p8)

Armenian disadvantage was compounded as Azeris were in general
permitted go about their business armed and had both means to acquire
`the most modern weapons' and to `engage daily in shooting practice.
(p79)' Armenians on the other hand, according to the 1905, No.10 issue
of `The Dawn', would be `immediately disarmed if caught with weapons.'
Moreover perhaps as a virtue of their numerical superiority Azeris
appeared to constitute a larger part of a hostile local constabulary.

As Ayvazian tells what is a horrific story of violence against the
Armenian community, he also highlights incidences of indiscriminate
Armenian violence against Azeri people, frequently discrediting
himself, one needs to add, by choosing to describe Armenian
slaughterers as `braves'. A 1934 edition of the Monthly `Hairenik'
reprints an Armenian eyewitness account about events on 12 June 1905
when an Armenian:

    `...unit of ten men went to work and immediately put to flame the
    first shop they came across and others systematically thereafter...
    Having taken the enemy by surprise they succeeded in killing many
    and causing substantial damage...'(p61)

The same issue reports that Armenian `villagers from Nors', in
retaliation for brutal Azeri assaults on their village,
counter-attacked and captured an Azeri village and `drove its cattle
back to their own village.' (p85) Another participant, Ato, recalls
that `Armenians participated in the slaughter' during a Russian troop
assault on the village of Tchahri which `was put to flame and the
streets filled with large numbers of corpses. The Turks counted more
than 170 dead.' (p66)

The 1905 anti-Armenian pogroms had begun first in Baku and only then
spread to Nakhichevan. But in Nakhichevan they appear to have been
precipitated by an Armenian killing of an Azeri villager. Irrespective
of the immediate spark that unleashed the pogroms, the stage was set
for tit-for-tat killings and an ever-growing cycle of hatred and
violence that endures to this day. A letter in the 5 November 1905
edition of `The Dawn' records the total breakdown of Armenian-Azeri
relations noting that:

    `The once close relations between Armenian and Turkish villages
    have now reached a level of extreme tension. Trade, labour,
    movement, in a word life among us has been condemned to death... 
    And this is quite ordinary today as a result of the fact that the
    trust between Armenian and Turk has broken down. Thus, if by
    accident they fall into the each others hands, there is no
    escaping.' (p80)

And in a sort of summary of mutual destruction the 8 December 1905
edition wrote that:

    `Turkish trade has been destroyed, their market has been reduced
    to ashes. The Armenians' had been destroyed on 12 May. This is
    where the mindless, internecine fighting has got us. Though the
    Turks looted Armenians in all localities, they today find
    themselves in a worse economic situation than the Armenians. Where
    is all this going to take us? (p66)'


Bypassing the 10-12 years following the 1905-6 pogroms Ayvazian goes
directly to the Armenian-Azeri wars of 1918-1919 where the conflict
remained essentially of the same character as that of 1905, but the
advantage now even more decidedly on the Azeri side.

Ayvazian writes plausibly that in the wake of the collapse of the
Russian Empire a coalition of Azeri nationalists and Turkish military
officers resumed their ethnic cleansing against the Armenians of
Nakhichevan (p106).  Financed by the wealthy in the region they were
able to purchase vast amounts of weaponry and ammunition from the
retreating Russian army with which to launch their new war. As in 1905
Armenians in 1918 also organised self-defence but again fell foul of
the distribution of Armenian villages `cut off from the outside world',
`isolated and short of arms. (p125)' Weakness was aggravated further by
inept leadership described as made up of `the town's wealthy and good
for nothing stratum.' (p115)

Furthermore while the Azeri side received Turkish and Azeri government
support, the Armenians of Nakhichevan obtained no aid from the
Armenian government. The 27 November 1918 edition of `Zank' writes
that `for a second time there were appeals to the Armenian government,
but all these for the moment produced no result. (p124)' In another
context Ayvazian notes that `the First Armenian Republic formed... was
not always in a position to extend support' to Armenians in the
province. (p126)' Another contemporary Gh. Kotcharyan, records that
the Armenian government even demanded of Nakhichevan Armenians that
they surrender strategic positions by opening the Yerevan to Julfa
railway to Turkish forces and removing Armenian forces to a
substantial distance on either side (p139).

For a short period Armenians defended themselves successfully. A
40-day battle in Nakhichevan City saved them from certain death. But
with no overall guidance and no broad political strategy these battles
could not secure any long term or enduring settlement. Armenians were
subsequently driven from their homes with at least 6000 savagely
slaughtered. This savagery and ethnic cleansing was then repeated in
Sharour, in Goghtn and in Akoulis. Armenians charge that Azerbaijani
victories were successful only because they were organised and led by
Turkish military officers. But this account of foreign assistance to
the Azeri side is balanced by Ayvazian's evidence that Armenians for
their part allied with and received support from Russian and British
forces that were present in the region.

(It is perhaps worth noting that in a certain sense the 1918-1919
Armenian-Azeri conflict expressed the age-long Tsarist-Ottoman contest
for control of the Caucasus with the British intervening and playing
Armenians and Azeris against each other in the hope of themselves
reigning supreme.)

Ayvazian's record of Azeri violence against Armenians is shocking. But
even as this was on a massively larger scale, Armenian victories also
often degenerated into bloody revenge with `ordinary `Armenian peasants'
`engaging in the destruction of Turkish villages.' (p223). In March
1918 Armenians `wrecked' six `Turkish villages in the Abragounis
area.' In April they `succeed in entering the Turkish village of Dev
where they slaughtered the uncontrollable Turks, put the village to
flame and looted it.' In the same month Armenians captured a further
three Turkish villages and `drove out the population' and also `put
them to flame (p126).' The catalogue of Armenian violence becomes
gruesome with quotes from and about Nzhdeh's operations in the area
that included murder, arson, deportation and ethnic cleansing (p304,
313, 359 and 362).

During all these trials and tribulation, and in the nearly hundred
years that have since passed neither Armenian nor Azerbaijani
leaderships have proved capable of advancing a way forward that would
secure the future of all communities from Nakhichevan. The Armenians
of Nakhichevan have paid a high price for the failure of democratic
nationalism. After the defeats of 1918-1919 and the establishment of
Soviet power, the Soviet Armenian government for its part proved
utterly impotent as Azeri nationalists finally cleansed the province
of its native Armenian communities. The Third Armenian Republic in
turn seems powerless to halt the current chauvinist elimination of
Nakhichevan's Armenian cultural legacy that remains

A new dispensation is necessary, one that goes beyond the existing
conceptions and conditions, one that can secure the national rights
and democratic harmony among all the peoples of the region.

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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