Russian-Armenian-Turkish Relations in Caucasia (1914-1918)

Russian-Armenian-Turkish relations during the First World War experienced their most intense period in history. Especially the developments of Turkey’s Caucasia and Eastern Battlefront are the story of the relations of these three actors. The fact that Russians were the main factor in the Armenian activities during this war against the Turkish administrative and military officials has been disregarded or ignored in many sources. Especially in Turkish-Russian wars, Armenians acted as if they were the subjects of Russia and the most attention-grabbing example of this was experienced in the First World War. The words of the Dashnaksutyun members in their congress just before the war in August 1914 that they would support the Ottoman Sublime Porte in case of a war with Russia were forgotten before the start of the war. Just before the entry of the country to the war, there were more than fifty thousand Armenian escapees only in the Erzurum garrison of the Ottoman Empire. According to Russian sources, the number of Armenians going to the Russian lines in the first year of the war was about two hundred thousand. Caucasian Armenians made a central recruiting office in Tbilisi to recruit Ottoman Armenians coming to the Georgian capital for the Russian army.

Another aspect of the issue not considered is the fact that Russian operation planning for a general Armenian uprising in Ottoman lands was started long before the First World War. Before the start of the war, small Armenian guerrilla groups would be formed in the border towns such as Oltu, Sarıkamış, Kağızman, and Iğdır on the Russian side of the border (McMeekin, 2013, p. 188-204). The April 2015 Van uprising broken out by Armenians and the submission of the city to the Russians were the results of the maturation of the above conditions. Following the Armenian-Russian cooperation, the Ottoman government took a historical decision which was closely related to its internal and foreign politics and not only directed the Caucasian politics but also the politics towards Armenians. This was the temporary migration of Armenians, the deportation decision. The first indicator of this was in the correspondence sent to the Internal Affairs Minister Talat Pasha by vice Chief-Commander Enver Pasha on 2 May 1915. The purpose of Enver Pasha was to prevent the uprising of Armenians or to keep them in a situation where they cannot revolt (ATASE, A. 1/1, K. 77, D. 207-155, F.2, 2-1). In the correspondence with the signature of Talat Pasha sent to all provinces following this, the shutting down all Armenian organization centres, the seizure of their documents, and the arrest of organization leaders were ordered (Süslü, 1990, p. 106-108; Gürün, 1985, p. 213). With this instruction, 235 people were arrested in simultaneous operations only in Istanbul.Erzurum-Enis-Sahin

When the Armenian mischief became unbearable, the Ottoman government issued the “Dispatchment and Settlement Law” as the last resort. With this temporary law on 27 May 1915, it was asked to send those engaging in spying and betrayals to places away from the war area (Takvim-i Vekayi, 19 May 1331, No.2189). When struggling with the Great Powers, the Ottoman Empire gave much time and effort to the deportations as well. In order that lives and properties of nobody are damaged, it tried to implement the law with great attention. It didn’t even refrain from punishing its own officials found to be negligent in the deportations. Furthermore, when Turkey couldn’t find food to feed its own soldiers, a sizeable amount of money which is 255 million kurush was spent only for the food of the immigrants subjected to deportation until the end of 1916 (Süslü, 1990, p. 125).

After the Russians captured Trabzon, Erzurum, Erzincan, and Van, they prevented those who stayed there all along and left later from coming back to their lands by applying the principle of “Armenia without Armenians.” Russia re-regulated the administration of the lands taken from the Ottoman Empire during the war, with a law it issued on 18 June 1916. However, there were no words of Armenian or Armenia in the decision. According to Armenians, there were Armenian rights in this region for a very long time and Armenians should have been the main speaker in the establishment of such an administration for the region. The Russians started the preparations for the direct and absolute annexation of these regions despite the Armenians (Hovannisian, 1967, p. 66-67).

The situation of Turkey in the Caucasian battlefront didn’t go well until the February Revolution and it had to leave all of the lands stretching from the west of Trabzon to Van-Başkale, and including Erzincan, to Russia. When the situation at the beginning of 1917 was of this scene, the revolution in Russia took place on 27 February/12 March 1917 and Tsarism was abolished and the Temporary Government to govern Russia until October was established (Tasvir-i Efkar, 18 March 1333/1917, No.2044; Ati, 7 March 1334/1918, No.66). The revolution in Russia drove Armenians, who lost their hopes in the Russians and the British for that time being, to cooperate with Georgians and Azeris, and these three nations declared their loyalty to the Temporary Government (Hovannisian, 1967, p.70). The Temporary Government also put the Trans-Caucasus Special Committee, which was called Ozakom and constituted of Azeris, Russians, Georgians, and Armenians, into practice with a law issued on 22 March 1917 (The National Archives of the United States (USA.NA), Paris Peace Conference, No.184.021/162). The administration of the lands taken from the Ottoman Empire during the war and the whole Trans-Caucasus was given to Ozakom (Hovannisian, 1967, p. 75-76). The Temporary Russian government saw Trans-Caucasus and Ottoman lands captured during the war as their own lands and didn’t mention any autonomy.

The abolishment of Tsarism and the establishment of the Temporary Government created great expectations among the Armenians. The optimistic atmosphere brought by the revolution in the beginning didn’t eliminate the worries of the Dashnaksutyun members. However, in order to hide their bad situations and strengthen the position in the Caucasian battlefront, the Temporary Government felt the need of looking nice to Armenians. The first activity pleasing the Armenians by the Russian Government was done on 17 March 1917. Foreign Affairs Ministry Miliukov declared that “the new government will stalwartly be loyal to the international treaties of the overthrown regime and will also conduct the words given by Russia.” Besides, the principle of “war until victory” was emphasized and it was stated that a peace to end the war should have also included the autonomy of Armenia (Bayur, 1983, p. 65-66).

The second activity of the Temporary Government about Armenians took place in the military field. Kerensky, who didn’t allow the demands of Azeris to establish a military organization, accepted the same demand from the Armenians (Mir Yacoub, 1933, p.88). The Temporary Government accepted a new law in favor of Armenians with the title “Regulation on ‘Turkish Armenia’ by Temporary Government” (Hovannisian, 1967, p.79). Encouraged even more with the issue of the decision, Armenians appointed their own officers to almost all civil positions and more importantly, got the necessary permission from the Russian government in order to settle 150,000 Armenians distributed to various regions in the Van, Erzurum, and Bitlis regions (Afanasyan, 1981, p.26). After a short while, these Armenians were dispatched to the aforementioned regions and a large population of Armenians was created especially in the Van and Bitlis regions (Hovannisian, 1967, p. 79-80). With these Armenian colonization activities, the Russians went for using Armenians against the possibility of losing the lands taken from the Ottoman Empire again and Armenians thought to “solve their own national problems in Turkey and Trans-Caucasia by depending on the Russian bayonet” (Mir Yacoub, 1933, p. 89).

The second of revolutions in Russia took place on 7 November 1917 and the Bolsheviks took hold of the administration with a military coup in Petrograd. The next day the Bolshevik Russian government Sovnarkom, under the leadership of Lenin, published a decree and asked all countries to end the war immediately and make a democratic and just peace without demanding any annexation of land or compensation. The Bolsheviks started to look for the ways of signing a peace treaty and publish the secret treaties of the Tsarist Russia with its allies under the title Yellow Book as a sign of “good intention” (Kurat, 1990, p. 327-328). Therefore, they would seem peaceful and return to the old Russian politics after eliminating the internal and external problems.

Erzurum-Enis-Sahin-2Following the Brest-Litovsk Armistice signed on 15 December 1917 with the Central Powers and the Erzincan Armistice with Turkey 3 days after this, Russia started to see itself under guarantee. For this reason, the first “fight” between Turkey and Soviet Russia after the armistices appeared on the point of the Armenian question. While the Soviets wanted a referendum for determination of their own destiny by the people of the region under occupation, Turks told them that there were no problem such as the “Armenian Problem” and came against this idea on the ground that they ‘intervened in the internal affairs of the country’ (Yerasimos, 1994, p. 296). Having met an Armenian commission on 25 December 1917, Lenin took action following the agreement. Sovnarkom appointed the president of Baku Soviet Stephan Şaumyan as the Caucasia Extraordinary Commissary ‘until the establishment of Soviet dominion in Caucasia’ on 29 December 1917. However, the Trans-Caucasia Commissary, which was formed with rejecting the Bolshevik authority, was existent in the meantime in Trans-Caucasia. This formation, of which for a short name was Zakavkom, opposed Russia and saw itself as the representative of the Temporary Government, which had abolished and replaced Tsarism (Dokumentı Materyalı, 1919, p. 8-9).

The Soviet government presented “a call to Armenians to seek the solution of their problems within new Russia created on the foundation of Soviets” in a declaration published with the title “On Turkish Armenia” in the Pravda newspaper of volume 227 on 31 December 1917 (Yerasimos, 1994, p. 296). The famous decree, known as decree number 13, which was accepted by the Soviet government, who took action for a special decree on “Turkish Armenia,” on 11 January 1918, and published in Pravda two days later, had the signatures of Lenin and Stalin. In this decree, it was stated in summary that the Russian government will support the self-determination of their destiny and future for Armenians in “Turkish Armenia” under Russian occupation, Russian armies will go out of “Turkish Armenia” lands, and in return an Armenian people’s militia needs to be immediately established for the security of personal belongings and properties of Armenians in the region, Armenian immigrants and Armenians in other countries are allowed to return to the region without facing any obstacle, Armenians subjected to deportations by Turkey and sent to inner provinces by force can return to their homes and the Temporary Extraordinary People’s Commissar for Caucasian Affairs Stephan Shaumyan is assigned to execute this decree on the people of “Turkish Armenia” (Genosid Armiyan, 1982, p. 491-492). However, implementation of these decisions was difficult. Firstly, the fact that Armenians constituted too little a part of the population in the region was ignored by the Russians. Most important of all, Turkey wouldn’t watch this fait accompli. For this reason, this decree, which didn’t reflect the reality, remained as “an intention document not put into practice” and the only result of it was “to put the Turkish reaction in action” (Yerasimos, 1994, p. 296-297).

Protesting the Russians fiercely in his meeting with Trochky on 18 January, Foreign Affairs Minister Ahmed Nesimi Bey gave information to Prime Minister Talat Pasha in relation to this long interview and this opinion was formed in the Pasha’s mind: As Russians must have armed Armenians when withdrawing from Eastern Anatolia, there will be the obligation of dispatching forces to Armenians in order to get these lands back. For this reason, we should be prepared” (Kurat, 1990, p. 373). Indeed, by informing that Kars, Ardahan, and Batumi were given to Turkey, and this was recognized by Russia in the telegraph sent by Karahan, the Russian delegate of Armenian origin in Brest-Litovsk, two months after this, Russians showed that they abstained from the decree on “Turkish Armenia” (Hasanov, 1993, p. 42).

There has been a great increase in Armenian events with the coming of 1918. General Nazarbekof, who was an Armenian commander in the Russian army, undertook the leadership of these events and he had an Armenian Army Corps of three legions (Korganoff, 1927, p. 78). The massacres of this army corps in the Eastern provinces in 1918 are quite a lot. When the Turkish efforts to end these massacres didn’t give any result, Vehib Pasha, who acted with the instruction of Enver Pasha on 11 February, started to move his army towards the east by making it pass through the demarcation line determined by the Erzincan Armistice on 12 February in order to both prevent the massacre and to take back the lost lands (ATASE, A.6-2105, K.4801, D.247-14, F.2-61). It was apparent that Armenians acted with the “love of imaginary Armenia” with their activities in the Turkish Eastern provinces and the Turkish government, who couldn’t apply to severe precautions until then, didn’t refrain from taking action when the available conditions were obtained. The military operation gained success in a short period of time and when it was 25 April, Turkish forces had reached to Turkish-Russian border before the ’93 War by capturing the cities of Erzincan, Trabzon, Erzurum, Van, Rize, Batumi, Ardahan, and Kars. In the meantime, the Brest-Litovsk Treaty was signed on 3 March 1918 and Turkey obtained significant advantages for taking back the Three Sub-Provinces (Düstur, 2. Tertib, c.X, p.414-421; Meclis-i Mebusan Zabıt Ceridesi, 28 March 1334/1918, b.3/II, p.421-424).

Established after the October revolution, the Trans-Caucasian Commissary, and its assembly Seym, were established with their first meeting on 23 February 1918 and started some –obligatory- relations with Turkey due to opposition to the Bolsheviks, but the Caucasian party objected to the Brest-Litovsk Peace provisions about the Three Sub-Provinces (ATASE, A.4-3671, K.2921, D.159-510, F.1-38). After the correspondences between the parties, a conference in Trabzon was decided to be held. When the commissary learnt that Turkey obtained Kars, Ardahan, and Batumi with the Brest Peace on the day it was going to send its committee to Trabzon, they published a protest telegraphy to the Great Powers on 2 March and declared not to recognize such a treaty approved without their participation. However, the same commissary said these in its instruction to the committee to be sent to Trabzon after the negotiations in Seym on 1 March: “the border between Turkey and Russia before the war in 1914 will be a basis to the treaty to be signed and it will be tried to achieve that the nations generally living within Eastern Anatolia have the right of self-determination and “Turkish Armenia” has autonomy on the condition of staying within Turkey” (ATASE, A.4-3671, K.2921, D.511, F.1-116). It was certain that these decisions would bring great troubles to the Caucasus.

The Trabzon Conference was held on 14 March-14 April 1918. As Trans-Caucasia didn’t approve the Brest Peace in negotiations, the conference didn’t give any result. The commissary declared war against Turkey on 13 April and called its delegation back on 14 April (ATASE, A.4-3671, K.2918, D.28-496, F.1-248). However, the war between the parties lasted only for 8 days and the demands of Turkey were made to be accepted through bloodshed. The Trans-Caucasian Seym and government both approved the Brest-Litovsk Peace and declared independence by separating from Russia with the obligatory decision they took on 22 April 1918. Turkey recognized the independence of Trans-Caucasia with a declaration dated 26 April (ATASE, A.4-3671, K.2917, D.493-302, F.1-127).

After Turkey made the commissary accept its demands, a new conference was gathered in Batumi on 11 May. The guest delegation had quite optimistic expectations when coming to Batumi. They had accepted the Brest Peace and made the declaration of independence as Turkey willed. However, the Turkish government didn’t have the same opinion. The chair of the Turkish delegation, Halil Bey, made new demands requiring giving Trans-Caucasia as the ransom of the bloodshed. Under such conditions, the Batumi Conference also went into a dead-end and turned into a war of notes like in Trabzon. Very important developments took place in Tbilisi on 26 May 1918. Having obtained the protection of Germans, Georgia separated from the federation and declared independence. Azerbaijan and Armenia followed this with intervals of two days (Kurat, 1990, p. 477). The establishment of Armenia was interesting as this state declared independence under obligatory conditions after the declaration of independence of the Georgians and Azerbaijanis (Hovannisian, 1971, I, p. 33).

After the declarations of independence, the negotiations continued in separate delegations. The Turkish-Armenian negotiations in Batumi started between Halil Bey and Hatisyan on 30 May. Halil Bey saw the new borders emerging from the collapse of Trans-Caucasia as these republics’ own issues (Hovannisian, 1967, p.195). As Enver Pasha wanted a Turkish-Azeri border in the northern part of Karakilise as well (ATASE, A.4-3671, K.2930, D.553, F.4), Armenia would be cornered from Karakilise on the north and Nakhchivan on the south and it would have a border with Georgia. That is to say, stuck between Turkey and Azerbaijan, Armenia would be left in a position of an island country. In addition, Turkey would reach to the Turkish-Russian border in 1818 with the capture of Ahıska and Ahılkelek. On this stage, the opinions of Enver Pasha were not completely taken into consideration and Halil Bey and Vehib Pasha consented to some small land regulations in favor of the Armenians. This was accepted by the Turkish delegation on the ground of “forming beginning friendship relations” (Hovannisian, 1967, p.196).

The agreement that the parties reached on 2 June resulted in the signing of treaties on 4 June. A total of six treaties including the peace and friendship treaty and five additional treaties were signed between Turkey and Armenia in Batumi (BOA, HR.HMŞ.İŞO, Bo.107/11). Turkey obtained very significant gains over Armenia with these treaties. As a result of the Batumi treaties, only the land gains of Turkey in the region were 20,400 km2 (Bihl, 1992, p.308). However, as all of Turkish-Armenian treaties were not exchanged and Turkey was defeated in World War, it wasn’t possible to completely put these treaties which gave great advantages to Turkey into practice. The only positive result of these was that Turkey depending on these treaties had a great dominion and authority over the Caucasus even for a short time and the Turkish army helped Azerbaijan and the Northern Caucasus and rescued these regions from occupation. However, all of these achievements and all of these efforts, especially for the solution of the Armenian Problem, would be ceased with the Mudros Armistice on 30 October 1918 and the problem would pass on to a new dimension when Armenians who depended on Britain this time wanted to take advantage of new opportunities in the region.


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