Q&A with Arsène Saparov: No evidence that Stalin “gave” Karabakh to Azerbaijan

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Saparov lecturing at the Program on Armenian Studies in London in May 2016. Via programstud.org.uk

Arsène Saparov is an assistant professor of international relations at the University of Sharjah, in the United Arab Emirates. Born in Armenia, Saparov earned a PhD in International Relations from the London School of Economics. He is the author of the book “From conflict to autonomy in the Caucasus: the Soviet Union and the making of Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Nagorno Karabakh.” (Routledge 2015) Editor of the Focus on Karabakh Emil Sanamyan (ES) spoke with Saparov by telephone.

ES: The view widely held in Armenia that Soviet Russian leaders “gave away” Armenian territories to Turkey and Azerbaijan – specifically Surmalu and Kars to Turkey and Nakhichevan and Karabakh (Artsakh) to Azerbaijan – how grounded is that in historical science?

Saparov: Well, it seems that historians all look at the same documents, I personally have not discovered any new documents that would provide hard evidence for that claim. However, the dominant discourse about Armenian history has been about victimization and a habit to look at events through that lens. And this victimized perspective is not a uniquely Armenian thing, it is a widespread attitude in our region. I think that approach shifts responsibility on to “others,” arguing that somebody else did this or that. In the long-term I think this approach is damaging to the ability to assess current challenges.

However, if we assume that the decisions [on territorial issues] taken in 1920-21 were arrived at because of the facts on the ground, rather than through greater powers’ intention to victimize Armenia, then this has strong implications for how present-day conflicts are handled.

ES: Was Karabakh’s incorporation as an autonomy within Soviet Azerbaijan, was that in fact Stalin’s decision as is often claimed?

Saparov: Of all the documents I have seen, there is no direct evidence of Stalin doing or saying something in those 12 days in the summer of 1921 that [resulted in this decision on Karabakh]. A lot of people just assume that since Stalin was an evil person, it would be typical of someone evil to take a decision like that.

I was looking for some evidence to understand the logic behind the decision of the Bolsheviks. And my conclusion is that the decision [on putting NKAO inside Azerbaijan] simply reflected the situation on the ground and that the Armenian Communists had no control over Karabakh. The Dashnak rebellion in Zangezur had already been crushed and the only argument used for making Karabakh part of Armenia – that granting Karabakh to Armenia would undermine the position of the Dashnaks – had disappeared.

ES: In other words, the Armenian Communist leaders were to blame?

Saparov: The early leaders of the Soviet government of Armenia, perhaps because they were mostly focused on defeating the Dashnaks rather than on advancing the nationalist agenda, [you could say that] this is what resulted in the decision [on NKAO].

ES: How did Karabakh go from a disputed area to an autonomy, how did this process happen?

Saparov: This part of the history, from 1921 and into the 1920s, is the time period I would like to study in more detail. But from what I can tell so far, this period – and probably well into the 1930s – was still rather unstable and violent, but the Soviet central government and its local representatives eventually succeeded in stabilizing the situation. And, of course, at the time, they had a monopoly on interests in Karabakh and this helped make this stabilization possible.

ES: There was a lot of leadership turnover in Soviet Azerbaijan in this period, and among others there was, for example, Levon Mirzoyan, who was born in Karabakh, and led Soviet Azerbaijan from 1926 to 1929. There were also ethnic Russians and other non-Azerbaijanis who led Azerbaijan before 1930s. To what extent this multi-ethnic nature of Azerbaijani leadership at the time made the Karabakh Armenian autonomy possible?

Saparov: I have not really looked at the internal political dynamics in the Soviet Azerbaijani leadership to be able to answer that question. But I can tell that some of the ethnic Armenian Communists in Baku were quite suspicious of Armenian Communists in Karabakh, because they saw them as nationalists, more concerned about protecting people from their ethnic group than internationalism and revolution.

ES: Who were the leaders of the Karabakh autonomy in the 1920s, were they people from Karabakh itself?

Saparov: Initially, in 1920 it was Armenak Karakozov and later some of the other local guys, but again there is real dearth of scholarship on this period in Karabakh.

Speaking of these autonomous solutions, we need to keep in mind is that they were the Bolshevik solutions to the grievances arising from the Civil War in Russia and the very first to be established was the Bashkir autonomy in the Russian Federation. Then they used this formula to satisfy local nationalists without completely breaking up the Russian empire [into hundreds of union republics]. But while they used the term ‘autonomy’ for all of those cases, the content was local and unique, every time. For example, Abkhaz got a much better deal than did Ossetians or Armenians in Karabakh.

ES: Why did Karabakh become an Autonomous Oblast rather than an Autonomous Republic, is there any information on that?

Saparov: Once again, there is not one document, signed by Stalin or someone else, which would explain this. Basically, decisions were taken under time pressure and the decision-makers did not have a lot of time to think things through. Returning to the different forms of autonomy that various areas received, I think that depended on the weight of the claims that leaders for each autonomous entity could present.

Abkhazia, for example, was the one region that managed to retain political autonomy from Russia longer than any other parts of the Caucasus, well into the 1860s. With regard to the South Ossetians and Karabakh Armenians, there was never an entity called Ossetia, in the territory where the South Ossetian autonomy was established, or an Armenian-controlled entity in Karabakh when Russians took it.

One might ask, what about the melikdoms? The thing to keep in mind is that by the time of Russian incorporation (in the early 19th century), these melikdoms by and large lost their independence and had been absorbed into the Karabakh Khanate.

Also, in the Russian imperial period, after losing its autonomy, Abkhazia retained its separateness as Sukhumsky Okrug, whereas what later became South Ossetia and Nagornyi Karabakh were totally incorporated into Tiflis and Yelizavetopol gubernias (governorates).

ES: When NKAO was just being created in the early 1920s, Shusha was not initially included. What can you say about these deliberations on what NKAO borders would look like?

Saparov: The maps I am working with today are reconstructions as people at the time had no easy access to maps or facilities to produce maps of their own. So, what happened then is that they would produce a list of villages that would be included [into NKAO] and then amend that list. So, my maps were based on these lists.

The lists were compiled based on ethnic compositions of settlements, and logically Shusha, which had no Armenian population left [after March 1920 massacre] was initially not included into what was to be an Armenian autonomy. But my sense is that the Armenian side protested that, and in the end Shusha was included into NKAO.

At the same time, Azerbaijani leaders may have preferred making Karabakh autonomy a larger entity covering the borders of the Karabakh Khanate with large Turkic population rather than limiting it to only Armenian-populated areas of Mountainous Karabakh.

ES: Is there any sense as to why a decision was made to establish Stepanakert as the NKAO capital, rather than rebuild Shusha as one?

Saparov: My guess is this was for practical reasons, as the Armenian portion of Shusha was completely destroyed and it made more sense to build a new political center in what was then Khankendi and soon became Stepanakert.

ES: Another question about the border-making. It has been claimed in the Armenian historiography that initially NKAO had a land connection to Armenia, but then with the establishment of the Kurdish autonomy in Lachin and Kelbajar that connection was lost.

Saparov: The very first draft or list of settlements that was to be included in the autonomy, did not include the land connection. There are some early Soviet maps that show the AONK border touching border of Armenia. These maps are not large-scale, so it is impossible to say that there is a definite land connection between the two. So, I have not seen any hard evidence of the land connection existing.

ES: And another thing to keep in mind is that at the time there was no road connecting what would become NKAO with Yerevan directly.

Saparov: There was a road connecting Karabakh with Zangezur, but no road connecting Zangezur directly with Yerevan. [That road was built over Saralenj pass in the Soviet period]. At the time, Yerevan’s connection with both Zangezur and Karabakh was via Nakhichevan and the Araxes valley.

ES: Since we touched on Nakhichevan. Have you looked at how the Nakhichevan autonomy was established?

Saparov: I have not, since there is particularly little information available on Nakhichevan. Even in the Soviet period not much scholarship had been done on Nakhichevan. Armenian archives unfortunately have hardly any documents about Nakhichevan from the Soviet period.

ES: Returning to the “victimization discourse” we began with, the notion that great power interests is what in the end determines how disputes, such as Karabakh, are resolved, is that notion still a dominant one in Armenia, be that in foreign policy or society?

Saparov: I cannot say for sure about the government or foreign policy, I don’t follow it very much. But the dominant mood in the Armenian society that “big guys decide everything” is still there and represents a distortion of how things work. “Big guys” do in fact make important decisions, but others [“little guys”] can and do influence these decisions in important ways.

The attitude that everything is already decided somewhere else, I think it needs to change.

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