Reflections on the 90th Anniversary of the First Republic

The 90th anniversary of the independence of the First Republic brings to mind events that were the most unlikely precursors to its creation. During the period from April 24, 1915 through 1923, the Armenian nation not only experienced the excruciating agony of the genocide, but the independent Armenia created by the Treaty of Sevres fell victim to the perfidiousness and self-interests of Western democracies. Dissident Turks under Mustafa Kemal Ataturk rebelled against their government’s acceptance of the treaty provisions partitioning Anatolia. The Kemalists were unhindered as they sought to re-establish control over their Anatolian provinces. The October Revolution that brought the Bolsheviks to power in Russia was a fortuitous event for the Kemalists. The Bolsheviks, capitulating to the German deman’s in the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, abandoned the Caucasus front allowing the Kemalists to occupy its eastern provinces and push toward the Caucasus. The Armenia’s were left alone to protect the remnant Armenian population in eastern Anatolia and to confront the Turkish forces as they advanced toward the Armenian core area of Yerevan and Alexandropol. Gathering what troops, volunteers, and conscripts they could, the Armenian forces defeated a much larger Turkish force in the epic Battle of Sadarabad–epic because it literally saved the Armenian nation from complete annihilation.
From this victory, the First Republic was born on May 28, 1918 under the aegis of the Dashnaktsutiun. From its inception, the republic was faced with severe shortages of food and shelter as it sought to care for the tens of thousands of refugees. At the same time, the government was beset from within and without by the subversive activities of the Russian Bolsheviks and their Armenian counterpart. Unable to continue, the First Republic officially ceased on Dec. 1, 1920. The Treaty of Lausanne, ratified in 1923, replaced the Treaty of Sevres. Defeated Ottoman Turkey now under the leadership of Mustafa Kemal was actually rewarded. Turkey was recognized as a sovereign state encompassing its Anatolian provinces with a European foothold across the Straits. The new treaty ignored the Armenian Genocide and Armenian independence.
For seven decades, Armenia endured as a Soviet republic. During these many years, throughout the Diaspora, May 28th–Independence Day of the First Republic–was celebrated. Testament to the indomitable spirit and ceaseless efforts of the Dashnaktsutiun, faith finally gave birth to reality on Sept. 21, 1991 when a second republic was declared during the waning days of the Soviet Union. Paradoxically the Diaspora that had become an unwanted legacy of the Armenian Genocide had by then developed into a vibrant system of communities worldwide that were willing and able to assist their newly independent homeland in responding to the myriad problems common to all emergent countries. This was in stark contrast to the First Republic that could rely on no effective assistance from beyond its borders.
The Armenian nation had not only overcome the catastrophic effects of the genocide but also the sterile socio-economic and cultural environment that had been foisted upon them by the Soviets after the collapse of the First Republic. The Armenian nation that a succession of Turkish leaders and their Azeri counterparts believed had been ground into oblivion in the “ashes” of the genocide and soviet domination now had risen like the proverbial Phoenix.
The Armenia’s of Artsakh (Nagorno-Karabakh) were no less fortunate. Time and again they had been thwarted by Moscow in their desire to secure independence from Azerbaijan. For nearly seven decades they too had chafed under the rule of Soviet Azeri leadership. The determination of the Ottoman Turkish leaders to empty their eastern provinces of their Armenian population that fueled the genocide continued unabated in a different form when Artsakh was given by Russia to Azerbaijan. Can it honestly be said that during the years that Artsakh was under Azeri rule the Armenian and his cultural heritage were respected? Or that the Azeri government ever sought to provide even the basic infrastructure that would allow the Armenia’s to develop a viable economic and social life? Or that Armenian families were able to provide unhindered a better life for their children within the context of their own culture? Discrimination, economic exploitation, and deprivation were all that the government at Baku had determined their Armenian minority deserved. Their objective was to create such intolerable conditions in Artsakh that Armenian families would abandon their homes and lands. Did this differ from the conditions that the Armenian population endured within Ottoman Turkey prior to the genocide?
Today Artsakh enjoys its independence only because some 7,000 azatamartiks willingly gave their lives for their people’s freedom. Is there not a parallel between Artsakh and the sacrifices at Sadarabad that led to the independence, limited in time that it was, of the First Republic? On the occasion of its 90th anniversary, might Armenia’s contemplate what could have been if the republic had survived? Will history record that Artsakh’s independence was also short lived?
Unlike the First Republic, whose existence and ultimate demise had limited ramifications beyond its own borders, the situation in Artsakh cannot be viewed as some isolated event existing in a vacuum. Artsakh has meaning that reaches beyond its borders and its heroic population that impacts Armenia, the diaspora, and the Dashnaktsutiun. Should Artsakh revert to Azeri control, no amount of rationalizing could mitigate the significance of this defeat. Unfortunately, any objective assessment of the current situation vis-a-vis Azerbaijan offers few, if any, simple solutions. It becomes necessary, at the least, to accept as highly unlikely that current negotiations will be able to resolve the issue of Artsakh’s independence. However, diplomacy requires that “good faith” efforts be continued under the auspices of the Minsk Group. Yet, Azerbaijan’s claim of territorial inviolability openly supported by the United States and Artsakh’s demand for independence represent opposite ends of a continuum which is devoid of any meaningful middle ground. Each side holds antipodean positions.
Given this reality, the present situation begs a proactive effort by a specially formed committee (the “Artsakh Committee”) to undertake two simultaneous responsibilities in support of Artsakh’s position. Such a committee would most effectively operate under an existing international entity such as the Dashnaktsutiun.
Its primary function would be to develop materials for publication in various media and for dissemination to appropriate individuals and audiences that explain the moral and political justification of Artsakh’s position. An added responsibility that the Artsakh Committee would shoulder is the capability to immediately counter in any forum or effort by Azerbaijan to influence opinion or settlement of the issue in its favor. A recent resolution submitted by Azerbaijan to the United Nations General Assembly called for (in addition to other deman’s) the immediate withdrawal of Armenian forces from its territory. Although it was approved on a 49 to 7 vote, it was in essence a “victory” for Armenia and the role of the Minsk Group co-chaired by France, Russia, and the United States, which voted “no.” Of the 192 member states of the United Nations, 146 either abstained or did not want to participate. There is nothing to suggest that a future vote would be favorable for Armenia and Artsakh. The need for the Artsakh Committee to prepare position papers that would be readily available and selectively distributed to support the reasonableness and the justification of Artsakh’s position should be apparent.
A secondary function would be to publicize the dangers inherent in the unilateral expansion by Azerbaijan of its military establishment and the constant threat by the Azeri political and military leadership to solve the Artsakh issue by military means. The threat this poses to regional stability is real. Attention should be called to the disparity in the aid Azerbaijan receives from the United States compared to Armenia (hopefully to be changed under a new administration), as well as the huge disparity in the annual government appropriations for military procurement that exists between Baku and Yerevan. Position papers citing the danger inherent in any military adventurism by Azerbaijan within the Caucasus region should be readily available.
A cogent relationship must be developed connecting Artsakh’s claim for independence with the Armenian Genocide; the treatment of Armenia’s during their years under Azeri control; and the purpose in transferring control from Armenia to Azerbaijan.
Armenia’s should not be fearful of the threat of military action by Azerbaijan. The principal nation and likely the only nation that would support any ill-advised Azeri military action against Artsakh is Turkey. However, any overt or covert support from Ankara would be tempered by the knowledge that Russia, Iran, and even the United States would not sit idly by. The geo-strategic interests of Russia and Iran are aligned with the existence of a viable Armenia and Artsakh rather than with a Turkish-Azerbaijani victory. This is a diametric change from the interests of the Russian Bolsheviks some 90 years earlier when they sacrificed Armenia’s historic lands to Turkey and Azerbaijan in the misguided belief that they would gain ideological converts.
May 28th is an appropriate time to reflect on the past and on the relationship of Artsakh to Hai Tahd as homage is paid to those who established and served the First Republic. Artsakh represents the keystone of the Armenian Cause to create a unified integrated Armenia on its historic lands of Artsakh, Nakhichevan, Javakhk, and the western provinces. Such was determined by the Ninth World Congress of the ARF in 1919. The opportunity exists now, some 90 years later, for the spatial integration of Artsakh with the motherland. Failure to do so would logically call into question when or even if the goal of a unified integrated Armenia can ever be achieved. Any vacillation or compromise that allows Artsakh’s independence to be subverted in any way whatsoever would parallel the fate of the First Republic. It would be a singular defeat for Armenia, the Dashnaktsutiun and to our brothers and sisters in Artsakh. That thought should be with those who commemorate Independence Day of the First Republic this year.

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