The Armenian Weekly Magazine
Dec. 2015: The ARF at 125
What better way to celebrate the 125th anniversary of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF) than by recounting its illustrious journey that began in Tiflis (Tbilisi) in 1890.When the ARF was founded, none could have foreseen the nation-shattering events that would soon engulf the Armenian people. Neither was it possible to have anticipated the vital role the ARF would have from that day forward in the life of our people and our nation. In retrospect, what may have seemed like idyllic days with family, friends, and community was in reality an environment with political undercurrents that would spawn the Hamidian (1894-96) and Adana (1909) Massacres. And yet, there still was little to foretell that these savage outbreaks could be a prelude to an Armenian Genocide that would take place a few years later. Without autonomy for some six centuries, the Armenians were now ruled by Czarist Russia in the east and the Ottoman Turks in the west; as minorities on lands that they had settled for millennia, they were now subjected to the capricious policies of foreign rulers sitting in Moscow and Constantinople.
During these early years, the ARF had wanted constitutional reforms to ameliorate the conditions under which the Armenians lived. At the same time, members of the Turkish Committee of Union and Progress (CUP) sought reforms to prevent the continuing dissolution of the empire, which they blamed on the autocratic nature of the government in Constantinople. Neither the ARF nor the CUP achieved their desired objectives. For the reformers, the loss of the Balkan provinces swung the political pendulum toward an ultra-nationalist stance. The CUP shifted from saving the empire to protecting their core area (the Anatolian Heartland), where Turks from the lost Balkan provinces were seeking refuge. Within the empire, the Armenians became the ethnic group that evoked the most hatred from these ultra-nationalists: The Armenians represented the principal threat to maintaining control of Anatolia. Exacerbating the situation was the fact that much of Anatolia was historic Armenian land that was still inhabited by Armenians, and they were generally more prosperous and better educated than their Turkish and Kurdish neighbors.
When World War I was declared (July 1914), the Ottoman-Turkish Empire became an ally of Germany a few months later. With Czarist Russia opposing Germany, the loss of Eastern Anatolia (Western Armenia) to Czarist Russia or to a Russian-sponsored independent Armenia became a distinct possibility. To protect their Anatolian heartland, the decision was made to eliminate the Armenian population. With that objective in mind, during the autumn of 1914 Armenian soldiers in the Ottoman-Turkish Army were disarmed and placed in labor battalions to be executed. The following year, on April 24, leaders within the Armenian communities and members of the intelligentsia were detained and summarily executed. Before the Armistice (October 1918) ended World War I, the Ottoman Turks and their Kurdish allies had slaughtered some 1.5 million Armenians. Between 300,000 to 400,000 Armenians had managed to make their way to the South Caucasus, while tens of thousands of children and young women were abducted, enslaved, or forced into marriage by Turkish and Kurdish villagers.
The situation for the Armenians in the South Caucasus including what remained of Historic Armenia was dire. Left to its own devices, the ARF tried to meet the needs of the refugees, but was overwhelmed by the severe shortage of food, clothing, shelter, and medicine that were required. The region was in political chaos, which served to intensify the humanitarian crisis. The Bolsheviks had seized control of the Czarist government (October 1917) and ended the war with Germany (Brest-Litovsk, March 1918). In the course of realigning their troops to Moscow, they abandoned the South Caucasus. The Ottoman Turks saw in this chaotic situation an opportunity to apply the coup de grace that would complete the annihilation of the Armenian people and the destruction of what remained of Armenia. The ARF immediately participated in organizing a fighting force to confront the much larger Turkish army. Sustaining some losses to the Turkish advance, the determined Armenian soldiers defeated the Turks in the epic battle of Sardarabad (May 1918). Within the month, under the leadership of the ARF, the first free and independent Armenian Republic (May 28, 1918) was established. The Treaty of Sèvres (Aug. 10, 1920) recognized an Independent Armenia on lands included in Historic Western Armenia, whose final boundaries were determined by President Woodrow Wilson.
The Turkish nationalists rejected the partitioning of Anatolia agreed to by the Ottoman-Turkish government in Constantinople. Before the Treaty of Sèvres was ratified, Ataturk had successfully unified Anatolia under Turkish control. His success was due in large part to the apathy of Great Britain, the principal author of the Treaty of Lausanne (July 24, 1923), and France since they had already secured the Ottoman-Turkish territories that met their geostrategic interests.
The Treaty of Lausanne signed by Kemal Ataturk fixed the boundaries of present-day Turkey. It completely ignored an Independent Armenia delimited by President Wilson and contained in the Treaty of Sèvres. The treaty also ignored the horrific loss of life from the Armenian Genocide and the wealth that was stolen from its nearly 2 million victims. The treaty welcomed Turkey into the community of nations guilt-free. Is it no wonder that the succession of Turkish political leaders refuse to acknowledge the genocide?
During the turbulent decades from its founding in 1890 to the signing of the Treaty of Lausanne in 1923, the men and women of the ARF had willingly placed themselves in danger or given their lives as fadeyees, confronting the petty officials and the Turkish and Kurdish overlords who preyed upon the Armenians in the interior regions or during the Hamidian and Adana Massacres. They represented the Armenian Cause before the major European governments, which were more intent on protecting their national interests than on providing justice to a devastated people. And the United States, whose president had been entrusted with the task of delimiting the boundaries of an Independent Armenia, abandoned her and retreated to its North American bastion across the Atlantic Ocean. The ARF were the soldiers who participated in the series of battles that led to the ultimate victory at Sardarabad, which saved the nation from extinction. And they were the state builders who established the first free and independent Armenian Republic.
With the signing of the Treaty of Lausanne, the ARF faced a vastly different world. When the First Republic was subverted by the Bolsheviks and their Armenian sympathizers in 1920, the ARF was banned in Armenia. After their exile, its leaders established the ARF in Lebanon and Syria, where many of the survivors of the genocide had settled. The ARF embarked on the Herculean task of creating the social, cultural, and political environment beneficial to the survivors intent on rebuilding their lives. As the refugee communities proliferated, creating an ever expanding Armenian Diaspora, the ARF became that vital link connecting these communities to one another and to their heritage. How important psychologically and emotionally for the survivors to know that they were not alone as they adjusted to the different cultural and political environments of their host countries. During these darkest hours, the spirit and optimism of the ARF was inspirational. The members of the ARF, hurting from their own personal losses, remained steadfast in their duty to serve the Armenian people. The panoply of ARF sister organizations and its publications became a significant component of the diasporan communities’ fabric of life, through its sponsored cultural, political, social, educational, and athletic events and activities. The Armenian Relief Society (ARS), founded in 1910, provided humanitarian assistance wherever there was a need. During the 70 years of the Bolshevik interregnum, the ARF and its sister organizations and the communities they served proudly recognized the tricolor and “Mer Hairenik.” Within these communities there was never any doubt that the second free and independent Armenian Republic would one day replace the ersatz Bolshevik Armenian Republic.
By the 1960’s, following the end of World War II, the Diasporan Armenians were coming into their own within the countries where they had settled after the genocide. The diaspora continued to expand and so did the ARF. It had become the largest and most influential political organization within the diaspora. Not only was it influential within its communities, but influential based on its participation in the political life of the host countries or by representing issues important to the rapidly developing diasporan communities. It was at this time that the ARF began to confront the Turkish leadership over its denial of the Armenian Genocide. Through its efforts over the years, many countries; the legislatures of first order administrative units (the first or largest political unit in which a country is divided for administrative purposes), such as states, provinces, or departments; and municipalities have supported Armenian Genocide recognition.
The unexpected implosion of the Soviet Union began the third and present period for the ARF. Armenia and the other ethnic republics seized the opportunity to declare their independence. On Sept. 21, 1991, the second free and independent Armenian Republic replaced the Soviet Armenian Republic. At the same time as the Artsakh Armenians moved closer to declaring their independence, the cities of Sumgait and Baku (1988) were the scene of mob violence that took more than a hundred Armenian lives and forced thousands to seek safety in Armenian-dominated Artsakh (Nagorno-Karabagh) or in Armenia. When the Artsakh Armenians finally declared their independence, ending 70 years of economic, political, and cultural discrimination, the Azeri military immediately countered by launching vicious attacks against the civilian population. The ARF quickly responded by forming units that fought alongside the Artsakh Armenians. It was an ARF unit that participated in the capture of the ancient Armenian fortress city of Shushi (May 9, 1991), which proved to be the turning point in the war. Again, as it had done so many times in the past, the ARF supported the Armenian people in their hour of need. Since the ceasefire signed by Armenia, Artsakh, and Azerbaijan (1994) that created the de facto state of Artsakh, the ARF and its sister organizations have participated in Artsakh’s development. As a result of the May 2015 elections, 7 ARF members now serve in Artsakh’s 33-member parliament.
With the creation of the second free and independent republic, the ARF became part of the Armenian political scene after a 70-year hiatus. For much of its existence, it had been a foreign-based political organization intimately associated with the development that was taking place throughout the diaspora. Within a short time after its return, it became an influential voice in Armenian politics. It denounced the pro-Turkish protocols that were supported by the United States, and that would have compromised Armenia’s relationship with Artsakh and the demand for genocide recognition. The ARF also supported the constitutional change to a parliamentary system put forward by President Serge Sarkisian that was recently passed. This should open a new era in Armenian political life.
As the largest and most influential political organization in the diaspora, the ARF with its sponsored lobbying entities is the principal advocate of issues critical to newly independent Armenia and the de facto state of Artsakh. It also continues, aided by the Armenian Youth Federation (AYF), to successfully confront the world-wide, well-financed, anti-Armenian agenda of Turkey and Azerbaijan.
It is very instructive to note that almost a century later the ARF is again responding to a crisis situation that has engulfed the Armenian people. This time it is not the South Caucasus, or the survivors of the Armenian Genocide, or the civil war that afflicted Lebanon, but our brothers and sisters who are innocent victims caught up in a civil war raging in Syria. Calling upon its human and financial resources spread throughout the diaspora, the ARF has enabled the Syrian-Armenian communities to maintain a semblance of normalcy in their daily lives. Once again the ARF is ministering to the humanitarian and security needs of their people. In a war-ravaged environment, the presence of the ARF has been a significant factor in bolstering morale.
The participation of the ARF in the Armenian political system is a work in progress. The dominance of the ruling Republican Party, the recent passage of the constitutional change to a parliamentary system, the control of the country’s infrastructure by Russia, the ever-increasing cooperation between the Armenian and Russia military, and the country’s membership in the Russian-sponsored Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) are a few of the factors that the party must contend with as it seeks to implement its socioeconomic, political, and cultural agenda.
In Armenia, the ARF is dedicated to the economic liberation of the worker that will unleash his innate talents, which is sine qua non to creating a vibrant and viable nation. The party espouses a system where opportunity, equality, justice, and freedom are the bedrock upon which governance rests. This is the antithesis of the practice of governing that has been responsible for the economic malaise that has gripped Armenia since its independence in 1991.
The second leg of its mission is Hai Tahd or the Dashnaktsutiun Manifesto that recounts the injustices that our people and nation have endured over the past century. Hai Tahd eschews force, but seeks through time and an evolving political environment to regain by peaceful means our historic lands, which were denied to us by the Treaty of Lausanne or taken by the perverse policies of the Bolsheviks when they unilaterally redrew the boundaries of the Soviet Armenian Republic. Hai Tahd also demands recognition of the genocide by the Turkish government, as well as reparations either through restitution, where applicable, or compensation.
As the ARF endeavors to achieve these economic and political objectives, it also stresses to our incoming generations the unique culture that identifies us as a nation as well as our heritage—a product of several thousands of years as an identifiable group. Through their participation in sister organizations such as the AYF, the Homenetmen, and the ARS, members develop a love and appreciation of what it is to be Armenian and to be part of a distinct subgroup dedicated to serving their people and country.
This is an important part of the ARF educational program that seeks to empower its young members to become politically knowledgeable and committed to a system of governance that respects the individual and unleashes his innate talents, and encourages self-development. Members are expected to be practitioners of their culture and appreciative of their heritage. As part of their development, our young men and women members benefit from having mentors; role models; valuable internship opportunities; and a multitude of service options throughout the Armenian Diaspora, in Armenia, Artsakh, and Javakhk that utilize their interests, skills, and knowledge. The camaraderie that develops through these varied experiences creates bonds that last a lifetime. These young men and women—our ungers and ungerouhis—will be the leaders who will guide the ARF on its never-ending journey selflessly serving our people and our nation.
About the author: Michael Mensoian, J.D./Ph.D, is professor emeritus in Middle East and political geography at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, and is a retired major in the U.S. army. He writes regularly for the Armenian Weekly.
*About the artist: Meruzhan Khachatryan was born and raised in Yerevan in a family of artists. He is a graduate of Yerevan’s Terlemezyan College of Fine Arts. His paintings have been featured in exhibitions across Armenia, Russia, the United States, and Canada, and can be found in private collections across the world. He has been a member of Armenia’s Union of Artists since 2004. To learn more about Meruzhan’s work, visit www.meruzhankhachatryan.com.