The Issue of Nagorno-Karabakh in the League of Nations

The collapse of the Soviet Union gave rise to many territorial problems for former Soviet territories, the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict being one of the vivid ones. Exercising its right to self-determination based on Soviet law, on September 2, 1991 Nagorno-Karabakh adopted the declaration on the “Independence of Nagorno-Karabakh” later confirmed by a referendum. However, the newly-independent Azerbaijani Republic did not accept this. The Supreme Council of Azerbaijan adopted a declaration becoming the successor to the Azerbaijani Democratic Republic (ADR) that existed between May 28, 1918 and April 27, 1920. On October 18, 1991 the Azerbaijani Republic adopted a constitutional act on withdrawal from the USSR, defining the existence of the Soviet authority in Azerbaijan from 1920 to 1991 as an “annexation by the Soviet Russia,” an occupation of Azerbaijani territory and a forced shift of legal authority. Consequently, by denying the legal heritage of 1920-1991, the Azerbaijani Republic abandons all the political and legal decisions made in the period of April 27, 1920 and October, 18, 1991, including the decision to transfer Nagorno-Karabakh to Azerbaijan. Therefore, the status of Nagorno-Karabakh during the existence of ADR arises.

Status of Nagorno-Karabakh (1918-1920)

The status of Nagorno-Karabakh in 1918-1920, as well as the stance of the international community and international institutions, clearly refers to the fact that the land was never under the authority of ADR but was rather a separate politico-legal unit. 

Nagorno-Karabakh became a part of Tsarist Russia by the Gulistan Treaty of 1813, and its status was not disputed until the 1917 October Revolution. WWI and the Bolshevik Revolution created a new political-historical situation in Transcaucasia. On November 15, 1917, the Bolshevik government adopted a Declaration of the Rights of the Peoples of Russia, which among other provisions declared the right of secession and the formation of independent states within the territory of the Russian Empire. Taking advantage of this in sync with the establishment of Transcaucasia republics, on July 22, 1918 the First Congress of Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh declared the region a separate administrative unit. From 1918 to 1920 the legislative governance of Nagorno-Karabakh was carried out by the local Armenian Congress, which refused to comply with the English-forced supervision of ADR and demanded to wait until the final solution of the issue at the Paris Peace Conference.

During the Paris Peace Conference, the Supreme Council of Allied states when de facto recognizing the governments of the Republic of Armenia and ADR, clearly mentioned that the recognition did not imply the final definition of the borders and that the issue should be solved via the mutual agreement of the neighboring states. 

Article 92 of the Treaty of Sevres again stated that the frontiers between Armenia and Azerbaijan (and also Georgia) will be determined by direct agreements between the concerned states, and only in case of failure, the frontier line will be determined by the Principal Allied Powers.

The legal stance of the international community on the status of Nagorno-Karabakh was also expressed in the context of membership of Armenia and Azerbaijan in the League of Nations. The League of Nations was considered a legal platform to confirm and give a legal effect to the existence of states and the relations between them. This explains the aspirations of newborn states to become members of the League of Nations. 

Nagorno-Karabakh and the League of Nations 

Applications for membership to the League of Nations were made by the national delegations of Armenia and Azerbaijan to the Paris Peace Conference. It is noteworthy that as an ally Armenia had to become a chartered member of the League of Nations. However, when the League came into existence in January 1920, all the peace settlements except for the treaty with Ottoman Turkey had been concluded, and the signatory parties, aside from the defeated powers, became charter members of the organization. So, the Republic of Armenia had to apply for membership.

On September 25, 1920, the Armenian delegation informed the president of the League’s Council that because the Treaty of Sèvres gave final formulation to the recognition of the Republic of Armenia by the Allied Powers, the Armenian government was applying for membership. Application of the Azerbaijani delegation was made on November 1, 1920. However, at the time of the submission of the application the government of the Republic of Azerbaijan, which had issued the credentials to the delegation, was not actually in power; the Musavat Government of Azerbaijan was replaced by the Bolshevik one after the installation of a Soviet regime in Baku, and the Musavat government which made the application did not exercise authority over the whole territory of the country.

The membership issues were first discussed in the memorandum of the Secretary-General. The report on Armenia was basically positive in nature, indicating… 

“the historical, ethnic, and linguistic features of this old nationality, which had lost its statehood as a result of annexation by the Russian Empire. Armenia met the requirements of the Charter of the League of Nations, the state was fully shaped and recognized by the main allies and other governments; besides under the Article 88 of the Treaty of Sèvres the main allied states had de jure recognized Armenia as a sovereign and independent state. The Political division of the League of Nations referred to the Treaty of Sèvres as both de facto and de jure recognition of Armenia. Armenia was also recognized de jure by Argentine and, according to unofficial sources, by the United States.”

In regard to the application submitted by Azerbaijan, the memorandum stated that…

“the territory of the Republic, which occupied a superficial area of 40,000 sq. miles, had never formerly constituted a state. Rather, it had been part of Mongol or Persian territories and, since 1813, was incorporated into the Russian Empire. The name Azerbaijan chosen for the new republic was the same as that of a neighboring Persian province.”

Furthermore, the Secretary-General identified two legal issues: 

  1. Whether the declaration of independence of the Republic of Azerbaijan in May 1918 and the recognition accorded by the Allied Powers in January 1920 was sufficient to constitute Azerbaijan de jure a “full self-governing State.” The republic was de facto recognized only by Great Britain, France, Italy and Japan, while the US refused to recognize Azerbaijan. 
  2. If the Assembly established the status of Azerbaijan as a “fully self-governing state,” the second issue would arise as to whether the delegation which made the application possessed the necessary authority to represent the legitimate government of the country and whether that government could undertake international obligations and give guarantees required by membership.

The overall attitude of the report was clearly negative.

Related to the points raised in the report, it should be mentioned that the state called the ADR was never de jure recognized by any state, while the US even refused its consent to the de facto recognition of Azerbaijan. In Wilson’s opinion, the newly independent states that were part of the former Tsarist Russian Empire were components of the Russian issue and should not become independent, except for Poland, Finland and Armenia.

Beginning in 1918 de facto and already from April of 1920 de jure, there were two governments in the country: the Musavat government sheltered in Ganja (which shortly after April 1920 moved abroad) and the Bolshevik government in Baku. Both governments insisted upon their own lawful authority over the territory of Azerbaijan. From the perspective of the internal organization, one should mention the heavy influence of Turks in the country, as the Azerbaijani-Musavat government repeatedly tried to restore its authority with their help. This is why some historians, when speaking about the Turkish influence, question the strength of the Musavat government within the territory of Azerbaijan. 

When the Assembly of the League first convened in November 1920, the questions of membership were referred to the Fifth Committee, which distributed the applications for membership to three sub-committees to determine if the necessary documents were in order, whether the governments of the states were recognized de facto or de jure, whether they were freely elected, whether the states and their borders were stable, and whether the governments had serious attitudes towards their international obligations and the reduction of armaments. The cases of Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia were referred to the third sub-committee, presided over by Fridtjof Nansen (Norway). 

The sub-committee report on Azerbaijan was unfavorable. It stated that the application was made by the government which had not been in power since April 27, 1920. The Musavat government had been forced to evacuate the capital and to take refuge in Ganja and it was difficult to ascertain what proportion of the country it actually held. The second government in Baku was Bolshevik. Although the sub-committee pointed out that the struggle between two rival governments was still in process, the superior strength of the Bolshevik side was deemed evident. The report also dwelled upon Azerbaijani territorial disputes with neighboring Armenia and Georgia. With Armenia the point of struggle was over Nagorno-Karabakh, Zangezur, and Nakhichevan; with Georgia it was over the region of Zaqatala. Despite some agreements concluded between the neighbors, the sub-committee assessed them as not far-reaching and the issue of stable state boundaries was deemed highly questionable.

The report on Armenia indicated that the government of the Republic of Armenia represented the nation fairly, even though it could not yet be described as properly stable. The territory of the republic could greatly expand when the vilayets of Van, Erzerum, and part of Trebizond were added. Although Armenia’s frontiers were not fixed definitively, Article 52 of the Treaty of Sèvres provided for their arbitration under the supervision of the President of the United States. The report about the borders referred only to the territories of Western Armenia, without touching upon the existing conflicts with neighboring states. As for the international recognition of the state, Argentina, Brazil and the USA had de jure recognized the Republic of Armenia. As was mentioned, Armenia had already been included in the list of signatories to the Charter of the League of Nations; it had also signed the document on the protection of minorities put forward by the League of Nations. In the preamble of this document it was clearly mentioned the main allied states recognized Armenia as a sovereign and independent state. The report laid special emphasis that the Armenian government genuinely wanted to respect its international obligations. Although the sub-committee seemed not to absolutely answer all questions, the report on Armenia was declared positive regarding membership. 

The sub-committee’s reports on Armenia and Azerbaijan were discussed by the Fifth Committee on December 1, 1920. There was a clear positive attitude to the admission of Armenia, even though the final decision was not being made at that time. 

The decisions of the Fifth Committee of the League of Nations on the membership of the Republic of Armenia and Azerbaijani Democratic Republic (Journal of the First Assembly of the League of Nations, Geneva 1920, p. 139)

Nansen, who presented the sub-committee’s report on Azerbaijan, expressed doubts on the possibility of accepting Azerbaijan; it didn’t appear to have a stable government whose authority extended over the whole of its territory and was not recognized de jure by any member-state. The next issue was the disputed territories with neighboring Armenia and Georgia, which made it impossible to define the borders of Azerbaijan. As a result of the discussions, the Committee adopted the following resolution:

Azerbaijan. The Committee decided that though the request of Azerbaijan to be admitted was in order, it was difficult to ascertain the exact limits of the territory within which the Government of Azerbaijan exercised its authority. Frontier disputes with the neighboring States did not permit an exact definition of the boundaries of Azerbaijan. The Committee decided that the provisions of the Covenant did not allow the admission of Azerbaijan to the League under present circumstances. 

Thus, the League of Nations not only confirmed the disputed status of Nagorno-Karabakh, but it was also the basis of its rejection of Azerbaijan’s membership. 

Concerning the rejection of its membership to the League, Azerbaijan bases its arguments on the legal observations of the Secretary-General in the above-mentioned memorandum where, allegedly, there is no reference to the disputed territories between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Moreover, it insists that the decision of the League was based solely on the lack of the sovereignty of the government. This policy is aimed at negating the fact that Nagorno-Karabakh was a disputed territory. However, Azerbaijani sources themselves prove the contrary. On December 7, 1920, the head of the Azerbaijani delegation in Paris, Topchibashev, in his letter to the chairperson of the Assembly of the League of Nations touched upon the reasons for the membership rejection. 

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Concerning the first observation, the arguments of the Azerbaijani delegation were based on the unlawful seizure of power in Baku by the Bolsheviks. They even asked the League for help in fighting the Bolsheviks. As for the territories in dispute with neighboring states, the Azerbaijani delegation drew the League’s attention to the fact that after the WWI there were no newly independent states with clearly defined territories and this should not be used against a state to deprive it of its sovereign rights over its territories. “To protect its territorial integrity Azerbaijan entered into the armed conflict with Georgia for the Zaqatala region and with Armenia for Karabakh and Zangezur. These territories form part of Azerbaijan and are governed by the Azerbaijani government. Karabakh and Zangezur were handed to the Azerbaijani leadership by the former representatives of Allied states in the Caucasus. Any way these disputes are of interest not only to Azerbaijan but to neighboring states, that had started the struggle.” It was further mentioned that “Azerbaijan always thought that the disputes over borders with Armenia and Georgia constitute the internal affairs of the states and the governments should find ways out to solve them based on the mutual compromise. In case the matter of dispute is not solved via mutual agreement, the Azerbaijani delegation has no doubt that the Transcaucasian republics would refer it to the League of Nations.”

So, the claims of Azerbaijan that the territorial disputes did not affect the League’s rejection of Azerbaijan’s membership are contradicted by Azerbaijan’s own arguments.

Thus, between 1918 and 1920, Nagorno-Karabakh did not form a part of the ADR, which was clearly mentioned both during the de facto recognition of the ADR government during the Paris Peace Conference and in the arguments for the rejection of Azerbaijani membership in the League of Nations. The reasons for rejecting Azerbaijan’s membership in the League of Nations were openly based on two factors: a) the lack of sovereignty of Azerbaijan as of December 1, 1920, and b) the existence of the disputed territories of Nagorno-Karabakh and Zangezur with Armenia and of Zaqatala with Georgia. These are facts that, contrary to today’s historical revisionists, were accepted by the head of the Azerbaijani delegation. 

Edita Gzoyan

Edita Gzoyan

Edita Gzoyan is deputy scientific director at the Armenian Genocide Museum-Institute Foundation. She received her Ph.D. in History from Yerevan State University, and an L.L.M. from the American University of Armenia, both in 2012. She is the author of The First Republic of Armenia and the League of Nations, and more than 40 articles. Dr. Gzoyan is Armenia country editor for Central and Eastern European Review and associate editor for International Journal of Armenian Genocide Studies and Ts’eghaspanagitakan Handes.

2 Comments

  1. Artificially created Azerbaijan North never existed until 1918. People living there were mixed of different Central Asian tribes and Kurds. They occupied land of Aran and Persian Azarbaijan, forcefully Islamised and Turkfied them until Ottoman Turkey took over control of South Caucasus.

    After October 1917 revolution Russia and Lenin gave away Western Armenia, Kars and Ardahan, where Turks committed First Genocide of Century, Armenian Genocide. During 2-nd world war Soviet Union Occupied Iran’s Azerbaijan called entire South and North as Soviet Azerbaijan. Stalin gave away Southern part back to Iran because of the US and Britain. Stalin gave more lands and authorities to newly created fake Azarbaijan, such as Artsakh and Nakhichevan, in order to make “brotherly” Turkey happy, but Kamal Ataturk rejected Soviet umbrella, Soviets reclaimed Kars and Ardahan (Western Armenia) back, but Turkey rejected. with the help of the US and Britain, Confused weak Turkey joined with NATO against USSR.
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kara_Koyunlu
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aq_Qoyunlu
    https://communalnews.com/clashes-between-azerbaijan-and-armenia-remind-the-world-about-the-armenian-genocide/

  2. The aforementioned article, written by Edita Gzoyan, Ph.D., is very informative, elucidating, and succinct. It has legal implications and historical importance. I infrequently make comments or remarks, but this article impressed me so much that I decided to congratulate the author. I am the pastor of St. Thomas Armenian Church, Tenafly, NJ, and we will email this article to our members. I want them to know the facts about Karabakh, and be encouraged that we do have bright minds who love our glorious Nation and will defend her before world community, and in international political platforms and forums.

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