Vicken Cheterian

Armenia’s First Republic: A Nation’s Last Resort for Survival

There are many states that have borders drawn in straight lines. These are borders drawn by foreigners: diplomats, colonial powers, imperialist rulers from afar, and became independent states by accidents of history. Yet, many of them have difficulties in developing a nation out of the inhabitants of the state that history produced. We witness some of them today succumb to suicidal internal wars that kills a nation before it becomes one. 

The declaration of independence of the Republic of Armenia, on May 28, 1918, was anything but such an act. This was not a state striving to develop a nation within itself, but the last, desperate act of a nation threatened in its existence. Unlike the received ideas, the Armenian national movement in its vast majority both in the Ottoman and in Romanov Empires was a reformist movement and not a separatist one. The story of this nation is larger than the story of the state itself that I want to narrate here. 

The history of the First Armenian Republic (1918-1920) is not well known. During the Cold War it had polarized Armenian communities between those who idealized the Republic and the idea of independence, and between those who opposed it, demonized it, as a result of the revisionism of Soviet authorities. While the collapse of the Soviet Union and its ideology did a lot to overcome the polarization it had created, we have still accumulated much unease what concerns the First Republic. We notice similar complex relationship between the current Georgian political discourse heavily influenced by neoliberal ideology and the republic led by the Georgian Mensheviks, the current Azerbaijani dynastic rule and the first Azerbaijani republic under the Musavat party (there are even two Musavats in Azerbaijan today, one a major opposition party, the other a “fake” pro-regime one), or in the case of Russia where during the centennial of the Russian Revolution the conservative authorities of the Putin administration were ill-at-ease with the message of the Russian Revolution. The polarization of the past and the indifference of today shed a shroud over an important part of history and mystifies the place of Armenians in the 19th century history, and de-historicizes concepts such as reform, revolution, independence, nation and state.

Since 14th century the highest political institution among the Armenians was the church. This was the case in the Ottoman Empire since the conquest of Constantinople by Mehmet II, when the Armenian Patriarchate in Constantinople was established and Archbishop Hovagim was recognized as “milletbashi” in 1461 according to tradition. Armenian communities in Iran were equally seen represented by the Church, and Peter the Great recognized Archbishop Minas Tigranian as Prelate of All Armenians of Russia in 1716. 

When one looks at the political preoccupations of the Armenians at the start of the 19th century, the major struggle was one of sectarian conflict between the Armenian Apostolic Church, and the separation of Catholics and the establishment of a separate “millet” in 1831 with Hagop Chukhurian at its head, followed by the establishment of a Protestant Millet in 1847. While those struggles reveal the crisis within the Ottoman system, the growing influence of Western missionaries, and the religious-sectarian identification, it also reveals high level of political activism among the Armenians. This will be evident when Ottoman Sultan Abdulmejid I launched reforms known as Tanzimat in 1839, with the idea of modernizing the empire and creating Ottoman citizenship from what were religious communities, its impact will be palpable on the Armenians. This led to a profound power struggle within the Armenian community (or millet) over the control of the community institutions concerning education, taxation, and representation. This struggle led to the elaboration of the Armenian National Assembly and its Constitution in 1860, confirmed by Sultan Abdulaziz in 1863. 

The fact that the Armenian community achieved its own internal constitution sixteen years before the Ottoman Empire reflects the social composition of the community, with important urban presence, access to higher education, printing, mass media, and role in Ottoman industry, commerce and finance. It is no surprise that Armenians will play key political role not in modernizing the governance of their own community, but play a leading role within the Tanzimat and the Ottoman Constitutional movement, an excellent example being the jurist Krikor Odian who played important role in both the Armenian and Ottoman constitutions. Even the Armenian Apostolic Church joined this drive for reforms, notably under Mgrdich Khrimian. 

The Armenian political mobilization in 19th century and early 20th century Ottoman Empire was largely part of the Tanzimat and aimed at political reform to establish Ottoman citizenship, equality between religiously defined communities, and rule of law. Until very late, the vast majority of politically active Armenians did not consider the establishment of an independent Armenia as an option, but considered themselves as part of an overall Ottoman political change. Even when the modern Armenian political parties were established with the Social-Democrat Hunchagyan (Geneva 1887) and later Armenian Revolutionary Federation Tashnagtsutyun (Tbilisi 1890) demanded reforms rather than independence (Hunchags did call for independence, but they were marginalized by more influential Tashnagtsutyun). There are material reasons for this stand: unlike the Balkan provinces of the Ottoman Empire and its Greek, Serbian, Rumanian and Bulgarian populations, Armenians were divided between the Ottoman Empire with over 2 million Armenians, and another 2 million in the Russian Empire from which 1.7 million lived in Transcaucasia. Therefore, the Russian Empire that encouraged Balkan independence, had no interest to do the same for the Armenians. Moreover, Armenian population of the Ottoman Empire were divided about half in historic Armenian provinces, and the other half living in major Ottoman cities such as Constantinople, Izmir, etc. The Armenian bourgeoisie residing in the west of the empire had no interest to see the emergence of an independent Armenia, but great interest to see reforms in the empire that guaranteed its political rights and security. 

With the 1908 “Young Turk” Revolution the Armenians ceased to be a millet, a religious community, but became a nation. The privileged interlocutor of the leaders of Committee of Union and Progress (CUP) was no more the Armenian patriarchate, but the Armenian political parties namely the Tashnagtsutyun. Contacts between the CUP and Tashnagtsutyun continued as late as 1913, two sides that knew each other well. The extermination of Ottoman Armenians during the First World War was not, therefore, to prohibit the emergence of an independent Armenia, but the elimination of advanced social group that was at the forefront of political reforms in the empire, when the Ottoman leaders themselves had given up reform, rule of law and equality. 

Even after the Russian Revolution of 1917 and the formation of the provisional government, the Armenian political leaders did not opt for “independence”. They wanted to stay with Russia as the only guarantee against the Ottoman armies who were continuing their genocidal crime against their own Armenians, Assyrians and Greek subjects. Even when the Bolshevik Revolution took place, and Lenin called to disband the Russian Army and withdraw the soldiers from the frontlines, Armenians chose to remain with their neighbours Georgians and Azerbaijanis in what became the short-lived Transcaucasian Federation. Only after Georgian declaration of independence followed by Azerbaijan, did Armenia declare its independence on May 28, 1918, to hastily organize the last defence of Yerevan in front of advancing Turkish armies. 

The declaration of independence of Armenia was a desperate act of a deeply wounded nation that needed its own statehood to defend its existence. It’s a little known page of world history where larger-than-life drama played with a world war, deportations, massacres, revolutions, and a heroic birth of a nation that deserves much more attention.