Historical background

The Nagorny Karabakh region of the Republic of Azerbaijan is part of the geographical area called Garabagh (Qarabag). The name of this part of the country consists of two Azerbaijani words: “qara” (black) and “bag” (garden). The geographical area of Karabakh covers the lands from the Araz River in the south to the Kur River in the north, and from the junction of the Kur and Araz Rivers in the east to the eastern ranges of the Lesser Caucasus in the west.

From ancient times up to the occupation by Russia in the early 19th century, this region was part of different Azerbaijani states. On 14 May 1805, the Treaty of Kurakchay (1805) between Ibrahim Khan, Khan of Karabakh, and Sisianov, representative of the Russian Emperor, was signed. According to this treaty, the Karabakh khanate came under the Russian rule.

The Gulustan peace treaty, signed between Russia and Iran on 12 October 1813, de jure recognized the joining to Russia of the Northern Azerbaijan khanates, with the exception of the Nakhchyvan and Iravan khanates. According to the Turkmanchay peace treaty, signed on 10 February 1828 – at the end of the second Russia-Iran war (1826-1828) – Iran confirmed its relinquishment of Northern Azerbaijan, including the Nakhchyvan and Iravan khanates.

After the signing of the Gulustan and Turkmanchay treaties a very rapid mass resettlement of Armenians in the Azerbaijani lands took place and the subsequent artificial territorial division emerged. The First World War also contributed to the increase in the number of Armenians in the South Caucasus. From 1828 to 1911 alone, more than 1,000,000 Armenians were resettled by Russia from Iran and Turkey in the region, including the Azerbaijani territories, and 350,000 Armenians appeared there in 1914-1916.

Within the Russian Empire, the territory once belonging to Azerbaijan – which includes inter alia the area presently covered by the Republic of Azerbaijan and the Republic of Armenia – was split under a number of legal regimes in different administrative divisions. According to the final administrative division, Azerbaijan was split among the Baku, Elizavetpol and Iravan provinces, and Zagatala okrug. The Elizavetpol province included inter alia the area presently under Armenian military occupation.

Between 1905 and 1907 the Armenians carried out a series of large-scale bloody actions against the Azerbaijanis. The atrocities began in Baku and then extended over the whole of Azerbaijan, including Azerbaijani villages in the territory of present-day Armenia. Hundreds of settlements were destroyed and wiped from the face of the earth, and thousands of civilians were barbarically killed.

Taking advantage of the situation following the First World War and the February and October 1917 revolutions in Russia, the Armenians began to pursue the implementation of their plans under the banner of Bolshevism. Thus, under the watchword of combating counter-revolutionary elements, in March 1918 the Baku commune began to implement a plan aimed at eliminating the Azerbaijanis from the whole of the Baku province. Apart from Baku, solely because of their ethnic affiliation, thousands of Azerbaijanis were annihilated also in the Shamakhy and Guba districts, as well as in Karabakh, Zangazur, Nakhchyvan, Lankaran and other regions of Azerbaijan. In these areas, the civilian population was exterminated en masse, villages were burned and national cultural monuments were destroyed and obliterated.

On 28 May 1918, the Democratic Republic of Azerbaijan was proclaimed. The Republic of Armenia was established the same day. Article 1 of the Declaration of Independence of the Democratic Republic of Azerbaijan provided that “starting from this day the people of Azerbaijan will have their sovereign rights. Azerbaijan that consists of Eastern and Southern Transcaucasia shall be legal independent state”.

In 1918-1920, the Democratic Republic of Azerbaijan had diplomatic relations with a number of states. Agreements on the principles of mutual relations were signed with some of them; sixteen states established their missions in Baku.

With the purpose of achieving the admission to the League of Nations, the Government of Azerbaijan formed on 28 December 1918 the delegation at the Paris Peace Conference headed by the speaker of parliament Alimardan bay Topchubashov. As a result of the efforts of the Azerbaijani delegation and growing threat of occupation of Transcaucasia by Soviet Russia, the Supreme Council of the Allied Powers at the Paris Peace Conference de-facto recognized on 12 January 1920 the independence of the Democratic Republic of Azerbaijan.

In April 1919, the Allied Powers recognized the provisional General-Governorship of Karabakh, which was established by the Democratic Republic of Azerbaijan in January 1919 and included Shusha, Javanshir, Jabrayil, and Zangazur uyezds (uyezd – administrative-territorial unit of the Russian Empire, which was applied in the Democratic Republic of Azerbaijan and Azerbaijan SSR until the late 1920s) with the center in Shusha town, to be under Azerbaijani jurisdiction, and Khosrov bay Sultanov as its governor. In 1919, the Armenian National Assembly of Nagorny Karabakh officially recognized the authority of Azerbaijan.

However, Armenia did not give up its claim on Nagorny Karabakh and, with the view of imposing an Armenian administrative system in this part of Azerbaijan, intensified provocative actions there.

While the Bolsheviks were approaching the Azerbaijani borders and the major part of Azerbaijani forces was concentrated in the country’s northern borders, on the night of Novruz Bayramy (Spring Holiday) on 22-23 March 1920, a large-scale armed uprising against the Azerbaijani government was incited in Nagorny Karabakh with the direct involvement and participation of Armenia. Azerbaijani national army units were simultaneously and suddenly attacked in Shusha, Khankandi and in a number of other places. Thus, the Armenian side unilaterally violated the “provisional agreement”. The insurgents, however, met with serious resistance from the Azerbaijani soldiers. The day after the uprising, Shusha was liberated of the armed bands, and the attempts of Armenia to capture Azerbaijani territories failed.

On 28 April 1920, the Democratic Republic of Azerbaijan was occupied by Soviet Russia and the Azerbaijan SSR was established.

Nonetheless, in many parts of the country the Azerbaijanis offered serious resistance to the Bolsheviks, while the delegation of Azerbaijan at the Paris Peace Conference continued its work to achieve de-jure recognition of the state and its admission into the League of Nations. By a letter dated 1 November 1920, the head of the Delegation of Azerbaijan at the Conference requested the Secretary-General of the League of Nations to submit to the Assembly of the League an application for the admission of the Democratic Republic of Azerbaijan into the full membership of the Organization.

In the Memorandum dated 24 November 1920, the Secretary-General of the League of Nations formulated the following two key issues which would have been considered in regard to the application submitted by Azerbaijan:
“The territory of Azerbaijan having been originally part of the Empire of Russia, the question arises whether the declaration of the Republic in May 1918 and the recognition accorded by the Allied Powers in January 1920 suffice to constitute Azerbaijan de jure a ‘full self-governing State’ within the meaning of Article 1 of the Covenant of the League of Nations.

Should the Assembly consider that the international status of Azerbaijan as a ‘fully self-governing State’is established, the further question will arise whether the Delegation by whom the present application is made is held to have the necessary authority to represent the legitimate government of the country for the purpose of making the application, and whether that Government is in a position to undertake the obligations and give the guarantees involved by membership of the League of Nations”.

As to the first issue, the most important part of the mentioned Memorandum of the Secretary-General relates to the “Juristic observations”, which reminds of the conditions governing the admission of new Members to the Organization contained in Article 1 of the Covenant of the League of Nations, including the requirement to be a fully self-governing state. It is obvious that the state, considerable part of the territory of which was occupied by the time of consideration of its application in the League of Nations, and yet the Government that submitted this application was overthrown, could not be regarded as fully self-governing in terms of Article 1 of the Covenant of the League of Nations.

In addressing the second issue, the Secretary-General of the League of Nations pointed out in his Memorandum that the mandate of the Azerbaijani delegation attending at the Paris Peace Conference derived from the government that had been in power at Baku until April 1920. Thus, the attention in the Memorandum is distinctly paid to the fact that at the time of submission by the Azerbaijani delegation of the application (1 November 1920) and the publication date of the Memorandum (24 November 1920) the government of the Democratic Republic of Azerbaijan, which issued the credentials to the delegation, was not actually in power since April 1920. It was further noted in the Memorandum that this Government did not exercise the authority over the whole territory of the country.

Therefore, the Fifth Committee of the Assembly of the League of Nations in its resolution on the application of Azerbaijan decided that “it is not desirable, in the present circumstances, that Azerbaijan should be admitted to the League of Nations”. It is clear from the text of the said resolution that under “the present circumstances” the Fifth Committee understood only that Azerbaijan was occupied by Soviet Russia and, therefore, was unable “to possess a stable government with jurisdiction over a clearly defined territory”. Thus, these were just those reasons, derived from the requirements set forth in Article 1 of the Covenant of the League of Nations, that prevented Azerbaijan from being admitted to the Organization.