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The Night of December 2-3, 1920: The Fateful Signing of the Alexandropol Treaty

The story of one of the most tragic and forced treaties in Armenian history, which at the same time saved the physical existence of the Armenian people

Armenian military unit 1919-1920
Armenian military unit 1919-1920

103 years ago, on the night of December 2-3, 1920, in the city of Alexandropol (Ալեքսանդրապոլ։ modern Gyumri-Գյումրի), a treaty was signed between the Republic of Armenia and the government of the Grand National Assembly of Turkey, which put an end to the Armenian-Turkish war that had been going on for about three months. This historical document later became known as the Treaty of Alexandropol.

Before we talk about this historical agreement, let’s try to understand why the Armenian-Turkish war began and how it unfolded, which, in turn, paved the way for the signing of such a problematic agreement for Armenia.

Armenia according to the Treaty of Alexandropol
Armenia according to the Treaty of Alexandropol

The situation around Armenia on the eve of the war

1920 was a year full of military operations and wars for the Republic of Armenia, which gained independence just two years ago, in 1918. Under the auspices of the Bolshevik authorities formed in Moscow, the Armenian Bolsheviks carried out destructive propaganda activities inside the country, who sought to spread the communist-internationalist ideas among the population of the country, which was already in a difficult situation.

For the Republic of Armenia, which gained independence only two years ago, 1920 became a year of several military conflicts. At the same time, after the Bolsheviks (led by Vladimir Lenin, were a far-left faction of the Marxist Russian Social Democratic Labour Party (RSDLP) came to power in Moscow, the Armenian Bolsheviks were conducting destructive propaganda activities, trying to spread communist-internationalist ideas among the population of the country, which was already in a difficult situation.

The Bolsheviks claimed that the leadership of Armenia was unable to protect its own population or provide for the basic social needs of the people. It even got to the point that the Bolsheviks spread rumors that the Dashnaks party (Հայ Հեղափոխական Դաշնակցություն - Armenian Revolutionary Federation), which ruled the country at that time, was stealing the country's wealth from the people and directing it to satisfy the appetites of the British and French imperialists to maintain their power. The calls to liberate Armenia, the Armenian workers and peasants, which were frequently voiced by the Communists, led to the armed Bolshevik uprising in Alexandropol in May 1920, which, however, was suppressed by the army.

In turn, the Turkish and Azerbaijani propaganda apparatus also carried out active work, aimed, in particular, at inciting the Turkic-Muslim population of the Ararat Valley to revolt against the Republic of Armenia. In the result, the local Muslims revolted in Zangibasar (Զանգիբասար։ modern Masis-Մասիս․ Ararat region of Armenia), Vedibasar (Վեդիբասար։ modern Vedi-Վեդի․ Ararat region of Armenia) and Sharur (Շարուր։ modern Sharur. Northeast of Nakhichevan Autonomous Republic of Azerbaijan), which were eventually suppressed after several days of military clashes.

On the country's eastern borders, in Ijevan, Syunik and Karabakh, Armenian troops had difficulty repelling Bolshevik-Azerbaijani attacks. All this ultimately weakened the spirit and strength of the Armenian people and actually disorganized the Armenian army. Under these horrific conditions, in the summer of 1920, Armenia was dragged into a new, larger war in such a difficult internal and external situation. The army of the Republic which had just managed to suppress the internal Muslim riots, when the short Turkish-Armenian border clashes started in June, continued in September, large-scale war and, eventually, defeat of Armenia with all the tragic consequences.

Back in January 1920, with the efforts of the new government formed by Mustafa Kemal, the former general of the Ottoman army, the Grand National Assembly (Turkish Parliament) adopted the so-called "National Covenant". It was a document that represented a collection of territorial claims against neighboring states. In that document, the territorial ambitions towards the Transcaucasian republics were presented in the second chapter, according to which the status of the Armenian provinces of Kars and Ardahan and Georgian province of Batumi should be determined through further negotiations.

Road to war: propaganda and the justification of war

After Ankara had already raised the above-mentioned issues on the diplomatic field, the Bolshevik government in Moscow began to show particular activity. On the one hand, the Russians tried to maintain their influence and take on the role of а mediator in the emerging conflict, and on the other, to understand the positions of the parties towards Moscow.

To this end, in the summer of 1920, People's Commissar for Foreign Affairs of the the Russian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic (RSFSR) Georgy Chicherin began separate negotiations in Moscow with the Armenian and Turkish delegations led by Levon Shant and Bekir Sami. Moscow officially invited the parties to resolve existing border problems based on the principle of ethnographic distribution. However, this initiative was not successful as the Muslim and Armenian population of Kars region and Surmalu province was unevenly distributed.

During separate negotiations with the Russians, the Turkish side insisted on the need to attack the Republic of Armenia, arguing that if the connection through Nakhichevan to Azerbaijan and the Red Army stationed there was not quickly established, the Turkish nationalist movement would suffer major blow. Bekir Sami demanded from Chicherin at least the verbal consent of Soviet Russia so that the Turks could occupy Sarighamish (Սարիղամիշ։ modern Sarighamish. Currently in the northeastern part of Turkey) and Shahtakhti (Շահթախտ։Northeast of Nakhichevan Autonomous Republic of Azerbaijan). The Soviet government agreed to Bekir Sami's proposal in the second half of August 1920 and even provided large military and financial aid to Turkey.

In order to give a diplomatic justification for the attack on Republic of Armenia, the government of Mustafa Kemal did certain preparatory work at the First Congress of the Peoples of the East which was convened in Baku in September 1920. At the Congress the resolution of the Armenian Question and the restoration of Armenian statehood was considered as "an obvious imperialist goal of the imperialist Dashnaks". The Turkish agents in Armenia started a new propaganda campaign, spreading rumors among the population that the Turkish troops are not fighting against the Armenian people, but against the Dashnaks, "agents of the imperialists". They were trying to convince people that the Mustafa Kemal’s army are the same kind of revolutionaries as the Bolsheviks and they would bring freedom to the Armenian people. At the same time, the Kemalists continued to incite Muslims living in Armenia to revolt. The purpose of this was to create conditions under which they would receive a convenient excuse to intervene in the internal affairs of Armenia to protect the “oppressed” Muslim population.

The Armenian Bolsheviks also conducted similar propaganda campaign among the population of Armenia. When it was already clear that the strained relations between Turkey and Armenia were leading to war, the leadership of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Armenia, which was operating from Baku and led by Sargis Kasyan, on September 20 sent a secret special order to the Bolshevik groups in the territory of Armenia. The text of the order kept in the archive of Armenia says:

Armenia's Araratian regiment leaves for front during Turkey-Armenia war, 1920
Armenia's Araratian regiment leaves for front during Turkey-Armenia war, 1920

“Destroy the Armenian combat-capable army by all means:


1. organize a desertion and prevent the mobilization in every possible way;

2. inform the soldiers on the frontlines that they shouldn’t fire at the advancing Turkish soldiers, but leave their positions and return to the rear positions;

3. disobey the orders of the officers and destroy them (kill) them if necessary

With all this, the most important thing is to make the soldiers of republican Armenia understand that the victorious Turkish army (askar) is a revolutionary army, which will not only refrain from any action regarding the defeated country, but will help the Armenian people to get freedom from the imperialist agent Dashnaktsutyun.

Explain again that after getting rid of the control of the Dashnaks, Armenia will forever be connected with Russia. War and hunger will be forever put to end and the country which was destroyed by constant wars will be filled with Russian bread and will become a participant in the great cause of the world revolution”.

The war

On September 23, the 50,000-strong Turkish army under the command of Kyazim Karabekir Pasha, concentrated near the borders of the Republic of Armenia since July-August 1920, launched a surprise and large-scale attack. The new Turkish invasion of Armenia was met by the 35,000 Armenian army.

Kazim Karabekir Pasha. During the war against Armenia, the commander of the Turkish army and the head of the Turkish delegation in Alexandropol
Kazim Karabekir Pasha. During the war against Armenia, the commander of the Turkish army and the head of the Turkish delegation in Alexandropol

On October 23, just one month after the start of war, in the official explanatory declaration published by Ankara, the reasons for resorting to armed aggression against the Republic of Armenia were explained by the falsified claims that Armenians destroyed 199 Turkish villages and exterminated 135 thousand Turks in the territory of the Republic. According to these claims the Armenian army was planning to occupy the border regions of Turkey and for this purpose started provocations in the border regions. The last part of that declaration is quite outstanding. The full responsibility for the aggression unleashed by Turkey was placed directly on Armenia, and Turkish actions were characterized as a legal right to self-defense:

“On September 24, our border posts were suddenly attacked. After defeating the enemy, our troops victoriously chased them in Sarighamish region, which is inhabited exclusively by Turks. The documents in our hands prove that the Armenian attack was prepared with great care, with the aim of capturing Erzurum. Chasing the Armenian gangs that are slaughtering our brothers across the border and bringing despair and death to our own villages is a matter of legal defense and a vital right of our nation. The Turkish people do not pursue any aggressive goals against the Armenian people or any other people. The responsibility for the bloodshed falls entirely on the Armenians and their imperialist protectors, who pursue the goals of destroying the Turkish nation.”

In the first days of the war, the government of Armenia appealed to the people describing the situation on the frontline and announcing the evacuation of Sarighamish and Kaghzvan (Կաղզվան։ modern Kaghzvan. Currently in the northeastern part of Turkey). The appeal also said:

“Our fellow citizens, by appealing to you the government of the Republic declares that it is taking every measure to ensure the security of the state and is confident that the insidious enemy will soon be driven out of our country. The people who struggled to gain their freedom, who suppressed the Bolshevik riots, will not allow the Turkish pashas to succeed in pursuing their devil plans. The Armenian government, having the will and trust of the revolutionary people, will do what the historical moment requires of it. However, the people must apply all their forces. Against the Turkish troops, we have only one thing to do: win or die. We must win. Fellow citizens, no matter how unfavorable the conditions are, leave your personal businesses. Everyone and everything must be provided for the front. Not a single fugitive should remain in Armenia. No young man should sit at home. All and everything for the army. Peasants, workers, intellectuals, officials, artisans, students, women - all of you should contribute to our army, because with our united efforts the disgusting tyranny of the pashas will be destroyed, and Armenia will be completely free from the nightmare of Turkish chauvinists. Stood up, people! Long live United and Independent Armenia!”

Despite wide popular support in the early days of the war and certain advantages in defense at the frontline, the Armenian army began to retreat at the end of September. There were number of reasons for this, starting from the quantitative and technical advantage of the Turkish army, ending with the bad command and control as well as morale of the Armenian army. As a result of the retreat, which was aggravated by the desertions, on September 28 the Turkish troops captured Sarighamish and Kaghzvan. In such a difficult situation, the government of Armenia had to turn to the Allies of the Entente (France, USA and Great Britain) asking to implement the provisions of the Treaty of Sèvres, as well as to receive military and material assistance. But unfortunately, the great powers which had their own interests in Turkey refused to provide any tangible assistance.

However, the most tragic event of this war was the fall of Kars (modern Kars-Կարս) on October 30. Without delving into the reasons, it is worth quoting the comments of Catholicos of the Great House of Cilicia Karekin I Hovsepian (1867-1952), who, being a contemporary with these events, presents the situation comprehensively.

“The Turkish success and attack on Kars were a complete surprise. It was a surprise even for the high military authorities. [...] Nobody could have thought that in just two hours, the Turks attacking from the field would reach the height of the mountain range, and almost without a fight, they would take over such a stronghold fortress. If only our cannons from the Karadagh fortifications were effective, not only the city would be protected, but they would not even be able to approach the fortress. But our cannoneers and troops had left the positions and fled, and the enemy had climbed the heights of the ancient fortress without encountering resistance. In the history of nations, it is difficult to find such a shameful defeat as ours in those days. Such incomprehensible phenomena, complete absence of resistance against the enemy happened only during the campaigns of the Tatars. We would prefer if several thousand of us were slaughtered under the fortress, but our homeland, our honor and family would be protected, rather than to saving our skin by running away disgrace.”

The capture of Kars was followed by the capture of Alexandropol on November 7, and the capture of Aghin (Աղին։ modern Aghin. West of Shirak region of Armenia) village on November 12.

Treaty of Alexandropol

On November 15, the Armenian government of Prime Minister Simon Vratsyan was forced to accept the severe conditions proposed by the commander of the Turkish troops Kazim Karabekir, which were presented to the Armenian delegation led by the former Prime Minister Alexander Khatisyan in Alexandropol on November 8.

Simon Vratsyan. The prime minister of Armenia during the Armenian-Turkish war
Simon Vratsyan. The prime minister of Armenia during the Armenian-Turkish war

On the night of December 2-3, the delegations signed the agreement ending the war between Turkey and Armenia. The Article 2 of the agreement described the future borders between the countries. Kars region and Surmalu Province came under Turkish control, and Nakhichevan, Sharur and Shahtakht regions were temporarily declared under Turkish protectorate, where a special administration would later be established through a referendum.

The Republic of Armenia reserved the right to demand that Turkey hold a referendum in Kars region and Surmalu province, but at the same time in the Article 3 it was written that these territories "have an indisputable historical, ethnic and legal connection with Turkey".

According to the Article 4, Armenia will also be deprived of the right to conduct a general draft and keep regular army. It could only have 1,500 soldiers, 8 cannons and 20 machine guns. In Article 5, Turkey was obliged to provide armed assistance to Armenia, both in case of external and internal threat, if the Armenian government will apply with such a request. According to the same article, the Yerevan government renounced the Peace Treaty of Sèvres (1920), obliged to recall its delegates from Europe and the USA, “to remove from the state administration all those persons who incite and pursue imperialistic goals...”. Armenia was obliged to recognize as illegal all those agreements that were signed to the detriment of Turkey or affected its interests.

According to the agreement, Turkey received the right to control the railways and communication roads of Armenia, as well as to conduct military activities in the territory of Armenia. Regions recognized as part of Armenia by the treaty, but occupied by Turkey (Alexandropol province) were to be de-occupied after Armenia fulfilled all the conditions of the treaty.

Alexander Khatisyan, the chief negotiator of the Armenian delegation, explains the need to sign such a tough agreement, isolating Armenia in the international arena, with Turkey’s threats to occupy Yerevan, as well as the invasion of the Soviet Red Army from the territory of Azerbaijan into the eastern provinces of the country on November 29 and the subsequent change of power in Yerevan.


Former Prime Minister of Armenia Alexander Khatisyan, who was the chief  negotiator with the Turks in Alexandropol
Former Prime Minister of Armenia Alexander Khatisyan, who was the chief negotiator with the Turks in Alexandropol

In his work entitled "Origin and Development of the Republic of Armenia", Khatisyan wrote:

“The third main meeting was scheduled for December 1 and was held at 11am. The Turks presented the pact they had already prepared in the form of an ultimatum, demanding to accept it unconditionally, otherwise they threatened that the Turkish troops would immediately move on towards Yerevan. We put our objections to the Turks and demanded that we should at least convey the main terms of the pact to the official Yerevan and wait for instructions from our government. At half past four, we sent the terms of the ultimatum presented by the Turks to Yerevan and asked them to respond urgently. At night, the following answer was received from [Simon] Vratsyan: “The government resigned. In Dilijan (Դիլիջան։ modern Dilijan. West of Tavush Province of Armenia) and Karvansara (Քարվանսարա։ modern Ijevan. East of Tavush Province of Armenia), our troops met the Bolshevik troops without any fight. A government is formed by Dro (Drastamat Kanayan, Defence Minister) and Terteryan (Hambardzum Terteryan, Minister of Finance) with the participation of the Bolsheviks and Dashnaktsutyun. We are forced to accept the terms of the Turks. You are authorized to sign the agreement” .

From the retrospective, one can say that Khatisyan signed one of the most disastrous agreements in the Armenian history. But studying all the above conditions under which it was signed, one must understand all the duress of its signing. If it had not been signed right then, the consequences could have been even more tragic from the point of view of the physical existence of the Armenian people.

By the irony of fate, later the newly formed Bolshevik government in Armenia declared the Alexandropol Treaty illegal since it was signed by a delegation of a government that at the time of the signing had resigned and no longer existed. However, all the subsequent criticism could not bring any changes to the reality brought upon by this treaty. Moreover, the vast territorial concessions stipulated by the provisions of this treaty were confirmed in 1921 by the treaty signed between the Kemalists and the Bolsheviks in Moscow on March 16, and by the separate Kars Treaty signed between by Turkey with Armenia, Georgia, and Azerbaijan on October 13 of the same year. As a result of all this, the Armenian Kars region and the Surmalu province were annexed by Turkey, with a total area of 20.7 thousand km². And the communists who seized power in Armenia with the help of Soviet Russia were unable to oppose such territorial concessions agreed in Moscow.


Boris Ghazaryan

Sources:


1․ Սիմոն Վրացյան, Հայաստանի Հանրապետություն, Երևան, Հայաստան, 1993, էջ 309-327, 494-495, 496-497, 536-537

2․ Ալեքսանդր Խատիսյան, Հայաստանի Հանրապետության ծագումն ու զարգացումը, Բեյրութ, 1968, էջ 309-310

3․ Գարեգին Կաթողիկոս Յովսէփեան, “Կեանքիս ամենադժբախտ օրը եւ երջանկութեանս րոպէն”, Տպարան Կաթողիկոսութեան Հայոց Մեծի Տանն Կիլիկիոյ, Անթիլիաս-Լիբանան, 1982, էջ 36-37

4․ “Հայաստանի Կոմկուսի հրահանգը Հայաստանի կոմունիստական կազմակերպությունների տակտիկայի վերաբերյալ թուրք-հայկական պատերազմի ժամանակ”, Հայաստանի ազգային արխիվ, ֆոնդ 1022, ցուցակ 3, գործ 275, թերթ 1

5․ Международная политика ч. 3. От снятия блокады с Советской России до десятилетия Октябрьской революции вып. 2. Акты дипломатии иностранных государств. Ключников Ю. В., Сабанин А. В. - 1929. Стр.1-2; Rahmi DOĞANAY, MİSAK-I MİLLÎ’YE GÖRE LOZAN, Fırat Üniversitesi Sosyal Bilimler Dergisi, Cilt: 11 Sayı: 2, ELAZIĞ-2001, Sayfa: 281-294; History Of The Turkish Republic- https://web.archive.org/web/20190425093012/http://www.enjoyturkey.com/info/history_turkey/republic.htm

6․ Великая Октябрьская Социалистическая революция и победа Советской власти в Армении : Сб. документов / Под ред. А.Н. Мнацаканяна, А.М. Акопяна, Г.М. Даллакяна, стр. 408-411



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