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Parties and Peasants in the Republic of Armenia, 1918-1920

The historiography on the independent Republic of Armenia in 1918–1920 has lent ample space to analysis of the nature of state-building, its relations with the Great Powers, and territorial disputes with its neighbouring countries. The importance of looking at these issues should not be downplayed; they form part of our understanding of the emergence of nation-states in the South Caucasus, the roots of geopolitical disputes that continue until today, and the effect of the Russian revolutions of 1917 on the region. Nevertheless, the Republic of Armenia also inherited an acute, internal problem that required immediate treatment: the agrarian crisis, an issue which has thus far been subject to relative neglect. However, reactions to the crisis by the various political groups active in Armenia in 1918-1920 provide valuable insights into their ideological inclinations. The issue gains further pertinence when compounded with the fact that peasants comprised approximately 80% of the Armenian population at the time.

In this lecture, Dr Ara Sanjian presented a narrative of the deliberations on land reform in Transcaucasia (the South Caucasus) from February 1917 to May 1918, as well as the subsequent debates and actions of the government of the independent Republic of Armenia from May 1918 to the autumn of 1920. Dr Sanjian is associate professor of history at the University of Michigan-Dearborn and director of its Armenian Research Centre. This lecture took place on Monday, 21 May 2018. It was organised by the director of the Programme of Armenian Studies, Dr Krikor Moskofian, and chaired by Raphael Gregorian.

The Republic of Armenia was established in 1918 on the back of the upheavals of the First World War, during which the territories that later became part of independent Armenia had been subject to acute economic crises that included a reduction in the area of cultivated land, a decrease in agricultural production and in the number of domesticated animals, and growing social inequality in the countryside. This is not to mention the huge influx of survivors of the Armenian Genocide, amongst them thousands of orphans, into Transcaucasia, then part of tsarist Russia.

The political parties, which were active in Transcaucasia in 1917, included a broad spectrum of liberal-democratic and socialist parties. The February Revolution in Russia was welcomed by all parties active among Armenians in Russia, and they pledged allegiance to the new provisional government in Petrograd and to the Special Transcaucasian Committee, known also as Ozakom, which was appointed by the provisional government to govern the region, but without legislative power. The provisional government delegated the task of tackling the land issue across the Russian empire to the projected Constituent Assembly and, in the meantime, established the Chief Land Committee to gather information with regards to the needs of the local population and draft a law to settle land disputes.

The political parties on the ground in Transcaucasia suggested three separate solutions to the land problem: municipalisation, nationalisation, and socialisation. Proponents of municipalisation, which included the Social-Democratic Mensheviks and the Armenian Social Democrats (Hnchakians), advocated the nationalisation of land and property to then be administered by local municipalities. The advocates of municipalisation believed that the village population required guidance from municipal central commands. This was the most popular option at the broader Transcaucasian level, but it was never implemented in full. The Social-Democratic Bolsheviks were in support of nationalisation, which meant administration of local affairs from a central command. Proponents of socialisation, including the Socialist Revolutionaries and the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF), sought to grant more power to village communes to run local affairs, as they believed that municipalisation and outright nationalisation would lead to excessive bureaucracy. The ARF had included the socialisation of land in their programme of 1907.

Since socialisation of land was the preferred option among the most influential Armenian political party, which later led the independent republic of 1918-1920, Dr Sanjian delved deeper into the nature of this policy. First of all, this policy sought to abolish any private ownership of land, forbid sale of land, and confiscate any private property held by the state, church, or private large landowners and distribute the confiscated land among the peasantry. The “land fund” thus created was to be regulated by the village communes, and each family would be allocated as much land as it could cultivate in a self-sufficient manner. A particular focus was put on the equal distribution of land across Transcaucasia; if certain regions had larger allotments of land than others, the authorities would impose special taxes and/or redistribute the land regularly to bring the allotments to an equal balance.

Alongside the ARF and other socialist-oriented parties in Transcaucasia, 1917 saw the formation of the Armenian People’s Party or the Populists. The party was led by Mikayel Papadjanian and was the Eastern Armenian equivalent of the Armenian Democratic Liberal (Ramkavar) Party, active among Armenians in the Ottoman Empire. Just like the Ramkavars, the Populist Party was sympathetic to the notion of private ownership of land and limited state interference in the economy. Nevertheless, it did make certain concessions to the socialist political environment in Transcaucasia at the time. The Populists did not oppose the confiscation of state and gentry estates as well as other large private landholdings. Despite supporting the private ownership of land, the Populists called on the government to purchase this excess land, at ‘fair’ prices, not at the market price, and then distribute it to the peasants. As for their stance on land belonging to the Armenian Church, they chose to stand with the Church and oppose the confiscation of the land that it claimed ownership to. They accepted the argument that the Church was using the revenue derived from these lands for educational and other charitable purposes.

Aside from the solely economic aspect of the agrarian problem, the issue of mixed and overlapping ethnicities presented another challenge to the local authorities in Transcaucasia in 1917. Armenian parties sought to implement land distribution across Transcaucasia in such a way that it would create separate, ethnically homogeneous and self-governing regions for Armenians, Georgians and Azerbaijanis. In other words, land distribution became imbued with nationalist ideology. This proposed solution, however, proved to be impractical on the ground due to the historically mixed nature of various communities.

After Russia’s October Revolution of 1917, political parties in Transcaucasia refused to accept Bolshevik rule. Russia’s descent into a civil war provided the impetus for the Transcaucasian parties to work somewhat independently of the rule of Petrograd and Moscow. They replaced the Ozakom with the Transcaucasian Commissariat, which acted as an interim regional administration for only three months – until February 1918. On 16 December 1917, it issued a law that regulated the projected transfer of all excess, private landholdings to the newly established Land Committees, based on the principle of municipalisation.

The all-Russian Constituent Assembly, which was elected during the same period, also included 36 delegates from the range of Transcaucasian political parties: Mensheviks (11), Musavat (10), ARF (9), Socialist Revolutionaries (2), Bolsheviks (1), and others. However, after the Bolsheviks dispersed the Constituent Assembly meeting in Petrograd in early 1918, the Transcaucasian delegates to this assembly created in February a new regional legislature called the Seim. It passed a law in March 1918 which provided the legal framework for the confiscation of all excess, private landholdings and their transfer to a land fund to be administered by the regional, provincial, or local land committees.

These developments occurred in the context of an Ottoman offensive into Transcaucasia in February 1918. The primary aim of the Ottomans was to reach the oilfields of Baku at a time of relative weakness and instability in Transcaucasia. The Seim declared the independence of Transcaucasia in April and established the short-lived Transcaucasian Federation. The objective was to negotiate its borders with the Ottoman Empire on the terms of Transcaucasia and not on the terms of Bolshevik Russia. The Federation survived just over a month as the Ottoman Army continued to advance. It disintegrated towards the end of May. Georgia declared independence on 26 May, and Armenia and Azerbaijan did so two days later.

Initially, the independent Republic of Armenia was internationally recognised only by the Ottoman Empire and its allies. The Western powers and Bolsheviks were reluctant to recognise the Republic as they considered it to be the by-product of a deal among powers antagonistic to them.

The Republic faced very serious internal issues. The ARF took power soon after the declaration of independence as it represented the most influential political force in the new Armenian republic. The first government was headed by Prime Minister Hovhannes Kajaznuni. Once the First World War came to an end later in the year, Kajaznuni formed a new cabinet made up of a coalition between the ARF and the People’s Party. During the tenure of this coalition government, Armenia’s legislature adopted all the laws that were already in place in the Russian empire, including those from the time of the February Revolution in 1917 and onwards. These included all the laws mentioned pertaining to the land problem. The ARF was behind the adoption of these Russian and subsequent Transcaucasian laws en bloc, for it was committed to the ideals of the February Revolution.

After the dissolution of the coalition cabinet in June 1919, all executive power was again transferred to the Dashnak Party, now under a new prime minister, Aleksandr Khatisian. From then on, the Populists, as an opposition party to the government, would play no direct role in the implementation of land reform measures. In the meantime, Khatisian’s cabinet now supervised the operations of the land committees. However, their work was hampered by famine, presence of tens of thousands of refugees from Ottoman territories, and rebellions in Armenia organised by local Muslim inhabitants. Towards the end of the year, a leading ARF politician, Arshak Jamalian, proposed the immediate implementation of the land reform program, lest the workers of Armenia side with the Bolsheviks and welcome sovietisation. By the beginning of 1920, the latter had taken full control of the northern Caucasus and reached the northern borders of Georgia and Azerbaijan. Nevertheless, Jamalian was met with severe criticism by his fellow party members and was suspended from the meetings of its highest executive body for a month.

The Bolshevik advance inspired their supporters within Armenia. In May 1920, coup d’état was attempted by the Bolsheviks in Armenia against Khatisian’s ARF-dominated government. The attempt was aborted, but the uprising was followed by the appointment of the third Prime Minister of the independent republic, Hamo Ohanjanian.

Ohanjanian’s cabinet, which assumed power in May 1920, continued with further confiscation of land and its re-allocation on a temporary basis – until Armenia’s Constituent Assembly would pass a comprehensive land law for the republic. This new government’s motivation was again to push forward with the land reforms to dissuade certain sectors of the population from siding with the Bolsheviks.

However, soon afterwards the Kemalist advance into Armenia occurred at the end of September 1920. The Special Land Bodies created by Ohanjanian’s cabinet ceased their activities as the country was exposed to the Kemalist offensive, which eventually led to the full sovietisation of Armenia in early December. The new Bolshevik government nationalised the land, as was stated in their program earlier. However, the way the Bolsheviks interpreted and implemented the nationalisation of land was affected by the program of the Socialist Revolutionaries and was therefore not very different from what their predecessors, the Dashnaks, had been attempting to do in Armenia.

Dr Sanjian’s focus on the approach of independent Republic of Armenia in 1918-1920 towards land reform shed light on a neglected part of the history of the ARF, the leading political force of that period. The years 1918-1920 were indeed dominated by the Dashnaks in Armenia. However their activities have been remembered more in light of their involvement in nationalist causes and territorial disputes rather than their internal political activities and socialist ideology. Since the dispersion of the ARF across the diaspora after the Armenian Genocide and the ARF’s expulsion from Soviet Armenia, the party has lent itself mainly to the conservation of Armenian identity in the Diaspora and has paid relatively little attention to the social policies of its early years. Dr Sanjian’s examination of the internal political situation of Armenia in 1918-1920 provides a valuable insight into the nature of parties like the ARF that were directly connected with the land they spoke about, a far cry from the discourse and activities of such parties that now mainly exist in the Diaspora in so-called alienation from that land.

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