Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Turkey's Misak-i Milli and Caucasus

Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan's recent Misak-i Milli talk has given rise to various speculations and some feverish map-making, indicating Erdogan's hypothetical territorial claims.

So, first of all, what is Misak-i Milli? It is the so-called National Oath adopted by the Ottoman parliament in Jan. 1920, listing Turkish nationalist territorial demands, including determination of status of Kars, Ardahan and Batum(i) via referendum. See wikipedia entries in English and Turkish.

Most of the declaration's relevance today has to do with hypothetical Turkish territorial claims on Iraq, Syria and even Greece, and less so on Georgia, Armenia or Azerbaijan. In this sense, cartographic representations of these claims with regard to the Caucasus are particularly confusing.

Maps published so far include Turkish claims encompassing:

1. all of present-day Republic of Armenia, part of Georgia (Batumi) and Nakhichevan, e.g. a map first published by Hurriyet in 2009;

2. a modified version of the map 1. that claims most of modern Republic of Armenia, except for Tavush/Gegharkunik/Vayotsdzor, and Nakhichevan, but not Batumi, e.g. published by the Washington Post on Oct. 21, 2016;

3. another version that makes no claims to modern Republic of Armenia, but still claims Batumi, Nakhichevan, as well Iran's Maku, e.g. published by the Foreign Policy on Oct. 23, 2016.

4. and finally, there is a map on Turkish Wikipedia entry that includes claims on Batumi, but not on either modern Republic of Armenia or Nakhichevan; this map comes closest to reflect Misak-i Milli claims, but is still wrong in one detail, which I explain below.

So what is up with all the uncertainty of Misak-i Milli territorial claims whereas they are pretty clearly spelled out, in point 2, as "The status of Kars, Ardahan and Batum may be determined by a referendum"?

Kars, Ardahan and Batum were collectively acquired by the Russian empire following the 1877-78 war and one of the Ottomans' major WWI goals was to reverse that. As of the time of Misak-i Milli in early 1920 these areas were part of the republics of Georgia (Batumi, and part of Ardahan) and Armenia (part of Ardahan and Kars), but retained substantial Muslim population that sought to return to Ottoman/Turkish control, hence the reference to referendum.

Following the simultaneous Turkish and Soviet Russian invasion of Armenia in September-November 1920, Turkish forces occupied Kars and Ardahan, and Turkey's control over both was confirmed by Moscow agreement of March 1921 between Bolsheviks and Kemalists. As part of the treaty, Turkey also gained areas south of Batum, but conditionally relinquished its claim to the port city itself.

However, in November 1920 Turkish forces also occupied areas that were not part of the Misak-i Milli claim, including Armenia's Alexandropol (Gyumri), Nakhichevan and Surmalu. As part of the 1921 deal, Turkish forces withdrew from Alexandropol and Nakhichevan, from the latter on condition that it is made a "protectorate" of Azerbaijan. But Turkey retained control of Surmalu.

Surmalu is now known as Turkey's Igdir province, located just south of Yerevan and is probably best known for Mt. Ararat located within it. For centuries, this historically Armenian area (likely named after Surb Mariam i.e. St. Mary) was disputed by the Ottomans and Persians, but was mostly controlled by the latter. It became part of the Russian empire together with Yerevan and Nakhichevan in 1828, i.e. 50 years before Kars, Ardahan and Batumi, and it was acquired by the Russians from the Persians.

By mid-1918, following the Russian revolution and pullout from the Caucasus, Ottoman forces occupied much of the Caucasus. But after their capitulation in WWI on Oct. 30, 1918, Ottomans were ordered by the British to withdraw behind the former Ottoman-Russian boundary. As they did, local Muslim leaders in Ardahan, Kars, Batumi and Surmalu declared the Southwest Caucasus Democratic Republic and those in Nakhichevan, the Arax republic, which also claimed Surmalu. Under British pressure, both of these entities self-disbanded by 1919 and recognized the respective sovereignty of Republics of Georgia and Armenia.

By the time of Misak-i Milli claim in early 1920, Surmalu and Igdir were well outside the Ottoman Empire, which had last controlled that area for several years in the 1740s. Therefore, it was not part of the Misak-i Milli claim, but ended up within Republic of Turkey nevertheless. This resulted from the Turkish occupation of Surmalu in November 1920 and its effective 'exchange' for Batum(i) in Bolshevik-Kemalist agreements of 1921.

Like nationalist activists playing cartographers everywhere, those drawing maps of expanded Turkey would be loath to relinquish any territories, no matter how small, that are _already_ part of Turkey, hence the creative extensions into the Caucasus observed in maps 1, 2 and 3, even though territories of the modern Republic of Armenia, as well as Nakhichevan and Surmalu, were not part of Ottoman territorial claims in the Caucasus, as outlined in Misak-i Milli declaration.

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