The Treaty of Kars, 1921-2021

The first centenary of the Kars Treaty between three Soviet Republics and Turkey is coming up in October. Its predecessor, the Treaty of Moscow between Russia and Turkey, turned 100 in March 2021. It’s probably worth repeating that 2015 marked a hundred years since the beginning of the Armenian genocide.

Back in 2011, when the Kars agreement was turning 90, Erdoğan told then-president Medvedev that it had been a turning point in Turkey’s history. After the Azeri-Armenian war in summer-autumn 2020, I wouldn’t be surprised if Erdoğan called the 1921 treaties not good enough for Turkey.

The treaties of Kars and Moscow are a sensitive and complicated matter. It’s not easy to find analysis or commentary on the agreements from more or less independent sources. Most of the researchers and commenters are in some way associated with the treaties’ signatories (Turkey, Russia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia), their diasporas and interests. It should still be possible to understand the basics of the deal.

The two parties to the Treaty of Moscow were Soviet Russia and Turkey The Kars Treaty was signed by Turkey on the one side and three Soviet Republic (Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia) on the other. However, all the three states had fallen under the control of Moscow-based Bolsheviks by October 2021 so their representatives likely acted on behalf of Moscow.

Since JStor has temporarily allowed private individuals to read 100 articles per month, I suggest using it to read early translations of the treaties of Moscow and of Kars. Both were published in Current History; the first is part of a note by a White Russian officer.

The most clearly worded sections – also the most poignant to some readers, even today – are the territorial concessions. The Bolsheviks ceded to Turkey the southern segment of Ajara and the Kars district, including the town of Artvin in the former and the towns of Ardahan and Kars in the latter.

An early map of the border changes, drawn from the text of the treaty, can be found in The Russo-Turkish Boundary and the Territory of Nakhichevan (1923) by J. H. M. Cornwall, published in The Geographical Journal. I would also suggest the Atlas of the Ethno-Political History of the Caucasus by Artur Tsutsiev, available in Russian at academia.edu. The author is Ossetian and Russian so the reader might suspect a certain bias but I haven’t detected any either in the maps or in the text. Yale published an English translation (by Nora Seligman Favorov) in 2014 – expensive and out of print but probably available from university libraries.

At first glance, Russia merely returned to Turkey most of the territories in the Caucasus that the Russian Empire had annexed from the Ottoman Empire after the 1877-8 war. Why did Erdoğan call those treaties “a turning point” and why do many Armenians and Georgians call it a disaster and an act of betrayal by Moscow? More about the historical context in a future post.

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