The process of drawing the borders between Armenia and Azerbaijan in the 1920s

Content of the article is the sole responsibility of the author and can in no way be taken to reflect the views of the Heinrich Boell Stiftung Tbilisi Office – South Caucasus Region.

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border line


When ruling over Transcaucasia, Tsarist Russia had implemented administrative-territorial divisions following a principle which ensured that, if ever possible, none of the peoples living in the provinces and regions would be an absolute majority. This was done in order to incite hostility in the peoples of the region against one another, prevent the ambitions of creating national territories, and sustain the Russian rule.

Causes for Border Disputes

According to the law of the Russian Empire adopted on December 9, 1867, the Tsarist authorities had included the Javakhq and Borchalu in the state of Tbilisi, while Ghazakh, the mountainous regions of Gandzak (Ganja), Karabakh and Zangezur were included in Yelizavetpol (Gandzak/Ganja) state.

After the revolution of February 1917 in Russia, the peoples living in Transcaucasia started hoping for a new territorial-administrative division in the region after the national and ethnic principle to solve an issue that had swelled over decades and was voiced in as long before as during the 1905 – 1907 Russian revolution.  The Armenian Revolutionary Federation party, the leading political force among Armenians in this period, was proposing to undertake a new administrative division in Transcaucasia, before the introduction of a new institution – “zemstvo” (local self-governments) to create three Armenian states – Gandzak, Alexandrapol and Yerevan, where Armenians would make 70, 66 and 54 percent of the population, respectively.

Particularly, the Armenian province of Gandzak would be created by splitting Yelizavetpol state into two – Armenian and Tatar (Azerbaijani) parts (Gandzak and Yelizavetpol). The following provinces would be part of Gandzak province – Karvansara (consisting of the mountainous regions of Ghazakh province, populated by Armenians), Gandzak (consisting of the mountainous regions of Yelizavetpol province, populated by Armenians), Shushi (Shusha) (comprised of the bigger parts of Shushi province, the mountainous regions of Jevanshir province, some village clusters in Zangezur province and Hadrut, Edillu and Arakyul village clusters in Karyagino province, populated by Armenians), Zangezur (consisting of the remaining part of Zangezur province, excluding a number of village clusters in Barkushat valley, populated by tatars). The Armenian section of Yelizavetpol town would be the capital of the state.[1]

The issue of a new territorial and administrative division in Transcaucasia was pending because of the disagreements and conflicts among the people in the region, followed by the Bolshevik revolution in Russia in October 1917. In May 1918, after the collapse of the Democratic Federative Republic of Transcaucasia and the creation of the three independent states (the Republic of Georgia, the Republic of Azerbaijan and the Republic of Armenia), the territorial issue, along with foreign policy vectors and economic problems became a major issue, dividing Armenians, Georgians and Azerbaijanis and leading to conflicts.

In 1918-1920, in the period of independent Armenian and Azerbaijani republics, the two states never arrived at a mutually acceptable state borderline because of the numerous disagreements between them.  Particularly, the provinces of Ghazakh and Zangezur in Yelizavetpol state were factually divided into two parts (Armenian and Azerbaijani) based on ethnographic grounds. Regular skirmishes would happen at the Armenian – Azerbaijani borderline. The governments of the republics hoped to have the issue of dividing Yelizavetpol state and the ownership of disputed territories in the Paris conference. However, these hopes did not come true.

On April 28, 1920, the sovietization of musavat Azerbaijan created a new situation in the region. Russia returned to Transcaucasia, with an inviolable intent to conquer the region back and establish the soviet rule. Soviet Russia was trying to remain neutral in the context of Armenian–Azerbaijani border issues which can be testified to by the Armenian–Russian agreements, signed in Tiflis on August 10, 1920, which clearly states that the Soviet military troops’ conquest of Karabakh, Zangezur and Nakhijevan (Nakhchivan) which Armenia and Azerbaijan disputed over, “shall not predetermine the entitlement of the Republic of Armenia or the Soviet Socialist Republic of Azerbaijan to these territories.”[2]

The Era of “Independent” Soviet Republics

According to the Armenian – Russian agreement signed in Yerevan, on December 2, 1920, the Republic of Armenia was sovietized. Pursuant to Article 3 of the Agreement, Soviet Russia recognized the whole of Yerevan state (including Nakhijevan), the whole of Zangezur province of Yelizavetpol state and the Western and Southern parts of Ghazakh province of the former Russian Empire as belonging to the Armenian Soviet Socialist Republic.[3] As the other clauses of the Agreement, this article, too, remained on the paper.

The borderline between the Socialist Soviet Republic of Armenia (SSRA) and the Azerbaijan Socialist Soviet Republic (AzSSR) was shaped in a few stages. Firstly, by the agreement on the Russian – Turkish “friendship”, signed in Moscow on March 16 (or 18), 1921, Nakhijevan was put in the custody of Soviet Azerbaijan “on the condition that Azerbaijan will not cede this custody to any third state,”[4] meaning Armenia. On October 13, 1921, the “friendship” agreement signed among Soviet Armenia, Soviet Georgia, Soviet Azerbaijan and Kemalist Turkey, with the participation of Soviet Russia, ratified the Moscow agreement in relation to the republics in Transcaucasia. However, the clause on Azerbaijan not ceding tutelage over Nakhijevan to any other state was removed.[5] In spring 1921, when the three independent republics of Transcaucasia were sovietized, the soviet authorities undertook the regulation of territorial issues, inheritied from the past.

The fate of the other territories, disputed over by Armenia and Azerbaijan, was different. Upon the decision of the Plenary of the Caucasus Bureau of the Russian Communist Bolshevik Party Central Committee, dated July 5, 1921, Nagorno Karabakh was attached to Soviet Azerbaijan as an autonomous region.[6] The formerly Ghazakh and Zangezur provinces were divided between the two republics. We do not know of a document about the division of Ghazakh province. Most probably in this case the basis for the decision was the factual borderline of the time between the first republics of Armenia and Azerbaijan, when the western and the southern, Armenian-populated part of the province belonged to Armenia, and the Eastern and Northern parts populated by Muslims belonged to Azerbaijan.

In the territory of Zangezur province, the decision on temporary delimitation between Soviet Armenia and Soviet Azerbaijan was reserved for the Armenian and Azerbaijani communists. On October 12 – 13, 1921, a consultation of 43 “responsible figures” from the Armenian Zangezur and Azerbaijani Kubatlu provinces was held which decided as follows: “To select a committee to identify the villages with local councils the representatives of which participated in the first congress of  pan-Azerbaijani councils on May 1st, hence the authority of Kubatli executive committee should be established in those villages, and to consider the territory cleared from Garegin Nzhdeh’s gangs in July 1921 as the territory of Zangezur revolutionary committee.”[7] In fact, it is as a result of the fights waged in Syunik and led by Garegin Nzhdeh that the western part of Zangezur province in Yelizavetpol state joined Soviet Armenia. We cannot exclude the possibility that if by May – July 1921 (during the elections of local councils and Zangezur’s sovietization) smaller territories of Zangezur province were controlled by G. Nzhdeh, the territory of Soviet Armenia would have been smaller.

 On August 15, 1921, the Caucasus Bureau of the Russian Communist Bolshevik Party Central Committee proposed to the three Soviet republics in Transcaucasia to sign a general agreement on the demarcation.[8] In 1921-1922 no final agreement on delimitation and demarcation was signed between Soviet Armenia and Soviet Azerbaijan, hence leaving the borderline uncertain.

Steps, directed at the solution of borderline issues between Soviet Armenia and Soviet Azerbaijan, started to be implemented since the beginning of 1922. The thing is that continuous conflicts were underway between Zangezur in Armenian Soviet Socialist Republic and Kubatlu in Azerbaijani Soviet Socialist Republic, and Dilijan Armenian Soviet Socialist Republic and Ghazakh in Azerbaijani Soviet Socialist Republic because of the uncertainty of land and administrative borders. However, practical steps in this direction were taken only in March 1922, i.e. after the formation of the Transcaucasian Federation.

The times of the Transcaucasian Federation

Disputes over the ownership and use of land, forests, and springs in the border areas of Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia sometimes led to conflicts. Therefore, in February 1923, the Central Executive Committee of the Transcaucasian Federation established a commission to address the disputes over land, forests, and water use between the member states of the Transcaucasia, the former often referred to, for short, as the Land Commission in archival documents. The commission was subject and accountable to the Central Executive Committee of the Transcaucasian Federation. It included the president and two members appointed by the Central Executive Committee of Transcaucasian Federation, as well as two members representing each of the three republics of the federation (9 members in total). The Land Commission operated until the autumn of 1930.

In addition to this central commission, there were numerous local commissions in the 1920s. The local commissions were set up to establish administrative boundaries and were composed of a representative from each stakeholder country and a representative appointed by the Executive Committee. The materials prepared by the local commissions were sent to the union commission, which later forwarded it to the presidency of the Central Executive Committee of Transcaucasian Federation, whose decisions were considered as final. The central and local commissions, implementing the delimitation and demarcation worked with delays, which was often accompanied by grievances from the local population.

Upon the establishment of the Transcaucasian Federation, Armenia and Azerbaijan had grave border disputes over the ownership of Shinikh-Ayrum region, Al lakes (Alagyollar) and 21 villages in the vicinities of Kapan, 3 villages in Meghri region, along with some disagreements on the delimitation of the border between the Armenian Soviet Socialist Republic and autonomous Nakhijevan region. In fact, these lasted throughout the 1920s.

In the 1920s, disputes over the ownership of some territories were ongoing between the following villages of Dilijan province in the Armenian Soviet Socialist Republic and Ghazakh province in the Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republic – the Armenian and muslim Tatlu, Chakhmakhli (AzSSR) and Laligegh (Lalakend) (SSRA), Koti (SSRA) and Dashsaghli (AzSSR), Koghb (SSRA) and Shikhli (AzSSR), Dovegh (SSRA) and Kyamarli (AzSSR), Barana (SSRA) and Ghaymakhli (AzSSR).[9] Due to the incorrect organization of the land commissions’ work, as well as their occasional mistakes and illegalities, these disputes were mainly regulated in 1922 – 1924.[10]

The gravest territorial dispute between Dilijan and Ghazakh provinces was related to the ownership of the land in Shinikh – Ayrum region. Generally speaking, 15.659 desyatins[11] were being disputed over in this region, of which 6.751 desyatins were forests and 3.621 desyatins were summer pastures, and the rest were winter camps for livestock and agricultural lands. 34 villages and hamlets were located in this area with a total population of tatars amounting to 4.124 (771 households). In April, 1923, a territorial and administrative delimitation of Dilijan and Ghazakh provinces was implemented which was approved in the April 28, 1923 session of the Province Land Dispute Resolution Commission within the Central Executive Council of the Transcaucasian Federation. According to this decision, the land of 5.000 desyatins in Shinikh-Ayrum was transferred from the Dilijan province in SSRA to Ghazakh province in AzSSR. However, this decision was not followed by demarcation, and Soviet Azerbaijan, taking advantage of the situation, illegally seized additional 6.800 desyatins up until September 1925 (11.800 desyatins in total).[12]

The SSRA government had well grounded apprehensions that the Azerbaijani-populated villages, wedging into the territory of Armenia, would in the future try to expand their lands at the expense of the Armenian villages. Hence, in order to put an end to the ongoing conflicts, on October 13, 1925, the presidency of the Armenian Central Executive Commitee decided to apply to the Central Executive Committee of Transcaucasian Federation, proposing a demarcation in the presence of authorized representatives of both republics, in accordance with the decision of April 28, 1923, and a simultaneous exchange of a proportionally equal area of land that would otherwise be wedged between the provinces of Dilijan and Ghazakh. That is to say, the Central Executive Committee of the SSRA was offering a proportionally equal territory, in terms of its area and population, in the vicinities of Bashkend. In this case the problem was that the Tatar population in Shinikh-Ayrum region and the Armenian population in Bashkend region refused to move to the neighboring republic.[13] This refusal led to an impasse.

In the November 2, 1925 session, the commission of the Central Executive Committee of the Transcaucasian Federation studied the materials on the case and found that it was necessary to convene an ad hoc meeting, with the participation of the land commissions of both republics, to solve the issue. Later, during November, the Land commission convened meetings several times which the Azerbaijani representative did not attend. D. Buniatzade, the People’s Commisar for Agriculture from AzSSR made his appearance only on January 11, 1927, to participate in the session of the Commission, addressing the disputes on land and water ownership and water use among the republics composing the Transcaucasian Federation, chaired by S. Kasyan, as well as the session of the Transcaucasian Federation Central Executive Committee Presidency, where SSRA was represented in the person of A. Yerznkyan, People’s Commisar for Agriculture. According to the decision adopted in this session, the whole territory of Shnikh-Ayrum (11.659 desyatins) was recognized as part of Ghazakh province, and the disputed forested area adjacent to the region (4.000 desyatins) was recognized as part of Dilijan. At the same time, given that Bashkend village in SSRA would now appear in Ghazakh province, it was decided to separate a land strip, a summer pasture, to connect the village with Dilijan. However, this decision was repealed on the very same day since the representative of Armenia A. Yerznkyan was linking the solution to this issue with the dispute over a 12.000-desyatin segment summer pasture at Al Lakes between Daralagyaz province in the SSRA and Kurdistan province in AzSSR.[14] The ownership of the Large and Small Al lakes within Daralagyaz province in SSRA was disputed over by Armenia and Azerbaijan. On April 23, 1923, this issue was discussed by the presidency of the Trasncaucasian Central Executive Committee, however, no regulation was found. On August 10, 1926, the SSRA Central Executive Committee asked the Transcaucasian Federation to accelerate the solution of the issue. In October – December, the Land and Forest Disputes Resolution Commission under the Central Ecexutive Committee of the Federation sent a few inquiries to the authorities of the SSRA and AzSSR. Conditioned by the expediency of administrative governance, the Armenian party was proposing to attach that territory to Nor Bayazet province. The Azerbaijani party was trying to substantiate that the Kurdistani nomads’ need to access those lands.

Various settlements in the SSRA Zangezur and AzSSR Kurdistan provinces were having serious conflicts. The uncertainty about the borderline caused concern among Zangezurians. It was not only about the continuous and regular attacks on and looting of the border Armenian villages by various gangs from the territory of Kurdistan.

Already in the first half of September 1926, a local commission, chaired by Ys. Kochetkov, and composed by the representatives of Armenia and Azerbaijan undertook the demarcation between Zangezur and Kurdistan provinces. The Armenian writer and a planner by background Aksel Bakunts was involved in the above mentioned commission as a representative of the SSRA people’s land commissariat.[15] The report, submitted to the Land department of the SSRA People’s Land Commissariate, dated October 18, 1926, indicates that during the demarcation the commission was considering neither the scarcity of land in Zangezur, nor the connections of the villages with neighbouring regions, and all decisions were based on the so-called ethnic principle.[16] Some villages and hamlets, populated by Tatars, still wedged in between Armenian villages which was a beneficial opportunity for making border modifications in favour of Azerbaijan. The economic factor played a role, too.

The ownership of settlements in the Voghji river basin (20 villages and hamlets with 412 households and a population of 1552) and the Basut river basin (1 village with 25 households and 100 population) in the vicinity of Kapan and 3 villages in an area on the bank of the Araks river (Nyuvadi, Einadzor, Tghut – with a total of 175 households and 664 population) was one of the most problematic issues. According to the 1927 data of the Land commission under the Central Executive Committee of the Transcaucasian Federation, the above mentioned 21 hamlets occupied a territory of 7.000 desyatins, and the 3 villages on the bank of the Araks river occupied 9.000 desyatins, totalling to 16.000 desyatins. The issue of these villages was many times discussed in the sessions of the commission, addressing the land and forest disputes between the Transcaucasian Federation republics, however, the final decision was constantly delayed, and the question remained pending.

During its meetings convened from January 29 to February 2, 1929, the Land and Forest Disputes Resolution Commission of the Transcaucasian Federation republics discussed and passed a decision also on the disputed lands of 9 settlements in SSRA and autonomous Nakhijevan (namely Kurtghulagh, Goradis, Oghbin, Aghkhack, Digin-Almalu, Almalu, Itghran, Sultanbek villages in Daralaghyaz province and Karchevan village in Meghri province).

Seeing that the parties failed to arrive at mutual agreements and find solutions to the territorial-borderline disputes, the leadership of the Transcaucasian Federation ruled to solve the border issues between Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan “as a package.” On February 18, 1929, the presidency of the Transcaucasian Central Executive Commission thoroughly studied the issue of land and forest disputes among the border provinces of the republics, constituting the Federation, with an objective to providing final solutions to the accrued and constantly pending and delayed issues. The heads of the Armenian, Georgian and Azerbaijani governments participated in the above-mentioned meeting. Regardless of this fact, the decisions made during the sitting were not unequivocally adopted later. This is especially true in relation to the borderline between the SSRA and the AzSSR. Particularly, in the case of Shinikh-Ayrum disputed territory, it was decided to join the 11.659 desyatins with Ghazakh, and 4.000 desyatins to Dilijan province. The above-mentioned decision would ensure a thin landstrip to connect Bashkend (later Artsvashen) village that now appeared within Ghazakh province with the SSRA (later this landstrip was transferred to Azerbaijan). In the case of Al Lakes, it was decided to transfer the whole disputed territory to Kurdistan province. The 21 villages in the vicinities of Kapan, namely in the basins of the Voghji and Basut rivers, were handed over to Azerbaijan, and Nyuvadi, Einadzor and Tghut to Armenia. A detailed description came to ratify the borderline between Zangezur and Kurdistan provinces, in accordance with the agreement made between the parties from August 24 – 28, 1928. It was also decided to leave the above-mentioned 9 villages that Nakhijevan had claims for in the territory of the SSRA. The disputed land at the border between Karchevan village in Meghri province and Kilit village in Ordubad province was almost equally divided between the two villages. The Land and Forest Dispute Resolution Commission under the Transcaucasian Central Executive Committee was tasked with the final and immediate on site determination of the borderline between Zangezur and Jabrail provinces, solving all the existent disagreements.[17]

In the summer and autumn of 1929 and throughout 1930 demarcation and border equipment installation were implemented along the Armenian and Azerbaijani border.


As a result of the active involvement of Transcaucasian Central Executive Commission, in 1929 the main border disputes between Armenian and Azerbaijani soviet republics “were solved,” however, there were partial disputes that extended until the liquidation of the Transcaucasian Federation (December 1936). Even though some work was done to clarify the borders between both republics, however, the ownership of some disputed lands was not fully and completely clarified. That is the reason why the successor of Soviet Armenia – the Republic of Armenia – has now appeared in a strategically unfavorable position. After the 2020 autumn the second Karabakh war, the bordering regions of RA Syunik and Gegharkunik Provinces faced major security issues which created a totally unusual situation and have become a very serious threat to the population in the bordering regions.



[1] Shakhatunyan A., Administrative Division of Transcaucasia, Tiflis, 1918, pp. 128 - 134, Vratsyan S., The Republic of Armenia, Yerevan, 1993, pp. 23 – 24.

[2] The Republic of Armenia in 1918 – 1920 (political history), a compilation of documents and materials, Yerevan, 2000, p.248.

[3] Khachatryan K.H., Sukiasyan H.K., Badalyan G.M., Annexation of Armenian Territories to Turkey and Soviet Azerbaijan in the 1920 – 1930s, Yerevan, 2020, p. 35.

[4] Armenia in international diplomatic and Soviet foreign policy documents (1828-1923), Yerevan, 1972, p. 501.

[5] Ibid., pp. 517-527.

[6] Nagorno Karabakh in 1918 – 1923, a collection of documents and materials, Yerevan, 1992, pp. 649 – 650.

[7] Khachatryan K.H., Sukiasyan H.K., Badalyan G.M., cited work, pp. 63 – 65.

[8] National Archive of Armenia (NAA), F. 1021, L. 2, C. 1185, Sh. 38.

[9] NAA, F. 112, L. 1, C. 168, Sh. 26 and so on.

[10] Khachatryan K.H., Sukiasyan H.K., Badalyan G.M., cited work, pp. 91-94.

[11] 1 desyatin equals 2400 square sachens or 1.09 hectares.

[12] NAA, F. 113, L. 3, C. 703, Sh. 195, F. 112, L. 2, C. 31, Sh. 36.

[13] NAA, F. 112, L. 2, C. 31, Sh. 32–37.

[14] NAA, F. 113, L. 3, C. 703, Sh. 195–196.

[15] Ghazakhetsyan V., Aksel Bakunts’ Activity in the Collegial Body of the SSRA Poeple’s Commissariat for Land (1925–1928), Bulletin of Armenian Archives, 1979, N 2, pp. 90–100.

[16] Bakunts A., Literary Works, Vol. 4, Yerevan, 1984, pp. 486 – 487.

[17] NAA, F. 112, L. 1, C. 267, Sh. 7879