Sunday, March 17, 2013

Window on Eurasia: Stalin’s ‘Kurdish Project’ Recalled by Moscow Blogger

Paul Goble

            Staunton, March 17 – As tensions rise concerning Syria, Iran and the Caucasus, a Moscow blogger has recalled the murky history of Stalin’s attempt to use the Kurds to promote Soviet geopolitical interests in the Middle East, an attempt that became one of the first flashpoints in the Cold War.

            In a post on his new blog yesterday, the Moscow blogger, who has adopted the screen name “Azazel” provides a brief synopsis of Moscow’s Kurdish policy during the 1940s and early 1950s, the motivations behind this policy, and the reasons it ultimately failed (

            Throughout World War II, the blogger points out, the USSR considered Turkey to be “a potential opponent” largely because Turkey signed a friendship and cooperation treaty with Nazi Germany four days before the latter attacked the Soviet Union. Soviet commanders at the time were convinced that Turkey might launch an attack in the Caucasus in support of Germany.

            Moscow’s concerns about Turkey were intensified when Ankara allowed German and Italian naval vessels to pass into the Black Sea via the Bosphorus and Dardanelles in June 1941 and then “in the opposite direction” in 1944. in 1945, Moscow denounced the 1931 Soviet-Turkish non-aggression treaty and said it no longer recognized the then-current Soviet-Turkish border.

            At the Potsdam conference, Stalin demanded that Turkey “return to Armenia and Georgia those territories which it had seized during the period of the military-political weakness of Soviet Russia” and that the borders must go back “at a minimum” to where they were in August 1914 at the start of World War I.

            In addition, Stalin called for the establishment of international control over the Bosphorus-Dardanelles passage between the Mediterranean and Black Seas and supported Greek claims on the Dodecanese.  As a result, the blogger says, “Moscow and Ankara were approaching a military conflict” in the months after the end of World War II.

            Related to this, he continues, were the withdrawal of Soviet forces from Northern Iran and Moscow’s declaration in April 1946 that it supported “the just demands of the Armenian people” for compensation for the events of 1915, a declaration that foreshadowed Moscow’s recognition of those events as a genocide.

Following Moscow’s withdrawal from Iran, Kurdish units headed by Mustafa Barzani crossed into the Soviet Union and thus gave the USSR “a new lever” to put pressure on Turkey.

Stalin ordered Dzhafar Bagirov, the leader of the Azerbaijan SSR within which between 1922 and 1931 there had been a Kurdish autonomous district in what is now the Lachin corridor under Armenian occupation, to prepare to reestablish that district, and Usman Usupov, the head of the Uzbek SSSR, into which Soviet Kurds had been deported at the end of the 1930s, to plan for the deployment of Kurdish units into Turkey.

Moscow also established “permanent contacts” with Kurdish partisans in Turkey and also with the “anti-Bolshevik party of the Armenian nationalists, the Dashnaksutyun, which had its own underground structures in northeastern Turkey.”

At the end of 1947, the Moscow blogger continues, Azerbaijani leader Bagirov proposed establishing a Kurdish autonomy “not in its former place but in the northern section of the Nakhichevan ASSR of Azerbaijan,” specifically in the Norashen district which is on the border Armenia and Turkey.

Bagirov argued that this would allow the Kurds to maintain closer ties with their co-nationals in Turkey and then expand the borders of this autonomy “on the basis of the Kurdish Igdyr and Nor-Bayazit districts” of Turkey. This proposal came as Moscow was resettling Soviet Kurds from Central Asia to Azerbaijan during the course of 1946-1948.

            (Ethnic Kurds, the blogger observes in passing, now number “at a minimum 150,000” in Azerbaijan and are represented in senior positions in the Baku government, including the mayor of Baku, the chief of President Ilham Aliyev’s protection detail, and the head of the State Oil Company, SOCOR.)

            But in 1947 the international situation changed, and Moscow was forced to shelve these plans. US President Harry Truman blocked Soviet plans to put bases on Turkish territory, the Yugoslav crisis “weakened the position of Stalin,” Moscow withdrew its forces from Iran, and the US put bases in and provided security guarantees to Turkey.

            After the death of Stalin, the Soviet Union changed its policies in the region. In May 1953, Moscow formally declared that it recognized the existing Soviet-Turkish border, and somewhat later, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev “personally apologized” to the Turkish ambassador for “Stalinist injustices.”

            The recollection in Moscow of these long-ago events now is interesting because they are a reminder of just how complicated the situation in that region is, how many different states and sub-state actors are involved, and how often these states and groups have changed directions, even if they have never completely forgotten the goals they earlier pursued.

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