The Republic of Armenia, 1918-1921 – Domestic Politics

First Republic of Armenia 1918-1920

To provide the reader (even the general one) with a short essay that simplifies the intricate web of domestic politics characterizing inter-party relations in the Republic of Armenia between 1918 and 1921 is not an easy task. The limits of a  short essay, is, very simply put, inadequate, if  one wants to make  an  in-depth analysis of the topic under discussion.

Therefore, I will try to approach the issue from another perspective. I will first present brief sketches of the major participant political organizations. Then, I will identify and explain some of the important issues relating to inter-party relations during the period under discussion. Finally, I will try to draw some conclusions, which might bare educational value for current Armenian endeavors towards democracy and national unity.

During its two and one half years of existence, The Republic of Armenia was a fledgling country proudly taking great strides towards building permanent democratic institutions.  The Western orientation of the government had its profound effect on the internal political atmosphere.

It was in an effort to emulate the West and  be  considered  its  worthy ally  that  the  ruling  Armenian  political   organization,   the ARF (Hay Heghapokhagan  Tashnagtsutiun, Armenian Revolutionary Federation, ARF hereafter),  committed  itself  to  moderate,  republican principles, which, had it not been for the abrupt Sovietization  of  the Republic, would have undoubtedly paved the  way  for  the realization of democratic governmental institutions.

On the other hand, the short lived experience of some  two  and  a  half years was not  enough  to  quite  the  bickering  between  the  various political  organizations  with  their   contradicting   ideologies   and political agendas.

At the core of the disagreements were some fundamental socio- political beliefs related to the shaping of the future democratic state. Add to this the strong atmosphere of mistrust and uncertainty that existed between the various political parties that had not yet worked within a single governmental entity and you would have a perfect example of a political quagmire in the making.

The political-ideological spectrum in the Republic extended from the far right to the extreme left. The Bourgeoisie, represented by the Eastern Armenian Populists,  or Popular Democrats) Zhoghovrtagan, and the  Western  Armenian  Constitutional Democrats (Ramgavar) occupied the right spectrum, while  the  socialists,  ranging from the Social Revolutionaries (SR’s) to Marxist Social Democrat (SD’s) and  splinter groups dotted the left spectrum. The ruling party, The ARF, still adhering to a socialist ideology, pragmatically assumed a centrist position.



The Armenian Genocide,  perpetrated  by  the  government  of  Ittihadist Turkey, incapacitated the  mainly  urban,  Western  Armenian Constitutional Democrats). The party was formed in the wake of the Ittihadist (Young Turks) coup d’etat of 1908.  The restoration of the Ottoman Constitution gave impetus to the party’s platform of free enterprise, and the pursuing of Armenian reforms through non-violent, legal means. It should be noted, however, that  the  absorption  of  the more militant Armenakans  and a  faction  of  the  Reformed  Henchakian (Veragazmial)  into its  ranks  made  the  party  more susceptible to notions of defensive armed struggle.

With its  strength  in the  Republic diminished  by its  Eastern Populist counterpart,  the  Ramkavars    tried  to  overshadow    the    ruling party,  the  Hay  Heghapokhagan  Tashnagtsutiun,  by   extending   their activities among diasporan Armenian communities. Leaders  such  as  poet Vahan Tekeyan, and academician Arshag Chobanian, worked closely with Boghos Nubar Pasha and his National  Delegation  in  Paris,  in  an  effort  to strengthen the position of the latter within  Allied  circles  vis-à-vis the government of the Republic of Armenia.

In the day to day affairs  of  the  Republic,  however,  The Ramkavars managed to keep only a  bare  semblance  of  party  organization.  Their presence was due mainly to some Western Armenian refugees from Van (former Armenakans). Although they published the  semi-weekly Tsayn Hayastani (Voice of Armenia) in Yerevan, and in mid 1919 reached  as  far  as negotiating with the ruling party for participation  in  the  government (about which more is to be said later), their active political  role  in the Republic was negligible.


It was with the Eastern Armenian populist democrat party that the Ruling party in Armenia, the ARF entered into a coalition government from November 1918 to June 1919.  It was the  dictates  of  its  Western  orientation  and  the  set  aim of attracting Armenian and  other  capitalist  circles  towards  the  newly established Republic, rather than its social  ideology,  that  persuaded the A.R.F. into willingly entering this uneasy partnership  with the Eastern Armenian antirevolutionary bourgeoisie.

The Populist Party was a newcomer into Armenian political life. Tsarist imperial-colonial policies didn’t provide fertile grounds for the creation of liberal democratic parties. Only after the demise of the Russian imperial regime in 1917,   did Armenian   commercial   and professional circles in Tiflis, Baku and Elisavetbol provide the grass-root support for such a party to materialize. The main catalyst in this formation was members of the Russian Constitutional Democrat (Cadet) party, who were advocates of Armenian cultural autonomy within a Russian democratic, liberal federation.

The geographical distribution of its grass roots support suggests that the party was more influential in all parts of Trans-Caucasia except in the predominantly agrarian Armenian Republic.

It was during the second Populist party congress– held in Yerevan on the wake of the collapse of the coalition government,  and  the  party’s boycotting of parliamentary elections during the preceding months—that the representatives of the Eastern Armenian  Bourgeoisie displayed,  for the first time, “an emphatic  western  orientation  by  expressing  deep admiration for the Allied Powers.” It was during this congress too, that

party delegates put aside their previous advocacy of cultural autonomy, and endorsed national independence. It was in this euphoric mood that the populists called upon all anti-socialist elements to coalesce to oust the ARF from the government and form a new one based on the principles of free, capitalistic enterprise.


a- The Social Revolutionaries

The adherents of the Russian Social Revolutionary Movement also had a nominal presence in the Republic. Like the populists, their grass root support was based on student and intellectual circles in Tiflis and Baku. Many of its members were former Tashnakists who had abandoned the party in 1907 because of its absorption of and adherence to the movement to liberate “Turkish-Armenia,” which led the party to assume a somewhat shallow position within the Russian opposition movement of the day.

A decade later, in 1917, Armenian SR’s joined the Georgian Mensheviks and fought hard to exclude the ARF from the revolutionary councils, which were shaped as a result of the political vacuum created by the toppling of the Tsarist regime.

Contrary to their lack of a strong support group  within  the  republic, and in spite  of  their  feeble  membership,  Armenian  SR’s  campaigned vigorously in parliamentary elections. Although they attained meager results, they continued to advocate a single Caucasian entity within an all-Russian federative democracy.

Their failure was a direct result of their disbelief in the concept of national independence. Even when the majority of its delegates, perhaps out of expediency, voted in favor of working within separate Caucasian republics during the party’s conference held in Tiflis in August of 1919, the party could not formulate a working strategy out of their demand. The  party   organ,   Sotsial Heghapokhagan (The Socialist Revolutionary), continued to publish contradicting  views  about  issues relating  to  self  determination  and   national   independence,   thus furthering the gap between the party and the general populace.

b- The Social Democrats

The collapse of empire, partition of Trans-Caucasus, end of Baku Commune, disagreement over tactics, and the final schism  between  Bolshevik  and Menshevik factions had weakened the Social Democrats and scattered  them into five rival groups.-

1)  The Armenian Section of the Georgian SD (Menshevik) Party that had a

      negligible role in the Republic,

2)  Adherents of the International Russian SD (Menshevik) Party,

3)      Adherents to Russian SD (Bolshevik) Party, who were advocates of Trans-Caucasian Soviet Republics, and  National Communist Parties as  affiliates of the  Russian  Communist  Party.  There was some resistance from Armenian and Georgian Bolshevik circles to this separatist agenda, but it was finally agreed upon by all Bolsheviks in the region, especially when Lenin and the Central Committee in Moscow advocated it.

            The Bolsheviks had lots of disagreement over tactics.  Some, like Arshavir Melikian advocated educating the public through legal means rather than revolutionary agitation,   because the Republic was in shambles. Young extremists opposed this view. The Bolshevik boycotting of parliamentary elections in summer of 1919 suggests that extremists were in control of the party.

In the summer of 1919 there were not more than 500 Bolsheviks in Armenia.

   Yet they were on the rise because of their agitation and because of other factors such as.-

   – Unresolved condition of the Armenian Question.

   – Radical Bolshevik “proletar”s from Baku and other parts of the Caucasus

     Were purring into Armenia.

   – Bolsheviks expelled from Georgia coming to Armenia.

   – Moscow sending agitators and propagandists into Armenia.

   – Armenian government inactive at first (Bolsheviks on government

     payroll in ministries, they were permitted to deliver lectures,

     engage in political debates, address public rallies, and even criticize

     government and ruling party. Therefore, Bolsheviks found a haven in


            The Government started taking severe measures only after Bolshevik    led uprisings in May 1920.

            September 1919 saw the first underground party conference in Yerevan.  Only

     twelve delegates were present. There was a conflict between Melikian’s mild views and KRIAKOM members Azkanaz Mravian and Sarkis Gasian. Decision taken to

start subversive actions against the existing government.

            Thus ARMENKOM was created. However, the party remained underground.

c- The Social Democratic Specifists

Those were intellectuals who adhered to the principle that Armenians had the right to choose their own unique approach to SOCIALISM. They advocated distinct national Marxist parties.

After the formation of the Republic Armenian SD specifists such as Tavit Ananun, Bashki Ishkhanian, and Sdepan Zorian moved to Yerevan to      work within governmental institutions and legal structures.    in January 1920 they founded The Social Democratic Labor Party of    Armenia as a legal organization.  They hailed the restoration of    national independence and proclaimed that they will participate in

the process of state building.    They ridiculed the Ramkavars assertion that Western Armenia should    be the nucleus around which the Armenian state is to be formed.  They

also criticized other SD factions for their subversive and intrusive agitation and thus attracted the animosity of the Marxists and    bourgeoisie alike.

d- The Social Democratic Henchakian Party

Last but not least Social Democratic Henchakian Party. This was the oldest established Armenian SD group and the only one which had    Eastern and Western Armenian members.    The party reached its peak in 1894-96 during the emancipatory    movement in Western Armenia.  Then came a period of fragmentation. In    1919 many Henchakists left the party to join Mensheviks or Bolsheviks.   Traditional strongholds in Cilicia and Balkans. Publication The Proletar in Tiflis, through which they.-

    – Criticized A.R.F. for pseudo socialism, honeymoon with bourgeoisie,

      pretension of leadership.

    – Criticized all parties that boycotted parliamentary elections.

    – Criticized Populists for opportunism (first working with ARF

  (then coming out of coalition)

    – Criticize intellectuals (SD’s specially) because they could not

      differentiate between state and government, while the first is

      permanent and the other transitory. So, if government is now held y

      incompetents that should not mean abandoning   the   state or

      undermining it, but rather aid it by providing new leadership.

   – opposed the presence of two delegations in Paris because that was

     contrary to the notion of one nation-one struggle.


a. – The ARF

Although crippled by the Armenian Genocide which shattered its network

in the Ottoman Empire, and the Russian Civil  war,  which  battered  its organizational machine in the Tsarist Empire, The Armenian Revolutionary Federation was, in 1918, still considered to be  the  dominant  Armenian political organization upon whose  shoulders  the  task  of  ruling  the fledgling Republic rested.

For three decades since its formation, the  ARF  had  acted  as  a catharsis through which conservative Western  and  progressive  Eastern Armenian ideological fermentations and political  aspirations  could  be funneled into a cohesive working agenda  for  the  realization  of  the ultimate goal of Free and independent Armenia. Now that the nucleus of that state was accomplished, the old   party   program   with   its

revolutionary zeal was inadequate to meet the challenges   of   a governmental apparatus.  Add  to  this  the  almost  inevitable  popular discontent towards the ruling party of a newly  established  state,  and the internal differences within the rank-and-file, and  it  was  obvious that the A.R.F. had to undergo some radical changes in order to meet the challenges of the new situation.

There were three distinct groupings within the party.  The largest was that of Western Armenian members who advocated an evolutionary social reform program. On the other extreme stood Internationalist socialist intellectuals, mostly Eastern Armenian, who pushed for radical social and political change. In the middle stood the old leadership, the members of the party’s highest executive body, the A.R.F. Bureau which,

out of pragmatic considerations, put aside its revolutionary  character, and tilted towards  moderation,  thus  weakening  the  position  of  the party’s  Left.  The  adoption  of  a  moderate  stance  by  the  party’s leadership was also evident  in  the  Bureau’s  organ  “Heartache”, which stressed gradualism instead of radical social and political reform.

The clash between the first  two  groups  was  inevitable  during  the sessions of the party’s 9th congress in September  1919  (the  only  one held in Armenia’s capital Yerevan). Issues ranging from the  ideological framework of the party to the relationship between party and  government were hotly  debated  under the  watchful  eyes  of  Allied  intelligence services which followed the sessions with keen interest.  After several weeks of deliberations, the Congress formulated its decisions.  It was

evident that the moderates had been successful. The Congress upheld  the principles of moderate, democratic government and  also  instructed  the newly elected  Bureau  that  it  should  have  an  indirect  control  of government,  that  it  should  not  interfere  in  the affairs  of   the government, but would rather stay in its shadow and extend a  supportive hand to it.

Later events, however, such as the Bolshevik agitated uprisings in May

1920 terminated the principle of indirect control of government, when the ARF Bureau came out of the shadows and assumed the government itself. These were, it seems, tiring and critical days where raison d’etat became the raison d’etre of the ruling party’s leadership.


After reviewing the participants, let us now ponder on some of the processes of inter-party politics. Because of time limitations, I will present each very briefly.

Perhaps one of the most important processes of partisan politics in the Republic was that of the coalition government between the ruling party and the populist Democrats, the Populist Party which   lasted from November 1918 to June 1919.   Headed first  by  Hovannes Kachaznuni and then by  Alexander Khatisian,  The  coalition  was  not  a  complete semblance of national unity, since the left  wing  parties  (i.e.  SR’s,

SD’s) were against participation in a government where right wing parties were represented.  The  coalition  government   provided   the opportunity for the Eastern Armenian Bourgeoisie to  participate  in  the state-building process, Many of  their  Tiflis  based  cadres  relocated themselves to Yerevan or alternated between the two cities, in an effort to plan and  implement  projects  in  the  spheres  of  economy,  social welfare, education, the judiciary, etc… The coalition government came to an abrupt end because of the act of United Armenia in May 1919.  Even though all populist ministers in the government had signed the act and participated in its official declaration, the Populist Central Committee in Tiflis, at the time, it seems, in cohort with Boghos Nubar’s camp in

Paris, which insisted  that  such  an  act  was  the  prerogative  of  a constitutional  congress  where  all  segments  of  Armenians  must   be represented, protested the act and called upon its ministers to withdraw from the government and boycotted the parliamentary elections to be  held in the coming  weeks.  The  Populist  Center’s  unexplainable  position spread  confusion  within  the  party’s  rank  and  file.  many   cadres questioned the validity of the center’s decision. Although the  populist center’s erroneous decisions were rectified during the  party  conference held several months later, the collapse of the coalition government just before the general parliamentary elections did damage the efforts  of  a unity  between  the  two  most  influential  political   segments.   The experiment was never repeated.

In explaining the populist center’s stance one should take into

consideration  the  negotiations  conducted  at  the  time  between  the Zhoghovrtagan  (populist  democrats) and the Ramkavars (Constitutional Democrats) regarding  the  merger of the two.  It might be deduced that the Zhoghovertagan’s    center’s     position   regarding   the Act of United Armenia was a result of Ramgavar influences on its leadership.

The Act of United Armenia also created confusion within circles adhering

to    the   newly  established   Hay Azkayin Azadagan Miyutiun (Armenian National Liberal Union) whose aim  was the creation of a joint Constitutional Democrats- Populist Democrats-Reformed  Henchakian  coalition  as  a counterforce  against the Armenian Revolutionary  Federation.  Stressed by the prospect that  the  Act  of  united  Armenia  would  rally   Armenians worldwide around the Ararat Republic —  the term  with  which  Ramkavars and  other Western Armenian circles used to undermine and  ridicule  the Armenian Republic and its ruling party — and  also  worried  about  The recognition that

the  said   republic  was  gaining   in  Allied  circles, architects of the above mentioned Union poet Vahan Tekeyan and Dr. Nshan Der Sdepanian traveled first to Tiflis,  where they were joined  by  Populist Central Committee  chairman   Samson Harutiunian,    and   from   there  to Yerevan to negotiate the Union’s participation in  the government.  The

plenary sessions of the negotiations coincided with the convening of the 9th ARF Congress. Simon Vratsian represented  the  ruling  party. Proposals and counter proposals led to compromises on both sides, but the end result was that the negotiations created more confusion and distrust.

On the other hand, the single event which solicited unanimous Armenian

unity was the Armeno-Georgian border conflict during the period of coalition government. Armenian parties represented in the Azkayin Khorhurt (National Council; Parliament), unconditionally protested the Georgian militant stance and backed the

government in its efforts to resist the aggressor. Due  to  time  limitations  I  am  unable  to  speak  about   the   1919 parliamentary elections and their results.  What  is  to  be  underlined here, however, is the fact that the election  process  was  yet  another

indication of the democratic character of the fledgling republic.


Burdened with numerous external and internal hardships, The Armenian

Republic in between 1918-1920 was a country in shambles.  War, famine, and thousands upon thousands of bewildered refugees threatened the very fabric of Armenian existence and, in the words of Armenia’s first prime minister, Hovannes Kachaznuni, rendered the country into a “Chaos without Form” (Antsev Kaos).  Yet despite these painful birth bangs, the Armenian quest for freedom and independence was on the march. In this chaotic situation internal partisan divisions were inevitable. Yet the high politicization level of the parties and the populace at large was a promising factor for the future democracy.  It  was  on  the principles and the broader issues —  and  not  secondary  or  tertiary details — that Armenian  political  organizations  had  differences  of opinion. The Republic was not the monopoly of a single party.  Even though the  ruling  party  influenced  the  shaping  of  government,  an outspoken opposition  did  materialize  and  a  multi-party  pluralistic system was working.

If one thing should be stressed here, it would be the fact that the national interest was clearly defined and all of the major participant political organizations were in agreement regarding the elements of the national interest. Governmental decisions were tailored according to national interest, rather than predicated by external influences and pressures.

It is said that History repeats itself.  We are bound to repeat the mistakes of the past if we do not learn from our experiences. The period of the Republic did not lack those mistakes. On the contrary, mistakes were numerous and lots of efforts were made to rectify them.  It is precisely because of this that the 1918-1920 experience must be of importance to us today.

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