The Democratic Republic of Armenia (DRA) or the First Republic of Armenia was the first modern establishment of an Armenian state on the former territory of Eastern Armenia in the Russian Empire following the Russian Revolution of 1917. The leaders of the government came mainly from the Armenian Revolutionary Federation. The bordering countries were the same then as they are today, with the Democratic Republic of Georgia to the north, the Ottoman Empire to the west, Persia to the south, and the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic to the east.
From the beginning, the DRA was plagued with a variety of domestic and foreign problems. Many of its inhabitants were Armenian refugees who had fled the massacres of the Armenian Genocide in Western Armenia. Furthermore, its existence was in peril because of the advancing armies of the Ottoman Empire. The republic lasted for two years, until 1920, when it was finally overwhelmed by Mustafa Kemal’s Turkish nationalist government and Soviet Russia.
In March 1917, the spontaneous revolution that toppled Tsar Nicholas and the Romanov dynasty established a caretaker administration, known as the Provisional Government. Shortly after, the Provisional Government replaced Grand Duke Nicholas’ administration in the Caucasus with the five-member Special Transcaucasian Committee, known by the acronym Ozakom. The Ozakom included Armenian Democrat Mikayel Papadjanian, and was set to heal wounds inflicted by the old regime. In doing so, Western Armenia was to have a general commissar and was to be subdivided into the districts of Trebizond, Erzerum, Bitlis, and Van. The decree was a major concession to the Armenians: Western Armenia was placed under the central government and through it under immediate Armenian jurisdiction. Dr. Hakob Zavriev would serve as the assistant for civil affairs and he in turn would see to it that most civil officials were Armenian. However, in October 1917, when the Bolsheviks seized power from the Provisional Government, they announced that they would be withdrawing troops from both the Western and Caucasus Fronts. The Georgians, Armenians and Muslims of the Caucasus all rejected the Bolsheviks’ legitimacy.
On March 3, 1918, the armistice of Erzincan was followed up with the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, marking Russia’s exit from the war. This allowed the Turks to regain the Western Armenian provinces and take over Batum, Kars and Ardahan. In addition to these provisions, a secret clause was inserted which obligated the Armenians and Russians to demobilize their forces in both western and eastern Armenia. Having massacred and deported the Armenians of Western Armenia during the Armenian Genocide, the Ottoman Empire seemed to have now set its sights on eliminating the Armenian population of Eastern Armenia. Shortly after the signing of Brest-Litovsk, the Turkish army began its advance, taking Erzerum in March and Kars in April.
On May 26, 1918, Georgia declared independence; on May 28, it signed the Treaty of Poti, receiving protection from Germany. The following the day, the Muslim National Council in Tiflis announced the establishment of the Democratic Republic of Azerbaijan. Having been abandoned by its regional allies, the Armenian National Council, based in Tiflis and led by Russian Armenian intellectuals who represented Armenian interests in the Caucasus, was forced to declare its independence on May 28. It dispatched Hovhannes Kachaznuni and Alexander Khatisyan, both members of the ARF, to Yerevan to take over power there and issued the following statement on May 30 (retroactive to May 28):
In view of the dissolution of the political unity of Transcaucasia and the new situation created by the proclamation of the independence of Georgia and Azerbaijan, the Armenian National Council declares itself to be the supreme and only administration for the Armenian provinces. Because of the certain grave circumstances, the national council, deferring until the near future the formation of an Armenian National government, temporarily assumes all governmental functions, in order to take hold the political and administrative helm of the Armenian provinces.
Meanwhile, the Turks had taken Alexandropol and were intent on eliminating the center of Armenian resistance based in Yerevan. The Armenians were able to stave off total defeat and delivered crushing blows to the Turkish army in the battles of Sardarapat, Karakilisa and Abaran. Nevertheless, they were forced to sign the treaty of Batum on June 4, 1918, which allowed the Ottoman Empire to take vast amounts of Armenian territory and impose harsh conditions, leaving the new republic with a mere 10,000 square kilometers.
The Republic of Armenia declared that she was to be a self-governing state, endowed with a constitution, the supremacy of state authority, independence, sovereignty, and plenipotentiary power. Katchaznouni became the country’s first Prime Minister and Aram Manukian was the first minister of Interior.
The surviving Armenian population in 1919 was 2,500,000 which 2,000,000 were distributed in the Caucasus. Out of these 2,000,000 in the Caucasus, 1,300,000 were to be found within the boundaries of the new Republic of Armenia, which included 300,000 to 350,000 refugees who had escaped from the Ottoman Empire. There were 1,650,000 Armenians in the new Republic. Also added to this Armenian population were 350,000 to 400,000 people of other nationalities, and a total population of about 2,000,000 within the Armenian Republic. The government of Hovhannes Kachaznuni was faced with a most sobering reality in the winter of 1918-19. The newly formed government was responsible for over half a million Armenian refugees in the Caucasus. It was a long and harsh winter. The homeless masses, lacking food, clothing and medicine, had to endure the elements. Many who survived the exposure and famine succumbed to the ravaging diseases. By the spring of 1919, the typhus epidemic had run its course, the weather improved and the first American Committee for Relief in the Near East shipment of wheat reached Batum. The British army transported the aid to Yerevan. Yet by that time some 150,000 of the refugees had perished. Vratsian puts this figure at around 180,000, or nearly 20% of the entire Republic.
In December 1918, Armenia and Georgia engaged in the Georgian–Armenian War 1918, which was a brief military conflict over the disputed border areas in the largely Armenian-populated Lori district along with some other neighboring regions. Both nations claimed the district, which Georgia had occupied after the Ottomans evacuated the area. Inconclusive fighting continued for two weeks. The Armenian offensive under Drastamat Kanayan (Dro) met some initial success but was finally halted. British mediation facilitated the end of the war, and resulted in the establishment a joint Armeno-Georgian civil administration in the “Lori neutral zone” or the “Shulavera Condominium”. Relations between Armenia and Georgia, however, remained tense. In the spring of 1919, American relief agency officials began to complain that Georgian officials, who demanded their own share of the provisions, were holding up railway traffic carrying vital supplies of flour and other foodstuffs to Armenia. Moved by their complaints and the debilitating food crisis in Armenia, Georges Clemenceau, as president of the Versailles Conference, issued a protest letter on July 18, calling on Georgia to cease further interference. Georgia issued its own protest to this communiqué, but by 25 July American officials were already reporting that rail traffic had begun to pick up. In autumn 1919, the two countries began negotiations for a new transit treaty.
A considerable degree of hostility existed between Armenia and its new neighbor to the east, the Democratic Republic of Azerbaijan, stemming largely from to racial, religious, cultural and societal differences. The Azeris had close ethnic and religious ties to the Turks and had provided material support for them in their drive to Baku in 1918. Although the borders of the two countries were still undefined, Azerbaijan claimed most of the territory Armenia was sitting on, demanding all or most parts of the former Russian provinces of Elizavetpol, Tiflis, Yerevan, Kars and Batum. As diplomacy failed to accomplish compromise, even with the mediation of the commanders of a British expeditionary force that had installed itself in the Caucasus, territorial clashes between Armenia and Azerbaijan took place throughout 1919 and 1920, most notably in the regions of Nakhichevan, Karabakhand Syunik (Zangezur). Repeated attempts to bring these provinces under Azerbaijani jurisdiction were met with fierce resistance by their Armenian inhabitants. In May 1919, Dro led an expeditionary unit that was successful in establishing Armenian administrative control in Nakhichevan.
The Turkish Revolutionaries saw the partitioning of Anatolia to be unacceptable and revolted against the allies. On September 20, 1920, the Turkish General Kazım Karabekir invaded the region of Sarikamish. In response, Armenia declared war on Turkey on September 24 and the Turkish–Armenian War began. In the regions of Oltu, Sarikamish, Kars, Alexandropol (Gyumri) Armenian forces clashed with those of Karabekir’s armies. Mustafa Kemal Pasha had sent several delegations to Moscow in search of an alliance, where he had found a receptive response by the Soviet government, which started sending gold and weapons to the Turkish revolutionaries.
Armenia gave way to communist power in late 1920. In November 1920, the Turkish revolutionaries captured Alexandropol and were poised to move in on the capital. A cease fire was concluded on November 18. Negotiations were then carried out between Karabekir and a peace delegation led by Alexander Khatisian in Alexandropol; although Karabekir’s terms were extremely harsh the Armenian delegation had little recourse but to agree to them. The Treaty of Alexandropol was thus signed on December 2/3, 1920.
The 11th Red Army began its virtually unopposed advance into Armenia on November 29, 1920. The actual transfer of power took place on December 2 in Yerevan. The Armenian leadership approved an ultimatum, presented to it by the Soviet plenipotentiary Boris Legran. Armenia decided to join the Soviet sphere, while Soviet Russia agreed to protect its remaining territory from the advancing Turkish army. The Soviets also pledged to take steps to rebuild the army, protect the Armenians and to not pursue non-communist Armenians, although the final condition of this pledge was reneged when the Dashnaks were forced out of the country.
On December 5, the Armenian Revolutionary Committee (Revkom, made up of mostly Armenians from Azerbaijan) also entered the city. Finally, on the following day, December 6, Felix Dzerzhinsky’s Cheka, entered Yerevan, thus effectively ending the existence of the Democratic Republic of Armenia. At that point what was left of Armenia was under the influence of the Bolsheviks. The part occupied by Turkey remained for the most part theirs, as laid out in the terms of the subsequent Treaty of Kars. Soon, the Armenian Soviet Socialist Republic was proclaimed, under the leadership of Alexander Miasnikyan. It was to be included into the newly created Transcaucasian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic.