Monday, May 6, 2024

Two Senior Armenian Cartographers Say 1991 Soviet Borders Were Illegitimate

Paul Goble

            Staunton, May 2 – Two Armenian ethnographers say the 1991 administrative borders of the former union republics of the USSR which the successor states and the international community agreed would be the basis for international borders are illegitimate because Moscow drew them without the participation or agreement of the republics involved.

            Their challenge, if it were to be accepted and that is unlikely because the position they take is opposed by both Yerevan and Baku, would make the delimitation of borders in the region far more difficult than it now is and could trigger more conflicts within and between them   (

            But their comments are important because Rouben Galichian, a senior Armenian scholar now living in the United Kingdom, and Hranish Kharutian, a former deputy mayor of Yerevan, provide new details on the way in which the Soviet government drew and redrew the borders of the union republics without giving all the republics most immediately involved a say.

            Galichian, who has written numerous books about cartography in the South Caucasus, focuses on the eight villages along the Armenian-Azerbaijani border that are now subject to dispute (

            He says that Moscow transferred these villages from Armenian to Azerbaijani control between 1936 and 1939 without the involvement of Yerevan and that “Azerbaijan cannot offer a single document about the transfer of these territories to it” as “neither in Armenia nor in Azerbaijan are there any archival documents confirming the transfer.”

            “In those years,” he continues, the USSR General Staff on its military maps marked these territories and designated them as exclaves so as to “put Armenian roads” under the control of the Kremlin rather than for any other purpose.

            Khartyan, for her part, notes that “border issues which were discovered during the period of the Trans-Caucasian Federation up to 1936, according to archival materials of stenographic records of meetings, featured arguments that nomadic herdsmen needed a legal basis for crossing administrative borders.”

            When nomads drove cattle to pastures in Armenian villages, conflicts arose,” she says. “The issue seemed to be an economic one, but the conflict over land and pasture issues turned into an interethnic one. Enclaves were created so that nomads had the opportunity to move to territories belonging to other republics. This was Soviet policy."

            Kharatyan has a copy of one such decision dated February 18, 1929. At that time, the Trans-Caucasus Federation executive committee voted for changing borders at Armenia’s expense, something it was able to do only by taking a decision when the Armenian representative was no longer present.

            At the present time, the Yerevan ethnographer says, the relevant documents aren’t in Yerevan or Baku or Moscow but only in Georgia. Unfortunately, however, Georgian officials now are denying Armenian scholars like herself access to these materials, something that further complicates the situation and a precise compilation of the historical record.

            (For a broader discussion of just how frequently Moscow changed union republic borders in Soviet times, see my article, “Can Republic Borders be Changed?” RFE/RL Report on the USSR, September 28, 1990, pp. 20-21, at

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