Friday, November 2, 2007

Window on Eurasia: Stalin’s ‘Kurdish Project’ Recalled as Turkish-Kurdish Tensions Increase

Paul Goble

Vienna, November 2 – Russian observers and academics have filled newspapers and websites in Moscow with commentaries on the implications of a possible Turkish incursion into Iraqi Kurdistan, something that if it happens would resonate not only in the Middle East but in the southern Caucasus as well.
Now, an analyst has recalled Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin’s attempt to use the Kurds in the late 1940s, an implicit suggestion given the continuing role of Kurds in some post-Soviet states that other Russian analysts and perhaps some policy makers are prepared to draw upon it should the Turkish-Kurdish conflict heat up
In an essay posted online this week, historian Artur Bagirov describes the tangled history of Moscow’s involvement with the Kurds during World War II and in the last years of Stalin’s reign, an involvement that touched on Soviet relations with Turkey, Iran, Eastern Europe and the West (
Bagirov begins his article by noting that even though Turkey was never formally a satellite of Nazi Germany, the USSR viewed it as a potential opponent from June 1941 when Hitler signed a friendship treaty with Ankara and the Germans invaded the Soviet Union.
According to some sources, Bagirov says, Germany and Turkey agreed at that time that the latter would intervene in the war against the Soviet Union once Nazi forces approached the Transcaucasus and Caspian, and as a result, Stalin kept significant forces in the region to counter 26 to 28 Turkish divisions across the border.
In April 1945, just before the end of the war in Europe, Moscow denounced the 1931 Soviet-Turkish non-aggression pact that among other things ratified the borders between the two countries, thus setting the stage for Moscow to demand that Ankara “return” to the Soviet Union the territories it had seized during the Russian Civil War.
Stalin also demanded that Turkey agree to international control of the straits of the Bosphorous and Dardanelles and the transfer to Greece of the central and southern islands that had been part of an Italian colony. Ankara was not willing to meet either, and by the end of 1946, the two countries were moving toward an open military clash.
The Soviet Union placed 30 divisions opposite the Turkish border and opened naval bases in both Romania and Bulgaria in support of a possible strike against Turkey. At the same time, it slowed its withdrawal of forces from Northern Iran, and it marked “the 31st anniversary of the Turkish genocide of Armenians.”
Given British and American support for Turkey and pressure on Moscow to withdraw from Iran, Moscow arranged for Kurdish rebels with their leader Mustafa Barzani to cross into the Soviet Union in the spring of 1947, thus giving the USSR in Bagirov’s words “a new lever” against Turkey.
With their appearance on Soviet territory, the historian continues, Stalin assigned the development of “a new policy on the Kurdish question” to the leaders of Azerbaijan (Dzhafar Bagirov) where there had been an autonomous Kurdish district and of Uzbekistan (Usman Yusupov) to which many of the Kurds from abroad were sent.
In August 1947, Stalin told Yusupov to form the Kurdish emigres in his republic into military detachments for possible use in Turkey and Iran. And he directed to take steps to reestablish the Kurdish national district that had existed in his republic between 1922 and 1931.
Soviet secret services also established close contacts with the Kurdish partisans in Turkey, something that ultimately led to the formation of the PKK, and also with the anti-communist” party of Armenian nationalists, the Dashnaktsutyun” and its underground organizations in Turkey.
By the end of the year, Azerbaijan’s Bagirov proposed creating the new Kurdish autonomous region not in the place where it had been (the Lachin corridor) but rather in the northern portions of the Nakhichevan ASSR that borders both Armenia and Turkey.
Such a location, he said, would make it easier for Soviet-based Kurds to maintain and develop ties with Kurds in Turkey and could open the way to an extension of Soviet borders into Turkey if the Kurdish rebels there were successful in fighting the forces of Ankara.
(Curiously, and Bagirov the historian does not mention this, in the late 1980s, several Armenian samizdat writers suggested that reestablishing the Kurdish region in Lachin could be a means to resolving the conflict between Baku and Yerevan over Nagorno-Karabakh.)
Any plans Stalin may have had in this area, however, were checked by American and British support for Turkey, including the placement of military bases there and ultimately the inclusion of that country in NATO, steps that limited but did not stop Soviet interest in using the Kurds to further its interests.
After Stalin’s death in March 1953, the new Soviet leadership backed away from the Kurds, with Nikita Khrushchev at one point even apologizing to the Turks for what his predecessor had done when he got involved in the Kurdish issue. But if the Soviet government placed this project on hold, it never forgot it.
Not only did Moscow continue to maintain contacts with Kurdish radicals in the PKK, but it also exploited Azerbaijani interest in the issue. There were tens of thousands of Kurds in Azerbaijan in the late 1940s, and there are a minimum of 150,000 now, with many occupying key posts in Baku.
Among the most prominent of these, Bagirov says, are the head of the state oil company, the mayor of Baku, the head of the presidential security detail, the president of the state radio and television corporation, and the head of that country’s largest non-petroleum corporation, Azersun.
By pointedly linking what Stalin did 60 years ago with the situation today, Bagirov is clearly suggesting that if relations between Turkey and Iraqi Kurdistan deteriorate, Moscow has its own long-considered plan for what to do, one that could further destabilize the situation in Turkey and the Middle East.

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