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Azerbaijan: Planned British War Memorial Raises Hackles

  • Jean-Christophe Peuch

A seemingly innocuous British initiative has revived memories of the tragic events that put the Southern Caucasus region to fire and the sword in the wake of World War I and the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution. Fueled by national and religious feelings, a heated controversy is taking place in Azerbaijan as to whether British soldiers killed while defending Baku against Turkish troops 85 years ago should be honored.

Prague, 19 September 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Overlooking the Caspian Sea from the heights of Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, there is a cemetery devoted to the memory of those men and women who died defending the sovereignty of their native land.

Except for the dark days of the 1988-94 Nagorno-Karabakh war, when the number of burial ceremonies grew exponentially, Baku's Martyrs' Lane -- or Shahidlar Hiyabani, as it is known in Azeri -- has generally been a quiet and solemn place that inspires visitors to meditation.

Hundreds of graves, adorned with portraits of the deceased, stretch along a lengthy white marble wall shaded by dwarf cypress and pine trees.

Dozens of tombstones bear the names of victims of the Soviet military intervention of January 1990. In the most recent graves rest the remains of soldiers killed since 1994 along the cease-fire line that separates Armenian-held territories from the rest of the country.

Shahidlar Hiyabani's peaceful atmosphere may soon be disrupted, however, when a British delegation arrives to inaugurate a memorial to those few dozen British soldiers who died in Baku during the final days of World War I.

Already, Azerbaijani historians, publicists, and nongovernmental organizations are engaged in a heated debate over the memorial. As the date of the inauguration gets closer, the controversy is progressively gaining momentum, threatening to turn into a nationwide political issue ahead of the 15 October presidential elections.

The memorial project was commissioned by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC), a British charitable organization that maintains the graves of soldiers of the Commonwealth killed during both world wars. Since its creation in 1917, the CWGC has constructed 2,500 war cemeteries and plots in more than 150 countries.

CWGC spokesman Peter Francis told RFE/RL the Baku memorial commemorates those 47 soldiers -- out of a total of 92 who were killed in the Azerbaijani capital 85 years ago -- who have been identified by name. "It is a couple of meters high. It is almost in the form of a memorial wall on which there are panels on which the 47 soldiers' names appear. [It] commemorates men of a unit that was called 'Dunster Force,' who were fighting in Azerbaijan in 1918. They were fighting against Turkish forces. They landed there in August 1918 and were evacuated in September of the same year," Francis said.

In the summer of 1918, an unstable Russian-Armenian coalition known as the Centro-Caspian Dictatorship toppled the pro-Bolshevik Baku Commune. Just before this change of regime, members of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation, or Dashnaktsutyun, had pressed Bolshevik leaders to request Britain's help for fear the city would fall into Turkish hands.

On 4 August 1918, British Major General Lionel Dunsterville arrived in the Azerbaijani capital from Persia's Enzeli at the head of a 1,000-strong elite force to secure the city's oil fields against any German or Turkish attempt to seize them.

Although German forces in neighboring Georgia obtained Russia's green light to attack Baku, they were far too weak to launch any large-scale offensive. Only the 15,000-strong Army of Islam of Turkish General Nuri Pasha was therefore threatening the British expeditionary corps.

Unable to repel Turkish and Azerbaijani troops, Dunsterville ordered the evacuation of the city on 14 September, after six weeks of occupation, and withdrew to Iran.

After the armistice of Mudros between the Ottoman Empire and Britain, Turkish troops in turn evacuated Baku in November 1918 and were replaced by a new Commonwealth contingent that remained there until the Bolshevik advance made it impossible to stay.

The remains of all 92 British soldiers killed in 1918 were initially buried in Baku's Christian cemetery. Turkish and Azerbaijani casualties were interred at a nearby Muslim burial site in Shahidlar Hiyabani.

Musa Gasimli teaches modern history at Baku State University. He told our correspondent that both cemeteries were destroyed under the Soviet regime that took over from the short-lived Democratic Republic of Azerbaijan in the early 1920s.

"There is de facto no British tomb left in Shahidlar Hiyabani. Nor are there any graves of Turkish or Azerbaijani soldiers. All were destroyed and an amusement park built on the site with a monument dedicated to Sergei Mironovich Kirov, who ruled over Azerbaijan after Soviet troops entered Baku in April 1920," Gasimli said.

The Kirov statue was destroyed after the 1990 Soviet military crackdown as Shahidlar Hiyabani was restored as a burial site for national heroes.

Soon after Azerbaijan regained independence, British officials initiated talks over the construction of a monument to commemorate the war casualties of 1918. The memorial was built and shipped to Baku in 1997. But it has remained in storage since then pending official authorization to erect it at Shahidlar Hiyabani. Only a few weeks ago did CWGC manage to secure the go-ahead from the city administration and the Azerbaijani government.

The memorial was originally due to be inaugurated next week (24 September). But CWGC spokesman Francis said the ceremony was postponed at the last minute for reasons that are unclear. "I'm afraid I don't have information regarding [the reasons for] the delay of the ceremony at the moment," he said. "But we're hoping it is going to be in the next couple of weeks."

Neither city authorities nor the administration of Azerbaijani President Heidar Aliyev has given any explanation as to why the inauguration has been deferred. Meanwhile, supporters and adversaries of the memorial continue to argue.

At a press conference held on 17 September, the editorial staff of the "Milli yol" (National Path) newspaper and leaders of a pan-Turkic nationalist group slammed the CWGC project, maintaining that "thousands" of Muslim soldiers died under British bullets in 1918 -- a claim that looks inflated in comparison to Western estimates, which put at around 1,100 the number of casualties suffered by Nuri's forces.

Other opponents argue against the proposed memorial because, as they claim, British soldiers entered Baku at the request of Dashnak activists. Azerbaijanis notably blame Dashnaktsutyun for the killing of hundreds of Muslims in Baku in March 1918.

CWGC spokesman Francis reckons widespread prejudice against the 1918 British intervention -- described as an "occupation" by Soviet propaganda -- has prevented the memorial project from being completed earlier. But he said the CWGC will not let itself be dragged into any historical controversy.

"I guess the first thing that prevented the project from being completed was the fact that Azerbaijan itself [became] part of Soviet-controlled Russia in the 1920s, and access for the commission was impossible during that era. Since the boundaries have come down, we have been in discussion with the [Azerbaijani] government about erecting the memorial in Baku. Obviously, we had to design it, construct it, and ship it out there. One of the sticking points has been that in many people's eyes, the British forces, if you like, were fighting for the wrong side, resisting the Turkish forces, but obviously they were not involved in the politics of the situation. It is simply our task to commemorate the men, and that is what we plan to do with this memorial," Framcis said.

Cabi Bahramov is the deputy director of the Institute of History at Azerbaijan's Academy of Sciences. He agrees that the memory of British soldiers killed in Baku should be honored, but cautions against any move he says would hurt the feelings of many Azerbaijanis.

"In principle, [our institute is] not opposed to this project. But we are against the idea of having a commemorative plate where our martyrs rest. Let them pick another spot for this memorial. We have nothing against that. But not Shahidlar Hiyabani, which is the burial place of people who have given their lives for the sake of our people's freedom and independence. This is the only point we do not accept -- that they insist on erecting their memorial precisely at this site. To us, this place is sacred," Bahramov said.

Bahramov is not the only one who objects to the choice of Baku's most revered burial site to erect a British war memorial. Yesterday, Azerbaijan's "Zerkalo" Russian-language daily quoted leaders of the influential Organization for the Liberation of Karabakh as saying they would not condemn the project, provided another location for it is found.

Historian Gasimli, by contrast, said he holds nothing against the British initiative. "I do not see any tragedy in that," he said. "I believe this is a purely humanitarian action. Why? [Because] the presence of British troops in Azerbaijan was dictated by the circumstances. Everybody was then vying for control over the Baku oil fields. I don't see anything wrong here. What's wrong in having the descendants of these soldiers coming here to honor the memory of their ancestors? One should not forget that Britain was among the first Western countries to recognize the independence of the Democratic Republic of Azerbaijan on 11 January 1920."

Referring to those who in Azerbaijan -- unconsciously or not -- link the 1918 Baku events to the dispute with neighboring Armenia over Karabakh, Gasimli cautions against politicizing history. "History is what it is. We cannot change it," he said, adding: "Let us not forget either that those British soldiers who fought against the Army of Islam did not come to Azerbaijan on their own will. They just obeyed orders."