A Pontian-Armenian Federation 1919: The Case for Trebizond

FILE - Photo by LATO KLODIAN / EUROKINISSI.

When the Armenian delegation presented its territorial claims at the Paris Peace Conference in February 1919 they wanted Turkish Armenia and the Armenian Republic in the Caucasus to become a unitary state. Their claim to the Port of Trebizond was something the Euxine Pontian Greeks rejected.

The Euxine Pontian delegation commented on the Armenian claims by stating that the Greeks outnumbered the Armenians in the Vilayet of Trebizond and no way would they cede this port. However, the Pontians were prepared to grant them access to the sea via Trebizond. As a land-locked country Armenia was surrounded by hostile neighbors such as Turkey, Azerbaijan, Georgia and Bolshevik Russia. Armenia considered Trebizond vital to its future security, economy, trade and survival as a nation-state.

Prior to World War I the Pontians had no problems with Armenian claims to the six Vilayets of Erzerum, Van, Bitlis, Kharput, Diarbekir and Sivas which was also known as Turkish Armenia. Over one million Armenians lived in these Vilayets whereas 42,000 Greeks lived in Erzerum and Sivas. The Greeks couldn’t claim any territory in these Vilayets, as the Armenians had no rights to Trebizond. It should be noted a small Armenian republic had been established in the Caucasus with Yerevan as its capitol on May 28, 1918.

As an expression of goodwill, the Pontians were prepared “to accord them great economic facilities such as freedom of certain ports on the plan of the facilities granted by Greece to Serbia in regard to Salonica,” but Pontian territory wasn’t for cession.

The Pontians were sympathetic and understood the Armenians as both had suffered at the hands of the same oppressor: the Young Turks, but they did not wish to pass from Ottoman rule to Armenian control. They simply wanted their independence in due course and where prepared to accept “the protectorate of the League of Nations with Greece as mandatory.” Greece lacked the military and economic resources to assume the responsibilities of a mandatory power.

Expatriate Greek communities in Switzerland, Marseille (France), and Manchester (Britain) sent telegrams to the Paris Conference protesting over Armenia’s claim to Trebizond. Philocles Candidis (Manchester) considered Armenia’s claim as pretentious, since it was “always Greek for centuries.” On the other hand, the President of the Rodopolis Brotherhood (also known as the Comnenes) in the United States Dimitris Christoforidis outlined the views of his organization regarding Armenian claims in a letter to the editor of The National Herald. He offered four possible solutions: firstly union with Greece; secondly internationalization of the shores of Pontus where Pontian Hellenism was not an extension of Hellenism in Constantinople and therefore whose identity was associated after the Constantinopolitans; thirdly, they (Rodopolis Brotherhood) hoped the major powers would encourage the United States to undertake the mandate for Armenia by including the Pontus coastline so long at the latter territory did not become a part of Armenia but remained an autonomous state; and finally the formation of dual Armeno-Greek states with the frontiers based on ethnological lines. They would have common customs and port facilities regarding their exports/imports and as partners would honestly cooperate on all the trading rules. Christoforides believed the last point offered the best solution.

The British Peace delegation in Paris received many telegrams from Pontian organizations. E. Forbes Adams, British Foreign Office delegate, remarked that it was impossible to meet Pontian demands for independence. He believed the best outcome ” is proper safeguards, civil, religious and cultural in the new Turkish and Armenian States.” Arnold J.Toynbee minuted that a Greek mandate for Pontus was “not backed by Mr. Venizelos nor supported by statistics.”

Despite the impasse and protest telegrams, a Pontic Euxine-Armenian committee was established in Paris to hammer out a amicable solution. The Pontian proposal involved that the Pontic and Armenian republics form a union which would increase their security and solidarity against hostile neighbors. Furthermore both groups would maintain their own independence and with two important principles of pooling their interests.

In the area of “1(a) foreign policy each Republic having the right to nominate a special representation in the case of negotiations of exclusive interest to itself (on the same lines as in the case of the Canton states belonging to the Swiss Confederation.” They would work closely in areas of commerce, industry and customs and communications (posts, telegraphs, railways). As far as autonomy was concerned each republic would be responsible for its own ecclesiastical, education and gendarmerie matters.

The Euxine-Pontic members thought this was a good solution and dubbed their proposal as the Swiss model. Initially the Armenian committee members were pleased with the Pontic solution and saw some advantages to this scheme. They referred the matter to the Armenian delegation in Paris who rejected it and would only accept it if imposed by the peace conference. The sticking point was the incorporation of Trebizond into the Armenian state.

The Greek response was ” we are determined not to lose our ethnical independence at any price. We should have been ready to pool several of our interests with those of the Armenians, and to forego the advantages of the factors of our independence, in order to increase our combined power, but further we cannot go.” However, the Pontians did not rule out in the future “a confederation composed of several peoples in the part of the East, such as the Pontians, the Georgians [and] the Armenians.”

U.S. President Woodrow Wilson sought the mandate for Armenia which was rejected by the Senate in May 1920. Under the Treaty of Sevres he accepted the offer of the major European powers to arbitrate on the frontier between Armenia and Turkey, handing down his decision in November 1920. Wilson included Trebizond in the Armenian state. Nothing came of this as the small Armenian republic was invaded by both Bolshevik and Turkish nationalist forces.

In conclusion both the Pontians and the Armenians lost out and had they combined their resources they might have had a better chance of repelling their enemies.

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