Nagorno-Karabakh has been wiped off the map as what remained of the breakaway region surrendered to Azerbaijan’s troops on 20 September, after brief fighting that led to at least 200 ethnic Armenians being killed. According to the most recent reports, over 100,000 Armenians – almost the entire population – have now fled the region. The government of the enclave has declared that as of 1 January 2024 it will “cease to exist”.
This is the latest tragic chapter in a conflict that goes back many generations in this disputed territory. The source of this clash is to be found in the inter-imperialist conflicts in the region, which is contested by both Russia and the US and European imperialists, with Turkey playing an important role as it attempts to expand its local sphere of influence.
The Caucasus region has a complex mix of ethnic groups and several different languages, further complicated by religious divisions, with Shia and Sunni Muslims, and Eastern Orthodox Christians and Armenian Christians. As in many situations where peoples of different ethnicities, religions and languages live in close proximity or in mixed areas, the major imperialist powers have historically used this to foment ethnic conflict, from which only those at the top have benefitted.
The old Tsarist regime had conquered the region in the early 19th century and was responsible for promoting inter-ethnic conflicts, using the old and tested method of ‘divide and rule’, up to the point of provoking periodic massacres and pogroms. The solution to all this came with the October 1917 revolution, which overthrew the old Tsarist regime and established workers’ power through the soviets. It was in this context that Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia joined the Soviet Union as the Transcaucasian SSR in December 1922, later becoming separate republics within the Union.
In this context, the Nagorno-Karabakh region was granted autonomy within Soviet Azerbaijan. In the early days of the Soviet Union, before its bureaucratic degeneration, workers’ power across the ethnic divisions allowed for peaceful coexistence between the peoples. No longer did feudal and capitalist interests decide the fate of the peoples of the Soviet Union.
As Trotsky explained back in 1922:
“That the Soviet policy in the Caucasus has also been correct from the point of view of nationalism, is best proved by the relations existing today between the Trans-Caucasian peoples.
“The epoch of Tsarism was characterised by barbarous nationalist pogroms in the Caucasus, where the Armenian-Tartar butcheries were periodical events. Those sanguinary outbursts under the iron rule of Tsarism were the expression of centuries of internecine struggles of the Trans-Caucasian peoples.
“The epoch of so-called democracy gave to the nationalist struggle a much more pronounced and organised character. In the beginning nationalist armies were formed, which were hostile to each other, and which often attacked each other. The attempt to create a bourgeois federal democratic Trans-Caucasian Republic proved a dismal failure. The Federation fell to pieces five weeks after its inception. A few months later the ‘democratic’ neighbours were quite openly at war with each other. This fact alone settles the question: for if democracy was as incapable as Tsarism of creating conditions for a peaceful cohabitation of the Trans-Caucasian peoples, it was evidently imperative to adopt other methods.
“The Soviet power alone has established peace and national intercourse between them. At the elections to the Soviets, the Baku and Tbilisi workers elect a Tartar, an Armenian, or a Georgian, irrespective of their nationality. In Trans-Caucasia, the Moslem, Armenian, Georgian, and Russian Red regiments live side by side. They are imbued with the conviction that they are one army, and no power on earth will make them move against one another. On the other hand, they will defend Soviet Trans-Caucasia against any and every external foe.
“The national pacification of Trans-Caucasia, which has been achieved by the Soviet revolution, is in itself a fact of enormous political and cultural significance. In it is expressed a real live internationalism, which we can safely put against the empty pacifist discourses of the heroes of the Second International, which are but a supplement to the chauvinist practices of its national sections.” (Leon Trotsky, Between Red and White, 1922)
Within the union of Soviet Republics – i.e. republics where the workers had come to power – there was no interest in fomenting ethnic conflict. On the contrary, it was in the interests of workers and peasants of all nationalities to come together in a general effort to build an economy that could provide for all. For a long period, peoples of different languages and religions could thus live together in peace and cooperation.
Unfortunately, as the revolution remained isolated within a single, relatively underdeveloped country, a process of degeneration set in, which saw the rise of a privileged, bureaucratic elite. It was the bureaucratic elite that rose to power under Stalin that would eventually rekindle ethnic tensions. As the economic and social conditions worsened towards the end of the Soviet Union, in particular in the latter part of the 1980s, the monster of ethnic conflict began to rear its head.
On account of the growing resentment towards the Azeri authorities, in 1991 a referendum was held in Nagorno-Karabakh with the aim of transferring the region to Armenia. The question, “Do you agree that the proclaimed Nagorno Karabakh Republic be a sovereign state, to independently determine the forms of cooperation with other states and communities?” received an almost unanimous “yes”. This in turn provoked attacks on Armenians living in Azerbaijan. On the day of the referendum, ethnic Armenians came under fire and 10 people were killed.
When in 1991 the Soviet Union collapsed and broke up into its component republics, leading to the return of capitalism, the region went through a devastating economic decline. Social conditions worsened dramatically, with a sudden surge in unemployment, rampant inflation, the destruction of the welfare measures that had previously existed, malnutrition among the poorer layers, etc. For a more detailed account of how this all impacted on Armenia, click here.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, war erupted between Armenia and Azerbaijan. In 1992, full-scale fighting was taking place. This ended in a deal in 1994, from which emerged the breakaway republic of Artsakh, controlling a part of what was historically known as Nagorno-Karabakh. That period of fighting led to the displacement of both ethnic Armenians and Azeris, preparing the ground for a long period of inter-ethnic tensions that would eventually lead to more wars.
War broke out once more in 2020, ending in November of the same year with a ceasefire between Armenia and Azerbaijan, brokered by Russia. In the deal, the Nagorno-Karabakh Armenian separatists were forced to give up control of a large part of their territory and hand it back to Azerbaijan, but the core of their self-governed region, including the city of Stepanakert, remained under their control. This rump – the Republic of Artsakh – remained separate and connected to Armenia via a Russian-controlled corridor.
This remaining enclave has now been wiped out, and almost the entire ethnic Armenian population that remained has fled to Armenia. Thus ends the right to self-determination of the ethnic Armenians of Azerbaijan. For a full account and thorough analysis of this process, see “Nagorno-Karabakh: the bleeding wound of post-Soviet nationalism”, published in October 2020, and “'Peace' in Nagorno-Karabakh: No stability under capitalism”, published in November 2020, and written by the Russian comrades of the International Marxist Tendency.
Utter hypocrisy of the West
What we wish to highlight here, in the context of the Ukraine war, is the utter hypocrisy of the West in matters of human rights, ‘democracy’ and so-called ‘national sovereignty’. When the Ukrainian army was pummelling the republics of Donetsk and Luhansk in the south-east of the country, it was allowed to get on with it without too much noise being made by the West, despite over 14,000 deaths. No sanctions were suggested for Ukraine when they were taking away the rights of Russian-speaking Ukrainians. And now we see the same thing playing out when it comes to the Azerbaijani government brutally attacking the surviving Armenian enclave in Nagorno-Karabakh.
The situation is particularly embarrassing for the European Union. US pressure has forced major EU countries to reduce imports of Russian gas and oil, which is hurting their economies. Germany in particular is feeling the pain, as are Italy, France and many East European members of the EU. In this context, Azerbaijan has been offering some welcome relief in terms of energy supplies, with SOCAR a state-owned company, significantly increasing its export of crude oil, liquid fuels, and natural gas to Eastern and Central European countries. Most of it is pumped through pipelines that go through Turkey and then on through Greece and other Balkan countries.
Azerbaijan had an average production of 685,000 barrels per day of crude oil in 2022 (about 0.7 percent of global production). It is particularly important for the EU for its gas production. Last year alone it produced 34.1 bcm [billion cubic metres], a significant part of which went to Europe. Within a few months of the Russian invasion of Ukraine in July 2022, a cooperation agreement was signed between the EU and Azerbaijan that included a near-doubling of supplies of gas to EU countries from 12 bcm in 2022 to 20 bcm by 2027.
Back in May of last year, Foreign Policy magazine published an article with the ominous title, “Azerbaijan Stands to Win Big in Europe’s Energy Crisis: That spells trouble in Nagorno-Karabakh”, which explained that, “Now, as much of Europe plans to sanction energy exports from Russia in the wake of its invasion of Ukraine, Azerbaijan has set its sights on exporting more gas to the continent.” But why did this spell “trouble” for Nagorno-Karabakh?
Well, it came just a couple of months after the European Parliament had passed a resolution “…strongly condemn[ing] Azerbaijan’s continued policy of erasing and denying the Armenian cultural heritage in and around Nagorno-Karabakh.” The resolution was in fact passed by a massive 635 votes to 2. The resolution went as far as condemning “historical revisionism and hatred towards Armenians promoted by the Azerbaijani authorities, including dehumanisation, the glorification of violence and territorial claims against the Republic of Armenia which threaten peace and security in the South Caucasus.”
So, one would think that the rights of the Armenian minority in Azerbaijan were in good hands now that the ladies and gentlemen that make up the European Parliament had expressed themselves in such unambiguous and firm language. Well, no… As the same Foreign Policy article explained, “Those condemnations, however, were shelved during the most recent round of high-level energy talks this month.” Those were the very same talks that led to the July 2022 deal referred to above.
As the saying goes “business is business, and friendship is friendship”… and it is a serious mistake to confuse the two. According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary definition, “business is business” means that “in order for a business to be successful it is necessary to do things that may hurt or upset people”. Indeed! With friends like the EU, who needs enemies?
As the Financial Times explained in an article on 21 September:
“Brussels condemned the 24-hour assault, which killed dozens and injured hundreds more and has prompted thousands of Armenian residents to seek evacuation amid fears of ethnic cleansing. But it puts the EU in a bind regarding what to do next. Despite Azerbaijan being an autocracy accused of widespread human rights violations, the EU has sought to cosy up to it in recent years, most notably to buy more of its gas (to replace the supplies it previously bought from Russia...” [My emphasis]
Thus, the people of the Republic of Artsakh have received a very harsh lesson as to the true value of the European Union’s idea of ‘defending human rights’. The people have lost their historical homeland, their homes, their jobs, their dignity as a people, all because European capitalism needs Azeri gas. What motivates the bourgeois establishment of Europe is not concern for human rights, but very crude economic factors, their own privileges, power and prestige.
An important additional factor is their fear of revolution at home. The war in Ukraine has greatly exacerbated the already serious economic and social conditions across Europe. The soaring costs of energy bills are placing unbearable pressure on millions of working-class families. Sooner or later, this will produce social turmoil and class struggle across the whole of Europe, and the ruling class are fully aware of this fact.
And what about the Russians?
But what about the old friends of the Armenians, the Russians? In an article in the Financial Times (28 September), a former village shopkeeper is reported as saying, “Our hopes rested on the Russians, they are our brothers. Why did they allow the Azerbaijanis to treat us this way?” A good question indeed, but the same logic applies here.
Putin cannot afford to open up a war in the region, which would mean committing large numbers of soldiers precisely when he needs to concentrate on Ukraine. Russia’s decision not to take any actions to stop the Azeri invasion, despite having 2,000 ‘peace-keeping’ forces on the ground, has revealed a weakness. And Erdogan in Turkey has taken advantage of the situation, backing the Azeri attack on what was left of the self-administered region in Nagorno-Karabakh. He felt he could back the move because of Russia’s commitment to the war in Ukraine.
This also explains a change in Armenian foreign policy. Until recently its government attempted to maintain a position of neutrality in the Ukraine war, trying to balance between pressures from the West on the one hand, and its reliance on Russia in its conflict with Azerbaijan on the other. Recently, however, they announced they were sending humanitarian assistance to Ukraine. Meanwhile, they are about to hold joint military exercises with the US, known as “Eagle Partner 2023”.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has reacted to this by reminding the Armenian government of the fate that awaits countries that have relied on the US. On this he is, of course, right. US imperialism uses small nations when it suits its interests. It is enough to see the fate of the Kurds of Syria, who were first praised as heroes and backed in their struggle against the Asad regime and ISIS, only to be unceremoniously dropped when backing them no longer suited the US.
But it is the realisation on the part of the Armenian government that they cannot rely on Russia to promote their own interests either, that has provoked this turn. The fact is that Russia’s interest in the region has changed. It has Ukraine to think of, and it has been making efforts to avoid getting into a direct conflict with Turkey and Azerbaijan. And the latter are fully aware of this. More room for manoeuvre has therefore opened up for them on this front.
Turkey considers Azerbaijan as falling within its own sphere of influence, and Putin has been using Turkey – a key trading partner of Russia – in his efforts to circumnavigate sanctions imposed by the US and the EU, something he has, incidentally, been extremely successful in achieving.
Azerbaijan is also important for Russia as a trade route towards Iran, India and beyond. Last year, a joint declaration was signed on 9 September 2022, between Russia, Azerbaijan and Iran, establishing an International North-South Transport Corridor. Russia’s Deputy Prime Minister, Alexander Novak, emphasising that the corridor is a key element in cooperation between the three countries, explained that:
“Full-scale use of the North-South potential will have a positive impact on the level of trade, the cargo flow, and the economic activity of our countries.”
“Among the primary objectives of joint activities as part of the working group, we propose to consider the construction of the Rasht-Astara railway section. This railway will ensure the growth of the cargo flow along the western corridor by up to 15 million tons,” he added. (see “Azerbaijan, Russia, Iran Sign Declaration on North-South Transport Corridor”). When Putin visited Iran last year, he explained that the plans involved a rail link connecting Russia to the Persian Gulf, and that Azerbaijan was part of this project.
What all this means is that Putin has abandoned the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh to their fate as he has more pressing interests at the moment. Lavrov is right in warning the Armenians not to trust the Americans. But neither can Putin’s Russia be trusted when it comes to the interests of small nations.
Small change for imperialism
Thus, we see how the people of Nagorno-Karabakh have been used as so much small change in the inter-imperialist rivalries in the region. The Europeans are interested in the flow of gas from Azerbaijan. The Russians need to keep trade routes open as part of their moves to avoid western sanctions impacting their own economy.
One day, they may raise their voices about this or that people whose rights have been abused, only to drop them as soon as it is no longer in line with their own strategic interests.
Yet again, we see how the rights of nations to self-determination cannot be guaranteed so long as the world is in the hands of the various national bourgeois ruling classes. They will defend the rights of a nation when doing so falls in line with their own interests. Thus, Biden makes a lot of noise about Ukraine, not because he is interested in the plight of the Ukrainian people but because he sees it as a useful tool in pushing back on the power of Russia. His aims are purely to weaken Russia globally. All the imperialist powers behave in this way. The Russian oligarchs behave in a similar manner, as does Chinese capitalism. No trust can be placed in the US government, in the EU, in Russia or in China when it comes to defending the rights of nations.
As the October Revolution of 1917 clearly demonstrated, the working class is alone in being devoid of material interests in the oppression of other peoples. The working class needs to come to power in all countries. Once the workers of all countries have control over the material resources, they will proceed to build a new order, one based on human needs and not on private profits. We must raise the voice of workers’ internationalism. It is the only way.