National Sections of the L5I:

The War in Nagorno-Karabakh

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First published in Fifth International 21.
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The Southern Caucasus’ most recent conflict ended with Armenia and Azerbaijan signing an agreement to stop fighting in and around the territory of Nagorno Karabakh. The agreement came at the end of the seventh and most violent week of a war that led to thousands of civilian and military casualties, the displacement of 90,000 people, and significant spill overs on both sides of the Armenian–Azerbaijani border.

The signing of the agreement, which in acknowledging all of Baku’s territorial gains amounted to nothing less than an Armenian surrender, has postponed the next direct confrontation between major regional and imperialist powers. For weeks, the resurrection of this “frozen conflict” threatened such an escalation, with Turkey pledging its full support to Azerbaijan, and Russia’s position of neutrality looking less and less sustainable as its significant economic and military interests in Armenia became increasingly threatened.

The potential to drag in regional powers has, however, obscured the crucial dynamic at the heart of the conflict, which is the long-standing demand of the people of Nagorno Karabakh for independence from Azerbaijan. Whilst the agreement settles accounts, for now, between the two warring states, it will only intensify Karabakh’s struggle for self-determination as its breakaway Republic of Artsakh lays in ruins, with much of its population seeking refuge in Armenia and beyond, and what little autonomy it had enjoyed now replaced with ever greater subordination to Azerbaijan.

The recent war has demonstrated the inability of the ruling classes to peacefully settle the question of Nagorno Karabakh. On the contrary, it has shown that their only solution to the problem is conquest in the most violent and destructive form. Far from settling this question, ignoring Karabakh’s democratic rights leaves the return to war a real possibility. Equally importantly, the denial of this right will continue to harm workers both in Armenia and Azerbaijan, whose capitalist classes will continue to accumulate popular support as they pose as the defenders of the territory, whilst the growing protest and workers’ movements in both countries are derailed by the nationalist drive to war.

The invasion and Armenia’s defeat
On 27 September, Azerbaijani forces entered the territory of the Republic of Artsakh, the breakaway statelet formed during the course of the previous war. The stated objectives of the campaign were confused and incoherent, and often contradicted by Azerbaijan’s actual actions inside the territory. On the one hand, Azerbaijani president Ilham Aliyev claimed to be retaliating against Armenian artillery fire into Azerbaijan, attacks that Armenia claims were launched only after the invasion had begun. Simultaneously, however, Aliyev claimed to be liberating the “seven districts” of the Artsakh Republic which were never part of Nagorno Karabakh, but which were conquered in the 1990s. In attacking these areas, Azerbaijan claims to be reclaiming the homes of the hundreds of thousands of Azeris who were ethnically cleansed from these territories.

In the first few days of the war, many observers seemed to believe Azerbaijan’s claims, and predicted that the war would end once these territories were captured. Indeed, some of the early military advances seemed to vindicate this, as several villages in Fuzuli and Jabrayil (two of the seven districts) were captured. After what Armenia acknowledged as a “strategic retreat”, both districts became entirely occupied by Azerbaijani forces, which had also conquered the whole of Artsakh’s southern border with Iran, including the strategic E2 highway that runs alongside it.

Nonetheless, the advances in the southern districts proved somewhat marginal to the overall campaign which, casting serious doubt on Azerbaijan’s stated aims, focused primarily on areas of Nagorno Karabakh that have never had Azeri majorities. The capital city, Stepanakert, was shelled on the first day of the fighting, and was subject to continuous artillery and drone attacks thereafter. The city went into lockdown on September 27, with its 50,000 inhabitants being instructed to take refuge in the basements of the city’s apartment buildings. Whilst the authorities in Artsakh wanted to continue the lockdown, by 3 October most of the city had been evacuated, by which time much of the city lay in ruins from the aerial campaign.

Aerial attacks were also launched against Karabakh’s smaller settlements. The eastern town of Martuni was attacked by Azerbaijani artillery where, as well many of its inhabitants, two French and two Armenian journalists were injured. The town was often chosen as a base for journalists precisely because of its distance from Armenian military installations, and its perceived low strategic value as a target for aerial attack. To the south of Stepanakert, the town of Shushi, Karabakh’s second city, which was essential for the capture of the capital city in the previous war, was also shelled.

On September 29, territories inside the Republic of Armenia were attacked for the first time. The town of Vardenis, close to the border and with important transport links to Karabakh, was shelled. Two weeks later, seven unmanned aerial vehicles were shot down after having flown across the border into the outskirts of the town.

As well as shelling, significant territories in Nagorno Karabakh were captured in a ground invasion. Azerbaijani forces occupied the areas surrounding Karabakh’s principal northern town of Martakert, including the two roads leading out of the town, one of which is the central link between Karabakh and the Republic of Armenia.
Azerbaijani armed forces continued to bomb the town and, having completely encircled it, could enforce a blockade at any time.

Another ground invasion against Nagorno Karabakh has been launched from the south, from the districts of Fuzuli and Jabrayil captured in the first few days of the war. Here, the Azerbaijani forces advanced as far as the outskirts of Shushi, no more than nine miles from the capital, and captured the first towns inside Karabakh. Far from “liberating” these towns, the invading forces have subjected their inhabitants to extreme violence and breaches of international law. The town of Hadrut, the focal point of Azerbaijan’s invasion in the south, was attacked using cluster munitions, weapons which have little strategic value but are highly destructive and indiscriminate when used in civilian areas. After capturing Hadrut in early October, after several days on intense fighting, the army was filmed executing an elderly civilian and a soldier who had been defending the town.

The bombardment of Nagorno Karabakh’s towns and cities and the two-pronged invasion demonstrate much more clearly than Aliyev’s pronouncements the true character of this war. Instead of a war to reclaim the homes of ethnically cleansed Azeris, this is a targeted attack on a whole people for nothing more than their desire to become independent. The Azerbaijani government’s concern for the victims of the previous war, who live in appalling conditions in the country’s major cities, extends only as far as it can cynically use them as cover for its aggression against the people of Karabakh.

Their actions in the conflict show that the true objectives of the Azerbaijani ruling class in Karabakh have always been to conquer the territories, demographically engineer the region through ethnic cleansing, and put to rest forever the aspirations of an independent Artsakh.

This was put beyond doubt with the final capture of Shushi by Azerbaijani forces, which proved to be the trigger for Armenia’s subsequent surrender. The town was captured after several days of fighting. As well as its importance as a population centre in its own right, its proximity and elevation above Stepanakert forced Armenia to negotiate a halt to Azerbaijan’s advance.

The terms of the agreement state that Azerbaijan will be granted all of the seven districts, as well as all of the territory of the former Nagorno Karabakh that it captured in its invasion. Indeed, the agreement contains all manner of requirements on Artsakh and Armenia which have nothing to do with the seven districts or the displaced refugees. For instance, they have to open a transport corridor between Azerbaijan and its own western exclave of Nakhchivan. Azerbaijan has announced that it will resettle its new territories with Azeris, so the future of those forced out in the past weeks looks far from certain.

What next for the Republic of Artsakh?
For the last 26 years, the great part of the territory of Nagorno Karabakh has been part of the Republic of Artsakh, the breakaway entity composed of the territories captured by Armenian forces in the 1988–1994 war. Artsakh’s borders correspond only very roughly to those of Nagorno Karabakh, the former autonomous region of Azerbaijan. Small parts of Nagorno Karabakh’s North and East were never captured by Armenian forces and thus have remained under the control of Azerbaijan, whilst seven previously Azeri-majority districts surrounding Nagorno Karabakh, connecting the former Autonomous Oblast to Armenia, formed over half of Artsakh’s territory.

No foreign government recognises Artsakh’s independence, despite the fact that it won practical de facto independence during the war in the 1990s. Artsakh’s lack of recognition has kept it in a permanent state of uncertainty, as immense international pressure prevents its integration into Armenia. It has its own parliament and legal system and is cut off from Armenia economically by the threat of sanctions against trade with the Republic.

One area in which it did integrate significantly with Armenia was defence, to the point that most of the troops in its armed forces are recruited from the Armenian army, and that it is operationally dependent on Yerevan. This has significantly complicated the war and also allowed Armenia to transform the Artsakh Defence Army from a defensive force into an instrument for Armenia in its rivalry with Azerbaijan, operating in the interests of Armenia rather than of Artsakh when the two collide. This was demonstrated with Armenia’s attacks on civilian areas inside of Azerbaijan, focused around the second city, Ganja, which was attacked four times after 4 October. This is part of a broader pattern in which Armenia has taken steps which prolong and escalate the conflict, rather than seeking to find a sustainable solution. For instance, it did not allow the exiled Azeris to return, and it made no serious attempts to negotiate a settlement with Azerbaijan before the war.

Beyond its isolation and precariousness, however, it is the constant threat of conquest that has been the most damaging consequence of Artsakh’s lack of recognition. The most recent of several flare-ups that the region had to endure was in 2016 when Azerbaijan won a small but decisive victory in a four-day conflict mostly along the line of contact. The Azerbaijan army conquered a small amount of territory, while Armenia claimed to have prevented a full-scale invasion of Nagorno Karabakh. As with the current war, however, the area’s towns were attacked on both sides leading to the deaths and displacement of civilians.

Artsakh’s status as an exceptionally precarious, unrecognised statelet under constant threat of invasion lies completely at odds with the expressed will of its inhabitants. Their intention to secede has been stated clearly on multiple occasions. In 1918, the local Soviet passed a resolution demanding its transfer to Armenia, which was thoroughly endorsed three years later in a referendum. The Soviet authorities only allowed the resolution and referendum to happen under immense pressure from Karabakh’s civil society, which had become overwhelmingly in favour of independence.
Nonetheless, despite a continued widespread desire to split from Azerbaijan, its democratic referendum has never been acknowledged.

With the recently agreed deal, Artsakh is reduced to a province of Azerbaijan whose minimal autonomy looks increasingly insecure. In the first instance, its territory has been reduced not only to a fraction of its previous borders, but also to a fraction of those of the former Nagorno Karabakh Republic. Furthermore, the territory will become entirely separated from Armenia. Unlike Armenia with the Nakhchivan exclave, Azerbaijan will not be required to provide a transport corridor connecting Karabakh to the rest of Armenia.

Furthermore, the territory will be subject to the occupation of Russian troops, who will police resistance to the Azerbaijani peace, and almost certainly replace the Armenian forces currently in the area.

International responses
Few states openly supported Azerbaijan’s invasion, with most instead pledging neutrality and calling for negotiations between the two sides. One striking exception was Turkey, which decisively backed Azerbaijan under the principle of “one nation, two states”, the ideological framework for their longstanding alliance referring principally to the countries’ related languages and shared “ancient enemies”.

In terms of concrete support, Turkey has sent thousands of mercenaries from Syria into Azerbaijan to help with the campaign. Both Azerbaijan and Turkey repeatedly denied the presence of such fighters, but this has since been confirmed, with evidence of their mobilisation piling up in the first weeks of the conflict. In turn, both countries have accused Armenia of using mercenaries of its own from the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, PKK, but, as of now, no evidence to support this has been produced. The transfer of at least 1,000 mercenaries to Azerbaijan has been confirmed, but some reports suggest the figure could be as high as 4,000. The fighters being brought into the region are contracted by private Turkish security companies with close links to Erdogan and the state, who organise their transport. The fighters were recruited exclusively from three affiliates of the Syrian National Army (formerly the Free Syrian Army), including one Syrian-Turkmen division, and some of the mercenaries had recently returned from fighting in Libya. Unlike in Libya, however, it is reported that the Syrian mercenaries are being integrated into the units of the Azerbaijani military, with almost all serving at the line of contact, or inside Karabakh’s borders.

Outside of Turkey, responses of overseas governments are marked by their apparent reluctance to firmly side with either Armenia or Azerbaijan. In contrast to Ankara, each major international and regional power has called for an end to the violence and for a negotiated settlement to the conflict. The United States, France, and Russia have pointed to their joint chairmanship of the OSCE Minsk Group, the organisation in charge of peacekeeping in the region, which binds them, legally, at least, to neutrality in the conflict.

In reality, however, Russia owes its neutrality to the links it has developed with the Azerbaijani ruling class. Whilst it supported Armenia in the previous war, Azerbaijan proved itself an invaluable servant to Moscow during the war in Chechnya that took place just years later. It obediently polices its border with Russia’s volatile Northern Caucasus in line with Russian demands and has increased its economic and military alliances with its northern neighbour in recent years.

Russia was pushed further towards Azerbaijan by the ‘Velvet Revolution’ of 2018, a ‘colour revolution’ in which Armenia’s pro-Moscow Prime Minister was forced from power. The revolution returned a bourgeois government without any particular hostility to Russia itself, as the security apparatus was left largely untouched by the uprising. Nonetheless, Russia has been eager not to allow the removal of a key ally to set a precedent for other former Soviet States.

Another factor that explains Russia’s position was its desire to be part of any post-war settlement agreed by the two parties, and to ensure that any such settlement did not undermine its interests in the region. As Russia was lobbying the two states to take part in its proposed negotiations in Moscow for the first ceasefire, Aliyev issued Russia an ultimatum threatening their exclusion from any such talks. He said Azerbaijan would block Russia’s involvement if it continued what he described as the “change in the position [of its] neutrality” in the conflict, warning against any potential support to Armenia. Indeed, Russia took note of this warning, and in exchange for its non-opposition to Azerbaijan’s invasion, Aliyev took part in the Russian-brokered talks that led to the final deal, agreeing to let Russia station troops in Nagorno Karabakh, and allowing them to veto Turkey’s demands to do the same.

Russia’s close relations with Armenia did not translate into extensive support for its operations in Karabakh. It was willing to stay out of the conflict, even in the face of Azerbaijan’s substantial advances deep inside of the Armenian-held territory. It is likely that Russia is willing to let its new ally in Baku capture parts of Artsakh in exchange for a commitment not to touch Armenia itself, where Russian interests are far greater. Even before the final agreement was signed, it suggested that it could back the return of Artsakh’s seven districts to Azerbaijan as part of a final settlement to the conflict.

Whilst Russia’s relations with Azerbaijan mean that it remained neutral on the question of the invasion of Artsakh, the resumption of war and its spread into Armenia could change its position, potentially transforming the conflict into an inter-imperialist war. Whilst Armenia has by and large found itself without international support in Nagorno Karabakh, Russia has confirmed it will have the full support of its military should Yerevan come under attack. Furthermore, in the aftermath of the third failed ceasefire and the war’s increasingly common spill over into Armenia, Russia set up a military outpost in the town of Tegh, on the border with Artsakh.
Located on the Armenian side of the Lachin corridor connecting Nagorno Karabakh, the base sends a clear message that its hands-off approach will come to an abrupt end should the fighting spill over across the border.

The difference in Russia’s positions on Artsakh and Armenia is the result of the sheer scale of its interests in the latter which, unlike the breakaway republic, has been directly subordinated economically and militarily to Moscow. Russia controls all or part of Armenia’s telecommunications, banking, energy, gas, metal production and railways, and is by far its largest foreign investor.

Additionally, Russia operates a military base in the country’s second city, Gyumri, and holds a series of military agreements with Armenia that would give it significant control over the country’s military should Armenia call for its intervention. Whilst Russia sells arms to both sides, it is by far the largest supplier to Yerevan, providing it with fighter jets, tanks, and mobile anti-aircraft units, all of which it receives at heavily subsidised prices paid for with Russian credit, neither of which is offered to Baku.

Russian-Armenian relations are, therefore, exceptionally uneven, and Moscow’s economic and military domination of the country afford it huge political influence as well. It has used this not only to extract wealth from Armenia’s industries, but also to dictate the terms of its relations with other countries. Specifically, it has consistently stood in the way of economic cooperation between Armenia and Iran, most recently vetoing a proposed pipeline that would have been built between the two countries and reduced Armenia’s energy dependence on Russia.

As with Russia, the United States’ apparent neutrality reflects a sense of confidence that its imperialist interests are not yet threatened by the fighting. The entrance of the Russian army into the territory, however, whilst de-escalating the war for now, could prompt the U.S. to intervene and lobby Azerbaijan to expel the troops. Its interests are extensive in the region, and it is hardly likely to welcome the Russian taskforce, for reasons its former ambassador to the country Matthew Bryza explained quite clearly:

"Traditionally the United States has had a lot of interest in what happens in the South Caucasus and particularly in the Nagorno Karabakh conflict, for a lot of reasons, beside not wanting to see loss of life, there is strategic infrastructure that passes from Azerbaijan, near Nagorno Karabakh, into Turkey and onward to Europe. This is energy, oil and gas pipelines, driven largely by BP by the way; it’s rail transport, road transport, it’s an air corridor that the U.S. relied on during the war in Afghanistan and there are fibre-optic cables, so there are interests at play [...] If the U.S. is not there to participate, there’s a vacuum [...] that vacuum I think is being filled as we speak by Russia and Turkey."

Although more dependent on the support of Turkey and the United States, Azerbaijan’s largest arms supplier is, in fact, Israel. Relations between the two countries developed rapidly after the end of the war in 1994, as Azerbaijan began to supply Israel with oil, and the two states shared a common hostility to Iran. Azerbaijan’s military operations would be significantly weaker without Israel, which sells it a range of weaponry including the drones it used to carry out strikes in Nagorno Karabakh.

All in all, the deal represents a general shift towards Azerbaijan from the international community and, consequently, an increasingly isolated Armenia. Although it is generally considered the victor of the previous war, the consequent abolition of diplomatic relations, and the extensive sanctions each country places on nationals of the other, have intensified the competition between the two states, with Armenia generally coming off worse.

The tensions between the two countries have prevented their joint participation in regional infrastructure projects, forcing capital to choose between the two and, as a petroleum state with a more strategic geo-political location, Azerbaijan is gradually commanding more power. Since the war, the two major infrastructure projects have bypassed Armenia completely, with both the transport corridor and the lucrative Baku-Ceyhan pipeline diverted north of the border.

Since the opening up of the two countries after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Azerbaijan has found itself with much more to offer global capital than Armenia has.

A diversionary war?
That such an invasion has begun now is the result of an accumulation of developments in both Azerbaijan and Armenia, and outside the region. Naturally, a significant factor is the precarious position of Azerbaijan’s ruling class, particularly in the context of new sustained protest movements in other former Soviet States such as Belarus and Russia, as well as its Middle Eastern neighbours like Lebanon and Iraq. This already precarious position is amplified by the economic and health crises developing in both countries as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.

Azerbaijan finds itself under particular pressure from a developing protest movement of its own. This movement exploded in the revolutionary year of 2011, in which anti-government protests lasted for six months. Since then, right-wing nationalists have taken to the streets more often, as recently as the summer, one of their principal demands on the government being the reconquest of Nagorno Karabakh.

The jingoist demand for war in Karabakh echoes the politics of the Azerbaijan Popular Front, a declining but influential conservative and pan-Turkic oppositional party which held the presidency for a year during the 1988-94 war. The Popular Front uses its pan-Turkism, which is expressed in its solidarity with the Azeris in Iran, its uncompromising support for Turkey’s military campaigns in Syria and elsewhere, and its hatred of Armenians.

What the Azerbaijani government is equally afraid of, however, is the return to a mass protest movement like that of 2011, and one which focuses its attacks on the corrupt and oligarchic ruling class and the bosses, rather than Armenians in Karabakh. It fears this so much that it has come down heavily on what little anti-war activities there have been in the country. The day after the invasion, security services arrested anarchist and peace activist Giyas Ibrahimov for nothing more than posting anti-war comments on social media. As well as this, Bahruz Samadov, a founder-member of the newly formed group called the Azerbaijani Leftist Youth, reported receiving death threats after the group published a statement opposing the war and the government.

Armenia faces a dynamic which is not too dissimilar itself. The protest movement there managed to overthrow the autocratic government led by then Prime Minister Serzh Sargsyan in 2018.

But, despite the mobilisation of as many as a quarter of a million people, this was a limited victory. The revolution handed the premiership to Member of Parliament Nikol Pashinyan and, whilst democratic victories were won, the business and security infrastructure was left intact.

The threat, that the forces on the street that put Pashinyan into power will demand a completion of the revolution, similarly pushes Armenia into a drive for war, and to escalate that to the point where the rivalries between the two states almost eclipse the struggle for self-determination in Karabakh. The new government is effectively using war as a tool to legitimate itself and to divide the forces that brought it to power. It escalated the war with the bombing of Azerbaijan’s towns and cities. With Armenia’s defeat, Pashinyan’s government faces the full force of this resurrected protest movement which stormed the parliament and hospitalised the Speaker on the day the agreement was announced.

It was, indeed, the escalation that saw anti-war movements in Azerbaijan so marginalised and the protest movements so absent as the war was ongoing. As the Azerbaijani Leftist Youth point out in their statement, there is a growing consciousness and resentment that funds are being diverted from healthcare, education, and welfare towards military expenditure, but the ruling class has successfully managed to use the question of Nagorno Karabakh to cover itself and justify the decimation of the welfare state. Breaking with the state on its drive to war is the first step towards fighting it on social and economic issues.

The long struggle for self-determination
The ruling classes’ cynical weaponisation of the Nagorno Karabakh question is certainly not the first time that the region’s future has been subject to the interests of those outside its borders. Its original assignment to the Azerbaijan Soviet Republic in 1921 was a decision made by the Soviet Union’s Caucasus Bureau (Kavburo), which based its decision on strategic and geo-political considerations, rather than the wishes of the people who lived in Karabakh.

The Bolsheviks controlled Karabakh for about seven months before taking power in the territories of the rump Armenian state that was administered by the Allies after the First World War. Karabakh, as well as the province of Zengezur in present-day Armenia, were provisionally under the authority of the Baku Soviet, with an understanding that their long-term status would be decided once the Bolsheviks took power across the rest of the Southern Caucasus. The eventual downfall of the Allied administration in Armenia finally allowed the Bolsheviks to settle the question of whether Karabakh should remain in Azerbaijan or join the newly established Armenian Soviet Socialist Republic.

In the first of two meetings held in the first week of July 1921, Kavburo decided to assign Nagorno Karabakh to Armenia, considering above other factors its clear Armenian majority. This decision was reversed under suspicious circumstances several days later, when the Kavburo met again. It is widely speculated that the Soviet authorities were unnerved by the prospect of alienating the Azeri working class, and that they were willing to use Karabakh’s status to pursue good relations with Turkey’s Mustafa Kemal. It is equally commonly speculated that the reversal of the Kavburo’s original motion was the result of a personal intervention from the Commissar for Nationalities, none other than Joseph Stalin. Whilst this remains speculation, what we do know from Stalin’s correspondence is that he was willing to exploit the fairly widespread anti-Armenian sentiment in the Caucasus in order to consolidate his authority amongst the other nationalities.

It did not take long before Nagorno Karabakh’s “autonomy” within Azerbaijan was exposed as a sham. Far from exercising power independently of Baku, the Oblast was denied even the functions of local councils, with basic services being run by neighbouring provinces in Azerbaijan, who would often use the funds collected from, and intended for, the people of Nagorno Karabakh, for their own services. The largest factories of the Oblast, as well as the health department, construction and press, were all run by bureaucrats in Azerbaijan’s provincial governments. The Azerbaijan Soviet Republic would routinely take resources from Nagorno Karabakh in order to meet the planning targets of the Azeri provinces.

All of this came to a head in 1964 when the Karabakh Soviet detailed these conditions in a petition to Nikita Khruschev. They demanded that the area’s systemic marginalisation, and the denial of its functions as an autonomous oblast be overturned but stopped short of calling for the Oblast’s transfer to Armenia. When this petition was rejected, protests took place regularly, not stopping until the war, over two decades later.

At the same time, Azeri nationalism became increasingly institutionalised in the Azerbaijan Soviet Republic. Armenians faced discrimination, especially in regard to housing and education. The conditions in the education system, for example, were so oppressive that eventually more Azerbaijani Armenians chose to study in Armenia than in their home republic.

Despite a climate of growing nationalism in the Caucasian Soviet Republics, those struggling for greater autonomy generally saw their struggle as one for social and economic rights; a romantic or chauvinistic Armenian nationalism can scarcely be found in any of their materials. Indeed, there are significant cultural and linguistic differences between Armenians in Karabakh and those in Armenia and demands for Karabakh’s transfer were far from limited to the region’s Armenians, but were also supported by the region’s minorities, especially Russians.

The oppression of Armenians began to escalate much more drastically in the late 1980s. Gorbachev’s glasnost allowed independent political organisations to operate across the USSR, and in Azerbaijan it was bourgeois forces like the Popular Front that filled the vacuum. They capitalised on the extreme levels of discontent amongst the Azeris, who were amongst the poorest people in the USSR. The Popular Front channelled this discontent into the hands of the bourgeoisie and, with the help of the Azerbaijan Soviet Republic, instigated pogroms in Azerbaijan’s major cities. Amidst the pogroms, and a more general growing chauvinism against the Armenians, Nagorno Karabakh finally declared its independence from Azerbaijan and its intention to merge with Armenia.

A full-scale war over the territory began and escalated with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the independence of the states of the Southern Caucasus. The dynamics of the war quickly changed as Armenian forces began to take land. The war became less about the fate of Nagorno Karabakh, as local political actors were sidelined by the Armenian military, who used the conquest of Karabakh to win legitimacy from the workers at home, the same workers they were betraying with privatisation, factory closures and job cuts.

Much of the war took place in what would become known as the seven districts, the Armenian-controlled territories that surround Nagorno Karabakh. Although these areas had significant Armenian minorities, they almost all had Azeri majority populations who were ethnically cleansed and have been allowed neither the right to return to their homes, nor full social integration nor economic justice in Azerbaijan.

No peace agreement was ever signed between the two sides, but they did agree a ceasefire in 1994, known as the Madrid Agreement, which, until September this year, had stopped the return to prolonged war. The basis of the agreement was that Armenia would withdraw from the parts of the seven districts to the south of Karabakh’s border, and in exchange an independent state consisting of Nagorno Karabakh itself, and the western districts connecting it to Armenia would be recognised. Neither side has followed through on these principles and until this year’s war, 26 years later, the line of contact has remained largely unchanged.

Should Marxists support the demand to recognise Artsakh?
Since the start of the conflict, demonstrations in solidarity with Nagorno Karabakh have mobilised around the world in spite of coronavirus restrictions. The largest has been in Los Angeles, where 35,000 people protested outside the Turkish consulate, and smaller demonstrations have been reported in Boston, San Francisco, Moscow, Beirut, Berlin, and London. These protests have largely been led by the Armenian diaspora, whilst socialist organisations have generally been reluctant to back either “side”.

A demand raised consistently by the solidarity demonstrations is for governments around the world to give official recognition to the Republic of Artsakh, using the slogan “Recognise Artsakh”. Activists lobbying governments have generally only made any progress where their efforts have been supported by a large Armenian diaspora with business owners and politicians of their own. The lack of widespread recognition of the Republic has concrete consequences for the inhabitants of the region and presents a question that socialists must be able to answer: What should be the future status of Nagorno Karabakh?

The starting point in finding an answer to this question has to be the understanding that the population of the district, some 180,000 people, are Armenians and their rights are derived from the right of the Armenian people to national self-determination. Like many of the oppressed peoples of the Tsarist empire, the Armenians did not live in a single compact territory and, therefore, the right to self-government cannot be expressed in a single centralised administration. The other side of this coin is, of course, that the territory that surrounds Nagorno-Karabakh and separates it from Armenia has itself long been the home of Azeris who have the same rights as any other nationality.

Since two nations cannot both claim exclusive rights to the same territory it is clear that there are grounds for conflicts of interest. However, the two communities, now nationalities, have lived in the region for hundreds of years and so co-existence is not impossible. The immediate source of conflicts, in fact, of wars, in recent decades is to be found in the policies of the ruling classes of Azerbaijan and Armenia, both of which, at different times, have tried not only to extend their own territory into this disputed region but to provoke disputes in order to deflect popular discontent at home.

As a result, the varying fortunes of the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh are a reflection of the balance of power between the rival bourgeoisies of Azerbaijan and Armenia. Indeed, the existence of Nagorno-Karabakh is itself the product of this rivalry, rather than of a separate struggle for national independence. That is why, whenever its people have had the opportunity to vote on the question, they have voted to be part of Armenia. It is the denial of that right by successive Azerbaijan regimes that has created the circumstances in which the right to self-determination can only be expressed in the form of a declaration of independence, as the Republic of Artsakh.

Marxists, indeed, any consistent democrat, should support that right. At the same time, the citizens of Artsakh cannot wish themselves out of their material circumstances and that means that the independence of the republic, in practice, is highly circumscribed. Moreover, in supporting the rights of the Armenians we should not lose sight of the rights of the majority Azeri population in the territories between Artsakh and Armenia who were forcibly displaced in earlier wars. Just as we support the right of return of those who have recently fled to Armenia, we support the same right of Azeris to return to the “seven districts” from which they were driven.

Support for the rights of all nationalities, however, should not be understood to mean that the achievement of national independence would resolve the problems of the region. On the contrary, Marxists hold that national questions must be settled in order to properly advance the class struggle. In a context such as the Southern Caucasus, the national question dominates political life to the point where workers and oppressed groups see themselves as having a common interest with the propertied classes of their own nationality rather than as classes with quite different interests. Consequently, there are immense pressures to put the class struggle ‘on hold’, and rally behind the ruling class, which presents itself as the defender of the ‘national interest’.

This is not only true amongst the oppressed nations. As Engels said, “a nation cannot become free and at the same time continue to oppress other nations.” By this he meant that the working class in the ruling nation is bought off, ideologically, by their ruling class, who use the glory of the nation and its domination of other nationalities to replace the class enemy with the national enemy.

It’s only once the workers can break with this ideological thinking that they can begin to prosecute the class struggle effectively.

It is particularly clear in regions where two nationalities claim the same territory that nationalism cannot resolve disputes, whatever is satisfactory to one side will be seen as a grievance by the other.
That is why defence of the rights of all nationalities is only the
starting point for the socialist programme whose strategic goal is the social ownership of all the major means of production and communication under a government based on councils elected by the workers and farmers themselves, irrespective of nationality.

In the immediate aftermath of the war, with widespread destruction and a wave of refugees fleeing to Armenia, just as, previously, Azeri refugees had to flee to Azerbaijan, socialists must uphold the principle of the right of return and respect for the rights of all communities. In both Azerbaijan and Armenia, they must oppose government policies which exacerbate the situation and demand material support for reconstruction which should be under the control of the respective communities. They should themselves coordinate their actions and demands, emphasising the common interests of the workers and farmers of the whole region by developing an action programme that links the immediate and democratic demands with the overthrow of the ruling classes of both nations and the formation of workers’ and farmers’ governments committed to the only fundamental solution to the conflict: a Federation of Workers’ Republics of the South Caucasus.