Socialist Alternative

Nagorno-Karabakh: Self-Determination Sacrificed to Redraw Imperialist Map

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Rob Jones, Sotsialisticheskaya Alternativa (ISA in Russia)

The latest phase of the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh, the Armenian enclave in Azerbaijan, appears to have been concluded. Fighting which started at the end of September ended with a “peace agreement” on November 10 leaving thousands of soldiers and civilians dead and the map of the region significantly redrawn. Although Russian “peacekeepers” have been tasked with maintaining the agreement, none of the underlying problems have been solved, and there will be new conflicts in the future.

In what was almost a dramatization of the Marxist Law of combined and uneven development, World War One-style trench fighting was mixed with the use of modern high tech armaments, in particular drones. One reason why the war was quickly brought to an end was the placing of large bore artillery guns on the hillside overseeing Stepanakert, the capital of Nagorno-Karabakh, capable of raining fire down on the town and its inhabitants.

Azerbaijan regime celebrating

The Azerbaijan regime and its backer, Turkey are celebrating victory. Since the end of the 1994 war, the authoritarian regime in Baku has used the existence of the Armenian enclave as a scapegoat to divert the discontent of its own population at the widespread poverty in this oil-rich country. Problems were escalating before the conflict. With its economy highly dependent on hydrocarbon exports, the fall in oil prices had a devastating effect. To combat the coronavirus, the government took measures including a strict quarantine, but despite the closure of small businesses, economic aid has been minimal. Of the seven million in work, all but 1.6 million are precarious workers. Experts estimate that up to 20% are unemployed. One 67-year-old taxi driver told the “Institute of War and Peace Reporting” how he supported a large family: “We stayed at home so that we would not die from the virus. But how can we live with such hunger and thirst? My son is unemployed and I look after his children.”

Against this background President Ilham Aliyev was clearing out an older layer of government ministers and administrators replacing them with younger, “business orientated” figures. This came to a head in August when Ramiz Mehdiyev, the “gray cardinal” who helped Aliyev’s rise to power when his father died, but is now accused of being too friendly to Russia, was pushed out after his daughter and son-in-law breached isolation during their lavish wedding ceremony.

At least for now, victory celebrations are raging across the country, as voices opposed to the war are drowned out.

Azerbaijan gains and losses

The Azerbaijan regime is celebrating the capture of about a third of Nagorno-Karabakh itself including the second city of Shushi, as well as three large regions between Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia, that had been captured by the latter during the 1992–4 war. The human costs of this are huge.

Several thousands of Azerbaijanis are estimated to have lost their homes as a result of the fighting, but for Azerbaijan this is the tip of an iceberg. Hundreds of thousands of Azerbaijanis were “internally displaced” by the 1994 war. Many lived under canvas in refugee camps for over ten years. Now the regime wants to send significant numbers back to regions that have, in effect, been depopulated for thirty years.

Even before they do that, they have to restore the regions damaged in this war. Many people had to leave their homes, or are left living without windows and with makeshift roofs. Others have been evacuated to live in government buildings. The fighting prevented the harvesting of crops, and now the fields are full of shells. The government estimates that the restoration of the regions could take ten years and cost ten billion dollars.

The Azerbaijani government has regained from the Armenians control of its border with Iran, but has agreed to a corridor, protected by Russian troops, linking what is left of Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia. In exchange, it has gained a corridor across Armenia itself to the Azerbaijani enclave of Nachivan, giving Baku for the first time a direct, if limited, land route to Turkey, making trade and the supply of weapons much easier.

Anger in Armenia

While Baku is celebrating, Armenia is angry and in despair. It has lost the land it seized in the nineties between Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia, as well as part of the enclave. The Stepanakert government will now be accountable to Baku. The joint security agreement it had with Russia proved worthless, while it now has a corridor driven across its territory to Nachivan.

Tens of thousands of refugees are flooding into Armenia, burning their homes and shooting their cattle behind them. A couple of thousand have been sent back to Stepanakert, others who have relatives and links in Yerevan are sharing flats and, in some cases, even found work. But the majority face a desperate future. The government, reeling from Covid and the economic crisis will have real difficulties finding them accommodation and work. One volunteer described visiting a two-roomed flat in which five families were living. All she could see were “lots of kids’ eyes like mice in the dark”.

Angry demonstrations have rocked Yerevan, attacking the peace agreement and demanding the resignation of the Prime Minister, Nikol Pashinyan. At one stage storming the government house before marching on the Prime Minister’s residence, they attacked and left unconscious Ararat Mirzoyan, the speaker of the Parliament. One student explained why: “It’s our history, our culture, our soul that we’re losing. Not to mention the useless sacrifice of thousands of our men, killed or injured”.

Pashiniyan came to power in 2018 after widespread popular protests forced the former Premier Serzh Sargsyan out of office. Sargsyan, close to the Kremlin, was seen as corrupt and had tried to prolong his rule by forcing through a constitutional change. Pashinyan is a pragmatic populist. In power, he has tried to balance between the West and Russia, but annoyed Putin by lodging charges against Sargsyan and the former President and personal friend of Putin, Robert Kocharyan, for “overthrowing the constitutional order” and embezzlement.

Pashinyan has not handled the issue well. As the protests grew, he messaged how he couldn’t wait for the fighters to return from the front, so they could deal with those “barking at the walls”. Discontent at the deal within his party has led to top level resignations including that of the Foreign Minister. It is quite possible his government will have to resign.

The right of self-determination

Nagorno-Karabakh should have the right to self-determination. The only time it has even come close to this is in the first couple of years after Soviet power overthrew capitalism in the region, when the Bolsheviks proposed a series of four referendums for the population to decide their own fate. Clearly the majority wanted to be part of Armenia and that was agreed. Unfortunately, Nagorno-Karabakh became a victim to the bureaucratic approach of Stalin and his supporters in the Caucasus.

During the Soviet period it, along with the Union republics and other autonomous regions, experienced a general economic development while they all suffered from the bureaucratic repression of the Stalinist dictatorship. During this period, the percentage of Azerbaijanis living in Nagorno-Karabakh grew from 10% to 20%. The movement to return the enclave to Armenia during Gorbachev’s perestroika culminated in the 1992–4 war, which left the Azerbaijani population forced out from Nagorno-Karabakh and many Armenians driven out from Azerbaijan itself.

Nagorno-Karabakh became de-facto a separate republic allied to Armenia, although unrecognized internationally. Now as a result of the latest war, still Nagorno-Karabakh does not have the right to self determination, with part of its territory occupied and tens of thousands made refugees for no other reason than belonging to one ethnic group or another.

Why Nagorno-Karabakh and not Artsakh

In recent years Nagorno-Karabakh — the internationally recognized English name — has in Armenian circles often been referred to as Artsakh. Artsakh was the name of one of the Armenian kingdoms located in this region up till the twelfth and thirteenth century. Following a referendum in 2017 which turned the republic into a Presidential system, the name was changed. The catch is that the name “Artsakh” is often used to include those regions formerly populated by Azerbaijanis taken over by Armenia during the previous war. Recognizing the right to self-determination of Nagorno-Karabakh does not mean accepting that it has the right to take over other regions, which it has now lost back to Azerbaijan. Aliyev used this situation to whip up his campaign against the “occupation” by Armenia.

This point underlines several important aspects of the ISA’s position on the right to self determination.

  • Firstly, under capitalism there can be no genuine self-determination. This phase of the conflict started as the Baku government needed to divert attention from the economic crisis.
  • Secondly, only by replacing capitalism with genuinely democratic planned economies can there be any resolution, based on solidarity, unity and the equable allocation of resources, of the problems of housing and jobs needed to ensure sustainable self determination.
  • Thirdly, defending the right to self determination does not justify actions taken against other groups, whether minorities within the region or the taking over of land occupied by other peoples.

Response of the left

To their credit, left groups from both Armenia and Azerbaijan have spoken against the war, calling for joint action and explaining that the roots of the war lie in the greed and desire for power of the ruling elite.

“The Anti-war statement of Azerbaijani Leftist Youth” has been uncritically commented on by various left sites. Signed, it seems, by various NGO leaders, students and academics living abroad it is marked by an extreme contempt for ordinary Azerbaijanis, who are the “haters” whipped up by the ruling elite to hate “the hated”. They call for “Azerbaijani and Armenian youth to take the resolution of the conflict into our hands” to oppose further mobilization and the spreading of mutual hatred, a very important call, which they then diffuse by avoiding the very issue that has to be tackled — the removal from power of the very elites who have caused the war. Instead, they argue, the way to stop the war is through “peace-building and solidarity initiatives”.

Armenian feminists from “FemLibrary” make a much clearer call “Against war in Qarabağ”. They explain that “in an economic and political deadlock, Azerbaijan’s president Aliyev’s autocratic regime seems to have decided, once again, to play its last card of war and nationalism”, before going on to “call for global peace and demilitarization. For the abolishment of the colonial military-industrial complex and the arms trade, supported by heavy metal mining and fossil fuel industries. For a stop to heavy metal mining and fossil fuel burning worldwide.”

Calling for the right of self-determination for Nagorno-Karabakh, they bravely raise “the importance of all refugees’ right to return to their homes and their right for self-determination in conditions of demilitarization, societies’ detoxification from mutual hatred, mutual and solid guarantees of security, and restraint of fascist imperialist powers’ meddling in the region — Azerbaijani refugees from the 7 adjacent territories and Armenian refugees from Baku, Sumgait, Nakhichevan and other Azeri towns once populated by Armenians.”

In explaining how difficult it is to build a solid anti-fascist, pro-peace movement in the current conditions and given the past history of the region, they say the struggle should be “for decolonization should be coordinated with and maybe even preceded by overthrowing the dictatorships in Azerbaijan, Turkey and Russia.”

The weakness in their position however, is that they do not link this struggle against capitalism itself, instead calling “for solidarity and peaceful coexistence across borders, identities and classes”.

This weakness is underlined by their support for the right of refugees to return to their former homes, without explaining how this could be achieved. Jobs and homes that may have existed thirty years ago either no longer exist or are occupied by other people. A massive job creation and housing program to allow for the movement of 600,000 people is needed, which can only be financed if the economy is to be taken under public control and democratically planned. A failure to do this will just lead to further conflict as returnees demand their former homes back.

Role of imperialism in the conflict

The need to fight the dictatorships of Russia, Turkey and Azerbaijan identified by FemLibrary is not only correct, but it also underlines the complex interrelationship and growing conflict between the different imperialist powers, although the failure to include the need to oppose the Pashinyan government, as well as the maneuvers of US and EU imperialism implies that it is not capitalism itself that leads to such conflicts but “dictatorship”, and once “democratic” rule is established the problems will be solved.

Not only has this conflict been a proxy war between Turkey and Russia, the other imperialist powers are also actively engaged in the region. Even as Trump has been defeated in the Presidential election, Secretary of State Pompeo has visited Georgia, via Turkey to assure support for the Georgia-Azerbaijan-Turkey axis in opposition to Russia. US support for Georgia is not likely to change under the new administration as the country has a strong lobby within the Democratic Party.

Erdogan’s expansionism

It was only after the green light from Ankara that Aliyev decided to launch this new war. Erdogan’s regime has been sinking deeper into crisis. Even before Covid-19 hit Turkey, the economy was facing severe difficulties.

Under Erdogan’s rule, the Turkish economy has suffered dramatically from his unorthodox “neoliberal” policies. Initially, it benefitted from the quantitative easing programs of other countries that increased capital flows into Turkey, but this ceased before the 2017 constitutional referendum. The regime attempted to compensate for the shortfall by pumping in $73 billion of loans to prop up business, as well as an estimated $140 billion of reserves to support the Lira. As Erdogan became more authoritarian, the Central Bank lost its independence, breaching one of the key principles of neoliberalism. In a failed attempt to tackle inflation, in October 2018 the finance minister, Berat Albayrak, asked private retailers to cut their prices by 10%, whilst a year later he imposed limited curbs on currency trading.

These measures have not resolved any problems in the economy. The Lira has continued to fall by 30% in 2020, this has fed an inflation rate well above 20%. With the virus shutting down the tourist trade, many seasonal workers have returned to villages and are living in a desperate situation. Independent experts estimate unemployment to be at least 25%. This crisis came to a head in August with the resignation of Albayrak.

As ratings for Erdogan’s AKP party continue to fall, his reliance on the far-right Nationalist Movement Party as coalition partner is pushing him to step up reactionary patriotic propaganda with a more aggressive foreign policy — in the East Mediterranean, Syria, Northern Cyprus and Azerbaijan. Visiting Azerbaijan in August, Turkish Defense Minister Hukusi Akar promised “Azerbaijan is not alone. We will continue to support Azerbaijan in its just struggle. In the struggle of Azerbaijan for the liberation of the occupied lands, we, Turkey with a population of 83 million, are next to our brothers”.

In Turkey itself, this was matched by a very active media campaign in support of our “Azerbaijani brothers” and the idea that there is “one nation, two states” fed to a degree by growing opposition to Western policies and NATO. Azerbaijan’s victory is now celebrated to boost the regime’s narrative of becoming a regional power. This has been helped by the victory of the pro-Turkish candidate in the Northern Cyprus Presidential election in October. Of course, this celebratory mood was all the easier as it did not cost any Turkish lives, whilst in Azerbaijan, feelings were tinged by mourning for the losses.

The Kremlin loses influence

Yeni Masavat, the pro-government paper in Azerbaijan points out “Turkey has entered the stage of military involvement in the South Caucasus… The fact that Turkey is one of the key members of NATO, which is in fierce competition with Russia, has significantly changed the balance of power in the region. The Kremlin is beginning to realize that Russia is in danger of losing the South Caucasus, its regional hegemony is in doubt.”

This reveals the very complex and contradictory nature of the relations between imperialist powers. Turkey is increasingly a maverick member of NATO, with diplomatic conflicts growing, particularly with France. It is seen as acting unilaterally and as too friendly to Russia, recently buying anti-aircraft weapons from it. But for Russia, having a NATO member so close to its borders is itself provocative.

It can be argued that Russia has gained because it now has troops stationed in Azerbaijan, joining those in the other two Caucasian countries, Armenia and Georgia. But Russia has paid a high price for this.

Before the war, Russia balanced between Armenia and Azerbaijan and had regional hegemony. Its plan was to maintain the status quo in Nagorno-Karabakh, a useful tool for “divide and rule” in the Caucasus. Turkey was trying to muscle in to upset the balance with, not just diplomatic support, but also the supply of arms. When the Kremlin complained that Ankara was actively intervening, using mercenaries from Syria and Libya, it demonstrated its anger with an airstrike against pro-Turkish groups in Idlib, claiming they were training fighters for Nagorno-Karabakh.

But once Turkey intervened, Russia’s options were limited. If it allowed Azerbaijan to take over the whole of Nagorno-Karabakh and maybe even infringe on Armenia’s border, Azerbaijan would be fully under Turkey’s influence. If on the contrary, Russia had met its obligations under the security pact with Armenia with military opposition to Azerbaijan, it would also have pushed it further into Turkey’s grasp. Only when it became apparent that the Azerbaijan advance was progressing rapidly towards total victory was Russia forced to step in with its “peace deal”.

The argument that the Kremlin’s refusal to provide early assistance to Armenia was due to animosity between Putin and Pashinyan doesn’t hold water. Russia was putting its own interests ahead of those of its ally. Although economically, Azerbaijan and Turkey combined account for just 5% of Russia’s trade and increasingly Turkey has been rejecting oil and gas supplied by Russia in favor of that flowing through the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipelines, the economic and political cost of an open military conflict between Russian troops and Azerbaijan backed by Turkey would be phenomenal.

The cost to Russia

Russia has now lost a further part of its hegemony in the Caucasus. Not only does it have to share its influence in Azerbaijan with Turkey, it has lost face in Armenia as the security pact between the two countries proved worthless. This will echo around, and already seems to be affecting Russia’s other partners in the region. For now, its relationship with Belarus appears to have stabilized, but could, if it makes any wrong moves, quickly worsen. Moldova’s new “pro-EU” President started her first week in office with calls for Russian troops to be removed from the disputed region of TransDniestra.

To maintain its position in Azerbaijan, Russia has to finance another military contingent in the region and will probably lose out on arms sales. Even in this limited conflict, Azerbaijan’s technological superiority using Turkish drones was demonstrated as they destroyed several Russian made tanks used by Armenia. This at a time when the Russian budget is already very stressed, with at least one of its own Caucasian regions, Dagestan, on the verge of bankruptcy.

This outcome will further complicate the situation in Ukraine. Until this conflict, the OSCE’s (The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe) Minsk Group co-chaired by France, US and Russia was supposed to spearhead efforts to find a peaceful solution in Nagorno-Karabakh. Now Russia has pushed the US and France out of the equation. The situation in East Ukraine and Crimea is supposedly regulated by the Minsk II agreement with France and Germany. But now, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu has promised support for the return of Crimea to Ukraine with the statement: “We will continue to strengthen our relationship, especially in the areas of military cooperation and the defense industry”. This not only underlines the long term unsustainability of the current Nagarno-Karabakh agreement, but of the instability of this whole region caused by the intervention of the different imperialist powers.

Is there a way forward?

There are preconditions that need to be met if Nagorno-Karabakh, and for that matter Nachivan, are to have genuine self determination while the populations of both Armenia and Azerbaijan are to maintain their existence as independent republics.

Imperialist forces should be withdrawn from the region. But they will not just withdraw “if asked”. They need to be forced to do so by a mass anti-war movement, uniting workers and youth from both Armenia and Azerbaijan, with solidarity and support from anti-imperialist forces of the working class and oppressed in other countries.

Decisions should be made, not by military force and international bodies more interested in guaranteeing oil and gas interests, but by transparent negotiations conducted by the democratically elected representatives of the working people of the region.

This approach however is incompatible with the existence of capitalism itself. Imperialism is a form of capitalism, just as the authoritarian regime of Aliyev and the more democratic, but still corrupt Armenian regime serve capitalist interests. Conflicts between them are not just about power, but about who has the right to exploit the wealth of the region. The natural resources of the region, as well as major industry should be taken into public ownership under democratic workers control so they can be used for the benefit of all working people.

Only by the democratic planning of the economy in the interests of the people can the homes and jobs needed for the mass of refugees in the region be provided, allowing at the same time for a plan to be implemented to address the key environmental issues facing the region, whether the replacement of nuclear energy, the pollution caused by gold mining or other industrial pollution and deforestation.

With the economy developing in a sustainable way freed from the inequality, corruption and authoritarian measures that result from capitalism, for the first time the people’s and nationalities of the Caucasus will be able to discuss, negotiate and decide democratically how the region is governed, in a federation of voluntary and democratic socialist states, in which the right of self determination for those regions which want it can be assured, while guaranteeing the rights of minorities.

This may, at the current time, appear to be an unachievable goal, but it is the only way to prevent future conflict, poverty and ecological disaster in the region. Those who agree with this aim need to organize, seek new supporters and start the task of building a revolutionary socialist party capable of leading the mass movement to overthrow the rule of capitalism in the region.

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