Nagorno-Karabakh: the bleeding wound of post-Soviet nationalism

The conflict that has erupted between Armenia and Azerbaijan is the bloody legacy of the collapse of the Soviet Union and the restoration of capitalism. This is a barbaric war with reaction on all sides. All the powers intervening in the conflict claim to be victims, but the only real victims are the working people, on both sides, who are paying with their blood for the cynical and reactionary games of their leaders. Only internationalism and class struggle can direct the workers against their true enemies: their own ruling capitalist class. This statement by our Russian comrades can be read in its original language here.

A new round of bloody confrontation in Nagorno-Karabakh serves as the most vivid reminder that history is not part of an abstract past, but a reality that is with us today.

In the 1980s, nationalism and the propaganda of hatred became the ram that the decayed bureaucratic cliques of Yugoslavia and the USSR used to fight their way to power and property in specific republics. The same took place in the case of Nagorno-Karabakh.

Genesis of the conflict

The armed struggle for Karabakh has long-standing roots. For many centuries, this region has been a place of peaceful coexistence of Armenian, Azerbaijani and Kurdish communities. In the first half of the 19th century, a weakening Persia found itself under pressure from Russian imperialism and lost this region during the war of 1826-28. The peoples of the Caucasus and Transcaucasia became a bargaining chip in the struggle of Russia and the Ottoman Empire for political, economic and cultural hegemony. At the same time, opposite processes were going on. On the one hand, in the cities, and above all in the largest industrial centre of the Transcaucasus, Baku, in a proletarian environment, the mixing and dissolution of ethnic groups and cultures took place; on the other, in the countryside, territorial delimitation began on ethnic and national lines.

The Ottoman Empire, which was often called the “Sick Man of Europe” at the time, was on the verge of collapse. The national liberation movement sharply intensified, both in the Balkans and in the East of the empire, in Greater Armenia. One of the leaders of this partisan war was Andranik Ozanyan, whom Trotsky called in one of his front-line reports “the hero of a song and a legend.” The worse things became for the Ottoman Empire, which, moreover, got involved in the World War in 1914, the more brutal repressions fell on the Armenian minority. In 1909, the Cilician massacre took place, and in 1915 a huge proportion of the Armenian population of the empire was destroyed during the genocide organised by the Young Turks.

Throughout this period, Armenian refugees from Turkey and Persia inhabited the rocky slopes of the Armenian Highlands, which led to a shift in the ethno-religious balance in the region and created an explosive situation there.

The leaders of the October Revolution knew how to solve this problem. Trotsky, who witnessed with his own eyes how the peoples of the Balkans who had lived together for centuries began to kill each other, put forward the slogan of the Socialist Federation of the Balkan peoples, which was fully applicable to the Caucasus and Transcaucasia. The multinational proletariat of Baku created the Baku Commune, which was headed by 26 Baku commissars, among whom were the Armenian Shaumyan, the Georgian Japaridze and the Azerbaijani People's Commissar of Agriculture Vezirov. Throughout its short history, the commune successfully fought the attempts of bourgeois nationalists to kindle an interethnic war in Transcaucasia.

In August 1918, Baku was occupied by British interventionists, who were rushing to the Baku oil fields. The Baku commissars were arrested by their puppets: Socialist-Revolutionaries and Mensheviks from the Central Caspian. Of course, the British imperialists were least of all interested in the fate of the peoples of the Transcaucasus, where they tried to follow their favorite principle of “divide and rule”. Already on 14 September, Baku was occupied by the Turkish army, and Armenian pogroms and massacres of civilians began in the city.

The result of these events was the Armenian-Azerbaijani war of 1918-1920, in which offensives and ethnic cleansing on both sides were punctuated by fruitless peace conferences organised by the British and American imperialist “peacekeepers”. As a result of the war, a number of regions of South Transcaucasia, but above all Nagorno-Karabakh, became an arena for the territorial segregation of Azerbaijanis and Armenians throughout the region.

The war ended only in the summer of 1920, when the Red Army entered Transcaucasia and finally removed from power both the Musavatists and the Dashnaks. However, the national situation turned out to be much more complicated than in 1916. Years of inter-ethnic wars and ethnic cleansing have not only generated enmity between peoples, but divided them geographically. In 1922, the fathers of the Federative Union of Socialist Soviet Republics of Transcaucasia faced a difficult task of transforming the patchwork map of the Soviet Transcaucasia into a federation.

The concept of ​​Lenin and Trotsky was completely correct, but the practical implementation of this project, for which the People's Commissariat for Nationalities Joseph Stalin was responsible, was questionable. Obviously, both subjective factors and pressure from the “friend” of the USSR – the leader of the Turkish Republic, Mustafa Kemal – played a role here. As a result of deals and compromises, the Armenian-populated Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Region became part of Azerbaijan.

Glastnost Image RIA NovostiThe conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan is the legacy of the collapse of the Soviet Union and the restoration of capitalism / Image: RIA Novosti

In the early years of Soviet power, this was not a problem. However, as the bureaucratic degeneration of the USSR progressed, the Azerbaijani bureaucratic elite, in which there was less and less Marxism and more nationalism, began to pursue a policy of cultural and political discrimination against the Armenian population of NKAO. Of course, each such episode provoked a sharp reaction from the leadership of Armenia, meaning Khrushchev, and then Brezhnev, were forced to act as moderators of these conflicts.

Glasnost (the period of ‘opening up’ to the west) became one of the first and most visible manifestations of Gorbachev's Perestroika (‘restructuring’, precipitating the collapse of the USSR). From the Stalinist point of view, it was glasnost and the resulting growth of national self-awareness that caused bloody interethnic conflicts. In fact, they were caused by the complete contempt for the interests of the working people, and the politics of the bureaucracy. Thus, in Stepanakert, where over 80 percent of the population were Armenians, television was broadcasting from Baku all day in... Azerbaijani. One can imagine what kind of irritation this caused in 1987-88, when the whole country watched public and political programs.

But even then, the interethnic conflict could have been resolved peacefully. Unfortunately, the party-economic bureaucracy at that moment was concerned with how to divide the USSR into its own specific principalities. In response to peaceful demonstrations and appeals, party bosses organised gangs of pogromists. The result of this policy were bloody pogroms in Sumgait and a new round of interethnic conflicts. After 1988, interethnic conflicts in Nagorno-Karabakh did not subside. The NKAO border became a front line, and with the collapse of the USSR in 1991, the armed conflict formally became a war between independent Azerbaijan and Armenia, which lasted more than six years in total. During this time, about 40,000 people died, and hundreds of thousands of civilians became refugees.

A new round

The war resumed on September 27 this year, when Azerbaijan launched a major offensive using heavy artillery, tanks and warplanes against Nagorno-Karabakh. Both Baku and Yerevan have bombed major cities, and it is estimated that civilian casualties are in the hundreds.

Military analyst Leonid Nersisyan told Nezavisimaya Gazeta last week that the scale of the fighting is unprecedented and that the military losses suffered in one day have already exceeded those of the 1992-1994 war.

In an address to the people on 4 October, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev said that his country would not stop its offensive until Armenia officially agrees to withdraw its troops from Azerbaijan. He also demanded a public apology from Armenia.

Iran announced a peace plan on Monday, offering itself as a mediator between the two warring parties. However, the Russian press reported that Baku and Turkey, which supports Azerbaijan, are preparing for a protracted war, into which Russia and Iran may be drawn in the future. Russia has an important military base in Gyumri (the 102nd military base) and serious economic interests in Armenia, so such a scenario may well be realised.

Imperialist interests in the region

Civilian home hit by rocketA civilian home hit by rocket

The war has serious consequences for Europe, Russia and the Middle East, as it directly intersects with the conflicts in the Middle East and North Africa, which have been fuelled by the imperialist powers over the past decades.

Due to its geographical location as a bridge between Europe, the Black Sea and the Middle East, the energy-rich Caucasus has long been a hot spot of imperialist rivalry. After the collapse of the USSR in 1991, religious and ethnic tensions in the region, which for decades escalated under the rule of the Stalinist bureaucracy, were systematically used by the imperialists, especially the United States and its allies, to advance their interests.

Turkish President Erdogan played a special role in fuelling the military conflict. After a long period of economic growth, Turkey's economy entered a period of crises and stagnation. The Turkish lira has depreciated more than three times over the past five years against the US dollar, which led to a drop in living standards. This is a consequence of Erdogan's liberal economic policy, which is inextricably linked to his political and religious agenda of Islamism and Pan-Turkism.

Over the years of economic growth, Erdogan has managed to undermine the once unshakable influence of the Turkish army on the life of society, but now the situation has changed. Erdogan is looking for a way to reconcile with the army elite. Due to the fact that the latter was brought up in the anti-Islamic spirit of Kemalism, Pan-Turkism remains the only point of contact. This is where the propaganda slogan “One people – two countries” comes from.

Erdogan needs a “small victorious war", which he, of course, wants to wage with someone else's hands. With such a development of events, the victory will go to him and the Turkish generals sitting in Baku, and the zinc coffins with the bodies of the soldiers will go to the Azerbaijani mothers.

And not only Azerbaijani. Reports that thousands of Islamist mercenaries from Syria and Libya are being transferred to the side of Azerbaijan were confirmed by French President Emmanuel Macron, who suggested that Islamist militants were penetrating the Caucasus through Turkey.

White House statements have so far left Washington's stance on the war unclear. The rapid escalation of the war in the Caucasus coincided with what could be called a “week of chaos in the White House,” when Trump publicly threatened a coup in November, followed by news that the US president and a number of White House officials were infected with the coronavirus.

Meanwhile, there are more and more calls from within France for the government to side with Armenia.

Iran, like Russia, refrains from an open position, insisting on negotiations and a ceasefire. According to some Russian media reports, anti-Armenian sentiment is on the rise in Iran, which has a population of 20 million ethnic Azerbaijanis, which is one fifth of the country's total population. The vast majority of them live in the north of Iran, which directly borders with Azerbaijan. An estimated 150,000 to 300,000 ethnic Armenians also live in Iran.

Both Turkey and Azerbaijan portray the war one of defense of the Muslim world and Muslim values ​​from the onslaught of Christian Armenia. This positioning cannot but cause a response and excitement in Russia, where peoples traditionally considered “Muslim” make up a huge proportion of the population in regions such as the Volga region and the North Caucasus. The large Armenian diaspora also occupies a prominent place in the economic and social life of our country. Without a doubt, the roar of shots and explosions in Armenian and Azerbaijani cities cannot but echo in the conversations and thoughts of people in Russia (especially those who have relatives and friends on one side or the other of this conflict).

Putin's policies are no less hypocritical. Russia has always had the political and military capability to resolve the situation in the Caucasus. But in order to keep Armenia in the zone of its political and economic influence, the smoldering conflict is beneficial to Russian imperialism. In this situation, Russia appears as the only “defender of the Armenian people”. Russia's passivity over the past weeks may be a kind of revenge on Putin’s part on Pashinyan for the 2018 velvet revolution. Putin wants to show that peoples who overthrow their presidents cannot count on his favor and protection. It seems Putin is continuing in the tradition of Nicholas I, serving as the “gendarme of Europe”.

In trying to pursue a cautious line, the Kremlin has reduced its official statements to a call for a ceasefire and talks between the two sides. Nezavisimaya Gazeta reports that Vladimir Putin and Foreign Minister Lavrov have taken matters into their own hands and do not want other officials to interfere in the negotiations.

An article published by the thinktank Russia in Global Affairs, whose authors are closely associated with the Kremlin, emphasises that the war in the Caucasus erupted on the fifth anniversary of the start of Russia's military intervention in the civil war in Syria, whose task was supposedly to contain Islamic terrorism (in fact, the protection of the imperialist interests of the Russian Federation), but now the war is in close proximity to the borders of Russia.

The Kremlin's main fear is that the war on its southern borders, and especially the presence of Islamist militants, could reignite protracted ethnic and religious conflicts within its own borders. North of Armenia, in the predominantly Muslim North Caucasus, the Kremlin fought two bloody wars against the Chechen separatist movement between 1994 and 2009 and, frankly, the conflict is paused rather than finished. No one can guarantee that even Ramzan Kadyrov, who is holding Chechnya by means of state terrorism, will not think about changing his rhetoric and loyalty in changed conditions. At the same time, the civil war in the east of Ukraine continues and retains its dangerous potential.

The Russian oligarchy, which arose out of the Stalinist bureaucracy that betrayed the October Revolution of 1917 and destroyed the USSR, has no reliable way out of the unfolding catastrophe.

What is to be done?

For the working class, the war between Armenia and Azerbaijan poses a tremendous danger on both sides, and the ongoing war has so far remained a central factor in the domestic politics of both countries. Firstly, this is expressed in the fact that the political elite of Armenia and Azerbaijan consists of people who have gone through the conflict or had a direct relationship to the NKR, like the former and current prime ministers of Armenia. And second, military rhetoric is used to justify repressive social and political measures.

The only way to end this war and prevent the threat of much broader ethnic and military conflicts is to fight for socialism and proletarian internationalism. This struggle must be deliberately based on the lessons of the struggle of Trotskyism against Stalinism.

Only an internationalist resolution of the conflict, through the creation of a socialist federation in Transcaucasia with guarantees of the return of refugees and freedom of the broadest ethno-cultural self-determination, can put an end to the bloody massacre. But for this, the soldiers on both sides must realise that, rather than killing each other for the interests of others, they must instead unite with their working brothers and sisters on the other side and turn their weapons against their true enemies: their own capitalists and foreign imperialists.

Until the socialist revolution cuts the Gordian knot of nationalism, people will continue to die, and the fall of bombs on Stepanakert and Ganja will be repeated again and again.

For the socialist federation of the peoples of the Caucasus!

For peace and brotherhood of working people!

For workers' democracy and international socialism!

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