The latest flare-up in the long-running dispute between Azerbaijan and Armenia over Nagorno Karabakh started just over a week ago, on 27 September. Dozens have been killed and hundreds wounded, in and around the enclave, but it has also taken on regional and even global dimensions.
The so-called ‘autonomous enclave’, with a population of less than 150,000, is high up in the Caucasus mountains, surrounded by Azerbaijan. A major conflict developed over control of the area between Armenia and Azerbaijan, in 1988, as President Gorbachev introduced reforms – ‘Glasnost’ (Openness) and ‘Perestroika’ (Restructuring) – aimed at preventing the collapse of the Soviet Union.
At the time, Peter Taaffe, editor of the Militant newspaper, in Britain, wrote an article entitled, ‘Splits at the top, upheavals from below’. There had been two demonstrations in Armenia involving one million protesters – more than a quarter of the population. The threat of general strike action and an actual strike in Nagorno Karabakh of more than a month extracted a promise from Gorbachev of the investment of a vast sum of money into the economy of this, “the smallest of the 15 republics of the ‘Soviet Union’”. “Concessions”, Peter Taaffe wrote, “May temporarily mollify the Armenians, but they will not solve the central denial of the democratic right of the population of Nagorno Karabakh to determine its own fate.”
Five years of fighting followed, with over 30,000 dead and one million displaced – the majority Azeris. A peace agreement, brokered by a number of European powers, was eventually signed in Minsk in 1994. Legally, control of Nagorno Karabakh was to be accorded to Azerbaijan, but the Armenian majority in the enclave continued to administer it, and some Azeri territory between the enclave and Armenia itself was also occupied.
Nagorno Karabakh is also one of the world’s oldest so-called ‘frozen conflicts’. Sporadic fighting can break out at any time. A five-day war in 2016 saw hundreds of deaths. In July of this year, at least 16 people were killed, including an Azerbaijani general.
The spark for the present conflict remains obscure, as do details of what planes and tanks have been destroyed by whom. The Armenian ambassador to Russia, with whom his country has a ‘Security Pact’, alleged that Turkey sent 4,000 mercenaries from Syria to fight alongside its armed forces. President Erdogan of Turkey, who supports mainly Turkic Azerbaijan, denies this, but claims to have killed “a large number of ethnic Armenian mercenaries” on its territory. Both countries have declared martial law and mobilised troops, with the Armenian government claiming to be acting in self-defence.
On Sunday 4 October came reports of heavy aerial bombardment of Nagorno Karabach’s capital, Stepanakert, with the use of precision guided missiles and drones as Azerbaijan forces try to cut off the enclave from Armenia (with which it has no border). An Azeri commentator told Al Jazeera news service that Armenia was out to drag Azerbaijan into all-out war.
Nagorno Karabakh, known in Armenian as Artsakh, and formerly also populated by Kurdish people, is not just a scenic area for holidays. It is now of great strategic importance for the supply of energy from Russia to Europe. Gas and oil pipelines run through its territory.
At the beginning of last week, the UN Security Council announced emergency talks. This was “Amid fears the fighting could spread to new fronts and draw in other regional actors”, as the Guardian’s journalist, Michael Safi, put it. “A prolonged war could drag in Russia, which sells weapons to both countries, but has a military alliance with Armenia, as well as Iran, which has a sometimes fraught relationship with Azerbaijan” (30 September). Russia has military bases in Armenia, a country of just two million inhabitants (Azerbaijan has over 10 million).
As relations between Putin’s regime and the European Union have deteriorated, first over Ukraine and more recently over Belarus and the Navalny poisoning, securing an alternative to the Nord Stream 2 European pipeline acquires greater importance for Russia.
The Financial Times (London) comments that, “Russia, which leads mediation efforts alongside the US and France, said it would use ‘its influence with the former soviet nations to seek a cease-fire’ “. (29 September).
Armenian prime minister, Nikol Pashinyan, however, is opposed to peace talks under Russian mediation.
Turkey’s president, Tayip Erdoğan, has seized the chance to take on Russia in yet another arena, in part to divert attention from economic difficulties within his own country. Exploiting nationalist and religious sentiments, Erdogan is also playing on the bitter history of conflict with Armenia, and Armenia’s western support, particularly from France. There are reports of Turkey deploying large numbers of its Syrian allies and mercenaries in action in support of the Azeri forces. Turkey, despite buying weapons from Moscow, is already confronting Russia in a proxy war in Syria, as well as in Libya. As the Economist puts it, “They run the risk of fighting a third one [war] in the Caucasus”, (3 October). Turkey’s further involvement in Azerbaijan’s war could risk “overreach”.
The United Nations Security Council has called for an immediate ceasefire around Nagorno Karabakh and a peace conference, as has Angela Merkel. But neither has little more to suggest than a return to the 1994 agreement.
President Macron of France, where there is a sizeable Armenian community, has called for ‘dialogue’ over Nagorno Karabakh. He has accused Turkey of “warlike” rhetoric and of encouraging Azerbaijan to reconquer Nagorno Karabakh. Turkey’s military forces are undoubtedly actively involved. Macron is already at loggerheads with Turkey over the Libyan civil war and oil and gas claims in the Mediterranean.
Facing problems at home, Macron has attempted to play a role as international trouble-shooter – in relation to Lebanon, Belarus and Libya. Last week, he called Vladimir Putin on Wednesday and Donald Trump on Thursday. France, Russia and the US are co-chairs of the Minsk Group of 13 countries, set up by the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) in 1992 to find a peaceful solution over Nagorno Karabakh.
Iran has made an offer to broker peace talks to end the conflict. It borders both combatant countries and, perhaps surprisingly – given religious affiliations – has better relations with Armenia than with Azerbaijan.
President Ilham Aliyev runs a dictatorial regime in oil-rich Azerbaijan. As elsewhere in the former Soviet Union, he is surrounded by super-rich oligarchs. He has little concern for his own people, let alone those of Nagorno Karabakh, the majority of whom live in poverty. Over the years Aliyev, like Erdogan, has diverted discontent at home by whipping up hostility towards Armenians. In January 1990, a seven-day pogrom was conducted against Armenians in the capital, Baku, during which Armenians were beaten, murdered and expelled from the city.
The ‘Der Spiegel’ website reported, on 28 September, that last July, after clashes with Armenia, riots broke out after “tens of thousands demonstrated in Baku for war with Armenia … The protests at that time were directed not only against the enemy Armenia, but also against the country’s own leadership … For Aliyev this was a warning signal. Shortly afterwards he dismissed his foreign minister”. Now Azerbaijani civilians have been encouraged to march against and fight Armenians.
On the other hand, there are those like the ‘Azerbaijani Leftist Youth’ who denounce the spread of nationalist propaganda and vast military spending of both governments in the context of severely underfunded educational and welfare services. They argue for equal redistribution of resources to counter the accumulation of “more and more daily misery”.
“People on both sides”, they write, “Have suffered and endured through pandemic and economic recession…..It is long overdue that we, Azerbaijani and Armenian youth, take the resolution of this outdated conflict into our hands…not the men in suits, whose aim is the accumulation of capital……It is very important to revive political, grass-roots initiatives, comprised of ordinary local citizens, that will re-establish peace talks and cooperation.” They oppose any further mobilisation of the country’s youth into the “meaningless” war and attempts to “deepen hatred between the two peoples”. They argue for re-building the “trust between our societies and the youth”. They reject nationalism and argue for “mutual respect, a peaceful attitude and cooperation”.
Armenia and Azerbaijan were both independent republics within the USSR, having become part of it in the early 1920s. Nagorno Karabakh was originally designated as Armenian, but Stalin, when he was People’s Commissar of Nationalities, reversed the decision, awarding it to Azerbaijan.
After the break-up of the Soviet Union at the end of 1991, both countries became independent, adopting the capitalist road and annihilating state ownership and planning. For more than five years they were at loggerheads over Nagorno Karabakh, with tragic consequences.
On a capitalist basis, there is no end to the conflict between nations. “Unless tensions cool,” said the Financial Times, last Friday, “This particular frozen conflict could get very hot indeed”.
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