The recent bloody war between Azerbaijan and Armenia has taken a savage toll in terms of lives, homes and livelihoods. The latest round of brutal fighting between these former republics of the USSR has seen further “ethnic cleansing” and new swathes of the population left deeply embittered. As more proof of atrocities comes to light, the fires of future national hostilities are left smouldering.
The six-week conflict started on 27 September and ended almost as suddenly as it began. An unexpected, if uneasy, peace was announced late in the evening of November 9th.
The war began when heavily armed Azeri troops moved swiftly into Armenian-held areas around Nagorno Karabakh (known in Armenian as Artsakh). At that time, this mountainous enclave had a population which was 90% Armenian and run by an Armenian administration. By the time of the truce, more than 100,000 of its 150,000 population were driven out.
Its capital, Stepanakert (Khamkendi in Azeri) had been heavily shelled and its second-largest city, Shusha, 15 kilometres to the South, with a commanding position overlooking the capital, was in Azeri hands by the day the cease-fire was announced.
The gruesome process of exchanging prisoners and collecting bodies began. Six weeks of heavy fighting, shelling and bombing are estimated to have left at least 4,000 dead and 8,000 badly wounded.
A Russian peacekeeping force with nearly 2,000 military personnel, 90 armoured cars, 380 other vehicles and special equipment will oversee the implementation of the deal brokered by Russia’s president, Putin. Earlier attempts failed not least because the Putin regime is seen as partially responsible for the unresolved conflicts in the region. This makes many feel the fox is in charge of the hen-house. But the relationship of forces in what used to be regarded as Russia’s “backyard” has changed.
“For Russia, long a provocateur in the broader Caucasus region”, writes the New York Times on 3 December, “the peacemaker role is a switch — a new test and opportunity for a country struggling to maintain its influence in the former Soviet lands”. (Russia still sells arms to both sides in the conflict)
Turkey, striving to reassert its heft in the region, provided massive military assistance to Azerbaijan – a nation with which it has strong ethnic and religious ties. By the first week in November, Azerbaijan had retaken most of the 13% of its territory it had lost in the last major battle between the two countries in the early ‘90s, including seven districts adjoining Nagorno Karabakh. Russia’s ally, Armenia, with a population of just three million, was heading for total defeat. By the end of November, most of the long-coveted territory in the Lachin corridor was restored to Azerbaijan, leaving only the road from Nagorno Karabakh to Armenia open. Further wars and conflicts in the area are guaranteed.
Flushed with the gains made by his forces, President Ilham Aliyev of Azerbaijan was nevertheless wary of Russian troops moving in to play a ‘peacekeeping’ role, remembering their intervention in Georgia in 2008 which left them with a base in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Russia still has a military presence in no less than eight former USSR republics and like all interested regimes, it will not act as genuinely impartial mediators.
Aliyev, wary of Russia enhancing its sway in the region, made a bid for Turkish forces to be given a role in ‘policing’ the cease-fire in the Caucasus. This proposal was roundly rejected by Putin, aware of the danger of further escalation of conflict in the region and a strengthening of the regional role of Turkish imperialism.
The International Crisis Group has described the flimsy peace arrangement as “not a comprehensive peace treaty”. Nevertheless, Putin is seen to have pulled off a tactical victory. Fyodor Lukyanov, a political expert close to the Kremlin, speaks approvingly of “an absolutely new geopolitical configuration”.
The influence of US imperialism in the region had diminished because of internal and external problems confronting the US and its president. Well before the Trump administration was engaged in a struggle for survival, its support for Armenia had been considerably reduced. Previously the US had been motivated by hostility to Turkey, not least with an eye on the large Armenian diaspora in the US (with votes). But in just two years the Trump administration had increased military aid to Azerbaijan from $3m to around $100m compared with $4.2 million to Armenia. Its aim was to step up military and other pressure on neighbouring Iran.
US Secretary of State, Pompeo, hosted talks with the foreign ministers of Armenia and Azerbaijan on 23rd October which achieved no deal. France also has a large Armenian diaspora and was a co-signatory to the ill-fated OSCE-sponsored ‘Minsk peace agreement’ with Russia. But, during the latest military conflict, President Macron was sidelined. After the first week in November, Putin acted without consulting either of these two NATO powers.
In this situation, Russia and Turkey have been confirmed as the major powers in the region. As the Financial Times commented in October, for both Putin and Erdogan involvement in the Caucasian conflict was also a useful diversion from domestic problems – economic and political. But this by no means signifies a new partnership between them.
Power relations in the region had shifted significantly since the last major clash over Nagorno Karabakh in the 1990s when Armenia won de facto control over the enclave and much of Azerbaijan’s territory adjoining it. This time, “The Russians’ client and ally (Armenia) was the loser”, commented a Russian analyst. Another pointed to Turkey’s actions being partly a response to Russian activities in the Middle East – in Syria and also in Libya. “Turkey is trying to be a global player and to have a finger in every pie.” (FT 13/11)
Azerbaijan’s semi-dictatorship under Ilham Aliyev benefitted enormously from extensive military assistance from Turkey – drones, planes, heavy artillery, military advisers and even mercenaries, diverted from the Syrian conflict. It is also accused of using ‘banned’ cluster bombs which can explode long after a war is over. In the wake of what amounts to a decisive victory, Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, will undoubtedly ignore any further ethnic cleansing by Azerbaijan to consolidate its war gains.
Response to deal
Understandably, the November peace deal was celebrated with much rejoicing on the streets of Azerbaijan’s capital, Baku. This was especially the case among Azeris who have long hoped to return to the towns and villages they were forced to leave three decades ago when at least 600,000 had fled.
In Yerevan, the capital of Armenia, angry crowds stormed Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan’s residence, calling him a traitor and demanding his immediate resignation. The National Security Service claims to have thwarted a plan to assassinate Pashinyan. An angry crowd, including army veterans, forced their way into the parliament building and the speaker was beaten unconscious. An emergency session of the assembly was made inquorate by Pashinyan’s party – Civil Contract – boycotting the session. The country’s president – Armen Sarkissian – disassociated himself from the deal.
In the hope of hanging on to power, Pashinyan then rapidly announced a fifteen points, six-month “Action plan” to redress the people’s grievances. But protests have continued into December, both in Yerevan and other cities, demanding his resignation. Nothing Pashinyan can say will calm the grief of those who have lost family members in the fighting, and the loss of homes they cherished over many years, mostly for generations.
Balance of forces
The balance of forces in the Caucasus has changed considerably in the recent period. Russia, the traditional ‘ally’ of both the warring countries, has bases in Armenia but also has strengthened links with oil-rich Azerbaijan. “As Azerbaijan correctly guessed,” writes the Economist (14th November), “Vladimir Putin cared more about his anti-Western alliance with Turkey and was no longer inclined to side with Armenia after a largely peaceful ‘colour’ revolution in 2018 swept the populist Mr Pashinyan to power” … replacing a personal friend of the Russian president, Robert Kocharian.
Turkey has also long harboured a desire to increase trading links with Azerbaijan – a Turkic, mainly Muslim country. The Azeri government cares little that no government in Turkey has ever accepted the use of the term ‘genocide’ in relation to the slaughter during the first world war of over one and half million Armenians.
Azerbaijan has lucrative deals selling oil and gas to Turkey. Its pipelines go through areas which were occupied by Armenia after the war in the 1990s. With the latest settlement, these will now be policed by peace-keepers from Russia which is also a major supplier of oil and gas to Turkey.
Turkey under Erdogan, suffering economic and political problems, is happy to open the way for more trade with China. According to John Koutroumpis, writing for the ‘E-International’ web-site, frustrated with the way the European Union has handled Turkey’s accession process to the EU, responded by applying to join the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation led by Russia and China. The strengthened relations between Azerbaijan and Turkey nicely bolster Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road trading and communications project with a clear route into Europe.
The Economist (14 November) points out that while not mentioned in the trilateral peace agreement, Turkey is “a big beneficiary of it”. “It is to get access to a transport corridor through Armenian territory from the Azerbaijani enclave of Nakhchivan, which borders Turkey, to the main bit of Azerbaijan and the Caspian Sea, thus linking Turkey to Central Asia and China’s Belt and Road Initiative … Russia will control the road itself, but Turkish and Chinese gods will travel along it.”
Erdogan’s Turkey, an errant NATO member, is already flexing its muscles in trials of strength over energy sources in the Eastern Mediterranean (with a fleet of ships accompanying its prospecting vessels). Turkey is content with Russia brokering a peace deal in the Caucasus, behind the backs of the NATO powers (France, the US) involved in the ineffectual Minsk process.
But, as the New York Times put it early in October, Erdogan’s aggressive policies can win him “a certain respect at home, at a time when the country is suffering economically and his party’s popularity is flagging”. But it will put Erdogan “increasingly at odds with Russia”. Turkish and Russian forces, at present, face each other on different sides of military conflicts in other parts of the world, – in particular, Syria and Libya.
Putin obviously pulled out all the stops to arrange the present cease-fire and five years (renewable) deal. It was clear that, with the massive beefing up of Azerbaijan’s fighting forces with Turkish help, more Armenian lives and territory were going to be lost.
For obvious reasons, Erdogan immediately sought involvement in securing the peace between Armenia and Azerbaijan. His designs on regional hegemony are plain for all to see. Russia’s Putin ruled it out. But will Russia’s peace-keepers be able to prevent an increase in Turkey’s backing for Aliyev and any further ethnic cleansing in the areas re-taken in the war?
How long this peace will last is uncertain, given the recent explosive events and the sense of dissatisfaction and anger on all sides. One thing is certain. This is a conflict that can break out again at any time. Hundreds of thousands of Azerbaijanis will be returning to towns and villages their families knew as home for generations. Many Armenians leaving Stepanakaert, where their forbearers grew up, have vented their anger by destroying their homes to avoid them being occupied by the victors.
Armenia has accused the Azerbaijani forces of shelling the historic Cathedral of Ghazanchetsots in Shusha – one of the largest Armenian churches in the world. Christian Armenians have pleaded for it to be left standing in the hope of returning to the place where countless members of their families have been baptised, married and buried.
Turkish Muslims have returned to areas their forefathers lived and worked in to rebuild the homes they were forced to abandon decades ago. The Eastern District of Agdam was thoroughly pillaged by Armenian forces in the last inter-ethnic conflict in the region. Ironically, the only building left standing was the city’s mosque.
Enormous political damage over the decades has to be overcome. None of the regimes that emerged in the former Stalinist states brought a better life for workers and poor people. A handful of top party figures used their positions to grab ownership of state property, and become oligarchs, making large fortunes out of privatised ventures.
Armenia’s 2018 ‘velvet’ revolution saw two weeks of mostly youthful rolling demonstrations in Yerevan and other cities against the two-term president, Serzh Sargsyan’s attempts to hang on to power. “They were protesting against the political manipulations of their Moscow-friendly ruling elite”, as an online commentator put it, “Demanding sweeping reforms to the corrupt, oligarchic economic system they had grown to despise”.
The openly corrupt Sargsyan was forced out. But the desire of the people for a peaceful, harmonious and comfortable existence remained a pipe-dream. A struggle of workers and young people was needed to take industry and finance out of the hands of the ruling elite. Control and management by elected workers’ representatives, at every level, is vital for state ownership and planning to benefit all. This was woefully lacking under Stalinist rule.
The same was true in neighbouring Azerbaijan. Today it is a fully-fledged autocracy in which Ilham Aliyev, in the fourth term as president, has aggregated power into his own hands and that of his close family. On-line writers describe a country rife with “clientelism, cronyism and nepotism” and in which independent journalists and bloggers “if they do not first yield to harassment, beatings, blackmail or bribes … are thrown into prison”.
Facing difficulties in the economy and sharp rivalries within the elite, the war victory and Erdogan’s support in a “holy struggle”, as he described it, will temporarily help Aliyev maintain his rule. But in a world of economic and social crises, his future and that of Azerbaijani capitalism is far from secure.
During the war in the Caucasus, even speaking out for peace was dangerous. There are activists who are angry about war dividing them from their neighbours. They quite rightly see it as being waged purely in the interests of entrenched and corrupt ruling layers. Some have been silenced; some have reached out on social media to have their small voices heard.
There have been some small voices of protest heard beyond the borders of the belligerent nations, however. An earlier article published on socialistworld.net quoted from an anti-war statement of the ‘Azerbaijani Left’ carried by ‘LeftEast online’ (https://www.socialistworld.net/2020/10/06/azerbaijan-and-armenia-in-armed-conflict-over-nagorno-karabakh/on). On 23 October, the same site carried an open letter to the Armenian government, condemning the prioritising of capitalist “class/economic interests by Azerbaijani and Armenian political elites”.
It demanded the recognition of the rights of the Azerbaijani populations expelled by military conflict, as well as reiterating the” right to self-determination and security” of the Nagorno Karabakh Armenians. It finishes with the words: “Long live peace and revolution that are to come tomorrow!”
The CWI would welcome a dialogue with all genuine forces on either side and a democratic debate. We put forward a class analysis and programme to show a way out of the exploitation, suffering and conflict that are endemic in class society. We point to a way out of wars and crises, on the basis of an organised struggle against the class interests that cause them. We argue for a democratic and socialist alternative and base ourselves on the working class as the main force able to rid the planet of capitalism and war. Without such an approach, the character of ‘peace initiatives’ can alienate workers and poor people on both sides.
A world in turmoil
Most wars are conducted in the interests of maintaining a small clique in power through the acquisition of land, natural resources and markets. In every war, it is the working people of town and country that mainly suffer death and destruction, from young soldiers slaughtered in battle, to aged civilians and families bombed out of their homes.
The turmoil and horrific human suffering of recent weeks in the Caucasus are a warning of what capitalism offers in the future. On the basis of capitalist decline, deadly coronavirus and the worst economic crisis in generations, national rivalries will be exacerbated.
Without a thoroughly democratic and socialist solution, the Caucasus region remains a powder keg. Conflicts will be re-ignited leading to new re-divisions of disputed territories.
Socialists fight for the rights of all national minorities to be respected and for a genuine coming together of working people. The right to return to homes and lands seized through war can only be fully respected on the basis of peaceful negotiations between different communities and nationalities. Socialist measures are vital for the provision of adequate facilities to build homes and decent livelihoods, for all.
Building the workers’ movement is a key task. Only the involvement and mobilisation of organised workers in a united struggle to transform society in the interests of the working class, as a whole, can point a way forward. Nationalisation and planning under the democratic control of workers’ representatives would offer a real way forward. Countries in the Caucasus, moving towards a socialist confederation in the region, could provide a beacon of hope for achieving a world without war and oppression worldwide.
A mass movement of workers and young people that clearly inscribes socialism on its banner can gather momentum and reach across borders. Such a movement can spread like wild-fire and sweep away this outmoded way of organising society. In this context, new forces will emerge that look to the basic ideas of class solidarity against a common enemy – the ruling, capitalist elite, of all countries. Socialism will be back on the agenda – the only way to sweep wars and suffering from the planet.
The Caucasus – a history of conflict
There is nothing new about the eruption of deadly fighting or the emergence of new power relations in the Caucasus. The army of the Russian Empire was constantly engaged in brutally suppressing fierce rebellions in a region of spectacular mountain ranges. Standing at the crossroads between Europe, Asia and the Middle East, it has been the setting for numerous power struggles for control over trading routes and natural resources.
In the second decade of the 20th century, after the overthrow of the Romanovs and the establishment of national republics, as part of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, Azerbaijan was ‘allocated’ the enclave of Nagorno Karabakh. Even then it was populated mostly by Armenians, some of whom had fled the pogroms in Turkey during 1915.
National rivalries were subsumed for a period as the struggle to build socialism battled against all the odds, including the absence of successful socialist revolutions in other parts of the world. Huge growth rates were achieved by state ownership and planning, But under the dictatorship headed by Stalin, a criminal policy of ‘Great Russian’ chauvinism was pursued, crushing national aspirations and identities and sometimes forcing whole populations from their homelands.
In the decades after Stalin’s death, the bureaucratically planned economy of the ‘Soviet’ Union continued to struggle to grow and provide for the needs of its population. Discontent mounted under Gorbachev’s ‘Perestroika’ (re-organising) and ‘Glasnost’ (opening up) policies. Old discontents came to the surface and fierce battles broke out between Armenians and Azerbaijanis in the area around the mountain region of Nagorno Karabakh.
With the collapse of the Soviet Union in December 1991, the Armenian bureaucratic government revived the old rivalry with Azerbaijan over Nagorno Karabakh, and a fierce war broke out. Between 1991 and 1994, 30,000 were killed and over a million, mostly Azeris, forced to flee their homes. The ‘settlement’ reached under the auspices of the OSCE – the Minsk agreement – was breached on a number of occasions, including July of this year when fierce fighting started by Armenian fighters paved the way for the Azerbaijani assault in September.