Last week, in just under 24 hours, Azerbaijani military forces overran the Nagorno-Karabakh enclave in the south Caucasus mountains, at the cost of around 200 lives. Since then, nearly 70,000 ethnic Armenians have fled the territory, out of a total population of around 120,000. It is likely that they will be joined by thousands more from Karabakh, who are not convinced by the claims of the Azerbaijan regime that minority rights will be respected. There are already unconfirmed reports of Azeri troops indiscriminately bombarding villages. Adding to chaos, more than one hundred people were killed in Stepanakert, capital of Nagorno-Karabakh, when a massive explosion ripped apart a fuel depot as car owners struggled to buy petrol.
The Azerbaijani government has called for the “dissolution” of all political structures in Nagorno Karabakh. In a deal agreed with Russia, the local defence forces in the enclave will be disarmed and reintegrated into Azerbaijan. Political figures from the fallen Karabakh regime are being detained, including a Russian-Armenian billionaire, Ruben Vardanyan, who briefly held a cabinet job in Nagorno-Karabakh.
Samvel Shahramanya, president of Nagorno-Karabakh, reflecting the dire situation facing his administration, ordered all state institutions to disband by 1 January 2024, when “the Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh (Artsakh) shall cease to exist”.
The terrified refugees desperately fleeing Nagorno-Karabakh are quite justified in feeling that they have been abandoned by the so-called ‘international community’. For months they have faced an economic blockade conducted by Azerbaijan forces which the Western powers have ineffectually criticised. During the military operation ordered by Azerbaijani president Ilham Aliyev, two thousand or so Russian ‘peacekeeping forces’ stood by, even when several of the peacekeeping troops were killed by Azeri fire (which the Azerbaijan government claimed was a mistake and has formally apologised for).
Armenia’s prime minister, Nikol Pashinyan, declared that the “allies we relied on for many years” were “ineffective” and the “instruments of the Armenian-Russian strategic partnership” were not enough to ensure Armenia’s external security”.
The US and the EU have been largely low key in their criticism of Azerbaijan’s aggressive military actions, partly as they do not want to anger their Nato ally, Turkey, which has significant influence on Baku. The interests of the ruling elites and governments of these various powers come well before the interests of the people of Nagorno Karabakh, who are now facing de-facto ethnic cleansing. This will no doubt evoke painful historical memories among Armenians, who allege that genocide was conducted against Armenians by the Ottoman Empire during the First World War.
Since the outbreak of the war in Ukraine, the EU states have been attempting to increase oil and gas trade with Azerbaijan, as they massively cut down on supplies from Russia. The appalling human rights abuse record of the Azerbaijan regime have been ignored or downplayed by Western powers in furtherance of their essential interests.
Armenia and Azerbaijan have long fought over the Nagorno-Karabakh territory. Azerbaijan, a mainly Muslim country, claims Karabakh as part of its territory. Armenian nationalists claim the mountainous region as their ancestral homeland. Until last week, ethnic Christian Armenians settled the enclave.
Dissolution of the Soviet Union
Following the dissolution of the Soviet Union, contending pro-capitalist forces helped to unleash nationalist and ethnic hatreds across the region. In contrast, during the early years of the Soviet Union, when it was a young workers’ state, Nagorno-Karabakh was given autonomy status within Soviet Azerbaijan. Later under the oppressive rule of Stalinism, national and ethnic tensions bubbled away under the surface. Conflict broke out between Armenia and Azerbaijan in 1988 as the former Soviet Union teetered towards collapse under the dead-hand rule of an unaccountable bureaucracy.
Fighting between Azerbaijan and Armenia in the early 1990s led to significant victories for Armenia, which not only secured Nagorno-Karabakh but wider territory around it. Azerbaijan claims that ethnic cleansing was conducted against large numbers of ethnic Azeris in the area. Under the influence of Armenian nationalists, Nagorno-Karabakh was renamed ‘Artsakh’, an ancient Armenian name.
In 2020, however, the regime in Baku, capital of Azerbaijan, was able to seize large parts of the territory lost in the 1990s in a war that lasted six weeks and left an estimated 7,000 dead. Russia, which historically was the ‘defender’ of its ‘fellow Christians’ in Armenia, intervened militarily and put soldiers on the ground in the guise of peacekeepers.
Azerbaijan’s territorial gains led to the return of hundreds of thousands of Azerbaijani refugees to their homes, once again changing the demographics of the area. Last December, Azeri forces blocked the Lachin Corridor, which is the main route between Nagorno Karabakh and Armenia. This caused severe shortages of food, medicines, and goods for the people of the enclave.
Russia, which historically was regarded as the key ally and defender of its fellow Christians in Armenia and Nagorno Karabakh, was otherwise preoccupied by the war in Ukraine. Moscow’s relations with Armenia had also soured in recent years following the coming to power of the Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan on the back of mass anti-government street protests. The new government in Armenia tilted to the West. Earlier this year, the EU deployed a monitoring mission in Armenia near the border with Azerbaijan. The Armenian government also announced its intention to ratify the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, which technically means that Vladimir Putin could be arrested if he was to set foot on Armenian soil. Moscow condemned “a frenzied anti-Russia campaign” in the Armenian media and warned that the “Armenian leadership is making a huge mistake” by its “pivot away from Russia”.
The Ukraine war saw Azerbaijan become a more important potential partner for Russia than Armenia, given the oil and gas riches of Azerbaijan, whose economy is 10 times bigger than that of Armenia, Russia’s lucrative arms trade with the country, and by the fact that Azerbaijan is Russia’s main land route to the south. Putin has also attempted to not alienate Turkey, Azerbaijan’s close ally, during the course of the war in Ukraine. Although a Nato member, Turkey has a fractious relationship with western powers and the EU and has tried to function as a ‘broker’ between Russia and Ukraine regarding some issues in the course of the war.
Since 2022, the weakened Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan no longer made territorial claims on Nagorno Karabakh but at the urging of the EU now pushed for the “rights and security” of the Karabakh Armenians. The Azerbaijani president Ilham Aliyev ignored this pleading from Armenia and also the recent warnings of Western powers not to use force to take back territory. Under the cover of the war in Ukraine, Aliyev sent in the army to take Nagorno Karabakh, to enforce what he calls the “territorial integrity of Azerbaijan”. In doing so, Aliyev had the tacit support of Turkey, a longtime ally. Baku probably correctly expected that Russian peacekeeping forces would not resist. There is now the danger that Azerbaijan will push on to its advantage and try to militarily claim more territory of what Aliyev calls ‘Western Azerbaijan’ (i.e., southern Armenia), even though the two countries are currently holding talks that are meant to reach agreement over “territorial integrity”.
The latest round of conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh is inextricably linked to the war in Ukraine and, in wider terms, the struggle between Russia and its allies, and NATO powers and their allies, for influence and control of the region.
US imperialism will see an opportunity to further lure Armenia to its sphere of influence.
Russia’s ability to intervene in the Caucasus is significantly weakened by the invasion of Ukraine and the continuing war, which is costing a huge amount in terms of personnel and resources. Russia can no longer project itself as the decisive and dominant military actor in its ‘near abroad’. This opens the way for other local powers, such as Turkey and Iran, to step them and further their influence in the Caucasus.
Russia will attempt to further its ties with Azerbaijan and will not lightly give up the presence of Russian troops in the area. The Caucasus are not only rich in natural resources but are important strategically, located near parts of Russia bordering Crimea and Ukraine.
The regime in Armenia may struggle to stay in power after the complete military defeat of Nagorno-Karabakh. Last week there were demonstrations involving thousands in the Armenian capital, Yerevan, condemning Russia and the West for their lack of intervention against Azeri military attacks and the failures of the ruling elite in Nagorno Karabakh but also condemning the Pashinyan government. Armenian commentators warn that Moscow will attempt to stoke up more protests to put pressure on Pashinyan or to replace his government with a more pro-Moscow regime.
The disastrous war in Ukraine, and conflicts between former republics of the Soviet Union, such as Azerbaijan and Armenia-backed Nagorno Karabakh, are a bloody tragedy for the working class of the region. The working people of the region can have no confidence in any of the region’s capitalist ruling elites and outside imperialist powers, all of which put their own class interests, first and foremost. More than ever, the working class of the region need their own mass independent class organisations, including genuinely independent and fighting trade unions, and socialist parties with mass support in the workplaces, communities, and colleges. In this way, the warmongering ruling elites and meddling imperialist powers can be successfully resisted.
A socialist programme for the region would resist nationalist and ethnic divisions, calling for the unity of the working class against the bosses and the profit-making system, which has brought war, repeated ethnic cleansing, poverty, vast social inequalities, and class exploitation for the masses. The democratic ownership and management of the commanding heights of the economy by the working class would see the transformation of living standards across the region.
Furthermore, a socialist programme would guarantee the rights of all minorities and the right to self-determination for oppressed nationalities, while at the same time resolutely struggling for workers’ unity and socialism. This is the only way to finally resolve the ethnic and national divisions in the Caucuses. In the case of Nagorno Karabakh, a workers’ state would guarantee the right of return of refugees and the peaceful coexistence of ethnic Armenians and Azeris based on collective agreement in a socialist society, as part of a regional socialist federation of socialist states on a voluntary and equal basis, free of oppression, impoverishment and exploitation.