Civilian areas are caught in a crossfire as Armenia and Azerbaijan exchange missile strikes. (The Independent)

By DAVID KIELY

The region of Nagorno-Karabakh has been a site of regular skirmishes since the 1990s. It is claimed as a sovereign nation, Artsakh, by the Armenian ethnic majority and considered illegitimate by Azerbaijan and the majority of UN states.

On July 12-16, fighting along the border resulted in 12 Azerbaijani and four Armenian soldiers killed. The conflict erupted into broader fighting on Sept. 27, with both sides claiming the other as the aggressor. Since then, the fighting has continued for over a month despite a short cease-fire. An exchange of missile strikes on towns and villages throughout the region has caused a large number of civilian casualties. The death toll for the current conflict is over 1000.

This is the largest conflict over the region since Nagorno-Karabakh’s war of independence from 1992-1994, which left 30,000 dead and nearly 1 million people displaced from the region (700,000 Azeris and 300,000-500,000 Armenians).

The recent conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh can be put alongside the upsurges in other former parts of the Soviet Union in Central Asia and Eastern Europe. Belarus, Kyrgyzstan, and now Azerbaijan and Armenia have experienced some kind of political crisis over the last few months. The current conflict highlights some of the struggles of Russia as a new imperialist power, while underscoring the interests of their partners and rivals in the region. Like elsewhere in the modern world, no single imperialism has the power to dominate the current conflict. 

History of Nagorno-Karabakh

The region was conquered and reconquered by the Ottoman Turkish, Persian, and Russian empires. The current region that includes Azerbaijan and Armenia was ceded to Russia from Persia in accord with treaties in 1813 (Azerbaijan and Georgia) and 1828 (eastern Armenia). From then until the October 1917 Revolution in Russia, the region was a part of the Tsarist empire.

The western portion of Armenia was occupied by the Ottoman Empire until 1915, when most Armenians were evicted from the territory or killed; close to 1.5 million Armenians died due to Turkish genocide. Following the Turkish defeat in World War I, British troops took possession of the South Caucasus. Soon afterward, the Democratic Republic of Armenia was established, with an area that was much larger than that of Armenia today, and the Democratic Republic of Azerbaijan was established to its east.

In the meantime, Nagorno-Karabakh held a referendum in which the majority opted for independence. Azerbaijan, with the help of Britain, took measures to incorporate the territory. In 1920, a brief war took place between Azerbaijan and Armenia for control of Nagorno-Karabakh (Artsakh). The Soviet Union intervened on the side of Azerbaijan. On July 4, 1921, the Caucasian Bureau of the Russian Communist Party Central Committee decided that Artsakh would be integrated into Armenia, but Stalin intervened the following day and awarded the territory to Azerbaijan.

The following year, Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia joined in the formation of the Transcaucasian Socialist Soviet Federation. In 1936, Stalin replaced the Transcaucasian Federation with separate governments for each state. In this entire period until 1988, the highlands of Nagorno-Karabakh, with a majority of the Armenian nationality, were governed as an autonomous zone within Azerbaijan.

In 1987, the Nationalist Union for National Self-Determination party began calling for secession from the Soviet Union. At the same time, a movement for the self-determination of Karabakh developed, with demonstrations in cities in Armenia and Artsakh. In February 1988, Nagorno-Karabakh requested to join the Armenian Soviet republic. A week later, a pogrom occurred, in which Azeris killed scores of Armenians in the Azerbaijani town of Sumgait. A series of pogroms soon followed that were perpetrated by people on both sides of the conflict. Despite the mass movement and conflict, the request to join Armenia was rejected by the Supreme Soviet of the Soviet Union and Gorbachev. 

As the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, and Armenia and Azerbaijan achieved independence, a referendum was held in Artsakh to determine its status. The Azeri minority (in 1989 there were 145,000 Armenians and 43,000 Azeris in Nagorno-Karabakh) boycotted the referendum, with the overwhelming majority of Armenians voting for independence. The referendum was considered legitimate by the Artsakh government, and the territory was plunged into a war with Azerbaijan in 1992 to 1994. After the war, Kurdish and Azeri ethnic minorities were expelled from the area, and a lowlands region—predominantly Azeri populated—was seized in an attempt to create a land bridge to Armenia.

Since the ceasefire in 1994, there have been numerous talks and skirmishes along the border. The Minsk group, led by Russia, France and the U.S., was formed in 1992 to mediate the conflict. 

The basis of the current crisis

The emergence of the crisis in Nagorno-Karabakh cannot be separated from the current economic crisis brought on by the pandemic, nor the political disruption from the political crises in the Caucuses and throughout Northern Africa and the Middle East over the last few years. The conflict is likewise centered within the pressures created by the economic crisis, which has been worsened by the pandemic.

The fall of oil prices puts pressure on the Azerbaijan government, which predominantly exports oil. For both Armenia and Azerbaijan, the GDP is expected to contract by 3-4% this year. Likewise, the economic crisis puts pressure on Turkey to find oil and gas reserves. The European Union is currently siding with Greece and Cyprus over Turkey’s natural gas expeditions in the Mediterranean. Turkey’s economy is still in a semi-colonial state, as its markets are dominated by Western capital. In Libya, the Turkish-supported GNA has not been able to gain a decisive victory.

Furthermore, the border clashes in July were extremely close to three pipelines in Azerbaijan. A new southern pipeline was supposed to open in October to bring gas to Turkey, which has wanted to diversify its energy imports. It currently imports 40% of its energy from Russia. The planned pipeline has already had an impact on Turkish energy strategy. According to Brenda Shaffer of the U.S. Naval Post graduate school faculty and the senior adviser for energy at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies think tank: “It has already changed the dynamics of the Turkish gas market,” such that Turkey is importing less gas from Russia and Iran.

The threat was great enough for Turkey to conduct joint military exercises with Azerbaijan on July 29. Turkey is broadly trying to find a third way between Russian and European imperialism, but finding that to be impossible. Russia has thus far politically outmaneuvered Turkey, which is seen as an aggressor in the region. It has been able to craft a joint statement with the other Minsk partners, France and the U.S. 

Russian maneuvers and influence in the region

Russia has relations with both Azerbaijan and Armenia. It sells arms to both countries and utilizes the rich Azerbaijani oil fields and pipelines to transport oil and gas through to Europe. It has historic and current economic ties to Azerbaijan, which Azerbaijan has tried to offset by developing ties with Turkey, Ukraine, and Israel. The country has currently increased its defense spending from Turkey dramatically. It also bought $5 billion worth in arms from Israel, and in return it supplies Israel with 40% of its oil.

Russia is Azerbaijan’s largest trading partner next to Turkey. Azerbaijan’s desire for independence and its competition with Russia in the hydrocarbon market led to tensions in the past. It is the gateway to bring goods and oil from Central Asia and hydrocarbons from the Caspian sea to Europe. In 2007, Azerbaijan halted the flow of oil from Russia over a pricing dispute.

Russia has strong support for Armenia because it hosts Russian foreign military bases, which garrison 5000 soldiers. Armenia is broadly considered highly dependent on Russia for security. The main economic activity in the region of Nagorno-Karabakh is agricultural and food processing, with some light industry in the city of Xankändi. Compared to Azerbaijan it has little in the way of pipeline and rail transport.

This was supposed to change in 2004 when the Tabriz-Yersakh natural gas pipeline was planned to make a link between Iran and Armenia. In 2018, our document on Russia (now on the Socialist Resurgence website) stated: “[The Tabriz-Yesakh pipeline] was, however, seen as a threat by Russia to its near-monopoly on the Armenian gas and electricity markets. In response, Russia cancelled its gas subsidies to Armenia, raising prices from $54 per thousand cubic meters to nearly triple that rate. The Armenian government capitulated to Russian demands, handing over the last Armenian-owned section of the Hrazdan power plant, control over the Tabriz-Yersakh pipeline, and awarding 92% of the Armenian gas company ArmRosGaz to Gazprom.

“In addition, Russia was still able to more than double the price of its gas sold to Armenia, from the original $54 per thousand cubic meters to $110. Using its newly won control over the Tabriz-Yersakh pipeline, it significantly shrank the pipe’s diameter from what was originally planned, seriously limiting the amount of gas that could be supplied to Armenia from Iran and also preventing the pipeline from being used as part of a transit route to Europe. This ensured that, by 2017, Russia maintained control of more than 80% of Armenian gas imports, despite an additional raise in price to $150 per thousand cubic meters in April 2016. This constituted about 2.1 billion cubic meters of gas in 2017.”

Elsewhere in our document, we discussed the level of Russian FDI in Armenia, the arms financing that Russia provides, and the high level of control Russia has over Armenian energy. The overall conclusion is that Russia cannot and will not provide full self-determination for Armenia—as evidenced by the country’s lack of control over the Tabriz-Yersakh pipeline and its strategic importance to Russia as a military outpost.

The relative weight of Russian importance also has affected Iranian diplomatic decisions in the region. The northern section of Iran that borders Azerbaijan has a predominantly Azeri ethnic majority that strongly supports Azerbaijan. Iran has some concerns over potential unrest in the region. Publicly, Iran has come out in support of Azerbaijan, yet privately the country has allowed Russia to land aircraft in Iran with aid destined for Armenia. This highlights Iran’s role as a junior partner in the region. While it attempts to develop its own interests, it needs to maintain a relationship with Russia—enough so that it is willing to risk the safety of its regime to protect its relationship with Russia. 

Danger of imperialist intervention

As in other parts of the world, inter-imperialist rivalries and maneuvers of new imperialisms and regional powers have complicated these conflicts. Regional powers such as Turkey have attempted to secure their own guarantees against the crisis against the desires of the U.S. and EU. In the case of Armenia and Azerbaijan, Turkey is attempting to secure increased hydrocarbons from outside of Russia and reduce its dependence on its fuels.

Russia is attempting to maintain its dominance over the economy, and importantly the flow of gas and oil to the Mediterranean. The self-determination of Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh cannot be guaranteed as long as Russia is involved. Russia has no interest in the self-determination of the Armenian people, and will only use the country as a strategic base and economic outpost.

At this point in time, the intervention of European imperialist powers and U.S. imperialism is minimal, but that could change. No imperialist intervention is progressive for working people. As long as imperialist powers exist, they will attempt to use ethnic and national divisions to exploit and subjugate these oppressed nationalities.

Now, the post-World War II alliance of Western imperialist powers is increasingly strained. New imperialist powers have emerged in the modern era and are increasingly intervening for their share over regional and global markets. The working class of these countries has nothing to win from any imperialist conflict or diplomatic maneuvers of imperialist powers. It is critical for antiwar forces in these imperialist countries to demand U.S. and EU, as well as Russian, hands off the region.

Nagorno-Karabakh has the right to self-determination, including its right to align with the state of Armenia if the people wish to. However, it cannot depend on the capitalist government of Armenia to defend its self-determination. The current war between Armenia and Azerbaijan is not being fought in the interest of the people of Nagorno-Karabakh; the territory has been dragged into a war that is actually about the transfer of oil, gas, and goods through the region. Therefore, Armenia should withdraw from Azeri land it has occupied, and allow any expansion of Nagorno-Karabakh’s borders to be determined by referendum to include regions that might include a predominantly Armenian nationality.

The right to self-determination extends to other national minorities throughout the region. The Kurds living in the region, the Azeris living in northern Iran, and Azeris living within Armenia must also have their rights to self-determination protected.

Fundamentally, the right of self-determination for Armenians and the ethnic minorities within Nagorno-Karabakh and the region cannot be guaranteed under capitalism. Workers throughout the region need to build revolutionary parties that can unite their peoples under the banner of socialist revolution, while affirming the right of self-determination for all oppressed nationalities.

  • Self-determination for Nagorno-Karabakh (Artsakh)!
  • The rights of ethnic minorities within Nagorno-Karabakh and in the entire region must be guaranteed!
  • Russia out! It cannot guarantee the self-determination of Nagorno-Karabakh.
  • No imperialist intervention!
  • The regional power Turkey must withdraw from the conflict!