Oct 2017: Nagorno Karabakh Defense Army troops assemble before the National Assembly building on Renaissance Square in Stepanakert Oct 2017: Nagorno Karabakh Defense Army troops assemble before the National Assembly building on Renaissance Square in Stepanakert. Source: David Stanley - Flickr / cropped from original / shared under license CC BY 2.0

Kevin Crane examines the causes and contexts of the horrific ethnic cleansing taking place in Nagorno-Karabakh

The small region of Nagorno-Karabakh, known as Artsakh to its Armenian-speaking inhabitants, has for the past week been the scene of human suffering on a huge scale. In a population of around a hundred and twenty thousand, around half have already fled, never expecting to see their homes again. This figure is expected to continue to rise until Armenians have completely vanished from the area. These people are not refugees from a natural disaster of any sort, they are the victims of an openly expressed act of ethnic cleansing by the government and armed forces of Azerbaijan. 

Reports from the people of Artsakh have been horrific. The territory, which is an enclave inside Azerbaijan, has been subject to a de facto siege since the end of 2022. Shortages of supplies of all kinds had already reached a crisis point when the Azerbaijani military mounted a renewed assault on the tiny region and its unrecognized military a week ago. The makeshift “Republic of Artsakh” has collapsed, and its people now fear complete annihilation. For ethnic Armenians, who are descendants of the survivors of the event for which the term ‘genocide’ was originally coined, the trauma is terrible.

And the international response to these events? Well, nothing much, really. Most Western nations have called on Azerbaijan to moderate or de-escalate their offensive and allow aid to reach the people of Nagorno-Karabakh, while a small number of countries in the orbit of Turkey have applauded Azerbaijan’s actions. Several European Union member states have expressed verbal concern, although this counts for very little since the EU itself has just signed a major fossil fuels deal with Azerbaijan. As the Irish socialist MEP Clare Daly put it in Brussels this week:

‘After Azerbaijan’s invasion of Nagorno Karabakh, the EU is now positioning itself as peace broker and calling for compromise, while masses of Armenians flee reported ethnic cleansing. Suddenly dialogue and negotiations – officially unthinkable Re Ukraine – are thinkable, as long as Azerbaijani gas keeps flowing.

As I said last March, it really exposes the double standards of the EU that it regards Aliyev as a “more reliable energy supplier.” Behind the crusading rhetoric, it’s not really about democrats facing down autocrats at all. It’s about Great Games and hard interests.

The Commission has now deleted its scandalous post on Twitter from yesterday, which pledged support for Armenians who had “decided to flee.” But if the position is that people “decided to flee,” it is difficult to have any confidence in EU backing of Armenia-Azerbaijan talks. Tens of thousands of people fleeing their homes is not a choice.’

The Republic of Armenia is essentially alone in crying out for Artsakh to be treated as a nation with rights to self-determination that have been violated. It has appealed to both America and Russia for assistance, and is essentially being rebuffed by both. 

It seems very likely that by the end of 2023, the ethnic Armenian population of Nagorno-Karabakh will have entirely left their ancestral homeland, probably mostly to wind up as refugees in the already poor country of Armenia. Despite the scale of this horror, the political fallout from this event looks like it will be limited. The contrast, certainly in the global north, with the near-constant deluge of reporting, political resolve, and military commitment that has attended Ukraine since February of last year could scarcely be starker. The differences between these two, and the links between them, are an object lesson in the way imperialism works and the way that politics and propaganda flow from it.

The wrong side of a faultline

Armenia and Azerbaijan are both located in the mountainous Southern Caucuses. They are mountainous because of the proximity of a major tectonic faultline, which is frequently the cause of earthquakes. Coincidentally, they are also on a historic political faultline, a source of other catastrophes.

Armenian and Turkic peoples, which include today’s Azeris, have lived in the region for centuries, but the roots of the present conflict are recent. In modern times, three major empires bordered the Caucuses: Tsarist Russia, Ottoman Turkey, and Qajar Iran (often called ‘Persia’ in the West, at the time). This meant that territory would change hands often, and the area would see large amounts of both trade and conflict.

The First World War was an international catastrophe and for no one more than the Armenian people. Ottoman Turkey self-destructed during the war, and as it descended into defeat and succumbed to a chain of nationalist revolutions, it initiated the first modern genocide against the then-sizeable Armenian minority within its territory. The exact number of victims is unknown, though historians generally estimate around a million Armenian people were killed, with hundreds of thousands more displaced. Armenians were eradicated from the Anatolian (i.e. Turkish mainland) territory.

Most survivors were forced to seek refuge in the Russian-held Caucuses beyond Turkish reach, where they added to existing, very ancient, communities. As the fallout from the Great War continued, the larger of these two became the Armenian Republic. The smaller was Artsakh, though this was struggling to assert itself as the Azeris formed their own republic around it. The question of the sovereignty of both was, at least partially, suspended by the 1920s, when revolutionary Russia moved its forces into the region and ultimately incorporated everyone into the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. 

Membership of the USSR subsumed, but did not eliminate, tensions between Azeri and Armenian people in Nagorno-Karabakh/Artsakh. Controversies about the administration of the territory dragged on over the next few decades, becoming live conflicts again as the Soviet Union went into terminal crisis and nationalism returned as the dominant political force.

Even before the USSR had dissolved, the Azerbaijani political elite began violence against ethnic Armenians demanding more autonomy. By the 1990s, this descended into actual war. Turkey courted Azerbaijan as a client state and, using the historic ties between the Turkish and Azeri people as a justification, supplied it with arms and encouraged aggression. But they were countered by another force; the new Russian Federation decided to back Armenia and Artsakh, as part of their own game to limit Turkish influence.

Azerbaijan failed to militarily dominate the territory, but Armenia also failed to either claim it for themselves or have it recognised as an independent state. So, for three decades, an awkward and sporadically violent conflict has rumbled on, with the unrecognized Republic of Artsakh dependent on Armenian and Russian aid and constantly in the shadow of its neighbour’s desire to attack. What is happening now is the culmination of those tensions.

War will breed war

Western indifference to Armenian suffering in the midst of all this is breathtakingly captured by the Guardian’s headline this week, as their ‘defence and security’ editor penned a piece titled, ‘Azerbaijan’s Nagorno-Karabakh victory highlights limits of Russia’s power: With Moscow’s resources “clearly finite” the Kremlin has had to adapt to Baku’s rising power’. It is, of course, grotesque that this publication can look at the bloody removal of one hundred and twenty thousand people from homes their ancestors have lived in since the Bronze Age and take comfort in the idea that this is a blow against the beastly Russians. 

How is it, after a year and a half of moralizing, at times to the point of mania, about how awful the imperialism of Russia is against Ukrainian people, that this writer can be so utterly sanguine about the imperialism of Azerbaijan and their Turkish backers against Armenians? The answer is that liberals do not understand what imperialism is, and do not oppose it as such. They are delighted that Russia’s over-commitment to its aggressions in Ukraine is now preventing it from acting militarily elsewhere, even if there is a human cost to this.

Imperialism is not something that occurs when a powerful state simply commits an outrageous act against another state or people. Russia would still have been an imperialist if It had not invaded Ukraine, and America and Britain didn’t cease to be imperialists when they pulled their troops out of Afghanistan after twenty years of bloody occupation. 

Imperialism is a system, not simply an event or series of events, by which the most powerful states enforce fundamentally capitalist interests. In the cases of both the Russian aggression against Ukraine and the Azerbaijani/Turkish aggression against Armenians, the question of dominating fossil fuel resources is fundamental to the motives of the perpetrating states. Russia, however, is hostile to Britain and America, so its actions are to be condemned in the Western media. Conversely, allied states like NATO-member Tukey, cannot be subject to the same level of criticism, as this does not meet the objectives of our own state apparatus in the West. 

The Guardian is, ultimately, reproducing the ideological positions that are required by our own ruling class. Russia’s thirty-year backing of the Artsakh Republic was pursued for its own purposes, as a gambit against Turkey. Turkey obtaining the upper hand via its proxies is ultimately a win for NATO, hence we will not hear about the suffering of Armenians in the tone in which we do about Ukrainians.

This tragedy illustrates the failures of both nationalism and liberalism as vehicles for liberation. There was never going to be any version of an Armenian state in the twentieth century that successfully protected its people from further atrocities. The recognized state of Armenia is desperately poor, even by the standards of former USSR countries, and it is frequently isolated by the harsh geopolitics of Western Asia. This doesn’t change the fact that the Armenians are a people who have been let down, over and over, by an international order that claims to care about justice, but that prioritizes material interests in practice.

Nagorno-Karabakh is only one of a growing number of potential flashpoints between Western- and Russian-aligned forces that are becoming increasingly dangerous as the war in Ukraine drags on. The alarming return of tension between Serbia and Kosovo is another example, and there will be others. Socialists must redouble our resolve to fight a genuinely anti-war politics, that demands an end to proxy conflict in Ukraine, as well as an end to support for aggression by states like Azerbaijan, who sell resources for the ability to enact genocidal policies.

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