Ethnic Cleansing in Nagorno Karabakh

15 October 2023

By Lina Lorenz

Since its full scale attack on the Republic of Artsakh on 19 September, Azerbaijan forces have expelled 100,000 ethnic Armenians from their homeland in the breakaway state.

In just a few days, the defenders of the territory were defeated, forced to surrender their weapons and on 28 September accept the complete dissolution of their republic. 

Neither Armenia itself nor the 2,000 strong Russian ‘peacekeeping force’ intervened to stop the ethnic cleansing. The ‘international community’ has also remained remarkably quiet in its condemnations.

The region has campaigned for independence for almost all of its history as part of Azerbaijan. It finally achieved its goal of an Armenian breakaway state, albeit entirely unrecognised, after a long and bitter war in 1988-1994. Armenian forces liberated not only the territories of Nagorno Karabakh, but also seven surrounding districts with significant Azeri populations. 30,000 were killed and over a million displaced.

In the Second Karabakh War in 2020, Azerbaijan captured most of the breakaway state’s territory, using Israeli drones and Turkish mercenaries, and signed a punitive treaty with Russia against Armenia. It used the concessions from the treaty to enforce a blockade of Karabakh, depriving the population of vital food and medicine.

The blockade was a preparation for another attack. After just two weeks of fighting, Azerbaijan’s authoritarian president Ilham Aliyev announced the end of the ‘anti-terror measures’ and the full restoration of the country’s sovereignty.

Meanwhile Aliyev’s backer Recep Tayyip Erdogan has celebrated the victory of his ‘brothers’ and has called for a corridor dividing Armenia to connect Azerbaijan with its western enclave of Nakhchivan.

The conquest of Nagorno-Karabakh will not mean the end of national antagonisms or that further wars, causing immense suffering to all the peoples of the region, will not – sooner or later – erupt, whenever the balance of forces changes. The Caucasus is a region where conflicts between states and their nationalist leaders are combined with the struggle between outside imperialist and regional powers for geostrategic and economic influence are rife.

For Armenia’s government under Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan the ‘loss’ of Karabakh has led to demonstrations in the capital Yerevan, accusing him of national betrayal because he kept Armenian forces out of the fighting and declared that he did not want to interfere. The protests in Yerevan are also directed against Russia, long regarded Armenia’s protector. Vladimir Putin did not lift a finger nor hardly said a word, despite the fact that Armenia is part of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) and a member of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) – both economic, political and military alliances dominated by Russia.

Imperialist rivalry

In fact the ethnic cleansing of Karabakh is one of the bitter fruits of Russia’s imperialist invasion of Ukraine. This is not simply a matter that Putin’s forces have their hands full there, but is also related to his changing interests in the region. Russia for a long while tried to maintain close economic ties with both Armenia and Azerbaijan. It sold weapons to both sides and acted as a kind of referee between them. But today in President Aliyev, Putin has found an ally to open up new transport routes to evade the NATO-orchestrated blockade.

Not only Russia, but also Turkey and increasingly the Western imperialist powers are pursuing economic interests in the South Caucasus. Turkey is a long-standing ally of Azerbaijan, supplying weapons and mercenaries for the invasion of Nagorno-Karabakh. In a speech to the UN General Assembly, Erdogan blamed the Armenian government for the escalation of the conflict, saying it had failed to take advantage of the opportunity for negotiations.

But Armenia and Turkey share a history of long-standing enmity. To this day Erdogan refuses to recognise the massacres of the Armenian population by the Ottoman Empire during the First World War as genocide. Indeed his neo-Ottoman ambitions in the Middle East are barely concealed.

Armenia has consequently turned to the West, but thus far the USA has even refused to call the driving out of the Armenian population from Karabakh ‘ethnic cleansing’. In the context of its embroilment in the Ukraine War, it cannot afford to offend the touchy and despotic Turkish president.

Compared to Russia and Turkey, the EU has so far played only a very minor role in the conflict. Earlier this year, it set up a civilian mission in Armenia at an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council in New York on the situation in Nagorno-Karabakh. Federal Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock (a member of the German Greens) called for de-escalation. On the other hand, only last year the EU signed a gas deal with Azerbaijan, whom the EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen described as a ‘crucial partner’ in tackling the energy crisis.

Armenia’s turn to the West is a consequence of its isolation in the region and its ‘betrayal’ by Putin. Pashinyan already commented in September that ‘Armenia’s security architecture was 99.999 percent connected to Russia,’ describing this as a strategic mistake and saying he now wants to hold a joint military manoeuvres with the US. But thus far Washington is unlikely to ‘provoke’ NATO member Turkey.

Nevertheless, it is clear that the South Caucasus will continue to be the scene of clashing imperialist power interests. While it remains to be seen how these will shift in the future and whether the potential for escalation will extend to other parts of the region, the constantly competing national and imperialist ambitions, the freezing and unfreezing of conflicts and the continued subordination of the region to outside powers will only spell more misery for the people who actually live there.

Socialist federation

Against this background, socialists must clearly oppose the influence of imperialist and regional powers that use or foment existing conflicts to assert their interests. This means that we must oppose geostrategic interventions by the US, Turkey and Russia, but also those of the EU and the British government, who themselves have plans for the region. Since 2014, Georgia, for example, has been part of the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area (DCFTA) and plans to join the EU in the longer term.

An integral part of any anti-war and anti-imperialist perspective must include opposition to each and every example of national oppression, to all ethnic cleansing and changes to borders against the will of their peoples. In the Caucasus, as in the Balkans and the Middle East, we need to convince the working classes of all these countries that they will gain nothing from dependency on the imperialist and regional powers, except to be treated as their pawns, easily sacrificed in their geopolitical ‘great game’.

Only an independent working class that organises itself internationally can settle the conflicts in the region in the form of a Socialist Federation which embodies a mutual recognition of the rights of all its peoples to self-determination.

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