Around 70,000 people — nearly half the population of Nagorno-Karabakh — have been displaced in the war which broke out between Armenia and Azerbaijan in late September this year, in spite of a shaky, Russian-brokered ceasefire signed on 10 October.
The fighting is over the Nagorno-Karabakh region: a 95%-Armenian enclave of mountain territory inside Azerbaijan, with a population of about 150,000 until September 2020. The region set up its own parliament and declared itself independent in 1988. From 1988 to 1994, Azerbaijan fought a war to crush the self-governance of this region and return it to direct rule from Baku. Since 1994, the region has been effectively independent, ruled from its regional capital of Stepanakert and calling itself the Republic of Artsakh.
The 1988-94 war ended with Armenian troops in possession of approximately 14% of Azerbaijan’s territory, occupying a large buffer zone of Azerbaijani land outside the borders of the Republic of Artsakh.
Although there is disagreement over who started the fighting this September, author Thomas de Waal points out that strategically Azerbaijan wants to overturn the status quo: keeping things as they are suits Armenia, as their main objective of securing the self-rule of the Republic of Artsakh has been achieved. Azerbaijan’s long-term goal remains what it was in 1988: wiping out the region’s autonomy and its Armenian character.
Armenians in Armenia proper and in the Republic of Artsakh have good reason to fear genocide. They are the weaker side in this war, and loud voices among their powerful enemies are calling for them to be extinguished forever.
Armenia has a population of about 2.3 million — not much larger than small Artsakh. Kurdish Yazidis are Armenia’s second-largest ethnic group (after Armenians). Azerbaijan has a population of about 10 million. Azerbaijan has great oil wealth and a coastline: Armenia has neither. Turkey (population 82 million) has been enthusiastically supporting Azerbaijan, through propaganda, diplomatic efforts, and the supply of military materiel and fighters. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights has reported that 1,500 Syrian mercenaries including al-Qaeda fighters have been sent by Turkey into Azerbaijan. The Supreme Leader of Iran has voiced his support for Azerbaijan in this war.
The war has seen popular mobilisations across the region. In particular, Iran has seen large demonstrations by its Azerbaijani minority, which numbers in the millions. These demonstrations have seen nationalist, pan-Turkic and anti-Armenian slogans raised, which has raised fears of pogrom violence — the Armenian minority in Iran being much smaller, less than 100,000.
Modern Armenia was born from genocide. The formative event in recent Armenian history was Turkey’s genocide against Armenians carried out in 1915. An estimated 1.5 million Armenians were killed in that deportation campaign. In 1920, this was followed by a Turkish war against Armenia which took on a genocidal character, with between 100,000 and 250,000 Armenians killed. Amid an ongoing guerilla struggle, in 1918 the Armenian population of Nagorno-Karabakh was able to establish self-governance by force of arms; but British soldiers occupied Karabakh and enforced the rule of the region’s Azerbaijani governor.
After the region fell under the control of the USSR, Joseph Stalin handed what became known as the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast back to Azerbaijan in 1923, for reasons of diplomatic expediency.
Within the borders of the USSR, fighting stopped until the 1980s. But the Azerbaijan authorities in Baku pursued a policy of peaceful “Azerification” in Nagorno-Karabakh, settling Azeri families, which saw the Armenian majority in the local population fall to something like 75%. This demographic change would be reversed by ethnic cleansing and mass displacements in subsequent fighting.
But as Moscow’s central authority loosened and then expired, ethnic violence returned. The Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast voted for unification with Armenia in 1988 and again in 1989, triggering a series of mass demonstrations and armed clashes in Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Nagorno-Karabakh. These clashes escalated into a series of anti-Armenian pogroms in Azerbaijan, in Sumgait (1988) and Baku (1990). These events, and a steadily-escalating drumbeat of violent episodes in Nagorno-Karabakh, built into the war that ended in 1994.
The ethnic violence in this period was not one-sided. There was a massive displacement of Azerbaijanis and Muslim Kurds from Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh. Many refugees and internally-displaced people live in misery in Azerbaijan, and demand the right to go home.
But the key, immediate issue in this conflict was and remains the right of the Armenian-majority population in Nagorno-Karabakh to rule itself. More broadly, the very existence of Armenia itself is thrown into question by the genocidal rhetoric of its neighbours.
Anti-Armenian genocidal rhetoric, in both Turkey and Azerbaijan, is never far from the surface. After Soviet troops shot pogromists in Baku in an attempt to stop the killings in 1990, the local government raised monuments to these “fallen heroes”. In 2004, an Azerbaijani officer, Ramil Safarov, axed an Armenian officer to death at a NATO training event in Budapest. He admitted the killing, stating in court that Azerbaijanis would suffer while Armenians still lived, and that he felt shame for not having killed an Armenian before that date. When Baku arranged his extradition to Azerbaijan, he was hailed as a “hero” in government speeches, freed, and promoted to Major.
Turkey seems to be pumping up this nationalist madness across the region, and trading off it. It serves Ankara’s foreign policy goals to position itself as the champion of a Muslim (albeit Shia) nation in conflict with Christians, and as the tribune of pan-Turkic nationalist sentiment. This will allow it to gain influence by mobilising large ethnic and religious minorities in Russia and Iran.
Russia has declared that it will defend Armenia against any incursion; but that it will not get involved in Nagorno-Karabakh. Russia maintains military bases in Armenia and to a certain extent guarantees its safety against Turkey and Azerbaijan. Russia also has a close diplomatic relationship with Azerbaijan. Turkey can hope that by encouraging Baku to fight Russia’s other ally, Azerbaijan will be shaken out of Russia’s diplomatic orbit and locked into a closer relationship with Turkey.
As socialists, our role is to oppose the attempt to sow ethnic and religious division in the region as part of the imperialist games of the great powers. We are for reparations and return for refugees from the last three decades of ethnic violence. And the central issue in this war is the right of self-determination for the Republic of Artsakh and an end to the spectre of genocide hanging over the Armenian nation.