Wed Apr 24, 2024
April 24, 2024

Ethnic cleansing of Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh

September 24, 2023, will go down in history as the beginning of the ethnic cleansing of the Armenian people who have lived in the Nagorno-Karabakh region for centuries. In just five days, around 78,000 of 120,000 Armenians living in the area have “fled” towards the state of Armenia. They fear reprisals from the Azeri regime after the disarming of the Armenian self-defense forces that were abandoned by the Russian regime, Western powers, and the government of Armenia. Directly supported by the Turkish regime, indirectly by Russia, and equipped with Israeli weaponry, the Azeri regime has committed crimes against humanity. It is hard to look at the scenes of the frightened population trying to escape and not remember the Armenian genocide of last century, which was perpetrated by the Ottoman Empire with help from part of the Kurdish population.

Against the simplistic explanation of the international mass media, which attributes this massacre to ethnic hatred between peoples, it is important to remember that different nations have lived in peace in the Caucasus for centuries. In other words, there is another explanation to be found outside the imperialistic, “orientalist” vision, which means there is also another solution.

The region of Southern Caucasus, or Transcaucasia, where Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia are located, is a strategic zone between the Black Sea and Caspian Sea. Aside from marking a crucial path between Eastern European and Western Asia, it also became an important center of oil and gas extraction at the end of the 19th century.

In this region, the people have historically lived in peace, although three great empires have exerted strong cultural, linguistic, and religious influence over them: the Russian empire, the Ottoman empire (currently Türkiye), and the Persian empire (currently Iran).

At the beginning of the 19th century, the Russian empire fought for and gained control of the region from Persia during two wars (1804-1813 and 1826-1828). The wars concluded with the signing of two treaties (Gulistan in 1813, and Turkmenchay in 1828), which lead to Russian domination of the area until the Russian Revolution in 1917.

Supporting the revolution or the counter revolution?

When the Bolsheviks took power in October 1917, local leaders of the Georgian Menshevik party, the Armenian Revolutionary Federation, and of the Musavat (Azerbaijan), who were opposed to the internationalist and revolutionary ideals of the Bolsheviks, decided to form a brief Transcaucasian Democratic Federative Republic on April 22, 1918. They were certain they would have the support of international powers like the United Kingdom, Germany and the U.S., who were all interested in stopping the Russian Revolution.

However, faced with the military offensive of the Ottoman army, the Georgian leaders split with the Federative Republic on May 26, 1918. They went on to ally themselves with the German Empire, and later the British Empire, before they descended into a degraded form of nationalism which provoked territorial disputes between Armenia and Azerbaijan.

This regressive nationalism contaminated the nationalist Armenian and Azeri leaders, who went down the same path and began fighting one another over land. The Armenian elites sought help from the UK and the U.S. to rebuild Greater Armenia, and the Azeri elites sought Ottoman and later British support.

The war against the Ottoman army and between the young republics was interrupted by the appearance of the Red Army, which took over the region in 1920-21. In 1922, the Socialist Soviet Federative Republic of Transcaucasia was created, which united the three republics. Later, the Transcaucasian Federation became part of the Union of the Soviet Socialist Republics alongside the Russian Federation and the republics of Ukraine and Belarus.

The matter of nationalities

The right to the self-determination of oppressed peoples, including the right to secession, was always part of the Bolshevik Party’s program under Lenin. One example was Finland. Soon after the Bolsheviks took power, the Finnish Senate sent a delegation to Petrograd with a petition for Finnish independence, which was immediately signed by Lenin.

However, a few years after power was taken by the Soviets, Stalin broke with the Bolshevik program and opposed the right to self-determination, and instead proposed formal autonomy under the tutelage of the USSR.

This debate was the object of intense discussion among the Bolsheviks and ended with the defeat of Stalin and the victory of Lenin, Trotsky, and other Bolshevik leaders. The result was the inclusion of the right to total self-determination for oppressed peoples in the first Soviet constitution.

After Lenin’s death, and with the defeat of the European revolutions and the weakening of the Russian Revolution, Stalin took control of the Communist Party (CPSU) and the Soviet State, which became bureaucratized. The right to self-determination was no longer enforced and the Soviet Union became a “prison” of various nationalities.

The matter of Nagorno-Karabakh

Historically, the people living in the Southern Caucasus have mixed with one another and done so in relative peace. The territories where a majority of one ethnicity lived also contained important minorities of other ethnicities. This is the case of Nagorno-Karabakh (High Karabakh).

In the high nations of Karabakh (called Nagorno-Karabakh) Armenians make up most of the population at around 80%. While historically, an Azeri majority has lived in the lowlands of Karabakh. Both groups have lived in these regions for centuries.

Between 1921 and 1923 there was a debate within the Bolshevik party about Nagorno-Karabakh. The position of the entire Transcaucasian delegation (formed by Armenians, Azeris and Georgians) was for the integration of Nagorno-Karabakh into Armenia. But Stalin imposed another solution, giving the area of Zangezur to Armenia and the areas of Nakhchivan and Karabakh (both high and low) to Azerbaijan.

To make matters worse, in 1936 Stalin dissolved the Socialist Soviet Federative Republic of Transcaucasia and again divided it into the Soviet Republics of Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia. This laid the groundwork for the conflict that would reappear half a century later in 1988.

The end of the “prison of peoples” and the venom of nationalist antagonisms

In the 1980s, Mikhail Gorbachev rose to power in the Soviet Union and began the political process of returning to capitalism with the Perestroika (Restructuring) and Glasnost (Transparency) programs.

The oppressed nations were the ones who started fighting the dictatorship of the CPSU, which led to a capitalist state with an iron grip.

On February 20, 1988, the Karabakh soviet voted for the independence of Nagorno-Karabakh (called Artsakh by the local population) and its unification with Armenia by 110 votes in favor and 17 votes against. Gorbachev opposed that decision, which led to the military conflict between Azerbaijan and the population of Nagorno-Karabakh who was supported by Armenia.

In 1991, the republics of Armenia and Azerbaijan became independent, and in a referendum in Nagorno-Karabakh, the population voted for independence.

The conflict was ongoing and was strongly influenced by the Russian military on both sides, which led to 30,000 dead and the displacement of 1 million people.

In 1994, an armistice mediated by Russia put an end to military actions and Nagorno-Karabakh became independent de facto, but not by right. That is, the local Armenian population controlled the region, but its independence was neither recognized by Azerbaijan nor by the UN.

Since then, military offensives and oppression against national minorities have occurred periodically, which has caused the region of Nagorno-Karabakh to continue to be undeveloped.

Whose interests are at stake in this conflict?

The regional antagonism between Armenia and Azerbaijan directly interests Russia and other regional and international powers.

Russian sells weapons and keeps military bases in both countries, which remain under its influence; this ensures the ongoing control of the Caucasus and its wealth.

Beginning in 1991, Turkey established a close relationship with Azerbaijan, where the region’s oil and gas reserves are concentrated.

In 1993, the former KGB agent Heydar Aliyev came to power in Azerbaijan, and he was succeeded by his son Ilham Aliyev in 2003. This authoritarian, capitalist regime has promoted a form of toxic nationalism against the Armenian minority, while giving over control of oil and gas extraction to Western and Russian multinationals. For the current offensive against Nagorno-Karabakh, the Azeri regime bought Israeli and Russian arms, and enjoys the support of Turkey, which has blocked its borders with Armenia since 1993.

Armenia used to have an authoritarian regime, which was toppled by a popular revolution in 2018. However, the current democratic-bourgeois regime has also promoted toxic nationalism against Azerbaijan and bets on a privileged relationship with Russia, Europe, and the U.S.

We must return to Lenin

What the regimes of Armenia and Azerbaijan offer now is eternal, intermittent war and nationalist oppression against minorities in their countries. At the same time, they have given over their economies to international capitalists and have stayed within the sphere of Russian political influence.

This situation does nothing to solve the problems of the working class, which suffers from unemployment, social inequality, nationalist conflict, and foreign domination.

Instead, the interests and needs of the Armenian and Azeri working class begins with the right to self-determination for oppressed nationalities, and respect for national minorities, as defended by Lenin. After all, what is the point of the Azeri regime militarily taking over Nagorno-Karabakh, where Armenians have lived for centuries? To promote more oppression and ethnic cleansing? The population of Nagorno-Karabakh must have the right to self-determination, and the Azeri population of the lower Karabakh, which has been under Armenian control, must have the same right. No people are free if they oppress another people. The path to freedom starts with mutual respect and the acknowledgement of the rights of oppressed nations.

This is possible under a new Socialist Soviet Federative Republic of Transcaucasia between Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia. With the removal of all foreign military forces, and without outside interference, the region’s people can once again live together in peace.  

To make this alternative real, the working class of both countries will have to topple both regimes, overcome toxic nationalism, and walk the path of working-class power.  This is the only path to social justice, peace, and national independence.

Translated by Miki Sayoko

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