In the context of global capitalism the war in Nagorno-Karabakh is just one more conflict that capitalism in its imperialist stage cannot solve.
A Hundred Year Old Conflict
War between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh is nothing new. However, the displacement in a few days of something like a hundred thousand people plus the deaths of hundreds of others indicate the desperate situation that not only consumes both states but also an increasingly fractured global capitalist system.
It is exactly a century since the first war over the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh. In 1920, with civil war still raging in Russia, the two former provinces of the Russian Empire declared themselves independent and immediately fought each other over the Armenian majority enclave surrounded by Azerbaijani majority territories. When USSR forces re-took the whole Caucasus region they “solved” the issue by creating in 1923 the autonomous “oblast” of Nagorno-Karabakh (whose population was 70% Armenian) within the Azerbaijani Soviet Socialist Republic.
Fast forward to 1988 and the USSR in its death throes began to lose control of most its non-Russian territories. In those years it tended to support Azerbaijan thus provoking an Armenian nationalist uprising in Nagorno-Karabakh. Pogroms to promote ethnic cleansing (most Azeris left the enclave and some Armenians left Azerbaijan proper) were committed by both sides. A million people were forcibly displaced and 30,000 were dead by the time a cease-fire was called in 1994. The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s Minsk (Belarus) group chaired by France, Russia and the USA1 was set up to try to arrive at a more permanent solution but without success. There has never been a peace treaty and hardly a year has gone by without some border skirmish which has occasionally lasted for a few days.
Armenia remains in control of not only most of the old oblast of Nagorno-Karabakh but also the surrounding parts of Azerbaijan. This is now sometimes termed by Armenians, the Republic of Artsakh, but no state, not even Armenia itself, recognises its de jure existence.
In 2008 the General Assembly passed, by 39 votes to 7, Resolution 62/243 which demanded the immediate withdrawal of all Armenian troops from occupied Azeri territory. Significantly three of the opposing votes were the co-chairs of the Minsk group, France, Russia and the USA. It thus had no greater effect than all the resolutions since 1967 calling for Israel to withdraw from occupied Palestinian lands.
The 2008 date was also globally significant – the economic crisis that had helped bring about the collapse of the USSR in 1991 had by now intensified further. With profitable investment declining, the global capitalist system in the years that followed was sustained by financial speculation creating the bubble which burst in 2007-8. Its consequences resonated around the world and in Armenia brought the population on to the streets of the capital to oppose yet another rigged election. In 2011 it was the turn of the Azeri population inspired by the “Arab Spring” of that year. Concessions in both states (plus particularly brutal repression in Azerbaijan) re-established control but the popular movements only made the ruling class in both states more desperate than ever. Armenia wanted to hang on to what it had gained, and Azerbaijan to get back what it had lost. The card both ruling classes would play would as ever be nationalism.
The Nationalist Bacillus
Like many other post-Soviet states, both Azerbaijan and Armenia suffered economic catastrophe in the 1990s. Without the production chain to the USSR’s planned economy both were subject to corrupt and capricious privatisation schemes. The difference was that Azerbaijan had oil and Armenia did not. In the very short term though the consequences favoured Armenia. In both states the oligarchs battled for power but in Azerbaijan the struggle to control oil led to a vicious internecine fight between various warlords. In Armenia the oligarchs had less to fight over since its once-booming industrial sector completely collapsed. An economy that once produced cars, appliances, textiles, and industrial machinery for sale in the USSR shrank to an exporter of copper ore and brandy. But whilst the Azerbaijani elite fought for control of oil, the Armenian ruling class consolidated around the defence of Nagorno-Karabakh.
The 1988–1994 war was a brutal affair which despite being fought with weapons looted from old Soviet bases and often in trenches, as in the First World War, possibly outdid all the wars in ex-Yugoslavia for its bestiality. The widely circulated “trophy” photographs of the brutal mutilations of corpses and beheadings were intended to indelibly reinforce nationalist stereotypes on both sides.
But, given the disunity in the Azerbaijani elite, Armenia prevailed in 1994, and now continues to hold, not only most of Nagorno-Karabakh, but also 9% of Azerbaijan in the territories around it. In Baku, the débacle brought to power the former head of the KGB, and former Central Committee member of the USSR, Heydar Aliyev. Known as “The Dragon”, he crushed his oligarch opponents and turned the oil sector into the personal fiefdom of his family. When he died in 2003 his son Ilham inherited the throne.
At the same time the fortunes of the two countries diverged. With its Russian supply chains broken about 1 million Armenians (a third of the population) were forced to leave their impoverished country by 2000. Azerbaijan, on the other hand, where oil equals 90% of its revenue, rode the boom in oil prices. This continued even after the 2008 financial collapse. Aliyev had spent a fortune on prestigious buildings in Baku alongside £3 billion a year for weapons procurement (more than the entire GDP of Armenia) in building up its armed forces mainly by purchasing from Russia and Israel (Azerbaijan shares a border with Iran so is of strategic importance to Israel). This wealth also allowed Aliyev to buy off the popular discontent of 2011 by subsidising food prices. However with the 2014 collapse in oil prices2 incomes in Azerbaijan plummeted. With the halving of revenue further lavish spending on arms was now called into question. It was time to use the arms already purchased.
This was the background to Azerbaijan’s attack on Nagorno-Karabakh in 2016. The Four Day War led to the deaths of some 400 people and was distinguished by the use of (“illegal”) cluster bombs and Israeli drones. In the first few hours Azerbaijan gained a few square kilometres of territory and no more, but military observers3 say they were of strategic importance. The exercise was repeated in another brief outbreak of violence in July this year when it seems the Azeris were testing out Armenian defences. Perhaps both were stepping stones towards the new war today? Whatever the case the whole ideological basis of the Aliyev dynasty is focussed on a narrow nationalism in which the recovery of Azerbaijan’s lost lands including Nagorno-Karabakh is central.
In Armenia the ruling class is more divided but are united in their nationalism. The liberal-nationalists are mainly the old intelligentsia from Soviet times whilst the military or conservative nationalists are deeply involved in the struggle to defend Nagorno-Karabakh. The latter have provided Armenia with most of its Presidents and see themselves as “tesghakron” (which means “carrier of race”), the spiritual and biological essence of the “classical” Armenian nation. This means that Nagorno-Karkabakh’s defence is the big issue for them and any strikes and other protests are always attacked as “unpatriotic”.
In practice the two factions are as kleptocratic as each other in stealing from state coffers, and in violent defence of their control of monopolies. This periodically culminates in protests at rigged elections. The last of these was in 2018 when the conservative Republican Party tried to rig elections for the umpteenth time. A 6 week long protest led to another non-violent coup (the so-called “Velvet Revolution”) which brought the liberal nationalists back to power. When the Republican Party lost all its seats in the 2019 election it was assumed that the new government of Nikol Pashinyan would be more flexible on the situation in Nagorno-Karabakh. Although still reliant on the military alliance with Russia (which still has a military base there) his government has become increasingly pro-Western and has even established an embassy in Israel. However, what this means in practice is not clear as they are already boxed in by a rabid nationalist ideology which will not give up an inch of territory, however much blood is spilled.
The International Dimension
And intensification of rivalry under the shadow of a long and unresolved capitalist crisis is not just confined to the scenic Caucasus. All the powers, great and small, have their own economic problems and all seek both to materially improve their lot as well as diverting attention from the failures of the system by playing on nationalist sentiment.
As far as the neighbouring powers are concerned the new war has been an unwanted embarrassment and potential threat to both Russia and Iran. Both have tried to halt it. By contrast the current crisis is, above all, a result of the direct interference of Erdoğan’s Turkey.
Russia has long tried to pose as the “honest broker” to both sides but in reality it always leans to Armenia with which it has a formal military alliance. It also sells arms to both sides but, whereas Armenia gets theirs at a discount, Azerbaijan does not. And in the Minsk group Russia has done (at least as far as is known) absolutely nothing to persuade Armenia to peaceably give up the territory it took from Azerbaijan nearly 3 decades ago. Russia though, which only recently “pacified” jihadist insurrections in Chechnya and Dagestan in a most brutal fashion, is worried that this new war in the Caucasus could spark off other conflicts in its former satellites in Central Asia. Already Kyrgyzstan (the poorest of the “succession states” to the USSR) is in turmoil over the usual issue of rigged elections (the third time in 15 years) and looks close to civil war. With his ally Lukashenko already under pressure to go in Belarus4 , and with no resolution to the conflict with Ukraine, the last thing Putin (whose popularity at home appears to be waning) needs is yet another conflict in the former Russian and Soviet Empire.
Iran is in a similar bind. It too is nominally neutral in the conflict but documents leaked since 2016 clearly show that it actually gave more support to Armenia in the Four Day War. After all, it was arch enemy Israel that supplied drones and cluster bombs which gave Azerbaijan the edge in the first few days of that war on Nagorno-Karabakh. Though sharing the same Shiite religion, Azerbaijan is largely secular so religion plays second or even third fiddle to nationalism there. Iran contains minorities from both Armenia and Azerbaijan and has a border with both states. However, along the Azeri border, it also has several Azeri-speaking provinces which contain nationalist groups which are agitating to become part of Azerbaijan. Videos on Youtube5 show relatively small demonstrations in Tabriz (capital of Iranian Azerbaijan) chanting pro-Azerbaijani slogans like “Karabakh belongs to us and always will do” as well as anti-regime slogans.
The regime is anxious to stop these, and the war, spreading. As a result, in an attempt to defuse tensions, representatives of Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in the four provinces of West Azerbaijan, East Azerbaijan, Ardabil and Zanjan put out a joint statement that “Nagorno-Karabakh belongs to the Republic of Azerbaijan”.6 At the same time the Imam of Tabriz tried to undermine the Azeri nationalists by asking why Shia Azerbaijan has been buying Israeli weapons. The Tehran regime is also letting it be known that Israeli sabotage of nuclear facilities, like that at Fordow, could have come about as intelligence leaks from Iranian Azeri provinces. The anxiety of the Iranian regime is obvious. Saeed Khatibzadeh, spokesman for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said that the country will not tolerate conflict on its borders and aggression on its territory, and considers any aggression on its borders a "red line". He went on to say that it was “consulting with the parties involved, as well as regional governments and neighbours” to bring an end to the fighting.7 It has thus joined Russia in trying to bring about an end to hostilities and this produced the “humanitarian” ceasefire of 10 October.
Their efforts are being undermined by Turkey which operate on its own imperialist agenda in stirring up the conflict. Only weeks before the current war broke out, Erdoğan repeated the mantra that Azerbaijan and Turkey are "two countries beating with one heart". By this he possibly meant that Turkey was heavily dependent on oil and gas which flow to it in two pipelines from Baku via Georgia (avoiding Armenian territory but which the Armenians came dangerously close to in the fighting this July). Çavuşoğlu, the Turkish Foreign Minister had already made it clear Turkey’s intentions when he announced that another “mere ceasefire” would not be enough. His boss has thus publicly rejected French, US and Russian calls for an end to the fighting.
Turkish assistance to Azerbaijan is not just confined to the sentimental or diplomatic. The attempt to retake Nagorno-Karabakh demonstrates that Azerbaijan have now got the military clout to go further than what they achieved in 2016. In addition to the weaponry from Russia and Israel the Turks have been supplying their own drones8 and fighter planes. It is also alleged that, as in Libya, they have sent 1,000 Islamist mercenaries from Idlib in Syria to assist the Azeri armed forces.9 They are thus doing everything they can to ensure Azerbaijan can “redeem” its lost territory.
The human cost is immaterial but to turn attention away from the use of cluster bombs on civilian areas etc., Erdoğan claims Turkey is playing the role of the defender of the oppressed. This includes not just of our “Azerbaijani brothers” but “the oppressed everywhere from Syria to Libya, from the Eastern Mediterranean to the Caucasus.”10 In fact Turkish imperialism has been pursuing an aggressive policy from Central Asia to North Africa for some years now.
Turkey has few friends. It is at odds with the USA over its purchase of Russian SS400 anti-aircraft missiles. It is on the opposite side to Russia in the proxy wars in Libya11 and Syria.12 Its airforce constantly violates Greek air space as the two sides dispute Turkey’s self-declared rights to great swathes of the Eastern Mediterranean in order to get at its expected gas reserves. This particular issue has brought Turkey into an ongoing conflict with Cyprus, Israel, Egypt and, via Greece, the EU.
What lies behind Turkish aggression? Erdoğan suffered a major foreign policy catastrophe when the Muslim Brotherhood government of Morsi was overthrown by the Army in Egypt13 in 2013. Before that his brand of democratic Islamism was being touted around North Africa and his prestige ran high in both Tunisia and Libya. But there are more material forces at work behind the current aggressive face of Turkish foreign policy. Above all is the parlous state of the Turkish economy.
Turkey’s economy was in trouble well before Covid-19 hit but like a lot of countries it has suffered a massive drop in GDP this year. Tourist revenues have plummeted and the trade deficit has widened. As a result, like so many of the so-called “emerging markets” its currency has come under enormous pressure. Erdoğan blames this not on his previous speculative mismanagement of an economy built on debt but on the machinations of foreigners. In a bid to prevent the freefall of the Turkish lira Turkey has spent 45% of its reserves. Brazil is the next “emerging market” to spend a lot of its reserves to protect the currency but this is only 8%.14 But that is not all. The Turkish Finance Ministry has partially hidden its public borrowing by using its own local banks which had acquired a large number of dollars (themselves contributing to the fall in the lira). It is calculated that the Turkish state has a further unreported shortfall of at least $25 billion so unless there is a dramatic economic revival in 2021 Erdoğan’s financial juggling will end in tears.15 In fact Erdoğan has been gambling for years and pushing the impact of the pandemic further into the future is just the latest phase of that. But such a gamble could only work if the pandemic were to end soon. That no longer seems likely.
Erdoğan was hoping that by boosting Turkey’s influence around the region and hopefully making economic gains (in the form of cheaper oil and gas) from its military actions in Libya and the Eastern Mediterranean the crunch could be avoided. And if it cannot, as just about everywhere in the world it can be blamed on foreigners. Nationalism has always been a strong player in post-Ottoman Turkey first with Kemalism and now with the Islamic AK Party of Erdoğan. And what better way to reinforce the nationalist message about Turkey’s greatness than support for the fellow Turkic-speaking Azerbaijan which in any case has long had Turkey’s backing.
Whilst Azerbaijan can count on Turkey, the Armenian government is forced to play a trickier game. Its military ally Russia has not committed itself to support of Armenia, only to end the conflict. So the Pashinyan Government is forced to seek support in the West where 9 million people of the Armenian diaspora can exert some pressure on their governments. This diaspora has not been slow to remind the world of the 1915 genocide of Armenians by Turkey16 and there have been demonstrations in several Western capitals. Macron (as the EU’s representative in the Minsk group) has already come out in defence of Armenia, and against Turkish aggression, but in real terms is hardly going to send military support to the aid of Armenia. Pashinyan’s main hope is that Putin will eventually be forced to take action to prevent Armenia gravitating further to the West. But the defence treaty Russia signed only covers Armenia proper, not Nagorno-Karabakh, so it is a weak card to play. Not surprisingly Pashinyan has stepped up the nationalist rhetoric as well as declaring martial law.
Towards a Working Class Response
In the context of global capitalism the war in Nagorno-Karabakh is just one more conflict that capitalism in its imperialist stage cannot solve. These wars may have their ceasefires but they remain permanent fixtures in a world that is spiralling towards a more generalised conflict. The current crisis has been unfolding over half a century. 50 years in which the central problem has been the overvaluation of existing capital. All kinds of expedients, Keynesianism, monetarism, restructuring, globalisation, financialisation and speculation but each “miracle cure” has only led to new contradictions further down the road as we saw in 2008.
The only force that can stop this is the international working class. Its Azeri and Armenian branches have over the years demonstrated that they can act independently when called to. In 2012 Armenian bus drivers eventually responded to a protest against fare hikes by running the buses for free17 and there have been several strikes and other protests in Azerbaijan this year alone. These have been in response to the dirty tricks employers have got up to in the shadow of the Covid crisis. Oil workers have been forced to work for months on rigs without pay18 and are now threatened with the sack if they don’t accept a 20% pay cut. Other workers (as in some banks) are finding that the firm is being declared bankrupt without paying them for the last two months. The state is claiming it will compensate them by nationalising the bankrupt firms but workers have heard these promises before and they never become reality.
Currently though the class struggle is losing out to the nationalist war on both sides. It was ever thus. Even in Tsarist Russia in 1914 the orgy of patriotism set back a burgeoning class struggle until eighteen months had gone by and millions of dead and displaced had been recorded. The revolutionaries in the working class though don’t stop working to end imperialist war, not through pacifist sentiment but through class war. So far the best statement to come out of this war is from a group signing itself as “Azerbaijani Leftist Youth”. It begins well and we make no apologies for quoting it at length:
"The recent round of escalations between Azerbaijan and Armenia in Nagorno-Karabakh once again demonstrates how outdated the framework of a nation-state is for present realities. Inability to transcend the line of thought that divides people into humans and non-humans solely based on their place of birth and then proceeds to establish superiority of the “humans” over their dehumanized “others” as the sole possible scenario for a life within certain territorial boundaries is the only occupier that we have to struggle with. It is the occupier of our minds and abilities to think beyond the narratives and ways of imagining life, imposed upon us by our predatory nationalist governments. It is this line of thought that makes us oblivious to the exploitative conditions of our bare survival in our respective countries as soon as the “nation” issues its call to protect it from the “enemy”. Our enemy though is not a random Armenian, whom we have never met in our lives and possibly never will. Our enemy are the very people in power, those with specific names, who have been impoverishing and exploiting the ordinary people as well as our country’s resources for their benefit for more than two decades. They have been intolerant of any political dissent, severely oppressing the dissenters through their massive security apparatus. They have occupied natural sites, seasides, mineral resources for their own pleasure and use, restricting access of ordinary citizens to these sites. They have been destroying our environment, cutting down trees, contaminating water, and doing the full-scale “accumulation through dispossession”. They are complicit in the disappearance of historical and cultural sites and artifacts across the country. They have been diverting resources from essential sectors, such as education, healthcare, and social welfare, into the military, making profits for our capitalist neighbors with imperialist aspirations – Russia and Turkey. Strangely enough, every single person is aware of this fact, but the sudden wave of amnesia hits everyone as soon as the first bullet gets shot on the contact line between Armenia and Azerbaijan."19
This could be written about the ruling class, and what they are attempting, in various degrees in every state across the planet. The critique is pertinent but their conclusion is weak:
"We reject every nationalist and state-of-war narratives that exclude any possibility of us living together again on this soil. We call for peacebuilding and solidarity initiatives. We believe that there is an alternative way out of this stalemate through mutual respect, peaceful attitude, and cooperation."
Admirable sentiments but not connected to the fine class analysis they start off with. The brutality of imperialist war is integral to this decaying social system and it is only in its overthrow that we can get rid of the states (which exist to preserve the property of the wealthy – when they go to war to “defend the country” they mean defend what they actually own). Only the class war can halt imperialist war and this cannot be done by this or that set of workers in this or that country in isolation. Only the world working class acting in concert can change the perspective for the future.
So far the world working class has been unable to respond to all the physical and ideological attacks which it has experienced over the last half century. Many have put their faith in this or that reformer who claimed that they were socialist but on each occasion they have failed. However, in this Covid world there have been signs that the working class is beginning to rediscover itself. There have been over 400 strikes in the USA alone this year and similar numbers in Europe. In Asia and Latin America the class war is even more acute albeit largely unreported. These are as yet small signs of change but they are essential for the future as they are signs of workers’ self-activity. Liberation from capitalist mayhem cannot be a gift from those who have power – it can only be achieved by a vital, international and internationalist movement which puts class before nation. The ruling class everywhere can fight for “their country” – after all they actually own the property in each of them. The working class has neither property nor a country and is only being dragooned into killing fellow workers by the shoddy ideology of nationalism. Against the states that exist to make wars in defence of a tiny fraction of the planet’s population our slogan remains “No War But the Class War”. And our task remains the same. To carry on the struggle to establish a real working class international. Only by creating an internationalist workers’ movement with a programme and an international organisation dedicated to the creation of a world without states, without borders and armies and without exploitation, will the real human community come to flourish. A world to win. A species to save.
- 1Its other members are Belarus, Germany, Italy, Portugal, the Netherlands, Sweden, Finland, and Turkey as well as Armenia and Azerbaijan themselves.
- 2Oil and the Shifting Sands of Imperialism
- 3"Nagorno-Karabakh: New Opening, or New Peril?". International Crisis Group. 4 July 2016
- 4For the details on Belarus see: Winds of Change in Belarus: Neither Dictatorship Nor Democracy Offer Anything for the Working Class, Strikes in Belarus Escalate as Lukashenko's Power Wavers, and Belarus: Between Imperialist Feuds and Class Movements.
- 8See Laura Pitel in the Financial Times 8 October: ft.com
- 11The New Imperialist Alignments in Libya
- 12The Turkish Invasion of Syria
- 13Egypt’s Crisis Goes On: Power Struggles at the Top Whilst Those at the Bottom Die of Hunger and Poverty
- 15See foreignpolicy.com
- 16See The Armenian Genocide 1915