Nationalism & Nagorno-Karabakh

22 December 2020

In early November, Armenia, Azerbaijan and the Armenian-backed breakaway state of the Republic of Artsakh signed a Russian-brokered ceasefire that ended six weeks of fighting over the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh and surrounding regions. The agreement was a significant victory for both regional power Turkey and its ally Azerbaijan, which is now able to consolidate territorial gains made in the conflict at the expense of the already retreating Armenians.

Faced with the prospect of a humiliating defeat of its Armenian ally, Russian imperialism was forced to intervene to prevent what appeared to be an overwhelming Azeri military victory. Working in a much broader theater than Turkey, Russia is less concerned with small exchanges of territory and more with stability, control and global influence. The Russians sidelined the French and American imperialists by negotiating the deal outside the Minsk Group, the long-standing framework for dealing with the conflict. Some 2,000 Russian “peacekeepers” have now deployed to the front lines to implement the ceasefire and patrol the key Lachin corridor connecting the enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia. Although the agreement has resulted in a cessation of fighting for the time being, it will not resolve the long-standing ethno-national hostilities and territorial claims or the great power rivalry in the strategically important Caucasus.

Conflict in the Caucasus

The decades-long Armenian-Azeri conflict is a byproduct of capitalist counterrevolution in the former Soviet Union, subsequent rivalry for control over “spheres of influence” and supply routes for oil and gas in the resource-rich region, and a long history of complex national antagonisms. As part of the USSR, the region’s economic growth was based on collectivized property and central planning, which initially led to an amelioration of historical national animosities and increasing interpenetration of peoples in the Caucasus. However, Stalinist rule exacerbated rather than resolved national hostilities.

The decomposition and eventual collapse of the USSR in August 1991 led to demands for independence and the first Nagorno-Karabakh war (1988–94), as the various republics sought to benefit from the Soviet breakup to advance their own interests and fill the void left by Moscow. Armenia was at that time one of the more advanced parts of the USSR and by the mid-1990s had made use of this to gain effective control over not only the majority ethnic-Armenian territory of Nagorno-Karabakh but also roughly 9 percent of Azerbaijan outside the enclave, geographically linking it with Armenia and in the process forcing many Azeris from their homes.

A quarter century later, with oil revenues providing it a much larger GDP than its Armenian neighbor (US$41.7bn to $12.8bn respectively), Azerbaijan has modernized its military capacity and significantly increased defense spending, up from $120 million in 2000 to $1.85 billion in 2019, peaking at $3.4 billion in 2013 (World Bank). Emboldened by Turkish backing, Azeri President Ilham Aliyev saw an opportunity to launch an offensive to reassert control over the lost territories.

Armenia, traditionally the most pro-Russian ally in the Caucasus, is dependent on Moscow’s military support in the face of stronger Azerbaijan. Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan sought to inflame Armenian nationalism to defend the territory it had held for over two decades, but with the Azeris on the brink of total victory, and Russian backing not forthcoming, Armenia was forced to concede. The decisive Turkish intervention in support of Azerbaijan was particularly stinging, as lingering hostilities remain over the genocide carried out by the Turks against Armenians during World War I.

Turkey was involved in planning the war and operated drones during the conflict, seeking to strengthen its influence in the Caucasus and further consolidate the Pan-Turkish “one people, two countries” alliance with its Turkic-speaking, Muslim Azeri neighbor. Ankara would like to solidify an energy corridor alliance with Baku and increase its leverage as a key player in Eurasian energy supply routes. The regional power has been reducing its dependence on Russian natural gas over the last decade — down from almost 60 percent of total Turkish imports in 2011 to around one third in 2019. In consolidating its interests to the south, Turkey has also found itself backing different sides than Russia in the conflicts in Syria and Libya. Ankara is aware that a victory for its Azeri ally in gaining control over the breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh would dampen the long-standing national aspirations of Turkey’s estimated 15-20 million Kurds who seek to form their own state.

Russian Imperialism in its ‘Near Abroad’

Russian imperialist intervention in the region is primarily designed to maintain its role as the principal supplier in the Eurasian energy grid, as well as secure stability on its borders and enable intervention further afield. Russia is already the largest exporter of fossil fuels to the European Union (EU), accounting for roughly 30 percent of the EU’s oil imports and 40 percent of gas imports, half of which go to Germany and Italy.

Armenia is a key neocolonial ally allowing Russia to project power in the region. It is a member of Russian-dominated alliances the Eurasian Economic Union and the Collective Security Treaty Organization. Moscow has troops stationed in Armenia at the Gyumri military base and the Erebuni airfield. The Russian forces now on the ground in Azerbaijan — representing its biggest military intervention in the region since the 2008 war with Georgia over South Ossetia — will undoubtedly be used to further cement Moscow’s position as the dominant power in this part of its “near abroad,” as it attempts to block Turkish troops joining the “peacekeeping” effort.

Russia has huge investments in the region and across the former Soviet republics of Georgia and the Commonwealth of Independent States (Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Ukraine and Uzbekistan), calculated as $34.8 billion in FDI stock in 2016 (“Monitoring of Mutual Investments in CIS Countries 2017,” EDB Centre for Integration Studies, 2017). In particular, much of Armenia’s economy is under the tight grip of Russian capital, the country’s largest source of foreign investment. Putin’s “assets-for-debt” swap has allowed Russian firms to acquire key Armenian state-owned enterprises in hydroelectricity, nuclear power and cement, and establish a monopoly over large parts of the country’s strategic energy infrastructure, including 90 percent of power-generating capacities.

As the world’s second-largest arms exporter and a global leader in the production of weapons technology, Russia sells arms to both Armenia and Azerbaijan. Moscow now supplies 94 percent of military equipment obtained by Armenia, which has reportedly spent some $5 billion since 2015 on Russian-made missile systems and warplanes. The Azeris have “spent some $24bn on … tanks, APCs, artillery systems, multiple rocket launchers and drones made in Russia, Belarus, Turkey and Israel” (, 19 Oct 2020).

American imperialism, which also has substantial interests in the region, is frustrated at having been largely sidelined by both the Russians and the Turks in the current conflict. Washington was prevented from playing a key role in part due to preoccupations with its fractured domestic political situation and ongoing Covid-19 crisis. Gripped by over four years of pathological Russophobia stemming from assertions that Russian agents hacked the DNC server to “steal” the 2016 election from Hillary Clinton, the incoming Democratic administration is eager to show that it is “tough” on Russia. Joe Biden’s claims that “America is back” suggest that inter-imperialist rivalries are likely to escalate in this region and around the world.

Armenia and Azerbaijan are poor neocolonial capitalist states, reliant on close alignment with competing imperialist and regional players like Russia and Turkey. However, this does not mean that the conflict is simply a proxy war between the larger powers. Neither Russia nor Turkey wants to provoke direct conflict that could have enormous international repercussions, given Turkey’s membership in NATO and the strategic interests of the Western imperialists in the region. In the end, Moscow agreed to terms that were humiliating for its Armenian ally in the broader interests of stability in a region that it largely controls and from which it profits.

Marxists demand that all imperialist forces leave the region. In any conflict between the imperialists and indigenous forces on the ground opposing their presence, revolutionaries favor the defeat of the imperialists. We also call for the withdrawal of Turkish forces. While Turkey is a regional power rather than an imperialist (and considerably weaker than Russia on the world stage), its intervention to further pan-Turkic expansionist aims does no good for the people of either Armenia or Azerbaijan.

There is no reason for revolutionaries to support either side in the Armenian-Azeri military conflict, which is dominated by reactionary, irredentist territorial claims over the disputed region. However, we condemn any nationalist atrocities perpetrated by either side and recognize the right of every community to defend itself against violence from the state or national/religious extremists.

Nagorno-Karabakh & the National Question

There are two principal nations involved in the conflict: Armenians (majority Armenian-speaking, Christian) and Azeris (majority Turkic-speaking, Shiite Muslim). As Leninists we recognize the right of both nations to self-determination, and each has the right to defend itself against all forms of national oppression. We advocate equal rights for all ethnic, national, linguistic, religious and minority groups in the region that may also be targeted (e.g., Russians, Yazidis, Kurds, Christians, Muslims), including the right of return for any displaced Armenian and Azeri refugees. However, in an ethnically mixed region with competing and overlapping territorial claims and a history of ethnic displacement, ruled by antagonistic capitalist states supported by opposing regional and imperialist powers, the exercising of these rights is far from simple.

In some disputed areas of the current conflict, one ethnicity is dominant (e.g., Nagorno-Karabakh is approximately 80 percent ethnic Armenian), while in others the two peoples are more mixed (e.g., the Agdam, Kalbajar and Lachin districts), and in many areas the demographics have changed significantly over time. Further complicating the situation, Nagorno-Karabakh is not geographically contiguous with Armenia, nor capable of forming a viable independent state based on its own political economy or of defending its own borders. Attempts to consolidate closer alignment with Armenia by holding the Lachin corridor and other territory between Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia have led to the displacement of Azeris from the area.

The roles are similar yet reversed in Nakhchivan, the ethnic-Azeri exclave that is part of the Republic of Azerbaijan but located on the other side of Armenia with no contiguous territory. Prior to the establishment of the USSR, up to 40 percent of the population were ethnic Armenians, whose numbers dropped steadily over the 20th century and today there are virtually none in the area. During the first Nagorno-Karabakh war, the Azeris fought tooth and nail to maintain control over the thin strip of territory. In May 1992, when Armenia was poised to advance deep into Nakhchivan, both Turkey and Russia sent thousands of troops to defend Azerbaijan and Armenia respectively, and threatened to ignite a major conflagration between the two powers over a territory of just over 5,000 square kilometers.

Other things being equal, if the people of Nagorno-Karabakh want to join Armenia, then they should have that right. Marxists do not necessarily support the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan and, in theory, various possible configurations of state borders are possible (e.g., regional autonomy, unifying with a nationally similar neighboring state, separating to form an independent nation state). But in the imperialist epoch with competing national claims, isolated areas like Nagorno-Karabakh or Nakhchivan can only be maintained through brutal military occupation or the intervention of regional and imperialist powers that necessarily prioritize their own interests well above those of the people of the region. The result is that one national grievance is satisfied only for others to be created or expanded.

The situation is best characterized by “interpenetrated peoples”:

“… complex cases of two peoples interspersed, or ‘interpenetrated,’ throughout a single geographical territory (Cyprus, Northern Ireland, Palestine/Israel), [in which] the abstract right of each to self-determination cannot be realized equitably within the framework of capitalist property relations.…
“Unlike the classical cases of oppressed nations addressed by Lenin [e.g., Norway from Sweden], simply advocating the right of self-determination in such situations does not resolve the problem, because two (or more) hostile populations cannot both self-determine themselves on the same piece of land. Under capitalism the exercise of the legitimate right of self-determination by either population can only come at the expense of the other. Such a ‘solution’ can only result in maintaining or inverting the existing relations of oppression.
—“In Defense of the Trotskyist Program,” Trotskyist Bulletin No.3

The war and the November settlement have displaced Armenians from Azeri occupied land, while failing to satisfy all Azeri claims from the previous war. It is clear that, in the context of two hostile capitalist states, there is no solution to the national question in Nagorno-Karabakh and other disputed territory in the region that would not inflame national antagonisms and entail subordination of members of one or likely both national minorities. In the bloody 1988-94 war there were tens of thousands of dead on each side with estimates of up to half-a-million Armenians and 750,000 Azeris displaced — such ethnic cleansing and forced “population transfers” cannot be ruled out in the future.

For a Voluntary Socialist Federation in the Caucasus!

A revolutionary policy for the entire Caucasus must begin with unambiguously defending the rights of all ethnic, national, linguistic and religious groups in the region. Ensuring the right to self-determination of the various intermingled ethno-national groups is the job of the Caucasian working class, not the imperialists or national bourgeoisies, and can only be carried out via class struggle across national lines. In the early years of the Soviet Union, the Bolsheviks attempted to address the complex national situation in the region through the establishment of the Soviet Socialist Republics (SSR) of Azerbaijan, Armenia and Georgia and, within them, the Autonomous SSRs of Nakhchivan, Abkhazia and Adjar.

While a Transcaucasian socialist republic (i.e., a single state comprised of the existing nations in the region) is likely to be the best framework for resolving existing national hostilities under workers’ power, a revolutionary government must be careful not to alienate the constituent nationalities from the broader project of voluntary unity by imposing unpopular federation. Stalin’s project of forced unification into the Transcaucasian Socialist Federative Soviet Republic in 1922, against the wishes of an ill and dying Lenin and running roughshod over opposition from the local Georgian Bolsheviks (known as “the Georgian Affair”), simply injected bitterness, poisoned cross-national relations and set the scene for national conflicts far into the future.

A voluntary socialist federation that reflects the will of the population by allowing for degrees of autonomy where necessary, as part of a broader Socialist United States of Eurasia, could establish the framework in which to equitably resolve the competing national disputes in the Caucasus and many other former Soviet states. Ultimately, only rational economic planning under workers’ democracy can create an egalitarian social order free from oppression and exploitation.

The Caucasian working class requires its own political party committed to fighting for a revolutionary proletarian seizure of power. Key to this is the understanding that one’s own ruling class is the main enemy, not the working people of other nations. To avoid yet another bloody internecine conflict, a Bolshevik organization would seek to build multi-communal/ethnic workers’ self-defense guards rooted in all sections of the Caucasian working class to defend any communities and workers’ organizations targeted by pogromist and state violence. In the heat of the current conflict, this may seem a distant prospect, but it is the only way forward.

Related articles:
Imperialist Rivalries Escalate: Russia — Capital Export & Global Power (1917 No. 41)
In Defense of the Trotskyist Program, Trotskyist Bulletin No.3