Only socialism can halt endless wars and sectarian divisions created by capitalism

Azeri tanks in Nagorno-Karabakh from a previous conflict, photo

Azeri tanks in Nagorno-Karabakh from a previous conflict, photo   (Click to enlarge: opens in new window)

Clare Doyle, Committee for a Workers’ International

The latest flare-up in the long-running dispute between Azerbaijan and Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh started on 27 September. Dozens have been killed and hundreds wounded in and around the enclave, but it has also taken on regional and even global dimensions.

The so-called autonomous enclave, with a population of less than 150,000, is high up in the Caucasus Mountains surrounded by Azerbaijan. A major conflict developed over control of the area between Armenia and Azerbaijan in 1988, as President Gorbachev introduced reforms – ‘Glasnost’ (openness) and ‘Perestroika’ (restructuring) – aimed at preventing the collapse of the Soviet Union.

There had been two demonstrations in Armenia with a million protesters – more than a quarter of the population. The threat of general strike action, and an actual strike in Nagorno-Karabakh of more than a month, extracted a promise from Gorbachev of the investment of a vast sum of money into the economy.

Peter Taaffe, political secretary of the Socialist Party, wrote an article at the time entitled: ‘Splits at the top, upheavals from below’. “Gorbachev’s concessions”, he wrote, “may temporarily mollify the Armenians, but they will not solve the central denial of the democratic right of the population of Nagorno-Karabakh to determine its own fate.”

Bloody toll

Five years of fighting followed with over 30,000 dead and one million displaced – the majority Azeris. A peace agreement, brokered by a number of European powers, was eventually signed in Minsk in 1994.

Legally, control of Nagorno-Karabakh was to be accorded to Azerbaijan, but the Armenian majority in the enclave continued to administer it, and some Azeri territory between the enclave and Armenia itself was also occupied.

Known as a ‘frozen conflict’, it is also one of the world’s oldest, and sporadic fighting can break out at any time. A five-day war in 2016 saw hundreds of deaths. In July of this year, at least 16 people were killed, including an Azerbaijani general.

The spark for the present conflict remains obscure, so do details of what planes and tanks have been destroyed by whom. The Armenian ambassador to Russia, with whom his country has a ‘security pact’, alleged that Turkey sent 4,000 mercenaries from Syria to fight alongside its armed forces. President Erdogan of Turkey, who supports mainly Turkic Azerbaijan, denies this, but claims to have killed “a large number of ethnic Armenian mercenaries” on its territory. Both countries have declared martial law and mobilised troops, the Armenian government claiming to be acting in self-defence.

On 4 October came reports of heavy aerial bombardment of Nagorno-Karabakh’s capital, Stepanakert, with the use of precision guided missiles and drones as Azerbaijan forces tried to cut off the enclave from Armenia (with which it has no border). An Azeri commentator told Al Jazeera news agency that Armenia was out to drag Azerbaijan into all-out war.

Nagorno-Karabakh, known in Armenian as Artsakh and formerly also populated by Kurdish people, is now of great strategic importance for the supply of energy from Russia to Europe. Gas and oil pipelines run through its territory.

Recently, the UN Security Council announced emergency talks. This was “amid fears the fighting could spread to new fronts and draw in other regional actors”. As the Guardian’s journalist, Michael Safi, put it: “A prolonged war could drag in Russia, which sells weapons to both countries, but has a military alliance with Armenia, as well as Iran, which has a sometimes fraught relationship with Azerbaijan”. Russia has military bases in Armenia, a country of just two million inhabitants (Azerbaijan has over ten million).

As relations between Putin’s regime and the European Union have deteriorated, first over Ukraine and more recently over Belarus and the Navalny poisoning, securing an alternative to the Nord Stream 2 European pipeline acquires greater importance for Russia.

The Financial Times commented: “Russia, which leads mediation efforts alongside the US and France, said it would use its influence with the former soviet nations to seek a ceasefire”. However, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan is opposed to peace talks under Russian mediation.

Turkey’s president has seized the chance to take on Russia in yet another arena, in part to divert attention from economic difficulties within his own country.

Exploiting nationalist and religious sentiments, Erdogan is also playing on the bitter history of conflict with Armenia and western support, particularly French imperialism, for Armenia.

Turkey, despite buying weapons from Moscow, is already confronting Russia in a proxy war in Syria as well as in Libya. As the Economist said: “They run the risk of fighting a third one in the Caucasus”. Turkey’s further involvement in Azerbaijan’s war could risk ‘overreach’.

The United Nations Security Council has called for an immediate ceasefire around Nagorno-Karabakh and a peace conference, as has Angela Merkel. But neither has little more to suggest than a return to the 1994 agreement.

President Macron of France, where there is a sizeable Armenian community, has called for “dialogue” over Nagorno-Karabakh. He accused Turkey of “warlike” rhetoric and of encouraging Azerbaijan to reconquer Nagorno-Karabakh.

Turkey’s military forces are undoubtedly actively involved. Macron is already at loggerheads with Turkey over the Libyan civil war, and oil and gas claims in the Mediterranean.

Facing domestic social and economic problems, Macron has attempted to play a role as international trouble-shooter – in relation to Lebanon, Belarus, Libya… Recently, he telephoned Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump on consecutive days.

France, Russia and the US are co-chairs of the Minsk Group of 13 countries set up by the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe in 1992 to find a peaceful solution over Nagorno-Karabakh.

Iran has made an offer to broker peace talks to end the conflict. It borders both combatant countries and, perhaps surprisingly, given religious affiliations, has better relations with Armenia than with Azerbaijan.

In oil-rich Azerbaijan, President Ilham Aliyev runs a dictatorial regime. As elsewhere in the former Soviet Union, he is surrounded by super-rich oligarchs. He has little concern for his own people, let alone those of Nagorno-Karabakh, the majority of whom live in poverty.

Over the years he, like Erdogan, has diverted discontent at home by whipping up hostility towards Armenians. In January 1990, a seven-day pogrom was conducted against Armenians in the capital Baku, during which Armenians were beaten, murdered, and expelled from the city. In the present conflict, Azerbaijani civilians have been encouraged to march against Armenians.

‘Der Spiegel’s’ website reported on 28 September that last July, after clashes with Armenia, riots broke out after “tens of thousands demonstrated in Baku for war with Armenia… The protests at that time were directed not only against the enemy Armenia, but also against the country’s own leadership… For Aliyev this was a warning signal. Shortly afterwards he dismissed his foreign minister”. Now Azerbaijani civilians have been encouraged to march against and fight Armenians.

‘Leftist Youth’

On the other hand, there are those like the ‘Azerbaijani Leftist Youth’ who denounce the spread of nationalist propaganda and vast military spending of both governments in the context of severely underfunded educational and welfare services. It argues for equal redistribution of resources to counter the accumulation of “more and more daily misery”.

“People on both sides”, they write, “Have suffered and endured through pandemic and economic recession… It is long overdue that we, Azerbaijani and Armenian youth, take the resolution of this outdated conflict into our hands… not the men in suits, whose aim is the accumulation of capital… It is very important to revive political, grassroots initiatives, comprised of ordinary local citizens, that will re-establish peace talks and cooperation.”

They oppose any further mobilisation of the country’s youth into the “meaningless” war and attempts to “deepen hatred between the two peoples”. They argue for rebuilding the “trust between our societies and the youth”. They reject nationalism and argue for “mutual respect, a peaceful attitude and cooperation”.

The Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI – the socialist international organisation to which the Socialist Party is affiliated) supports the right of nations to self-determination while defending the cultural, language, and religious rights of small nations and minorities within nations.

On a capitalist basis, the likelihood of clashes between nations and within nations is ever-present. In the international climate of today, with deep economic and humanitarian crises brought on by the Covid-19 pandemic, national and international tensions are exacerbated. Socialist ideas must come to the fore in campaigns against war and for the rights of all working people.

Armenia and Azerbaijan were both independent republics within the USSR, having become part of it in the early 1920s. Nagorno-Karabakh was originally designated as Armenian, but Stalin, when he was People’s Commissar of Nationalities, actually reversed the decision awarding it to Azerbaijan.

After the break-up of the Soviet Union at the end of 1991, both countries became independent, restoring capitalism and annihilating state ownership and planning. For more than five years they were at loggerheads over Nagorno-Karabakh with tragic consequences.

The clock of history cannot be turned back. It shows that, on a capitalist basis, there is no end to conflict between nations. “Unless tensions cool,” said the Financial Times, “this particular frozen conflict could get very hot indeed”.