Ethnic cleansing in Nagorno-Karabakh and a jostling sea of powers

October 26, 2023
Nagorno Karabakh cr Marcin Konsek Wikimedia Commons
'We are the Mountains' monument in Nagorno-Karabakh. Photo: Marcin Konsek/Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0)

In the course of just one week in late September, the entire population of ethnic Armenians fled Nagorno-Karabakh.

Azerbaijan launched a full-scale invasion of Nagorno-Karabakh (also known as Artsakh) on September 19, bombing towns and villages. According to a statement issued by the Russian Socialist Movement (RSM), the invasion was carried out under the pretext of an “anti-terrorist operation”.

“Aliyev’s militarist regime has overtly fomented nationalist hysteria and prepared for a new war aimed at ethnic cleansing,” wrote RSM.

“[A]ccording to the Human Rights Ombudsman of the Republic of Artsakh, Gegham Stepanyan, 200 people were killed and 400 wounded,” including children, women and the elderly.

The invading force demanded the withdrawal of Armenian troops and the dissolution of Nagorno-Karabakh’s authorities.

After 24 hours of fighting, the region’s authorities laid down their arms and agreed to a Russian-brokered ceasefire. This precipitated an agreement to dissolve the region’s state institutions by the end of this year, and caused the mass exodus.

The Lachin corridor — the only highway connecting Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia — had been blockaded by Azerbaijan since December last year, leading to shortages of critical supplies. Gas supplies were also suspended, threatening a humanitarian catastrophe.

This blockade and invasion follows the 2020 war, and continues a long, complex and violent history in the region.

These events represent a shifting hegemony in the region, and the diverging political economies of Armenia and Azerbaijan over the past 30 years. The conflict fuses imperialist power contests, the building of nation-states in the post-Soviet period and the ravenous competition for resources stirred by capitalist globalisation.

In Azerbaijan, the ruling Aliyev family has been in power since 1994, when former KGB officer and Azerbaijani SSR leader Heydar Aliyev took over. His son Ilham Aliyev came to power in 2003, and cemented a longstanding authoritarian regime propped up by oil and gas revenues.

The power of the Azerbaijani state and its crony-capitalist political elites goes beyond its massive arms trades and security infrastructure, extending to offshore money laundering and the corruption of political elites globally.

New extractivist British-owned projects in Artsakh, in which the Aliyevs have their own stakes, is characteristic of this complicated, but profit-driven pattern. As Sevinj Samadzade, writing in Jacobin, points out, “the pursuit of blockade, war, and control becomes a tool to serve its interests at the expense of the working class and broader society. The family’s authoritarian governance of the nation-state secures the population’s compliance for its stabilizing and overseeing capitalism.”

The ruling class of Armenia on the other hand, while also couching political and social discontent in nationalistic language, took the path of a “mild imitation democratic” regime, according to Dmitri Furman.

The first post-Soviet president of Armenia was removed by a bloodless military coup in 1998. The Robert Kocharyan (1998–2008) and Serzh Sargsyan (2008‒18) presidencies tethered political legitimacy to a hard line on Nagorno-Karabakh, fuelling violence and serving to weaken legitimacy in the wake of recent events.

While the economies of the two countries after the First Nagorno-Karabakh War, (1988‒94) were more or less of equal size, the Azerbaijani economy today is 10 times that of Armenia’s. Azerbaijan, known as “the land of fire” for its immense oil resources, has attracted Western capital. Armenia, on the other hand, has remained economically and diplomatically subjected to Russia.

I travelled to Armenia’s capital, Yerevan, in October last year, just after Russian President Vladimir Putin’s “mobilisation speech”, following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Accommodation was booked out, as 100,000 Russians had fled there since the invasion — making up 10% of Yerevan’s population of 1 million.

A vestige of historic Russian-Armenian ties, the Russians I spoke to in Yerevan felt much safer there than in neighbouring Georgia or Azerbaijan.

Russia’s stance proved crucial in the recent invasion of Nagorno-Karabakh.

Aliyev’s speeches have mentioned that “the status quo is dead” — his government’s new central idea for the resolution of the conflict. In other words, no autonomy for Nagorno-Karabakh.

Russia has supplied a “peace-keeping” force in Nagorno Karabakh since 2020. But its role and allegiance has shifted since its invasion of Ukraine. Its historic ally Armenia has drifted toward the West and Russia’s changing relationship with Turkey may have sent a signal to Turkey’s ally Azerbaijan that it had a green light to assert complete dominance over Nagorno-Karabakh.

As a result of weakening Russian power, the region is now embedded in layers of contradictory arrangements.

The Baku-Tblisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline and the Baku–Tbilisi–Erzurum natural gas pipeline — both comissioned in 2006 — pass through Turkey and Azerbaijan, but intentionally bypass Armenia, Russia and Iran.

In the context of the war in Ukraine, this has enabled Azerbaijan to present itself as a reliable supplier of energy to Europe. The European Commission signed a deal with Azerbaijan last year to double its natural gas supply to the European Union over the next five years. Despite this, Azerbaijan augments its own exports with Russian gas, helping Putin circumnavigate sanctions.

On top of this, Azerbaijan’s contentious relationship with Iran has endeared it to Israel and Washington. Turkey has further propped up and supported Azerbaijan, and Aliyev’s long-demanded Zangezur corridor — which would connect it with Turkey and cut off Armenia from its smaller border with Iran — is seeming increasingly likely.

The ongoing ethnic cleansing of Nagorno-Karabakh’s ethnic Armenians is now prompting action from Europe and the West.

In a resolution adopted on October 5, Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) condemned Azerbaijan’s attack on Nagorno-Karabakh and called for targeted sanctions against officials in Baku. MEPs said the attack “constitutes a gross violation of international law and human rights and a clear infringement of previous attempts to achieve a ceasefire”. The resolution said the current situation “amounts to ethnic cleansing” and called on “the EU and member states to immediately offer all necessary assistance to Armenia to deal with the influx of refugees … and the subsequent humanitarian crisis”.

However, with immediate material interests blinding diplomatic and humanitarian solutions, and with the entire ethnic population having already fled, is it a case of too little too late?

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