War in Nagorno-Karabakh

What is at stake in the conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia, and who stands to gain from it?

Lalkar writers

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Lalkar writers

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A violent and potentially devastating conflict has broken out in Azerbaijan.

The artillery and shelling that has rocked the area of Nagorno-Karabakh, a former autonomous oblast inside the old Azerbaijani Soviet Republic, has brought Turkey, guns blazing, into the territory of the former Soviet Union, with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan proclaiming that Turkey and Azerbaijan constitute “one nation, two states”.

This bourgeois-nationalist pan-islamic fallacy is the ideological cover President Erdogan gives to Ankara’s desire for a new Ottoman caliphate. Promises of an expansion of Turkish geopolitical influence and a desire by the Turkish bourgeoisie to become a ‘big player’ in the region are the reasons Erdogan remains in power. He is a representative of Turkish capitalism (not least its growing domestic armaments industry), which is undertaking increasingly desperate manoeuvres in search of a victory.

This behaviour has already led to one abortive coup in 2016 and, should Turkey keep ruffling feathers, we might expect another. The recent dispute with the United States over the purchase of Russian weapons systems now results in regular condemnations in the imperialist press, and appraisals like the following from the Washington Post:

“Turkey was once a reliable Nato ally that hewed to the west’s strategic priorities. But in the past several years Mr Erdogan has increasingly sought to make his nation into a geopolitical power in its own right, even as he has dismantled its democracy. In the past few months Ankara has supplied materiel and fighters to one side of Libya’s civil war; risked war with Greece over disputed waters in the eastern Mediterranean; and intervened to block an attempt by the Syrian government to recapture the northern province of Idlib.” (Editorial Board, 3 October 2020)

Readers will remember Erdogan’s lamentations just a few years ago about how the Treaty of Lausanne (1923) had robbed Turkey of vast territory. Little Turkey should really have kept hold of land as far west as modern-day Romania and as far east as Iraq. In fact, with his ‘one nation, two states’ reasoning Erdogan lays claim (if only spiritually for the moment) not only to the Azerbaijani capital of Baku but also the Iraqi city of Mosul, which he believes should never have been relinquished by modern Turkey’s founder Kemal Atatürk.

In these last years, a failed attempt has been made by Turkey to grab a slice of Syria, and the success of that scheme should have taught the Turkish ruling class that the days of taking territory in this way are over. Following ignominious defeat in that theatre, it appears that Ankara has chosen to redeploy a number of mercenaries from Syria to Azerbaijan.

Conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh

Discussing the dangers of the Turkish-Azeri attack on Nagorno-Karabakh, George Galloway summarised the situation:

“Sometimes a cloud no bigger than a man’s hand can be a harbinger of storms to come. One such cloud may be called Nagorno-Karabakh, a tiny enclave of Armenian people inside Azerbaijan which has been a source of difficulties for the Republic of Azerbaijan for many years.

“Under international law, Nagorno-Karabakh belongs to Azerbaijan and is internationally recognised as one of its territories; the Armenian people who occupy it, however, say it is a ‘disputed territory’ and that the land belongs to them.”

Transcaucasia before 1917

The Russian empire before the Soviet revolution was a veritable prison-house of nations. National minorities were unable to conduct their business in their own languages and the rights of the minorities were trampled underfoot. Kirghiz poet Ali Tokombayev wrote:

Our language was covered with wormwood,
With the darkness of ages, invasions and wars.
Our language and people were prisoned.

This was the situation the proletarian revolution inherited.

“National discrimination,” said the Bolshevik congress in 1921, “rested up to now on the economic discrimination which was the product of history. This discrimination expressed itself primarily in the fact that these outlying sections of Russia, being in the position of colonies and semi-colonies, were forcibly maintained in the role of purveyors of raw materials of all sorts to the industrial centres of the country.”

The economic underdevelopment of the colonies meant that the people there were also deprived of cultural development. The development of a local intelligentsia was hampered, there was no literature save what the autocracy permitted, and the only schooling was in the seminaries. Not only were large sections of the people illiterate, but before the Bolsheviks came to power a great many nationalities did not even possess a written form of their language.

The triumph of bolshevism uprooted economic and cultural backwardness and discrimination. Transcaucasia and Soviet central Asia were transformed economically. These countries passed from colonial agrarian backwardness to agro-industrial technically-advanced industry on a socialist economic basis in a matter of a few years. With this development came also a great cultural development of the people.

Under tsardom the national sentiments amongst the oppressed people could be used by the socialists in a progressive way in the struggle against Russian imperialism, the autocracy and the remnants of feudalism. But these sentiments were also used by the autocracy (and later on by the bourgeois nationalists) to sow hatred, fomenting pogroms and strife amongst the people.

A desire to modernise Russia, to bring her social and political systems into line with the developing economic forces of modern capitalism, animated discussions amongst bourgeois nationalists from the 1870s onwards. In Transcaucasia (modern day Georgia, Azerbaijan and Armenia) national groups sprang up during this period.

One such group, the Meori dassy, was a Georgian nationalist group many of whose adherents who went on to become prominent mensheviks, collaborators with British imperialism and with the Ottoman empire. After the Russian revolution in 1917, these mensheviks, in collaboration with imperialism and various other nationalist forces (Mussavatists in Azerbaijan and Dashnaks in Armenia), led anti-Soviet resistance in attempts to keep Transcaucasia divided and out of the socialist camp. These nationalists squabbled over resources, provoked pogroms and pitted one group against another in an attempt to hold onto power.

It was from this cauldron of contradictions that Leninism developed its national policy, and the greatest contribution to Marxism on this question was made by the Georgian Josef Stalin in his book Marxism and the National Question.

Stalin and other prominent Bolsheviks from Transcaucasia waged a fierce struggle against the bourgeois nationalists and managed to forge unity amongst the oppressed peoples of Transcaucasia. This eventually resulted in the formation of Soviet republics (Georgia, Azerbaijan and Armenia) and the existence of autonomous oblasts (regions), such as North and South Ossetia and Abkhazia inside the Georgian and Russian republics and Nagorno-Karabakh inside the Azerbaijan SSR.

The Soviet approach to solving the national question, which guaranteed the rights of minorities and established autonomous regions within the republics, ensured that the Soviet Union was largely free of the internecine warfare that has ravaged large parts of the former Soviet Union and eastern bloc ever since the collapse of the USSR.

A great strength of the Bolshevik party was that the masses of the national minorities trusted the Bolsheviks and provided the party with their best sons and daughters. Enjoying full participation in Soviet life during the Stalin epoch, many outstanding Bolshevik leaders, true proletarian internationalists, came from the minorities of Transcaucasia.

Soviet Union brings peace to Transcaucasia

In 1921, in the thick of the struggle against bourgeois nationalists in Transcaucasia and bourgeois deviationists inside the communist party, Josef Stalin addressed a party meeting in Georgia:

“I remember the years 1905-17, when complete fraternal solidarity was to be observed among the workers and among the labouring population of the Transcaucasian nationalities in general; when fraternal ties bound the Armenian, Georgian, Azerbaijanian and Russian workers into one socialist family. Now, upon my arrival in Tiflis, I have been astounded by the absence of the former solidarity between the workers of the nationalities of Transcaucasia.

“Nationalism has developed among the workers and peasants; a feeling of distrust of their comrades of other nationalities has grown strong: anti-Armenian, anti-Tatar, anti-Georgian, anti-Russian and every other sort of nationalism is now rife. The old ties of fraternal confidence are severed, or at least greatly weakened. Evidently, the three years of existence of nationalist governments in Georgia (Mensheviks), in Azerbaijan (Mussavatists) and in Armenia (Dashnaks) have left their mark.

“By pursuing their nationalist policy, by working among the toilers in a spirit of aggressive nationalism, these nationalist governments finally brought matters to the point where each of these small countries found itself surrounded by a hostile nationalist atmosphere, which deprived Georgia and Armenia of Russian grain and Azerbaijanian oil, and Azerbaijan and Russia of goods passing through Batum – not to speak of armed clashes (Georgian-Armenian war) and massacres (Armenian-Tatar), as the natural results of the nationalist policy.

“No wonder that in this poisonous nationalist atmosphere the old international ties have been severed and the minds of the workers poisoned by nationalism. And since the survivals of this nationalism have not yet been eliminated among the workers, this circumstance (nationalism) is the greatest obstacle to uniting the economic (and military) efforts of the Transcaucasian Soviet republics.

“Well, I have said already that without such union, the economic progress of the Transcaucasian Soviet republics, and especially of Soviet Georgia, is inconceivable. Hence the immediate task of the communists of Georgia is to wage a ruthless struggle against nationalism, to restore the old fraternal international bonds that existed before the nationalist Menshevik government came on the scene, and thus to create that healthy atmosphere of mutual confidence which is necessary for uniting the economic efforts of the Transcaucasian Soviet republics and for the economic revival of Georgia.

“This does not mean, of course, that there ought no longer to be an independent Georgia, or an independent Azerbaijan, and so forth. In my opinion, the draft scheme that is circulating among some comrades for restoring the old gubernias (Tiflis, Baku, Erivan), to be headed by a single Transcaucasian government, is a utopia, and a reactionary utopia at that; for this scheme is undoubtedly prompted by the desire to turn back the wheel of history.

“To restore the old gubernias and to dissolve the national governments in Georgia, Azerbaijan and Armenia would be tantamount to restoring landlordism and liquidating the gains of the revolution. This has nothing in common with communism.

“It is precisely in order to dispel the atmosphere of mutual distrust, and to restore the bonds of fraternity between the workers of the nationalities of Transcaucasia and Russia, that the independence both of Georgia and of Azerbaijan and Armenia must be preserved. This does not preclude, but, on the contrary, presupposes the necessity of mutual economic and other support, and also the necessity of uniting the economic efforts of the independent Soviet republics on the basis of voluntary agreement, on the basis of a convention.

“According to information I have received, it was recently decided in Moscow to render Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan some small assistance in the shape of a loan of 6,500,000 roubles in gold. Furthermore, I have learned that Georgia and Armenia are receiving oil products from Azerbaijan free of charge, something that is inconceivable in the life of bourgeois states, even such as are united by the notorious ‘Entente cordiale’.

“It scarcely needs proof that these and similar acts do not weaken, but strengthen the independence of these states.

“Thus, to eliminate nationalist survivals, to cauterise them with red-hot irons, and to create a healthy atmosphere of mutual confidence among the toilers of the Transcaucasian nationalities in order to facilitate and hasten the uniting of the economic efforts of the Transcaucasian Soviet republics (without which the economic revival of Soviet Georgia is inconceivable), while preserving the independence of Soviet Georgia – such is the second immediate task dictated to the communists of Georgia by the concrete conditions of existence of that country.” (The immediate tasks of communism in Georgia and Transcaucasia)

Today’s conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh

A lasting legacy of the Stalin period was the peaceful life enjoyed by the national minorities in the USSR, which lasted until the time of the break-up and dissolution of the multinational socialist state.

In the late 1980s, Nagorno-Karabakh slid towards war as Armenians and Azerbaijanis clashed over control of Nagorno-Karabakh, which had applied to be transferred into the Armenian SSR. A war in the early 1990s led to bloodshed and a bitter truce, and there have been flashpoints in the years since, not least in 2016 when 100 lives were lost.

The present conflict has its roots in preparations undertaken by the Azeri government in tandem with Turkey.

Nagorno-Karabakh, Transcaucasia’s Somerset

Nagorno-Karabakh (4,400km2) is about the size of Somerset (4,100km2), although its geography couldn’t be more different. Unlike Somerset, Nagorno-Karabakh is a mountainous area; its biggest peak on the Murovdagh mountain range rises to 3,724 metres, making Somerset’s Quantocks look like mere molehills (384 metres is the highest point in the Quantocks).

The population is presently said to be 90 percent Armenian and numbers around 150,000.

Nagorno-Karabakh is unofficially assisted by the Armenian state, through which most of its trade is carried out, especially the export of Karabakh wine. Armenia continues to control the main mountain pass into the area. On the slopes of the hillsides Armenian vintners carry on the traditions of the Greek viniculturists, and it is said that wine production here and in Azerbaijan has gone on for millennia.

In Soviet times there was a large brandy production industry here, showing quite clearly how Gosplan carried out its work in every detail. With the collapse of the USSR most of this industry was destroyed.

Azerbaijan, with its oil wealth and long history of industrial development (including the world’s first deep oil well) is economically vastly stronger in every respect, but despite its strength and repeated attempts to do so, it has been unable to take back the area.


According to the Financial Times: “Armenia and its sizeable diaspora have poured significant resources into rebuilding Stepanakert [named after Stepan Shaumyan, the Bolshevik hero of the Baku commune], a town of about 55,000 people, which boasts new roads, well-stocked shops … But scars from the wars remain.

“A number of towns populated by thousands of ethnic Azeris during the Soviet era, such as Aghdam, now lie empty. As Azerbaijan has … continued its aerial and missile assault, it claims to have captured several strategic heights and to have taken out a number of Armenian defensive fortifications. Despite the use of Turkish-made drones and sophisticated weaponry, much of the fighting is akin with conflicts fought a century ago …

“Azerbaijan has been boosted by unprecedented backing from Turkey, which denies Armenian claims it has sent foreign mercenaries and its own air support to help Azeri forces but has rejected western and Russian calls for a ceasefire.

“Russia, which has a defence pact with Armenia but which is also a longstanding ally of Azerbaijan, has found itself struggling to influence events in a region it has long dominated.” (Nagorno-Karabakh conflict reignites worst clashes in decades by Max Seddon, 2 October 2020)


Despite repeated attempts to negotiate a ceasefire (and commitments by both sides to honour one), the war rages on.

“Armenia’s defence ministry released video footage of what it said was Azerbaijani troops ‘grossly’ violating the ceasefire with artillery bombardments four minutes after the truce came into effect. Azerbaijan said Armenian forces continued shelling the conflict line and border areas north of Nagorno-Karabakh.” (Armenia and Azerbaijan trade accusations as new ceasefire fails by Max Seddon and Laura Pitel, Financial Times, 18 October 2020)


Many western newspaper reports have been only too happy to point out the involvement of Turkish military hardware in the conflict. According to the Financial Times:

“The development of Turkish-made armed drones marries perfectly with the more aggressive foreign policy stance adopted by Recep Tayyip Erdogan in recent years, with the Turkish president increasingly willing to deploy hard power in support of his international aims.

“‘Military force has become a really key element of Turkish foreign policy,’ said Rob Lee, a former US marine and military researcher based at King’s College London. Armed drones, he said, offered Ankara ‘a lower threshold way of getting involved in conflicts’.

“It is not clear whether the TB2 drones that analysts say have been deployed in Nagorno-Karabakh are owned and operated by Azerbaijan’s military or by their Turkish counterparts. Their manufacturer, the Turkish military and Turkey’s defence industries directorate all declined to comment.” (Turkey’s armed drones bolster Erdogan’s hard-power tactics by Laura Pitel, 8 October 2020)

One of the leading manufacturers according to the Financial Times is state-owned Turkish Aerospace Industries, whose Anka-S armed drone reputedly took part in a Turkish campaign against Syrian troops earlier this year. But a large part of the fleet used by the Turkish military in Syria – as well as the drones deployed in Libya and in Nagorno-Karabakh – is said by the Financial Times to be the brainchild of Selcuk Bayraktar, an aerospace engineer who in 2016 married Mr Erdogan’s daughter Sumeyye.

Carey Cavanaugh, a former US ambassador and chief US negotiator for the conflict, believes: “The use of drones by both parties in the disputed Caucasus region has radically altered the scale of the fighting and the potential death toll, allowing them to hit targets previously restricted by the mountainous terrain and use of trench warfare.”

The Financial Times remarked: “Ankara hopes that the high-profile use of its technology will boost the country’s defence exports. Turkey’s foreign defence sales still pale in comparison with those of the US, which earned $56bn from arms exports in 2018, or Russia, which earned $13.7bn the same year.

“The country sold $3bn worth of equipment to other nations last year – mostly tanks and armoured vehicles, aircraft parts, and guns and ammunition, according to a defence official. But that is up from $248m in 2002. Officials hope to reach $10bn in 2023.”

Mercenaries redeployed from Syria

In early October, despite denials by Turkey, videos emerged on social media of pick-up trucks and similar vehicles fitted with long-range guns being transferred from Syria to Karabakh.

These vehicles are the type that first came to prominence in the Libyan counter-revolution. Twitter and Facebook soon carried videos of mercenaries on the ground in the region, although Baku and Ankara denied all involvement. (Max Seddon and Laura Pitel, op cit)

A Guardian writer interviewed one of the Syrian mercenaries whom the Azerbaijanis claim aren’t there:

“‘It’s awful here. They lied to us: they said we were coming to guard oil and gas facilities,’ said Mohammed al-Hamza, a 26-year-old from the Aleppo countryside, reached by phone in hospital 30 miles away on the other side of the frontline.

“He was injured by Armenian shelling just two days after his deployment to the Azerbaijani support line. ‘I did a tour in Libya and some of that was dangerous, but nothing like this. Around 250 of us have asked to go home.’” (Trench warfare, drones and cowering civlians: on the ground in Nagorno Karabakh by Bethan McKernan, 13 October 2020)

Armenian president accuses Erdogan

Armenia’s president Armen Sarkissian has demanded that international powers do more to stop Turkey’s involvement in the conflict, warning that Ankara is creating “another Syria in the Caucasus”.

President Sarkissian said Turkey’s military and diplomatic support for Azerbaijan had displaced Moscow from its traditional balancing role between the two sides. He called on Russia, the US and Nato to restrain Ankara, describing it as “the bully of the region”.

“If we don’t act now internationally, stopping Turkey … with the perspective of making this region a new Syria … then everyone will be hit,” he told the Financial Times in an interview. He continued: “What is a Nato member state doing in Azerbaijan helping to fight Nagorno-Karabakh? Explain to me. That completely redefines the role of Nato.” (Turkey creating ‘another Syria in Caucasus’, says Armenia president by Henry Foy and Ben Hall, 9 October 2020)

However, if the president thinks that cowering before his enemy and appealing to the Nato hawks will bring a reprieve, he is very much mistaken.

Which way forward?

According to various market observers, Russia perceives Turkey to be squeezing its natural gas giant, Gazprom. Turkey reportedly took 28 percent less Russian gas in July compared with a year earlier, while imports from Azerbaijan rose 22 percent.

A Trans-Anatolian gas pipeline carrying Azeri natural gas has already joined a Trans-Adriatic pipeline at the Turkish-Greek border bringing natural gas from Azerbaijan all the way to Italy. That project was funded by the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development, an arm of the World Bank. (Turkey and Azerbaijan mark completion of Tanap pipeline to take gas to Europe, Reuters, 30 November 2019)

Speaking to the Turkish parliament on 1 October, Erdogan condemned as “unacceptable” President Vladimir Putin’s call for an immediate ceasefire in Azerbaijan, which the Russian leader had made in a joint statement with US president Donald Trump and French president Emmanuel Macron. France, Russia and the US are co-chairs of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in the Minsk Group aimed at resolving the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute.

In his speech, Erdogan said the Minsk Group was no longer fit for purpose. He also linked the latest resurgence of fighting to Russia, saying it was part of a wider crisis that had begun with the ‘occupation’ of Crimea. (Laura Pitel, op cit)

A peace-keeping force made up of the CIS (Commonwealth of Independent States) countries would be preferable to the ongoing bombardment of Stepanakert, the prospect, no matter how dim, of a United Nations peace-keeping force, or the ongoing paralysis of the OSCE Minsk group.

When the Soviet Union was dissolved in 1991 the CIS charter established a council of ministers of defence that was later replaced by a ‘military cooperation coordination headquarters’ based in Moscow. That body is made up of the nine member states of the CIS, and, assuming it still exists, must be considered the best-placed political body to develop mutually beneficial proposals for avoiding armed conflict on the territory of the former USSR – in particular, the development of measures to prevent aggressive external encroachment into the former Soviet territories.

Closer union of the peoples of the former USSR, even upon the basis of capitalist economic relations, is their surest hope for preserving their independence and avoiding the real prospect of a major conflagration with a hostile neighbour. Such a conflict would be used by US imperialism to undermine and destabilise one of the main political states in today’s world that poses a serious challenge to the total global dominance of US imperialism.

The socialist Soviet Union is gone, and with it has gone the peace and brotherly relations that existed amongst its people. Socialist economic relations were the foundation upon which all these victories were won, but socialism cannot be built without a revolutionary party of the Leninist type.

Till the light of October gave help with its call
To come join the commonwealth of tongues
I glory in the great hour
When the triumphant storm
Crashed down upon our foe.
It smashed our yokes,
And freed the slaves to swarm
A cloud upon their nest
And raise the flag of battle …
I glory in that day supreme –
Beginning of October …
O land of mine – let labour hum –
I stand your daylong watch.

– Ali Tokombayev, The Kirghiz Language