In the Caucasus, There Is a Peace Agreement but Not Peace

Georgi Derluguian

Last fall, Armenia was devastated by a six-week war with its neighbor Azerbaijan, ending in the deployment of Russian peacekeepers across the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh. Yet the "peace agreement" has done nothing to resolve the deeper reasons for the conflict, in the ethno-nationalist strife which has simmered since the fall of the USSR.

A resident of Shurnukh looks at an Azeri military camp based in the village on March 4, 2021. (Aris Messinis / AFP via Getty Images)

Interview by
Loren Balhorn

Last September, while most of the world was preoccupied with the latest upsurge in the COVID-19 pandemic, a region of the Caucasus known as Nagorno-Karabakh exploded in a six-week war. Backed by Turkey, Azerbaijan fought Armenia and the unrecognized ethnic-Armenian Republic of Artsakh over territories that these latter had controlled since 1994.

This was just the latest in a series of armed conflicts over the region, which began in the last days of the USSR and have boiled over repeatedly ever since. After costing thousands of lives and widespread destruction, the ceasefire signed between the belligerent parties and Russia on November 10, 2020 forced Armenia to give up several territories to Azerbaijan and authorized the deployment of two thousand Russian peacekeepers to the region. Since the war ended, Armenians have been taking to the streets against the government and decrying what many viewed as its surrender to a belligerent invading force.

Georgi Derluguian is an Armenia-based sociologist specializing in macro-historical change and ethnic conflicts in the Caucasus. He spoke to Jacobin’s Loren Balhorn about the background of the conflict, the balance of forces in Armenia and the region, and whether Nagorno-Karabakh will ever find stable peace.


The signing of a peace agreement last November ended the six-week war between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh, but saw Armenia make painful concessions. The country has been rocked by ongoing protests against Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan ever since, with even the military turning against him. How would you characterize the situation in the country now?


First, there was no peace agreement. It was a capitulation. One side got 90 percent of its demands fulfilled by killing thousands of opponents from the other side — a very old-fashioned method of “conflict resolution.” Only Russia, or rather Vladimir Putin personally, stopped the Azeri-Turkish alliance from completely annihilating its Armenian enemies.

Karabakh and Armenia itself are now Russian military protectorates, evidently serving as a bridgehead, or rather a doorstop, in a region that might have otherwise gone under [Recep Tayyip] Erdoğan’s control completely. Georgia, for all its pro-EU aspirations, is inexorably becoming a Turkish semi-protectorate. The South Caucasus has once again become contested borderlands. In effect, we see how the recent rise of capitalism in Asia also reproduces its highest stage: imperialism.

Still, Moscow has not openly interfered in Armenian domestic politics, evidently because it feels fully in control anyway. With its military superiority, Russia can now afford some “soft power” for a change. Why repeat the mistakes it made trying to manage the domestic politics of Ukraine, Moldova, or Belarus?

This produced a strange situation in which Moscow effectively consented to Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, an antiestablishment “populist” who led a typical “color revolution” only three years earlier. In the wake of the Karabakh debacle, Armenia’s ousted elites reemerged as a so-called “joint opposition of seventeen parties” — I personally know two members of one of these parties, the chairman and his chauffeur. The confrontation leaves Armenians with a choice between the well-meaning but incompetent Pashinyan, and the old corrupt elites.

Bloodshed and military coups have been avoided. New elections are scheduled for June 20. This is remarkable, given how profound the shock of defeat and discovering enemy troops so near to Armenian homes was. According to all sociological polls and my own observations, the “Nikolistas” could still win as much as one-third of the vote, maybe even more. It would be great if a serious third force emerged to prevent a new monopolization of parliament. For now, a coalition government seems to be the best outcome.


When the Nagorno-Karabakh war broke out last fall, it caught a lot of people by surprise. Can you walk us through some of the background?


Like all such conflicts, it is rooted in the region’s history. Karabakh is one of the few chunks of land that was able to preserve an Armenian population over centuries. Armenians are an ethnic formation dating back to Roman times like the Coptic population in Egypt, the Christian Assyrians in Syria and Iraq, the Basques, but also the Irish and Scots or the Jews in the West. These are basically the precocious “nations” of late antiquity.

Once there was a local system of monasteries and a written liturgical language, a medieval variety of Armenian identity could solidify and survive. Whereas most of Armenia, roughly 90 percent, was conquered, destroyed, and ultimately depopulated in the Ottoman genocide of 1915, Karabakh is one of very few areas to have escaped these deprivations.


And what about Azerbaijan?


Quite a different history, but this makes little difference in modern politics. Historically, Azerbaijan was an open geographical area of northwestern Iran, gradually penetrated by Turkic seminomadic tribes who moved among the older sedentary populations. Until the late nineteenth century there were no “Azerbaijanis,” but rather different Muslim groups. Emmanuel Macron once joked that Azerbaijan is younger than his wife — surely, something only the French president could get away with.

Things began to change in the early 1800s when the Russian Empire arrived, and then, in the 1870s, when oil was discovered. The first oil pipeline in history was built from the Azerbaijani capital, Baku, to Batumi, Georgia. The first oil tanker, the Zoroaster, was on the Caspian Sea going from Baku up the Volga River to supply Russia.

Oil created huge concentrations of wealth, but also a lot of social inequality. Baku was like Chicago in the 1880s: very smelly, very dangerous, and very cosmopolitan, but cosmopolitan doesn’t mean egalitarian or friendly. There were different working classes living side by side, which fed a lot of revolutionary activity as well as racism.

Joseph Stalin spent most of his underground career as an agitator between Batumi, the oil-exporting terminal on the Black Sea, and Baku, where the main underground printshop of Russian social democracy was located.


It sounds like Baku was on the cutting edge of revolutionary socialism at the time.


Yes, but also a cauldron of racist rivalries. Like in many areas where modernization and capitalism granted education and opportunities to landless people, Armenians advanced socially. Many became skilled proletarians working in the oil industry, but a wealthy merchant class also emerged.

A socialist movement flourished among the Muslim population. The first satirical magazine to publish anti-Islamist cartoons was the Azerbaijani Molla Nasreddin in 1905, for example. Meanwhile, Armenian socialist parties had emerged from the Russian Narodniks, including the legendary terroristic People’s Will, by the 1880s. Incidentally, the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF) or simply the “Dashnaks” still flies its hundred-thirty-year-old red flag with a spade, quill, and dagger today.


So why did the socialist movements fail to unite Armenians and Azerbaijanis?


Things broke down after the Russian Revolution in 1905. The Russian police could no longer maintain order, and Muslim pogroms broke out against the Armenians, who were accused of being both capitalist exploiters as well as socialist subversives at the same time. These pogroms were not the result of “ancient hatreds,” however, but a legacy of industrialization. The marginalized Muslims would look at these “smarter” Armenians and say, “Hey, this guy’s grandfather used to serve my grandfather, and now he’s a lawyer or an industrialist, and who am I?” That hurts.

The Baku Congress, Azerbaijan, 1920. (Hulton Archive / Getty Images)

The second round of pogroms happened in 1917–18 when Baku became a communist republic, the Baku Commune. Its leadership was politically diverse and internationalist, but two-thirds of its revolutionary troops were ethnic Armenians, which alienated a majority of Azeri Muslims. The commune was soon smashed by British forces seeking a colonial reordering of the Middle East in the wake of World War I. In the ensuing chaos, all sorts of local ethnic militias fought alongside the remnants of imperial Russian and Ottoman forces to carve out territories and cleanse them of potentially disloyal populations.

This ended when the Bolsheviks invaded in 1920. Lenin, of course, realized the need for oil. More so, however, he wanted to project to the rest of colonial Asia the image of a rapidly developing socialist country where the Muslim workers and intelligentsia participated in harmony with many other nationalities. It was an attractive idea. Baku reverted to a Communist regime almost without a fight, and the Soviet Republic of Azerbaijan was created including an autonomous province for the Armenians in Karabakh. All ethnic strife and nationalisms were expected to disappear with the rest of the backwardness.

Curiously, Bolshevik thinking in the early 1920s was very much like the European Union today: if ethnic conflict is created by economic backwardness, then it was logical to hitch Karabakh to Baku and its oil industry. Autonomous governance, promotions of ethnic cultures, and massive developmental aid — all under the supervision of progressive commissars.


To what extent are current ethnic tensions in the Caucasus rooted in Soviet nationalities policy?


Soviet Azerbaijan soon developed a powerful system of domestic corruption. Under Stalin, long-serving leader Mir Jafar Baghirov created an impenetrable personal fiefdom, for which he was shot in 1956. Moscow resorted to appointing the purportedly tough and incorruptible KGB general Heydar Aliyev to rule Azerbaijan in 1969, hoping to eliminate the republic’s endemic corruption. But Heydar, whose statues and portraits became ubiquitous in post-Soviet Azerbaijan, avoided changing the character of the country, which is precisely why he succeeded in ruling it almost in perpetuity, passing the reigns to his son Ilham Aliyev in 2003.

In the meantime, the republic was also becoming increasingly Azeri — not for nationalist reasons, but because the Soviet constitution and Leninist practice prescribed the “nativization” of party cadres, as described by Terry Martin in his book, The Affirmative Action Empire. However, promoting local ethnic groups also meant recruiting more reliable people from the same district or clan into the party machine.

By the late 1980s, as the USSR decayed, things were about to explode in Azerbaijan. Corruption, after all, is ultimately a form of social exclusion. There still existed a very large Armenian population, numbering nearly four hundred thousand, of mostly urban professionals and skilled proletarians who staffed industry and education. Many were descendants of peasants from Karabakh — these kinds of remote mountainous areas always send their populations out as migrants.

The ethnic composition of Karabakh and similar outliers had been shifting throughout the Soviet period, increasing the share of Muslim Azerbaijanis in the area. The Armenian nationalist intelligentsia perceived this as a slow ethnic purge, yet impersonal demographics were the real cause. Azerbaijani villagers traditionally had bigger families and were more willing to take unskilled jobs, whereas Armenians were generally more oriented toward education and urban jobs. But at the same time, as all nations with long and often tragic histories, they cherished their nostalgic attachments to the ancestral landscape with its medieval churches and ornately carved stone crosses, khachkars.


Even if there were tensions, the two groups managed to live side by side for decades. How could things escalate so terribly in the late 1980s?


When Mikhail Gorbachev announced perestroika, Armenians in Karabakh grew emboldened. At the same time, Heydar Aliyev, an explicitly Brezhnev-style leader, was retired from the Politburo and eventually moved to the obscurity of his native village. In early 1988 the Karabakh Armenians petitioned Moscow to transfer their province to Armenia. It looked simple: Why not reattach the Armenian autonomous province of Soviet Azerbaijan to the Soviet Republic of Armenia next door?

The immediate result was a chaotic explosion, as wild rumors of a pending transfer gripped the imaginations of both Armenians and Azeris. Over two hundred thousand ethnic Azeris, mostly rural laborers, still lived in Armenia. Frightened by another big population swap, they started leaving en masse and flooding into Azerbaijani cities.

Then, something simple and horrible occurred: the newly arrived Azerbaijanis demanded housing. People started knocking on the doors of ethnic Armenians and throwing them out. Local officials were either paralyzed by fear or actually led the pogroms, expecting to profit. Dozens of people were killed in this mayhem, and hundreds were brutalized. The remaining four hundred thousand Armenians were expelled from Azerbaijan.

There are many conspiracy theories that Moscow initiated the pogroms, or that they were part of a pan-Turkist plot. But it doesn’t take that to spark a pogrom. It only took the failure of local police, a few hooligans and criminals, and some wild rumors. It also took a general uncertainty among the Communist Party leadership, who no longer knew who was going to be the boss after seeing Gorbachev remove everyone else.


The First Nagorno-Karabakh War lasted until 1994 and largely established the borders that held until the most recent conflict. How did that alter the region’s political dynamics?


The pogroms in Azerbaijan immediately sparked memories of the 1915 Ottoman genocide. By 1991 Armenian guerrillas were operating in Karabakh, while Azerbaijani police combed the villages for partisans and conducted ethnic purges. The Moscow government in those days was on the Azerbaijani side, because they still had a Communist government and Gorbachev was desperately hoping to regain control.

In 1992, the Communists were overthrown by the People’s Front of Azerbaijan, led by the medievalist scholar Abulfaz Elchibey. But Elchibey failed at both war and revolution, and soon the strongman Heydar Aliyev emerged from retirement. He didn’t end the war immediately because so many Azerbaijani nationalists wanted to fight. He basically said, “OK, go ahead and fight. If you win, I’ll claim the victory. If you get killed — good riddance.” In the meantime, he restored his extensive networks of internal patronage and brought Azerbaijan back to order. The arrival of Western oil companies soon thereafter helped to seal the Aliyevs’ dynastic rule.

Toward the end, in early 1994, the war became catastrophic for Azerbaijan, just like it was for Armenia this time around. Armenian fighters, who were better organized and motivated, not only occupied Karabakh but surrounded and depopulated seven districts which were predominantly Azerbaijani. These remained empty districts, claimed by the Armenians as a buffer zone.


Azerbaijan has been ruled by the Aliyev family since independence. Can you tell us about them?


Heydar Aliyev’s nickname wasn’t “dragon” for nothing. He was very smart, imposing, and ruthless. His opposition soon started disappearing. Criminal gangs disappeared as well. Top officials and generals were often imprisoned, sometimes in spectacular arrests. Aliyev avoided signing any peace deal that could have recognized the Armenian gains in the previous war for years, instead biding his time and waiting for the petrodollars to pour in. Hereditary regimes have long time-horizons.

While Azerbaijan was being brought to order, British Petroleum appeared at the doorstep — seventy-five years after the Bolshevik nationalizations. The old oil fields were still there, but they needed a lot of investment in both technology and political stability. This probably also explains why much of the British press was so neutral about the war last year.

In 2003, Heydar Aliyev died. The exact date of his death is shrouded in rumors, suggesting that he had been probably dead months before his son, Ilham, could be elected as his successor in October of that year. The son was a playboy, no match for his father, despite appointing his strong-willed wife as his vice president.

Azerbaijan today is quite similar to Iran under the last shahs: they sponsored the Eurovision Song Contest and Formula 1 races, and commissioned expensive building projects, but they failed to redistribute their oil wealth to the rest of society. Even according to official data, which is certainly inflated, GDP per capita is the same as the rest of the post-Soviet republics. It’s like Moldova with an oil rig.


What are the region’s prospects going forward?


Like Danzig, Sarajevo, Alsace, or Jerusalem, Karabakh is one of those symbolically important places on the edges of empires that can ignite bigger conflagrations. Between Russia and Turkey, Israel and Iran, America, France, Pakistan, and the Emirates, China, at least from a distance — the list of actors is long and complicated, it’s like a great game with ten iron dice. Karabakh is no longer a local conflict, it is a small world war. Can we predict what will happen to Erdoğan, Putin, or Ilham Aliyev, say, five years from now for that matter?

Aliyev first needs to survive the results of his victory. The November 2020 truce was a purely Russian agreement with Baku, which Putin claims he drafted by hand. Armenia capitulated, and in return Baku allowed Russian troops on the ground as peacekeepers separating the warring sides. In effect, Russia obtained an additional army base in Karabakh — and for the first time since 1991 Azerbaijan pledged to open land routes to Armenia, evidently to supply the Russian bases. The Russian military presence in Armenia had lingered since Soviet times, but it was pretty useless because Georgia and Azerbaijan blocked access. Armenia was the nearest Russian staging ground to Syria, but it was never used because they couldn’t fly over Turkey.

People waiting near a bus in Goris, Armenia as conflict continues in and around the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh. (Brendan Hoffman / Getty Images)

This may change now, which might mean Azerbaijan’s drift back into the Russian sphere — never completely, of course, because Aliyev would be a fool to trust Putin entirely, but he would also be a fool to trust his “Turkic brother” Erdoğan. He will try to serve two masters and none at once. The war, however, was a wake-up call for Russian military thinkers: “Wait a minute, we almost lost to Turkey!” So, we might now see accelerated reform of the Russian military and their Armenian allies.


Pashinyan’s critics accuse him of “betraying” the Armenian population in Nagorno-Karabakh. Do you think any other military outcome could have been possible? Could a new Armenian administration plausibly reignite the conflict?


The defeat and massive loss of young lives must be investigated — not by me or even the parliament. It has to be a public “Truth Commission” of Armenian citizens and diaspora activists. Remember, two-thirds of Armenians live outside the small homeland, and they must have the right to ask the national questions, too.


Are there sizable pro-peace camps in either Armenia or Azerbaijan?


Neither sizable nor influential, yet quite distinguished. The most prominent Azerbaijani writer today is the elderly Akram Aylisli. Several years ago, he dared to publish a novel about the pogroms in Baku. The ensuing hysteria made what Orhan Pamuk was subjected to in Turkey for his writings look relatively mild. So, such figures do exist, giving us a little bit of faith in humanity.


As an expert on the Caucasus and the many ethnic conflicts that have exploded there since the end of the Soviet Union, do you think the cycle of violence and revanchism on all sides could ever end? Is there a kind of political or social solution?


Yes, of course: a reintegration of the whole region into a larger geopolitical and economic entity which has both carrots and sticks. For example, in the 1990s Poland did not demand back major cities that belonged to interwar Poland before 1939 and were transferred by Stalin, like Vilnius from Lithuania or Lviv from Ukraine. Have you ever wondered why that is the case — could it have been the influence of the EU while Poland was negotiating its accession?