Nagorno-Karabakh: The Long Shadow of Joseph Stalin

During the two years of fighting in Nagorno-Karabakh, 1992-1994, at least 20,000 people were killed and more than a million persons displaced from Armenia, Azerbaijan and the 12,000 square miles of Nagorno-Karabakh itself. Armenian forces now control the Nagorno-Karabakh area – an Armenian-populated enclave within Azerbaijan.  Since 1994, there has been a relatively stable ceasefire.  Nagorno-Karabakh has declared its independence as a separate state. No other state -including Armenia – has recognized this independent status, but, in practice, Nagorno-Karabakh is a de facto state with control over its population and its own military forces.  Half of the government’s revenue is raised locally; the other half comes from the government of Armenia and especially the Armenian diaspora, strong in the United States, Canada, Lebanon, and Russia.

In addition to Nagorno-Karabakh, the Armenian forces hold seven small districts around Nagorno-Karabakh, some 5,500 square kilometres that had been populated by Azeris and that are considered as "occupied territory".  One of the ideas being floated during these negotiations is an Armenian withdrawal from these occupied territories accompanied by international security guarantees and an international peacekeeping force, probably under the control of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) which has been the major forum for negotiation on the Nagorno-Karabkh conflict.

The USA, France, and Russia are the co-chairmen of a mediating effort called the "Minsk Group" after an OSCE conference on Nagorno-Karabakh which was to have been held in Minsk, but then indefinitely postponed as there was no clear basis for a compromise solution. Part of the negotiating guidelines of the Minsk Group meetings is that no official report is made on the negotiations, so that analysis is always an effort at putting pieces together from partial statements, leaks, and ‘off-the-record’ interviews with the press.  This blackout on direct statements opens the door to highly partisan analysis in both countries where the press has always been hard line.  There are those who believe that both presidents are ‘ahead of their people’ in their willingness to compromise and to move beyond the current "no war, no peace" situation which is a drain on economic and social resources.

However, in both countries, the media is under tight control of the respective governments so that the militaristic tone of the press is not against government policy.  The blackout on press statements is also due to the monopoly on both sides of a small, tight group of people responsible for the negotiations.  Informal, Track Two, meetings are very difficult and the few held were met by general suspicion or hostility.  There is a need for a broader-based peacemaking public to counter the current narrow militant rhetoric.

The Nagorno-Karabakh issue arises from the Post-Revolution-Post-Civil War period of Soviet history when Joseph Stalin was Commissioner for Nationalities.  Stalin came from neighboring Georgia and knew the Caucasus well.  His policy was a classic ‘divide and rule’ carried out with method so that national/ethnic groups would need to depend on the central government in Moscow for protection.  Thus in 1922, the frontiers of Azerbaijan, Armenia and Georgia were hammered out in what was then the Transcaucasian Federative Republic.  Nagorno-Karabakh, an Armenian majority area, was given a certain autonomy within Azerbaijan but was geographically cut off from Armenia.  Likewise, an Azeri majority are, Nakkickevan, was created as an autonomous republic within Armenia but cut off geographically from Azerbaijan.  Thus both enclaves had to look to Moscow for protection.  This was especially true for the Armenians.  Many Armenians living in what had been historic Armenia but which became Turkey had been killed during the First World War; Armenians living in "Soviet Armenia" had relatives and friends among those killed by the Turks, creating a permanent sense of vulnerability and insecurity.  Russia was considered a historic ally of Armenia.

These mixed administrative units worked well enough or, one should say, there were few criticisms allowed until 1988 when the whole Soviet model of nationalities and republics started to come apart.  In both Armenia and Azerbeijan, natioanlistic voices were raised, and a strong "Karabakh Committee" began demanding that Nagorno-Karabakh be attached to Armenia.  In Azerbaijan, anti-Armenian sentiment was set aflame.  Many Armenians who were working in the oil-related economy of Baku were under tension and started leaving. This was followed somewhat later by real anti-Armenian pogroms.  Some 160,000 Armenians left Azerbaijan for Armenia and other went to live in Russia.

With the break up of the Soviet Union and the independence of Armenia and Azerbaijan, tensions focused on Nagorno-Karabakh. By 1992, full scale conflict broke out in and around Nagorno-Karabkh and went on for two years causing large-scale damage.  The Armenian forces of Nagorno-Karabakh helped by volunteers from Armenia kept control of the area, while Azerbaijan faced repeated political crises.

The condition of "no peace, no war" followed the ceasefire largely negotiated by Russia in 1994.  This status quo poses few problems to the major regional states who are preoccupied by other geo-political issues.  Informal and illicit trade within the area has grown.  However, interest in a settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict has grown as the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline opened in May 2005.  The pipeline is sheduled to carry one million barrels of oil a day from the Caspian to the Mediterranean by 2009.  The pipeline passes within 10 miles of Nagorno-Karabakh.

The crucial question for a settlement is the acceptance by all parties and by the wider OSCE of an independent ‘mini-state’.  An independent Nagorno-Karabakh might become the ‘Liechtenstein of the Caucases’.  After 15 years of independence, Karabakh Armenians do not want to be at the mercy of decisions made in distant centers of power but to decide their own course of action.  However, the recognition of Nagorno-Karabakh as an independent states raises the issue of the status of other de facto mini-states of the area such as Abkhazia and South Ossetia in Georgia, Transnistria in Moldova and Kosovo in Serbia.  Close attention must continue to be paid to the potential restructuring of the area.  Can mini-states be more than a policy of divide and rule?  The long shadow of Joseph Stalin still hovers over the land.


Rene Wadlow is editor of the online journal of world politics and an NGO representative to the UN, Geneva. Formerly, he was professor and Director of Research of the Graduate Institute of Development Studies, University of Geneva.

For a good analysis of Stalin’s nationality policies see Helene Carrere d’Encausse "The Great Challenge: Nationalities and the Bolshevik State 1917-1930" (New York: Holmes and Meier, 1992, 262pp.)

For the need to have a wider peace constituency for negotiations see Laurence Broers (Ed). "The limits of leadership: Elites and societies in the Nagorny Karabakh peace process." (London: Conciliation Resources, 2006, 104pp.)