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The legacy of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) lives on in the disputed region of Nagorno Karabakh. The struggle for autonomy which still ravages the Caucasus is itself a vestige of the region’s past under Communism and seems far from being resolved.
Who should rule the area has always been contentious. For centuries, majority Muslim Azerbaijanis and majority Christian Armenians have come to blows over its control. After nearly 100 years under Russian jurisdiction, when the Empire broke down in 1918, hostility between the newly independent Armenia and Azerbaijan re-established itself. These states were soon incorporated into what would become the USSR.
Nagorno Karabakh was ceded to the Soviet Socialist Republic of Azerbaijan in 1923 under Joseph Stalin, acting as the Soviets’ Commissar of Nationalities, reversing the original decision to integrate the region into the Armenian SSR. Thus, Nagorno Karabakh became an autonomous administrative region of the Azerbaijan SSR even though 94% of its population was ethnically Armenian. This act of territorial delimitation and use of the divide and rule tactic arguably aimed to pit two subordinate groups against each other to ensure Soviet dominance in the region, a cruel tactic by Stalin illustrative of the brutal lengths the USSR would go to to maintain their hold on power.
Yet, characterising an ethnic group presents a challenge in itself. In 1913, Stalin, in his work Marxism and the National Question, defined a nation as ‘a historically constituted, stable community of people, formed on the basis of a common language, territory, economic life, and psychological makeup manifested in a common culture’. The diversity of ethnic groups within the Russian Empire meant that they did not all meet these criteria.
Stalin led a particularly repressive regime in regard to ethnic minorities who had previously enjoyed relative autonomy within the Soviet Union. Throughout the 1930s and 1940s, the process of korenizatsiya (indigenisation) began, whereby national institutions were abolished and the use of the Russian language was enforced. Under his leadership, protests of discontent towards the situation in Nagorno Karabakh were met with violence. Thus, the root of the problem was repeatedly covered up, but never resolved. It was not until Gorbachev’s more liberal policies of the 1980s that further protests emerged in the region as the central government’s control over the Caucasus was weakened and the end of the Soviet Union was in sight. His policy of democratisation, according to Ted Gurr, paved the way for new demonstrations of previously hidden ethnic struggles.
Tensions, long left unresolved, intensified. Azerbaijan responded harshly to ethnic Armenian appeals to become part of Armenia. As the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, both Azerbaijan and Armenia claimed independence, and these clashes became an outright war. More than a million people became refugees and around 30,000 people lost their lives, with both nations taking part in ethnic cleansing. Despite the human cost of the conflict, negotiations were unsuccessful. The Bishkek Protocol was signed in 1994, bringing an end to the first Nagorno Karabakh war; yet, the ceasefire has been ignored repeatedly, most notably during the 2008 Mardakert clashes, the 2016 Four-Day War and the outbreak of the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh war, when the protocol was ended. As a result civilians in the area still live in a state of ‘no war, no peace’.
It remains uncertain whether Armenia and Azerbaijan will overcome the conflict which has interlinked them for centuries, this becoming ever more acute as worries about a proxy war between Russia and Turkey mount. The legacy of the Soviet Union, so desperate to maintain a hold on power, still resounds in the region today, with around 30 to 40 deaths per year. After 68 years under Soviet control, paradoxically it was the dissolution of the USSR that allowed tensions to escalate into a full-scale war. While the repressive policies of Stalin no doubt aggravated the fight for autonomy, they also prevented the violence Nagorno Karabakh has suffered since as the international community remains silent in the face of Turkish and Azerbaijani violence.
By Catherine Moir, HART Volunteer
Although all blog posts are reviewed by an editorial team, our blog authors all write in a personal capacity and the views expressed are not necessarily those of HART.