This week, a new round of violence broke out over the contested zone of Nagorno-Karabakh, also known as Artsakh, an Armenian enclave in Azerbaijan. Anarchists in Armenia and Azerbaijan offer their analysis of the situation.
The Armenian genocide casts a long shadow over the region between the Aegean and Caspian Seas. A century ago, the government of the Ottoman Empire oversaw the murder of over a million Armenians, paving the way for the emergence of Turkey as an ethnonationalist state.
After a pogrom against Armenians in the Azerbaijani town of Sumgait in February 1988, the Armenian independence movement gained momentum in the Soviet Union, especially in Nagorno-Karabakh, a majority-Armenian region surrounded by majority-Azeri regions. In December 1991, shortly after the governments of Armenia and Azerbaijan had declared independence, Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh declared independence from Azerbaijan. The two governments went to war over the region. The conflict remained unresolved, with hostilities breaking out again in 2020.
Until now, the government of Russia has played mediator, brokering peace between Armenia and Azerbaijan and installing “peacekeeping” troops. But now that Russia is bogged down in Ukraine and increasingly dependent on the Turkish government, the government of Azerbaijan has taken advantage of support from Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and wealth from increasing oil revenues to resume hostilities. First, they blockaded Nagorno-Karabakh, cutting off resources to it; then, this week, they attacked the region, killing at least dozens of people. Although the self-proclaimed government of Nagorno-Karabakh has capitulated, the latest chapter of this tragedy has only begun. There is reason to anticipate ongoing state violence, ethnic cleansing, and mass displacement, worsening the refugee crisis in Armenia and the surrounding area.
As we anticipated, war is continuing to spread around the region, from Yemen and Syria to Ukraine and Armenia:
The invasion of Ukraine is likely an indication of things to come. Over the past several decades, governments worldwide have invested billions of dollars in crowd control technology and military equipment while taking precious few steps to address mounting inequalities or the destruction of the natural world. As economic and ecological crises intensify, more governments will seek to solve their domestic problems by initiating hostilities with their neighbors.
If anything, this analysis underemphasizes the role of state-sponsored ethnic strife as a pressure valve to manage the failures of capitalism and the state—not only in Palestine, former Yugoslavia, and Kurdistan but also in the United States under Donald Trump.
The violence in Artsakh shows how little people can rely on state structures to protect them. Facing a centuries-long campaign of ethnic violence, the residents are trapped between the government of Azerbaijan, which aims to seize their land and resources, and the Armenian government, which has abandoned any pretense of ensuring their safety. Neither the Russian government nor the governments of Europe or the United States are interested in intervening. All of these governments are effectively running protection rackets that leave ordinary people at the mercy of ethno-nationalism and state militarism.
This is not an argument to support the Armenian military. Over the years, the Armenian government and its military forces and supporters have also committed the sort of atrocities that usually occur in conflicts over territories and resources. Rather, it is urgent to organize against ethnic strife, state violence, and colonial conquest in all their forms. To be effective, this must take place on both sides of every border, on both sides of every conflict.
Here, we present an excerpt from an anti-war statement from Azerbaijan and three texts from anarchists in Armenia.
Anti-War Movements in Azerbaijan
It has been difficult to maintain contact with anarchists and other anti-authoritarian groups in Azerbaijan, owing in part to the repressive political situation. As usual, internal repression is an essential part of creating the conditions for a mobilization against an outside enemy, which then serves to distract from domestic problems. Just as the government of Azerbaijan has been using spyware to target people in Armenia, it has just carried out a wave of arrests targeting elements of Azerbaijani society who oppose the war.
For an anti-war perspective from Azerbaijan, witness the following excerpt from an anti-war manifesto published by anarchists and “leftist youth” in 2020:
The recent round of escalations between Azerbaijan and Armenia in Nagorno-Karabakh once again demonstrates how outdated the framework of a nation-state is for present realities. Inability to transcend the line of thought that divides people into humans and non-humans solely based on their place of birth and then proceeds to establish superiority of the “humans” over their dehumanized “others” as the sole possible scenario for a life within certain territorial boundaries is the only occupier that we have to struggle with. It is the occupier of our minds and abilities to think beyond the narratives and ways of imagining life, imposed upon us by our predatory nationalist governments.
It is this line of thought that makes us oblivious to the exploitative conditions of our bare survival in our respective countries as soon as the “nation” issues its call to protect it from the “enemy.” Our enemy is not a random Armenian whom we have never met in our lives and possibly never will. Our enemy is the very people in power, those with specific names, who have been impoverishing and exploiting the ordinary people as well as our country’s resources for their benefit for more than two decades.
They have been intolerant of any political dissent, severely oppressing dissidents through their massive security apparatus. They have occupied natural sites, seasides, mineral resources for their own pleasure and use, restricting the access of ordinary citizens to these sites. They have been destroying our environment, cutting down trees, contaminating water, and doing the full-scale “accumulation through dispossession.” They are complicit in the disappearance of historical and cultural sites and artifacts across the country. They have been diverting resources from essential sectors, such as education, healthcare, and social welfare, into the military, making profits for our capitalist neighbors with imperialist aspirations—Russia and Turkey.
Strangely enough, every single person is aware of this fact, but a sudden wave of amnesia hits everyone as soon as the first bullet gets shot on the contact line between Armenia and Azerbaijan.
We also recommend this statement from the Feminist Peace Collective in Azerbaijan:
We vehemently oppose being ensnared by this indoctrination and reject the enslavement of people in the name of the nation, built upon hate and othering. We call on Azerbaijan to halt its terror against the Armenian population in Karabakh. Our plea extends to the people of Azerbaijan, urging them to recognize their own rationality and empathy, not allow their grievances to be instrumentalized for the regime’s nationalist desires, and not allow their bodies to be exploited for the capitalist greed of their state and ruling elite.
The Situation in Artsakh, the Conditions in Azerbaijan
This is the perspective of a Russian anarchist living in exile in Yerevan.
On September 19, Azerbaijan launched its “anti-terrorist” operation against Artsakh [i.e., Nagorno-Karabakh]. There are already reports of civilian casualties.
Despite the capitulation of the authorities of the self-proclaimed republic and the recently launched negotiations between the military and political leadership, Azerbaijan continues to shell Stepanakert and other populated areas of Artsakh. Spontaneous resistance also continues from the local population. There are reports that residents of some villages refused to evacuate and said they would rather die than leave. Desperate battles continue, pitting Yugoslav rifles against drones.
We have already expressed our support for the victims of Azerbaijan’s aggression, as have our comrades in the Russian anarchist diaspora in Tbilisi, who also organize in their community there. Our comrades here in Yerevan have been collecting humanitarian aid for refugees. The “Mama-jan” café is working together with the Jewish diaspora of this city, opening their doors to collect assistance for those who are suffering.
As we see it, the Azerbaijani government is trying to implement the “final solution to the Armenian question” on the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh.
This conflict began in the late 1980s. Against a backdrop of liberalization, the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh took to the streets in tens of thousands, protesting against the infringement of their rights in Soviet Azerbaijan and demanding reunification with their historic homeland, Armenia, which had been divided at the beginning of the 20th century between Bolsheviks and Turkish Kemalists. The Armenian population in the city of Sumgait faced both repression and pogroms. A war began accompanied by ethnic cleansing, displacing hundreds of thousands of refugees on both sides. Azerbaijan lost the war, but did not reconcile.
It is important to understand the war in the context of the political and social situation that prevails in Azerbaijan. The Aliyev family has ruled Azerbaijan for decades. According to Bashir Kitchaev, an anti-war journalist with whom I had the pleasure of personally communicating in Tbilisi, they have done little for the population, which experiences widespread conditions of poverty; instead, they have focused on expanding the Azerbaijani military and fomenting ethnic hatred.
Alongside the government of Turkey, the government of Azerbaijan is participating in an international campaign to deny the Armenian genocide, which claimed the lives of over a million people, as well as an economic blockade of Armenia from both sides. Azerbaijani children are taught in school that “Armenians are enemies.” The Aliyevs have systematically engaged in the destruction of Armenian monuments—for example, in the region of Nakhichevan, destroying the khachkar cemetery in the town of Julfa and turning it into a military training ground. All of this is intended to erase the Armenian cultural heritage of these lands.
In 2020, the Azerbaijani military resumed operations in the midst of the pandemic, employing Islamist groups that had previously participated in attacks on Kurdish people in Afrin and utilizing Turkish weapons including cluster munitions. Afterwards, president Ilham Aliyev established the so-called “Museum of Victory,” publicly displaying representations of Armenians and helmets taken from Armenian soldiers who had been killed.
Provocations continued despite the ceasefire agreements. The Azerbaijani military has repeatedly opened fire, kidnapped people, shelled and occupied the internationally recognized territory of the Republic of Armenia itself, and then, starting on December 12, 2022, blockaded the region of Artsakh, blocking the only highway connecting the Armenians there with the outside world.
This rendered 120,000 Armenians hostages—including 30,000 children—as the Azerbaijani government cut off gas and electricity to the region during the harsh Caucasian winter. Thousands of schools and kindergartens were closed. Food began to disappear from the shelves, famine broke out, and hospitals began to run out of medicine.
On April 23, 2023—a date dedicated to the memory of the victims of the 1915 genocide—Aliyev established a military checkpoint and presented the Armenians in Artsakh with an ultimatum: accept Azerbaijani citizenship or face expulsion.
Now, after starving more than a hundred thousand people for several months, the regime, taking advantage of the distraction of public attention to the war in Ukraine, seeks to complete its ethnic cleansing.
An Azerbaijani victory will intensify ethnic violence in the region, endangering the lives of thousands. It will strengthen the regime that persecuted and tortured Azerbaijani anarchists and anti-war leftists and consolidate the position of Turkish imperialism. It could also call into question the independence of Armenia.
Aliyev has repeatedly spoken about the so-called “Zangezur corridor,” another swath of Armenia that he seeks to incorporate into Azerbaijan; he once stated that “Irevan [Yerevan] is our historical land, and we Azerbaijanis must return to these historic lands.” In the context of the shelling of Sotk, Jermuk, and other territories of Armenia, this gives rise to concerns.
Are these statements simply intended to put the Azerbaijani government in a stronger position to negotiate, or do they reflect a serious intent? It’s hard to say. But it is indisputable that any victory for Azerbaijani militarism or Turkish imperialism will represent a setback for anarchists and other social movements, because it will establish a military regime in the conquered territories that will intensify and expand both outward and inward. All of this will become scorched earth for anti-authoritarians.
I am the last one who will defend the Armenian state with its plutocracy and police brutality, but the Azerbaijani government does not represent a better alternative. A variety of organizations including Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, Reporters Without Borders, and many others criticize the Azerbaijani government, classifying the country as authoritarian. In Freedom House’s Freedom Acceptance Index, Armenia and the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic are ranked much higher in terms of human rights and democracy than Azerbaijan.
According to human rights activists, there are roughly 100 political prisoners in Azerbaijani prisons. Journalists are imprisoned, blackmailed, and forced into exile. The country recently adopted a “media law” with which the authorities intend to suppress independent journalism. Journalists who have fled the country face the threat of kidnapping; one has reportedly experienced three assassination attempts.
The government of Azerbaijan maintains a personality cult around Heydar Aliyev, the father of the current president. In 2016, during one of the holidays dedicated to the late dictator, two Azerbaijani anarchists were detained—Giyas Ibrahimov and Bayram Mamedov.
They had painted anarchist graffiti on a monument to the dictator in the capital city of Baku. Police captured, tortured, and imprisoned them on trumped-up drug charges, claiming to have found precisely one kilogram of heroin in each of their homes. Mamedov later died in an accident in Istanbul. Human rights organizations recognized Giyas Ibrahimov as a prisoner of conscience. During the outbreak of the Second Karabakh War, Giyas signed the statement of the left-wing anti-war Azerbaijani youth and once again faced repression for his opposition to the war.
Indigenous national minorities also face discrimination under the government of Azerbaijan. Some peoples, such as the Tats, cannot study their language in educational institutions at all. In areas densely populated by small peoples, most of the political and economic power is concentrated in their hands of ethnic Azerbaijanis. Talysh people living in the south of the country face a ban on using the word “Talysh,” for example, on signs in restaurants or in local history books. Representatives of minority groups that speak out face repression and accusations of “extremism” and “separatism.” For example, one leader of the Sadval movement, which advocated for the autonomy of Lezgins in Russia and Azerbaijan, was imprisoned and killed.
Aliyev was one of Erdoğan’s chief allies when the Turkish military invaded Rojava. Aliyev’s victory in Artsakh will embolden those who seek a Pan-Turkist empire, intensifying the pressure on anti-colonial and anti-authoritarian movements throughout the region.
For thousands of years, the people of Artsakh lived on these lands, building schools, houses and temples. The Armenian anarchist Alexander Atabekyan was born in Artsakh, going on to become a friend of Peter Kropotkin. We remember his words:
“The natural connection with one’s home, with the homeland in the literal sense of the word, should be called territoriality, in contrast to statehood, which is a forced unification within arbitrary boundaries.
Anarchism, while rejecting statehood, cannot deny territoriality.
Love for homeland and tribe is not only not alien, but is also characteristic of an anarchist no less than any other person.”
Following the anarchists in Rojava, we call for support for the Artsakh people.
Freedom for peoples—death for empires!
Artsakh, we stand with you!
The Situation in Yerevan
Sona, an Armenian anarcha-feminist, speaks on the protests in Yerevan, the machinations of Armenian politicians, and the uncertain future of the region.
The protests began on the evening of September 19. Protesters began gathering at two locations in Yerevan—the government building on Republic Square and the Russian Embassy. Russian expatriates also held a small rally at the Myasnikyan monument.
On September 19, protesters began to gather spontaneously on Republic Square, but on the afternoon of September 20, the political forces of Robert Kocharyan had already organized there to monopolize the space. They represent something even worse than the government that currently rules Armenia. Kocharyan was the second president of this country; a good friend of Putin, he represents a pro-Kremlin policy. For Kocharyan’s supporters, the rallies offer an opportunity to improve their position and seek power, but this will not help the people in Artsakh or the refugees that will be arriving from there.
Kocharyan’s supporters demand the resignation of Nikol Pashinyan, the current Prime Minister of Armenia, and say that they are ready to go to war, although in fact it is already too late to fight—Artsakh has already surrendered. The police attacked the demonstrators with stun grenades.
Fewer people gathered at the Russian Embassy; the rally that took place there involved forces that support the current government. Although one telegram channel said that representatives of the intelligentsia and the leftist movement were gathering at the embassy, this is not correct, if only because there is no leftist movement in Armenia.
The pro-government telegram channel Bagramyan 26 called for blocking the Russian Embassy, but at the same time being polite to the police. The police did not do anything at that rally, although it too was unpermitted, just like the protest at Republic Square.
This is the hypocrisy of our government—they break up one rally and allow another. But responsibility for the abandonment of Artsakh lies not only with the Kremlin, but also with Pashinyan’s government, as well as the previous political forces that have ruled Armenia. The problems that led to the war in 2020 and the current situation did not arise yesterday; a whole series of political forces in Armenia and other countries is implicated.
Pashinyan’s resignation would not bring back those who died in this war, nor in the war of 2020, nor in the preceding wars; it would not help the residents of Artsakh in any way. It will not help the people who were deprived of their homes, land, or health, who were starved for several months. Artsakh no longer exists—that’s it. If pro-Kremlin forces come to power, Armenia will become an enclave of Russia.
The position of the Pashinyan government today is that they will not interfere in the conflict between Artsakh and Azerbaijan. This is hypocritical, to say the least, considering that all the residents of Artsakh have Armenian passports, they use Armenian currency. Artsakh is an Armenian quasi-state. Armenians like us live there.
Pashinyan is a pro-Western politician. He began to criticize the Kremlin, threatening to leave the CSTO [Collective Security Treaty Organization, involving Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, and Tajikistan]. In the last few months, he has declared that Armenia is not an ally of Russia in the war with Ukraine and has begun sending humanitarian aid to Ukraine. If Pashinyan’s government remains in power, Armenia will become a more European-oriented country while surrendering territories one after another.
There is a third option, but it is unlikely. A military junta could come to power. But that scenario would also be also bad.
The surrender of Artsakh is Azerbaijan’s latest frontier in seizing Armenian territories. If Armenia surrendered Artsakh without even firing a single shot in response, this means that other provinces will surrender just as easily—the next one will be Syunik, then Sevan. It is an open question whether the country of Armenia will remain on the map in fifty years.
There are different positions within our anarchist circle in Yerevan, but everyone agrees that the aggression in Artsakh on the part of Azerbaijan is an act of genocide. We see the influence of the Kremlin here, the result of Russian geopolitics.
Yesterday, I was in Republic Square before it was taken over by pro-Kocharyan forces. I thought that it was my duty to stand beside the parents of the dead soldiers, beside the people of Artsakh who evacuated in 2020, beside my compatriots who express their protest against the inaction of the Armenian army and the Armenian authorities.
Personally, I experience this situation very emotionally. I cannot demand Pashinyan’s resignation, because there is no better alternative now, but I realize that the government has made a mess of this situation. I feel great solidarity with my fellow countrymen and I feel sorry for everyone who died in this war and in the war in the 1990s.
The realization comes that all these sacrifices were in vain. Everything is lost. I myself am participating today in collecting humanitarian aid. This is especially important, given the experience of 2020, when the state did not take care of refugees. They were simply settled in an abandoned factory building, in which there was absolutely nothing—just bare walls. Volunteers installed toilets in the building themselves.
I do not encourage people to go to rallies. On the first day of the protests, many people participated in the demonstrations and what occurred was largely spontaneous. But since then, every public gathering point has been seized by some politician and his supporters.
Instead, I suggest you come to our humanitarian aid collection point, the Letters and Numbers co-working space on Tumanyan Street. Bring humanitarian aid and participate in sorting it so that when the refugees arrive, we will be ready to give them something. This is now very important to help thousands of people from Artsakh, but we don’t have enough hands.
Humanitarian Initiatives in Armenia
- The space Letters and Numbers and the Armenian Food Bank have opened a humanitarian aid collection point. Please bring non-perishable food items and clothing to St. Tumanyan, 35G, Yerevan.
- Volunteer fund for helping victims of the war “Ethos” St. Khorenatsi 30, Yerevan.
- Sasha Manakina’s collection can be found at this link. Sasha is one of the heroines of the new zine Alarm!
- The Viva Charitable Foundation has been providing medicine, rehabilitating the wounded, and helping Artsakh since 2016.
Analysis: Armenia in 2023
After the publication of the preceding texts, we received the following analysis from Garren, an anarchist librarian based in Yerevan.”
On September 19, 2023, the Armed Forces of Azerbaijan began an “anti-terrorist” operation against the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh—an attempt to finally exterminate the indigenous Armenian population of Karabakh.
For the people of Armenia, the issue of Karabakh has a dual meaning. The first war in the 1990s, the initial victory over Azerbaijan, and the subsequent diplomatic failures on the part of the political leadership of Armenia at that time have defined Armenian life across the ensuing decades. At the same time, the Karabakh crisis has been used to quell dissent and discourage criticism of Armenian nationalism and, up until 2018, as a device to blackmail Armenians with the threat of war (a favorite strategy of the Kocharyan regime).
Kocharyan and his allies did not exactly fail in their attempts to negotiate for peace in 1997-98. Rather, they consciously sabotaged any attempt at peace out of arrogance and an assumed superiority over Azerbaijan, then utilized the social capital they had acquired as victorious combatants in Artsakh to transform Armenia into a personal fiefdom in which they could amass fortunes. The previous regime capitalized on the misery of war to enrich themselves and sold Armenia to the highest bidder—in this case, Russian and Armenian capitalists.
In short, they robbed Armenians of their future in exchange for capital and the control of an entire nation. And now, following yet another assault on the rights of Armenians in Karabakh, these same shadowy forces are calling for a coup in Armenia to upend the democratically-elected administration of Nikol Pashinyan.
Pashinyan’s lack of political qualifications was exemplified in a visit to Stepanakert in 2019, during which he provocatively claimed that “Artsakh is Armenia.” Had the Republic of Armenia taken steps to recognize Artsakh officially, perhaps his words would not have been so careless. But the fact that every single international entity recognized the opposite meant that this sentence could be nothing more than a reckless and pointless provocation. Careless and parochial tend to be defining characteristics of nationalists; besides the populist character of Pashinyan’s administration, it seems to be no exception to this rule.
Anyone could tell you that life in Armenia since 2018 has been markedly different than previous years. Whatever social progress had been made was brought to a screeching halt as a result of the war in 2020. The events of the past week correspond to the Republic of Armenia’s strategic pivot towards the West, a move clearly despised by the Russian political leadership, as we can see from the recent statements of Marie Zakharova and Dmitry Peskov. The Pashinyan administration has no choice but to turn to an indifferent West that is not really interested in the well-being of Armenians but in capitalizing on the faltering Russian presence in the South Caucasus for its own geopolitical and economic reasons. The so-called “opposition” had two opportunities to vote the current administration out, but their incompetence combined with the lingering stench of decades of authoritarian rule made that impossible. Now their benefactors are attempting to implement the preferred strategy of conservative nationalists: the coup d’etat.
When Armenians took steps to free themselves from economic dependency and the servile colonial mentality imposed upon them by Russia’s increasingly frail imperialism, the Russian government (which cannot risk damaging its relationship with Turkey) allowed Azerbaijan to exert pressure on Armenians by means of an economic blockade, torturing military combatants and civilians alike, and acts of war. By the same token, they encourage political turmoil within Armenia by means of their intelligence apparati and Putinist-Kocharyanite supporters.
In our increasingly polarized, interdependent, and volatile political era, a trend has poisoned popular political discourse. People tend to focus solely on the words and actions of a prime minister, a president, or some other leader. This kind of myopia conceals the wider political, economic, and social apparatus that holds power over social reproduction and the historical processes which led to this moment. In the case of Armenia, Nikol Pashinyan is just one politician, and an extremely weak one at that. We have become so obsessed with the actions of individuals that we neglect the power of collective action. The strategy of mass political organizing has been all but abandoned by even the basically nonexistent left in Armenia. Mind you, the Karabakh movement of the late 1980s and early ’90s was a popular movement, as was the “revolution” of 2018.
The yoke of Stalinist bureaucracy and a traditional parochialism weigh heavily on Armenian social and political life. A reactive politic has taken hold, a politic that calls to destabilize a government facing down a refugee crisis and potential invasion. Until a movement materializes that can reproduce daily life and defend Armenian territoriality, the call to remove Pashinyan from power is nothing more than a futile call to arms by opportunists and adventurists.