Stalin’s Shadow Looms Over Trans-Caucasus Pipeline

by Rene Wadlow

The president of Azerbaijan, Ilhan Aliyev (son of the long-time president Heydar Aliyev), and Robert Kocharian, president of Armenia, met outside Paris, in Rambouillet Feb. 10-11, to discuss the stalemated conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh. Rambouillet had also been the scene for the last-chance negotiations on Kosovo just before the NATO bombing of Serbia began in 1999.

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 the enclave, some 5,500 square kilometers 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 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 pubic peacemaking effort to counter the current narrow, militant rhetoric.

The Nagorno-Karabakh issue arises from the post-Revolution/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”—designed 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 area, 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 which came under Turkish control 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 others 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, aided 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 posed few problems to the major regional states, all 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 scheduled 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 OSCE of an independent “mini-state.” An independent Nagorno-Karabakh might become the “Liechtenstein of the Caucasus.” 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 destiny. However, the recognition of Nagorno-Karabakh as an independent states raises the issue of the status of other de facto mini-states of the region, such as Abkhazia and South Ossetia in Georgia, Transnistria in Moldova, and Kosovo in Serbia. Close attention must 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 Transnational Perspectives 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.

This piece originally appeared in Toward Freedom, March 21


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)

On the need for a wider peace constituency in the negotiations see Laurence Broers (ed), The Limits of Leadership: Elites and Societies in the Nagorny Karabakh Peace Process (London: Conciliation Resources, 2006)

See also:

“Georgia accuses Russia in pipeline blast,” WW4 REPORT, Jan. 24


Reprinted by WORLD WAR 4 REPORT, April 1, 2006
Reprinting permissible with attribution