Tag Archives: Nationalism

The “Mariupol Standoff”, or the developement of new relashionship between East and West

“You can say things which cannot be done. This is elementary. The trick is to keep attention focused on what is said and not on what can be done.”

(Frank Herbert, from “Whippinng Star”, 1969)

A map of the situation in the eastern region of Ukraine, by Business Insider Intelligence

Welcome back to Unpredictable Past,

some time has passed since the last writing, but, as it is natural that it is, and as I often repeat, some events need the right time to be looked at and analyzed: and this is what I intend to do in this writing, whose processing time went into looking at things as they are, minimizing guesswork and finding as many facts as possible to support my claim.

In this paper I would like to start from the latest episodes that took place on the eastern border of Ukraine and then get to analyze with you the new course that the global geopolitical situation seems to have taken since the beginning of 2021. The event I am talking about has been defined as “Maripol Crisis”, from the city in the Donetsk Oblast, on the shores of the Black Sea, close to the borders of the Occupied Territories (or Separatists, depending on the point of view), which is generally referred to by the acronym ORDLO (Okremi Raioni Donetchkoi ta Lughanskoi Oblastei) and which has recently been the subject of clashes between separatists forces (ie the Russian army) and loyalists of the Ukrainian army, causing fear of a new escalation of violence in the region in the near future.

The “frozen” conflict between Russia and Ukraine has been going on for eight years, and dates the last escalation of this importance back to 2015, when, following the Ukrainian Revolution of the previous year and the beginning of the internal conflict with the separatists in the southeast of the country (in the regions of Crimea, Donetsk, Luhansk and Donbass), the Russian armed forces “disguised” as civilian personnel carrying humanitarian aid invaded the country, occupying, in whole or in part, the aforementioned territories. On March 26 of this year, the tension begins to rise again: four soldiers of the Ukrainian Army were killed in Shumy, a village in the Mariupol area, very close to the border of the Occupied Territories, in which, in the meantime, as pointed out by Kirill Budanov, head of the Main Intelligence Directorate of the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense, the troops of the Russian Federation have massed for a total of about 110,000 effectives. Budanov asserted that these movements of the armed forces have a specific purpose: “[Its] goal is to keep Ukraine in the sphere of [Russia’s] geopolitical influence, force it to abandon Euro-Atlantic aspirations, and resolve the issue of the occupied territories [in the Donbass] on Moscow’s terms“.

On April 12, the Russian government takes a further step, and through the spokesman of President Vladimir Putin, Dmitri Peskov declares that: “[Moscow] will not remain indifferent to the fate of Russian speakers who live in the southeastern regions of Ukraine“. A clear reference (typical of the rhetoric of recent years, which used the term “Russophone” instead of “Russian” to pursue territorial claims without bringing up ethnic issues that could sound like the “reasons” adducted by Adolf Hitler during the Anschluss of the territories with a population of German origin into the Third Reich), to the policy begun two years ago by the Russian Federation regarding the granting of a “facilitated” passport to residents of the Occupied Territories who had requested it (to date there are about 400,000, out of 3 million of residents) for “humanitarian reasons”, behind which obviously lies the veiled threat of being able to have an easy casus belli should an armed intervention needs to be justified.

In response to this veiled threat, the following day April 13 at a meeting in Brussels, U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken and Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba confirmed the importance of the strategic partnership between the two countries. Both Ukrainian and American diplomats agreed that they needed to take action in order to “demotivate Moscow from further escalation“; the same day, US President Biden called his counterpart Putin to propose a meeting in which to discuss the issue in its entirety, but , when Moscow seemed to have achieved a “normalization” of the situation, the expulsions of diplomats and the implementation of new economic sanctions on the Sovereign Funds of the Russian Federation began in the US (officially relating to the case of Alexey Navaly and his treatment in detention), but which in my opinion had more the flavor of an appropriate response: “you-are-not-the-only-ones-able-to-use-humanitarian-pretexts-for-other-purposes“.

A declaration of intent absolutely not misunderstood, which has aroused a series of diplomatic reactions on both sides, as well as, obviously, within the European Union. The question arose spontaneously: “is it really a new line or is it just a way of pointing out a heavy question of internal politics?“. As we know, the four years of the Trump presidency were characterized by suspicion of interference by Moscow into the internal politics of the United States, a suspicion fueled by the “benevolent” attitude held by the former president regarding the relations between the two countries. I have often said it, but it is good to reiterate it: the Russian elites, out of conviction or opportunism, continue to feed the mythology of the Cold War, in the hope of being able to return to the table of the Great Powers and at the same time preserve their position of power, showing themselves to the eyes of the public opinion in their country as the only way to avoid falling prey to alleged “Western conspiracies”.

But let’s start from the beginning, since this situation is one of the results of other events that have occurred in recent months. The first and foremost is certainly the change of administration in the United States, with the beginning of Joe Biden’s mandate at the White House: shortly after taking office, the President, and his entourage, overturned the line of laxity towards the Russia: in February, at the Munich Security Conference, the American President peremptorily stated: “America is back“, making it clear that Russian interference (from propaganda to cyberwarfare) in the West would no longer be tolerated, reiterating then the concept in an interview with ABC, calling his counterpart Vladimir Putin “a killer”. Following that, the combined efforts of the Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba and Secretary of the National Security Council Oleksiy Danilov, leads to Ukraine’s “new approach” towards Russia, and managed to “give a shake” to the President Volodimir Zelensky, who, due to inexperience and lack of external support, left Russians do essentially what they wanted, using the Minsk Agreements as a lever to move Ukraine’s internal politics at will.

Here, in the West, if the global pandemic hadn’t made us deaf and blind, we’d be talking about front page stuff. Despite those facts, fortunately, a military escalation seems unlikely at present, for several reasons.

At first glance, disparity of forces in the field is evident, clearly in favor of Russia, and this fact alone could immediately make one think of the worst. But, as several military analysts have rightly pointed out, this deployment of forces does not necessarily have to be the prelude to a large-scale offensive. It could be configured, for example, as a “response” by the Russian Federation (together with Belarus) to the large military exercise carried out by NATO since the beginning of March, under the evocative name of “Defender-Europe 2021“, in which 27 Countries took part, including Ukraine, representing the largest coordination maneuver in 25 years, with a similar maneuver named “Zapad-2021” scheduled for September. Sergei Shoigu, the Russian Defence Minister, stated the following: “a sudden check of the combat readiness of the troops of the Western and Southern military districts was carried out as part of [Russia’s] control measures and exercises during the winter period of training.

Second, an attempt at normalization has been carried out both in Europe, which began on April 16th, with France, Germany and Ukraine on the one hand and Russia (not represented at the summit, but nevertheless present) on the other, and, of course, by the United States, with Biden’s proposal to Putin of a meeting aimed at discussing the Ukrainian situation “on a broad spectrum“. Although these negotiations are currently at a standstill, the very fact that they exist implies that the military option is considered, even in the Kremlin, as something to be used as a threat but to be avoided at all costs. Further proof of this attitude, especially on the Russian side, is an apparently banal but interesting episode: in an interview with Rossiya24, a “government” broadcaster, Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov stated that Russia was ready to “break relations with the European Union “on the Ukraine question. These statements were immediately followed by a quick denial by Vladimir Putin’s spokesman, Dmitri Peskov, who denied the Minister and backtracked very quickly, citing justifications of circumstance. Taking into account that Lavrov is certainly not a minor character or just any politician, the fact that he was so abruptly denied from above is indicative.

Is it all a matter of “flexing muscles” then? Not exactly, in my opinion.

A map of the Northern Crimean Canal as reported by BBC.com

Indeed, there is a goal that a possible offensive could aim at: the Northern Crimean Canal, recently closed by the Ukrainian government and source of supply of 80% of the country’s drinking water, which has caused many problems for the regions under control. Russian. The question is whether the Kremlin is ready to take this risk: if on the one hand the superiority of means could make a “blitzkrieg” conceivable, on the other hand this could turn out to be a move with decidedly catastrophic consequences, compared to a possible “gain” in territorial and resource terms. In fact, it would be necessary to fight on Ukrainian territory, where now there are about 300,000 veterans of the Donbass, motivated, benefited by the knowledge of the territory but who above all would be immediately supported by the West. Making the decision to attack to “send a signal” could prove to be the most counterproductive the Russian government has done in recent years.

Two problems face the Kremlin. First of all, as I have explained several times, the image is everything for the elite of the Russian Federation: how would the regime be able to explain the enormous cost in human lives, or a possible military failure (the army is still one of the few institutions in which the population trusts) in the context of that confrontation / clash that propaganda has been carrying out for years? The second problem concerns the economic repercussions that the decision to force the hand would have on the country: if on the one hand Europe must limit itself to warnings, the United States is planning a series of very heavy economic sanctions, for now stopped in Congress because the result of a bipartisan agreement between Republicans and Democrats whose internal tensions have not yet subsided after the electoral defeat of Donald Trump, but which in the eventuality of armed aggression would immediately come into being (who would risk, after the scandals of the previous four years, to support the soft line with Russia?), and that would be a very hard blow for the whole country. Also in this case, maintaining the image of “prosperity” would be very complex, and probably it will not be enough to “pull out nationalism when you run out of money” to get out of it, also because this would seriously risk triggering a further chain reaction. from which it would be impossible for the central power to escape unscathed.

At that point, the possible scenarios would be two: withdrawing and losing face, trying not to arouse excessive media hype and finding a way to justify the “setback” with public opinion (changing the game and reporting external problems within the country , downloading them, for example, on the non-organic political opposition to the system, such as that of Navalny for example), or to go straight and decide to tighten even more clearly the relations with the only other ally of weight on which Russia can count: the People’s Republic of China. This last hypothesis, in spite of those who have spoken for years of a common front between the two countries with an anti-Western function, is actually the result of a reasoning that was firm at the time of the Cold War, which seeks to replicate patterns known, making up for the inability to explain reality.

In fact, as I happened to underline on other occasions, the most concrete (but never manifested) danger that the Russian elites absolutely want to avoid running into is precisely an increasingly close relationship with China. The reason is obvious: if it is true that the export of raw materials to Chinese factories is among the most important components of the Russian economy, on the other hand, those in charge are clear that the more the country moves to the East, the more it risks becoming an appendage of Chinese power. With the exception of the military sector (of reduced size only by Beijing’s choice) all the cards are in favor of the Asian giant, which in recent years has extended its influence even on those countries that Russia normally considers “its own” (yes think of Central Asia, or, lately, some Balkan countries that have opened up to the Chinese vaccine market, but that’s another story), without anyone in Moscow being able to do anything about it or daring to risk criticism of any kind.

This time the situation seems to be decidedly more serious, even if some other events, apparently distant, can offer the explanation of the escalation.

And it is at this point that it is necessary to take a step back, and take a closer look at the foreign policy undertaken by the new American administration: as mentioned, if on the one hand it has all the appearance of a provocation against Russia, a retaliation for the precedents years of interference in American politics, it is not necessary to forget that the objective of the United States has long been another one. In fact, further east, precisely in the Pacific, a game is being played that the United States considers much more important than any confrontation with Russia, namely to contain the influence of the People’s Republic of China on the region. For years, the overwelming US military supremacy has kept the Asian giant’s ambitions in what it considers “rightfully” its own zone of influence at bay, but lately things have changed and Chinese naval forces have begun to accompany the economic expansion of the country in the Indo-Pacific area. It is no coincidence that one of Joe Biden’s first acts as president was to preside over the first meeting of QUAD, an alliance of the four democratic countries that have interests in the Pacific Ocean (India, Australia, Japan and United States) and who do not look favorably on China’s expansion to their detriment, that, as already reported on this site, could sign the beginning of significant changes in the area.

All those facts leads me to ask: what if these maneuvers, apparently aimed at striking Russia, were instead a way to put the country’s leadership in front of a choice between West and East?

That Joe Biden’s “provocative” statements serve this purpose? And that the “outstretched hand” of Europe, specifically of French President Emmanuel Macron, is not a simple sign of surrender, but rather a counterweight in a “carrot and stick” strategy, intended to go and see the bluff carried out. for decades now from the upper echelons of the Kremlin? In this situation, two key points of the ideology of the facade of the Russian Federation seem to begin to fail, namely that of its “peculiar identity”, neither Western nor Eastern, together with that of the Cold War which sees the country as the main pole of anti-atlantist, an idea that loses credibility even in the eyes of the Russians themselves with each passing year. That somewhere in Washington they have understood that the program of responding to Russian propaganda with other propaganda, the one centered on embezzlement by members of Putin’s “inner circle” is a fallacious and useless strategy, as demonstrated by the Navalny affair , and that perhaps the real breaking point will be to confront Russian public opinion with something far more significant? Such as “what shall we do with our lives?”

In a possible future confrontation (whose lines have already been “drawn”) to balance the relationship between West and East, there is no doubt that the side on which Russia will take sides will be fundamental, not only for geopolitical issues, but also for the future of Russian citizens themselves: to let autocratic power preserve itself, becoming more and more enveloped in a decadent spiral that will inevitably lead to a sort of vassalage condition with respect to China, or to deny itself, its image and all the propaganda rhetoric put in place to hold together the “pieces” of the country and gradually groped a rapprochement with the much-maligned West?

As Andrei Piontkovsky stated in an interview with Olga Khvostunovna on the Institute for Modern Russia website: “To ensure that Russian changes its foreign policy, the battle for the minds of Russian citizens has to be won“. And perhaps, I think as a European, it is not the only battle that must be fought and won, if we really want the future of all of us to be different, but that’s another story.

The “Eternal Gulag”, a look inside Post-Soviet Countries resistance to changes

“Speaking in London with Mikhail Khodorkovskij we said to ourselves that we realize one thing. If a person has been in the Soviet Gulag, as soon as he leaves he cannot be free, he does not know what freedom means. The bandits have taken over and we continue to live by the rules of the Gulag. We can only prepare people for the future which could be quite far away.”

(Svjatlana Aleksievich, in an interview by Fabrizio Dragosei for the italian newspaper “Corriere della Sera”, March 28, 2017)

Welcome Back to Unpredictablepast.com,

This article is intended to be what we could define as the conclusion of the events concerning the protests in Russia, generated by the attempted murder of the main opposition leader Alexey Navalny and his subsequent arrest and conviction, through a lightning trial with fairly motivations and questionable sentence. As usual, when I say “conclusion”, I am not referring to the fact that the movement of events is over, and that I will stop following it in detail, but that the right moment has arrived to draw some conclusions from the facts previously analyzed.

Inside there will also be some reflections on Belarus, and on other ex-Soviet countries that have experienced similar events and of which it is good to talk again, also in this case trying not to limit ourselves strictly to the facts and trying to observe everything in the most wide range possible, and every possible example will help us in analyzing the situation, and to do this, we will go through a series of points that most of the situations considered so far have in common:

Державничество (Dierzavnichestva)

An incomprehensible term for a Westerner, but one that is crucial if one wants to understand what is the heart of the problem in some post-Soviet countries, above all the Russian Federation. Often, especially in English texts, it is simply translated as statism or, at times, nationalism: an error in my opinion, not just because russian language has specific terms to indicate statism (этатизм, etatiszm), nationalism (национализм, nazionaliszm) or patriotism (патриотизм, patriotiszm).

This word has a different meaning, however, in the sense that it includes and amplifies the previous terms and can be translated with the paraphrase “Either [Russia] is great, or it is not”. A concept that could be assimilated in some way to the politics of the French “Grandeur”, with the difference that, while progressively the latter succeeded in a more or less tragic way (think only of Algeria and what was called Indochina) to come to terms with the end of a historical era, that of Imperial Colonialism, the Russian Federation, which since 1989 has inherited much of what was the Soviet Union, has not been able to do so.

The issue certainly deserves a detailed study, but, speaking of the reasons that led to the current situation, it necessarily deserves a prominent position, as essentially all the others derive from it. If you think about the most important international events in the last twenty years, you will realize for yourself how this ontological vision of a state based on its “prestige” (the term is used by George Orwell in one of his most important writings, Notes on Nationalism) was the main impediment to a “normalization” of Russia within the world context, and also within it: every attempt made in this direction (yes, even by Vladimir Putin) has crashed into this insurmountable wall created by a Past that has progressively become both Present and Future.

The desperate attempt not to lose a prominent role as a Superpower can be found hidden in every attitude of the Russian government: from foreign policy, still mainly governed by a more or less veiled hostility towards the West, to the series of murders or attacks carried out towards political dissidents. Everything refers to an image of Undisputed Power, or at least of “new bipolarism” or “new Cold War” that the ruling class wants to give of the country, making it explicit both with concrete actions (but, to note, without ever exceeding), and through the propaganda that rages especially on the web (to date, the flagship product is the infamous Sputnik V vaccine).

Even smaller countries closely linked to Russia (such as many of those of the former USSR or adhering to the Warsaw Pact) still have similar problems, albeit in a “reduced” version: Belarus is a perfect example (in the articles I have I wrote about it extensively), but also the countries of Central Asia (those that Erika Fatland wittily defined as Sovietistan) have been heavily affected by this attitude: “imitative” in domestic politics and “limiting” in foreign policy.

Centralization of Powers

The second question which, in my opinion, is an obstacle to any change is that of the centralization of powers and the consequent “messianic” vision that is generated within the population, including both “the average man” and “the ‘intellectual”.

This problem stems from both historical reasons and purely political intentions. Without the need (as is done in some cases) to go back to Kievan Rus’, to the Mongols and so on, if you look at what was the “feeling” one breathed in the few years in which the decline of the USSR took a strong acceleration until its dissolution, it can be seen that the element that terrified those who at the time lived the events in the first person, was the terror of a civil war, especially within the RSFR. Once the Central Power lost its grip on a territory of such vastness and heterogeneity, the fear was not only justified, but concretely realized: not at the level, for example, of the Civil War following the dissolution of Yugoslavia, but, for example, with the birth of movements with a strong ethno-nationalistic or religious connotation, which once the Soviet “Mastiff” disappeared recalled the ancient hostilities and unleashed a myriad of local conflicts, just think of the Caucasus area, where the conflicts and animosities of ethnic, nationalistic, religious are still there to make the whole area a powder keg.

The political clash between parties and factions was also very strong, fueled by both these fears and by the disastrous “economic transition” implemented by Yeltsin, leading to the “Constitutional Crisis” (in fact an attempted coup by some high grades of the Army, then used by Elstin as a pretext to center all the powers on himself, as the President of the Russian Federation) of 1993, resolved with the shelling of the Parliament, an episode that, in hindsight, became a tragic preamble of the following years.

The White House (The building in which the Russian Parliament reunites) burning after being shelled by artillery fire

Matter of fact, when Vladimir Putin replaced Boris Yeltsin as President of the Russian Federation at the eve of the new millennium, he found the way cleared to do what he wanted, or rather, what, as we will see, the country expected from him.

His figure should have put an end to the internal clash by acting as a balance in the “redistribution” of powers, which subsequently led to the hypertrophic expansion of the presidential cabinet to the detriment of the constitutionally appointed bodies to guide the Russian Federation, which in the course of the years have become “facades”: legally they exist and their powers are constitutionally legitimized and regulated, de facto, everything passes through the presidential entourage (a body that only with the last referendum had a sort of de jure legitimacy) which imposes its decisions to all other state bodies.

“Political Messianism”

And it is precisely from this centralization of powers on the figure of the Head of State that another problem arises that should not be underestimated: “Political Messianism“.

If it is true that historically the Russians have had a very close and personal relationship with the figures in power, this is something that is more part of a medieval legacy than of a democracy (even under construction, as it was at the time). This is because in the population the conviction is created that only the apex of power can act on public life, disempowering them and at the same time generating peaks of ecstasy at every regime change and profound resignation in the following period: Gorbachev, Yeltsin and finally Putin have had all this “sacred aura”, which heralded an epochal change, then regularly disappointed. Of the three, the last is the only one who made sure that this aura was continually renewed in some way (and he did, for better or for worse).

In this sense, citizens are beginning to get used to this ambivalent thought: on the one hand, there is no alternative to the current state of affairs, or there is fear that the change will be disregarded and will lead the country towards disaster; on the other hand, the change at the top is seen as a New Advent, in the Christian sense of the term, something inevitable and that will surely open the doors to the Golden Age by sweeping away Evil. Both attitudes are the furthest away from a democratic process: they reflect an almost monarchical attitude towards power, the activity of the citizen is limited to being for or against a power that, although perceived in a highly personal, it remains something inaccessible, untouchable, but above all not contestable.

Political Messianism does not look at political figures in rational terms, but in emotional terms, which makes any public debate worthy of the name useless: everything is reduced to a Manichaeism that sees the Rightful on one side and the Damned on the other, creating a climate of perennial tension in which the entire social body is involved on a daily basis. We cannot know if Alexey Navalny will be the next President, or at least if he’s movement will led to a political change, but it does not matter as long as the centralization process is not reversed and the figure of the Man of Providence does not come to decline in the eyes of the population.

Corruption

As I have already stated, fighting corruption, especially in those countries where it is endemic, such as Russia (in fact, since the Soviet Union). But as usual, “the devil hides in the details”: perhaps few remember that, but corruption was one of the biggest problems even during the governments of Boris Yeltsin, a period in which the notorious figures of the “Oligarchs” emerged, of which “Tsar Boris” had to secure economic support especially during his second term, making many concessions to them, to the point that some went directly into the presidential cabinet or the government. Putin himself, at the time the right arm of the mayor of St. Petersburg Anatoliy Sobchak, was embroiled in shady deals concerning the embezzlement of Western aid together with his boss, doing his utmost when he lost his power due to his own illness to make him expatriate.

St. Petersburg mayor Anatoly Sobchack and a young Vladimir Putin 
Dmitry Lovetsky/AP

This is why he was chosen as Yelstin’s successor. No machinations of the KGB / FSB, or other sort of spy-story conspiracies: two things were expected from him, a safe conduct for the President (also too ill to fulfill his duties) and for his family, and a continuity with Yeltsin’s line on power management. But those who hoped to be able to maneuver “Volodiya” at will, soon realized that they had made a big mistake.

Starting from his second term as President of the Federation, Putin unleashed the judiciary (in the meantime passed almost entirely under the control of the presidential entourage) against the Oligarchs: lightning trials, heavily mediated, found many of them guilty of financial crimes, causing them to end up in imprisonment or forcing them into exile, and, more importantly, the state seized their properties by reassigning them to the new “circle” that Putin had created in the first years of government. Thanks to this “Witch Hunt” its popularity skyrocketed, both at home and, unfortunately, in the West, a first sign, of which few realized, that the idea of ​​a democratic Russia had been set aside and that also in countries where the rule of law was not just a facade, something had changed, and liberal democracy had begun to be devoured by the cancer of the “Vox Populi, Vox Dei”.

In Belarus, Lukashenko seize his personal power more or less in the same way: as we already saw in the essay on his ascent to power, he uses his position to launch a massive anti-corruption campaign, which basically cut off the head of the Belarusian State, and replace them whit himself.

Today, in both countries, the corrupt have changed, but not the system of corruption, which is inevitably linked to the concentration of power and the maintenance of a balance of forces that move under the apparently granite skin of the administration. We also have someone else who, very naively, thinks of eliminating corruption by eliminating the corrupt: whoever succeeds Vladimir Putin, tomorrow or ten years from now, will have to seriously ask themselves the question, and put it in front of the population, or the cycle will simply start again from the beginning.

Et Pluribus Unum

A third point never dealt with in a democratic way is the heterogeneity and complexity of territories, ethnic groups and religions that make up Russia, just as the relationship with the other former Soviet Republics has never been dealt with in the same way.

This attitude has mainly two reasons: the first, the more concrete one, is that many of the regions that claim more autonomy, or at least a more decentralized federal system, are strategic for the economic survival of the Federation, which is entirely based on the export of materials. the first that come largely from the transural territories, but whose control in the years passed, as mentioned, to Moscow, or, even better, to the circle created around the President. We have seen how, even during the pandemic emergency, resources continued to be drained from these territories in exchange for meager state subsidies and the burden of managing an unprecedented health crisis.

The second reason is that of the “prestige” of the “Dierzavna”: Vladimir Putin, in particular, represented, compared to his predecessor, the “champion” of the unity of the Russias, starting from the beginning of his mandate, which coincided with the Second Chechen war, passing through the war with Georgia up to the invasion of the Ukrainian territories considered “natural part of Russia”. A symbolism that is progressively decaying, due to the increasing intolerance of some Regions towards the central government, and above all because of the economic power of China, which is slowly eroding Russia’s influence on some territories, without this being able to counter it in any way.

The Russian Federation in this has inherited the behavior of the USSR in all respects, exchanging tanks and guns with threats of an economic or psychological war, but the principle remains the same and indeed, makes everything a house of cards even more shaky, with unpredictable consequences.

Smaller former Soviet republics have adopted the same attitude over the years: the confrontation in Nagorno-Karabakh that I have repeatedly spoken of is the most striking example. Power is based on the ability or not of the rulers to gain prestige and superiority over the Enemy, seen as an atavistic nemesis with which there is no compromise: yesterday Ilham Aliyev was a hated corrupt autocrat, today a national hero, in the same way, his counterpart Pashinyan was the hero of the Velvet Revolution, now a traitor who lost Artsakh. There are places where coexistence is not impossible, it has been made impossible in order to rise to power and keep it at the expense of the population.

Lack of concern about Liberal Democracy

In conclusion of what has been written so far, you can understand how much the discussions made around Russia and other countries in recent months take on surreal connotations, at least as far as I’m concerned. We have pages after pages of analysis, forecasts, hypotheses with a common substrate: the constant avoidance of concrete problems.

Those who, including me, deal with these events, should try to free themselves from a debate that feeds the problems, rather than trying to solve them. This does not mean not taking a position or boasting an alleged objectivity, but understanding how much we are personally involved and why, without thinking of being immune to it just because we know a little more than the average reader. This would not only help those who try to fight seriously so that their country comes out of a situation considered unsustainable, but also to notice how much this attitude goes to question our beliefs, and personal prejudices, which contribute to fuel the problem, making it endemic.

This is the “Eternal Gulag” in which the post-Soviet countries have fallen (and they are not the only ones, but this is another story): a continuous struggle between factions that slaughter each other to divide increasingly scarce resources, under the close surveillance of guards “ideological”, armed and threatening, which do not let anyone leave the camp and do not send news from the outside world, which in the meantime is moving forward.

Putin, Navalny, and the problem of “Then” in Post-Soviet Countries

Russia has always maintained a special relationship with power, seen as a sort of collective father, loved even when he showed himself, as often happened, to be tough and cruel.

(Demetrio Volcic, italian Journalist, Author and Politician, December 6, 2015)

Protests against the arrest of Alexey Navalny, the sign reads “One for all, and all for one” Photograph by Yuri Kochetkov / EPA-EFE / Shutterstock

Welcome back to Unpredictablepast.com,

some time has passed since the last article, but, for this particular issue, which, as you can imagine, is very important for me, I decided to take the right time to reflect and elaborate the matter: the time of the news has had its moment (although the situation is constantly changing, but by now it has taken a direction) and it is perhaps time to move on to history, offering some reflections on what is happening in Russia, but not only there. I had already mentioned some of these reflections in relation to Belarus, but in this case we can take the opportunity to explore them better. In order to do this work in the best possible way, the essay will be divided into (at least) two parts.

The attempted murder of Alexey Navalny

I think it is good to start from where we left off: for those who have not done so, I invite you to read the articles on the state of the Russian Federation that I wrote some time ago. Meanwhile, one issue in particular has affected the Western media (submerged by the daily update on the pandemic situation and, for a certain period, on the problematic handover between the administration of Donald Trump and that of Joe Biden). I am obviously talking about the poisoning of Alexey Navalny and everything connected with it.

For those unfamiliar with him, Alexey Navalny is a Russian opposition leader, politician, lawyer, and anti-corruption activist. He came to international prominence by organizing demonstrations and running for office to advocate reforms against corruption in Russia, president Vladimir Putin, and Putin’s government. Navalny was a Russian Opposition Coordination Council member. He is the leader of the Russia of the Future party and the founder of the Anti-Corruption Foundation (FBK) who have published investigations detailing alleged corruption by high-ranking Russian officials, leading to mass protests across the country. He has been arrested several times by Russian authorities, cases that are widely considered to be politically motivated and intended to bar him from running in future elections.

As for the question itself, I think enough has already been said and written: the excellent investigative work carried out by a joint investigation between Bellingcat, The Insider and the Anti-Corruption Foundation (FBK), in cooperation with Der Spiegel and CNN, has discovered voluminous telecom and travel data that implicates Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) in the poisoning of the prominent Russian opposition politician, and also that the operation that took place on August 2020 in the Siberian city of Tomsk appears to have happened after years of surveillance, which began in 2017 shortly after Navalny first announced his intention to run for president of Russia.

After that, under international pressure, Russian authorities allow Navalny to leave the country to be transported to the Charité Berlin hospital, where, having spent three weeks in an induced coma, he finally woke up in mid-September. Already on September 2nd, German authorities released Navalny’s test results. A toxicological examination, carried out by the Bundeswehr specialized laboratory, found unequivocal proof of the presence in his body of traces of a chemical nerve agent from the Novichok group. The conclusions of the German specialists were subsequently confirmed by certified laboratories of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), as well as by independent experts in Sweden and France. Almost immediately calls for new sanctions against Russia were made in the US and the EU, even before the investigation into the poisoning had even begun.

A man holds a placard with an image of Navalny during the rally in support of the Russian opposition leader, in St. Petersburg. Alexander Galperin / Sputnik via AP

Needless to say, such an investigation never begun, nor in Germany or Russia, as the Investigative Committee proposed by Navalny’s colleagues to initiate it “on the basis of encroachment on the life of a public figure committed for the purpose of terminating such activity, or out of revenge for such activity and attempted murder” did not find sufficient grounds to satisfy this request, since Russian doctors had not found any poison in Navalny’s test results, there was no legal basis for an investigation.

Despite this, it is obvious that Vladimir Putin had to respond in some way to the accusations made against government agencies and his administration. He did it during the annual end-of-year news conference, with one of his typical catchphrases: “Who needs to poison him”, he said “If they’d wanted to [poison him] then they probably would have finished the job” and addressing Bellingcat as “the legalisation of the materials of American intelligence agencies“.

The modus operandi that contemplate the attempted murder of men linked to the Russian administration or hostile to it through the use of chemical agents is not new in the history of the country: the most recent case chronologically is that of Sergei and Yulia Skripal in Salisbury in 2018, the most famous one is certainly that of former FSB agent Alexandr Litvinienko, for whom a radioactive isotope, Polonium 210, was even used. Especially from the “Litvinienko Case” on, this mode of murder has entered mass culture to such an extent that the association is almost immediate to everyone.

At this point, a question arises, which may seem a bit cynical, but which must be asked: why try to kill someone using a method so recognizable and immediately associated with the FSB or other Russian security apparatuses? Other personalities much more “uncomfortable” (pass me the term) of Navalny were shot and killed, later finding a convenient culprit, with never clear motives: Anna Politkovskaya in 2006, Natalia Estemirova in 2009 and above all Boris Nemtsov in 2015. Why not do the same? Why a nerve agent that says “Made in Russia” in capital letters? Moreover, it is natural to ask oneself something else, taking up the words of Putin himself: why not finish the job?

Over the years and my studies, I have learned several things about the way that Russian power has to move: the first is that it has a malleable propaganda and is able to adhere to and control almost any situation, the second is that it has been a logn time that Moscow have renounced any ambitions of enter the forum of the “western” countries, well aware that they are well-disposed to turn a blind eye to many things, as long as the raw materials flow into the veins of the Old Continent. When Anna Politkovskaya was killed, for example, there were no great outbursts, and the only European politician who went to her funeral was Marco Pannella, then head of the Italian Radical Party and at the time a member of the European Parliament: he said that she “she had opened our eyes “, while instead all of us had already turned the look away, and the Kremlin knows this very well.

So why this time doing such a seemingly clumsy and ineffective job. True, it could be argued that the idea was to send a “signal”, to make pro-Navalny activists feel a sense of looming threat. It should also not be forgotten how Russia lives with this type of “symbols”, which closely resemble the Soviet period and which each time try to portray the Russian Federation as an entity worthy of the USSR’s heritage, a “collective father,” loved even when he showed himself, as often happened, to be “tough and cruel “. But, then, why let Navalny go and give him the opportunity to get away with it (even if by a nose, as stated by Ilya Yashin), and then return to Russia with a renewal aura of martyrdom? Especially an opponent who, among other things, although popular in the West, in Russia does not enjoy such a large following as to be actually dangerous.

Certainly, as we will see better in the next article, the regime immediately began a media offensive against Navalny and against “foreign interferece”, which also cost it the loss of a very important geopolitical partner, namely that “special relationship” that the Russian Federation had held up to that moment with Germany (remember that the issue of the joint production of anti-Covid vaccines is still at stake). As I have repeatedly reiterated when talking about the Russian power system, it never moves randomly, so why does it seem to have voluntarily exposed itself in this way this time?

Vladimir Putin and Angela Merkel during a meeting in Moscow. FILE PHOTO

Is it possible that we are faced with something darker and more complex?

As we have seen, the granite appearance that Russian power tends to show is only a facade, underneath which all kinds of economic and political interest groups move. Was this assassination attempt a settling of scores? And, if so, between whom? Between Vladimir Putin and those who would like to see a change at the top? Among the high ranks of the “silovki” fighting to curry favor with the President or other members of his circle?

After all, the only one who found himself in a “Catch 22” situation was the President himself, in the aforementioned conference at the end of the year he found himself having to choose between which truth to admit: that actually the order to kill his political opponent had started with him, or much worse, that his grip on the state apparatus is slowly crumbling, and this was only one of the effects, the most visible. Recently, messages have been circulating about a possible “illness” of Vladimir Putin (during the Soviet period, “illness” was another way of saying “inadequacy”, and generally heralded the fall of the current CPSU secretary) and about political movements that should lead to a change of leadership, while remaining within the framework of “Putinism”, whether this is true or not (the sources are not always what one might call “safe”), something is happening behind the curtains.

But we will discuss this better in the second part, in which we will consider the most current events, that is, starting from Alexey Navaly’s decision to return to Russia and everything that followed. For now I leave you to reflect on these questions that I hope have aroused your curiosity.

Thanks for coming this far and if you want to share thoughts, opinions or insights, feel free to contact me.

Is there anything to be learned from the Nagorno-Karabakh War?

“The war which is coming
Is not the first one. There were
Other wars before it.
When the last one came to an end
There were conquerors and conquered.
Among the conquered the common people
Starved. Among the conquerors
The common people starved too.”

(Bertolt Brecht, Poems 1913-1956)

Gunduz Agayev, Azerbaijani satirical cartoonist vignette about the 2020 conflict, for Meydan.tv

Welcome back to Unpredictablepast.com,

In this article we will return to talk about the events inherent in the Nagorno-Karabakh area, about two months after the end of the armed conflict. I recently read this article about the “Military Lessons We Can Learn From the Nagorno-Karabakh War“, and it got me thinking:

Is there really anything we can learn from the Nagorno-Karabakh War?

Obviously I am referring to something other, that does not specifically concern the military aspect itself. But, since this is precisely the question that attracted my attention, it could be a good starting point: the elapsed time interval will allow us to look at the events in perspective, and verify whether some of the assumptions that had been discussed in the previous articles were correct or not.

Before we start, a brief summary of the facts could be useful: the conflict, which began on September 27, 2020 when the Azerbaijan Army launched the Iron Fist operation (in original, Dəmir Yumruq əməliyyatı) against the Republic of Artsakh, created after the war of 1988 – 1994 and de facto territory of the Republic of Armenia, although officially recognized as Azerbaijani territory, ended after about a month and two weeks of fighting, which saw an unstoppable Azerbaijani offensive recapture many of the territories of Karabakh, including the city of Shusha, until a trilateral agreement for an end to hostilities, ratified on 10 November between Armenia, Azerbaijan and Russia, which sent a contingent of 2000 men to the scene with the function of “PeaceKeeping”.

As for the war events themselves, and in particular that described by the article, personally, more than a science fiction war scenario, reminds me of an old French saying: l’argent est le nerf de la guerre. Azerbaijan has behaved no differently from many other petro-states we know: the enormous proceeds of natural resources are directly reinvested in the army and security apparatuses, which does not displease the arms producing countries (most of the which are part of the West) only to be indignant because the weapons sold are actually used. Armenia, which does not possess the same kind of resources, was doomed to succumb even in a more “conventional” war.

The second issue that comes to mind is that we can learn not to make predictions about events of this kind: for example, the fact that the conflict has not escalated, thing of which many were apparently sure, assuming a new “Syrian” scenario in the Caucasus. This was not the case, as I stated at the time, mainly for two reasons, related to each other: the first is that the area is surrounded by “relatively” stable territorial powers, even if some of these, such as the Turkey, they played a leading role in the unfolding of the conflict; the second reason is linked to that adjective “relatively” which describes the stability of the surrounding countries: if everyone had an interest in “flexing their muscles” within the war scenario, no one had the intention of entering directly into the conflict, which it would have done nothing but undermine the precarious internal stability that lies beneath the bombastic and warlike facade.

We could learn from what happened that not all situations are similar just because they appear to us so: often the emotional component that accompanies the analysis misleads us, reflecting more our fears or hopes than an accurate study of the current situation and of it’s surroundings. This often leads many towards a catastrophic tendency not supported by any evidence or concrete fact, which, paradoxically, often makes them look away when the war events are over, without understanding that the real scenario to keep an eye on. in the case of these “frozen conflicts” it is precisely what lies in the middle of the actual confrontations. But the former end up (for better or worse) in the newspapers, the latter do not.

Protests in Yerevan against the 2020 ceasefire agreement in Nagorno-Karabakh. Photo by Garik Avakian

The third thing we can learn is not to turn away from a war scenario as soon as they stop shooting.

For example, it seems that people have largely forgotten what is happening in Armenia after the ceasefire agreement, which, it should be remembered, cedes the “occupied territories” of Artsak back to Azerbaijan, was signed by Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan: thousands of people took to the streets, and hundreds stormed the Parliament buildings in the capital Yerevan. The protests continued throughout the month of November, with demonstrations in Yerevan and other cities demanding the resignation of the Prime Minister, who just two years ago was the hero of the Velvet Revolution.

Now the whole Armenian society has found its own scapegoat (everyone, from former president Levor Ter-Petrosian to both catholicoi of the Armenian Apostolic Church Karekin II and Aram I, have asked for his resignation); National Assembly President Ararat Mirzoyan was nearly lynched by the angry mob and demonstrators came to his home to threaten his daughter. On November 11, other demonstrators invaded the Radio Liberty / Radio Free Europe station in Yerevan attacking journalists, shouting “Turks” at them, and inviting them to leave the country; same fate befell the headquarters of the Open Society foundation. On the other hand, the government reacted lifting the limitation imposed by martial law and with arrests and releases of the main opposition leaders, clearly for intimidation purposes.

But this is only the beginning: the cession of the territories occupied by Azerbaijan means the beginning of a mass exodus from those regions of the Armenian population, who have decided to make “scorched earth” of their cities rather than leave them in the hands of the Azerbaijanis, and to even take the bodies of their relatives with them from cemeteries (along with the obvious vandalization and looting of some Muslim places of worship, particularly in the larger cities). When these displaced people arrive, in all likelihood, in Armenia, the situation will only worsen, as the protests do not seem to stop, probably waiting for that very moment to obtain the dismissal of the government.

There is no need to be a fortune-teller to imagine that the next Armenian government will focus as much as possible on revanchism to secure a long period of power.

In particular, what remains to cause more concern is the Lachin Corridor area: it too should, in theory, be returned to Azerbaijan, last in the timeline, and I do not think it is a coincidence that there installed the “Peacekeeping” force of the Russian Federation. For those who have not read the history of the conflict, the Lachin Corridor is a strategic area that connects Armenia to “mountainous” Karabakh, the part of the region that was not taken over by the Azerbaijani army and what remains of the Republic of Artsak, and from which the war of 1988 – 94 started. Yes, because, militarily speaking, if it is “relatively” easy to fight in the flat areas around the mountains, it is quite another thing to take the entrenched areas in the mountains, where the “sci-fi “Turkish Azerbaijani offensive has in fact stopped. Therefore, whoever controls the mountainous part of Karabakh is in fact in a dominant position, although it may be in the minority. As we have seen, Russia has not moved much in favor of Armenia and its Prime Minister “not approved” by the Kremlin, but it is not certain that this situation will not be reversed in the years to come.

A map of the cheasefire agreement: the parts in blue / light blue are those that will pass through Azerbaijan, the one in light orange represents mountainous Karabakh and the one marked with red stripes is the Lachin Corridor area

Thus, while the troops parade in Baku, the seeds of the next war have already been sown. And this can lead us to the third “lesson” that we can learn from the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, which is the stabilizing function of the conflict itself in certain areas of the world.

This time it was the case of Azerbaijan, which, backed by Turkey, decided to take its internal problems outside, trying to carve out a prominent role within the region: it is always about the winners, and the transformation of Caucasian country in another petro-state that uses the income derived from raw materials to invest them in militarization and regimentation of society has been accomplished. As stated above, a not dissimilar future is likely to await Armenia once the transition phase becomes a fact, and especially once Russia has resolved its internal problems.

As long as the “threat” situation persists, the citizens of both countries have seen their rights dissolve and nationalist fanaticism rising like a tide, as we have previously seen with regard to Armenia: a situation that takes a lot of trouble from regimes. authoritarians like Azerbaijan, and which soon makes one forget the reasoning of losses in terms of human lives and civil liberties to follow the emotion and hysteria of “victory”. At least for now.

Here, I believe that these are the “possible” lessons that we can learn from a conflict like that of Nagorno-Karabakh, while Western newspapers, if and when they talk about it, delight in the interesting dissertation on which were the best “drones”, if those of Erdogan or Nethanyau, without asking who and why moved them, using pseudo-intellectual terms such as Neo-Ottomanism or “Hybrid War”, or even pulled out of some from books by William Gibson (with all due respect), such as “Cyberwarfare” to disguise one’s own guilty disinterest.

The last lesson we can learn is perhaps this: our guilty disinterest. Of course, we are all focused on a global pandemic that has affected our lives in one way or another, but beyond this it seems that foreign events, such as the Nagorno-Karabakh war, attracted our attention for a short time, a a bit like fireworks: we watch them until they make noise and sparkle, and then turn our gaze to something else that glitters somewhere else.

I hope these lines may have provided you with some interesting reflections and that they were not too “abstract”. I thank you for coming to the end and I’ll see you next week.

Out of Sight – What’s happening in Russia? – Part III

Russia is not a linear country. The modernization took place in forced stages. And the tsarist background has never been completely erased. This means that the smartest minds hardly know how to adapt to the situation.

(Dimitrij Volčič, Italian politician and journalist)

Welcome back to Russia, my friends

In this last article (the usual “last” is related to the issue) we will look at some other recent events concerning the Russian Federation and what is happening inside it and which, due to other events, has passed on the sly.

In the two previous articles we have analyzed the events related to the SARS-CoV2 Pandemic, and how this has openly highlighted the economic and institutional weaknesses of Russia built by Vladimir Putin: in fact, what is most noticeable if you look at the general media, is the sudden disappearance of Russia (except for the question concerning the elusive Sputnik V vaccine), which until recently was concentrated on a broad global propaganda operation, the main purpose of which was, and still is , to reconstruct the role of Russia as a great power, and therefore as an alternative point of reference to the United States and Europe, but also to China, at least in terms of “image”.

Yes, the image of Russia. This may seem strange to you, at first glance, but I can assure you that the main problem in the head of the Russian elites is precisely this: what an image of themselves Russia shows, and it is applicable in every field and every event that has involved the post-sovietic period. The topic is quite long and complex, so for now I ask you to keep this concept in mind, further explanations will be the subject of specific treatment. If we want, we could take up the famous quote from “The Art of War”:

“Appear weak when you are strong, and strong when you are weak.”

(Sun Tzu, The Art of War)

Here, the Russian government thinks more or less in these terms, replacing “weak” with “well-disposed”. If we look at the latest events through this lens, everything should appear much clearer. I said that Russia has disappeared from the media, but this is only partially correct: on the one hand, barring sensational events, the West is also focused on how to deal with the Pandemic, and it is natural (at least according to the media logic) that everything else goes into the background, but it is equally true that the Russian leaders quickly took advantage of the situation to “disappear” and regulate internal issues away from prying eyes. Even at times when, in a “normal” situation (think just a couple of years ago), we would have had a pounding wave of propaganda about Belarus, Nagorno-Karabakh, Iran, US elections, etc.

And instead nothing, or almost.

To give you another very recent example, you can read the excellent article by Professor Vladislav Inozemtsev, published by the Institute of Modern Russia. It deals with a complex issue, namely that of the recently begun reform of the “Development Institutions”, but, aside from the economic-administrative question, even Professor Inozemtsev can only conclude with the idea that the whole process is substantially a big facade maneuver, aimed much more at settling accounts within the Russian power groups and at “redistributing” the management of the country’s economic flows among them, than at implementing a serious economic reform project, to facing a post-pandemic future.

Exactly as happened for the Management of the Pandemic and the apparent concession of autonomy to the Regions (which in the meantime has degenerated into an increasingly clear discontent, with mass protests especially in the Trans-Uralic regions), here too we are faced with a marketing operation: we want to sell a “reform” that will cancel a series of useless and unproductive state entities, but which in reality serves to redistribute roles, powers and political and economic influence.

As has already happened (think of Vladimir Putin himself, or his eternal second Dimitry Mevdeved) to deal with the umpteenth reform package is a political figure apparently jumped out of nowhere: the new Prime Minister Mikhail Vladimirovič Mišustin. A man who has moved within the Russian administration since the Yeltsin period (in August 1998 his first appointment, that of deputy director of the State Tax Service) and who now suddenly finds himself in the center of the scene, with soaring popularity skyrocketing (thanks above all to the provision of numerous subsidies to economies particularly affected by the pandemic), second only to that of President Putin.

He, as mentioned, will have to deal with this umpteenth attempt at “reorganization” which has very little to do with economy: it is no coincidence that, a character who remained for decades in the background, began to treat his image in an almost maniacal way, and to suddenly see a “circle” of loyalists born around him, of which all obviously belong those characters involved in the restructuring of these para-state apparatuses: when the economy flounders, cuts are necessary (even if, as mentioned, only on the facade) and everyone looks for their own safe place on a lifeboat that gets more and more crowded.

It is no coincidence that, alongside him in this enterprise, there is Dmitriy Cherhyshenko, the “media manager” who owes his fame to the creation of the aggressive advertising of the MMM Company, which, for those who don’t know, was a gigantic “Ponzi Scheme” created during the economic reform of the Yeltsin Era, which reduced thousands of savers to misery, deceived by the promise of easy earnings and decidedly unable to understand what they were doing (it was the early 90s, russians had just left the Soviet system). A warranty.

Moscow, Bolotnaya Square, May 6, 2015: A single-person picket is held by the Russian journalist Alexander Ryklin who holds a poster that reads: “At this place, on May 6, 2012, police attacked a peaceful demonstration.” The picket lasted only a few moments, as Ryklin was immediately detained by the police. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

In all this, the only thing that seems to have concrete implications is the implementation of an increasingly restrictive legislation regarding the right of assembly, guaranteed de jure by article 31 of the Constitution of the Russian Federation but de facto severely limited by a huge machine bureaucratic, which poses a legislative barrier at both federal and local levels. For years now this has been the way that the Russian authorities have had to block any type of demonstration: a small error in filling out the myriad of paperwork required, officially for the “safety of citizens”, is enough to be denied a constitutionally sanctioned right. In chronological order, the latest proposal presented to the Duma by the Russia Unity party is to request bank information from those organizing demonstrations, which are feared “financed by people hostile to the country, such as George Soros or Hillary Clinton”.

Obviously inaccurate or incomplete information (or perhaps simply not available, as in the case of flash mobs or spontaneous demonstrations) will lead to the cancellation of the manivestation, or its brutal dispersion by the riot squads. The perfect combination of propaganda and limitation of the legal space for protest, as authorities find more ways to limit when, where, and how people can voice their demands. 

In conclusion, we could say that this was yet another period of missed opportunities to seriously reform the Russian Federation, whose government instead preferred to consolidate its position, take the opportunity to eliminate some “ballast” and settle the accounts within the different factions, still kept in balance by the figure of the President. It is my opinion that this attempt to disappear from the spotlight will soon show its dangerous consequences in the not too distant future.

Thank you for reading this series of writings, as usual, for any questions or clarifications, do not hesitate to contact me.

Nay, come, let’s go together.

The Tragedy of Nagorno-Karabakh – The New “Great Game” Chessboard?

“By giving certain Karabakh territories to Azerbaijan, the Karabakh conflict would have been resolved in 1997, a peace agreement would have been concluded and a status for Nagorno-Karabakh would have been determined”

(Levon Ter-Petrosian, former President of Armenia, in an interview with BBC, 2011)

Photo by Alexis Fauvet on Unsplash

Welcome to the last part of this discussion on the Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict,

Exactly as said for the question of Belarus, this does not mean that we will stop writing about it, but only that we have reached the present day and have analyzed past events as much as possible, so to be able to better understand what is happening today.

It was a long journey, which started at the beginning of the 20th century, but it was essential: in our time the public is generally “gorged” with news of which they understand little or nothing, it is up to us to take back the Time of History and look with others eyes what happens. Nagorno-Karabakh is no different, potentially, from hundreds of other situations, which are not just lines on a map, a bulletin of deaths, or something to put a bet on, but instead they are the flesh and blood of those who have lived, and are still living, in a scenario of perpetual war. Moreover, knowing the context, we can move better in understanding the real geopolitical situation, the one beyond the handshakes and warlike declarations of politicians.

The last time we left at the end of what is historically referred to as the Nagorno-Karabakh War, although, as we have seen, the conflict in the region dates back to the Armenian-Azerbaijani War of 1918 – 1922, and remained in the background throughout the Soviet period, since 1988. We also talked about the “Frozen Conflict“, and with good reason: the years from 1996 onwards saw a succession of peace treaties, UN resolutions and skirmishes between the two countries.

During the following years several United Nations resolutions (in particular 62/243, but also UN Security Council Resolutions 822, 853, 874 and 884) asked Armenia to withdraw from the occupied Azerbaijani territories, while others, such as that of the European Council , tried to find a mediation so that the displaced could return to their land in peaceful conditions, criticizing the “large-scale ethnic expulsion and the creation of mono-ethnic areas”. In 2008, the “Moscow Defense Brief” published an analysis in which it reported an arms race by Azerbaijan, paid for with oil revenues, and a possible resumption of hostilities. Which happened on March 4th of that same year.

Since February, the Republic of Armenia was experiencing a profound political turmoil, which pitted the supporters of the President of the time Robert Sedrak Kocharyan against those of the former President Levon Ter-Petrosyan; meanwhile, following the Kosovo Declaration of Independence, which according to President Ilham Alyev (son of Heydar Aliyev, and, like him, accused of taking power by electoral fraud) “encouraged the Armenian separatists of Nagorno-Karabakh”, Azerbaijan withdrew its armed contingents from the Peacekeeping mission and put them on the armenian border.

The clashes in Mardakert, as will be recalled, from the name of the place on the Contact Line where the clashes took place, will be the most serious violation of the ceasefire since ’96, with the two sides accusing each other of having started hostilities first: these clashes left the situation at the border essentially unchanged.

NKR, Mardakert, and the line of contact

The second, and most important, violation of the ceasefire occurs 8 years later, in 2016. Azerbaijan had long been building an army to prepare for this confrontation, and President Alyev (still in office) had often made statements regarding the recovery. hostilities in Nagorno-Karabakh, with the specific intention of recovering the region and rejecting the international mediation envisaged by the Madrid Principles.

The so-called “April War” or “Four Day War” broke out in the night between the 1st and 2nd of April, and the clashes focused mainly around the cities of Aghdara, Tartar, Agdam, Khojavend, and Fuzuli. As usual, the reconstructions accuse the other side of having started the hostilities first. The war rekindled xenophobic sentiments on both sides: Armenian President Kocharian said that Azerbaijanis and Armenians were “ethnically incompatible”, and even in Azerbaijan the discrimination against the Armenian population exceeded the warning levels. The clashes did not lead to any change in the state of things. Independent Armenian journalist Tatul Hakobyan, who visited the fighting scene during the clashes, remarked that the death of scores of soldiers of both sides was “senseless” as no real change occurred. He stated: “Azerbaijan did not win and Armenia did not lose”. Several observers noted how the hostilities had been de facto calculated to not fully escalate, in particular from Azerbaijan, and that they had no long-term goal, but only to put the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict back on the international agenda, putting pressure on Armenia.

Territorial changes after 2016 Armenian-Azerbaijani clashes.

Thus, after thirty years of more or less great violations of the ceasefire, UN resolutions and confrontations between the great international powers, we come to the present day. Hostilities in Nagorno-Karabakh resumed on 27 September 2020, apparently started from Azerbaijan (as it probably was in the previous cases: after all, Armenia would have less motivation to start a conflict, being in possession of Nagorno-Karabakh from ’94 -96), the clash was fought mainly through use of air forces (drones in particular) and mutual bombing towards the cities of Stepanakert and Ganja. Moscow attempted to negotiate a ceasefire, failing twice on October 17 and the following 26.

So what is there to expect this time?

Stepanakert, the capital city of the Republic of Artsakh, has been heavily damaged by shelling during the conflict.

“War is always the main desire of a powerful government, which wants to become even more powerful. I don’t need to tell you that it is precisely during the war that … the government covers its thievery and mistakes with an impenetrable veil. Instead, I will talk to you about what most directly affects our interests. It is during the war that the executive power displays its terrible energy and exercises a kind of dictatorship, which terrifies freedom. It is during the war that the people forget the deliberations concerning their civil and political rights.”

(Maximilien De Robespierre, December 18, 1791 from “Oevres de Maximilien Robespierre“, Phénix Éditions, Ivry, 2000.)

When the news began to appear in the Western media, the reaction of those who had more or less the notion of what was happening was to evoke a “Syrian” scenario even in the Caucasus, when not directly a Russo-Turkish war. Unfortunately it is the poisoned fruit of the last few decades: every news must be seasoned with suppositions, “ifs”, “buts”, and provided with apocalyptic predictions made on unknown basis. For now, we do not know how the situation will evolve, and, as I have often reiterated, I gladly leave the predictions of the future to the astrologers.

But we can use what we know to get a clearer picture: for example, examining post-1996 conflicts, including the current one, and finding commonalities could be a good starting point. To this, we can add a look at the international and internal situation of Armenia and Azerbaijan.

First of all, all those conflict were uselessness. It is not a rhetorical statement about the futility of war (even if the whole story could well represent a metaphor) but an objective observation: the clashes have never led to a decisive change in the region, but have generally been limited to a series of targeted aggressions, skirmishes and small portions of territory that pass from one side to the other. Nothing that could barely be compared with the 1988-94 war.

But if “War is the continuation of politics by other Means”, then we can begin to see its usefulness. In particular, Azerbaijan, transformed into a petro-state after the Nagorno-Karabakh War, is continuously subject to fluctuating economic crises (just happened in 2008, 2016 and 2020) and also has a monolithic and consolidated political system around the Alyev family, which is accused by many of being at the center of the country’s political and economic corruption. In the country there are continuous and systematic violations of human rights, indiscriminate arrests and systematic application of torture. The perpetual military mobilization around the unresolved issue of Nagorno-Karabakh has certainly proved to be an excellent way to keep political and economic power safe from internal crises during the last decades.

Although Armenia is a country in some respects in better condition, the same argument can be valid. The continuing political crises, including the “Velvet Revolution” of 2018, reveal a “hybrid” political system (moreover not “blessed” by Moscow): very fragile and prey to the internal struggles of different power groups. Furthermore, the Armenian economy largely depends on Diaspora Organizations around the world and also suffers from continuosly ups and downs. The constant threat of Azerbaijan has certainly helped some of the Armenian power circles to remain intact without excessive effort.

Secondly, there is obviously the geopolitical question, in which the clash is used to “prove” one’s own strength and political relations. Although both countries have had good relations with both NATO and the CIS, the main confrontation has been between Russia and Turkey (as a NATO member), since the time of the collapse of their respective empires. This is an established fact, as we have seen in the previous article, since the early days of the fighting, with threats from the former Soviet countries regarding a possible intervention by Turkey in the conflict. Once again we have a proxy war of this type, even though Turkey is essentially acting unilaterally, without the formal support of NATO. As we know, the main battleground with Russia is now in Syria, but also with regard to Nagorno-Karabakh, both factions support their respective proteges: Turkey, Azerbaijan and Russia, Armenia.

This time, however, there is an unexpected element. The same countries that are fighting each other by proxy are in turn in severe crisis: both Turkey and Russia have isolated themselves internationally and are suffering deep crises, at an economic and social level. It is therefore they this time who find themselves with a precarious internal position, to be stabilized “on the outside”.

This could lead to two completely opposite scenarios: a rapid escalation followed, however, by an equally rapid collapse (Turkey does not have NATO behind it, and does not have the economic means it boasts to support so-called Neo-Ottoman ambitions, and Russia at the same time. way barely manages to support the Syrian war effort, as well as being hit very hard by the COVID-19 pandemic, although officially denying problems of this type), or to a scenario that deflates very quickly, also taking into account that much of the war is fought on the propaganda front, as previously said to “put the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict back on the international agenda” with belligerant proclamations, which in the West generally have a certain hold on the news.

Unfortunately, now the attention of Western Countries is now focused on a much more serious threat for their own stability, with the citizens of the European countries and those of the United States having far more serious problems on their agenda than Nagorno-Karabakh and the hypotesis of an escalating conflict (we no longer even talk about Libya or Syria, a sign of how, as long as this health emergency is not mitigated, we will have no serious developments in addition to Presidents who insult each other).

The third issue concerns precisely the global pandemic that afflicts all the countries of the world: Armenia has been hit quite hard, not a good start for the government of Nikol Vovayi Pashinyan, leader of the aforementioned protests in 2018; while Azerbaijan was striken less, “thanks” to the possibility of implementing draconian measures (and to the lack of media transparency) , but it has certainly suffered from the lower demand for fuel due to the cessation of industrial activities which lasted several months, and considering that its survival is based on those revenues, it is not difficult to imagine a certain discontent.

Could this umpteenth clash be the way to shift problems that instead concern the internal situation of the two countries into Foreign Policies?

is there a possibility that the confrontation has become so endemic that it has become a stabilizing factor in the region, rather than the other way around? At the beginning of the writing, a quote from the former Armenian president Lev-Petrosian leads us to reflect: what is the reason why a possible resolution of the conflict is a priori discarded? Perhaps the main reason is to be found within the dynamics between the two countries, rather than outside, and in their political, social and economic dynamics, which seem to be the dominant factor in the outbreak of what have been micro-conflicts. occurred since ’96.

Maybe this “inverted view” can be taken as a starting point for new research on the subject. In the meantime, i will thank you all for reading these lines and those that preceded them, help me by letting me know what you think where you prefer.

That’s it for this time, see you next week.

The Tragedy of Nagorno-Karabakh – The end of the “Pax Sovietica”.

Revenge, at first though sweet,

Bitter ere long back on itself recoils.

John Milton, Paradise Lost (1667; 1674), Book IX, lines 171-172

Emblem of the TSFSR 1930-1936. The only difference compared to version 1924-1930 is that the azeri text is in latin script.

Welcome back to this excursus through the history of Nagorno-Karabakh, and, more generally, of the countries of the Caucasian area.

But before we begin, I have to admit a mistake: it was my initial intention to divide the story into three parts, but while writing, I realized that this is impossible, so a fourth will be added: if the goal of these articles is understanding, I don’t feel like leaving out some episodes for the sake of synthesis, otherwise it will be impossible for you who read me to understand how things went and how deep are the roots of modern events. As a historian, it is my job to ensure that history is simple to understand, but not simplified.

That said, we can proceed.

Last week we left in a very specific historical moment: the end of hostilities between Turkey and the Soviet Union, with the Kars Treaty of 1921, while the 11th Red Army occupied Azerbaijan, Armenia and Georgia without too many problems.

On March 12 of the following year, on the proposal of Vladimir Lenin, the new Soviet Republics proclaimed in the three states were reunited into the Federative Union of Socialist Soviet Republics of Transcaucasia, which on December 13 of that same year became a single federal state, the Transcaucasian Socialist Federative Soviet Republic. the All-Caucasian Congress of Soviet, whose intention should have been to maintain formal autonomy for the three republics, adopted a common constitution, appointed the Central Executive Committee (the highest legislative body) and the Council of Commissioners of the People (who exercised executive power, and was therefore the government). Mamia Orakhelashvili, one of the leaders of the Bolsheviks, of Georgian origin, became the first President of the TSFRS, whose capital was established in Tbilisi.

In 1936, the Transcaucasian SFRS was again divided into three autonomous republics (Azerbaijan, Armenia and Georgia), with the formation of several autonomous Oblasts (Regions): Adijeian, Karachai-Cerkess, South Ossetia (in Georgian territory), Nakhichevan (under Azerbaijani protectorate), and Nagorno-Karabakh (in the territory of the Azerbaijan SSR).

Soviet Caucasus: from 1957 to 1991

It was the People’s Commissariat for Nationalities or Narkomnaz (from russian Народный комиссариат по делам национальностей, Нар.ком.нац.) chaired (among others) by Josif Stalin, that dealt with the issue of peacekeeping in the Caucasus. The hypotheses concerning the conception of such an administrative structure vary: some scholars believe that the Soviets have played, as in the episode of the Baku Soviet, “Divide and Impera” (ancient Latin expression meaning “Divide and Command”), pitting the local ethnic groups against each other, so that they would not fight against the Soviets: Nagorno-Karaback, in particular, was placed under the control of the Azerbaijan SSR, while retaining 94% of the Armenian population. The same can be said of the Nakhichevan exclave, separated from Azerbaijan by a “corridor” of Armenian territory.

It is a plausible and coherent explanation, also taking into account the historical precedent of the Baku Soviet, which, as we saw last time, was an active part on behalf of the Soviets, in fomenting the First Armenian-Azerrbaijan War. But there would be another: the idea that Stalin, subsequently head of the Soviet Union, had of the relationship between national identities and Soviet communist identity. I have already mentioned this issue and I apologize for postponing it each time, but it is a complex issue that had affect the entire USSR, and which deserves to be treated separately, with with due consideration.

Despite the desire for unification between Armenia and Karabakh remained in question throughout the Soviet period, the control exercised by the Eastern Bloc Superpower kept the situation substantially stable, mainly through its own military strength. It will be with the coming to power of Mikhail Gorbachev and with the implementation of the “glasnost” (openness or transparency) policy that the Nagorno-Karabakh question forcefully made itself felt again: the Armenians of Karabakh now free to express a certain level of dissent, began to demand reunification with the Armenian SSR, accusing the local government of trying to culturally “Azerify” the region, finding support both in Russia and in the international community.

Despite Gorbachev’s attempts at mediation, and unfortunately for Armenians, the Soviet constitution contained a sort of “Comma 22”, which relegated the situation to a perpetual stalemate: while Article 70 of the so called “Brezhnev Constitution” of 1977 states that “the USSR is an integral , federal, multinational State formed on the principle of socialist federalism” and also that “the USSR is the result of the free self-determination of nations and the voluntary association of equal Soviet Socialist Republics” and Article 72 recalls that “each republic shall retain the right freely to secede from the USSR“, Article 78 otherwise states that “The territory of a Union Republic may not be altered without its consent. The boundaries between Union Republics may be altered by mutual agreement of the Republics concerned, subject to ratification by the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics“.

The question of the territorial integrity of the Soviet Union was the great problem of its entire history, so great, that even after its dissolution the Russian Federation had to take it upon itself (always think of the Caucasus: Georgia, Chechnya, Ossetia) and it always reacted in the same way: with violence. A possible explanation can be found in the geography of the country itself: if the countries of the Caucasus had begun to become autonomous, Russia would have risked losing its “bridgehead” towards the Middle and Far East and towards the Black Sea, and with it is the continuous flow of resources, especially raw materials, to and from abroad.

Thus, the situation was left unresolved. But “Dum Romae consulitur, Saguntum expugnatur” (from Latin: “While Rome discusses, Sagunto is conquered”): says a bitter comment that can be found in book 21o of the work “Ab Urbe Condita ” written by the Roman historian Titus Livius.

It is a reference to those who waste a lot of time in continuous consultations without deciding, in a context that would require quick decisions. And this is precisely our case: from 1985 to 1987 the tensions between Armenians and Azerbaijans in Nagorno-Karabakh continued to grow, while the the Soviet government had forgotten about the issue (or rather, it had a problem of general collapse to deal with, and the affairs of the small Caucasian Oblast were certainly not at the top of the list).

Television images showing burnt automobiles and marauding rioters on the streets of the city of Sumgait during the pogrom in February 1988.

“Peace cannot be kept by force. It can only be achieved by understanding. You cannot subjugate a nation forcibly unless you wipe out every man, woman, and child. Unless you wish to use such drastic measures, you must find a way of settling your disputes without resort to arms.”

(A. Einstein, in a speech to the New History Society, 14 December 1930)

On February 22, 1988, after several months of small clashes and forced displacement on both sides, there was the first real skirmish between Azeri and Armenians in Karabakh, in the city of Askeran: two days earlier, two Azerbaijani trainee female students denounced being raped by Armenians and two other young Azeri died in clashes with the police.

But this was only the prelude: during a demonstration in Sumgait, in support of Azeri refugees driven out of their villages from Karabakh, anger over news of “murders and atrocities” committed by Armenians rose to the point of unleashing a real pogrom against the Armenian community, resulting in 26 deaths. Armenians were beaten, raped, mutilated and killed both on the streets of Sumgait and inside their apartments during three days of violence, with no intervention from the police, that only subsided when Soviet armed forces entered the city and quelled much of the rioting on 1 March. Nearly all of Sumgait’s Armenian population left the city after the pogrom.

On March 23, 1988, the Supreme Soviet refused for the umpteenth time the request for the annexation of Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia, sending the army to Yerevan to face any protests. The Armenians of Karabakh were now convinced that they would face the same fate of those of the Nakhichevan exclave, in which the Armenian population had gone from 40% before absorption into the Soviet Union to total disappearance in the late 1980s.

No one seemed to realize it, but The Second Nagorno-Karabakh War had begun.

The parties in dispute then began a harsh diplomatic confrontation, and neither of them (Armenia in particular) trusted more in Gorbachev’s mediation. The years between 1988 and 1990 were characterized by the exponential growth of inter-ethnic tensions: in addition to the episodes of violence on both sides, just think that, in that period, fear led to a massive exodus from one country to the other, in which Armenia and Azerbaijan “exchanged” large sections of the population. From Armenia alone, in the period 88-89, more than 200,000 people left, including Azeri and Kurds of Muslim religion. The latter, despite not having taken part in the conflict, preferred to leave the villages where they lived because located in a “potentially hostile” territory.

In 1990 the situation worsened further: Armenia imposed an embargo on the Nakhichevan ASSR, while the newly formed Azerbaijan Popular Front first organized sabotages on the Armenian railway network bound for the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast, and then attempted a “risky move” to break away from the dissolving Soviet Union anytime soon: the wrong “timing” led the Soviet authorities to declare a state of emergency in the region (also due to the pogroms unleashed against the Armenian population of Sumgait, Kirovabad and Baku) and, in what comes Known as “Black January“, 26,000 Soviet Army soldiers brought an end to the uprising by force, shooting at protesters and causing more than 90 deaths.

Victims of Black January in Martyrs’ Lane, Baku.

The Soviets also tried to keep this intervention secret, destroying the lines of communication to and from Baku: despite this, the journalist Mizra Kazar and the staff of Radio Liberty / Radio Free Europe, managed to send a daily bulletin outside the occupied zone.

At that point the Armenian army and paramilitary militias decided to fight back: several Azerbaijani exclaves in Armenian territory, or near its border, were attacked by paramilitary troops and even bombed with artillery during a series of night raids. that lasted from March to August, until once again the intervention of the Soviet army drove back the aggressors and temporarily put an end to the massacres, with more violence.

On March 17, 1991, Mikhail Gorbachev held the famous “Referendum on the future of the Soviet Union“, also known as the “Union Treaty“, which was to decide whether the republics of the USSR should remain together. With the success of the Referendum, the structure of the Union was changed, allowing even non-communist leaders to compete for the presidency of the republics, which brought to power, for example, Boris Yelstin in Russia and Ayaz Mutalibov in Azerbaijan, while Gorbachev remained in office as President of the Soviet Union.

Voting bulletin for the “Union Treaty”, March 17, 1991

The Armenians boycotted the referendum (in fact they declared themselves independent on August 23, 1990) while the Azeris voted in favor. The prediction of new clashes led to an arms race in Nagorno-Karabakh on both sides, but this time the newly elected Azerbaijani president Mutalibov decided to exploit the post-reorganization situation to his advantage: he thus convinced Gorbachev to organize a pre-emptive strike to disarm the ‘Armenia and make it desist from its proposal of reunification with the Karabakh region.

Thus, on April 30, the Soviet and Azerbaijani forces launched Operation “Ring”, which resulted in the deportation of all Armenian inhabitants of the Shahumyan region, a process which was joined by indiscriminate violence, kidnapping, looting, murder, rape and torture. and that forced 17,000 people to exodus, until July 4th Gorbachev announced the end of the Operation as the area had been “pacified”. Obviously, everything turned out to be counterproductive: from that moment on, the thought became clear in the minds of the Armenians that the only solution for reunification with Karabakh was armed resistance against the Soviets and the war against the Azerbaijans.

In September 1991, there was a first attempt to mediate a peace, promoted by the Russian President Boris Yeltsin and by the Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev: after a series of talks, between 20 and 23 September the Železnovodsk Communiquè was signed, in which the parties undertook to respect mutual territorial integrity, national sovereignty and respect for human rights. But they were just nice words on a sheet of paper.

While Yeltsin, Nazarbayev, Mutalibov and Armenian President Ter-Petrosian signed the agreement, the Azerbaijani OMON forces continued to bomb Armenian towns and villages, such as Stepanakert and Chapar. The Armenians, for their part, certainly did not stand and watch: at the end of 1991 an offensive was launched in which the militias broke the siege of the bombed areas, and then concentrated on the destruction of the Azerbaijani villages, considered as hidden posts for the artillery, again with an escalation of violence and ever greater rancor, which involved numerous civilians who had little to do with the bombing done by Azerbaijani troops.

Finally, when the Soviet Union imploded, the Ministry of the Interior ordered the withdrawal of troops from the region, completed between 19 and 27 December 1991. With the end of the Soviet military presence, the situation in the region literally went out of control.

So here ends the second part of our story, e story of an only apparent “peace”, guaranteed by the heavy shadow of the Soviet Union, which at the same time created the basis for the actual conflict: by feeding a local nationalism in the hope of a future “Soviet Nationalism” it left the field free to violence, pogroms and reciprocal feuds, which in addition to a high number of deaths, continued to stifle the embers that would later flare up in the fire of war.

In the next writing, we will deal with the military clash that broke out in the years following 1991, I hope that so far the explanation has been clear and stimulating, as usual, for any question you can contact me.

Thanks to all those who have had the patience to read these lines.

The Tragedy of Nagorno-Karabakh – A Hundred years of Hatred

“For never can true reconcilement grow,

Where wounds of deadly hate have pierced so deep.”

(John Milton, Paradise Lost – 1667; 1674, Book IV, line 98)

Welcome back to our weekly appointment,

This week I wanted to tell you about another problematic place once linked to the USSR, and which has recently returned to talk about itself, unfortunately: I am referring to the region of Central Asia known as Nagorno – Karabakh.

Before starting, I would like to make a small premise: I was very undecided whether to address (and how) this topic. If, as I told you when talking about Belarus, the issues concerning the former Soviet Union countries are never as simple as they are seen from the outside, that of Nagorno-Karabaka is certainly one of the most intricate and obscure to foreigners observers.

So why talk about it? For the same reasons why I didn’t want to do it: because it is intricate and obscure, difficult for a foreign observer to understand. After all, it is the goal I set myself when I started writing, and I intend to keep it: in the pages that follow, I will try to make you understand a war that has been going on for more than a hundred years in the remote recesses of the Asian mountains.

Furthermore, this is a story that can make us better understand how exasperated nationalism contains within itself the germs of hatred by its very nature, and is capable of causing disasters that cannot be ended even after hundreds of years. As we did for Belarus, we will reserve the right to divide this complex story into several parts: one concerning the period of the First World War and the Russian Revolution, one following the collapse of the Soviet Union and finally one that will tell the events today.

The Situation during the WWI and before the First Armenian-Azerbaijan War

The history of the conflict has centuries-old roots, and begins in the period of the dissolution of the great empires immediately after the end of the First World War. In that period the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the civil war within what was the Russian Empire, will lead to the formation of several independent republics: among them, the First Republic of Azerbaijan and the First Armenian Republic, both emerged from a period of uninterrupted conflict (in which the Armenians suffered a real Genocide, planned by the forces of the Ottoman Empire). We will not go further into the chaotic period tha preceded WWI, as we run the risk of muddying the waters, but it is not certain that the topic will not be treated more extensively in the future.

As has always happened in these situations, the new republics were fueled by a strong national sentiment: the Azerbaijani party of Müsavat (equality / parity) supported positions close to pan-Turkism and pan-Islamism; in Armenia, on the other hand, the Revolutionary Federation had succeeded in establishing the first independent government since the Middle Ages. Despite that, these entities were tied to the Russian Rvolution (February Revolution) and represented togheter in the Sejm, better known as the Transcaucasian Commissariat, of socialist inspiration but opposed to Bolshevism, and determined to separate from the nascent Soviet Russia.

After the October Revolution, the troops of the Red Army began to withdraw from the various war fronts to conduct the war within the territory of the former Russian Empire: this obviously included the Central Asian regions. Thus, between 10 and 24 February 1918 the Sejm declared independence and the birth of the Transcaucasian Federative Democratic Republic, and prepared to face the Bolshevik forces militarily. The problems began with the Brest-Litovsk Treaty of March 3, 1918, which formalized Russia’s exit from World War I: the independence, at least formal, of the Transcaucasian Federation worried the Soviet leaders, due to the oil produced in the region 7 million tons per year, (15% of world production at the time) so much so that it seems that Vladimir Lenin himself asserted that “Russia will not survive without Baku oil”.

To prevent the opening of a new front, the Bolsheviks and the Social Revolutionaries present there, under the leadership of Stepan Shahumyan, proclaimed the Soviet of Baku, and took control of the Governorate of the region.

The Soviet led by Shahumyan, to maintain the control of those precious resources, begins to be involved in the internal disputes of the region, playing at putting one faction against the other, fueling suspicion and hatred: they used the “bogeyman” of the presence of an huge Armenian contingent, who had fought the Ottomans in the region, (and which the Russians should have demobilized after the war, which obviously they did not), to scare the Azerbaijans, which were convinced to turn to the veterans of the Caucasian Native Cavalry Division (rus. Кавказская туземная конная дивизия) better known as the “Savage Division” (rus. Дикая дивизия), made up of mostly Caucasian Muslim volounteers and anti-Bolsheviks) for eventual aid.

When such strong nationalist sentiments arise in territories that until recently considered themselves part of a single state entity, disaster is only a matter of time.

And the disaster occurred in the days between March 30 and April 2, 1918, better known as “March Days“, when Bolsheviks, Armenians, Azeris and members of the Savage Division all met together in Baku. The American historian of Azerbaijani origins Firuz Kazemzadeh, claims that, despite Shahumyan having the possibility to mediate the situation, the powder keg was allowed to explode: it is not known who was to open the hostilities, but after the tensions of March 30, the 1 of April Baku had turned into a Battlefield.

The Armenian forces did not take part in the conflict initially, and indeed the Musravat Party proposed that they support the revolt of the Muslims against the Soviets, but received a refusal. When Shahumyan then declared a state of siege, the Dashnaktsutyun (the armed forces of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation, often abbreviated to Dashnak) intervened in the conflict with brutal ferocity, indiscriminately massacring military and civilians in the city and its surroundings. The Soviet leader himself was shaken, and in a letter stated: “The participation of the latter lent the civil war, to some extent, the character of an ethnic massacre, however, it was impossible to avoid it. We were going for it deliberately. The Muslim poor suffered severely, however they are now rallying around the Bolsheviks and the Soviet “.

On April 3, the clashes had ceased, causing more than 12,000 deaths among the Muslim population of Baku, also forced into a forced exodus, and 2,500 deaths between Armenians and Soviets. Always Firuz Kazemzadeh said: “The brutalities continued for weeks. No quarter was given by either side: neither age nor sex was respected. Enormous crowds roamed the streets, burning houses, killing every pass-by who was identified as an enemy, many innocent persons suffering death at the hands of both the Armenians and the Azerbaijanis. The struggle which had begun as a political contest between Musavat and the Soviet assumed the character of a gigantic race riot“.

Despite the violence mainly concentrated on the Muslim population, and Azerbaijani in particular, this episode did not, in my opinion, have an ethnic character, but a political one: on the one hand, the Dashnak only came to the aid of the Soviet when a state was declared there. siege, on the other hand, in the subsequently self-proclaimed Commune of Baku (13 April 1918) many socialists of Azerbaijani origin played important roles. Nevertheless, in the Azeri psyche, the Baku Commune symbolized the Bolshevik – Armenian collusion born out of the March Days bloodbath

But the “March Days” were only the beginning.

What is called the first Armenian-Azerbaijani war actually begins with the Baku massacre: the Azerian leaders in fact, after that episode, radically changed their political vision: they decided to abandon the ideals of the Revolution and to focus exclusively on their independence from Russia. When the Democratic Republic of Azerbaijan was proclaimed on May 28, 1918, they took care to immediately send embassies to Istanbul with requests for support for the young state entity from the Ottoman Empire. The Ottoman “triumvir” Enver Pasha decided to intervene, and instructed his brother to form a military unit, the Caucasus Army of Islam, and to go in support of Azerbaijan.

In July 1918, the Azerbaijani-Ottoman army defeated the patched-up “Red Army of Baku” in several key battles and, under internal pressure from Russian Socialist Revolutionaries, Dashnak, and British agents infiltrating the city (the British Empire had taken the nationalization of oil very badly) the power of the Bolsheviks began to collapse. On August 1, 1918, the Commune of Baku was replaced by the Centrocaspian Dictatorship, which for help the aid had to turn to a British contingent commanded by General Lionel Dunsterville, but to no avail: the Azero-Ottoman forces were too numerous and on September 15 they entered victorious in Baku. They were the terrible “September Days“, during which between 10,000 and 20,000 Armenians were killed as revenge for what happened in the “March Days”. The Bolshevik Commissioners of the Trans-Caspian government were intercepted while attempting to flee and shot on September 20, 1918. Days later, the capital of the Republic of Azerbaijan was moved from Ganja to Baku.

However, after the Armistice of Mudros of 30 October 1918, which sanctioned the end of hostilities between the United Kingdom and the Ottoman Empire, the Turkish troops stationed in Baku were replaced by a contingent of the Triple Entente, under the command of the British, who assumed control of Baku by imposing martial law on it. This gave the Armenian forces the opportunity to reorganize and plan the counterattack: first the so-called “Mountainous Republic of Armenia” was created and from there, under the leadership of Andranik Ozanian, the Armenian militias (fedayi) began to take control of the Karabakh during 1919, advancing towards the main city of the region, Shusha. The British attempted mediation, assuring Ozarian that the territorial question between Armenia and Azerbaijan would be resolved at the Paris Conference. Ozanian trusted and backed down, while the British entrusted the provisional government of the region to Khosrov bey Sultanov, a fervent nationalist of pan-Turkish ideas, who increased the Azerbaijani military presence in the region and attacked numerous Armenian villages, in order to cut connections direct from Armenia to the Karabakh.

The assignment of the governorship to Sultanov sparked the indignation of the Armenians, who gathered in the “Armenian National Council of Karabach“, a sort of Provisional Government of the Region, established between 1919 and 1920, refused to recognize the authority of the new governor (and Azerbaijan) on the region. At their second meeting in the city of Shusha, a detachment of the Azerbaijani army surrounded the Armenian quarter and demanded their unconditional surrender. The mediation of the British and the acceptance of the surrender by the Armenian National Council did not spare a series of pogroms against the Armenian population that were unleashed throughout the month of June, especially by the irregular Azerbaijani militias.

On February 19, 1920, Sultanov imposed an ultimatum on the Armenian National Council, which once again refused to recognize Azerbaijan’s sovereignty over Karabakh. The Armenian population of the region had no choice but to prepare for the insurrection, trying to take control of the city of Shusha by surprise with a night assault. But the attempt failed miserably, and the anger of the Azerbaijani troops and population spilled over the Armenians who inhabited the city: entire neighborhoods were set on fire, in a spiral of increasingly brutal violence, which went on for six days with Khosrov bey Sultanov’s consent, who urged not to spare anyone, including women and children. The victims of the Shusha Massacre were 20,000, and in fact the Armenian community of the city was uprooted.

Ruins of the Armenian part of Shusha after the 1920 pogrom. In back is the church of the Holy Mother of God (Kanach Zham).

To make the hostilities “cease” was the return of Soviet Russia to the game: defeated the resistance of General Denikin and with the forces of the White Army in disarray, Moscow returned to focus its attention on the Caucasus. On April 27, 1920, the Azerbaijani government, already in serious trouble on the domestic front, received the news that the Red Army was preparing to invade the country and surrendered without practically a fight, leading to the creation of the Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republic.

The Armenian army and militias used the chaos to take control of the western territories of Azerbaijan, including Shusha and the Karabakh and Nakhchivan area. This lasted very little: in May 1920 the 11th Red Army conquered Karabackh, and placed it under the jurisdiction of Soviet Azerbaijan and then made it an autonomous region (the Nagorny Karabakh Autonomous Region, NKAO) in 1923, direct order of Stalin. Then on November 20, the Red Army used a pretext to wage war on the Armenian Republic itself, invading its territory: the Armenian army, weakened by years of interrupted conflicts, did not offer resistance exactly like the Azerbaijani one, and on December 4, 1920 the 11th Red Army entered Yerevan, followed by the Armenian and Azerbaijani revolutionaries on the 5th and by the Dzerzhinsky political police, the Cheka, on the 6th. After a last anti-Soviet gasp on February 18th 1921, the formation of the Armenian Soviet Socialist Republic was officially declared.

The location of the Nagorno – Karabakh Autonoumos Oblast during the Soviet Period

The 1921 Treaty of Kars between Turkey and the Soviet Union put an end to the violence in the Transcaucasian area, in which, as a sign of peace, the Nachivan area was declared an Azerbaijani protectorate, and Turkey returned the city of Alexandroupolis to Armenia and Batumi to Georgia.

However, it will be a peace imposed by an imperial power like the Soviet Union, which, paradoxically, had fomented ethnic divisions in the area to avoid losing control over it. Something that from the beginning was destined to recur at the slightest sign of yielding of the hegemonic force in those territories. Exactly as it had begun, the question will rise up again with the collapse of the USSR, indeed, perhaps even anticipating it, as we will see in the next article.

Thank you for reading this long story, lost in time and in the Caucasus mountains: two more appointments await us, to be able to better understand what is happening today.

Thanks for your attention and see you next time.