Post-Soviet territorial changes, Karabakh’s self-determination, and irredentism

Armenians in the diaspora were – and still are – quite rightly concerned about the struggle of their brethren in Nagorno-Karabakh. An enclave of Armenians inside neighbouring Azerbaijan, the most recent war between the two nations resulted in Azeri military victories, followed by the implementation of a Moscow-brokered peace agreement. This dispute, originating in the immediate aftermath of the post-Soviet dissolution, contains lessons for us today.

There is no shortage of self-proclaimed experts on the Armenian question among the Sydney Armenians. There is no shortage of commentary about on solutions of international geopolitical tensions among the diasporan Armenians. Ethnic chauvinism seems to be a mini-national pastime, and not only among the Armenian diaspora.

While I have gladly avoided joining this highly esteemed club of scholars on the Armenian question, the Karabakh issue does raise important observations about self-determination, ethnic separatism and irredentism, particularly with regard to the dysfunctional monstrosities that emerged after the breakup of the USSR.

Seceding from Azerbaijani control is a serious step. The Azeris, in the post-Soviet era, have launched a pan-Turkish ideology that seeks to unite all Turkic peoples into one massive confederation. There were killings of Armenians in Baku and Sumgait as early as 1988-89, in the immediate wake of Gorbachev’s perestroika. Gorbachev allowed all kinds of nationalist sentiment to surface, each advocating an irredentist outlook.

Karabagh, or Artsakh as the Armenians like to call it, was given autonomous status within the Azerbaijani Soviet republic back in the 1920s by the Communist authorities. As far as I am aware, there is no evidentiary basis for the claim that Stalin surreptitiously betrayed Bolshevik party policy, and secretly awarded Karabagh to Azerbaijan. Be that as it may, is the Armenian claim to Karabagh based on irredentism, arising from the immediate aftermath of the dissolution of the USSR?

The weakening of socialist internationalism – a consequence of the USSR’s dissolution – provided an ideological vacuum into which all sorts of ethnic separatist and nationalist sentiments poured. The status of Nagorno-Karabakh, disputed since 1988-89, is an example of the clash of rival nationalisms claiming victim hood status. The first Nagorno-Karabakh war, in abeyance since 1994, resulted in the effective secession of the territory from Azerbaijani control. The Karabakh Armenians also seized territory from Azerbaijan proper to establish a land corridor to the Armenian republic.

Irredentism and ethnic separatism

Irredentism proposes that a national community, regardless of borders, should be reclaimed into one territorial unit. Mussolini, back in his day, claimed that Italians living in Istria and Dalmatia were subjected to forcible Slavicisation by the then Austro-Hungarian empire. Whether that is true or not, I do not know. He launched an aggressive campaign to reclaim these territories hiding behind the principle of self determination. Italian politicians until today like to claim Istria and Dalmatia as long lost Italian possessions, much to the chagrin of their neighbours.

The Nazi party used the same irredentist argument, claiming that the Sudetenland Germans were being persecuted by the Czechoslovak government. The leader of the Sudetenland Germans, Henlein, turned out to be a Nazi agent. In the current political climate, the United States, through the mechanism of the Helsinki commission, promotes ethnic separatists in Russia (such as Circassian figures), disguising its predatory objectives under the cloak of ‘decolonisation.’

Have the Karabakh Armenians reached out to the independent regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia? The latter two republics, part of the nation of Georgia, faced discrimination and persecution by the post-Soviet national chauvinist Georgian authorities. Fighting a secessionist war (in similar fashion to Karabakh), these two republics agreed to the deployment of Russian peacekeepers in the 1990s.

For that matter, you could draw a direct parallel between the Karabakh issue and the newly formed pro-Russian republics in the Donbas region of Lugansk and Donetsk. The latter two regions, facing a protracted war by the ethnic chauvinist Ukrainian regime, decided to seek the protection of Russia. To my knowledge, the diaspora Armenians have not come out in support of neither the Donbas republics, nor Abkhazia or South Ossetia.

I am very happy that the Karabagh Armenians defended themselves. They achieved independent status in 1994, and the conflict with Azerbaijan was frozen until 2020-21. The Azeri regime’s policy of pan-Turkism makes any chances of autonomy within Azerbaijan impossible.

However, irredentism is not a long term solution. Moscow has put in place a peace plan, and I think we should stick to it. Perhaps Karabagh became a cause célèbre among diasporan Armenians because it arose out of the anticommunist aftermath of the USSR’s dissolution, rather than any commitment to human rights or social justice.

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