The Western media claims that the conflict between Azerbaijan and
Armenia over the disputed enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh is a tribal feud caused
by popular nationalism. But, as Rob Matthews reports from the Azerbaijani
capital Baku, the 'clans' which are really behind the war are the ruling
cliques of ex-Stalinists on either side
Khodjali was an Azerbaijani village in Nagorno-Karabakh. In early March,
an Armenian attack left corpses strewn across the hillside. In reprisal,
the Azerbaijanis shot down an Armenian helicopter carrying civilians. Many
villages, Azerbaijani and Armenian, have been reduced to rubble. Survivors
cower in cellars without water, gas or electricity. Events like these ensure
a steady stream of irregular fighters joining the war in Nagorno-Karabakh.
As with so many other conflicts across the world, Western commentators
offer facile explanations for the bloody feud between Azerbaijan and Armenia.
Most often, they claim it is the result of an explosion of popular nationalist
sentiment with roots deep in the past. The view from Baku is different.
There is no doubt that Azerbaijani nationalism has grown in popularity as
a consequence of the war. But given the mounting toll of casualties, what
is surprising is that people are not more aggressive in their attitudes
towards the Armenians. In fact, many express feelings of confusion about
the cause of the conflict, and regret about the loss of life on both
Among working class people, xenophobic attitudes towards Armenians are the
exception: 'We're not fussed who we work with', said Tahir and Nadir who
work on a rig in the Caspian Sea. 'Why should we worry about an Armenian?
What's the difference? We've worked with Russians, Jews, Azerbaijanis - there
used to be lots of Armenians with us too.' In a city like Baku, where people
of both nationalities lived and worked side by side, and where mixed marriages
were commonplace, the current conflict strikes many as a tragedy.
'Stirring it up'
Most Armenians have now fled Baku as fear and intolerance follow in
the wake of pogroms. Samira, a museum guide in her early thirties, blames
the authorities for promoting the conflict: 'If they wanted to settle
it, they could. They're just stirring it up.' Samira and many like her in
Azerbaijan believe that their government and the Armenian government are
the only beneficiaries in a conflict which has claimed hundreds
of lives in the past two years. Most people in Baku are now convinced that
the anti-Armenian pogrom in Sumgait and Baku, in March 1988, was organised
by people in government and security jobs, and led by the KGB.
They are right to point the finger at the political elites in both
republics. Armenia staked its claim to Nagorno-Karabakh in 1988, and since
then both governments have ensured that inter-ethnic tensions have remained
high. Indeed, both governments have an interest in perpetuating the conflict
because they are both suffering a crisis of legitimacy and see the war as
a means of rallying popular support behind their respective regimes.
Prolonging the feud represents a survival strategy for the unpopular bureaucrats
who run the two republics. Before the collapse of the Soviet Union, Azerbaijan
and Armenia were just cogs in the Kremlin's machine. Now that they are independent,
the two governments desperately need to establish some legitimacy. The promotion
of an aggressive anti-Armenian identity is the answer for the regime in
Baku. The same applies for its Armenian counterpart.
However, the Baku government has got big problems trying to divert popular
animosity away from itself and against the Armenians. People are not going
to forget the crimes of the past in a hurry. On 20 January, hundreds of
thousands of silent mourners commemorated the deaths of those killed by
Kremlin troops during anti-government protests two years ago. At the memorial,
police were edgy, aware that the finger of blame is still pointed at
the Azerbaijani authorities who gave tacit support to the crackdown.
Perks of office
People are also angry that the old Stalinist clan system, with its network
of graft and corruption, is still in place. The entire central committee
of the former Azerbaijani Communist Party continues to hold the top government
jobs and to enjoy the perks of office. The recently ousted president,
Ayaz Mutalibov, had a new metalled road built from his Baku residence to
the village of Mashtage, home to Mrs Mutalibov's family. Understandably,
Mother-in-Law Road is not popular with motorists who have to avoid pot-holes
as big as craters elsewhere in the republic.
But it is not just the crimes of the past and the continuation of the old
nomenklatura system that are a barrier to the Baku regime overcoming its
crisis of legitimacy. The problems of the present weigh heavily against
it as well. No matter how hard it tries to create a sense of patriotic pride
in the glories of the nation, a regime which cannot satisfy people's basic
needs is not a going concern.
Talk of the rich heritage of the feudal Khans and Beys, and their ancient
Turkic language, cuts little ice with Azerbaijanis. They have more pressing
concerns - like unemployment, factory closures, and rising food prices - which
make them cynical about anything the government says. 'With these lot in
power we'll get five years of sucking our fingers', said oil rig
worker Ashraf. 'We haven't got a market, we've got a huge bazaar.'
Bread and barter
It is ironic that in a republic with such rich resources of gas and oil - whose
name is derived from the ancient Persian for Land of Fire - people have no
heating and have to queue for petrol. Their factories have to barter for
raw materials, and if they cannot get them they are shut down.
Bread used to cost less than one rouble. Now it costs at least two and a
half roubles. Although lamb and mutton, at around 100 roubles per kilo,
are cheap by comparison with Moscow prices, they still cost 10 times more
than they used to. Milk is available, but you have to be first in the
queue in the state shops, or else pay the old lady on the corner three times
as much. A pair of shoes costs around 4000 roubles. Oil workers, among the
best paid, get about 2000 roubles a month.
Most workers are as concerned about how to eke out a living as about the
war over Nagorno-Karabakh. Tamir and Nadir can't wait to finish work
on the oil rig so that they can get back to tending their tomato plants.
They grow tomatoes to sell, and the income more than doubles their wages.
But, however much money they make on the side, it is of no use if there
is no butter to be had. The prevalence of shortages in an area of considerable
natural and mineral wealth makes most people furious with the government.
'Kill their children'
But, ironically, the greatest problem for the Azerbaijani state's bid to
legitimise its rule is the war over Nagorno-Karabakh. The war strategy which
the regime adopted to bolster its position is turning out to be a double-edged
sword. The rising death toll has served its purpose in focusing people's
minds on the war and distracting from the problems of day-to-day life or
the persistence of the old clan system. But the bloodshed also means that
the government is now coming under pressure to take more decisive action
in the war and is losing credibility the longer it dithers.
At a Baku street meeting in February, speakers from Shusa, a village besieged
by Armenian soldiers, called for the execution of government children unless
extra military backing was provided. And in March, president Mutalibov was
forced to resign during a big protest meeting outside the national soviet
The war may provide a focus for the assertion of an Azerbaijani national
identity, but it also provides a focus for people to have a go at the government.
'Mutalibov hasn't put together a big force to smash Armenia because he fears
it would be turned against him', said Djavid, an office worker. Instead,
a fledgling Azerbaijani army was reduced in strength earlier this year,
and a presidential guard created by decree.
Most people in Azerbaijan have no time for the government. But the opposition
Azerbaijani Popular Front offers no alternative. The Front is the most aggressively
pro-war party of all; most of the fighters in Nagorno-Karabakh are
irregulars who support the Front. 'You can't trust an Armenian', declared
Rufik, a Front activist. 'If you don't hold a hammer to his head, he'll
crack yours open. They're a bit ill up here', he added, tapping his forehead.
With the opposition playing into the government's hands by promoting the
war, the fighting grinds on. Without it, the cliques of bureaucrats
who run Armenia and Azerbaijan have little credibility; but without a victory
both are compromised.
Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 43, May 1992