Home | Order Information | Contents

Chapter I


Ethnic Conflicts in the Caucasus 1988-1994

Alexei Zverev

Chapter I consists of 4 parts (1,2,3,4) + notes


Since 1988, Transcaucasia and parts of the North Caucasus have been the scene of turmoil. There have been numerous latent and overt claims and counterclaims concerning national statehood, administrative status, ethnic identity and borders. Never before, since the turbulent period of 1918-21 which followed the fall of the Russian empire, have conflicts raged with such deadly animosity. Old ethnic wounds have reopened, leading in some cases to sustained warfare, in others to ethnic strife punctuated by intermittent clashes.

Geopolitical changes in the region have been one of the main underlying causes of ethnic conflicts. Just as in 1918-21, when the Caucasian conflicts followed the demise of the Russian empire, these have come on the heels of the weakening and then break-up of the USSR. Geopolitics is a function of the vital interests of states and societies. Thus the Warsaw Pact served the purpose of preserving the social system and securing the socio-economic development of the coalition, by repelling the perceived threat from the West. With the defeat of the Soviet Union in the Cold War, these interests changed abruptly, and a reorientation of the Eastern bloc's ruling elites to Western-type free-market economies ensued. The weakening of communist control from the Centre put an end to common ideological interests shared between the different national elites. These persuaded public opinion in their countries that a transition to a free-market economy, personal freedom and Western aid could better be ensured by economic and political sovereignty. For the elites of the titular nationalities of the Transcaucasian republics (Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan), breaking loose from the influence of Moscow became a priority. The federal division of the USSR - in particular, the existence of higher- and lower-ranking administrative units based on ethnic and territorial principles - became an impediment to the titular elites' national projects. These projects manifested themselves in attempts to create (or, in the case of Armenia, which was nearly 90% Armenian-populated by 1988, to consolidate) statehood on an ethnic basis. In Georgia, this national project collided with the separate statehood, language and cultural interests of the Abkhazian Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic (Abkhazian ASSR) and of the South Ossetian Autonomous Oblast (South Ossetian AO). Azerbaijan was confronted with the problem of the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast (NKAO) region, populated mainly by Armenians. In Armenia, the perceived injustice of the international treaties of the early 1920s, which ensured border divisions within the region,(1) reinforced the Armenian determination to hold on to Karabakh, viewed as the only part of historic Armenia outside the republic's borders still populated by an Armenian majority. Thus Karabakh represented both a raison d'Ętre of the Armenian national project and a centre-piece of the Azeri one. It might be added that, in both Armenia and Azerbaijan, the national movements did not start out as anti-Soviet, but initially included demands for the Kremlin to ensure the validity of their respective national claims: in the case of Armenia, for the NKAO to be attached to it, and in the case of Azerbaijan, to prevent this. It was the inability of the Kremlin to satisfy these demands that set the movements in both republics on a path of independence.

An institutional vacuum was created as titular nations asserted their rights. The nationalism of larger nationalities found a counterpart in the nationalism of national minorities. National minorities, concerned for their security and survival, mobilized their own populations, tried to ensure exclusive administrative control over their territory and appealed for help to the Centre, to kindred ethnicities across the border and/or to neighbouring republics; they set up paramilitary formations, and expelled "foreign" nationals along with government troops sent to subdue the "rebels".

The Ossetian-Ingushi conflict stands apart from the basic pattern we have just outlined. This is not a case of a national minority struggling to preserve its existing autonomy within a dominant titular nation, but a dispute over parts of the region which have seen repeated border changes and forcible population transfers within them. In other words, it is not a conflict over ethnic status, but a purely territorial dispute.

The interests involved in gaining sovereignty and statehood can submerge socio-economic interests. In Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan, no price seemed too high in the national cause. The Georgian president, Gamsakhurdia, isolated his country from the international community; the Azeri president, Elcibey, reoriented his country towards Turkey, risking the loss of the Russian market, while Armenian leaders were willing to endure an oil, gas and transport blockade by Baku for years rather than stop supporting Karabakh. The predominance within national elites of particular groups, such as leaders of military formations, criminal mafias and war profiteers, did little to favour a peaceful solution to ethnic conflicts.

Some regional leaders realized that the price paid for sovereignty had been too high. Shevardnadze and Aliyev stopped ignoring economic and military factors and turned to their traditional partner, Russia. They did so while, at the same time, preserving other, newly-found regional partners and striving to avoid the less palatable elements of their former relationship with their northern neighbour. This new opening up to Russia, together with the political activities of new regional states like Iran and Turkey and the policies of international organizations, have created new possibilities for crisis management in conflicts.

To explain why conflicts break out, geopolitics and socio-economic interests alone are not enough. A salient factor in the conflicts under discussion is the use of history in the service of particular nationalist demands. Thus, in Abkhaz literature, one finds references to the Abkhazian kingdom which existed in the 9th and 10th centuries. This is instrumental to the Abkhazian claim for sovereignty over the region, even though the same kingdom could equally be described as a common Georgian-Abkhazian state, with a predominance of Georgian language and culture. Georgian authors, in turn, stress the allegedly non-Abkhaz character of pre-17th-century Abkhazia to support their case. In a more extreme variant, a similar historical perspective gave rise to the theory of "hosts" (Georgians) and "guests" (all other minorities) on Georgian land. Thus both protagonists use "suitable" historic periods (antiquity and the Middle Ages for the Georgians, the Middle Ages and the Soviet period, when Abkhazia nominally had autonomy, for the Abkhaz). Ossetian politicians impute the decrease in population in South Ossetia during the Soviet era to Georgian policies, forgetting that it was partly due to the resettlement of South Ossetes in the former Ingushi-populated territory (itself a matter of historic dispute with the Russian Cossacks). An influential Armenian writer, Zori Balayan, presents a view of history which furthers Armenian interests by appealing to Russian imperial ambitions and denigrating the legitimate nationhood of Azerbaijan - that "tentative country with tentative Union borders", as he puts it.(2) In Balayan's view, when Russia fought her early 19th-century wars against Iran to annex Eastern Armenia to Russia, Azerbaijan did not exist as a state, nor did the Azeris exist as a nationality (here Balayan is alluding to the relatively late, 20th-century emergence of Azeri national identity, with Azerbaijan, in his opinion, forming part of ancient Armenia). The results of those wars were allegedly legitimized in international treaties "for all time". Thus Russia, according to Balayan, should continue to keep Azerbaijan within its sphere of influence and ward off Turkish influence. If Russia does not, it will be failing to see justice done to the Armenians, its loyal Christian subjects in the past, who had entrusted it with their fate. A reference to Azerbaijan as a formerly Armenian territory, made as it was in the wake of Karabakh Armenian victories in 1993, implicitly carried the message that the Armenians were entitled to annex as much of Azerbaijan as they could. Azerbaijani writers, for their part, have tried to refute the Armenian origins of the ancient inhabitants of Karabakh.

The validity of the right to self-determination, as against the principle of the territorial integrity of states, is a thorny issue, and one which finds no satisfactory solution among the protagonists in the conflicts within the former Soviet Union. Contemporary international law recognizes the right of independence for colonial peoples and annexed territories, but not for parts of such territories, nor for national minorities in internationally recognized states.(3) This is designed to prevent wars between nations whose borders have been demarcated, often disregarding the ethnic composition of the territories in question, by former colonial and imperial powers. Another reason is to safeguard the rights of "minorities within minorities" and protect them from ethnic cleansing. Taken in the ex-Soviet context, the principle of territorial integrity has been invoked primarily by the countries newly admitted to membership of the UN, whose independence has been internationally recognized (Georgia, Azerbaijan) and by autonomous republics whose borders - and not status - are contested (North Ossetia). Georgia and Azerbaijan invoked this principle when they revoked the Soviet-era status of Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Nagorno-Karabakh. The declarations of independence by the latter group of republics have not been recognized by the international community, although the UN de facto recognizes Abkhazia as a negotiating partner by sponsoring peace talks in Geneva between it and Georgia. The Abkhaz, South Ossetes and Karabakh Armenians, who do not "qualify" for independence according to UN principles, invoke the right to self-determination and consequently seek the support of regional players.

A major factor which will be discussed in this chapter is the position taken at various stages in the conflicts by the Soviet, and later Russian, leaders. For the Soviet authorities, and also under Gorbachev, the main political priority in dealing with events in Armenia and Azerbaijan (as in all the other republics) was to ensure the preservation of Communist Party control. This implied a different attitude to each of the national movements, depending on the degree to which they could be contained by local Party bodies, the relative weight of their respective leaders in Kremlin circles (thus Aliyev's friendship with Brezhnev, and his presence in the Politburo since the Andropov era, meant that Azeri claims would get a better hearing) and the economic leverage the republic in question was able to bring into play. The amount of pressure that could be applied by democrats or hard-liners in Moscow in any given case was also important. Of lesser importance was the intrinsic value attached to such considerations as the legality of ethnic claims and constitutional provisions regarding the rights of individual republics. Thus the Kremlin fought against separatism in Karabakh, where the movement was outside central control and could destabilize the communist regime in Armenia and Azerbaijan, but made no attempt to suppress separatism in Abkhazia, where the national movement was at odds with independence-minded Georgia.

The break-up of the USSR was accompanied by the wholesale plunder of Soviet military equipment by local paramilitary and criminal elements, often with the connivance of corrupt elements in the Soviet military. According to Valeri Simonov - former Chief of Intelligence of the 19th Independent Anti-Aircraft Army, stationed in Georgia until the break-up of the USSR - whereas, before 1992, the Soviet military grouping in Transcaucasia had had enough weapons and ammunition to make a thrust to the Persian Gulf and be able to wage, in autonomous fashion, a month-long full-scale war in that area, by 1993, Russian might in that region was less than 10 per cent of that of the former Transcaucasian Military District.(4)

Russian policies in the region have vacillated between the principle of non-intervention in the affairs of the warring sides and an assertive, interventionist policy, including the use of Russian troops for peacekeeping activities. In the analysis of these conflicts, we shall also deal with the efforts made by all sides to use the interests guiding Soviet and Russian policies (and in some cases, those of other powers as well) to their own advantage.

Continue or go back to the contents page.

Contested Borders in the Caucasus, by Bruno Coppieters (ed.)
© 1996, VUB University Press