Red Kurdistan in Nagorno-Karabakh

During the post-1988 conflict, Armenia got rid of its Azeris and Azerbaijan got rid of its Armenians. There is no chapter about the Kurds in historic references, and again, there is no mention of the Kurds in the current tragedy.

The Ottomans along with tsarist Russia and the Soviet Union were all engaged in engineering and designing geography. Nationalists may consider it a source of pride, but ordinary people remember these projects bitterly and painfully. The crimes that were committed throughout these processes are not limited to imperial powers. Soviet geography was also known for its smaller imperial powers. All three Transcaucasian nations Azerbaijan, Armenia and Georgia have engaged in oppressing and assimilating minority ethnic groups. Ethnic strife has long plagued this dazzlingly beautiful region.

The struggle over whether Karabakh is Azerbaijani or Armenian has been ongoing for the past three decades. All parties in this region have their own historical narratives of victimhood and grievances which they can readily activate. Governments have made their respective chronicles ready for the mass consumption of populations. But both the Azerbaijani and Armenian narratives omit the history of the Kurds in this disputed land. 

During the Soviet administrative structuring of 1923, Karabakh - which hosted a majority Armenian population - was made an autonomous oblast of the Azerbaijani Soviet Socialist Republic. In the region west of Karabakh, close to the Armenian border, the so-called 'Kurdistan Uyezdi', known as Red Kurdistan, was established. The center of this administrative unit was Lachin. It had six sub-districts. Other towns were Kalbajar, Zangilan, Qubatli, Jabrayil and partially Zangezur. According to the 1926 census, the population of the region was 51,000, 72 percent of which were Kurdish, 26 percent of which were Azeri and 0.7 percent of which were Armenian. Yet 92 percent of the population spoke Azerbaijani. Red Kurdistan was designed as a buffer zone that would curb the tension between the two republics. Later, in 1929, to alleviate Turkey’s “Kurdish” anxiety, the oblast was abolished. 

The Kurdish population that had already abandoned the use of its language in previous centuries was subject to further assimilation. The Kurds were also among the exiles that were forcibly displaced to Central Asia during the Second World War. During the clashes in 1992, the remaining Kurds were also dispersed.  

In short, during the post-1988 conflict, Armenia got rid of its Azeris and Azerbaijan got rid of its Armenians. There is no chapter about the Kurds in historic references, and again, there is no mention of the Kurds in the current tragedy. In the talks that were led by the Minsk group in the wake of the 1994 ceasefire, the Kurds were omitted. 

Both in Azerbaijan and in Turkey right now, epic solidarity campaigns are being conducted based on “Turkishness.” As this is the paradigm that prevails, Azerbaijanis of Kurdish descent are unwilling to share their past. Those who are eager to recall the Azeri past of Yerevan do not wish to remember the history of Red Kurdistan. 

Over the years, Azerbaijan has used its oil revenue to arm itself, and with Ankara’s full-fledged support, Baku has led an offensive since September 27 to regain its lost territory. It is difficult to predict the outcome of the current Turkey-backed Azerbaijani offensive. During the 1991-1994 war, Baku lost territory whilst attempting to establish its authority in Kabarakh. Thousands of people died. The region witnessed scenes of ethnic cleansing. 

Today, Armenia is poor while Azerbaijan is strong and equipped. What is more, Turkey is supporting Azerbaijan militarily, politically and diplomatically. Besides, the situation is sensitive for Russia. Moscow’s ties with the countries in the region have changed since the 1990s. Russia is ally of Armenia and has military bases there. Under the umbrella of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), it considers Armenia’s security as its own. On the other hand, its economic relations with Azerbaijan are deeper than those it maintains with Armenia. The Soviet institutional structure was also strong in Azerbaijan in the past. Russia does not have the luxury to sacrifice one or the other. 

Thanks to past conflicts, Russia was able to strengthen its role as an influential brother, somehow making both countries grateful. It can be said that Moscow is slow to intervene at the moment, waiting for Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan who came to power in 2018 and made a distinct preference for the West, to repent and surrender to Russia due to the violence and damage of war.  Yet this cannot explain everything. 

Russia would not want the clashes to escalate to the point where it needs to meet the responsibilities that arise from the CSTO. Moreover, Turkey crushing Armenia would be a horrific scenario for Russia. This may ultimately lead to a Turkish-Russian confrontation, which is the last thing Moscow envisages. Even in Syria, Turkey and Russia have established diplomatic, military and political mechanisms to avoid direct conflict.  

Still, Turkey, in coordination with Azerbaijan, insists that Armenian forces must withdraw from Karabakh before any ceasefire can be reached. For Azerbaijan, national and international conditions have never been better. Thus, Baku is determined to change the situation on the field. Armenians, however, also regard the Karabakh-Armenia connection as an existential issue. This results in much solidarity and a strong mobilization amongst Armenians. Would Azerbaijan agree to a ceasefire after a partial victory, which may be hard to defend and opt for a serious negotiation process? Would Russia act as a guarantor in such a process? Would Armenia end its policy of seeking to normalize this de facto situation?     

Will Russia make a compromise and give Turkey its expected concessions in Libya and Syria in exchange for appeasement in the Caucasus? Or will Russia allow the war to escalate so that the risks of war that are also valid for Turkey can be seen more clearly? What happens if this state of affairs spreads directly to Armenian territory and from there into the Nakhchivan Autonomous Region, which has no territorial access to Azerbaijan? Turkey acts as a guarantor to Nakhchivan with the 1921 Moscow and Kars Treaties. In the event where Armenian territory is attacked, the slogan of CSTO of “One for all, all for one” calls for whatever needs to be done. 

The West, meanwhile, desperately wishes Russia will intervene so that this war does not escalate. Of course, there are those who just wish to see the scenario of a Turkey-Russia confrontation. Some want Russia to take its lesson while it attempts to return to its heady days, others want Turkey to take a lesson as it seeks adventures everywhere from the Middle East and Africa to the Mediterranean and the Caucasus.      

September 04, 2020 A Kurdish message from Moscow