Guest article by Michael Cruickshank (twitter)
This year, 2017, marks 100 years since the inception of the Soviet Union – the communist mega state which dominated much of Eurasia for the majority of the 20th century. While its achievements and its crimes are well documented, what is often overlooked is the legacy of the USSR fueling very modern violence.
One major achievement of the Soviet Union was to unite a vast array of different ethnic and national groups under a single ideology – namely communism, and a single government – Moscow. To achieve this it used a variety of tactics, ranging from propaganda, to economic development, resettlement, violent suppression, and the occasional act of political concession. But for all of its attempts, it was never particularly successful.
It began in the early 1920s as the Soviets sought to build up a number of ethnic Soviet Socialist Republics (SSRs) in the areas it controlled.
“The Bolsheviks drew the new borders to pacify a region which had been in conflict since before the First World War. They wanted to unify different ethnic groups under their new socialist ideology and not give any one ethnic group too much power. By doing so they put a strong emphasis on ethnic identity – they created a new Abkhazia or an Azerbaijan which had not been defined so strongly in ethnic terms before,” says Thomas De Waal, an expert on the Former Soviet Union from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
The borders for these areas were chosen on an ad-hoc basis, under the naive assumption that transnational socialist ideology would eventually erase the differences between these peoples.
“The Bolsheviks thought these ethnic identities would melt away and everyone would become non-national socialists, but that didn’t happen of course. The reverse happened–ethnic identities actually got marked under Stalin and in the post-Stalin era–as everyone lived by these ethnic labels on the map and in their passports,” said De Waal
100 years later, people are still suffering due to these decisions.
On the night of the 1st of April 2016, a residents of the town of Talish, located in the self-declared Nagorno Karabakh Republic (NKR) were forced to hide in basements and shelters as their village was shelled by Azerbaijani troops.
“The residents who had cars were able to evacuate, but the residents who didn’t have cars – they were elderly, they had children […] we were able to get most people to safety, but we had 2 wounded, and 3 people killed,” said Talish village head Vilen Petrosyan
In the hours that followed most of the village fled for their lives, as a large battle was fought in and around Talish. A year later only a handful have returned to the ruins of where they once called home.
The existence of the NKR, and its ongoing conflict with Azerbaijan, can be traced backed to Soviet decisions made in the 1920s. Karabakh, an ethnically Armenian area was given a semi-autonomous status within the Azerbaijan SSR, rather than be allowed to join the Armenian SSR – a decision which can be traced back to Stalin.
“The border delimitation is associated in the region with Stalin, although Karabakh’s allocation to Azerbaijan was decided by the Kavburo, the body set up by the Bolsheviks to run the sovietization of the Caucasus. Stalin didn’t actually have a vote in the process, but his influence was of course critical,” said Laurence Broers, an expert on the region from Chatham House.
Like many such decisions this was taken by idealistic committees without significant thought to the long term consequences.
“Border decisions were consequently highly contingent, as the Kavburo’s own voting process shows – they voted to give Karabakh to Armenia on 4 July 1921, then changed their decision the next day. There wasn’t a master plan,” said Broers.
Fastforward to the final years of the Soviet Union, and as the power of the central government declined, the situation in Karabakh began to unravel.
“In Gorbachev’s time, when people were allowed to talk – they started to talk and it was the almost unanimous position of Armenians in Nagorno Karabakh […] that they wanted to not be part of Soviet Azerbaijan, but to be in Soviet Armenia. That was an inter-Soviet Union conflict… It’s an injustice, and people tried to cure that injustice, but they didn’t understand that it wouldn’t be that easy,” said Ruben Melikyan, the Human Rights Ombudsman of Nagorno Karabakh.
Between 1988-1994 tens of thousands of people were killed, as peaceful protests eventually morphed into a full-scale civil war between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the status of Karabakh. Even after gaining independence, the countries continued to fight in an increasingly bitter struggle marred by reprisal killings on both sides. Following the effective defeat of Azerbaijan, a ceasefire was signed in 1994. De-facto borders changed again, but the animosity remained.
Consequently, this ceasefire has once again begun to fray, most seriously in the so-called ‘April War’ of 2016, which lead to hundreds of casualties on both sides. Azerbaijan, attempting to reclaim territory lost in the early 90s, launched a large-scale attack across several sections of the Karabakh frontline. It was beaten back, and the ceasefire re-established, but this time only on paper.
In the year since, tensions have one again begun to mount, with NKR soldiers on the frontline reporting regular shelling of their positions by mortars and artillery. Video footage suggests Azerbaijani positions as well have come under attack. A recent Crisis Group report went so far as to claim that the region faced its highest tensions since 1994, with a return to full-scale fighting a distinct possibility.
The long-term effects of Soviet borders devastated Karabakh, but it is far from the only place they have caused conflict. Further north in Georgia, the Soviet-delineated regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia fought wars with the Georgian government, culminating in a Russian invasion of the country in 2008. In other cases, large ethnically Russia minorities, separated from the larger Russian state by Soviet borders feel more ‘Russian’ than their actual nationality, and call for independence or unification. Such sentiments partially led to the Russian annexation of Crimea and the bloody invasion of south eastern Ukraine.
While the humanitarian and geostrategic problems caused by the Soviet Union have long-since receded, the wars caused by these largely artificial borders continue. In some places such as such as Karabakh and Donbass, they have created tense frontlines which kill on a near-daily basis. In others such as the Baltics, this long-lived ghost of the Soviet Union threatens to be used a casus belli for a war between NATO and Russia. It may be many years before the full impact of these decisions are known.