Entrapped in a world of contradictions, we are breathing the illusion of peace. One might ask: Has humanity reached another standstill? The future seems to bring about a slight, yet palpable fear of the unknown – almost like a déjà-vu that inspires us to take a glimpse into the past. The on-going interethnic dispute in Nagorno-Karabakh reveals the long-forgotten patterns within a fragile international system, calling for an urgent diplomatic solution of regional peace in the heart of Caucasus. 

It has been more than a century since the Russian Empire collapsed in 1918, followed by the rapid takeover of the Communists, which reshaped the destiny of many nations. The Great War’s aftermath favored the rise of nationalism on the outskirts of Russia.  Several Caucasian regions consequently declared independence, which lasted a short period of time, until Transcaucasia, as a Soviet Socialist Republic, was born out of political turmoil and resulted in questionable negotiations between the Russian Bolsheviks and local communist factions.

Naturally, the present is much more than an aggregate result of causal relations; depending on which lens we look through, it is an ever-changing dimension with numerous interpretations that intertwine both history and international relations. In my view, the recurring conflicts in the Transcaucasian region are not mere coincidences, but reflections of previously unsettled disputes and oscillating geopolitical interests that affect the internal affairs of smaller countries. This pattern calls for a more attentive analysis of regional power dynamics, and also a deeper historical approach to diplomacy and effective conflict resolution in the Caucasus, by drawing a parallel between the past and the present.

With origins in the interwar period, the current humanitarian crisis in Nagorno-Karabakh represents one of the many pieces that make up the Caucasian puzzle. This particular region finds importance in both a diplomatic and historical perspective because it finds its roots in the clandestine affairs of a Bolshevik Russia, stirred by Vladimir Lenin’s quasi-imperialist ambitions of transnational expansion. 

Nagorno-Karabakh’s attempts at sovereignty have constantly perturbed Armenian-Azerbaijani relations, as these two states, to some extent, share a common point in post-WW1 history, particularly the sovietization process they both went through, which could be considered the kernel of today’s misfortunate interethnic strains and violations of human rights in the Caucasus.

Considering this complicated history, the following question arises: Why did a dormant conflict from the early 1990s resurface in Nagorno-Karabakh once again and force over 100.000 people to flee the region, despite the United Nations’ determination to mediate Caucasian relations?

For several decades, the status of this region has been repetitively questioned, and,  most recently, the Munich Security Conference (held on  17 February 2024) demonstrated that Western mediation is, indeed, a key-factor in reinstating Armenian-Azerbaijani harmony. In addition, Russian help could also play a much stronger role in facilitating  diplomatic negotiations. However, the current war in Ukraine keeps Russia engaged on other fronts, unfortunately slowing down any project of Caucasian diplomacy.

With a complex, yet fascinating historical background, the predominantly ethnic-Armenian province of Nagorno-Karabakh has already faced multiple trials, starting with the early days of the Soviet Union. Approximately a century ago, Soviet Transcaucasia was, arguably, expected to serve as a buffer-zone between the Russian communist nucleus and the Anglo-French sphere of influence in the Arab Peninsula. Once the independent Georgian, Armenian, and Azerbaijani states were subjugated by the Red Army, a special organ was established in the spring of 1920 by the Bolsheviks in the Caucasus: Kavbiuro, which operated as a regional branch of the Communist Party, aiming to ensure  socio-political cooperation and the rapid implementation of Russian policies into the region. Such external organizations were supposed to provide more than governmental directions; they strongly reinforced Lenin’s expansionist idea that socialism had to be exported beyond Russia’s borders, as a way to contain liberalism in non-Western regions.

This bygone chapter emphasizes the multifaceted geopolitical patterns in South Caucasus whose relevance, as a region, lies in its controversial past and strategic position at the junction of diverging political spheres of influence.

Unlike diplomacy today, the Leninist approach had multiple scopes, but none of them included collective peace or mutually beneficial cooperation. In fact, the primary characteristic of the early Soviet strategy was gradually gaining control of bordering populations, in order to enlarge the socialist revolutionary state and turn it into a fearsome rival of Western great powers. This was even more noticeable during Joseph Stalin’s rule,  which essentially relied on unilateral decisions and obscure negotiations between the Russian Communist Party and local socialist factions that had no other option but to comply with Stalinist ideologies.

In the case of Transcaucasia, Stalin designed a stricter plan than his predecessor, focusing on complete centralization and subordination of the entire region to Moscow. As a clear expression of his political paranoia, he shifted Russian foreign policy to enforce harsh repression of all nationalist voices and anti-communist adversaries. This also led to the suppression of cultural and religious diversity, erasing unique regional characteristics and enforcing a homogenized Soviet identity.

After Lenin’s death in 1924, both internal and external matters were primarily decided upon by Stalin who did anything he could in order to maintain his position as an absolute leader. In comparison to Marxism-Leninism, the social, political, and cultural components of Stalinism were all interlocked, for Stalin did not see any distinction between society and state. In fact, the most crucial thing for him was keeping everything under his constant supervision, including the non-Russian Soviet republics which, above all, desired sovereignty and the ability to shape their own destiny without Moscow’s constant interventions.

Starting with Transcaucasian affairs and pushing the limits of communist ideology, the Stalinist era unveiled the dark side of Eastern diplomacy, as various European interests were at stake during the interwar period. While a young Nazi Germany was rearming and expanding itself, causing unrest on the continent, Stalin had to ideologically re-brand the Soviet Union and reintroduce it to the international scene after roughly two decades of isolation, without making it appear as an obvious threat to the Allied powers. 

At first glance, looking back to the early days of Soviet expansion seems irrelevant and outdated, but the deeper we dive into this particular timeframe, the more similarities we discover in relation with current international affairs. In this case, understanding the history of Soviet foreign policy in the region could enlighten the current debate on peace negotiations, as it offers a framework for addressing the root-causes of the conflict and paving the way for sustainable Transcaucasian peace.

Though it currently seems unlikely, there is, perhaps, a sensible solution to Caucasian problems – a solution that could end, once and for all, the interethnic struggles of neighboring nations. From an idealistic standpoint, anything is possible, as long as countries learn the lessons of the past and nurture peace, transparency, and diplomatic support.

It is clearly up to the international community to insist on diplomatic meditation and incessantly encourage an active pursuit of cooperation in South Caucasus, by focusing on achievable common grounds for peaceful and secure regionalism.

Written by Xenia Oana Cojocaru, Edited by Maryam Sindi

Photo credit: Vaghinak Vardanyan, Unsplash