The labour movement and the tragedy of Nagorno-Karabakh

The recent outbreak of fighting in Nagorno-Karabakh, the Armenian enclave inside Azerbaijan, seems like something out of another era. Turkey and Russia each support their own side. A century ago, the Tsar would have supported his Christian co-religionists in Armenia and the Sultan his Muslim brothers in Azerbaijan. Little has changed.

The response of the labour movement to a conflict which has already cost over 300 lives and left thousands homeless has been muted, to put it diplomatically.

The International Trade Union Confederation, whose members include national trade union centres like the TUC or the AFL-CIO, has called on both sides to “enter peaceful dialogue to deal with the dispute,” said General Secretary Sharan Burrow.

Luca Visentini, General Secretary of the European Trade Union Confederation, announced that the ETUC welcomes “the efforts of the European Union and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe to prevent further escalation and to find a political solution to the long-term conflict … We are ready to support these efforts, in close cooperation with the trade union organisations of both countries.”

The other global unions have been largely silent, with the notable exception of the journalists, who have expressed concern about their members being targetted by both sides in the conflict. The European Federation of Journalists reported that its affiliates in Armenia and Azerbaijan have called on “both countries to ensure the safety of journalists covering the conflict.”

Sadly, that seems to be the one bright spot in the picture.

While trade union leaders in Brussels speak about working “in close cooperation with the trade union organisations” in the region, the national trade union centres in the two warring countries are both providing full-throated support to their governments.

The Confederation of Trade Unions of Armenia condemned “the aggressive, criminal actions of the Azerbaijani authorities, which led to victims among the civilian population, numerous destruction and expresses support for the heroic people of Artsakh” – which is their name for the disputed region.

The Armenian union leaders even sent an appeal to the ITUC and ETUC leaderships in Brussels on 29 September in which they expressed their concern “over the current difficult and alarming situation and hopes that the world community will condemn such inhuman aggression when old people, women and children are being killed by shells.” (According to press reports, civilians have been killed on both sides.)

Not be outdone by their Armenian comrades, the Azerbaijan Trade Unions Confederation has been producing daily accounts of Armenian barbarity and aggression, as they see it. The first news story on their website is entitled “The president posted new messages on Twitter” and that sets the tone for the rest.

They refer to the Armenian government – which came to power in a popular rebellion not unlike what is happening today in Belarus – as “fascist”. They condemn Amnesty International for issuing “a biased, distorted, one-sided statement on its website.” (The Amnesty report was entitled “Armenia/Azerbaijan: Civilians must be protected from use of banned cluster bombs.”)

In the last few days, a cease fire was announced due not the efforts of the UN, EU or OSCE, but to Russian President Vladimir Putin and his foreign minister Sergey Lavrov. Under intense Russian pressure, and following a long night of negotiations in Moscow, there was a ray of hope.

Maybe the international labour movement should consider doing something similar – bringing the leaders of the trade union centres in the two countries together in Brussels to try to find some common ground. It worked for Putin and Lavrov. Maybe it will work for Burrow and Visentini too.

Or maybe the workers in the two countries, sick and tired of the futility of war, will put pressure on the union leaders to reach out to one another across the front lines – and together with their brothers and sisters on the other side force their governments to seek the path of peace.

This article appears in the current issue of Solidarity.