Azerbaijan is on a war footing.
On Sept. 9, Artsakh, the Kosovo of the Caucasus, an ethnic Armenian republic set on land Soviet leader Joseph Stalin transferred to Azerbaijan, held presidential elections. It was the unrecognized republic’s seventh presidential election since the 1990s. But this year Azerbaijan, sensing weakness in Washington, delivered an ultimatum: elections would equal war. The oil-rich dictatorship broadcast mobilization footage to underscore its demands. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken dutifully called Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev, but his words were weak, and by omission, Blinken signaled that Aliyev faced no consequences should he ignore them.
Blinken should know better. The Artsakh elections are not the first time he has faced this scenario. In November 2020, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed launched a war of attrition to punish the Tigray region for holding its own local elections. When Blinken took office two months later, he did little other than wag his finger at Abiy. The Ethiopian leader dismissed Blinken and privately mocked him and his envoys. Hundreds of thousands of Tigrayans starved. That U.S. President Joe Biden subsequently rehabilitated Abiy signals to Aliyev and other would-be mass murderers that America’s words are empty.
Why is Aliyev so upset at the prospect of Artsakh elections? There are two reasons. Certainly, free elections in any region Azerbaijan claims are embarrassing. Freedom House ranks Azerbaijan as “not free” and labels it a “consolidated authoritarian regime.”
Put another way, the dictatorship for which some in Washington and London now shill ranks alongside China and Myanmar, and below even Russia and the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip, in freedom rankings. Artsakh itself is far from perfect, but it ranks “partially free,” with better scores than Turkey, sitting more than 50 places above Azerbaijan. The notion, then, that it might elect its own government is anathema to Aliyev.
The second reason is racism. Aliyev dehumanizes Armenians in his rhetoric and his country’s schoolbooks. This is why the former International Criminal Court prosecutor Luis Moreno Ocampo released an open letter calling Azerbaijan’s starvation of Armenians genocide.
It is Not Just Kosovo: Law is on Artsakh’s Side
But if the world recognizes Azerbaijani sovereignty over the land on which Artsakh operates, can Azerbaijan be blamed for taking action to restore that sovereignty? Put aside the illogic of demanding residents subordinate themselves to a government that deliberately starves them. Here, there is a parallel to Darfur. The law regarding Azerbaijani sovereignty is far from cut-and-dry.
Many Americans, even within the State Department, misunderstand Washington’s historical position regarding Azerbaijan’s sovereignty over Nagorno-Karabakh. While Baku insists the United States recognizes Nagorno-Karabakh as Azerbaijani, those engaged in the issue during the George H.W. Bush administration say that such recognition was conditional on a diplomatic process and recognition of the cultural and human rights of those living in Nagorno-Karabakh. Azerbaijan now turns its back on both. As such, the United States will not necessarily continue to recognize Azerbaijani sovereignty.
Then there is the issue of self-determination. Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan’s May statement that “Azerbaijan’s territory includes Nagorno-Karabakh” does not end the question about Artsakh’s self-determination. Before Pashinyan’s statement, no Armenian government recognized Artsakh’s independence, so there is little new to the position. But because Artsakh is not part of modern Armenia, Pashinyan has no right to concede Nagorno-Karabakh’s residents’ right to self-determination.
Nor is Artsakh on its face illegitimate. It is neither Donetsk nor Luhansk, nor for that matter Crimea. Nagorno-Karabakh’s claim to self-determination began prior to the fall of the Soviet Union when the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast’s government first petitioned Moscow to separate from Azerbaijan. This was their right under the Constitution, and their residents chose independence in a free and fair referendum. Nor can Azerbaijan dismiss the referendum as the case of one community voting and the other boycotting. Censuses throughout the Soviet period and before show the Armenian majority. Few Azerbaijanis had deep roots in the region. Aliyev compels Azerbaijanis to resettle in the region by holding pensions and government employment hostage.
No Room for Moral Equivalence on Azerbaijani Aggression
Azerbaijan today turns morality upside down with its narrative that it is the victim of aggression. Putting aside the fact that Artsakh is an indigenous republic rather than a vestige of occupation, and that it was autonomous under the Soviet system, the Azerbaijani narrative elides important context. Against the backdrop of the Armenian Genocide, neither the Ottoman Empire’s Young Turks nor the nascent Azerbaijani state accepted Armenian statehood. Just as Turks drove Armenians out of their eastern Anatolian homelands to open the land for Turkish colonization, many Turkish chauvinists hoped to complete the process by uniting Turkey and Azerbaijan, bringing the notion of “one nation, two states” to its natural conclusion.
While the Soviet conquest temporarily put a lid on the pressure cooker, Stalin’s gerrymandering catalyzed grievance. As the Soviet Union descended into chaos, populists in Azerbaijan, including its capital Baku, staged an escalating series of pogroms against the Armenian Christian community reminiscent of those that occurred during the Armenian Genocide. Azerbaijan subsequently sought to encircle, blockade, and starve the Armenian towns and villages in Nagorno-Karabakh. It was in this context, and with the widespread recognition that Azerbaijan sought a final solution for the Armenian population, that the United States Congress included Section 907 in the Freedom Support Act banning most assistance to Azerbaijan.
After 9/11, Azerbaijan played its cards well. It offered to join the U.S. War on Terror in exchange for a waiver to Section 907. Under the terms of that waiver, the United States could assist Azerbaijan on the condition that Azerbaijan remained committed to resolving its dispute over Nagorno-Karabakh diplomatically and foreswore any effort to impose a military solution. Azerbaijan’s September 2020 attack, timed to coincide with the centenary of the Ottoman effort to invade Nagorno-Karabakh, violated Azerbaijan’s commitment and should have ended American assistance. Hakan Fidan, Turkey’s new foreign minister (and its intelligence chief at the time), has since acknowledged what the CIA and Pentagon had already learned through covert means: Turkish special forces participated in the assault.
While U.S. President Joe Biden fulfilled his campaign promise to recognize the Armenian Genocide, he soiled that recognition by allowing further military sales to Azerbaijan. This convinced Aliyev that he could get away with murder. Indeed, Azerbaijani aggression against not only Artsakh, but also Armenia proper, grew in direct proportion to Blinken and his team’s moral equivalence and inability to call out Azerbaijani aggression as the source of the problem. State Department officials from Blinken on down based their pronouncements less on moral clarity and more on “Chicken Kiev.”
Yuri Kim Takes a Bad Situation and Makes it Worse
There is an unfortunate irony that Biden, who promised as a candidate to stand against genocide and took A Problem from Hell author Samantha Power under his wing, now through negligence or incompetence appears to greenlight the eradication of the region’s oldest Christian community.
On a day-to-day basis, though, neither Biden nor Blinken take the lead on the Caucasus. That falls to Acting Assistant Secretary of State Yuri Kim. who most recently served as U.S. ambassador to Albania. That the current crisis accelerated under Kim’s tenure as assistant secretary is no coincidence. Within the State Department, Kim’s ambition to be ambassador to Turkey is an open secret, based partly on her comments to colleagues and to others while she was political counselor at the U.S. Embassy in Ankara. Perhaps then, some of her moral equivalence in the face of growing Turkish and Azerbaijani aggression toward Armenia and Artsakh is simply self-censorship in order to assuage those whom she hopes will be her future hosts, or perhaps her moral equivalence is simply her style. Either way, her default reaction tends to exacerbate conflict and undermine U.S. interests.
The end of her tenure in Albania should have been a red flag. In May 2023, just two days before Albania held municipal elections, Albanian forces arrested Fredi Beleri, the opposition candidate to be mayor of Himara, who hailed from Albania’s ethnic Greek minority, on unsubstantiated vote-buying charges. Beleri nevertheless won. Albanian authorities proceeded to keep Beleri in jail in a cynical attempt to keep him from being sworn in. The case has ramifications for NATO solidarity and, by extension, for American interests. Kim should have realized this, but she did not press the message with her superiors. As a result, Greece did not invite Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama to the Western Balkans Summit in Athens last month, distracting from some Ukraine conversations. Most other observers see Albania’s actions as being rooted in religious hatred. They see Albania as wrong and Beleri as the victim. Kim’s approach caused Albania to double down, putting its EU aspirations in jeopardy and undermining stability in the Western Balkans.
Back to Artsakh: As Azerbaijan mobilized forces, Kim tweeted, “We urge all sides to work together now to immediately simultaneously open Lachin and other routes to get desperately needed humanitarian supplies into Nagorno-Karabakh.”
Within the State Department, hands hit foreheads for two reasons: First, for her bizarre choice to draw equivalence between those withholding food and those starving. Azerbaijan and Artsakh are no more moral equals than the Soviets were equivalent to those they blockaded in Berlin. Second, it has been less than three years since Aliyev agreed in writing to allow aid to flow unimpeded from Armenia through Lachin and into Artsakh. Aliyev’s violation of that agreement is not up for debate. Does Kim not realize the damage she does to diplomacy by signaling that intransigence works, and agreements need not be honored?
Make no mistake: The person responsible for the starvation of Artsakh’s Armenians is not Biden, Blinken, or Kim. It is Aliyev. And, just as with Darfur, his decisions should lead him to The Hague. That said, not every dictator puts his closet desire to eliminate an ethnic group into action. They read the tea leaves to try understanding whether an outside power will care enough to act. Unfortunately, Biden, Blinken, and Kim have each repeatedly signaled disinterest. They care little about right or wrong, or about defending the liberal order.
Aliyev, like Abiy, may allow some aid trucks in and hope the spotlight moves on, but genocide in Artsakh looms. Bill Clinton apologized for doing nothing to head off Rwanda’s anti-Tutsi genocide. The Dutch government apologized for Srebrenica. Armenians do not need an apology after the fact. They need the West to show moral backbone and signal, through sanctions on Azerbaijan and direct aid to Artsakh, a red light that Aliyev would be foolish to ignore.
(c) 2023, 19fortyfive