The brutal Azerbaijani blockade of the historically Armenian region has gone largely unacknowledged by U.S. media, even as the Biden Administration enables it.
An Armenian family eats dinner by candlelight during the now-regular blackouts in Artsakh. [Source Credit: Edgar Harutyunyan]
Today, as Gev Iskajyan remembers the Turkish government’s genocide of 1.5 million of his Armenian ancestors, he and 120,000 other indigenous Armenians are once again under a genocidal siege in their homeland. This time, Armenians are being ethnically cleansed by Azerbaijan, with the military and financial support of democracies around the world, including the United Kingdom, the European Union, and Iskajyan’s home country, the United States.
Since December 12, 2022, the Lachin corridor, the only road connecting Armenia to the historically Armenian region of Artsakh (referred to by non-Armenians as Nagorno-Karabakh) has been blockaded by Azerbaijani protestors and soldiers. The blockade has caused widespread shortages of food, medicine, and gas, turning daily life in Artsakh into a fight for survival. Many Armenians, like Iskajyan, see this not as a conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan, but as a continuation of the centuries of genocide that Armenians have endured—including the most well-known Armenian genocide of 1915 to 1916, commemorated globally each year on April 24. Azerbaijan’s blockade is backed by Turkey, which continues to deny that the genocide occurred.
“This is not a separate attempt to ethnically cleanse Armenians,” Iskajyan tells The Progressive in a phone interview. “Whether it was 100 years ago in places that are in current day Turkey, or in Stepanakert, the capital of Artsakh where I live, this is part of a continuous effort to ethnically cleanse Armenians.”
Nearly all aspects of life in Artsakh have changed. Food shortages have emptied shelves at stores. Residents have gone without life-saving medicines. Throughout this winter, Azerbaijan has shut off gas lines into Artsakh, leaving 120,000 people without heat and power. In February, the human rights group Genocide Watch issued a genocide emergency.
“We’re rationing food, there’s energy insecurity, and there are rolling blackouts multiple times a day,” Iskajyan says. “The people of Artsakh have been through so much, so hardship is something that unfortunately, they’re familiar with.”
The Armenian diaspora has condemned the United States’ and Europe’s support for Azerbaijan, as well as the lack of U.S. media coverage of the blockade.
“What we’re seeing evokes memories of the genocide 108 years ago,” Alex Galitsky, director of the Armenian National Committee of America tells The Progressive. “There is a clear sense of abandonment. The West has turned its back on Armenia and has abandoned Armenia to the whims of Azerbaijan's dictatorship.”
In fall 2020, when then-presidential candidate Joe Biden was on the campaign trail, Azerbaijan regained control over Artsakh in a war that claimed thousands of Azerbaijani and Armenian lives. Biden called on then-President Donald Trump to “fully implement” Section 907 of the United States Freedom Support Act, a law passed in 1992 that bans all aid to Azerbaijan. However, just a few months after taking office, Biden waived Section 907; he became the first President to recognize the Armenian genocide less than a week before.
“Azerbaijan at this stage has no incentive to make peace,” says Galitsky. “The government of Azerbaijan feels like there’ll be no material consequences for its actions. The United States is complicit in emboldening and enabling this continued pattern of aggression.”
With Russia, Armenia’s peacekeeping ally, preoccupied with waging war in Ukraine, Armenia has pivoted to the West for support. Nerses Kopalyan, assistant professor-in-residence of political science at the University of Nevada, says that since the blockade has begun, the European Union and the United States have spoken out against it. However, the strategic interests of both groups, including increasing Azerbaijan’s oil sales to the European Union, have been a priority.
“The U.S. position has been rhetorically and diplomatically speaking, fundamentally opposed to the blockade,” Kopalyan tells The Progressive. “But it has not led to any specific action as far as applying pressure to compel Azerbaijan to open the Lachin corridor.”
Kopalyan says that over time, the Armenian lobby in the United States, which once got Section 907 passed, has weakened significantly. Since Section 907 became law, Azerbaijani and Turkish lobbying organizations in the United States, some of which receive funding from a complex money laundering scheme, have increased in power.
With little say in Congress regarding the fate of Artsakh, Armenian Americans have taken up abandonment as a common political refrain, according to Galitsky. May 12 marks four months since the blockade began, though the European Union and the United States have called for its end.
“They’ve made a conscious decision to stand by and watch on in silence in order to secure Azerbaijan’s support.”
“I don’t doubt for a second that authorities in Brussels and Washington are clear eyed about what’s happening—they have a very clear picture of what’s playing out on the ground,” Galitsky said. “They’ve made a conscious decision to stand by and watch on in silence in order to secure Azerbaijan’s support.”
Many Armenians and Armenian Americans interviewed by The Progressive were frustrated with the U.S. media’s reporting on the blockade. Indeed, Iskajyan believes that the coverage of the blockade has helped to enable it.
“The press coverage of Nagorno-Karabakh traditionally has always been framed as a specific conflict,” Iskajyan says. “To us, it’s always been more than that. To us, it’s always been the threat of ethnic cleansing, the threat of uprooting people from their homes, the threat of genocide. It isn’t just a one-off issue. It’s about Turkey and Azerbaijan’s expansionist goals.”
Jeff Cohen, founder of the media watchdog organization Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting, tells The Progressive that because of the American media’s self-centered focus, Americans have not been made aware of the blockade, or its connections to the Armenian genocide.
“The ideological assumptions of the U.S. media is why we’re conditioned to not give a damn about the Armenians,” says Cohen. “The tone of the coverage [of the blockade] is bland because it just involves human suffering and has nothing to do with our grand battle against China or Russia.”
For Armenians like Slav Ascaturyan, whose ancestors lived in Artsakh, Biden’s actions, the European Union’s dependence and the U.S. media’s silence is tragic history repeating itself.
“They don’t listen to us,” Ascaturyan tells The Progressive. “No one will listen to us. Biden and them speak about the Armenian Genocide [and] it’s very good that people speak about it, but nothing has changed. Why wouldn’t we think this is another genocide?”
(c) 2023, The Progressive Magazine