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On the Intentional ‘Misunderstandings’ of the Karabakh Conflict


As Azerbaijan is committing an ethnic cleansing of Armenians from Nagorno-Karabakh and unimaginable crimes that we are yet to learn, I want to reflect on how the ‘neutrality’ and ‘objectivity’ of academics, media and politicians have made this nightmare possible. It gives me unease that I have to make a few grotesque comparisons of people’s sufferings to get my point across. However, I will use any tool which would allow me to explain the danger that Armenians are facing today and the indifference that they have been receiving from the international community for years in the face of officials, academics, media etc. It turns out there is some supernatural invisible power hovering around the border of Armenia and Azerbaijan: clashes and fighting erupt, tensions increase, people get killed in overnight clashes, conflict intensifies, — all in passive voice with no mention of the perpetrator. Language is a powerful tool that international media use to take a side without taking a side and misleading the public. The use of passive voice avoids any association, responsibility, involvement or accountability.

On September 20, 2023, BBC wrote ‘Azerbaijan launches offensive against Armenian separatists’. By that moment, for 10 months Azerbaijan had been illegally blocking the only road connecting 120.000 Armenians living in Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia (Lachin corridor) and essentially the world. These people have been completely isolated with no access to food, medicines and other goods (even humanitarian aid), all while Azerbaijan’s constant cutting of gas supplies and electricity in the region. On September 19, 2023 Azerbaijan started to shell nearly all cities in Nagorno-Karabakh where the starving and fatigued population was concentrated. In just 24 hours there were more than 200 Armenians murdered among them civilians and children, 400 wounded, and countless civilian infrastructure destroyed. These numbers are estimated to be quite modest, since there is limited communication between different settlements.There were already reports of torture and beheadings of civilians as well as kidnappings. Thousands became refugees, many do not have any information from family members. These people are now starving, sleeping outside in the cold, yet Azerbaijan keeps the Lachin corridor blocked. These ‘separatists’ that the BBC is talking about are the male population of NK Armenians who were the only guarantee of safety for their families and homes after the 2020 Karabakh war. After this humanitarian catastrophe and threat of genocide, with no international presence to cover events on the ground, the authorities of Nagorno-Karabakh had to accept the capitulation which then in BBC is presented as Karabakh Armenians agree to ceasefire, despite the fact that the alternative was being shelled and killed further.

It is clear that independent media are not so independent and not so media. But the same issue is present among politicians and academics in the West and it is often unclear who is fooling who. While academics showed unprecedented solidarity for Ukraine and openly, politically condemned Russia, there are many conflicts that despite their clear aggressor-victim dynamics remain ‘complicated’ for erudites across the globe. Some of the most well-known Western scholars who work on the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict have done immense damage to the prospects of peace by their unwillingness to call things by their names. They have heavily relied on the logic of ‘both-sides’ ending up creating a narrative which is outright misleading. Scholars present the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict as a conflict between equally responsible entities, downplaying Ilham Aliyev’s extensive efforts of keeping the conflict alive at all costs. They also dismiss Azerbaijan’s history-long propaganda of Armenophobia which resulted in pogroms, humiliation, murder of Armenians and erasure of all cultural heritage from Nakhijevan, Nagorno-Karabakh, Baku, Ganja, Sumgait. They left a couple churches to blow sand on the eyes of the internationals to show how ‘multiethnic’ Azerbaijan is. But some are more ethnic than others, because there are no Armenians living in current-day Azerbaijan-controlled territories (NK) and the other minorities that live there face frequent rights violations. Moreover, the Armenians who stayed in Azerbaijan after the 90s changed their names and never demonstrated any Armenianness, assimilating to the Azerbaijani ‘multiethnic community’. Many of them then endured constant surveillance of Azerbaijani special services. This is the ‘reintegration’ that Aliyev is talking about when he talks about Nagorno-Karabakh Armenians. These are the conditions that are created for Armenia as a side of the conflict. It either tries to defend Armenians, or surrenders a huge number of them to be physically and emotionally terrorized by the Azerbaijani regime. There are no both sides in this story today.

Of course this narrative is generally beneficial for the Western politicians as well (and not only). Let us not forget that Aliyev keeps his assets and investments in safer places like the UK, and supplies 7 EU countries with gas, soon to become 10, while in reality it re-exports Russian gas to Europe. Azerbaijan is a generous and a smart merchant. The EU highly enjoys the cooperation. Afterall it is possible to buy Russian gas through Azerbaijan all while claiming you are boycotting Russian energy. The EU likes this commercial cooperation so much that amid leading a struggle against the ultimate dictator is ready to shake the hands of another one of the world’s most cruel dictators and call him a reliable, trustworthy partner, as Ursula von der Leyen does.

Our region is highly exoticised and there is a certain tendency to think of our region as three states with almost the same people. Thus anything that happens in the region is simply a mess that all sides created with equal participation: difficult kids — if not barbarians. The term South Caucasus itself is highly irrelevant and is a fiction of Western academia that has its roots in Russian imperial policies in regard to these territories. Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia are highly different politically and socially. We may look similar and we may share borders and even have similar everyday culture, but we are not in any way a part of a single political logic. When researching these countries it is important to not generalize and assume societal and political similarities. Moreover, we should avoid looking at it as a clutter of conflictual masses with tragic fates.

All wars end in suffering for all the involved peoples. Surely, there are grievances that the Azerbaijani people have which is important to acknowledge. On the flip side, Aliyev has created an impression that only Azerbaijanis were displaced from their homes (forgetting about displacement of Armenians from Azerbaijan and pogroms in Baku and Sumgait), weaponizing their pain in his foreign policy while making them live in ghettos for decades. All sides suffer in war, but by no means it makes the level of responsibility even. Similarly, anyone who wants to express an opinion about the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict must clearly indicate the agency of the aggressor state. Azerbaijan, ruled by a hereditary resource dictator, supported by Turkey and Russia, enabled by the international community, committed tragic crimes against Armenians in NK, it invaded internationally recognized Armenian territory and encouraged the actions of its citizens who have committed assaults against Armenians abroad (Google the case of Ramil Safarov).

Anything or anyone that justifies these actions by pseudo-logical arguments or under the guise of objectivity should feel a high moral and social pressure, because allowing the circulation of such discourses enables all kinds of violations of ethics and academic integrity all while sending a message that perpetrator’s narratives have as much truth and legitimacy as the victim’s.

While any Russian academic who supports Russia’s war against Ukraine is immediately dismissed and prevented from having any international platform, there are numerous Azerbaijani ‘scholars’ (often state-funded) who go around the world presenting their ‘research’ where they reproduce state narratives of ‘just war and international law as well as whitewash all severe issues stemming from its political regime.

If we are to normalize reproduction of nationalist propaganda in the West and accept in the academic community the Azerbaijani colleagues who share Hikmet Hajiyev’s (Ilham Aliyev’s modern day Joseph Goebbels) tweets and discourses, then we might as well allow Russian academics to cite Sergey Lavrov and justify why Russia had ‘all rights to invade Ukraine’. Even imagining such a scenario is quite vulgar and unacceptable. Now, the main argument against this is that while Crimea and Donetsk, Lugansk are internationally recognized territories of Ukraine, the Nagorno-Karabakh region is internationally recognized Azerbaijani territory, therefore Azerbaijan is allowed to undertake aggressive actions to restore its territorial integrity. But what if the restoration of territorial integrity is just a mask for cleansing these lands from every trace of Armenian people and culture? I repeat, that is exactly what happened to the entire Armenian population of Karabakh that lived in the territories that came under Azerbaijan’s ‘territorial integrity’ after its aggression just 3 years ago. Today there are 0 Armenians left in those 75% of what had been controlled by Armenians before the Second Karabakh war. Is this acceptable? The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict has long been framed as a territorial conflict. Interestingly enough this discourse itself is a part of Azerbaijani propaganda, which officials and academics in the West are ready to embrace. This conflict was never about territory, it was always and always about the safety and rights of Armenians living in Nagorno-Karabakh. There were of course unwise decisions made by the Armenian authorities throughout the history of the conflict but this can by no means disqualify indigenous Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh from their right to human, cultural and civil rights. Armenian authorities have at least 3 times in the course of the last 30 years agreed to a peace settlement entailing the return of territories, but were turned down by Azerbaijan, anticipating greater gains through its oil-pumped military. Even disregarding the ethnic hatred against Armenians that is officially promoted in Azerbaijan, NK Armenians who are used to all freedoms and benefits of living in a dynamic political system and enjoying democratic free and fair elections and institutions cannot live under a regime which lacks something as basic as freedom of speech. Freedom House ranks Nagorno-Karabakh as partly free with a 37/100 score, while Azerbaijan ranks as a consolidated authoritarian regime with a score of 1/100.

Dictatorships feed on war, it is nearly axiomatic in political sciences. There should be no illusions as to why Azerbaijani state bases itself on hatred against Armenians, manipulating its own citizens, convincing them that the poverty and humiliation that they have been living under are all because of Armenians. For your record there have been no Armenians in Azerbaijan for the past 30 years and after the first Karabakh war Armenia never attempted any large-scale aggression against Azerbaijan. Aliyev is arresting and killing everyone who ever uttered dissenting ideas, including anti-war positions. His regime perpetually promotes narratives about why invading the whole of Armenia is their historical right aka it’s not Armenia it’s ‘Western Azerbaijan’, it’s not Yerevan it’s Erivan and as Aliyev says himself the return to those lands “is our political and strategic goal”. Aliyev will not step back after ethnically cleansing Karabakh. One likely scenario of Azerbaijan’s further actions is as follows. First, it will use Armenians in NK as hostages and blackmail Armenia so as to violate the sovereign borders of Armenia and rip a corridor in the South of Armenia which the Aliyev-Erdogan-Putin trinity so desperately want for unsupervised transportation of goods between their respective countries. Later, after successfully spreading more anti-Armenian sentiments among its own population and convincing that Armenia is historical Azeri land, it will slowly take more and more chunks of lands from Armenia, selling it as the right of Azeri refugees to return to lands that they once used to live on. It will assert that Armenians are free to live alongside Azeris, which the international community will eagerly believe in order to postpone bothering about anything that is too far from its nose. Ilham Aliyev already talks about this during negotiations and demands an international mechanism for the security of Azerbaijanis to be settled in Armenia — Azerbaijani security services, in other words. Apart from that the business interest that the West associates with Aliyev will overshadow the violation of rights in Azerbaijan and in the whole region. As long as human rights violations take place in silence, the West is willing to turn its blind eye to them. Finally, the victim will be blamed for not wanting to live in the same flat with the murderer and raper. What next? I simply don’t want to imagine.

Azerbaijan has been promoting the fiction that Armenia is an expansionist state, which for any sane human being would sound like a joke: Armenia is one of the smallest countries in the world with a population of only 3 million people (even less), sandwiched between Turkey and Azerbaijan, which both base their national ideologies on hate against minorities and especially Armenians. Moreover, due to years of Russian involvement in the region, Russia has got its hands on all strategic infrastructure of Armenia, which keeps Armenia dependent on it on multiple different levels: a hostage under the name of a ‘strategic ally’. This in its turn has been weaponized against Armenians. There is no willingness in the West to engage in Armenia militarily and provide security guarantees. The discourse that Armenia deserves what it got because it allies with Russia is a total farce. The EU and the US have long washed their hands in regard to this region, obeying to Russia’s logic of ‘spheres of influence’ all while creating an illusion of care for the wellbeing of the people via financial support for civil society and institutional reform. This has created an illusion of choice which however is unfortunately not the case. Small states rarely have total autonomy over their foreign policy decision making especially with such a hostile geopolitical environment that Armenia is in. Armenians would rely on absolutely any ally who would be able to provide security guarantees and mend their existential fears. However, no one offers that today.

What can be done? The West has to find courage to choose human lives over business deals with Azerbaijan. The West should act upon its declared values of democracy and human rights, and sanction Azerbaijan to prevent it from turning Armenia into another Palestine, Syria or even worse. Ilham Aliyev will not stop covering the region in Armenian blood until he is stopped decisively by those who have the resources to stop him i.e. the US and the EU. The more the resource, the more the responsibility. But most importantly, the least that the international community can do for Armenians today to compensate for its systematic ignorance and misinterpretation of this struggle is to use all platforms and channels possible to demand one thing:

An urgent humanitarian corridor for Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh without preconditions.

I empathize with foreign scholars who may feel some kind of an imposter syndrome while researching areas they are not culturally familiar with. And I also understand how connecting with locals is their way of overcoming this divide between them and what they study. However, this should not turn into favoritism, or worse — walking on eggshells to avoid getting backlash. If we are to take our intellectual effort seriously, we have to question the narratives that serve the interests of certain elites. We are a community that tries to make sense of the world in hopes that the accumulation of knowledge might explain sociopolitical processes and help to avoid catastrophic mistakes from our not-so-distant past.

Taking the side of justice is an intentional effort which requires intellectual investment and it also comes with a cost (in forms of criticism and pressures, for some maybe loss of additional income), which is worth paying in order to preserve academic integrity and do no harm to those we study.



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