Why Won’t the World Help?
The System of a Down frontman asks: Faced with Azerbaijan's aggression and alleged war crimes against Armenia, when will the global community act?
THE SAME SEPTEMBER week that a mass grave was discovered in Izium, Ukraine, Azerbaijan launched brutal attacks on the sovereign territory of Armenia, killing hundreds. The first event was on the front page of The New York Times, in The Washington Post, and on CNN, and denounced by world leaders and international organizations. The latter was a one-day story that was swiftly buried.
I was not surprised. Tired of the world’s mayhem, we pick and choose which outrages actually cause us outrage. Vladimir Putin’s Russia is seen as a rogue power — while the kleptocratic dictatorship of Azerbaijan’s Ilham Aliyev flies under the radar. It’s understandable in a way, since the corruption is clear but the underlying issues are complex. So let me try to simplify.
Since it helps any story to feature a cartoonishly evil antagonist, I’m glad to report it all began with Joseph Stalin.
On July 4, 1921, the Caucasus bureau of the Central Committee of the Soviet Communist Party voted to integrate the mountainous Karabagh region — today, much of Azerbaijan and eastern Armenia, 95 percent of whose population was ethnically Armenian — into Armenia. The logical idea was to create ethnically cohesive republics in the Soviet Union.
But the Soviet leader had more clever plans: He wanted the republics to not make sense, to reduce their chances of ever succeeding as viable countries. So the next day, he intervened to integrate Karabagh into Soviet Azerbaijan, as part of an autonomous province.
It was a blow to the Armenians, coming just a few years after big power machinations also ceded the historical Armenian cities of Kars and Ardahan to Turkey and Nakhchivan to Azerbaijan. In 1915, around 1.5 million Armenians were slaughtered by the Turks, giving birth to the term “genocide.”
At the breakup of the Soviet Union in the 1990s, the Armenians of the Nagorno-Karabakh province overwhelmingly voted to join Armenia. Azerbaijan reacted with pogroms of Armenians in Azerbaijan and military attacks on Nagorno-Karabakh. The Armenians prevailed militarily and established a strong model of autonomy and democracy free of Azerbaijan’s dictatorship.
Then came 2020, when Azerbaijan, with the help of Turkey, attacked again. A brutal 44-day war took the lives of thousands, with Azerbaijan occupying the disputed territory and displacing tens of thousands of Armenians. Not satisfied, Aliyev is now trying to take over territory in sovereign Armenia itself.
Historically, Russia has been the security guarantor of Armenia. But Russia, distracted by the folly of its imperial ambitions in Ukraine, has abandoned Armenia and further cozied up to Turkey and Azerbaijan. Given the Western disinterest, Armenians feel abandoned to their fate.
Lined up against them is a particularly odious iteration of Azerbaijan: It is a country with extremely low freedom and even lower human-rights ratings that’s run as a private business of the Aliyevs. Ilham, an autocrat of the Dr. Evil variety, inherited his fiefdom from his KGB dad, Heydar, made his wife vice president, and runs the energy-wealthy country like a cash machine to buy silence around the world.
His ally, Turkish President Recep Teyyip Erdogan, is a thuggish Islamist autocrat ruling over a pretend-democracy that oppresses its Kurdish minority, invades Syria, and rattles its saber at Cyprus, Greece, and Armenia.
Putin — well, you all know about Putin.
It probably won’t surprise you that this tyrannical triumvirate is working on a fossil-fuel-energy play centered around … Azerbaijan. Essentially, they need to run oil and natural gas from Azerbaijan, as well as Iran, to Turkey and onward, to whatever European country will agree to have it — which requires a corridor through Armenia. They’d like to possess and control such a corridor, which goes a long way to explain this last invasion. Moreover, Russia’s Lukoil owns roughly 25 percent of Azerbaijan’s Caspian oil reserves — so Putin will still be in the game, even if Europe refuses to buy from Moscow directly.
U.S. displeasure with the pipeline is one reason why some U.S. politicians are trying to become more involved in establishing a long-term cease-fire. It also explains why House Speaker Nancy Pelosi flew to Yerevan, the capitol of Armenia, in September and publicly called out Azerbaijani aggression.
But Europe, obsessed with its energy security, has been far more inclined to appease Aliyev. Indeed, Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission, recently inked a gas deal, calling Aliyev “reliable” — which is said to have emboldened him to attack Armenia a few weeks later.
Are Europeans fine with watching Azerbaijan ethnically cleanse Nagorno-Karabagh and Armenia for a mere increase of one percent of their energy needs from dictator Aliyev of Azerbaijan? I don’t think so. Maybe most are unaware.
They should ask the Lemkin Institute, Human Rights Watch, and other watchdog organizations, who have recently raised red flags on Azerbaijan’s genocidal acts toward Armenians. Azerbaijan is a country where kids are raised from a young age to hate Armenians, which may explain the multiple recent videos of extra-judicial killings of POWs by Azeri soldiers, coupled with unspeakable mutilations of Armenian soldiers and civilians.
Azerbaijan has become an international pariah for many travelers who have visited Nagorno-Karabagh, including Anthony Bourdain, whom I had the privilege of taking to Armenia in 2017 for CNN’s Parts Unknown. Tony had nothing but disdain for the likes of Aliyev, Erdogan, and Putin. I had warned him of being blacklisted; his reaction was something along the lines of “I don’t give a fuck.”
It turns out neither do most others — but in the opposite way.
I was recently told that due to coverage of the war in Ukraine and the protests in Iran, media companies don’t have bandwidth for other international human-rights tragedies. But exclusive empathy for the victims of our accepted international enemies is hypocritical.
While all this is going on, international soccer games are played in Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, Formula 1 races are scheduled there for next spring, and theaters and music venues are booked with international acts.
We should take our example from a few brave Ukrainians, like pop star Max Barskih, who canceled his gig, declaring that “any country that allows aggression against another country is not a place for my concerts.” Or Ukrainian singer Tina Karol, who followed suit by canceling her own show in Baku and posting “Armenian Lives Matter” on Instagram. I’m grateful for such acts of solidarity.
It’s time to cancel and sanction Azerbaijan, adding it to the list of countries committing gross human-rights violations and war crimes in our lifetime. Never again — right?
(c) 2022, Rolling Stone