This is the final piece (at least for now) of my series on the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, where I share the post-war experience from the Armenian perspective.
The war has ended. After 40+ days of bitter fight against Azerbaijani-Turkish aggression we lost. Badly. The first thing you feel is emptiness. Then there is a relief that no lives will be lost anymore, then — an overwhelming sadness. Our guys are gone. We lost what we cherished so much. The collective sacrifice of about 30 years is gone. Many indigenous people of Artsakh have lost their homes. The very existence of our state is uncertain. Our hopes that the Velvet Revolution two years ago would bring progress for our country are shattered. People not involved in the conflict seem relieved: we should start working towards establishing peace now, right? Alas, the prospects of a long-term stability seem gloomy. At least for now.
The first reason is of course that the treaty that stopped the war is not an official peace agreement. I have said repeatedly that I am for a fair solution for both nations. I do feel the pain of the Azerbaijani people that had lost their homes in the first war. I am also not entirely sure about the mess in the last days of the Soviet Union and whether the first war could have been reasonably avoided. But the war had happened once. We could’ve fixed this issue in a peaceful way. At least to me, it seems that the Armenian side might have failed diplomatically in 90s, when it was more likely to push Azerbaijan to concessions. However, when Azerbaijan was getting stronger by its oil revenue, their willingness to any concessions kept decreasing and the negotiations turned into a blackmail: either accept our conditions (which undermined the idea of compromise) or we’ll start a war. So they did.
The current “no-war-for-now”-deal (sorry, can’t really call it a peace deal) means that Russian peacekeepers will stay in parts of Nagorno-Karabakh, which were not conquered by Azerbaijanis, for 5 years. Technically, Azerbaijan can demand the withdrawal of Russian peacekeepers after that. I guess we (the ordinary citizens) have to hold our breaths for at least another 5 years to see how the geopolitical game between Russia and Tukey evolves.
Let’s for the sake of the argument assume the conditions are there to rebuild trust. Theoretically, I am all for it. That would mean that our respective societies should start re-evaluating their histories, attempt to understand the other side of the story. I know widespread beliefs about Azerbaijanis that are wrong (bear with me, Armenian reader, don’t call me a traitor yet). For instance, many people in Armenia don’t make a distinction between the Nagorno-Karabakh itself and the surrounding security region, the latter mostly populated by Azerbaijanis before the first war in the 90s. To many Armenians, this is our historical homeland to which we have rightful claims. I personally don’t buy that argument because going back to “historical configurations” would turn the world into a mess, we should focus on people that are alive now. So, in that respect I know what the problems are in the Armenian society. But working on this misconceptions requires stability, you can’t teach people to tolerate each other when the wounds are still open, when the hostility hasn’t stopped. Most importantly, you can’t do that unilaterally.
I understand why the international community did not pressure Azerbaijan to concessions, which in my opinion would lead to a constructive solution. Various geopolitical interests, Azerbaijani lobby and money were much more effective. Take a look at an investigation into the latter issue here. I hope (most probably in vain) that at least when it comes to the humanitarian aspect of the conflict, more pressure will be there. A lot of analysts say that Armenians should overcome the victim mentality and learn trusting Turks/Azerbaijanis. I despise victim mentality and I agree that it’s not very constructive. However, how to convince people to trust the other side given the Armenophobia, especially in Azerbaijan? I am neither a political analyst nor an expert in international relationships. Let me simply give examples that illustrate the perspective of an Armenian citizen.
- After the defeat in the first Karabakh war, the authoritarian government of Azerbaijan exploited the frustration of its people and consolidated the society around revanchism, fueled by the hatred towards Armenians. In the last war, the president Ilham Aliyev said that Armenians will be chased away like dogs. Obviously, he later claimed that he meant the army, not the civilians and invited the people whose homes they shelled from day one, to become “peaceful residents of multicultural Azerbaijan”. I doubt that the perception of this phrase “chase like dogs” was that nuanced in the Azerbaijani society. Typically, it’s the buzzwords that stick with people, and Armenians encounter this phrase a lot in online communication with Azerbaijanis.
- Azerbaijani soldiers committed systematic war crimes including live (!) beheadings, body mutilations and the more “civilized” ways of killing, such as shooting. They also abducted civilians after the deal. In many videos circulated in Azerbaijani social media, there are groups of people committing heinous crimes and cheering. I am sure there were psychopaths on the Armenian side, too and I strongly condemn such actions no matter who commits them. Nevertheless, the crimes of the Azerbaijani side seem to be systematic and in a country, where social media is extensively controlled, the abundance of such videos is suspicious to say the least.
- The acts of violence are not unanimously condemned by Azerbaijanis. Of course, one shouldn’t generalize but maybe — just maybe, the hatred does have something to do with continuous brainwashing in a country that is close to a dictatorship, maybe — just maybe, it does have something to do with the fact that ax-murderers were pardoned and glorified? In a world, where media focuses increasingly on “micro-aggressions” and hate speech, I am wondering why nobody pays attention to the “subtle” remarks coming from Azerbaijan. Let’s have a look how some public figures reacted in Azerbaijan:
I obviously don’t justify any war crimes committed by the Armenian side but how can you make a war crime even worse? I guess by normalizing and glorifying it.
- Turkish television openly shares their ambitions. TGRT Haber of Turkey recently broadcasted this picture saying Armenians own Azerbaijan 50 billion dollars and since Armenia is not wealthy, they should consider giving up its southern provinces. Remember, I talked about Turkish expansionism and Pan-Turkism desires earlier. Will they go that far or is this just a means to further put psychological pressure on us? Not sure. As a matter of fact, on the military parade on 10/12/20 Azerbaijan’s president announced that most of modern Armenia is ancient Azerbaijan, while the Turkish president said “may the soul of Enver pasha be blessed”. Enver Pasha was one of the main organizers of the Armenian Genocide and a proponent of Pan-Turkism . Imagine praising Hitler nowadays.
- Azerbaijan continues its policy of cultural appropriation. Note, I am not claiming we treated all Azerbaijani heritage in the controlled regions the best way possible. Whether it was out of animosity or the sheer lack of resources, I don’t know. There are many ancient churches throughout Armenia that haven’t been restored either, mostly due to the government mismanagement. Armenians have also re-named many Azerbaijani settlements, while they were in the Armenian control. Nevertheless, most people are aware of the Azerbaijani equivalents and Armenians have not downright plagiarized the Azerbaijani culture as their own. The Muslim Azerbaijan, on the other hand, claims that all the ancient Christian Armenian heritage is theirs. Just two days after the war, the Minister of Culture posted this:
Feel free to learn about the Armenian Dadivank or Khutavank (church of the hills) which the Culture Minister of Azerbaijan is diligently appropriating. Also, the term “Caucasian Albania” is often loosely used by Azerbaijanis, ignoring its relationship and assimilation with the Armenian culture. But they don’t stop with a few churches on the de-jure Azerbaijani territory. The cultural monuments in Armenia proper are appropriated, too. Let’s have a look at a book published in 2007 in the order of Ministery of Culture and Tourism in Azerbaijan:
It says monuments of Western Azerbaijan. First of all, the term is the mirror version of what Armenians call “Western Armenia” when referring to the areas in modern Turkey that were populated by Armenians before the Genocide. These areas have distinctly Armenian churches and other cultural monuments. Although Azerbaijanis used to live in the modern day Armenia and for certain periods constituted a majority due to the forced deportations of Armenians to Iran, the area is characterized by vast Armenian heritage. On the top right of the book cover is the Garni temple, a gem of the Hellenistic Armenia, Turks were not even there when the temple was built in 1 AD. The Azerbaijanis call it a Turkish temple:
The middle picture on the book cover must be the Abbas Mirza Mosque in modern Yerevan, a monument from Iranian rule. The ruling elite of Iran was Turkish-speaking for quite some time and Azerbaijanis associate themselves with them, there is also a Turkish-speaking region in North-West Iran. I am no expert in the ethnic groups of the region and let’s assume that the mosque should be called Azerbaijani instead of Iranian. Azerbaijanis claim that this mosque was destroyed to erase Azerbaijani traces in Armenia but they fail to notice that it fell apart during Soviet rule, a time where the religious monuments did not receive enough attention - even Armenian churches were destroyed or abandoned.
Another ridiculous mention in the book is that of the Khor Virap Church which is called a Turkish temple - what do they even cite as evidence? Nothing! Based on the reactions under the Twitter thread of the book, it has been distributed in European book festivals and libraries. Here is a report on how Azerbaijan sends books full of hate speech towards Armenians and history falsification to Georgian libraries.
By the way, UNESCO supported an exhibition called “Azerbaijan- land of tolerance” in Paris (2013) but did not do anything when the tolerant Azerbaijanis destroyed the ancient Armenian cemetery in Julfa, full of 10.000 Armenian cross-stones, a UNESCO-protected intangible heritage. One can only wonder whether the 5 million $ donation from Azerbaijan to UNESCO had anything to do with that.
As you can hopefully see the conditions that lead to the first Karabakh war are there and they have become worse due to indoctrination. The older generation at least shared a common Soviet past, when Armenians and Azerbaijanis used to live side by side. Most of the younger generation has never seen a peer from the opponent country. The Azerbaijani government “ welcomes” the Armenians to live peacefully under Azerbaijani rule but does everything to make sure they won’t return. Any animosity by the Turkish tandem resonates with Armenians in the same context as the horrendous Genocide in 1915. Mentioning the organizers of the Genocide doesn’t send a positive message. I know, we need to get over the victim mentality, we need to put the best effort to strengthen our state, to fix our internal issues, try to find ways to protect our statehood, move towards a co-existence at some point in the future. But is it really too much to ask that the world finally helps us to build trust with our neighbors? Are we too unfair when we say Azerbaijan’s indoctrination and Turkey’s Genocide denial should be strongly condemned in the respective countries? I as an Armenian don’t wont eternal animosity. All I want is some guarantees that the same tragedies will not happen again. I would be glad to discuss our common history, to fill our blindspots but first and foremost, I need to be sure my compatriots won’t be arbitrarily killed or “chased like dogs”.
I have not much say in foreign policy, in geopolitics. What I can and will probably do is to share all the unique aspects of our culture with foreigners. I don’t want Armenians to be known as traumatized Genocide survivors. From now on I will refrain from talking about this conflict and share more uplifting stories from Armenian culture and society whenever I can. I will try to put them into the context of either contemporary issues or to other cultures.
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