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Azerbaijan’s ultimate goal was never Karabakh, it was Armenia’s capitulation

By Alex Avaneszadeh, MALD 2022 Candidate, The Fletcher School
AP Photo/Sergei Grits

Peace on Azerbaijan’s terms was never a possibility. As part of a family clan that has ruled Azerbaijan since 1993, the regime of President Ilham Aliyev is Azerbaijan, and Azerbaijan is Aliyev.

For the past two decades, Aliyev’s approach to staying in power (besides severe repression) has been the galvanization of racial hatred toward Armenians – inciting ethnic hate speech and glorifying hate crimes.

In an escalation of regional tensions, Aliyev has now expanded his aggression into Armenia proper, setting a new precedent by transforming the Karabakh conflict into an interstate war. With Armenia’s so-called security guarantor – Russia – having its hands tied with Ukraine, the growing power vacuum in the South Caucasus effectively ripened the conditions for an Azerbaijani military offensive against Armenia.

“The Committee is deeply concerned about…incitement to racial hatred and the propagation of racist stereotypes against persons of Armenian national or ethnic origin, including on the Internet and social media, as well as by public figures and governmental officials.” – United Nations Human Rights Committee, CERD Observation Report on Azerbaijan, August 30, 2022

On the night of September 12, Azerbaijani forces began shelling more than half the length of Armenia’s eastern border and interior, throwing Armenia’s teenage soldiers back into the trenches only two years after Aliyev’s war on the Artsakh Republic (Nagorno-Karabakh). 105 Armenian servicemen have since been killed, while civilians are being evacuated from their towns and villages. Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan indicated that Azerbaijani troops have advanced into Armenia, occupying 4 square miles. On September 14, a fragile ceasefire was negotiated after France brought the issue to the UN Security Council at the request of Armenia. In a novel shift of U.S. strategic engagement in the region, Speaker of the House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, visited Yerevan on September 18 in a show of support for the country, condemning Azerbaijan’s attacks against Armenia. However, with the conflict reaching a new level of aggression, Armenians are preparing to defend themselves from the worst-case scenario: genocide.

An Azerbaijani postage stamp depicting the chemical fumigation of the Armenian population of Artsakh (Nagorno-Karabakh) after the 2020 Karabakh war.

As an Armenian, it is an understatement to say that what I am feeling is pain, frustration and anger. Many other Armenians have entered a state of numbness, as the feeling of helplessness has kicked in. Our homeland is being mercilessly attacked and annexed, for which our people – time and time again – are unable to escape the wrath of genocidal states and unrelenting dictators.

Our goal is the complete elimination of Armenians. You, Nazis, already eliminated the Jews in the 1930s and 1940s, right? You should be able to understand us.” – Hajibala Abutalybov, Mayor of Baku, to a German delegation visiting Baku, 2005

Since Azerbaijan’s invasion on September 12, videos posted by Azerbaijani soldiers have been circulating on social media, showing Azerbaijani servicemen raping and then mutilating an Armenian servicewoman – one of multiple similar cases documented since Azerbaijan’s offensive.

As this nightmare continues, we ask ourselves and the world: When can the Armenian people experience an era where their existence is not under constant threat and persecution? When will the bombing of our churches cease? When will the desecration of our cemeteries and the violation of our dead come to an end? All of this is still occurring 107 years later after the start of the Armenian Genocide.

Within the next 25 years there will be no state of Armenia in the South Caucasus. These people have no right to live in this region. Modern Armenia was built on historical Azerbaijani lands. I think that in 25-30 years its territory will again come under Azerbaijan’s jurisdiction.” – Safar Abiyev, Azerbaijani Defense Minister, 2004

What the 2020 Karabakh war and the assault on Armenia have demonstrated is that the annihilation of the Armenian people has always been the end goal, and will remain the goal of the modern Turkish state via its Turkic ally, Azerbaijan. International impunity for their campaign of genocide by attrition must end. That means no more European Union energy security deals with Azerbaijan, no more U.S. annual military aid to Azerbaijan, and finally, holding Turkey accountable for enabling and directly contributing to the utter devastation and suffering experienced in the greater region.

If the West is so opposed to Armenia’s dependence on Russia, then it should stop placating and providing fiscal-military aid to Turkey and Azerbaijan – leaving Armenia virtually no choice but to go running back to Russia’s embrace. It is a self-fulfilling prophecy that the West fails to realize; not to mention the blatant hypocrisy behind reducing energy dependence on Putin’s Russia, to then bankrolling the Armenophobic petro-dictatorship of Azerbaijan.

Armenia is not even a colony, it is not even worthy of being a servant.” – Ilham Aliyev, President of Azerbaijan, 2015

The West has proven that it is capable of calling out atrocities, invasion, and even genocide in the context of Russia’s war in Ukraine. However, when the factors surrounding Armenia’s existential crisis do not conveniently align with Euro-American political-economic interests (such as funding the Aliyev state with petro-dollars), then the NATO-EU narrative of solidarity against authoritarianism holds no water. This type of double standard undermines the very principles of democracy and sovereignty that the West claims to uphold during these times. Like Ukraine, the existential crisis facing Armenia is not “controversial,” it is just that Armenia’s security crisis is politically inconvenient for the current Euro-American narrative of anti-authoritarianism. That said, labeling this conflict as “controversial” only continues to greenlight the oppressor and gaslight the victim, ignoring the legacy of power asymmetry that exists between Armenia and the Turkey-Azerbaijan military alliance.

On September 15, Turkish parliamentarian Mustafa Destici stated at a press conference in Turkey that “we say to the Armenian administration; Make up your mind: I remind you once again that the Turkish Nation has the power to erase Armenia from history and geography, and that they stand at the limit of our patience.”

Such rhetoric should indicate that it is time to stop minimizing Armenia’s existential crisis to the level of controversy, as if to avoid offending the aggressor. In the Russia-Ukraine war, there are no “both-sideisms” being employed by the media; and political-military support for Ukraine has been decisive in its self-defense. Yet, for Armenia, the neutrality of the international community has been just as fatal as the bombs being dropped on Armenian soil.

The European commission president. Ursula von der Leyen, stands alongside Azerbaijan’s Ilham Aliyev, who has presided over rampant corruption and repression.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen standing next to Ilham Aliyev in July 2022 after signing a deal to increase Azeri natural gas exports to Europe.

Eerily, I write this after having just returned from Armenia on September 2. As part of my capstone thesis, I was at the Armenian National Archives conducting research on the political history of the Soviet Autonomous Oblast of Nagorno-Karabakh – an administrative region that was under the jurisdiction of Soviet Azerbaijan. I was digging through Soviet-era political documents and testimonies from Karabakh Armenians regarding their rights under Soviet Azerbaijan. The sources I uncovered demonstrated that the Azerbaijani SSR deliberately neglected the political, cultural, and socio-economic rights of Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh for the sole purpose of depopulating Armenians from the territory. During the USSR’s collapse, Azerbaijani authorities organized large-scale pogroms in retaliation against the Armenian population and their demands for external self-determination.

“We must kill all Armenians – children, women and the elderly. We need to kill them without making a distinction. No regrets. No compassion. – Nurlan Ibrahimov, Qarabag FK Soccer Club Official of Azerbaijan, 2020

In my thesis, I argue that Artsakh’s independence is an existential necessity. Armenian self-determination within Azerbaijan is impossible, and certainly illogical considering that Artsakh’s own system of government is far more democratic than what Armenians would be subject to as citizens of Azerbaijan. Independence is the only remedy to an otherwise catastrophic human rights situation – doctrinally referred to as ‘remedial secession’.

For decades, Azerbaijan has been justifying its aggression on the basis of preserving its territorial integrity under international law. However, the latest offensive against the Republic of Armenia has demonstrated that the Artsakh conflict’s resolution was never strictly about Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity, nor international law. It was about Artsakh’s capitulation as a means to a more harrowing end: Armenia’s obliteration.

Monte Melkonian, a California-born Armenian who was martyred in 1993 during the first Karabakh war, hauntingly foreshadowed what is happening now: “If we lose Artsakh [Nagorno-Karabakh], we will turn the last page of the Armenian peoples’ history.”

In the face of state-sponsored racism and persecution, independence is the last bastion of defense that we have. Turkey and Azerbaijan’s denial of the Armenian Genocide is not simply a stance on history, but is the final stage of genocide. It is playing out in front of our eyes while the media stamps the conflict with false equivalencies and reductionist headlines that read “clashes” and “exchanges of fire” between Armenia and Azerbaijan. By placating Azerbaijan due to their role as a natural gas supplier, the West is effectively sacrificing the Armenian people at the altar of European energy security.

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