Shortly after the Second Artsakh War in 2020, Azerbaijan’s Transportation Ministry sponsored the issuance of postage stamps celebrating Azerbaijan’s victory by featuring a disinfection specialist standing over a map of Azerbaijan and fumigating the area of Artsakh (Nagorno-Karabakh). Today, this conspicuous fascist statement of an intent to commit ethnic cleansing is but a reality. Azerbaijan’s authoritarian regime took control of a budding democracy. Over two millennia of the Armenian people’s continuous habitation in Artsakh ceased in a matter of days, in October 2023.
What started under the guise of an environmental protest in December 2022, over the months grew into a total blockade. The International Court of Justice, in February 2023, ruled that Azerbaijan “shall ensure uninterrupted free movement of all persons, vehicles, and cargo.” This ruling was ignored. And on the 9th month of the blockade, Azerbaijan launched an ‘anti-terrorist operation’ against Artsakh, on September 19, 2023, thus forsaking its commitment to resolving the dilemma via peace talks mediated by both the EU and Russia. How ironic that an authoritarian regime calls its full-scale military offensive against a democratic republic with far better human rights record an anti-terrorist operation. Everything unfolded in the presence and the tacit permission of the Russian peacekeeping troops that the world considers Armenia’s allies.
Prior to the offensive, Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev had repeatedly stated that Artsakh Armenians would enjoy the same rights as the other Azerbaijani citizens. They were giving assurances that peaceful integration was possible as long as Artsakh defense army was disarmed and disbanded. However, the Azeri troops proceeded with killing civilians in captured villages as survivors fled them. Consequently, as soon as Russia brokered a ceasefire 24 hours after the offensive and the only road connecting to Armenia was unblocked, almost the entire Armenian population of Artsakh, over 100,000 people, fled to Armenia.
Azerbaijan allowed the UN mission to identify the humanitarian needs of Armenians in Artsakh only after all of them had fled their motherland, and, ironically, a couple of days after Ilham Aliyev allocated $1 million to the UN human settlements program.
Loss of Artsakh for the Armenian people is of catastrophic proportions comparable to the loss of Kars and the Armenian Genocide in the early 20th century.
Scores of Armenian cultural monuments are in danger as a result of the ethnic cleansing and control over Artsakh. The government of Azerbaijan began its campaign to destroy Armenian cultural monuments by bulldozing up to two thousand intricately carved medieval khachkars (cross stones) in late 1990s and early 2000s in Nakhchivan to erase Armenian presence in that territory. Some of the gems of the ancient Armenian architecture in Artsakh currently face the risk of being either destroyed by Azerbaijan or defaced and attributed to Caucasian Albanians.
This conflict has deep roots extending to the beginning of the 20th century. Artsakh became a bone of contention between Armenia and Azerbaijan in 1918 after they gained independence following the Russian Empire’s collapse. With the Armenian Genocide underway, Turkey provided support to Azerbaijan in its quest to gain full control over Nakhijevan, Syunik, and Artsakh, which would link both Turkic nations together. But the situation changed after the newly formed Soviet Union took over the warring Azerbaijan and Armenia in 1920. The Caucasian Bureau of the Central Committee of the Communist Party decided to make Artsakh a part of Soviet Armenia. However, Stalin, then a new Commissar of Nationalities, reversed the decision, and this majority Armenian region was made part of Azerbaijan without any land border with Soviet Armenia.
The conflict erupted again in the era of Glasnost. Troubled by Azerbaijan’s systemic discriminatory practices, Artsakh Armenians started a popular movement for reunification with Armenia but their petition to the Soviet government was denied. With tensions growing, ethnic Armenians and ethnic Azerbaijanis were expelled from their homes in Armenia and Azerbaijan. A number of pogroms against Armenians occurred in Baku and other areas of Azerbaijan. Citing self-determination laws in the Soviet constitution, the Armenian leadership of Artsakh held a referendum for unifying with Armenia. Artsakh declared independence in 1991 and formed military units for self-defense. By the time the USSR collapsed, the scattered clashes had evolved into a full-blown war between newly independent Azerbaijan and the unrecognized Artsakh Republic aided by Armenia. This war ended in a 1994 ceasefire with Artsakh’s victory over Azerbaijan.
While close to 250,000 Armenians were forced to flee from Azerbaijan at the onset of the conflict, thrice as many Azerbaijanis were forced to abandon their homes by the end of the first war when the Artsakh army, after liberating its own territories, went on to take over seven Azerbaijani regions surrounding Artsakh to secure a land border with Armenia. They were later used as a bargaining chip in exchange for a status.
30 years of negotiations bore no fruit. Finding mutually acceptable peaceful pathways was becoming less and less possible as oil-rich Azerbaijan was getting wealthier and more authoritarian under President Ilham Aliyev. And his government unleashed a hate campaign against Armenians.
From 2012 to 2014 Azerbaijan implemented what later became known as caviar diplomacy. To lobby for pro-Azerbaijani interests and promote its position on the Artsakh conflict, Azerbaijan used $2.9 billion to bribe European and American politicians, journalists, lawmakers, and academics.
The commitment to peaceful resolution of the Artsakh problem and the chance to start an era of peaceful coexistence were broken, on September 27, 2020. With Turkey’s active support, Azerbaijan launched a full-scale war against Artsakh and won it at the cost of about 8,000 deaths on both sides. The international community’s reaction was limited to generic expressions of deep concern and calls on both sides to cease hostilities. No sanctions were implemented to hold the Azerbaijani government accountable for its aggression or to prevent future ones. The Azeri war crimes received little to no coverage.
After EU signed a gas deal with Azerbaijan, in September 2022, the EU President, Ursula von der Leyen, called the authoritarian leader a reliable partner. A few days later, emboldened Azerbaijan attacked the sovereign Armenia territories. The EU once again responded with lukewarm expressions of concern.
Now that empty Artsakh is under Azerbaijan’s full control, Aliyev’s is likely to target Armenia, which he’s been openly calling Western Azerbaijan and repeatedly threatening to take over Syunik, Armenia’s southern region, in order to secure a land border with its exclave, Nakhchivan.
An eye for an eye may eventually make the world blind, Gandhi warned. But for now, an eye for an eye makes the world turn a blind eye.
Written by Karén Karslyan