Peace in the Caucasus is Attainable
By Paolo von Schirach —
WASHINGTON — Once the heavy lid of Soviet rule was removed from the Caucasus pot on account of the disintegration and eventual implosion of the USSR, dormant territorial claims and never settled ethnic animosities resurfaced and exploded into bloody, open conflicts. Of course, the February 24, 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine is also a direct consequence of the end of the Soviet Empire; but it is in a different region of the former Soviet Union.
Aside from Ukraine, a still unsettled conflict within the post-Soviet world is between Armenia and Azerbaijan. To better understand the contours of this conflict it is important to point out that partisan interpretations of past history are at the root of the prevailing interpretations in the West about what is at stake here, who is “right” and who is “wrong”, in the admittedly complicated circumstances of this unsettled issue.
Who are the “good guys”?
Looking at any ongoing conflict, most Americans, including sophisticated, experienced analysts and policymakers, seek simple clarity. And for most the answer is: “The long suffering Armenians must be the good guys. The Azeri people are Muslims, and they are related to the Turks who are responsible for the Armenian genocide. Therefore, they must be bad”.
The Armenian genocide
Indeed, the Armenians have a sad history. This is an ancient civilization. It has a distinct language with Indo-European roots and its own alphabet, a textured culture, and the claim of being the very first state that officially adopted Christianity. Yet Armenian history is largely a history of subjugation and suffering at the hands of stronger powers. This culminated with a horrible chapter during WWI when most Armenians lived under Ottoman rule. This chapter is called by the Armenians “Medz Yeghern“, the “Great Evil Crime”. In most Western history books it is known as the “Armenian Genocide.”
This was indeed a particularly dark tragedy, a tragedy whose scale exceeded even the horrendous daily battlefield bloodshed that characterized WWI. It is estimated that more than one million Armenians perished in 1915-1916, after the Ottoman government forcibly uprooted countless Armenians from their homes mostly in eastern Anatolia with the goal of sending them into concentration camps in the Syrian desert. Because of the deprivations inflicted on them during the forced marches, and innumerable acts of violence and brutality before and after, including indiscriminate rape and mass killings, most of the Armenians died, in horrible circumstances.
As this holocaust was unfolding, the Triple Entente, (Russia, France and Great Britain), issued a joint declaration on May 24, 1915 in which they labeled the massacres of Armenians a “crime against humanity“, the very first time this definition, (later on used to describe Nazi war crimes), was used to describe endless massacres of innocent civilians. On April 27, 1915, the Russian ambassador in Washington, (at the time the US was a neutral country that maintained diplomatic relations with the Ottoman Empire), asked US President Woodrow Wilson “in the name of humanity and our holy Christian faith” to put pressure on the Ottomans so that the massacres of the Armenians would stop. Sadly, diplomatic interventions by the US and Italy, also a neutral country at the time, failed to produce any results. The massacres continued. They were widely covered by horrified western media. Years later, when the Polish lawyer Raphael Lemkin in 1943 coined the term “genocide” to indicate a policy aimed at the systematic extermination of a people, he specifically referenced the tragic fate of the Armenians annihilated by the Turkish armed forces.
On account of these terrible events, leading to countless deaths, the Armenians gained the lasting sympathy of the West. Indeed, their unspeakable tragedy evoked and reinforced the narrative –oversimplified, yet firmly believed– of cruel, in fact evil, Islamic peoples bent on the subjugation of innocent, pure Christians.
The clash between the West and Islam
In more recent times, this dark narrative of Christianity locked in a battle against Islam was revived by Harvard Professor Samuel Huntington. In his mind, international politics will be shaped by clashes between cultures. One of them is the the struggle between Christianity and Islam. This was not a thing of past eras in which intense religious fervor shaped policies. No, the conflict was ongoing and about to explode in new forms. In his seminal Foreign Affairs article (Summer 1993) titled “The Clash of Civilizations?” Huntington prophesized an upcoming epic struggle between the West and Islam. In this article that later on became a book the eminent US scholar theorized that the Islamic world and the West were on a historic collision course. While Huntington cited other examples of possible clashes, this component of the essay –the West versus Islam– was singled out as the reliable predictor of an impending global confrontation between the western and Muslim countries.
This assertion, while exaggerated, was not that far-fetched. When Huntington wrote his article, America had recently been on the receiving end of genuine anti-Western hatred with the Khomeini revolution in Iran which culminated in the November 4, 1979 seizure of the US Embassy in Tehran and the humiliation of 52 US diplomats held hostage for 444 long days. This unprecedented crisis was punctuated by almost daily demonstrations in Iran in which American flags were burnt, while large crowds chanted “Death to America”.
The subsequent spectacular 9/11 terror attack on New York City and the Pentagon near Washington, DC which led to the US invasion of Afghanistan and later on Iraq simply reinforced belief in this notion of an existential struggle between the noble Christian West and barbaric Islamic fundamentalists. Osama bin Laden and his al Qaeda became the face of the enemy. These attacks justified the grandiose effort that became known as “The War on Terror” proclaimed by president George W. Bush.
Christian Europe versus Islam
From a broader perspective, it should be noted that in the West the prevailing narrative is that the history of modern Europe is at least in part the history of Christian nations heroically fighting against and eventually driving out barbaric Islamic invaders. We begin with the Crusades aimed at the liberation of Palestine, the Holy Land of Christ. Then we move on to the long Spanish struggle against the Arab invaders that eventually led to the “Reconquista”, “Reconquest” of the Iberian Peninsula. In 1571 we have the epic Lepanto naval battle in which the fleet of the Christian “Holy League” utterly destroyed the Turkish navy. And then we have the defeat of the Turkish armies trying to conquer Vienna in September 1683, thanks to the providential intervention of the Polish king John III Sobieski. The Polish horsemen, the legendary “winged hussars” led the largest cavalry charge in history against the Turkish invaders. With Sobieski’s decisive military support, the combined forces of Christian Europe won the battle of the Kahlenberg Mountain, this way saving Vienna and the Holy Roman Empire, at that time the heart of Christian Europe. The Polish horsemen carried religious banners as they attacked the Turks crying: “Forward, in the Name of God”. So, there you have it. a large part of European history has been and is still presented today as an epic struggle between good Christians and evil Muslims.
Sympathy for the Armenians
With all this in mind, it is no surprise that when it comes to this modern conflict in the Caucasus between Christian Armenia and Muslim Azerbaijan, fought on the ashes of the Soviet Empire, the instinctive Western reaction has been and is to take the side of the Armenians. Their narrative, strongly supported by Armenian diasporas in Europe, (in France in particular), but also in the US, depicts a struggle for Armenian self-determination against aggressive Muslim Azerbaijan. This version is uncritically accepted and believed in the West because it fits well within the story of the persecuted Armenians, and the broader narrative of Christianity versus Islam, that is good versus evil.
Now, after the 44 days war (Sep 27, 2020 – Nov 10, 2020) in which the Azeri armed forces defeated the Armenians who had occupied the Karabakh region for 30 years, this way causing a massive exodus of Azeri people (about 800,000) who had to find sheleter elsewhere in Azerbaijan as internally displaced people, the the focus is on the alleged cruelty of the Azeri forces. According to the Armenians, The Azeris blocked shipments of humanitarian aid to the Armenian enclave of Artsakh that exists within Azerbaijan. On August 11, 2023 the widely respected Washington Post columnist David Ignatius wrote that the world cannot just sit idly by while the Baku government attempts to starve to death the Armenians living in Artsakh by depriving them of needed food and medicine coming to them from Armenia via the Lachin corridor, a highway linking Armenia to this enclave, passing through Azerbaijan. Ignatius reminded his readers of the 1915 genocide, hinting that we may be about to see it again.
One sided narrative
Once again, the evil Turks (Azerbaijan is ethnically and linguistically close to Turkey, while Ankara supports Azerbaijan politically and militarily), are trying to annihilate the good Armenians. Aside from Armenian allegations, we have not seen much evidence of Azeri imposed starvation, while the Baku government offer to send goods into Artsakh from Azerbaijan is dismissed as a ploy to coerce the Armenians living in Artsakh to be integrated into Azerbaijan.
Western media dismiss the strong concerns expressed by the Baku government that this Lachin corridor has been used to smuggle weapons and combatants from Armenia into Artsakh. And usually there is silence on the broader context surrounding this issue. No effort to describe the suffering of the 800,000 Azeri who had to seek refuge elsewhere in Azerbaijan, after the Armenian occupation of the Karabakh region of Azerbaijan which began in 1993. These Azeri people lost everything. For contrast, here is an account by Nasimi Aghayev, the Ambassador of Azerbaijan to Germany, of what the Armenians did during their occupation, the result of a war of aggression:
“[…]In the early 1990s, Armenia invaded and ethnically cleansed approximately 20 percent of Azerbaijan’s sovereign territory with impunity. Three decades later, during the 44-day-war of 2020, Azerbaijan liberated large swathes of its territory from Armenia’s illegal and U.N.-condemned occupation. Armenia surrendered on November 10, 2020 and agreed to withdraw from three additional occupied districts of Azerbaijan.”
“Throughout 30 years of violent and barbaric occupation, Armenia decimated approximately 10,000 square kilometers of Azerbaijan’s territory. Entire Azerbaijani cities, towns and hundreds of villages — once home to 800,000 Azerbaijanis, who were all forcibly displaced — were looted and razed to the ground. All semblance of life was deliberately targeted — absolutely nothing was sacred.”
“[…] In an effort to remove any traces of Azerbaijani ethnicity and historical presence in the occupied territories, Armenia committed an unprecedented cultural genocide targeting all Azerbaijani cultural and religious heritage. More than 700 historical monuments, 22 museums (with 100,000 exhibits), 927 libraries (with 4.6 million books, including many rare manuscripts), 58 archeological sites, 26 fortresses and other objects of cultural heritage were destroyed, plundered or misappropriated by Armenia. Irreplaceable treasures were ripped and ravaged to literal shreds and dust. Items of Azerbaijani cultural heritage, plundered by Armenian troops from museums in the occupied territories, frequently ended up at auctions such as Sotheby’s. Save but a few rare exceptions, all of the once Azerbaijani-populated cities, towns, villages, and even streets throughout the entire occupied territories, were renamed after the occupation, and Armenianized.”
“Those areas left intact were “decorated” with stairs made from the demolished gravestones of over 900 destroyed Azerbaijani cemeteries, an inexorable tribute to the Nazi practice of repurposing Jewish gravestones to build roads. Nasimi Aghayev is Azerbaijan’s Ambassador to Germany. “
The destruction of Karabakh
Readers may want to dismiss this account, assuming that these numbers must be cooked up, or at least inflated as they come from an Azeri government official. Well, I can state that I personally saw the extent of the destruction of all Azeri villages and townships during a recent visit to Karabakh. (Disclosure: I was there, along with other US based journalists, at the invitation of the Government of Azerbaijan).
Needless to say, briefings by government officials whose job is to persuade you will be biased. But you cannot fake village after village, after village razed to the ground, with nothing left standing. I could see all this while we were driving for hours and hours across the war ravaged Karabakh region, with stops at a number of sites, so that we could give a close look at the ruins. The Armenians destroyed everything in Karabakh, and I really mean EVERYTHING. And this includes the deliberate demolition of mosques, while some were repurposed as cowsheds by the Armenians.
Furthermore, in the Azeri city of Ganja one can see the devastation caused by missile attacks from Armenia against civilian targets located far away from the battlefield. The Azeri authorities deliberately left the bombed city blocks untouched, as evidence of Armenian war atrocities. They are planning to fence the whole area and turn it into a large museum-like facility. Finally, let us not forget the uncounted number of anti-personnel land mines left behind by the Armenian occupiers in Karabakh. It will take years and billions of dollars to demine the region, so that it can be once again inhabitable, this way allowing all the internally displaced Azerbaijan people to return to their homes.
The 1918 massacres
And this is not all. Since historic precedent is always cited to underline a continuity of Turkish and Azeri anti Armenian violence, we should point out that the Armenians tried to snuff Azeri independence after the collapse of the Russian Empire in 1918. They attacked Azerbaijan and massacred more than 50,000 civilians. In a museum adjacent to a memorial erected near the city of Guba to remember some of those victims, one can read testimonials written by horrified British and US eye witnesses. This is not a made up story.
We need peace
But the point now is not to assign blame and display our virtue by siding with the good guys, while condemning the bad guys. The point is that Azerbaijan managed to put an end to the illegal occupation and destruction of its Karabakh region via a successful military campaign in 2020. The Armenian government accepted defeat and is now on record recognizing Azeri sovereignty over Karabakh. Negotiations between the two sides, some of them facilitated by the US Government, are ongoing. And this is a good sign.
What we need now is peace. But there are still significant hurdles. One sticky issue is the fate of Artsakh, the Armenian enclave within Karabakh mentioned above. The current theatrics over the blockaded Lachin corridor are all about an effort to convince world opinion that these besieged Armenians located in the middle of Azerbaijan truly need a separate state supported by Armenia proper, because they cannot have any confidence on the good will of the Baku government that is clearly out to get them. According to this logic, this small Artsakh enclave of 120,000 people (this is the unconfirmed figure cited by the Armenians), needs to become an independent Armenian state within Azerbaijan.
It is no surprise that the Azeri government flatly rejects this notion of an independent, and most likely revanchist Armenian small state in the middle of its sovereign territory. Baku has proposed negotiations with the end of granting to these Armenians living in the heart of Azerbaijan ample local autonomies, provided that they will accept that they live within a sovereign Azerbaijan.
The rights of the Armenian minority can be secured
This approach is not at all unreasonable. There are many examples of countries that include ethnic and linguistic minorities whose rights and special status are protected by ad hoc agreements. Hungarians live in Romania and Slovakia. There are Swedes in Finland, and Austrians in north-eastern Italy. While many Catalans would like to have independence, most of them are happy to be part of Spain. Corsica accepted long ago to be part of France. The same applies to the Welsh and Scottish people in Great Britain, or the French Quebecois in anglophone Canada.
While the Armenians may find comfort in having world public opinion on their side, it would be in their own interest to find a permanent solution to these old ethnic and territorial fights with Azerbaijan. Armenia has a small population and it is not particularly rich. Its GDP is almost the same of the US small state of Vermont, ($ 37 billion). The difference is that Vermont has 645,000 inhabitants, while Armenia has a population of almost 3 million.
Embrace a new perspective
Trying to lay the foundations of a plan for better future for all parties, the Baku government proposed to create a regional economic development strategy that would include Azerbaijan, Georgia and Armenia. Assuming peace, much could be done to stimulate regional growth through the intensification of cross border trade and investments. Increased prosperity for all is a better goal than this endless impasse fueled by animosity. In the Guba Museum adjacent to the memorial erected to to the Azeri victims of the 1918 massacres perpetrated by the Armenians one can read an excerpt from the newspaper Azerbaijan, (December 8, 1918), published in the midst of the massacres:
“We cannot and do not want to be like our political enemies who actually believe that any means would do to achieve their goals. We walk quietly and calmly , in full consciousness of our rightness, with a clear conscience towards our goal […].
Whoever wrote this was not inspired by a spirit of revenge.
By the same token, the spirit of President Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, (March 4, 1865), written as the long and terribly bloody American Civil War was slowly coming to an end may apply here:
“With malice toward none with charity for all with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right let us strive on to finish the work we are in to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan ~ to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”
Indeed, an attitude of “malice towards none and charity for all” should inspire these two nations. Both of them have suffered iniquity and oppression. The Armenians under Ottoman rule. Azerbaijan occupied and carved by Russia and Iran. Both of them lived under harsh Soviet rule. Both of them tried to assert their rights. Unfortunately the toxic combination of biased historic interpretations, complex geography and population movements that originated long ago put them on a collision course.
But this past record should not be guidance for the future. What most people in both countries want and need is peace and security, so that they can focus on education, economic growth, development and wider prosperity. All this is attainable, once leaders and societies realize that endless conflict fanned by old ethnic hatred leads only to more suffering.
Paolo von Schirach is the Editor of the Schirach Report He is also the President of the Global Policy Institute, a Washington DC think tank, and Professor of Political Science and International Relations at Bay Atlantic University, also in Washington, DC.