After a year of skirmishes and angry rhetoric in the Nagorno-Karabakh territorial conflict, Armenia and Azerbaijan have released a hopeful joint statement, committing to “resolve all controversial questions in a peaceful manner.”
One can’t help but wonder whether the power of the white powder of Sochi, the Russian resort of the 2014 Winter Olympics, has engendered positivity that has lacked in previous meetings. According to media reports, Azerbaijani president Aliyev joined the host, Russian president Medvedev, in skiing while Armenian president enjoyed snowmobiling. Not that either of the South Caucasus presidents need more partying, but partaking in joint recreational activities is seemingly a good way forward.
“Who controls the past controls the future;” party slogan states in George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984, “Who controls the present controls the past.”
While hopes are high that – despite a hostile history – Armenia and Turkey will establish diplomatic relations and that the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan may finally be solved, the problem of how to deal with the official Turkish/Azerbaijani factory of history is not being addressed.
Djulfa, Nakhichevan: the worst documented case of history fabrication; Azerbaijani soldiers destroying the largest Armenian medieval cemetery in the world (December 2005) – the site is now a military rifle range
It’s not merely Turkey’s and Azerbaijan’s denial of the Armenian Genocide that makes the reconciliation quite difficult, to say the least, but also the official Turkish thesis, with its roots in the Young Turkish movement (that carried out the Armenian Genocide) and formalized by Ataturk, that Turks/Azeris are indigenous to their current homelands and that Armenians, in the best case, are unwelcome immigrants.
While the Turkish fabrication of history can be dismissed as an issue of “internal consumption” – meaning a convenient myth to boost Turkish/Azeri pride in their respective countries (with the dangerous slogan “Happy is the man who can say I am Turk”) – the implications of flip-flopping history are right there in the middle of the current developments in the region. Here is a most recent case.
Turkey’s ceremonial president Abdullah Gul is currently visiting Nakhichevan (or Nakhchivan as Azerbaijan prefers), the region of Azerbaijan which it got from the communist regime in Moscow as another gift at the expense of giving out Armenian lands. Moreover, a treaty that Soviet Armenia was forced to sign from Moscow made Turkey the “guarantor” of Nakhichevan in the 1920s.
Gul is visiting Nakhichevan with other heads of “Turkic-speaking countries” (most of them in Central Asia) to talk about common issues. Sounds like a normal political event, and nothing to protest about, especially since Armenia has no official claims toward Nakhichevan. But read the rest.
As there are no Armenians left in Nakhichevan (thanks to a Soviet Azerbaijani policy of nonviolent ethnic cleansing which attracted little attention at the time) and not a trace of the rich Armenian heritage (the most precious of which, the Djulfa cemetery, was reduced to dust by Azeri soldiers in December 2005 – see the videotape), Armenia has no claims to Nakhichevan and perhaps rightly so. Yet, apparently, the history factory in Nakhichevan is still cooking.
While Armenia restraints itself from claiming its indigenous lands, and particularly Nakhichevan, taken away from it without its consent, Turkey and Azerbaijan must discontinue their unhealthy fabrications of history. Instead…
Putting the “native” side aside for a moment, the distortion of not just basic history but of linguistics is sickening. Save for the disputed proposal that Nakhichevan comes from the Persian phrase Naqsh-e-Jahan (image of the world), every other explanation of the name of the region has to do with Armenians (see Wikipedia for the several versions), let alone that the word itself has two Armenian parts to it: Nakh (before or first) and ichevan (landing, sanctuary) – referring to Noah’s coming out of the Ark from (another holy Armenian symbol) Mount Ararat – next to Nakhichevan now on Turkish territory.
Ironically, and as almost always in history fabrication, the Azeri/Turkish distortion of “Nakhichevan” is inconsistent. According to an official Azerbaijani news website, there are discussions in Nakhichevan that admit that the word has to do something with Noah (of course after saying that it had to do with a mythical Turkish tribe that lived there thousands of years ago): “The Turkic tribes of nakhch were once considered as having given the name to it. Other sources connect Nakhichevan with the prophet Noah himself, as his name sounds as nukh in Turkic.” Moreover, as an official Nakhichevani publication reads, “There is no other territory on the earth so rich with place-names connected with Noah as Nakhichevan. According to popular belief, Noah is buried in southern part of Nakhichevan, and his sister is buried in the northwest of the city.” Hold on. Did you notice that the language uses (at least its official English translation) the Armenian taboo name of the region: Nakhichevan (as opposed to Turkified Nakchivan)? Maybe there is hope, but not really. Azerbaijan still denies that it didn’t destroy the Djulfa cemetery because, well, it didn’t exist in the first place.
A skeptic would ask what the fuss is about. The answer is that Nakhichevan’s distortion is not the first. The sacred Armenian places of Ani, Van, and Akhtamar in Turkey all have official Turkish explanations to their meanings, while those places existed for hundreds – if not thousands – of more years before Turks colonized the homeland of the Armenians.
More importantly, the changing of toponyms is not done to meet the social demands of Turks/Azeris and in order to make it easier for the locals to pronounce geographic names. Distortion is done to rewrite history in order to control the future. But it’s not the right thing to do. And both Turkey and Azerbaijan embarrass themselves when it comes to legal discussions.
Immediately prior to voting for the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in September 2007, for example, the Turkish delegation at the United Nations made it clear that its “yes” vote was cast with the understanding that there were no indigenous peoples on Turkey’s territory. If there were indigenous peoples on the territory, the Turkish representative stated, then the declaration didn’t challenge states’ territorial integrity. Azerbaijan, on the other hand, abstained from voting.
The reservation on the UN document came from both countries who claim that there are the indigenous heirs of the lands they occupy and that their main enemy, Armenians (and also Kurds) are not only indigenous but are recent immigrants.
One version of Azerbaijan’s ridiculous inidigenousness claim is written on the website of one Azerbaijani Embassy: “The ancient states of Azerbaijan, which maintained political, economic and cultural ties with Sumer and Akkad and formed part of the wider civilization of Mesopotamia, were governed by dynasties of Turkic descent. The Turkophone peoples that have inhabited the area of Azerbaijan since ancient times were fire-worshippers and adherents of one of the world’s oldest religions – Zoroastrianism.”
Armenians (and to a large extent the Kurds, Assyrians and Pontiac Greeks) have their share of fault in the debate. Constantly repeating their indigenousness in what is now Turkey and Azerbaijan, Armenians have helped create the defensive Turkish/Azeri attitude that they, and not Armenians or others, are the indigenous peoples of the land. But when it comes to fabricating history of their own, there is little blame for Armenia.
As Armenia struggles to defend the victory it won over the Karabakh conflict, most Armenians use the Turko-Persian name for Nagorno-Karabakh (Karabakh meaning black garden, Kara – black in Turkish and bagh – garden in Farsi). While some Armenian nationalists prefer using the indigenous name of the region, Artsakh, many others indirectly admit that diverse history of Nagorno-Karabakh by keeping its Turkified name.
While Turkey ad Azerbaijan must come to terms with history, Armenia must accept that Turks and Azeris are there to stay. All the nations in the region have equal rights to existence, but not so at the unhealthy price of fabricating history.
Turkey’s Prime Minister’s January 29, 2009 World Economic Forum confrontation with Israel’s President over Gaza offensive seems to have excited many Armenians, giving the latter hope for long-waited Tel Aviv and Washington D.C. recognition of the Armenian genocide. My friend Harut Sassounian, for instance, writes enthusiastically on the Huffington Post that “Israel May Retaliate Against Turkey by Recognizing the Armenian Genocide.” His post appeared even before Prime Minister Erdogan’s angry remarks at Davos, Switzerland. So, perhaps, there is a chance for genocide recognition.
But should Armenians celebrate a short-term conflict between conservative Turkish and Israeli forces – both up for reelection and, thus, appealing to their respective nationalist voters – just because it may result in Armenian genocide recognition?
My answer is no. My answer is no because Erdogan brought up a valid point – Israel’s actions in Gaza were disproportionate and left many civilians dead. My answer is no because the Armenian argument for genocide recognition has been on moral grounds – and should stay so. My answer is no because even if Israel recognizes the Armenian genocide out of anger, realpolitik will dictate Israel and Turkey to come back together – especially after the elections. Even if there is short-term recognition of the Armenian genocide under these circumstances, it won’t be a sustainable one. My answer is no because an unrelated genocide shouldn’t be recognized as a result of dispute over Palestinian and Israeli blood.
If you ask me, the Davos panel had an opportunity for real genocide talk. But that opportunity is not what many Armenians think. The Washington Post journalist who moderated the panel that Erdogan angrily left is of Armenian origin. Instead of not allowing Turkey’s Erdogan to react to Israel’s Shimon Peres, moderator David Ignatius should have asked the Turkish Prime Minister, “You bring up the death of Palestinian civilians, but why is your government so unwilling to recognize oppression against Kurds and admit the systematic destruction of indigenous Armenians during WWI?”
An e-mail I received invites attention to a news items in Turkey’s largest-circulating newspaper with two different versions. While the English translation talks about monentum in Armenian-Turkish relations, the original Turkish has qutite a different tome. Ara Arabyan’s e-mail to a list of Armenian and Turkish scholars/activists, published by his permission, below:
I wrote earlier that I found the Hurriyet story (in English) about Turkey and Armenia being “very close” to normalizing relations interesting because I had not seen that story elsewhere. When I checked the Turkish version of the same paper for similar news I found only the following in its 22 January 2009 edition (translation/summary follows in green).
The two reports (one in English and the other in Turkish) about the same story are very different in tone. The English one underscores that the two countries are “very close” to normalizing relations (with no problems mentioned), while the Turkish one emphasizes that Armenia is not backing down on the recognition of the genocide. Hurriyet is Turkey’s largest mass-circulation daily and is read by tens of millions of people each day. It’s curious why the paper would choose to promote the same story in a more negative tone inside Turkey and in an upbeat tone to English readers. It is understandable that the politicians of both sides would wish to appear tough on the other side when addressing their home audiences but take a softer and more reasonable stand when talking to each other in private. It is less understandable for mass-circulation media to echo that dichotomy in their reporting.
Regardless, real negotiations are evidently under way and some breakthrough is quite likely in the near future (barring some unexpected development that may bring down the current government in Turkey).
And here is the translation of the Turkish version by Ara:
Speaking at a press conference, [Armenia’s foreign minister] Nalbandyan said that Armenia will accept the formation of an intergovernmental commission [on the events 1915] only if Turkey opens its borders and establishes diplomatic relations with Armenia without any preconditions.
According to the Armenian press, Nalbandyan said at the press conference that ““Turkey is not doing us any favors by normalizing our relations.” He also said at the same press conference: “Yerevan will not make any sacrifices to normalize relations with Ankara.” Nalbandyan continued:
“Armenia will never renounce its policy of seeking recognition for the Armenian Genocide by the international community. The dark pages of history must be turned over but the lessons of the past must never be forgotten. Armenia will never question the reality of the Armenian Genocide.”
‘Agree With Babacan’
The Armenian foreign minister also said that he agrees with his Turkish counterpart, Ali Babacan, that the two countries are nearing reconciliation. He added however: “The problems can be solved only if Turkey agrees to establish diplomatic relations with Turkey unconditionally.”
Nalbandyan also said that he will attend the planned meeting of the Turkish-sponsored Caucasus Stability and Cooperation Platform.
The Biblical flood left Mount Ararat still, but a murdered journalist’s legacy has been moving mountains between Armenia and Turkey, two states separated by holy Ararat and an unholy history. After Hrant Dink’s January 19, 2007 assassination in front of his Istanbul office of Agos, an Armenian weekly he edited, thousands of Turkish citizens came to his funeral chanting, “We are all Hrant Dink; we are all Armenians.” The killing of one of Turkey’s few surviving indigenous Armenian Christian voices by a Turkish ultranationalist has shocked the world, but equally mesmerizing is the ignited hope for peace that lives on two years after Dink’s murder.
Cyber commemorations are also taking place. Over 1,700 members of the networking Facebook site, for instance, have posted Hrant Dink’s photo as their profile picture and updated their status to “We are all Hrant Dink,” an event hosted by my blog. Dozens of Turkish blogs have posts commemorating Dink.
Он был одним из тех, кто пытался найти пути и способы примирить армян и турок…”Армяне — врачи турок, — продолжал он, — а турки — врачи армян. Нет других докторов. Диалог — вот единственный рецепт”.
He tried to find ways of reconciling Armenians and Turks… “Armenians are Turks’ doctors,” he continued, “and Turks, Armenians’ doctors. There are no other doctors. Dialogue is the only recipe.”
Himself in exile in London, Grigorian says that Dink’s murder was followed with unparalleled progress in Armenian-Turkish relations: the first visit of the Turkish president to Armenia and an online apology by thousands of Turks to Armenians for their WWI extermination in the Ottoman Empire. Yet:
…проблема так велика, а пропасть между двумя народами так глубока, что сдвиги в сторону сближения вызывают у националистов негативную реакцию, а то и отторжение. Примером этого можно считать опубликованную в одной из турецких газет фотографию, на которой группа мужчин держит плакаты с надписями: “Собакам вход разрешен, евреям и армянам вход воспрещен “.
…the problem is so great, and the division between the two nations so deep, that steps toward coming closer [to each other] bring about negative reactions among nationalists. One example is a [recent] photo published in a Turkish newspaper showing a group of men holding signs reading, “Dogs are allowed; Jews and Armenians are not allowed.”
While nationalism in Turkey is prominent, one Turk has made an unprecedented step toward reconciliation. His letter, posted on my Blogian, explains what he’s done:
When I found out that the properties that I and my brothers inherited from our father wasn’t our own, but properties taken from the murdered Assyrians in 1915 I felt an indescribable feeling of guilt and shame… I have personally apologized to every Assyrian and Armenian I’ve met. But this does not get rid of the crime our ancestors committed. Even if I am personally not responsible for what happened in 1915, I felt as I had to do more than just to apologize. Finally, I came to the decision to give back all properties that I inherited from my forefathers to [an Assyrian organization].
In death, Dink has also opened Armenian eyes. Armenian-American Mark Gavoor, while pondering Dink and Armenian-Turkish relations, says:
I, my family, we… were led to believe that Dr. [Martin Luther] King [Jr.] was both a communist and a womanizer.
…It strikes me very odd that many Armenians I knew growing up had a dislike for blacks. When I look back at both the Armenian Genocide and the life work of Martin Luther King, I am struck with one thing. Armenians for the most part focus on our own tragedy, almost exclusively. We can live in this great country and see little irony that we as disposed people live on the lands of disposed American Indians….
Incidentally, the Martin Luther King Jr. Holiday in the United States in 2009, celebrated the second Monday of January, coincides with Dink’s second anniversary. Two years ago, right after Dink’s murder, Canada-based Armenian blogger Vahe Balabanian compared the two:
On April 4, 1968 Martin Luther King was shot… In 1986, Martin Luther King Day was established as a United States holiday.
Hrant Dink’s story still remains to be written in Turkey…his unwavering trust that we all would manage to live together in peace one day.
It is now Turkey’s turn to demonstrate its greatness by making Hrant Dink Turkey’s Martin Luther King.
Boti’s letter to Sabri Atman, founder and director of the Assyrian Seyfo Center in Europe who will now be responsible for the returned land (south of the Lake Van), states:
“When I found out that the properties that I and my brothers inherited from our father wasn’t our own, but properties taken from the murdered Assyrians in 1915 I felt an indescribable feeling of guilt and shame. I’ve been thinking long and hard before I have come to this decision. I tried to put myself in their position. I have personally apologized to every Assyrian and Armenian I’ve met. But this does not get rid of the crime our ancestors committed. Even if I am personally not responsible for what happened in 1915, I felt as I had to do more than just to apologize. Finally, I came to the decision to give back all properties that I inherited from my forefathers to Seyfo Center, which works for the recognition of the Seyfo (Assyrian) genocide in 1915” (slightly edited – Blogian).
While I have received a number of personal letters from individual Turks apologizing for the Genocide, this one is addressed to all Armenians: “My conscience does not accept the insensitivity showed to and the denial of the Great Catastrophe that the Ottoman Armenians were subjected to in 1915. I reject this injustice and for my share, I empathize with the feelings and pain of my Armenian brothers and sisters. I apologize to them.”
The thousands of Turkish signatories of the apology statement are not saying sorry for the genocide itself (which they call “the Great Catastrophe,” translating from the Armenian Metz Yeghern). The apology is for the convenient “ignorance” and “denial” about the WWI extermination of Ottoman Empire’s indigenous Armenians for about nine decades. The message, as I see it, is not recognizing a historical fact but recognizing humanity. To recognize genocide means to recognize a victim group’s humanity. The reverse can, apparently, be true as well.
What is also true is that there are thousands of Turks who are willing to risk their lives and comfort in order to break an ancient silence. As one Turkish friend told me, “[i]t’s a bit like putting your name on a ‘wanted’ list.” The “wanted list” is pretty big: over 22,000 signatures on the main website, http://www.ozurdiliyoruz.com/, by December 24, 2008, and over 3,400 on Facebook (as of Dec 20) with their real names and photographs (the Facebook event list seems to have since become a private one).
Nevertheless, Turkish media are openly calling Canan Arıtman, the female member of a social-democratic party who suggested Gul is a traitor because of his alleged Armenian origin, a “fascist” and a “racist.” Suggesting that the politician be expelled from her party, one Turkish columnist writing for Sabah says, “Arıtman is racist. What place can racism and questioning ethnic origins have in social democracy, an ideology that has freedom, equality and brotherhood as its fundamental tenets?”
Writing even harsher, a liberal Turkish columnist asks what if all Turks have Armenian origin:
“Arıtman and those like her are the strongest reason we have to apologize to the Armenian community. If these people can readily put into circulation statements that are racist, low and self-aggrandizing, the entire community is responsible for that. We all have a share in this crime. I have questions to ask people who approach this issue reluctantly and who think that it is unnecessary as an agenda item. Have you ever thought about this? Maybe we are all really Armenians. We may all have people in our lineage who were forced to act like Muslim Turks.”
A Zaman columnist says Turks “should thank the racist CHP deputy” for reminding the history of her political party. Apparently that political party is the hereditary of the chauvinist “Union and Progress” that committed the Genocide in 1915.
Furthermore, some of Arıtman’s colleagues in the parliament have compared her to Hitler: “”It was a similar stance that led German dictator Adolf Hitler to burn thousands of people of Jewish origin. Arıtman sees Armenians as enemies.”
When was the last time when any media in Turkey was outraged against insulting Armenians? Indeed this is unprecedented and demonstrates the power of the apology – no matte how vague and not-enough it may be. This maybe the reason why there is so much ultranationalist outrage in Turkey against the apology (even if some self-perceived progressives silently suggest the apology serves Turkey’s national interests). The website of the apology, for instance, was “suspended” according to a message which appeared on it around 1:30 AM standard US eastern time on December 23, 2008. Days ago it was also hacked. Furthermore, a group of nationalists have opened their own website called “I don’t apologize.” Almost 50,000 nationalists have signed it as of December 24. Another counter campaign claims twice as many supporters, although neither websites have received much – if any coverage – in Turkish or other media.
Hated by Turkish ultranationalists, the apology initiative has inspired similar (though low-profile) campaigns in the region. I have received a text that is being circulated among Cypriot Turks and Greeks asking both communities to apologize to each other:
“Initiative for Apologizing for the atrocities committed by ones’ own community
1. This is an initiative to collect signatures on a document apologizing for the atrocities committed by ones’ own community against the other. Following the initiative of 200 Turkish intellectuals, who found the courage to apologize for the Armenian genocide, we believe it is time for Cypriots to assume responsibility for the crimes allegedly committed in their name and to express regret and condemnation.
2. The initiative also aims at putting an end to the decades- long practice of concealing the truth about the events, of denying that they ever took place or attempt to justify them. This amounts to a crime of massacre denial which can no longer be tolerated. At the same time each one of us must assume responsibility for the actions we can take as parents, teachers, activists, journalists, politicians to put an end to the decades-long conspiracy of silence about our regrettable past.
3. We call on all interested persons and organizations to engage in a process of consultation on how best to promote this initiative and to formulate the text to be signed.”
Full of more potential for good than for bad, the Turkish apology is one that surprises many. In fact, it might not have been possible without one person. According to the Irish Times:
Others attribute the initiative to the shock that followed the murder of the Armenian-Turkish editor Hrant Dink. A leading advocate of a more humane debate on the Armenian issue, Dink was gunned down by a nationalist teenager in January 2007.
“When he died, it was as if a veil had been torn from the eyes of the democratic-minded citizens of this country,” says Nil Mutluer, a feminist activist who signed the letter. “People realised there was no time to be lost.”
The road ahead looks hard. The chief organisers of the 1915 massacres continue to be commemorated in street names across the country….”
The road is a hard one, but not unprecedented. Around the globe, there is a global recognition of indigenous rights which have often been repressed through genocidal policies. One such injustice was recently corrected by the country of Nicaragua when it gave title of traditional land to a native nation. A simple apology seems to please many Armenians, though, even it comes froma group of liberal Turks who are ashamed of a 90-year-old campaign to silence and rewrite history.
When I gave my father a print-out of the apology in western Armenian, his initial reaction was: “They took all of our land and memory and all they give us is an apology by a group of small people who don’t even use the word genocide?” To my surprise, he then added, “I accept their apology.”
And earlier this April, when a group of Turkish lobbyists and community organizers denied the Armenian genocide during a commemorative lecture at University of Denver, an Armenian friend of mine (who openly calls himself a nationalist), said to the audience that if a Turk told him “sorry” for the Genocide he would give that Turk a “big, Armenian hug.”
My friend owes 20,000 Turks big, Armenian hugs. Let’s hope the number grows so big that he will never be able to give so many hugs in 90 years.
Three years after a cemetery dating back to the 9th Century was deliberately destroyed in the Azerbaijani exclave of Nakhichevan, bloggers recall an ancient culture annihilated and condemn the world for closing its eyes to what many consider to be an official attempt to rewrite history.
Today is the commemoration of the 3rd anniversary of Djulfa’s destruction. …This [is] not only a crime against Armenian culture, but against our collective cultural heritage as humankind. Don’t let it go unnoticed.
Between 10-16 December 2005 over a hundred uniformed men were videotaped destroying the Djulfa cemetery using sledgehammers, cranes, and trucks. The video was taken from across the border in Iran.
Азербайджанские власти на протяжении всего советского периода старались уничтожить этот некрополь, поскольку для них он был всего лишь свидетельством о том, что именно армяне были хозяевами этой территории на протяжении веков, вопреки тому, что говорилось в азербайджанских советских мифах о собственной “древности”… Это кладбище, вполне достойное названия чуда, было даже не внесено в реестр архитектурных памятников Азербайджана… После распада СССР, во время карабахского конфликта, продолжалось разорение кладбища, и, наконец, оно было окончательно уничтожено….
The Azeri authorities throughout all Soviet period tried to destroy this necropolis as for them it was only a testament that Armenians were owners of this territory throughout centuries in spite of Azerbaijan’s Soviet myths about own “antiquity”… This cemetery, quite worthy to be called a wonder, was not even placed on the register of architectural monuments of Azerbaijan… After USSR’s collapse, during the Karabakh conflict, the cemetery’s demolition continued, and, at last, definitively destroyed….
آنان از سنگ قبر ارامنه هم نگذشته اند و با تخریب دوازده هزار قبر با سنگ قبر هایی منحصر به فرد که متعلق به چند قرن پیش بوده و جزئی از میراث فرهنگی ارامنه به حساب می آمد، هیچ اثری از ارمنی نشین بودن آنجا، بجا نگذاشته اند.
[After acquiring Nakhichevan, Azeris] did not even tolerate Armenian gravestones. They destroyed twelve thousand Armenian graves. These unique gravestones with several centuries’ history were part of Armenian cultural heritage. However, through destruction of these gravestones, [Azeris] destroyed all signs indicating the existence of Armenians in that land. [translated by Loosineh M.]
iArarat, remembers Djulfa by discussing Robert Bevan’s The Destruction of Memory: Architecture at War, a book that was “part of a class I teach at a Texas university on nationalism and ethno-political conflicts.”
While reading Bevan’s book I was inevitably reminded of the destruction of the medieval Armenian cemetery in Jugha, presently in Azerbaijan. Azeri soldiers at the command of their superiors without as much as blinking an eye would embark at destroying and erasing the last vestige of the Armenian civilization in that territory as if the Armenians had never as much as existed there, as if Armenians had never as much as created anything, something to celebrate their faith and commemorate their dead…
Adding insult to injury, earlier this month Baku, Azerbaijan hosted a little-noticed two-day conference of Council of Europe culture ministers to discuss “Intercultural dialogue as the basis for peace and sustainable development in Europe and its neighboring regions.” In his opening remarks to the attendees Azeri president Ilham Aliyev, astonishingly claimed:
“Azerbaijan has rich history and the cultural monuments here are duly preserved, and a lot is being done in this direction…”
[T]he Armenian Ministry of Culture failed to deliver a message by boycotting the conference. They either should have properly boycotted the conference by making an appropriate statement explaining the reasons for non-participation, or they should have participated there to raise the all important issues of destruction of Armenian cultural heritage in Azerbaijan, as well as protecting and restoring the multinational cultural heritage in all three South Caucasus countries [Armenia, Georgia, and Azerbaijan].
old-dilettante [RU], says that Djulfa’s destruction was the last stage of Azerbaijan’s attempt to eradicate Nakhichevan’s Armenian heritage. Commenting on a post about churches in Georgia, she writes:
Теперь там не найдется ни одной армянской церкви, несмотря на фотографии и книги, изданные всего ничего – лет 20 тому назад. Все церкви уничтожены. Все могилы. Все хачкары.
И кто через 20 лет скажет, что там вообще жили армяне? … А ведь мой дед был “местным жителем”.
…Now, not a single Armenian church will be found [in Nakhichevan] despite of photographs, some as recent as 20-years-old. All churches are annihilated. All cemeteries. All khatchkars.
And who will say in 20 years that Armenians ever lived there? … It wasn’t that long ago that my own grandfather was a “local” there.
In Baku Armenian cemeteries with less historical but more immediate sentimental value to many (including my family whose three generations made their home in Baku for nearly a century) were paved over for roads or new construction. That does not justify the disrespect they were afforded but makes some remote sense.
In the case of Jugha khachkars stood in the middle of nowhere and were simply crushed, dismembered, thrown into the river. They were targeted and wiped out as the last remaining Armenian outpost.
Sarcastically, the journalist-blogger considers how other Armenian monuments on Azerbaijani territory could be protected.
Now I am thinking, perhaps Armenians should disassemble the remaining Azeri mosques and gravestones on their territory and exchange them for the khachkars and other Armenian heritage items of value?
Certainly some of the Azeri items have cultural value for Armenia and I would rather not see them go. But what other options are there?
Reacting to a comment on his above-mentioned post, Ivan Kondratiev [RU] also says that if Azerbaijanis wanted to cleanse their territory of Armenian heritage, they could have at least given the monuments to Armenia even if such a transfer would amount to acknowledging Djulfa’s Armenian history.
[T]here is reason to be optimistic that [Barack Obama’s] foreign policy team will… have a very different response to the ongoing stonewalling by the Azeris than [current US Secretary of State] Rice’s utter disinterest [about Djulfa’s destruction], which is rooted in the Bush administration’s pro-Azerbaijani, pro-Turkey foreign policy.
In addition to secretary of state nominee Hillary Clinton […] prospective U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice has a particular interest in genocide and is an advocate of military action to stop mass killings, rather than ineffective “dialogue” as slaughters continue apace. And Harvard professor Samantha Power, author of “A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide” (2002), has been quietly advising Obama behind the scenes […].
Given that past is prologue, with these women’s combined emphasis on championing human rights and genocide prevention, it will not be easy for the Obama administration to ignore or overlook the genocide that preceeded – and encouraged – all others in the 20th and 21st centuries, or the ongoing “cultural genocides” in Azerbaijan and Turkey against the archeological remains of a once-thriving, centuries-old Armenian population that is no more.
More photographs of the cemetery, before and after its destruction, are available at www.djulfa.com.
While I have been silent on the recent developments of the Nagorno-Karabakh peace process, it doesn’t mean I have not been following the news. My silence reflects a complicated mixture of cautious optimism, confusion, excitement, fear, cynicism, and a busy schedule (which includes observing the US presidential elections). We live in historic and unpredictable times. These unknown globalized waves can translate into almost anything in Nagorno-Karabakh – from long-term solutions to further conflict.
Internationally, Obama’s election, Georgia’s unsuccessful bid for South Ossetia, Turkey’s continuous struggle to join the European Union, and international – particularly US and Russian – interest in the South Caucasus have contributed to the recent developments in the Armenian-Azerbaijani peace process, which was vocalized in a set of principles that Azerbaijan and Armenia signed in Moscow in early November 2008. One can only hope that Armenian and Azeri leaders will make tough choices and negotiate for a solution. Locally, both countries have a great chance to make the piece.
For those of you who don’t know, Nagorno-Karabakh is an indigenous Armenian region (called Artsakh by locals) within the country of Azerbaijan. This small territory declared its independence from Soviet Azerbaijan in 1991, less than seventy years after USSR chief Joseph Stalin gave Nagorno-Karabakh to Azerbaijan. The conflict escalated into a war between Armenia/Nagorno-Karabakh and Azerbaijan, killing thousands of people and leaving many more homeless.
Today, Nagorno-Karabakh is an internationally unrecognized republic with a common border with mother Armenia. Nationalist sentiment is at peak high in Azerbaijan where most people see Armenians as invaders and aggressors. The sentiment was reflected in December 2005, when a contingent of Azerbaijan’s army reduced the largest medieval Armenian cemetery – Djulfa – to dust. (Official Azerbaijan until this day denies the destruction, even though it was videotaped.) While most Armenians are nowadays much less antagonistic against Azerbaijan, during the war, in 1992, armed Armenian groups massacred a few hundred Azeri civilians when fighting in Khojalu, although both official Armenia and some Azeri sources question some of the facts of the tragedy: particularly suggesting that Azeri forces deliberately banned Khojalu’s residents to leave through a humanitarian corridor the Armenian army had left for civilians. Furthermore, Armenians claim that the conflict itself started in Azerbaijan when mobs attacked hundreds of Armenian citizens, killing several dozen, in their homes in Sumgayit in 1988 while the Police stood by. Azeris claim that there were riots against their kin in southern Armenia at the same time.
Armenian and Azeri Attitudes:
In short, both Armenia and Azerbaijan see themselves as the victim and the enemy as the aggressor in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. And while abuses by both sides have been almost always symmetrical in the conflict, official Azerbaijan – until recently – has been using both verbal threats and disproportional acts of destruction. Threats have included official statements by Azerbaijan’s president to win Nagorno-Karabakh back by any price, including by war, and predictions by a senior Azeri military chief that Armenia will not exist in several years. Disproportional acts of destruction by Azerbaijan have included total elimination of all ancient indigenous Armenian monuments on its territory, especially in the exclave of Nakhichevan (another region granted to Azerbaijan by Stalin). This is not only inconsistent with Azerbaijan’s self-promotion as “the world’s most tolerant country,” but is also an act of cultural genocide (what I call “genocidal vandalism” in my honors thesis) which in no way contributes to the peace process.
Armenia’s diplomacy in the conflict has been more moderate, which may be a reflection of the following: Armenia’s victory in the early 1990s war, oil-rich Azerbaijan’s military boom, and limited open international support for Armenia in the conflict. Moderate diplomacy, nonetheless, hasn’t resulted in worldwide condemnation against Azerbaijan for blockading Armenia (although until George W. Bush, the United States didn’t give military aid to Azerbaijan). And in general, the world has been very careful not to take sides in the conflict (neither in the case of the Khojalu massacre by Armenians nor in the recent case of Djulfa’s destruction by Azeris): an approach which is difficult to determine as productive or not.
Ideal Solutions and Militant Positions:
One reason why it has been difficult to defend one position or another has been the polarized Armenian and Azerbaijani demands, a “normal” situation in every conflict.
Azerbaijan wants to return its borders to pre-1991, entirely reversing what the bloody war did before the 1994 cease fire. It says that Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh will be Azerbaijan’s citizens, but that they will never have the right or the option to succeed from Azerbaijan. In short, the legal concept of “territorial integrity” has been the supreme law and the sacred doctrine in Azerbaijan. Azerbaijan has about a million refugees who live in horrible conditions. Azerbaijan hopes that all these people will return to their homes, now under Armenian control. Armenians say and an Amnesty International report agreed last year, that Azerbaijan is deliberately ignoring its refugees and making their lives even miserable in order to gain international support.
Armenia says that Nagorno-Karabakh’s return to Azeri control would mean giving 150,000 Armenian lives into captivity. If Azerbaijan reduces unarmed ancient Armenian graves to dust, what will it do with live Armenians? Many, if not most, Armenians insist on also keeping the seven regions around Nagorno-Karabakh that Armenian forces gained control of during the war. While not many Armenians lived on these lands during the war, there are hundreds of ancient monuments that Armenians see as proof for their historic claim to the land. Some Azeris criticize Armenians for capitalizing on history and, thus, denying Azeri inhabitants the right to return to their homes. Some Armenians respond that Azerbaijan is trying to capitalize on rewriting history, and denying indigenous Armenians their right to self-determination.
On surface, Azerbaijan doesn’t agree to any solution that will let Nagorno-Karabakh be separate from it. In the same way, many Armenians consider the possibility of giving much of the seven surrounding territories back to Azerbaijan a loss. Neither party considers all the damage that has happened – and will continue to happen – to people in both countries because of the unresolved conflict. Nationalism has overridden cost-benefit analysis (with a human rights perspective) or mutual respect for the rights of the other.
Undemocratic regimes in both Armenia and Azerbaijan have perhaps contributed to the conflict. Wars unite populations, and perhaps the conflict has worked well for both Azeri and Armenian political elites. A few months ago, a former Azerbaijani serviceman (now studying in the United States) told me that Azerbaijan’s economic elite is using nationalism to hold power in the country. While Azerbaijan’s economy is booming due to oil exports, ordinary people are not experiencing change in their lives. Hatred against Armenia, some Azeris say, is the perfect tool for Azerbaijan’s rich class to distract the majority’s attention. And in Armenia, between 1992 and 1994, people would die from hunger and economic desperation. While the government was blaming everything on the war, several government-protected families were illegally becoming superrich. According to widespread claims, independent Armenia’s regime (both Levon-Ter Petrosyan’s and Kocharyan’s) elites stole billions of dollars from the people of Armenia through neoliberal privatizations of several industries and by other means.
Time for Change?
But even undemocratic regimes can solve problems, especially when their hegemony and reputation is at stake. In the last few months, there have been interesting developments in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. First, Azerbaijan’s ally and Armenia’s historic enemy Turkey demonstrated diplomatic will to cooperate with Armenia. Turkey’s president Abdullah Gul accepted his Armenian counterpart Serzh Sargsyan’s invitation to watch a soccer match between both countries in September 2008. The historic event, deemed as “football diplomacy,” was followed by recent meetings brokered by Moscow between Armenia and Azerbaijan where, for the first time, leaders of both countries seemed to be pleased. More surprisingly, Turkey has been reducing its pro-Azerbaijan rhetoric while trying to become a mediator between its two South Caucasus neighbors.
Many Armenians, who are usually skeptical in international relations given their experience of genocide, are discouraged with the recent development. Skeptics see Armenian president Serzh Sargsyan, who came to power following a bloodshed during the March 2008 post-election protests, as trading his own presidency for a solution unbeneficial for Armenia. Turkey’s involvement in the process is less encouraging for the residents of Armenia, a country that Turkey has been blockading since the Karabakh conflict.
While Turkey may not be a friend of Armenia, it sure has its interest in helping the Nagorno-Karabakh process. Turkey is under enormous pressure to open the border with Armenia (which Turkey thinks will help persuade US president-elect Barack Obama to back off from his pledge to recognize the Armenian Genocide). It will be very hard to open the border, though, without solving the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Thus, by helping to broker a deal between Armenia and Azerbaijan, Turkey’s current regime would silence the United States (and also its own ultranationalist deep state), have better prospects for joining the European Union, and make a claim to sort things out in the region (Turkey has surely expressed interest in brokering a deal between the United States and Iran, and unsuccessfully tried the same with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict).
Azerbaijan may be more interested in solving the problem now than in the past. Authoritarian leader Ilham Aliyev, the son of Azerbaijan’s former, now deceased, president Heydar Aliyev, just won a second (and final term) with the opposition boycotting the election (and giving him a perfect argument for a democratic victory). Not having to worry about reelection, Aliyev may be more interested in toning down his militant rhetoric. More importantly, the recent Georgian-Russian escalation over South Ossetia has likely demonstrated to Azerbaijan that war is not as good of a choice as Azerbaijan thought it might be. After all, Georgia not only didn’t win South Ossetia back, its attempt to get international sympathy faded away, if not being replaced with anger and distrust toward Tbilisi. Furthermore, the United States may want to partner with Azerbaijan even further more, especially in the case of an escalation with Iran, if it solves its problem with Armenia.
Armenia may be more inclined to change not only due to alleged pressure against president Sargsyan, but also due to the fact that an open border with Turkey will be a great asset for Armenia (Turkey thinks it may not be able to afford the border without a Karabakh solution). Furthermore, in two years, there won’t be many 18-year-olds in Armenia to qualify as soldiers. That’s because 1992-1994 are Armenia’s “dark and cold days,” when few families had children. So if there is to be war in the next four years, Armenia will have few bodies to fight.
A fight between Armenia and Azerbaijan, nonetheless, is not desired (at least at this time) by any of the superpowers, especially by the United States. Back in July, when I met with the acting US Ambassador to Armenia, I heard extremely nice remarks about president Serzh Sargysan’s offer of watching football match with his Turkish counterpart. The United States is seeking stability, especially with the mess that the Iraq war has created. Russia is also interested in stability between Armenia (a strong ally) and Azerbaijan (an ally), especially since Moscow’s interest in the Baku oil. Thus, internationally speaking, prospects for a peaceful Karabakh deal are possible, if not real.
Both sides need to accept that no solution is going to be perfect for either side. I don’t want to suggest what the solution should or will be, but it is clear what the solution cannot be. Azerbaijan cannot recover all the territories that it had before 1991; Armenia cannot retain all the territories that it gained after 1991. This is not a simple cliché, but a psychology that Azerbaijani and Armenian governments must start embedding in their populations. Any solution, though, would be a hard-sell both in Armenia and Azerbaijan. The governments in both countries might want to employ the same tactic they have used for a long time – information wars. Instead of dehumanizing the enemy this time, Armenian and Azeri TV channels (both are government-controlled to a large degree) should broadcast stories that rehumanize their neighbors. This strategy hardly needs to be called ‘affirmative propaganda,’ because there are so many true stories of mutual help and respect that can help in bringing change. One thing that is clear is that a peaceful solution at this time would be great for Armenia, Azerbaijan, their neighbors and the world.
The Economist has an interesting article on an effort to push for a four-way, Armenian-Azeri-Georgian-Turkish dialogue, in the South Caucasus.
ON AN icy February morning a clutch of Turks and Armenians huddled in a hotel in Kars, with Turkish intelligence officials looking on. On May 14th their secret, a giant round of cheese, was unveiled in Gyumri, over the sealed border in Armenia. Under the label of “Caucasian cheese”, the yellow slab symbolises reconciliation between Turkey and Armenia, and across the Caucasus.
The idea of a regional “peace” cheese (Georgia and Azerbaijan are involved too) met suspicion when mooted a year ago, says Alin Ozinian of the Turkish Armenian Business Development Council. “We didn’t know how the authorities would react,” said Zeki Aydin, a Turkish cheese producer, who made the ten-hour trip from Kars to Gyumri via Georgia. “We want our borders to be reopened, good neighbourly ties, so we took a chance,” said Ilhan Koculu, a fellow cheesemaker.
Vefa Ferejova, an Azeri campaigning to bury the hatchet with Armenia, was also there, saying “We are told to hate Armenians: I will not.” Armenia and Azerbaijan are at loggerheads over Nagorno-Karabakh, a patch of land that Armenia wrested from Azerbaijan in the early 1990s. This prompted Turkey to seal its border (but not air links) with Armenia in 1993. American-brokered peace talks have failed, and Azerbaijan now threatens to resort to force.
Yet there are hopeful signs that Turkey and Armenia may make up. Turkey’s president, Abdullah Gul, was among the first to congratulate Serzh Sarkisian, who became Armenia’s president in a tainted election in February. Unofficial talks to establish diplomatic ties could resume at any time. Indeed, there is a whiff of desperation in the air. Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development (AK) Party is under threat of closure by the constitutional court for allegedly wanting to bring in sharia law. AK‘s overtures to Armenia may be aimed at garnering some Western support.
Mr Sarkisian’s government is heading for trouble when gas prices double this winter. An end to Turkey’s blockade could temper popular unrest. But hawks in Turkey and Armenia can still count on Azerbaijan. Allegations that Armenia is sheltering Kurdish rebels have stirred anger in Turkey. Where did they come from? “The Azeri press,” snorts Mr Aydin. Even the best cheese cannot change everybody’s attitudes overnight.