Ara Sanjian has an interesting summary analysis of Azerbaijan’s growing denial of the Armenian Genocide and the misuse of the word “genocide” in many aspects of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict by both Armenia and Azerbaijan.

While the continuing struggle between Armenian and Turkish officials and activists for or against the international recognition of the Armenian Genocide of 1915 shows no sign of abating, and while its dynamics are becoming largely predictable, a new actor is increasingly attracting attention for its willingness to join this “game.” It is Azerbaijan, which has—since 1988—been engaged in at times lethal conflict with Armenians over Mountainous Karabagh.

In modern times, Armenians have often found it difficult to decide whether they should view the Turks (of Turkey) and the Azerbaijanis as two separate ethnic groups—and thus apply two mutually independent policies towards them—or whether they should approach them as only two of the many branches of a single, pan-Turkic entity, pursuing a common, long-term political objective, which would—if successful—end up with the annihilation of Armenians in their historical homeland.

Indeed, almost at the same time that the Armenian Question in the Ottoman Empire was attracting worldwide attention, extensive clashes between Armenians and Azerbaijanis first occurred in Transcaucasia in 1905. Clashes—accompanied, on this occasion, with attempts at ethnic cleansing—resumed with heightened intensity after the collapse of tsarism in 1917. They were suppressed only in 1921, by the Russian-dominated communist regime, which reasserted control over Transaucasia, forced Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia to join the Soviet Union, and imposed itself as the judge in the territorial disputes that had plagued these nations. The communists eventually endorsed Zangezur as part of Armenia, while allocating Nakhichevan and Mountainous Karabagh to Azerbaijan. This arrangement satisfied neither side. A low-intensity Armenian-Azerbaijani struggle persisted during the next decades within the limits permitted by the Soviet system. Repeated Armenian attempts to detach Mountainous Karabagh from Azerbaijan were its most visible manifestation.


Hence, it is still difficult to know what Soviet Azerbaijani historians thought about the Armenian Genocide of 1915: Were they more sympathetic to arguments produced by Soviet Armenian historians or those who had the blessing of the authorities in Ankara? The polemic between Soviet Armenian and Soviet Azerbaijani historians centered from the mid-1960’s on the legacy of Caucasian Albania. A theory developed in Soviet Azerbaijan assumed that the once Christian Caucasian Albanians were the ancestors of the modern-day Muslim Azerbaijanis. Thereafter, all Christian monuments in Soviet Azerbaijan and Nakhichevan (including all medieval Armenian churches, monasteries and cross-stones, which constituted the vast majority of these monuments) were declared to be Caucasian Albanian and, hence, Azerbaijani. Medieval Armenians were openly accused of forcibly assimilating the Caucasian Albanians and laying claim to their architectural monuments and works of literature. This was probably the closest that Soviet Azerbaijanis came—in print—to formally accusing the Armenians of committing genocide against their (Caucasian Albanian) ancestors.

Since 1988, however, as the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict over Mountainous Karabagh has gotten bloodier and increasingly intractable, the Azerbaijani positions on both negating the Armenian Genocide of 1915 and accusing Armenians of having themselves committed a genocide against the Azerbaijanis have become more pronounced and now receive full backing from all state institutions, including the country’s last two presidents, Heydar and Ilham Aliyev. Azerbaijani officials, politicians, and wide sections of civil society, including the head of the Spiritual Board of Muslims of the Caucasus, Sheikh ul-Islam Haji Allahshukur Pashazada, as well as numerous associations in the Azerbaijani diaspora, now fully identify themselves with Turkey’s official position that the Armenian Genocide is simply a lie, intentionally fabricated in pursuit of sinister political goals. Even representatives of the Georgian, Jewish, and Udi ethnic communities in Azerbaijan have joined the effort. Unlike in Turkey, there is not yet a visible minority in Azerbaijan that openly disagrees with their government’s stand on this issue. This probably explains the absence of the Azerbaijani judiciary in the campaign to deny the 1915 genocide. If there are officials or intellectuals who remain unconvinced with this theory propagated by their government, it seems that they still prefer to keep a very low profile.


Turkish-Azerbaijani cooperation against the Armenian Genocide recognition campaign is also evident among the Turkish and Azerbaijani expatriate communities in Europe and the United States. Indeed, some of the demonstrations mentioned above as the activities of the Azerbaijani diaspora were organized in conjunction with local Turkish organizations. Within Turkey, among the Igdir, Kars, and Erzerum residents, who consider themselves victims of an Armenian-perpetrated genocide, and who filed a lawsuit against the novelist Orhan Pamuk in June 2006, were also ethnic Azerbaijanis; their ancestors had moved from territories now part of Armenia.

Azerbaijanis, like Turks, are very interested in having the Jews as allies in their struggle against the Armenian Genocide recognition campaign. Like Turks, Azerbaijanis do not question the Holocaust. However, they liken the Armenians to its perpetrators—the Nazis—and not its victims—the Jews—as is the case among Holocaust and genocide scholars. The Azerbaijanis argue that Jews should join their efforts to foil Armenian attempts at genocide recognition because there was also a genocide perpetrated by Armenians against Jews in Azerbaijan, at the time of the genocide against Azerbaijanis in the early 20th century. They repeatedly state that several thousand Jews died then because of Armenian cruelty. The support of Jewish residents of Ujun (Germany) to public events organized by the local Azerbaijanis was attributed to their being provided with documents that listed 87 Jews murdered by Armenians in Guba (Azerbaijan) in 1918.(7)

Yevda Abramov, currently the only Jewish member of the Azerbaijani parliament, is prominent in pushing for such joint Azerbaijani-Jewish efforts. He consistently seeks to show to his ethnic Azerbaijani compatriots that Israel and Jews worldwide share their viewpoint regarding the Armenian Genocide claims. In August 2007, he commented that “one or two Jews can recognize [the] Armenian genocide. That will be the result of Armenian lobby’s impact. However, that does not mean that Jews residing in the United States and the organizations functioning there also recognize the genocide.” He explained that because expenditures for election to the U.S. Congress are high, some Jewish candidates receive contributions from the Armenian lobby and, in return, have to meet the interests of this lobby. According to Abramov, “except [for the] Holocaust, Jews do not recognize any [other] event as genocide.”(8)

Azerbaijani arguments that Armenians perpetrated a genocide against Azerbaijanis and Jews in the early 20th century have received little attention outside Azerbaijani circles. However, when the issue was touched upon in a contribution to the Jerusalem Post by Lenny Ben-David, a former Israeli adviser to the Turkish Embassy in Washington, D.C. on Sept. 4, 2007, his article was also quickly distributed by the Azeri Press Agency. Ben-David called on Israel and Jewish-Americans to be careful regarding Armenian claims against Turkey. He listed a number of instances when—he believed—Armenians had massacred hundreds of thousands of Turkish Muslims and thousands of Jews. “Recently, Mountain Jews in Azerbaijan requested assistance in building a monument to 3,000 Azeri Jews killed by Armenians in 1918 in a pogrom about which little is known,” he wrote.(9)


However, mutual accusations of the destruction of monuments are just the tip of the iceberg in a larger interpretation of demographic processes in Transcaucasia in the last 200 years as one, continual process of ethnic cleansing. Within this context, the term “genocide” is often used as shorthand to indicate slow, but continuing ethnic cleansing, punctuated with moments of heightened violence also serving the same purpose. Indeed, where the contemporary Azerbaijani attitude toward Armenia departs from Turkey’s is now the official standpoint in Baku that the Armenians have pursued a policy of genocide against the Azerbaijanis during the past two centuries.

While the Turkish state and dominant Turkish elites vehemently object to the use of the term “genocide” to describe the Armenian deportations of 1915, and while some Turkish historians, politicians, and a few municipal authorities have accused the Armenians themselves of having committed genocide against the Ottoman Muslims/Turks—in their replies to what they say are Armenian “allegations”—this line of accusation has never been officially adopted, to date at least, by the highest authorities. It has not become a part of state-sponsored lobbying in foreign countries.