Together with his Russian and French colleagues, the U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry met on May 16 with Presidents of Azerbaijan and Armenia in Vienna. It was the first meeting of both presidents since the April escalation of armed confrontations in Azerbaijan’s Karabakh region that resulted in tragic military and civilian deaths, bringing global attention to this protracted conflict.
The next talks are planned for June with a stated aim to “resume negotiations on a comprehensive settlement.” However a comprehensive settlement can hardly be achieved if the conflict basics are misrepresented, misunderstood or simply ignored. As is sadly true of many wars, there are special interests supporting the instigators of this particular war. Far from the frontlines and the gunfire, these interests effectuate advocacy campaigns of misconception and disinformation — working tirelessly to control global narratives and limit reactions to the truth. Lost in the noise are an illegal military occupation and ethnic cleansing implemented by Armenia against Azerbaijan.
One of the more troubling and unfortunately effective narratives is based on the religious identity of the two nations. The propagandists purposefully present it as a conflict “between Christian Armenia and Muslim Azerbaijan.” Despite Azerbaijan’s longstanding identity as a champion of multi-faith harmony, we don’t live in a world where the specifics always matter. A lack of public knowledge and the triggering impact of fear and otherwise straightforward Islamophobia have allowed this message to effectively perpetuate brutal violence against Azerbaijan — a longstanding ally to the U.S. and the State of Israel; a safe and welcoming home to Christian and Jewish communities for centuries.
Azerbaijan is a secular republic, globally celebrated as a successful model for multi-faith and multicultural engagement. It is also an international champion, alongside the U.S. and other allies, in the fight against terrorism and extremism. Over 30,000 Armenian Christians live peacefully in Baku, Azerbaijan’s capital, which boasts a grand Armenian Church — completely renovated and perfectly preserved by the Azerbaijani Government. Nationwide, around 500,000 Christians of various denominations and 30,000 Jews live peacefully alongside a majority Muslim population.
Another commonly employed myth revolves around the “true” historical belonging of the Karabakh region. If facts matter at all, it’s important to note that the last independent state in the region in question was the Azerbaijani-run Karabakh Khanate (1747-1805). When the Karabakh Khanate was taken over by the Russian Empire, Armenians constituted only around 8 percent of the region’s population, and ethnic Azerbaijanis comprised over 90 percent. In the ensuing decades, the massive resettlement of Armenians to Karabakh from the Middle East increased their presence, as indigenous Azerbaijanis were expelled.
In January 1920, the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic (ADR), the first secular democracy in the Muslim world, was de facto recognized by the Allied Powers, with the Nagorno-Karabakh region within its borders. In April 1920, the ADR was invaded by the Soviets. Thus Azerbaijan was incorporated into the Soviet Union with Nagorno-Karabakh as its integral part. In 1921, the so-called Caucasian Bureau passed a decision “to keep Nagorno-Karabakh within Azerbaijan.”
Another very disturbing storyline that has been perpetuated by the lobbyists and military leaders eager to shift the blame, is that it was Nagorno-Karabakh “self-defense forces” that have fought against Azerbaijan and are “in control” of the occupied territory, not the armed forces of Armenia. In 2015, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) ruled that “the Republic of Armenia, through its military presence and the provision of military equipment and expertise, has been significantly involved in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict from an early date.” “This military support has been – and continues to be – decisive for the conquest of and continued control over the territories in issue.” ECHR cited four 1993 U.N. Security Council resolutions condemning the occupation of Azerbaijan’s territories and demanding the immediate withdrawal of Armenian forces from the occupied areas.
The Court noted: “It is hardly conceivable that Nagorno-Karabakh – an entity with a population of fewer than 150,000 ethnic Armenians – was able, without the substantial military support of Armenia, to set up a defense force in early 1992 that, against the country of Azerbaijan with approximately seven million people, not only established control of the former NKAO but also, before the end of 1993, conquered the whole or major parts of seven surrounding Azerbaijani districts.”
The ECHR decision also conclusively refuted the myths regarding the so-called “independence” of Nagorno-Karabakh, which has never been recognized by any country and is internationally regarded as part of Azerbaijan. The Court stated: “All of the above reveals that the Republic of Armenia, from the early days of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, has had a significant and decisive influence over the “NKR”, that the two entities are highly integrated in virtually all important matters and that this situation persists to this day. In other words, the “NKR” and its administration survives by virtue of the military, political, financial and other support given to it by Armenia which, consequently, exercises effective control over Nagorno-Karabakh and the surrounding territories.”
Without academic and historical context or significant knowledge of the region and the surrounding issues at play, it isn’t surprising that some are confused about the turmoil in Karabakh, especially considering the powerful forces working to keep public perception far removed from the truth. However the risks of violent warfare are unambiguous, and it is critical to set the record straight. As the global community struggles with international terror, uncertain economic times and growing unrest in the Middle East, sorting out fact from fiction is essential as we look toward addressing the difficult issues posed by this conflict and numerous others around the globe.
Based in Los Angeles, Nasimi Aghayev is Azerbaijan’s Consul General to the Western United States