A new chapter in the suffering of the Armenian people is being played out in Nagorno Karabakh. CSI Director John Eibner answers questions on the situation following the ceasefire.
There have been many reports in the media about human rights violations by Azerbaijan. The government of Azerbaijan rejects the accusations as Armenian propaganda. How do you judge this?
The Armenian capital of Nagorno Karabakh is largely in ruins as a result of Azerbaijani bombardment. According to Amnesty International, banned cluster bombs have been used against the Armenian civilian population. Half the population of Nagorno Karabakh were forced to flee their homes. There have also been credible reports of the beheading of Armenian civilians. These are violations of fundamental human rights, whatever the information warriors of Azerbaijan and its allies may say.
But it is short sighted to view the war in Nagorno Karabakh as merely a local conflict in which human rights are violated. War inevitably produces grave human rights violations. This war against Nagorno Karabakh is of much greater historic significance when seen, as it should be, as the latest episode of the historic process of Armenian genocide. The process started with massacres of Armenians in Turkey at the end of the 19th century, culminating in the great Armenian Genocide during World War I. Turkic Muslims continued the process with the massacre of Armenians in the Caucasus, in particular in Nagorno Karabakh, even after the Great War ended. It resumed there in the early 1990s. The pattern of ethnic/religious “cleansing” of Armenians in their ancient Anatolian and Trans-Caucasian homeland is clear.
What is the situation with Christian monuments and artifacts that are now under the control of Azerbaijan?
Nagorno Karabakh is rich in ancient churches and other Christian monuments. This is befitting the Armenian nation, which was the first to accept the Lordship of Christ in 301 AD. While the recent war was raging, Christian and other cultural sites were damaged. The most notable is the Armenian Apostolic cathedral in Shushi. It was damaged by Azerbaijani rockets on October 8. The Archbishop of Nagorno Karabakh, Pargev Martirosyan, is convinced that the targeting of his cathedral was intended to “weaken the morale” of the people, and represents what he calls the “classic behavior of terrorists who cannot stand cultural, spiritual and religious values.”
Since the 19th century, Shushi has functioned as the cultural and spiritual capital of Nagorno Karabakh. Its fate reflects the trials and tribulations of its Armenian population. The cathedral was badly damaged in 1920 when most of the Armenian population was massacred. This sacred site subsequently fared badly as a result of the anti-Christian policies of both Soviet Communists and Azerbaijani ultra-nationalists. The cathedral was repaired and reopened in the late 1990s, following the Karabakhi Armenians’ victory in the devastating war of 1991-4.
Now under the administration of Azerbaijan, with Shushi emptied of all Armenian inhabitants, the cathedral’s future is uncertain. If past precedent is to be repeated, we can expect not only small-scale vandalism of Christian sites, but also an Azerbaijani state-sponsored policy to eradicate evidence of a historic Armenian Christian presence. But much will depend upon the extent to which the Russian peacekeepers are able and willing to guarantee the protection of Armenian Christians and their religious heritage.
What is the role of Turkey, a NATO member and strategic partner of the United States?
Turkey may appear to be in the background, but it has played a crucial role in Azerbaijan’s military offensive. Azerbaijanis are Turkic Muslims. They used to be referred to as Azeri-Turks in academic literature. Azerbaijan is an important military and political asset for the fulfillment of Turkish President Erdogan’s openly declared “neo-Ottomanism”. This expansionist project combines the powerful forces of pan-Turkism and pan-Islamism. Without Turkey’s strong support, it is inconceivable that Turkey would have dared to launch its military offensive. Azerbaijan functions to a great extent as a proxy of Turkey. Turkey has transferred massive amounts of military hardware and senior military advisors to Azerbaijan. Especially troubling is the appearance of Turkish-backed jihadists from Syria on the battlefield.
Turkey is, of course, a key NATO ally of Washington, and Azerbaijan is an Associate NATO Member. Both states are regarded by the Washington-led NATO alliance as vital assets to be used against enemies, adversaries and competitors, namely Russia, Iran and China. They are furthermore regarded by NATO as instruments for denying these powers the ability to dominate the rich resources of the vast Turkic Muslim belt stretching from the Balkans to Xinjiang Province of China. This is but a modern variation of the geopolitical competition for this strategically important region that dates back to the 19th century, and became popularly known in Britain as the “Great Game”.
The Armenian Christians of Nagorno Karabakh, or, for that matter, those of Armenia proper, will find sympathy among the American public, especially its Christian component. But they have little value for the power brokers of the western alliance. Landlocked, barren Armenia has little to offer the American economy, nothing like the oil and natural gas of Azerbaijan. Moreover, Russia continues to be their protector from the aggressive aspirations of their more powerful Turkic Muslim neighbors. As a result, Moscow, not Washington, intervened first politically and then militarily to prevent the whole of Nagorno Karabakh from being overrun. The Armenians’ dependence on Russia does not endear them to Washington and the NATO alliance.
Is Russia’s role in the Caucasus constructive or rather destructive? Does Putin aim at stability or instability?
Russia has long been the dominant imperial power in the Caucasus. When Nagorno Karabakh was incorporated into the Russian empire in the early 19th century, Armenian Christians and Turkic Muslims lived largely in harmony. The great cathedral at Shushi was built under the protection of the Russian Czar. Both Armenian and Turkic cultural life flourished. When the Russian empire collapsed, Armenians were massacred. When the Soviet Union occupied the territory, the ethnic/religious cleansing was suspended, only to erupt again as the Soviet empire collapsed. When seen from the perspective of Armenian Christians, a strong Russian influence in the region is crucial. This reality has far less to do with the politics of Russian President Putin than it has with Russia’s strong historic interest in stability in its so-called “near abroad”. Turkic Muslims have a strong presence, not only in southern Russia, but also in Moscow itself. The Kremlin dreads the prospect of ethnic/religious conflict spilling over into Russia itself, especially when it sees the presence of Turkish-backed jihadists from Syria fighting against Christians in the Caucasus.
Will Azerbaijan be satisfied with the current Russian-imposed division of Nagorno Karabakh as a long-term solution? Does it not demand the whole of this part of the ancient Armenian homeland?
Azerbaijan does indeed claim the whole of Nagorno Karabakh as its territory, and its president has renewed the commitment to achieving that end. Azerbaijan is unable to proceed with the war because it is now confronted by Russian peacekeepers. Azerbaijan would lose any war with Russia, so it had to accept the ceasefire. But should Russia, for whatever reason, cease to play the role of the protector of the Armenians, it must be assumed the anti-Armenian violence with erupt again. It must also be said that the Armenians will not accept it either in their heart of hearts. The present division is maintained only as a Russian guaranteed cease-fire, not a permanent peace treaty. The bloodshed may be suspended for now, but more is likely whenever the region is beset by a fresh wave of geopolitical instability.
Does religion play only a secondary role in this war, or would you say that it represents a clash of civilizations?
Archbishop Martirosyan prefers not to call the conflict a religious war. He is undoubtedly right in the sense that it is not being waged explicitly on the grounds of theological differences, as were the 17th century wars of religion in Europe. But religion is an intrinsic component of the identities of the two warring parties. When Azeri-Turks are fighting Armenians, the conflict inevitably becomes one of Muslim vs. Christian. In the case of the Azeri-Turks, one of their war tactics is to desecrate or destroy the symbols of their Christian enemy. It is, of course, worrying that Turkey has facilitated the transfer of jihadists from Syria to Nagorno Karabakh. If Turkey chooses, it can transform the conflict into an openly declared jihad. It was the late author of the Clash of Civilizations, Prof. Samuel Huntington, who spoke of the “bloody borders” of the Islamic world. Whether or not one fully accepts Huntington’s thesis, it is hard to deny that the borders between the Turkic lands of Islam and those of Christian Armenia have soaked in blood for centuries.
What lessons do you think the Armenians have learned from their defeat?
The deeply divided Armenian nation is now traumatized. It is not clear just what lessons will ultimately be learned. Sometimes defeated and deeply humiliated peoples do not learn rational lessons, but turn instead to fatal fantasies. One can only hope that the Armenian nation recognizes its military weakness, and takes appropriate actions to establish a balance of power, based on its own resources and its closest ally Russia. Whatever hopes Armenians had that their non-violent, pro-western ‘Velvet Revolution’ of 2018 would lead to protection from the West have been dashed.
What possibilities does America, together with its NATO allies, have in the region?
The United States, as the world’s most powerful nation, and the leader of the most powerful global network of alliance always has possibilities for involvement in the region, and it is, of course, deeply involved there today. Washington can use its power to enhance stability or instability. If it views the region exclusively as a theater for unconventional warfare against adversaries, the latter will be the outcome. In such a case, vulnerable communities, such as the Armenian Christians, will be first among the victims. However, if Washington opts to enhance stability by cooperating with Russia, there is good reason to expect that the anti-Christian, neo-Ottoman imperial aspirations of Turkey will come to nothing. Washington can contribute to this outcome by halting the transfer from NATO countries of all military services and hardware to Azerbaijan, and by pressing for the suspension of Turkey and Azerbaijan from NATO until such times as they recognize the right to self-determination of the Armenian Christians of Nagorno Karabakh – a right that is fundamental to the Atlantic Charter, the cornerstone of the NATO alliance. This is something that Washington’s principal NATO allies – Britain, France and Germany – as well as those on its southeastern flank should press for.
Portions of this interview were published in German in Die Tagespost, November 26, 2020