Armenian armed aggression against Azerbaijan

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For nearly seven years, a bitter and violent conflict has raged between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabagh, a district of Azerbaijan inhabited by a majority of ethnic Armenians.

Contrary to the impression held by many Americans and Western Europeans, in this round of conflict, it is Armenia that has invaded Azerbaijan, Armenia that has occupied a fourth of Azeri territory, and Armenia that has been repeatedly condemned by the United Nations for unlawful aggression.(1) Nonetheless, while editorials in the U.S. and other Western press have deplored the violence on both sides, Armenia is generally depicted as the victim, Azerbaijan as the aggressor, even in news stories.(2) This portrayal, we believe, particularly in the past few years, has stood reality on its head.

Captured Armenian Tank in Nagorno Karabakh
Captured Armenian Tank in Nagorno Karabakh

Misinformation and Disinformation

The perception of Armenians as underdogs, as victims of aggression, is rooted in grim historical fact. Decades before Hitler’s Holocaust, they were the first internationally recognized victims of attempted genocide.(3) Indeed, they became the embodiment of victimization, the Ottoman Turks the epitome of genocidal oppressors. And for 80 years, Armenians-both within what was for most of that time the Soviet Republic of Armenia and in the large Armenian diaspora-have remained scarred by those gruesome memories.

This legacy has led to widespread misunderstanding of the current conflict. It has been fed by a worldwide network of Armenian support and solidarity organizations that grew in the aftermath of the genocide and devastation of World War I. These groups, along with the Armenian government, promote the notion that Armenia is the current as well as the historical victim. They accuse Azerbaijan of atrocities, while suggesting that Armenia is virtually blameless. As in any war, of course, each side accuses the other of (and itself occasionally commits) atrocities, but here, the very notion of who has invaded and occupied whom has been blurred.

As the U.S. Committee on Refugees notes “[a]lmost every ‘fact’ relating to this conflict is in dispute.” A few, however, are incontrovertible:

  • While Armenia invaded Azerbaijan, Azerbaijan has never invaded Armenian territory.
  • Armenian (and some “Karabakh-Armenian”) forces currently occupy not just Nagorno-Karabakh, but nearly one-fourth of Azerbaijan.(4)
  • One million Azeris, now refugees, fled or were driven from that occupied territory.(5)
  • Tens of thousands of Kurds, who have lived for centuries in the region, have also been made refugees. Since 1992, the Armenians have expelled virtually all the Kurds from Armenia,(6) and driven tens of thousands more from the areas of Azerbaijan where they had lived.

“ln May of 1992, in order to test the waters, Armenian troops were dispatched to breach the Kurdish land between Armenia and Karabakh at its narrowest point, the old Kurdish capital of Lachin. Armenian forces from Nagorno-Karabagh stormed the city. They looted Lachin and set it ablaze. The entire population of over 25,000 was forced out. All vestiges of Kurdish culture, historic monuments and textual repositories in the city were destroyed.”(7)

Conflicting Arguments

While most Armenians do not deny either occupying Nagorno-Karabakh and other substantial sections of Azerbaijan, or driving out those Azeris who had not already fled their advance, they counter their critics with two main justifications. The first invokes their historical persecution. Armenians see themselves as clinging to a small, steadily eroding homeland surrounded by hostile forces. In Armenian eyes, that vulnerability is heightened by the rising nationalism of the post-Soviet era. The zones they have captured are needed to ensure their defense, they say, meant to provide a buffer zone against further persecution. The second justification is that of self-determination. Since the majority of the population of Nagorno-Karabakh is Armenian and has lived there for generations, they claim that the enclave has the right to declare itself independent.

To the first argument, the Azeris point out that it was not Azeris who were the persecutors of the Armenians, and, in any event, this time it is they, not the Armenians, who are victims of aggression. They counter the argument of self-determination with the principle of territorial integrity.(8) The United States Committee for Refugees put it like this:

In conflict are not simply two warring parties, but two warring principles of international law and conduct. Enshrined in the Helsinki Final Act in 1975, as well as in earlier international accords and treaties, are two principles that increasingly appear to be mutually exclusive: first, the notion of self-determination-that a people has a right to choose political representation that reflects its interests; second, the inviolability of borders-that existing borders, however they might have come about historically, ought not to be changed by force.(9)

No matter what the justification, clearly the Armenians have violated the principle of international law, enshrined not only in Helsinki, but in the United Nations Charter, prohibiting “the use of force against the territorial integrity of any state.”(10)

Historical Claims

Competing claims in the Caucasus have deep historical roots, with all disputants starting and stopping history where it best supports their case. The area, between the Black and the Caspian Seas, between north Asia and south Asia, has long been a crossroads. Ancestors of the people who now call themselves Georgians, Armenians, and Azeris have all been there for more than a thousand years. Over the centuries, small groups settled in one valley, one mountain top, or another. The fragmentation was exacerbated by religious and secular wars and formalized when the victors drew and redrew borders. The Tsars in the 18th and 19th centuries, the Soviet Union in the 1920s, and the independent former Soviet Republics in the 1990s all faced the same situation: Each of the three nations of the Caucasus Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan- though predominantly populated by its own ethnic group, had enclaves with substantial minorities, and in some cases majorities, ethnically related to one of the neighboring countries.”

Not all of the boundary decisions were the result of wars. In 1975, in the Helsinki Accords, each Soviet Republic, including Armenia and Azerbaijan, reaffirmed the existing boundaries. In 1992, when Armenia and Azerbaijan were each invited by the U.N. to become members, they joined as nations with the existing, internationally recognized borders.(12)

The essence of the Armenian complaint and the crux of the Azeri refutation is that each time borders were redefined in the Transcaucasus, Nagorno-Karabakh was not “given” to Armenia, but rather was accepted as an integral part of Azerbaijan. The Armenian argument is somewhat circular. That Armenians have often asked for Nagorno-Karabakh (and each time been refused) is not proof that the request is just.(13)

Nor, of course, is the fact that boundaries have been settled for hundreds of years proof that they are just.

The Current Conflict

The current conflict dates to early 1988, when, as the Soviet Union was weakening, the local government council in Nagorno-Karabakh petitioned Moscow for unification with Soviet Armenia. The Azeri minority on the council boycotted the February 20 vote, which the Politburo in Moscow quickly rejected. A few days later, Armenians rioted in Stepanakert, the provincial capital, killing two Azeris and wounding dozens. On February 27, when word of that incident reached Sumgait, north of Baku, Azeris rioted and killed 31 Armenians.(14) In September, Armenian mobs attacked Azeris in Stepanakert and Khojaly; by November there were demonstrations in most Azerbaijan cities and growing harassment of Armenians.

From late 1988 to early 1990, there was a massive flight of Azeris from Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh and a simultaneous flight of Armenians from eastern Azerbaijan to Nagorno-Karabakh or Armenia. By the end of 1990, some 300,000 refugees from each side had crossed each other’s path.

In December 1989, Armenia announced a unilateral annexation of Nagorno-Karabakh; in January, anti-Armenian riots broke out in Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan. On January 13 and 14, at least 46 Armenians were killed. The Soviet Union sent troops to restore order on January 20, and in the next few days they killed at least 122 Azeris and wounded about 600.

In August of 1990, as the USSR was collapsing, both Armenia and Azerbaijan declared independence. Armenia did not reintroduce the annexation resolution, but assisted the ethnic Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh in driving out virtually all remaining Azeris.(15) Then, on December 10, 1991, the Karabakh Armenians held a referendum calling for independence. A majority of voters in Nagorno-Karabakh-fewer than 40,000, in a country of more than seven million-approved. On January 6, 1992, they declared the independent Nagorno-Karabakh Republic.(16)

At this point the entire conflict changed, and, we would say, the Armenians lost any claim to acting within the standards of international law and conduct. First, they attacked the remaining Azeris in Nagorno-Karabakh. In February 1992, at least 159 Azeris died in a massacre in the town of Khojaly; the remaining 2,000 fled. In May, the same thing happened in Shusha. Then Armenian forces expanded beyond Nagorno-Karabakh and, in May 1992, invaded Azerbaijan. At first, they opened a corridor linking Armenia and the enclave. Soon, however, they expanded operations to occupy a half dozen other regions of Azerbaijan bordering on Nagorno- Karabakh. This push created the million refugees, both Azeri and Kurd, who fled mostly to unoccupied Azerbaijan.

The Russian Factor

The current politics of the region are no less complicated than the tortuous history of the ethnic conflicts. Azerbaijan, like Armenia, became independent in August of 1990, as the USSR was collapsing. It is the only former Soviet Republic with a mixed economy that gives high priority to social welfare programs and, along with Lithuania, has no Russian military bases.

Its current president, Heydar Aliyev, has had a stormy relationship with Moscow. For years he led the Communist Party in the Soviet Republic Of Azerbaijan, and for a time was head of the Azerbaijan branch of the KGB; he became First Deputy Prime Minister of the Soviet Union, and one of the few Muslims on the Soviet Politburo.

While he initially supported Mikhail Gorbachev, he developed serious-ultimately irreconcilable-political differences with him. Aliyev opposed the slogans of perestroika and argued that Gorbachev was leading the country away from socialism.(17) He also disagreed with Gorbachev’s positions-developed by a close group of Armenian advisors-relating to the Caucasus. After the central government did nothing to stop the armed secessionists, sent Soviet troops into Azerbaijan, and then refused to investigate the killings committed by those troops, Aliyev resigned from the Communist Party.(18)

Boris Yeltsin, like Gorbachev, has supported Armenia, despite commercial involvement in Azeri oil production. “For the moment,” BBC correspondent Alexis Rowell noted, “Russian and Armenian interests coincide….It is highly unlikely that any Armenian offensive is undertaken without a green light from Moscow.”(19) But contrary to Rowell’s suggestion, the Azeri government does not “adhere to Moscow’s imperial design.” Indeed, relations have become strained. Azerbaijan recently joined the Junior NATO conference, Partnership for Peace, in large part out of concern for Russian domination. The Russians further antagonized the Azeris by sending a member of the Russian Parliament to Stepanakert in occupied Nagorno-Karabakh.(20)

The U.S. Stake

The U.S., like Russia, has tended to discount the Azeri side of the conflict. There have, however, been differences between the approaches of the Department of State which is more “evenhanded,” and Congress, which is more openly pro-Armenian. Although one would not know it from the U.S. media, four times in 1993 the U.N. Security Council condemned Armenian invasions of Azerbaijan and reaffirmed “respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity,” as well as “the inviolability of international borders and the inadmissibility of the use of force for the acquisition of territory.”(21)

Despite these resolutions and clear evidence of Armenian territorial aggression, an influential Armenian lobby has affected U.S. sentiment, particularly in Congress. Numerous congressional testimonials-sponsored, reasonably enough, by those with the most Armenian-American voters in their districts-are inserted in the Congressional Record every year. Until recently, the lobby pushed for passage of a formal resolution condemning the Ottoman Turks for the 1915 massacre. Armenian support for such a resolution has been matched only by the Turkish opposition. Turkey, a major U.S. ally, and the third largest recipient of U.S. foreign aid, has, so far, prevailed in this fight.

Lately, however, the Armenian focus has shifted to condemnation of Azerbaijan. Typical was a charge by Rep. Nancy Pelosi (from California, the state with the most Armenian- Americans) that “The Azerbaijanis, like the Ottoman Turks in the early 20th century, are attempting to solve a political problem with a violent solution.(22) Sen. Donald Riegel (Michigan, also with many Armenian-Americans) referred to the “brutal blockade” imposed by Azerbaijan on Armenia and condemned “Azeri aggression against the Armenian people.”(23)

Even the Washington Post took note. Since “Armenia has a substantial diaspora in the United States and Azerbaijan does not,” only it “is in a position to apply” constituent pressures on Congress.(24) That pressure has been so effective that Congress condemned Azerbaijan for closing its border with Armenia, while failing to denounce Armenia for invading and occupying Azerbaijan. On a more practical level, on October 24, 1992, Congress passed a law prohibiting government aid, including humanitarian aid, to Azerbaijan.(25) No restrictions whatsoever have been imposed on Armenia, epitomizing what the U.S. Committee for Refugees described as “the almost reflexive U.S. tilt on the Armenian side.” Indeed, the Committee concluded, “the U.S. response has been particularly unbalanced and unhelpful.”(26)

Reason vs. Reasons

Armenia may argue that it had sufficient reasons for invading and occupying a large part of Azerbaijan, but it does not deny that it has done so. And Armenia may argue that the U.N. Security Council was repeatedly wrong in condemning it, but it does not deny that the condemnations have occurred. As always, in conflicts that trace their roots back through the centuries, where disputants justify their actions with chants of vengeance, there is enough blame and blood to go around. But that does not mean that, at a particular moment, the blame is necessarily equal. In this case, the Armenians are the aggressors and should be condemned as such. If any lasting solution is to be found, the international community must continue to struggle against “ethnic cleansing;” the Armenians must withdraw from occupied territory; the parties to the conflict must work with the international community for a peaceful solution; and the U.S. must lift the congressional ban on humanitarian aid to Azerbaijan.

Although the authors are two of the three co-publishers of this magazine, this article represents their own views. The authors have visited Azerbaijan and interviewed president Aliyev, and Ellen Ray is the producer of a brief documentary film about him.

Authors: Ellen Ray & Bill Schaap

  1. Security Council Resolutions 822 (April 30, 1993), 853 (July 29, 1993), 874 (October 14, 1993), and 884 (November 12, 1993).
  2. See, for example, Carey Goldberg, “David and Goliath in the Caucasus,” Los Angeles Times, April 21, 1994, p. A1; and Raymond Bonner, “War, Blockade, and Poverty ‘Strangling’ Armenia,” New York Times, April 16, 1994, p. 3.
  3. See Christopher Simpson’s The Splendid Blond Beast: Money, Law, and Genocide in the Twentieth Century (New York: Grove Press, 1993) for a detailed analysis of the pressures-humanitarianism being only one – that brought the Western powers to denounce Ottoman atrocities against the Armenians.
  4. Alexis Rowell, “U.S. Mercenaries Fight in Azerbaijan,” CovertAction, Spring 1994, p. 26.
  5. U.S. Committee for Refugees, Faultlines of Nationality Conflict: Refugees and Displaced Persons From Armenia and Azerbaijan (Washington, D.C.: USCR, March 1994), hereafter USCR Report, also notes some 300,000 displaced Armenians. According to the U.N., in Azerbaijan as of May 1, 1994, there were: 215,000 refugees of Azeri origin from Armenia; 49,000 Turks-Meskhetians from Uzbekistan; 50,000 displaced persons from Nagorno-Karabakh; and 920,000 displaced persons from seven other occupied regions of Azerbaijan. In May, the Azeri government added another 50,000 Azeris.
  6. Kurds made up 1.7% of Armenia”s population. (“You Too, Armenia?” Kurdish Life, No. 9, Winter 1994, published by the Kurdish Library, Brooklyn, N.Y., pp. 1, 2.)
  7. Ibid.
  8. By best estimates, in the 1930s, ethnic Armenians were 94.4% of the 160,000 people of Nagorno-Karabakh; in 1979, Armenians comprised 76% of 123,000 people in the enclave. Except for a few percent other-mostly Kurd-the rest of the population was Azeri. Now, the population is virtually 100 percent Armenian. (USCR Report, p. 9.) The Azeris also claim that the Armenian majority in Nagorno-Karabakh dates only to 1828, the conclusion of the last Russo-Persian War. Some Caucasians have an expansive sense of time. The authors recently met a Georgian with whom they discussed the secessionists in Abkhazia. The Abkhazians, he said, were “new- comers,” with no real claim to the area. “How long have they been there?” we inquired. “Only five hundred years.”
  9. USCR Report, P.2.
  10. Charter of the United Nations, Article 2, Section 4.
  11. While some enclaves were settled in ancient times, many others are of more recent vintage, often dating to wars of the 18th and 19th centuries. Also, after the Russo-Persian war of 1828, Azerbaijan was divided between the two combatants, a situation that prevails to this day. More than half of what had been Azerbaijan became part of Persia, now Iran. More than twice as many ethnic Azeris (15 million) live in Iran as in Azerbaijan. (USCR Report, p. 5.)
  12. Security Council Note S/23496, January 29, 1992, informed the Republic of Armenia that admission would be recommended to the General Assembly. Note S/23597, February 14, 1992, did the same for the Republic of Azerbaijan. The notes cited each nation’s “solemn commitment to uphold the purposes and principles of the charter, which include the principles relating to the peaceful settlement.of disputes and the non-use of force….” When admitted to the U.N. on March 3, 1992 (General Assembly Resolutions 227 and 230), neither challenged the existing borders upon which the admissions were predicated.
  13. The claim that Stalin “took” Nagorno-Karabakh from Armenia is simply not true. Stalin “retained the lines of the map that separated Nagorno-Karabakh from Armenia”; he “appeared to want to maintain the territorial status quo in Nagorno-Karabakh.” USCR Report, pp. 8, 9. Instances when the borders were drawn or reconsidered, and when Nagorno-Karabakh remained part of Azerbaijan, include the conclusion of the 1813 Russo-Persian War; the conclusion of the 1828 Russo-Persian War; during the 1918 British occupation; in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution in 1919; at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919 (when “the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh” signed “an agreement accepting Azerbaijan jurisdiction”); and when the two nations became Soviet Republics in 1920. (See the excellent chronology in the USCR Report, pp. 20-22.)
  14. Most Armenians consider the Sumgait riots, which they call a pogrom, the start of the current conflict. Most Azeris consider the local council petition and the riot in Stepanakert as the start. The point is somewhat moot, as the ethnic conflicts have simmered and boiled off and on for hundreds of years. There is also considerable debate over the extent, if any, to which the various riots on either side have been encouraged, or even planned, by the authorities. See USCR Report, p. 11. The history outlined in this subsection is from the USCR Report, pp. 10-18.
  15. There is considerable dispute over the extent to which the Karabakh Armenians were directly supported and assisted by the Armenian government at the outset of the conflict. Armenia was far stronger militarily than Azerbaijan, and it seems clear that the great bulk of the anti-Azerbaijan forces at this point are Armenians, not Karabakh Armenians. See Steve Levine, “When the Victim Becomes the Bully,” Newsweek, November 29, 1993. Many more Soviet Army officers were Armenian than Azeri; see Goldberg, op. cit., p. A6.
  16. No nation, Armenia included, has formally recognized the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic. (USCR Report, p. 15.)
  17. Dilara Seyid-Zade, Lines from Biography of A Great Politician (Baku: Azerbaijan Publishers, 1994), pp. 12-13. Azerbaijan was the only country in the former USSR and Eastern Europe that voted for Cuba in the November 3, 1993. U.N. General Assembly condemnation of the U.S. embargo. See also Valery Boldin, Ten Years That Shook the World (New York: Basic Books, 1994), p. 170.
  18. Heydar Aliyev, Steadfast Position (Baku: Azerbaijan Publishing House, 1994), pp. 30-35. In the U.S. press, Aliyev is typically referred to as “a Brezhnev-era KGB chief’ (New York Times, August 1, 1993, p. E14) and “the old Communist Party and KGB boss” (Washington Post, June 30, 1993), p. A20). Oddly enough, these leading journals never refer to Boris Yeltsin as “the old Moscow Communist Party boss,” which he was for years.
  19. Rowell, op. cit.
  20. Azerbaijan Newsletter, Vol. 2, No. 8, March 31, 1994, p. 2. The Azeris now call Stepanakert by its pre-Soviet name, Khankendi.
  21. Security Council Resolutions 822 ( April 30, 1993), 853 (July 29, 1993), 874 (October 14, 1993), and 884 (12 November 1993). The quoted language appears in each resolution. Neither the New York Times, the Washington Post, nor the Los Angeles Times reported on a single one of these four Security Council actions. The New York Times did, though, during this period run a Reuters dispatch summarizing U.N. opposition: “U.N. Demands Armenians Give Up Conquests,” August 19, l993, p. A14.
  22. Congressional Record, April 29, 1992, p. H2798.
  23. Congressional Record, April 21, 1993, p. S4759.
  24. “Tilting to Armenia,” Washington Post editorial, March 11, 1993, p. A28.
  25. The Act, PL 102-511, Title IX, sec. 907, imposes sanctions until “the President determines, and so reports to the Congress, that the Government of Azerbaijan is taking demonstrable steps to cease all blockades and other offensive uses of force against Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh.”
  26. USCR Report, p. 36.
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