Why Armenia Can’t Survive Without Artsakh
In 2011, my cousin, Ashkhen Arakelyan, who lives in Armenia, visited Ankara, Turkey to participate in a chemistry and mathematics olympiad. At the young age of 26, she’s already the mother of three boys, and although it seems like parenting is all she was destined for, Ashkhen is actually a very smart individual. For her academic achievements she was recognized by the former president, Serzh Sargsyan himself. In the end, and for our purposes, it really doesn’t matter what prize she won at the olympiad or that she got to shake the hand of the most powerful man in Armenia at the time—what matters is the thing she witnessed during her journey almost ten years ago. Walking into one of the rooms where the competition was being held, she saw this “map” hanging on a wall—go on, take all the time you need; it shouldn’t take long, however, to realize that this isn’t really a map but an ambition, an ideology, a dream, even.
Images like this are rarely circulated outside Turkey proper—and for good reason. If you’ve ever heard of the word “pan-Turkism,” you’ll probably understand the meaning of this cartography—you’ll understand why the tiny nation of Armenia is nowhere to be found in between the two aforementioned countries and why Artsakh is depicted with the colors of Azerbaijan’s flag—it is after all recognized as a part of that country’s territory by international law; it’s a strange thing, however—this so-called international law. What power does it have anyways when Turkey has illegally occupied Northern Cyprus since 1974 and that very same international community which tries to do Azerbaijan justice has been unable to punish Turkey for the very thing that Azeris have accused Armenians of doing—occupying their territory; that’s another point, however. Turks have a right to protect Turkish-speakers in Cyprus, but Armenians can’t use the same justification to protect their own in Azerbaijan simply because the “brotherly” countries have already committed a genocide against us more than a hundred years ago and they won’t do it again. Thus, we should simply return all of Artsakh to a country which has already been complicit in trying to cleanse our populace and happily receive the highest autonomy they’re willing to give us in exchange, along with accepting the promise that they’ll protect our people—if you believe that, I have four words for you: Talysh-Mughan Autonomous Republic.
The Talysh people are an Iranian ethnic group who are indigenous to a region that’s shared between Azerbaijan and Iran, a territory spanning the South Caucasus and the southwestern shore of the Caspian Sea. They have their own language (called Talysh), and it’s one of the Northwestern Iranian languages. While this is all good and interesting, the problem was that in 1993, the Talysh decided they wanted to be independent—so they seized some territory in the southeast and formed their own state—which lasted a grand total of 66 days; this is the flag of their long-lived republic. Nice, isn’t it?
All jokes aside, however, the plight of the Talysh proves that Azerbaijan can’t be trusted with protecting the minority rights of Armenians—a Christian people their own children are taught to despise in grade school. If they couldn’t protect the rights of a Muslim minority—the Talysh—they surely won’t protect those of Armenians; this fact is even harder to deny for the very simple reason that an Azerbaijani historian by the name of Arif Yunusov has himself revealed that school textbooks describe Armenians with slurs such as “bandits” and “aggressors.” In Russian he writes: “В дальнейших разделах учебника авторы все больше и больше внимание уделяют армянам, которые и начинают восприниматься как ‘главные неверные в черных одеяниях.’ При этом, в отношении армян также используются все возможные негативные эпитеты (‘бандиты,’ ‘агрессоры,’ ‘коварные,’ ‘лицемерные’ и т.д.). Именно ‘коварные’ армяне помогли России в покорении Азербайджана, именно в результате ‘восстания армянских бандитов’ в Карабахе в 1920 г. основные силы азербайджанской армии оказались оттянуты от северных границ, чем воспользовалась 11-ая Красная Армия и вторглась в Азербайджан. Таким образом, ‘неверные в черных одеяниях вновь сделали свое черное дело.'” And so on and so on, tovarish.
With my more or less functional Russian, I’ve translated Yunusov’s statement in this way, but you’re more than welcome to copy and paste the text into Google: “In subsequent sections of the textbook, more and more attention is devoted to the Armenians, who are perceived as ‘the main traitors in black robes.’ In this respect, all the possible slurs (bandits, aggressors, insidious, hypocritical, and so on and so on) are also used in relation to Armenians. It was the insidious Armenians who helped Russia conquer Azerbaijan; it was due to the ‘uprising of Armenian bandits’ in Karabakh in 1920 that the main forces of the Azerbaijani army were pulled from the northern borders, which made possible the Red Army’s invasion of Azerbaijan.” Can the citizens of a country who go through such a school system possibly protect the rights of Armenians? This is a country in which hate against the Armenians isn’t just a fact, but an institution.
Moreover, according to Akram Aylisli, an Azerbaijani author and the first Turkic writer to publish a story on the Armenian Genocide, “The word ‘Armenian’ is a terrible curse in Azerbaijan, akin to a ‘Jew’ or ‘Nigger’ in other places. As soon as you hear ‘you behave like an Armenian!’ — ‘No, it’s you, who is Armenian!’ — that is a sure recipe for a brawl. The word ‘Armenian’ is equivalent to ‘enemy’ in the most deep and archaic sense of the word, something like ‘Tatar’ for our Russian forefathers, an evil and an age-old enemy.” Well, it’s good to know all that the next time I travel there. Wait a minute—with the “yan” at the end of my name (a dead giveaway of my ethnicity), I don’t think they’ll let me in anyways.
Although there’s really no time for any asides here, I must take a moment to acknowledge the contributions of Akram Aylisli. A highly decorated author in his native Azerbaijan, Aylisli was awarded the most prestigious honors that President Aliyev could bestow upon a writer; after publishing Stone Dreams, however, a novella about the Sumgait and Baku pogroms, the People’s Writer award so generously presented to him was revoked by the very same president who had conferred it; but the state didn’t stop there—his wife and son were fired from their jobs and he endured countless instances of harassment.
I’ve stated many times before that it’s always the artists who make real changes, rarely the politicians. As Thomas De Waal, an expert on the region and author of the book, Black Garden, writes, “With the dispute still unresolved, it is too much to ask to have the leaders acknowledge their own side’s guilt for these episodes—as a Serbian president finally did in 2013 for the 1995 Srebrenica massacre. But both Aliyev and Pashinyan are actively obstructing conflict resolution by recycling conspiracy theories.” Indeed, this is also true for everyday people. For the Armenians all that matters is the pogrom of Sumgait, and for the Azeris they only remember the massacre of Khojaly.
Despite the existential danger Armenians face in Artsakh, international law has largely remained oblivious to the plight of minorities in general. The fact that bona fide independence is no longer so easy to win as it was before has something to do with the changing norms and attitudes about self-determination. According to Neil MacFarlane’s book, Western Engagement in the Caucasus and Central Asia, the international community, in the modern day, prefers to protect minority rights within the borders of existing states: “For better or worse, the West is committed to the attempt to address problems relating to minority rights within the context of acceptance of the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the new states.” What does this signify? Well, that self-determination today has come to mean protecting the rights of persecuted individuals within the territory of an existing state, rather than compromising territorial integrity to safeguard the population—even a child can tell this formula is a little ridiculous. If the people are persecuted it’s because the dominant group hates them, so why would you expect the territorial borders (which are inherently there to secure the majority from invasion by foreign powers) of that country to protect a minority population residing precisely within the very boundaries of a nation that considers them “foreign” to itself?
As with almost everything in international law, however, which, after almost fifty years, hasn’t managed to kick Turkey out of Cyprus or prevented a single genocide, nothing really makes any sense, and this is just another reason why Oded Haklai writes the following in his own academic article—the title of which is much too long: “Thus, whereas self-determination provided the premise for the formation of new states on territories ruled by empires and colonial powers, in the contemporary statist world, the principle of territorial integrity checks the capacity of minorities within existing states to win independent statehood.” Again, all that’s good and well in the context of international law, but theory often conflicts with the facts on the ground. It has already been shown that Azerbaijan is more or less incapable of protecting minority rights, and should the Armenians of Artsakh give up their ancestral homeland in exchange for the highest autonomy, it’s almost certain that within a short time, Azerbaijan will “find” some excuse to intervene in the territory—any reason will do here, but let’s try this one: The Armenians are acting up, and in the interest of the state we must quash their “rebellion” which is threatening the existence of Azerbaijan; shortly thereafter, the government will “encourage” Azeris to settle the area and that will be all she wrote for the “autonomy” that an authoritarian state had so generously bestowed upon Artsakh Armenians. It’s not like Artsakh has the privilege of being Basque Country or Catalonia—autonomous states within a peaceful, democratic country, allowing them to be (relatively) sure that Spain will keep on respecting their rights, should they never attain independence.
No, especially after the murder of Gurgen Margaryan in Hungary by an Azeri officer whose name I won’t pronounce (my article on this), it’s especially evident that Armenia can’t settle for anything but full recognition, no matter how much that demand goes against the norms of modern international law. Why should Kosovo be allowed to secede and not Artsakh? In this sense, the international community is picking and choosing. Territorial integrity for Ukraine, independence for Kosovo, territorial integrity for Azerbaijan, and so on and so on. Perhaps, the Armenians of Artsakh could accept a deal in which they agreed to return everything in exchange for the highest autonomy possible—were it not for this map. Look at it again and tell me if we can really do that?
The image above will show you precisely what the ambitions of those two “brotherly” countries are; it will show you that Armenia is the last obstacle between the existence of an entire nation and the “fraternal” desire to revive the Ottoman Empire. Where is Armenia? If you don’t see it, you’re not alone, because in the eyes of Erdogan and Aliyev, it doesn’t exist. Who cares, however, what two dictators think? According to the Armenian Community Council of the UK, “Armenia is the only country remaining from 3,000 year old maps of Anatolia,” and even though two dictators would like to change that, they won’t wipe away our borders. They can’t achieve their goal unless Artsakh falls and they know this very well.
Take a look at the more modern cartography which depicts Armenia’s territorial boundaries precisely according to international law. On the left, you have the exclave of Nakhichevan (belonging to Azerbaijan) and on the right you have Azerbaijan itself; the tiny strip of land that separates the two is called Zangezur and it’s not difficult to imagine where the offensive to swallow up Armenia would begin if Artsakh were to fall. Look at this map and tell me how long Armenia can survive without holding on to the territory that neither exists in the eyes of international law, nor in the minds of Erdogan and Aliyev?
This is no longer a war about territorial integrity; contrary to their claims and assertions about international law, it’s never been about that. Why does the enemy need to recruit Syrian jihadists to fight for them (a fact which can no longer be disputed) if this is a war for their own righteous goal of territorial integrity? Do they really want to win it with the help of terrorists? And if this is really just a war for that aforementioned goal and nothing else, why bomb a nineteenth century church that’s situated in a place where no military or even civilian targets are in the immediate vicinity? This is the cathedral in Shushi before it was shelled. Do you see anything worth targeting around it?
Of course, Azerbaijan’s Defense Ministry has denied singling out the religious site, saying its army “doesn’t target historical, cultural and, especially, religious buildings and monuments,” but if that’s the case, what exactly were they aiming at and how did they miss it so badly?
Many often wonder why Armenians are so “hysterical.” They don’t understand why we amplify our grief beyond reason. They can’t grasp why we subject ourselves to suffering more than we should. It’s because very few people really understand our history. Almost no one notices the precarious position we find ourselves in, surrounded by rocks upon rocks, which are harmless, and two hostile powers with whom both our borders are closed.
One of the most important American novelists of the twentieth century, William Saroyan, wrote the following in a short story called “The Armenian and the Armenian,” published in his second book, Inhale and Exhale in 1936:
Saroyan was wrong, however. He died in 1981 and didn’t live to see Artsakh return to Armenia; Artsakh is Armenia—it can only be this way if we’re to survive as a nation. I know this statement will offend some people. I know that as someone studying human rights, I must be objective. I must protect the lives of all individuals. In my eyes, a persecuted Azeri must be no different than an Armenian in the same circumstance, and I’ll always believe in that; however, the loss of this territory doesn’t threaten the very existence of Azerbaijan, whereas Armenia’s survival depends entirely on holding it.
Many individuals I study with are afraid of speaking out—afraid of offending anyone, but that’s precisely what human rights work will require of us. If you can’t stand to be uncomfortable and risk making others angry, how will you ever protect the rights of those who are persecuted by a government that hates you for protecting them? No, if you can’t do that, then you shouldn’t embark on this profession and that’s why I must offend my colleagues at this time to stand up for the truth in which I believe, a fact which is captured in the statement made by the great Soviet dissident, Andrei Sakharov: “For Azerbaijan, Karabakh is matter of ambition; for the Armenians of Karabakh, it is a matter of life and death.” May peace come to you all.
About David Garyan
David Garyan has published three chapbooks with Main Street Rag, along with (DISS)INFORMATION, a full collection with the same publisher. He holds an MA and MFA from Cal State Long Beach, where he associated himself with the Stand Up Poets. He is currently studying International Cooperation on Human Rights and Intercultural Heritage at the University of Bologna. He lives in Ravenna.