Category: Artsakh

Why Armenia Can’t Survive Without Artsakh, an article by David Garyan

09/10/2020
Ravenna, Italy

 

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.


(Photo by Ashkhen Arakelyan)

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.

 

 

Yesterday Karabakh, Today Artsakh, part II, an article by David Garyan

July 23rd, 2020
Ravenna, Italy

Part I

Yesterday Karabakh, Today Artsakh, part II

As a follow-up to my article on the situation in Artsakh, I wanted to take the time to further underscore the fact that, despite Armenia’s victory in the conflict, the area remains disputed and isn’t recognized on the international level or by any UN member state. I wrote the article in response to the all hateful propaganda directed towards Armenians, which I’d been encountering on the internet over the past weeks, as the conflict was starting to escalate; and if there’s despicable propaganda on one side, you can be sure the same phenomenon is playing out in the other aisle as well. I can’t stress enough that both camps are guilty, but it seems like the majority of Turkish or Azeri people with whom I’ve had discussions just want to highlight the wrongdoings of the other side and never their own. I’m sure individuals from Turkey and Azerbaijan feel the same way when they encounter an Armenian, which is precisely why tensions escalate quickly and haphazardly, as was the case in Los Angeles recently, where Armenian protesters clashed with Azeris. According to the Armenian National Committee of America (ANCA), the Azeris who showed up to the protest were chanting “Death to Armenia.” The newspaper which published the story didn’t confirm this but did embed ANCA’s Twitter post about the matter into the actual article.

Given the contentious history, there are always excuses for any hostilities between the peoples of both nations. On the Armenian side, for example, there’s much to be said about the Baku pogrom or Sumgait massacre, but very few openly comment on the horrors of Khojaly, for example. Why is that? Before we even get into a discussion of the various massacres committed by each side, let’s take a moment to focus on the current situation. It’s only natural for both sides to blame each other for breaking the ceasefire and each camp has in the past been guilty of violating it; there can no doubt about that. In the most recent case, however, if we only look at the 170 signatories who signed the UN global ceasefire appeal during the COVID crisis, we see that Armenia’s name is on the list, and Azerbaijan’s name isn’t. What do we make of this?

Again, there’s really been enough finger-pointing and the purpose of this article is to offer a complementary perspective to my first piece which set out to describe some of Artsakh’s history and the important figures that were either responsible for its foundation or who later shaped it in some meaningful way; along with the inclusion of some history, I also used various statements by US senators and representatives in order to truly highlight the fact that Artsakh is a disputed region. While internationally it’s recognized as part of Azerbaijan, the presence of Armenians in the area goes back thousands of years and the arbitrary transfer of the region to Azerbaijan by Stalin in 1921 played an essential role in Armenia’s decision to occupy the territory roughly seventy years later; thus, by using the statements of US senators and representatives, the article aimed to show that even in America—which, at the federal level, recognizes the region as part of Azerbaijan—the only thing which remains clear is that Artsakh is a disputed territory; it may belong to Azerbaijan, but self-determination has always proven to be a thorn in the side concerning issues like this.

It’s for all those aforementioned reasons that a complementary piece to the initial article is necessary in order to further show that while international recognition of the territory has never been disputed, international support in this matter isn’t only given to Azerbaijan, whose guilt alongside that of Armenia will be discussed.

In the interest of fairness, let’s begin with Armenia’s wrongdoing and subsequently discuss that of Azerbaijan. For starters, the Nagorno-Karabakh War resulted in Azerbaijan losing around twenty percent of its territory and displacing, according to a UN report, over 800,000 civilians. What Azeri authorities consistently fail to mention, however, is that, likewise, according to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), there were “360,000 ethnic Armenians who arrived in Armenia from Azerbaijan from 1988 to 1993 as a result of the conflict over the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh.” So displacement, unlike Azeri authorities would have us believe, isn’t really a one-way street.

Both sides suffered a great deal and the important thing isn’t to make it a competition but to acknowledge the humanity of both sides, which leads to the next point: During the Nagorno-Karabakh War, atrocities were committed by Armenian and Azeri forces alike. Again, in the interest of fairness, let’s begin with those committed by Armenians: The most notable in this respect is the 1992 Khojaly Massacre; the Azeri government claims that more than 600 lives were lost, but a 1993 Human Rights Watch report states the following:

On the Azeri side, no discussion can be complete without first mentioning the 1988 Sumgait pogrom. Again, like Azeri sources, those of Armenia are exceptionally liberal when it comes to calculating death-toll estimates, placing the number at over 200 while a Minorities at Risk (more about this project) report records the Armenian casualties at twenty-six, along with six dead Azeris. Although much lower than the figures at Khojaly, the more unfortunate thing about this is that Armenia experienced a devastating earthquake only ten months later, killing over 25,000 people and leaving over 500,000 without homes. According to another report by the same agency: “In the ensuing relief effort, Azerbaijan continued to block all shipments into Armenia. In response to what Azerbaijan authorities saw as attempts to annex Karabakh, Azerbaijan moved to punish Armenia and Armenians by firing Armenian workers and expelling them from their homes in Azerbaijan.” All this happened during a period when Armenia was experiencing its most severe crisis; now, they’ve refused to sign a UN ceasefire agreement during a pandemic. Let me ask: Where’s the humanity in that? In 1988, I was only one year old when the earthquake hit. My mother carried me out of a building in her arms, but enough sentimentality. Instead here’s an image from that event depicting what seems to be two men digging for survivors.

In many respects the Khojaly massacre perpetrated by Armenian forces was an act of revenge for the horrors of Sumgait; the former was orchestrated on the 26th of February, 1992 while the latter occurred on the 26th of February, 1988, culminating on March 1st of that same year. It’s this vicious cycle that I mention in the first article that causes so many problems in the resolution of this conflict. Payback after payback and it really doesn’t matter at this point who started the most recent fighting or even who began it in the first place—the only thing that matters is who’ll be the one to decide that it’s over.

Let’s continue with another Azeri massacre of Armenians—in this case Maragha—in which, according to multiple Amnesty International (AI) reports, between 45 to 100 people were killed, and not simply that, as stated by one source; their bodies were disfigured and indiscriminately thrown into mass graves. This particular AI document  states the following and the full report quoted below can be viewed here:

This dossier compiled in 1993 by the same agency gives a lower death-toll and this is meant to demonstrate that there can be contrasting perspectives in eyewitness accounts, along with the fact that different reports may focus on important matters that another source may choose to leave out—things such as hostages that were never found or wounded individuals who didn’t necessarily perish during or immediately after the massacre but nevertheless died as a result of their injuries later on; naturally, we may give both sides the benefit of such doubts.

One of the biggest atrocities committed by Armenian forces was during the Capture of Shusha; this can be considered the turning point of the war as it signified the first major victory for the country. Azerbaijan claims that more than 193 lives were lost. I couldn’t find official data on this, but, in the interest of solidarity, let’s just say this was the case. Due to the heavy fighting, the city was reduced to rubble, as this picture shows.

James Carney’s article “Carnage in Karabakh” in Time magazine had this to say about the extent of the damage: “scarcely a single building escaped damage in Stepanakert.” War doesn’t justify the killing of civilians, so let’s not pretend otherwise, even if it serves Armenian interests to use that rationale. Who are we really benefiting with arguments like this when they can just as easily be made by the other side? What’s interesting is that seventy-two years ago a massacre against the Armenians was carried out in this very same city, causing the destruction of the entire Armenian-populated quarter; according to Thomas de Waal‘s book, Black Garden, approximately 500 people lost their lives and the event resulted in the removal of the town’s entire Armenian population.

Indeed, though deadly and gruesome, the massacres during the Nagorno-Karabakh War didn’t amount to nearly the same casualties as those which occurred before and immediately after the creation of the Soviet Union, which was able to suppress and shelve the conflict not long after its formation, relatively speaking.

The so-called March Days were responsible for over 10,000 casualties. Orchestrated by the Bolsheviks with the help of the Dashnaktsutyun (the Armenian Revolutionary Federation), it was an attempt to suppress a possible revolt against Soviet authorities by Azerbajain’s Musavat Party. To demonstrate how dirty politics in fact are, we may simply look at this example: During the period of Soviet Azerbaijan, more precisely in 1978, the country’s leader at the time, Heydar Aliev, issued the following statement at a meeting dedicated to the 100th anniversary of the birth of Stepan Shahumian (the man who helped the Bolsheviks orchestrate the March Days) in Baku on October 11, 1978: “В марте 1918 года мусаватисты подняли антисоветский мятеж в Баку, намереваясь задушить Советскую власть. Благодаря решительным и твердым мерам, принятым большевиками, мятеж был ликвидирован.” The verbatim English translation is as follows: “In March 1918, the Musavatists launched an anti-Soviet revolt in Baku, intending to strangle Soviet power. Thanks to the decisive and firm measures taken by the Bolsheviks, the rebellion was liquidated.” Exactly twenty years later, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, of course, that very same leader, Heydar Aliev, according to a UN General Assembly Security Council report, issued a very different statement: “Taking advantage of the situation following the end of the First World War and the February and October 1917 revolutions in Russia, the Armenian nationalists began to pursue the implementation of their plans under the banner of Bolshevism. Under the watchword of combating counter-revolutionary elements, in March 1918, the Baku commune began to implement a criminal plan aimed at eliminating Azerbaijanis from the whole of Baku province.” What version are we really to believe?

The only thing crystal-clear here is that the same man isn’t simply an individual of his time, but a politician of it. Thus, which politician are we to believe—Soviet Aliev or the post-Soviet one? Should we believe that the Bolsheviks with the help of Stepan Shahumian are heroes for crushing an anti-Soviet revolt in Baku or that those very same Bolsheviks with the help of that traitorous Armenian were responsible for killing more than 12,000 people? Perhaps we can simplify things by complicating the issue with the addition of a scholar: According to Michael Smith’s article, “Anatomy of Rumor: Murder Scandal, the Musavat Party and Narrative of the Russian Revolution in Baku, 1917–1920,” which states: “The results of the March events were immediate and total for the Musavat. Several hundreds of its members were killed in the fighting; up to 12,000 Muslim civilians perished; thousands of others fled Baku in a mass exodus.” Issues like these are exactly what I was trying to highlight rather subtly in my first article, but since the point may not have gotten across to some people, I’ve decided to take a more direct approach. Let me pose the question again: Which Heydar Aliev do we believe?

Moving right back along now to Azeri atrocities committed against the Armenians. Aptly named the September Days, it’s not difficult to realize at this point that this event was an act of revenge for the March Days—a sort of reverse Khojaly, if you will. A 1995 Human Rights Watch report summarizes the two events nicely, although their death toll for the March Days could’ve perhaps been higher, but who cares about a few lives here and there, right? One death can be a genocide if there’s enough hate involved.

What do all these unfortunate events show? Precisely what I was trying to suggest in the first article: “Indeed, Azeris will never forget the atrocities of Khojaly while at the same time deliberately choosing to ignore the pogroms committed against Armenians in Sumgait, Baku, and Stepanakert; however, this has more to do with realizing political objectives than any kind of genuine hate for a people.” In this conflict, when one side has committed or commits an atrocity against the other side, it really isn’t that difficult to find something equivalent that has happened at some point in the past, or will probably happen in the future; all this needs to stop.

While Armenian and Azeri politicians are busy pointing fingers, people are dying; that was another thing which I initially attempted to illustrate by using the statements of US senators and representatives. The back-and-forth will never stop; tomorrow, an Azeri will find some other international lawmaker to back up his own cause and what will that really do to further the relations between the two countries themselves? Something else is needed—something besides politics. A few people I’ve spoken to about this disagree—they believe politics is the only solution. When I mentioned that our family knows an Armenian man and an Azeri woman who are married to each other, one person even discounted such cultural contact as not really relevant in the process towards building better relations between the respective countries; I find that very hard to believe.

Politics isn’t everything because the majority of Armenians and Azeris aren’t actually politicians; they’re just regular people. It’s therefore up to us to build bridges, to form bonds and go places where governments can’t take us. It’s my firm belief that the true resolution to this conflict will not come from the political arena but from Armenians and Azeris themselves. The eighteenth-century Armenian poet Sayat-Nova, who wrote both in Armenian and Azeri, along with Georgian as well, thought of himself, according to de Waal, precisely “as a bridge builder.” The poet was most content when, in de Waal’s words, he could move “between the different nations and regions of the Caucasus,” never tied down to a single identity. In one of his Azeri poems, he writes:

The word “nation” in the poem is ambiguous; however, Sayat-Nova’s biographer, Charles Dorsett (quoted in de Waal), states the following about why the poet may have chosen that specific word: “What nation? If the Armenian nation, or the Georgian, why is the poem in Azeri? It would seem his horizons are broader, and that he is thinking in such terms such as the Caucasian unity, in which Armenian, Georgian, and Azeri might live together in harmony, under the beneficent rule of a wise leader like Irakli II, and Azeri, as the common language, was the best vehicle for the message.” An Armenian poet writing in Azeri? Truly, this is something that both sides probably wouldn’t want to acknowledge, but it’s precisely what proves my point—politics isn’t the solution. It’s the power of art and culture that will serve to mediate whatever differences exist between Armenia and Azerbaijan.

 

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.

Yesterday Karabakh, Today Artsakh, part I, an article by David Garyan

July 22nd, 2020
Ravenna, Italy

Part II

Yesterday Karabakh, Today Artsakh, part I

The recent escalation in violence between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh is an unfortunate event in what has become a long struggle for self-determination in the case of Armenia and preserving the integrity of national borders in the case of Azerbaijan.

The area, historically known as Artsakh, has always retained a strong Armenian character, both in terms of culture and religion. David Marhall Lang, one of the most notable British scholars on Armenian, Georgian, and Bulgarian history, traces the territory’s name back to an ancient Armenian king: “Historically speaking, the evidence of Armenian occupation is overwhelming. The area’s ancient name of Artsakh probably recalls the name of King Artashes I (190-159 B.C.), founder of the Artaxiad dynasty.” Moreover, in line with Lang’s argument, the emergence of cities such as Tigranakert, probably founded by Tigranes the Great, or perhaps even his father, provide further scholarly evidence that Armenians inhabited the area long before there was even a nation called Azerbaijan.

Ten years ago an archaeological museum was opened in the city with the aim of studying and preserving the ancient Armenian ruins.

Likewise, places like Amaras Monastery, dating back to the fourth century AD, show the extent to which Armenian religious sights have impacted the region. Founded by St. Gregory the Illuminator, the grounds later served as the site where his remains where buried in 338; it’s this religious leader who converted his people from paganism to Christianity, effectively making Armenia the first nation to adopt the religion as its official faith in 301—twelve years before Emperor Constantine issued the Edict of Milan, after which it took ten more years for Rome to do what the aforementioned saint had already done twenty-two years ago in his own land. Indeed, it was also in Amaras, at the beginning of the fifth century that Mesrop Mashtots—a medieval Armenian linguist and theologian who invented the unique Armenian alphabet—founded the first school that would use the script which would go on to serve Armenians to this day.

According to Peter Brown in his book, Late Antiquity: A Guide to the Postclassical World, published by Harvard University Press, Mashtots “also created the Georgian and Caucasian-Albanian alphabets, based on the Armenian model.” Hence, Mashtots proved to be a man who was interested in worldly pursuits—in the sense that he was a theologian who didn’t simply concern himself with the agenda of his own people. Below is a picture of the simple yet picturesque monastery which has captured the imagination of both Armenians and foreigners alike.

Another important testament to the Armenian presence in the area is Gandzasar, a thirteenth-century Armenian-Apostolic cathedral built between 1216 and 1238. To this day, Azeri attempts to whitewash Armenian history in the region have led to efforts which try to portray the monastery as the cultural and religious heir of Caucasian Albania;  an Economist article from 1997 highlights just one of the ways in which the Azeri political apparatus manipulates history for their own ends: “Those sculpted men who built the church and hundreds of others like it were not Armenians at all, the Baku scholars have argued, but Albanians. And the Albanians, they add, were the ancestors of the Azerbaijanis.” Such skulduggery has been challenged by various scholars, including the noted Russian historian Victor Schnirelmann, and recognized American scholar on Armenian studies, Robert Hewsen; the former has made numerous statements (written in Russian) regarding Azerbaijan’s attempt to shift Armenian intellectuals and monuments from the past into the sphere of Albanian history while the latter wrote the following in his book, Armenia: A Historical Atlas: “Scholars should be on guard when using Soviet and post-Soviet Azeri editions of Azeri, Persian, and even Russian and Western European sources printed in Baku. These have been edited to remove references to Armenians and have been distributed in large numbers in recent years. When utilizing such sources, the researchers should seek out pre-Soviet editions wherever possible.” Along with this, the successful obliteration of medieval Armenian khachkars (stone cross carvings) in the city Djulfa to erase any traces of Armenian presence is an event The LA Times has called cultural genocide.

While it’s a sad and unfortunate matter that some nations choose to destroy monuments for the purpose of erasing people’s legacies in specific regions, our purpose is better served if we analyze Azerbaijan’s manipulation of history; the latter dilemma is something the Economist, at least in Gandzasar’s supposed Albanian heritage (as claimed by the Azeris) is also quick to point out: “This is nonsense. According to most historians, the Albanians, a Caucasian people first recorded by the Romans, simply disappeared around the 10th century and became assimilated with their neighbours. All that remained was a territorial name, which the eastern branch of the Armenian church took for its diocese.” There can be no denying that Artsakh has always been a frontier land and that Armenians, too, have engaged in historical revisionism; what can’t be disputed, however, is the overwhelming historical proof that Armenians have resided in the territory long before the Muslims ever arrived—the only confirmation one needs for this is simple math: Islam is a religion founded approximately seven centuries after the birth of Christ; Tigranes the Great, meanwhile, founded Tigranakert—by the most modest calculations—fifty years before Jesus himself was even born; thus, it’s not even Christians who were already establishing ancient cities in Artsakh, but pagan Armenians. The presence of many religious sites such as Gandzasar Monastery (pictured below) show how firmly people renounced their polytheism in order to embrace a monotheistic faith.

Following a war with Iran, the Russian Empire formally annexed what’s today once again known as Artsakh in 1813; however, after the Russian Empire itself collapsed in 1918 and the short-lived republics of Armenian and Azerbaijan were born in 1918, conflicts over the region really began to take shape. Under the leadership of the USSR, hostilities were shelved as the expression of nationality was discouraged in the interest of building a greater Soviet identity.

There’s neither enough space nor time to discuss all the incredibly complex history of the region; what’s relevant to mention, however, is that in 1921, in an effort to bring Turkey under its communist sphere of influence, Joseph Stalin formally transferred the Armenian-settled highlands of Artsakh to Azerbaijan (the Turks and Azeris share many cultural and ethnic ties). As the notable historian Robert Service wrote in his biography of Stalin: “There was a demand from the Azerbaijani communist leadership in Baku for Karabakh, an Armenian-inhabited enclave butting into Azerbaijan, to be made part of Azerbaijan; and the Armenian communists fiercely opposed this on the ground that Karabakh should belong to Armenia. Ruling the Caucasus was never going to be easy after the wars fought between the Azeris and Armenians from 1918. But on balance it was Stalin’s judgement that the Azerbaijani authorities should be placated. Revolutionary pragmatism was his main motive. The Party Central Committee in Moscow gave high priority to winning support for the Communist International across Asia.” Hence, it was this transfer (the motive of which was to spread Soviet influence at the expense of undermining the national integrity of regions), that arguably, has been the root cause of many troubles in the area, and perhaps the underlying cause for the Nagorno-Karabakh War, when the Soviet Union (which had managed to suppress inter-ethnic tensions) collapsed and led to the resurgence of hostilities between the neighboring countries.

After the conclusion of the conflict in 1994, the area, today once more known as Artsakh, fell under the full control of Armenia and is until now heavily dependent on it; the breakaway republic remains unrecognized by the international community, although regional governments such as those of Massachusetts, Rhode Island, the California State Assembly, Georgia, and Hawaii, just to name a few, have recognized the region’s independence on the grounds of self-determination. Furthermore, cities such as Glendale, California (where almost half the population is of Armenian descent) have renamed their streets to show solidarity with the republic; previously called Maryland, lawmakers in a historic move about two years ago opted to rename one of the town’s most scenic strips in honor of its Armenian-American citizens, who’ve done so much to improve the community throughout the years. This is a picture of me standing at that intersection last year with the awareness that I would shortly depart for Italy to study human rights at the University of Bologna.

Similar measures have been taken in cities like Watertown, Massachusetts, as the state, like California, is also home to a large number of people who claim Armenian descent.

In fact as early as the 19th century, notable American personalities such as the feminist and human rights advocate Alicia Stone Blackwell, were beginning to be fascinated by Armenian culture and even translated poets such as Bedros Tourian into English. Without going too much off-topic, Tourian was at the height of his creative powers when he suddenly died at the age of 21 from tuberculosis. During his short life, Tourian wrote numerous poems and plays and was well-versed in writers like Victor Hugo and Alphonse de Lamartine, having read them in the original French. Perhaps his most poignant poem, “Complaints,” is the author’s plight in having to accept his own mortality. Though somewhat dated, Blackwell’s translation nevertheless offers a powerful glimpse into the author’s resistance against fate, which is captured in these two stanzas:

Shifting back to the area of our discussion, in the interest of fairness, it’s best to acknowledge right away that not only were both sides guilty of mass atrocities during the Nagorno-Karabakh War, but that to this day one side is responsible for some bloodshed that the other side has retaliated against and visa versa—the vicious cycle continues, which is why collaborative efforts such as this joint Armenian-Azerbaijani documentary on the region have more potential to mend differences than the efforts of politicians. Indeed, Azeris will never forget the atrocities of Khojaly while at the same time deliberately choosing to ignore the pogroms committed against Armenians in Sumgait, Baku, and Stepanakert; however, this has more to do with realizing political objectives than any kind of genuine hate for a people. Bring individuals of various faiths and nationalities around a dinner table and they’ll find ways to resolve their differences; I’ve always been a firm believer in this. In my own program, there are Turks and Azeris with whom I’ve established friendly relations, further proving that politics and people are not as inseparable as society has made us believe.

It’s unfortunate that war had to erupt; based on the principle of self-determination, however, Armenians should have the right to create their own republic, especially given the fact they form and have historically constituted the majority in this region.

The right to self-determination is supported by a large number of senators and representatives within the US government. Furthermore, the Pallone Amendment, which recently passed into law and was co-sponsored in the House Committee on Rules by Representatives Zoe Lofgren (D-CA), Adam Schiff (D-CA), Brad Sherman (D-CA), and Jackie Speier (D-CA), will enhance the oversight of human rights violations around the world; as stated by Frank Pallone himself, the recent aggression by Azerbaijan against Armenia was a key factor in the passage of this particular amendment: “This amendment is especially important now as Azerbaijan threatens Armenia’s safety and sovereignty with offensive attacks staged by Azeri armed forces in Armenia’s Tavush region. The United States should not be aiding and abetting reckless, autocratic states with appalling human rights records for any reason.” Along with the the recent money laundering schemes by Azerbaijan, which were instrumental in securing the release of the officer who murdered Gurgen Margaryan in Hungary (also my article on this topic), the passage of this resolution couldn’t be more timely.

Let’s return, however, to the amendment of Frank Pallone Jr. and the general discussion of support for Artsakh by various US senators and representatives. Regarding the importance which American foreign aid plays in the region, Rep. TJ Cox, a democrat from California issued the following statement:

Along with this, a letter signed by congressmen and women Jackie Speier, Adam Schiff, Gus M. Bilirakis, and Frank Pallone Jr. was drafted, expressing great concern over the recent escalation in violence and demanding greater accountability on the part of Azerbaijan. In the same vein, individual congressmen and women have issued their own statements of concern and the need for greater accountability.

Congressman Tony Cardenas, representing the 29th District of California stated this:

New Jersey Senators Cory Booker and Bob Menendez stated:

Congresswoman Linda Sanchez, representing the 38th District of California issued the following statement:

The mayor of Los Angeles, Eric Garcetti, whose city recognized the independence of Artsakh posted the following on Twitter:

 

Congressman Josh Gottheimer, representing the 5th District of New Jersey stated the following on Twitter page:

Congressman Jim Costa, representing the 16th District of California gave this statement:

Congresswoman Katherine Clark, representing the 5th District of Massachusetts stated this:

Lastly, Devin Nunes, representing the 22nd District of California called on Turkey to cease threatening Armenia in the following Twitter post:

Turkey has repeatedly called Armenia’s presence in Artsakh an illegal occupation. Ankara itself doesn’t realize, however, that its military intervention in Cyprus and the subsequent control over half the island isn’t recognized by the international community or any UN member state. As James Ker-Lindsay writes in his book, An Island in Europe: “Concerning the situation in Cyprus, the UN concludes in its resolutions that the proclamation of the ‘Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus’ (TRNC) is void. The international community collectively refuses any recognition of this entity. Hence, only one state exists on the island, the Republic of Cyprus, whose northern part is occupied by foreign forces. Classified as illegal under international law, the occupation of the northern part leads automatically to an illegal occupation of EU territory since Cyprus’s accession.” The Turkish government, along with Azerbaijan, should thus exercise caution when they threaten to blow up Armenian nuclear power plants, given that harebrained schemes like this would only worsen their own situation—the radioactive material emitted from such an explosion would cover not only all of Azerbaijan, but also Western Turkey. Indeed, Armenia would be greatly harmed, but in the attempt to pay back their foe, the entity dealing out this retribution would suffer the same damage as the enemy he’s inflicting it upon.

It must be repeated that I’ve never had problems with the Azeris and Turks that I’ve gotten to know personally; however, when I see blatant propaganda being posted on the internet by individuals of those nationalities claiming that Armenians have been and continue to be the sole aggressor in this conflict, I must speak out. We’re a small nation and it’s been too long that we’ve had to stand back and watch the greater powers either carve out, map, or exterminate our nation—all the while making promises they were never intending to keep. Where’s Wilsonian Armenia today? Why did the Western powers not do more to ensure that the Treaty of Sèvres was properly honored after WWI? In comparison to the land promised below, our country is a shadow of what it should’ve been. It’s no longer possible to stand back and watch. It’s no longer possible to assume that greater powers will act in our best interest; the consequences of such assumptions have been clear.

It’s true that every nation gets short-changed and every country loses territory; however, some incur more loses than others. Armenia has forfeited plenty over the years and been on the receiving end of political deals gone bad. While the French were busy getting back Alsace-Lorraine and the Italians were annexing South Tyrol, Armenians were being exterminated on the very land where they had lived for years while losing precisely that territory they were being exterminated on, mainly because a government refused to honor legitimate treaty obligations. Whether something similar will happen, no one but God knows. The only certain thing is that Artsakh—whether historically or now—has always gravitated towards Armenia and it belongs there today, even if that sense of belonging isn’t honored by the rest of the world.

 

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.