UPDATE ON NAGORNO KARABAKH DECEMBER 1998
Historic Background: Nagorno Karabakh had never
been part of Azerbaijan until the autocratic decision made by
Josef Stalin to relocate it in the 1920s. Therefore there is no
legitimate justification for considering Karabakh as part of Azerbaijan.
This brief paper sets out the reasons why the
Armenian people of Karabakh can never again accept the sovereignty
of Azerbaijan and why any political solution to the current crisis
in the region which imposes acceptance of this sovereignty cannot
The impossibility of such acceptance is based
on deep-rooted historical experience as well as the tragic events
of recent years, in the war which has cost so many lives and such
suffering for both Armenians and Azeris.
For decades, the Armenians of Karabakh have
suffered massacres, intimidation, and economic exploitation at
the hands of the Azeris. For example:
The town of Shushi, which is generally
described as an 'Azeri town', had been a famous centre of Armenian
culture until the 1920s, with famous churches and cultural centres,
until the Azeris massacred and drove out its Armenian inhabitants.
Many of the Armenians now living
in Karabakh have suffered repeated displacement as a result of
Azeri pogroms and massacres: walking through towns and villages,
one meets many people who describe with profound grief how they
are refugees from the massacres of Armenians in Sumgait (1988)
or Baku (1990); many fled to Shaumyan region and have had to flee
again as their homes fell to Azeri occupation during the recent
There are also a few Armenians still alive who
are survivors of the massacres perpetrated by Turkey in 1915,
when 1.5 million Armenians perished. Turkey still does not acknowledge
the genocide. Its continuing hostility to Armenia, reflected in
the blockade and its military support for Azerbaijan in the war,
eliminates any confidence the Armenians of Karabakh can have in
the role of Turkey as an impartial participant in any mediation
There are, tragically, many Azeris who are also
displaced by the tragic events of recent years. But the cause
of their displacement has not been repeated massacre and attempted
genocide by Armenians. Moreover, Azerbaijan encourages visits
by politicians and media to see their suffering and to hear their
point of view. It is much more difficult for Karabakh to show
how their people are suffering and to give their point of view
to the politicians whose decisions may shape their future.
In any war, violations of human rights will
be perpetrated by both sides. But there is a systematic asymmetry
which has led us to claim that Azerbaijan has been the primary
aggressor, for at least 5 reasons:
1. It was Azerbaijan, in conjunction with
the Soviet 4th Army troops, which undertook systematic, unilateral
deportations of Armenians from their villages in 1991, in 'Operation
Ring': the brutal policy of systematic eviction of Armenians from
their homeland, which has been populated by Armenians for many
centuries (as proven by the large number of ancient churches,
some as old as 4th century).
2. It was Azerbaijan which first used "Grad"
multiple missile rocket launchers against civilians: in the January-May
1992, 400 Grad missiles every day rained down on civilians in
the capital city Stepanakert, and other towns and villages were
subjected to sustained attacks throughout the war, including heavy
shelling from towns in Azerbaijan proper (which eventually forced
the Armenians of Karabakh reluctantly to occupy those towns, as
a buffer zone, to protect their civilians from these sustained
attacks and which led the international community to condemn
them as "aggressors").
3. Only Azerbaijan has used aerial bombardment
of civilian targets, deliberately causing death and injury to
women and children.
4. Only Azerbaijan has used ground-to-air
missiles, detonated to explode over civilian targets. These are
an especially brutal weapon, as there is no advance warning, for
women and children to take cover; the missile explodes, with its
heavy tail fin and razor-sharp shrapnel falling onto civilians,
crushing or shredding anyone in the fall-out area.
5. Azerbaijan, in conjunction with Turkey,
blockaded Armenia and Karabakh and both are still maintaining
their blockade of Armenia. After the earthquake in 1988, which
caused hundreds of thousands of casualties, Azerbaijan would not
allow the passage of even humanitarian aid to the affected areas.
It was not the Armenians of Karabakh who began
military offensives. With a population of only 150,000, compared
with Azerbaijan's 7 million, they have had to defend their people
and their homeland against virtually impossible odds, which were
exacerbated when Turkey supported Azerbaijan with experienced
(recently retired) military personnel and weaponry. Azerbaijan
also employed several thousand mujahadeen mercenaries in the later
stages of the war.
Successive Azeri Presidents have made public
statements of commitment to policies of ethnic cleansing of Armenians
from Karabakh: former President Elchibey declared in June 1992
that, if there were still Armenians in Karabakh in October, the
people of Azerbaijan could hang him in the central square of Baku.
President Alyev has been reported as saying that the only solution
to the Karabakh problem is the "elimination" of all
Armenians from Karabakh. During the war, there were reversals
of military defeats and successes. In May 1991, the Armenians
of Karabakh liberated the town of Shushi and opened up a corridor
with Armenia through Lachin. They were condemned by the international
community for both of these actions. But the corridor would not
have been necessary if there had been no blockade, which is itself
a violation of human rights and was causing suffering and death
of civilians by lack of access for medical supplies and foodand
the international community was relatively silent about this blockade.
The Karabakhis also had to capture the town of Shushi, for survival,
as it stands on a mountainous promontory directly above Stepanakert,
and was used as the base from which the sustained bombardment
by Grad missiles was daily causing high casualty rates of women
and children in Stepanakert and surrounding villages.
Again, the Karabakhis were condemned for taking
this "Azeri" town. But there was no recognition of the
fact that this had been an Armenian town, previously taken by
Azeris with the massacre of Armenians; or of the fact that it
was being now used by Azeris to carry out a policy of sustained
attacks by Grad on civilians.
Subsequently, in June 1992, Azerbaijan, assisted
by Turkey, launched a massive offensive and over-ran Armenian
towns and villages in Shaumyan as well as taking 40 per cent of
80,000 Armenian refugees had to flee to Stepanakert,
which was already pulverised by sustained Grad attacks and where
the people were barely subsisting on rations of 3gms of flour
per day and one half of a kg of sugar per month. Major aid organisations
such as UNHCR were not present in Karabakh, as they require permission
from a sovereign government for access.
Thus the Armenians of Karabakh have been denied
both the aid and advocacy which often accompanies aid, which have
been readily available to the Azeri civilians who have suffered
from the war.
It is noteworthy, that many Azeri refugees are
still being kept in harsh conditions in camps in Azerbaijan, and
that visitors are often taken to see them. By contrast, Armenia,
with larger numbers of homeless people from the earthquake and
refugees from the war, and also suffering from the economic hardship
created by the continuing blockade, has made a priority of finding
accommodation for its homeless and displaced people. Perhaps visitors
to Azerbaijan who are taken to visit the long-suffering displaced
Azeris in camps might ask what Azerbaijan has done with the money
made available for the displaced, and why it has not been as successful
as Armenia, which has a much better record of providing for its
homeless and people, despite the problems created by earthquake
Current demands by Azerbaijan for the return
of Shushi and Lachin to Azeri control cannot be seriously considered
by the Armenians of Karabakh and indicate a lack of serious willingness
by the Azeris to achieve a positive outcome to negotiations. Both
the taking of Shushi and the Lachin corridor by Armenians of Karabakh
were essential for their survival. The corridor is a vital lifeline
for supplies; and Shushi is their equivalent of the Golan heights.
The Karabakh leadership also cannot ignore the Azeri continuing
build-up of its armed forces and weaponry. Therefore, the Karabakhis
have had to maintain a very strong military force, ready to retaliate
effectively in the event of resumption of hostilities by Azerbaijan.
The Karabakhi defence has had to develop a retaliatory capacity
which can serve as an effective deterrent to any temptation Azerbaijan
may have to try once again to seek a "military solution"
to the problem of the political status of Karabakh. This deterrence
is sufficiently robust to create problems for the international
community's massive economic investments in Azerbaijan. Moreover,
if further conflict were to break out, and if it appeared possible
that Azerbaijan might attempt another genocide or ethnic cleansing
of Armenians from Karabakh, Armenia could not stand passively
by. If Armenia were to engage, this could trigger a major regional
war, which would cause incalculable suffering and destabilise
the entire region, militarily, politically and economically.
It is thus of the utmost importance that the
international community does everything possible to prevail on
Azerbaijan to desist from further military offensives and to seek
a political solution which takes into realistic account the inevitable,
deeply-rooted fears of the Armenians of Karabakh, based on direct
experience of Azeri repression, which prevents them from being
able ever again to accept Azeri sovereignty.