Liberal Hypocrisy on Post-Soviet Separatism
The conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh has historical roots. Both sides argue about historical evidence, but from the legal point of view this region belongs to Azerbaijan—as affirmed by UN Security Council resolutions and many other international organizations. The Armenian majority formed in Nagorno-Karabakh only after the Russian conquest in the region during the first part of the nineteenth century; at this time, the czarist authorities implemented a massive Armenian resettlement policy to strengthen the Christian presence and counter the influence of the Ottoman and Persian empires. While it is not at the core of the conflict, the religious factor nevertheless was used by the Armenian diaspora around the world to attract the Western media in particular to its side. Orientalism, the concept advanced by renowned scholar Edward Said, helps to understand what American scholar Thomas Ambrosio termed “a highly permissive or tolerant international environment,” which allowed the Armenian “annexation of some 15 percent of Azerbaijani territories.” Edward Said defined “Orientalism” as an imperial Western tradition shaped by bias towards Asia and the Muslim world. Stemming from this (mis)perception, Western empires advanced the idea of a “civilizing mission,” a concept that was advanced by many contemporary liberals. As Indian scholar Dipesh Chakrabarty put it, “it is, in fact, one of the ironies of British history that the British became political liberals at home at the same time as they became imperialists abroad.”
The well-established Armenian diaspora, through celebrities like Charles Aznavour and Kim Kardashian or recruits such as Amal Clooney, can easily deliver stories to the global media. In contrast, the Azerbaijani diaspora is very young and inexperienced. Baku’s lobbying effort, dubbed “caviar diplomacy,” has been rejected by Western liberals as the governmental effort of an oil power. The American media picks up the story about oil money used for lobbying, and completely ignores the millions spent by California’s powerful Armenian community to elect officials. As American scholars John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt point out, “the disproportionate influence of small but focused interest groups increases even more when opposing groups are weak or nonexistent, because politicians have to accommodate only one set of interests and the public is likely to hear only one side of the story.” Armenians have a longer and stronger presence, to say nothing of their Christian ties. Ultimately, it would be hard to overcome the Orientalist bias of the Western media.
In addition to the religious dimension, Armenian historians (and subsequently Western historians) claimed that Nagorno-Karabakh was “given” to Azerbaijan by Josef Stalin. This claim aimed to demonize the whole territorial arrangement by “bad guys” such as Stalin. As a matter of fact, Soviet archival documents indicate that in July 1921 Soviet authorities decided to retain (in Russian ostavit’) the mountainous part of Karabakh in Azerbaijan. That means that Karabakh already belonged to Azerbaijan. Besides, Stalin in 1921 was not the sole decisionmaker that he would later become in the 1930s.
The skillfully designed narrative about the history of Nagorno-Karabakh by Armenian scholars targeted the liberal and Orientalist sentiments of majority of Western policymakers, experts and public advocates. Thus, freedom for Nagorno-Karabakh was seen as a push for liberation from the Muslim and Stalinist yoke.
The reality on the ground was different from the “liberal movement.” Renowned Western scholar and expert on the Middle East, Robert Fisk, stressed in a recent article in the Independent that blaming Stalin for the Armenia-Azerbaijan war has nothing to do with the modern conflict. He points out further that Armenian fighters are indeed criminals, involved in massacring Azerbaijani civilians. Human Rights Watch has reported that the Khojaly massacre, committed by Armenian troops in February 1992, was “the largest massacre to date in the conflict.” The conflict produced civilian victims on both sides (although disproportionately high numbers of those killed and forced to become refugees were from Azerbaijan), but Western media paid much more attention to those on the Armenian side.
The high number of casualties among conscripts of the Republic of Armenia during the recent clashes of April 2–5, 2016, attests to the fact that Armenia is the major occupying power on the territory of Azerbaijan. Yet the BBC and other news agencies have tended to report about clashes between Azerbaijan and so-called Nagorno-Karabakh forces.
While the West unequivocally supports the resolution of the conflict in Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine on the basis of their territorial integrity, it has hypocritically suggested a different approach for the Armenian-Azerbaijani case, based on a so-called “negotiated solution,” that implies the possible secession of occupied Nagorno-Karabakh from Azerbaijan.