On September 27, 2020, Azerbaijan launched a counter-offensive campaign against Armenian armed forces to liberate the occupied territories that it lost in 1992-94. There are claims made by the Armenian side stating that Baku premediated the operation. As much as fighting has developed on the battlefield, it has also advanced into a propaganda war.
“The events were reported in the world press, generally with a tone of partiality toward the Armenians.” I cite not recent opinions, but a quote from American scholar Tadeusz Swietochowski about the first violent clashes between Armenians and Azerbaijanis in 1905-1906 in Tsarist Russia. This long-established pro-Armenian trend continues today in much of the Western media in present circumstances as well.
When Armenian ultranationalists launched their unification campaign in February 1988 in an already crumbling Soviet Union, Armenia’s strong diaspora in the West supported it through a well-organized network of policymakers, journalists, and scholars. This ethnic conflict was portrayed as a religious one, even though Armenia manages to enjoy as good relations with Iran as Azerbaijan does with Israel. For liberals, it was presented as a self-determination struggle, while the end goal of the ultranationalist campaign was Armenia’s territorial expansion and the establishment of “Great Armenia.” In the evolving geopolitical environment of the post-Cold war era, Armenians exploited Islamophobia and Turkophobia to advance their cause.
A cohort of Western scholars, experts, and journalists writing about the conflict solely focused on geopolitics and history but remained largely silent on the most important element—namely international law—because it did not fit the pro-Armenian narrative.
In 1993, the UN Security Council, through four binding resolutions, reaffirmed Azerbaijan’s sovereignty over Nagorno-Karabakh and the seven adjacent regions under Armenian occupation and demanded the unconditional withdrawal of the Armenian occupying forces. In 2015, the European Court of Human Rights also highlighted that Armenia controls through occupation the sovereign territories of Azerbaijan.
Since 1992, Azerbaijan and Armenia have been working towards a diplomatic solution under the auspices of the OSCE Minsk Group, co-chaired by France, Russia, and the United States. In 2007, this effort produced the so-called Madrid Principles, which were updated in 2009 and accepted by both Armenia and Azerbaijan as the basis for implementing the return of the occupied territories. Since then, Armenia under various pretexts postponed this implementation and opted for maintaining the status-quo of occupation. In March 2020 the new leadership of Armenia under Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan explicitly denounced the Madrid Principles. This had been preceded by Pashinyan’s August 2019 open declaration that “Nagorno-Karabakh is Armenia,” thus reconfirming the strategic goal of unification, i.e. territorial expansion. This in turn had been preceded by the March 2019 announcement of a new military doctrine by Armenia’s defense minister, David Tonoyan, which had called for a “new war for new territory”.
With a dead-end in the negotiation process and the increased military posture, Azerbaijan had no choice but to resort to the use of force, which it is entitled to under chapter 51 of the UN Charter. This is rarely mentioned in biased reports about the status of the conflict.
Recent developments on the ground are thus portrayed in parts of the Western media with several clichés and entrenched stereotypes with the help of pro-Armenian writers. Aside from falsely framing the conflict as a religious one, the Pashinyan government also advances the narrative of democracy vs autocracy. It fails to mention that Pashinyan has imprisoned his political opponents; remains silent on the fact that his populist and increasingly ultranationalist rhetoric has been consistently bereft of a vision for how to accommodate Azerbaijani refugees and internally displaced person's (IDPs) who want to return to their homes, and fails to mention that Armenia’s occupation has resulted in the total and complete ethnic cleansing of the pre-war Azerbaijani population. This twisted idea of freedom exclusively for Armenians calls to mind white supremacist ideology that presupposes the physical extermination of non-whites. On the other hand, after another outburst of violence between the two countries in Tovuz in July, the public in Azerbaijan, finally disenchanted with even the slightest prospect of a diplomatic solution, staged a huge demonstration in Baku, demanding that the government overcome the diplomatic stalemate and act against Armenia.
Some news reports about the ongoing hostilities by outlets such as the BBC and Reuters contain unconfirmed sources about Syrian fighters in Azerbaijan. During the previous major outbreak of violence, in April 2016, Armenia made claims about ISIS recruits in Azerbaijan. Pashinyan himself voiced the information about Muslim radicals walking in the streets of Baku and demanding the closure of stores selling alcohol. The term “fake news” gets thrown about casually these days, but in this case, it is entirely appropriate. Despite being fully debunked, parts of the Western media, in my view, having predisposed Orientalist stereotypes against Azerbaijan, which eases the lobbying efforts of Armenian ultranationalists.
In fact, Azerbaijan, even with its democracy deficit, is a country with strong secular traditions that has prosecuted Islamic radicals to the full extent of the law, imprisoned ISIS fighters, supported U.S. operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, and assisted Western intelligence agencies in eradicating terrorism. Frankly, today’s Azerbaijan is a Muslim country as much as The Netherlands is a Christian one. The Armenian lobby groups in Washington, such as the Armenian National Committee of America and their recruits on the Capitol Hill, including several sitting Congressmen and Senators, do a big disservice to U.S. national interests by advancing the narrow xenophobic and extremist agenda of one ethnic group.
Some Western observers also focus on the role of Turkey in the current stand-off between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Leaving aside a complicated analysis about why Turkey and the West ended up in the current state, considering Azerbaijan’s political, economic and energy links with the United States and the EU, cliché-driven stories of sultans and tsars should be left to Emmanuel Macron in his dealing with the Armenian lobby in France.
Fewer than two months ago, the wife of Armenia’s prime minister posed with a gun in front of cameras in the occupied territories of Azerbaijan, which is consistent with her husband’s rejection of the diplomatic option to achieve a solution through good-faith negotiations. And thus both sides have found themselves having recourse to arms. Either way, the Armenian occupation of Azerbaijani lands will come to an end.
Dr. Farid Shafiyev is Chairman of the Baku-based Center of Analysis of International Relations and Adjunct Lecturer at ADA University, Azerbaijan. He holds a Ph.D. from Carleton University and an MPA from the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, as well as a Bachelor of Law and a Diploma in History from Baku State University. He is the author of Resettling the Borderlands: State Relocations and Ethnic Conflict in the South Caucasus (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2018) as well as numerous articles and op-eds.