Today
Fri 17 September 2021

Six months after losing the Nagorno-Karabakh war, Armenia is a nation in crisis. With the US recognition of the Genocide, Tom Mutch asks whether it can begin to heal

“The memorial is to remember everyone we lost in the last century,” Ara Arwakain told me as he gestures over the dozens of fresh graves. “But only martyrs who fall in battle can be buried here.” 

While Armenians gathered in their thousands to take part in the yearly candlelit march to the Tsitsernakaberd Genocide Memorial, a smaller number of mourners gathered at the Yerablur cemetery. Here, the graves of the 5,000 or so Armenian soldiers who died in last year’s war are still being dug. 

Most of the graves are adorned with fresh flowers. Some have teddy bears, or a box of chocolates laid on them. What they all have in common is the red, blue, and orange Armenian flag flying over each one. 

A brief glance at the years on the headstones tells you that most of the dead were teenagers. Of the two priests on-site, one is giving a small service in the church next door. The other presides over yet another funeral.

Yet in this scene of tragedy and trauma, April bought a little light to Armenia. When Joe Biden finally recognised the Armenian Genocide after previous Presidents had reneged on their promises, Armenians across countries as varied as the United States, Lebanon, France, Brazil and more could share a moment of national triumph.

“The recognition of the genocide is very brave and an important step towards restoring justice,” said Datevik Ohanian, a Lebanese-Armenian tour organiser. “But I don’t know how much actual help it will be. Turkey still needs to.”

While Biden’s recognition of the genocide provoked this brief moment of national unity, the concern is it can only temporarily paper over profound differences in Armenian society over the future of the nation.


The Past Weighs Heavily

When the term “genocide” was coined by Ralph Lemkin in 1944 to describe what was happening in his native Poland, his most potent example was the annihilation of over a million Armenians by the Ottoman Empire in World War One. Beginning on April 24 1915, Armenians were systematically rounded up, forced from their homes and either executed or marched to their deaths in the brutal deserts of northern Syria.

But stories of displacement and violence are not confined to the 1915 genocide. Again and again when reporting on the war in Nagorno-Karabakh, I met Armenians who had recently fled hatred and violence. 

There was Aida, who had fled the pogroms in Sumgait, Azerbaijan in 1988. Valentina, who fled Dunshanbe, Tajikistan after anti-Armenian riots in 1990. George and Hovig, forced from their homes by the Syrian Civil War that has raged for over a decade.

When pogroms against Armenians broke out in Azerbaijan as a response to the Nagorno-Karabakh movement in the 1990s, many felt this was history repeating itself. To this day, Armenians call Azerbaijanis “Turks” who they believe wish them eradicated.

Yet while the violence over Karabakh began in Azerbaijan, that country also suffered grievously. In addition to the tens of thousands of dead on both sides, Azerbaijan lost seven districts of territory, and around 600,000 people were forced to flee the fighting.

In Baku, the history of the conflict therefore looks completely different. They see a greedy and irredentist nation that used force to steal land from its neighbour and force them into misery.

Azerbaijan’s ruling dictator, Ilham Aliyev, has used anti-Armenian hatred as a tool to maintain domestic political power. As anyone who has covered the conflict will quickly realise, there is simply no common ground between the two warring factions whose people despise each other.

These tensions finally exploded into another war in September of last year.

It was an extraordinarily brutal affair, with both sides found to have used internationally banned cluster munitions. The military death toll reached around 9000 in just 44 day making it the most intense period of fighting anywhere in the world during the 21st century. Videos emerging after the conflict showed war crimes such as the execution of civilian prisoners, the overwhelming majority perpetrated by Azerbaijani forces.

The Azeris, backed heavily by their Turkish allies, triumphed. A ceasefire agreement, considered humiliating by Armenia, demanded the country return all Azerbaijani land that was occupied before the war.

During this whole time, COVID-19 ran wildly through Armenia and Karabakh, but no one cared. Almost everyone I know, including myself, contracted the virus, but we dismissed it as an occupational hazard. No one cared. Astigkh, a 29-year-old tour organiser told me of how her father was on a ventilator with COVID, while her brother was fighting in the front lines near the city of Shushi. 

Both were lucky to have survived.


A Clash of Visions

Now Armenia faces a ‘political crisis’ focusing on the future of Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan. 

The day Armenia was defeated in the 2020 war, a mob ransacked the Parliament building in Yerevan demanding Pashinyan resign. Several months later, the heads of the Armed Forces demanded his resignation after he criticised Russian-provided missiles used during the war.

While consistent demonstrations against the Prime Minister do not draw crowds on the level of the Velvet Revolution that swept Pashinyan to power in 2018, dozens and even hundreds still turn out on regular marches.

“I blame the loss of the war squarely on our Prime Minister,” explained the Mayor of Kapan, a city in the south of Armenia. He said that Pashinyan should have done everything possible to avoid the war breaking out, even if that involved concessions.

In contrast, others blame Pashinyan for not fighting on, while still others blame him for continuing the war even once Armenian forces knew they would lose around mid-October.

A journalist critical of Pashinyan wrote on Facebook that “by choosing Nikol… you are for betrayal, you are ready to be under Turkey, you agree that your children should serve the Turks … Are you ready to destroy your homeland from God? 

The political crisis masks an existential crisis over the nation’s future. 

Some people want to accept a level of defeat over the Karabakh issue and attempt to gradually reconnect with their estranged neighbours. This would include opening the long-closed border with Turkey and increasing economic and social links with Azerbaijan. 

A landlocked country, Armenia has no relationship with Turkey or Azerbaijan, while its other two borders are with countries who have their own geopolitical issues: Iran and Georgia. 

A car destroyed by shelling in the center of Stepanakert. Photo: Tom Mutch

One prominent diaspora Armenian gave a speech saying he saw an opportunity in the tragedy. He said “we should participate in initiatives taking place right now in the Caucasus… the possible opening of the borders, the possible opening of the roads and railroads… it is very important for us to talk with Turkey and Azerbaijan.”

Russia is a keen proponent of this, and the ceasefire agreement proposed rebuilding economic co-operation in the region that has been non existent for a very long time.

Others want to retrench and gird themselves for another war. Recent reports have seen Armenian militias training in the south of the country in full view of the Azerbaijani positions over the new border.

If recent events in Azerbaijan are to be considered, it does not seem like the leadership is in any mood for reconciliation.


The House of Horrors

An entirely different sort of memorial to Yerablur cemetery is planned in the Azerbaijani capital of Baku. 

On April 12, a gleeful Ilham Aliyev opened the “Military Trophies Park”. Hundreds of Azerbaijanis turned out for the opening, where they were welcomed through an entrance decorated with hundreds of helmets of dead Armenian soldiers. 

As they continued through the park, they viewed mock accounts of the aftermath of battles, featuring caricatured mannequins of soldiers. In an interview with Azeri media, the Italian sculptors said they had wanted the models to look as “ugly as possible”, with hooked noses and wide foreheads, echoing anti-Semitic stereotypes of Jews used in Nazi propaganda. 

This latest in a series of mockingly triumphalist statements made by Azeri officials and their Turkish allies suggesting that they have no desire for peace. Within Karabakh there is evidence that Armenian cultural heritage, including the Gazanchetsots cathedral in Shushi, is now being deliberately damaged under the aegis of “reconstruction.”

On the borderlands, the situation remains tense. In the backyard of Zaven, an Armenian from the village of Davit Bek, there’s a burned crater where his shed used to be. It had been hit by a wayward artillery shell shortly before the end of the war. 

A number of other villages have also been damaged and the local officials are seriously concerned for their security. The Mayor of Kapan explained how “the war in the 1990s started because we were living too close to each other … there were kidnappings, raids – that’s how it all started. If [Azerbaijanis] are again right next to us, I fear the situation will be repeated.” One Armenian serviceman who declined to be named said they estimated the Azeri permissions, which we could see in the distance, to be less than two kilometers away.

For many Armenians, Russia is now the only reliable source of security for them in the region, despite their erstwhile ally being absent during the war itself. Two thousand peacekeepers currently patrol the borderlands of the rump Nagorno-Karabakh state.

Moscow has also sworn to uphold its treaty commitment to defend mainland Armenia. 

Avetis Harutunyan, a 23-year-old journalist with Armenia TV who was wounded while covering the frontlines of the war in Karabakh, said “the Russians are perceived as saviours… we have many captives in Azerbaijan and the Russian people don’t believe that anyone else will get them back. There would be no ceasefire if it weren’t for Russia and the safety of Armenians in Artsakh is entirely dependent on Russian peacekeepers.”

In Karabakh the border posts are manned by Russian guards.They have stated they are denying entry to any non-Armenian or Russian foreigners – including almost all Western journalists and a large number of international aid workers previously welcome in the region.

A female Armenian soldier recuperating from injuries in a Stepanakert hospital. Photo: Tom Mutch

When I speak to Armenians about the fate of their country, many draw parallels with the story of Armenians and Jews. While I was reporting the war for Byline Times, a senior Armenian foreign official told me “imagine if the Germans had never apologised for the Holocaust, and then they invaded Israel. This is what this war feels like for us. The world says ‘never again’ for Jewish people. Why not for us?”

Another Armenian I spoke with turned the blame inwards. “Look now, Israel runs the world!” he laughs. “They have nukes, they have a hugely influential lobby and get huge amounts of money from the US government. This is the model for how you live as an oppressed minority with hostile neighbours. But our governments wasted this chance with their endless corruption.”

After months of protests, Pashinyan relented to his critics and resigned to call fresh elections, which are slated for late June. He fully intends to run again and has blamed his predecessors for the loss in the war –accusing them of failing to sufficiently prepare for a battle they knew was inevitable.

While the widespread enthusiasm for his political movement in 2018 had vanished, he is still regarded as the best choice by many Armenians I spoke to. The opposition have so far failed to rally support behind a candidate to oppose him, with much of Armenia’s older political class still widely distrusted.

The recognition of the genocide by the United States, a key policy aim of Armenian Governments for decades, could finally resolve the battle over the countries past. 

An equally bitter fight over the future of the country could be just beginning.

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