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Kevin ClarkeApril 25, 2024
Vehicles of Russian peacekeepers leaving Azerbaijan's Nagorno-Karabakh region for Armenia pass an Armenian checkpoint on a road near the village of Kornidzor on Sept. 22, 2023. (OSV news photo/Irakli Gedenidze, Reuters)Vehicles of Russian peacekeepers leaving Azerbaijan's Nagorno-Karabakh region for Armenia pass an Armenian checkpoint on a road near the village of Kornidzor on Sept. 22, 2023. (OSV news photo/Irakli Gedenidze, Reuters)

The Weekly Dispatch takes a deep dive into breaking events and issues of significance around our world and our nation today, providing the background readers need to make better sense of the headlines speeding past us each week. For more news and analysis from around the world, visit Dispatches.

After the Holocaust, world leaders agreed, “Never again.” After Rwanda, they said, “Never again.” But when an ancient Christian community was driven out of the Nagorno-Karabakh region of Azerbaijan last year, the world’s great powers did little more than issue press releases.

In September 2023, a State Department official said the United States “would not tolerate” ethnic cleansing and other atrocities in Nagorno-Karabakh. In October the European Union passed resolutions deploring the Azerbaijani attacks and impending ethnic cleansing and joined the U.S. and other states in demanding that the right of return for Armenian citizens of Nagorno-Karabakh be respected. All have been futile admonishments of Azerbaijani power.

A nine-month blockade that began in December 2022 had prevented food, medicine and other resources from reaching the besieged community, and as the Azerbaijani army encircled the remnant Armenian forces in the self-described Republic of Artsakh, no power deemed it their responsibility to protect the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh. Though Azerbaijani forces never ordered an evacuation, the Armenian population, based on painful past experience, knew it would not be safe for them to remain after the surrender of the Artsakh and Armenian resistance.

“We are waiting for fuel. As soon as we can find it, we will [leave] immediately,” Arev Danielyan told an official from Caritas Armenia last September. “I have three children, and it is impossible to stay with the Azerbaijanis.” She told the official this would be the third and last time she would be displaced because of the conflict. She knew there would be no going back this time.

“The worst thing is to take a deep breath before saying goodbye,” she said.

A sorrowful caravan of more than 100,000 Armenians in cars, vans and horse carts trailed out of the enclave. Over the course of a few days in September last year, the desperate exodus put an end to an Armenian and Christian presence in the mountainous region that had been constant for more than 2,000 years.

It was not too long ago that the global community accepted a “responsibility to protect” in international affairs, the obligation to step in to prevent crimes against humanity even if it meant intervening in the internal affairs of a sovereign state. The responsibility to protect provided the justification for NATO’s decision to interrupt the bloodletting in Kosovo in 1999. It was also the rationale used for a multinational air campaign over Libya during the fall of Qaddafi in 2011. Unfortunately, that multinational misadventure has apparently soured world powers on the idea of a responsibility to protect.

The local great-ish power that had pledged to protect the enclave’s Armenians, the Russian Federation, failed miserably, distracted by its own illegal escapade in Ukraine and perhaps prioritizing a transit site for its oil and gas exports through Azerbaijan over its treaty commitments to defend Armenia.

Armenian Caritas reports that essentially the entire Armenian population of Nagorno-Karabakh, in the end, has fled the enclave. Perhaps 20 Armenians, too elderly or too disabled to leave, remain. The vast majority of the enclave’s refugees are settling across Armenia, seeking work and suitable housing.

According to Caritas, they are at risk of “multidimensional poverty” because of the many needs they are facing. At heightened risk are “single women, female-headed households, children (including unaccompanied and separated), [and] persons with chronic health conditions and disabilities.”

The displaced are expected to integrate with Armenian society as they work toward self-reliance. The short-term policy, according to Armenuhi Mkhoyan, a spokesperson for Armenian Caritas, is to help with housing, education and employment. Left unanswered is “the question of the long-term future for these people.”

Most of the refugees, Ms. Mkhoyan said, hope someday, somehow to return to Nagorno-Karabakh.

“But not living together with Azerbaijanis,” she added in an email to America. “They consider it impossible to live side by side. History shows that there is no guarantee of living peacefully on the same land.”

Ms. Mkhoyan reports that for the refugees in Armenia, four issues remain top of mind: “The social and humanitarian problems of the displaced, work towards return, fate of prisoners and their release, [and the] preservation of cultural and historical sites of Nagorno-Karabakh.”

After the Armenian flight, Azerbaijani families, many returning to homes they had been driven from themselves at the conclusion of the First Nagorno-Karabakh War, began taking over the farms, villages, cities and homes the Armenians left behind. And despite an order from the International Court of Justice at the Hague to protect Armenian heritage, reports continue to emerge of the destruction of Armenian churches, cemeteries and other cultural sites. With the region denuded of the Armenian people themselves, it is the memory of them now that is slowly being washed away in Nagorno-Karabakh.

Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day, April 24, is observed all over the world by the members of the Armenian diaspora, commemorating the victims of the Armenian genocide of 1915. That catastrophe was an exercise in homicide, starvation and inhumanity denied to this day by many in Turkey—especially denied by its current authoritarian leader, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. President Erdogan marked the occasion this week with a message to Armenian Patriarch Sahak Masalyan, deploring “radical discourse” on the issue of Armenian remembrance.

“I once again remember with respect the Ottoman citizens of Armenian descent who lost their lives due to unfavorable circumstances of World War I and extend my condolences to their descendants.” Mr. Erdogan wrote. “I also wish Allah Almighty’s mercy to all members of the Ottoman society who passed away or were martyred as a consequence of armed conflicts, rebellions, gang violence and terrorist acts.”

His downplaying of the historical grievances of Armenians had taken an even starker tone just a few days before. Azerbaijan and Armenia have been pursuing negotiations meant to normalize relations and fix borders in the aftermath of two wars. Mr. Erdogan was asked by reporters if Armenia might be included in wider peacebuilding efforts across the restive Caucasus region.

He agreed that “a new order is being established in the region,” but added, “[i]t is time to set aside baseless claims. It is time to move forward with realities on the ground. It is better than moving forward with fabrications, tales.”

“Now, it is time to create a new road map based on reality,” the Turkish leader said. “I hope Armenia escapes from the darkness it was condemned to thanks to its diaspora and chooses the path to new beginnings,” Mr. Erdogan said. “The door to opportunity will not remain open forever.”

A pan-Turkic vision

Mr. Erdogan had played a major role in facilitating Azerbaijan’s oil-fueled military buildup following its humiliation at the end of the First Nagorno-Karabakh War. Azerbaijan’s military superiority was quickly evident in 2020 over 44 days of combat as it put its high-tech drone and missile capacity to devastating effect against the completely outgunned and outmaneuvered Armenian forces.

The Azerbaijani lightning assault that provoked the collapse of all Armenian defensive forces in one day in September 2023 further demonstrated Azerbaijan’s mastery of a new form of drone-assisted, hybrid warfare. Substantial military buys from Turkey and Israel helped.

Azerbaijani leader President Ilham Aliyev, another authoritarian responsible for a host of human rights abuses in Azerbaijan, likewise shared some disquieting thoughts about Armenia on Genocide Remembrance Day. The president was addressing a U.N.-connected audience in Baku at a preliminary meeting to COP29, an international conference on climate change that is to be hosted in November by oil-flush Azerbaijan. He was asked about outsider efforts to influence events in the South Caucasus region after Russia’s apparent diplomatic and military withdrawal.

Mr. Aliyev heartily mocked European observers policing the peace and what he dismissed as “binocular diplomacy.” He suggested that the Europeans would be on the run at the first sign of renewed fighting and deplored recent efforts by France and other European partners to rearm and modernize Armenia’s military, assuring that Armenia would regret it if it put modern defenses in place against the Azerbaijani army.

“The way to security and stability in the region goes through Azerbaijan-Armenia normalization,” Mr. Aliyev said. Armenia must learn “to be a normal neighbor and to put an end to territorial claims to their neighbors. We see some positive trends. But this is not enough. It is only words, and we know how they can change their mind.”

He suggested that Azerbaijan would not stand by while Armenia restores its defensive capacity.

Now the Armenians appear willing to accept the loss of Nagorno-Karabakh, but, Mr. Aliyev said, “maybe in five years’ time, when they are supplied with deadly weapons, they will say again, ‘Karabakh is Armenia,’ and what should we do? We cannot wait.”

Though the two sides are engaged in peace negotiations that in the end may formalize the de facto ethnic cleansing in Nagorno-Karabakh, Mr. Aliyev sounded far from peaceful. But accepting the status quo is apparently the best Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, who led the country during both its disastrous war in 2020 and the loss of Nagorno-Karabakh in 2023, believes he can achieve.

He may consider it worth the sacrifice of Nagorno-Karabakh if that means Mr. Aliyev will cease loudly talking about his long-standing desire to create a land bridge to an Azerbaijani exclave province, Nakhchivan, and thus to Turkey. To make that pan-Turkic vision a reality, the Azerbaijanis would have to seize Syunik Province in southern Armenia. There is little now to stop them if they decide to proceed.

And even as Armenian and Azerbaijani negotiators seek to hammer out a comprehensive peace, Armenia is pressing a case at the International Court of Justice that Azerbaijan be held accountable for war crimes and ethnic cleansing. It is a complicated political reality and behind that a vexing practical problem—how to address restitution or restoration in Nagorno-Karabakh, then how to prevent an even wider regional conflict.

There is little evidence that the Biden administration is prepared to engage that problem, at least based on its tepid, pro-forma acknowledgment of Armenian Remembrance Day this week.

“Today, we pause to remember the lives lost during the Meds Yeghern—the Armenian genocide—and renew our pledge to never forget,” President Biden said. He recalled a “campaign of cruelty” in 1915, when the Ottoman empire turned on its Armenian citizens, but Mr. Biden said nothing in his brief statement about any of the region’s contemporary cruelties.

“As we mourn this tragedy, we also honor the resilience of the Armenian people,” Mr. Biden said. “After enduring one of the darkest chapters in human history…they rebuilt their lives. They preserved their culture…. And they told their stories to ensure that the mass atrocities that began on this day 109 years ago are never again repeated.”

“This remains our solemn vow,” the president concluded. “Today—and every day—the United States will continue to stand up for human rights and speak out against intolerance. We will continue to meet hate and horror with hope and healing. And, we will continue to stand with all those who seek a future where everyone can live with dignity, security, and respect.”

It is hard to say how Mr. Biden’s words were heard in Armenia, where an embattled, ancient Christian community stands alone among neighbors who increasingly demonstrate an unwillingness to tolerate its presence.

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