In April of 2021, the Azerbaijani president, Ilham Aliyev, spoke before rows of soldiers assembled to celebrate the opening of the Military Trophy Park opened in Baku. Standing before a screen showing a fluttering Azerbaijani flag, Aliyev described decades of conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia in a manner which consistently placed blame for all violence at the feet of Armenians and simultaneously questioned the legitimacy of Armenian statehood. As the speech concluded, visitors were allowed to freely explore the park’s collection of captured Armenian military equipment alongside wax sculptures of Armenian soldiers in a display which several critics decried as dehumanizing.
Aliyev’s speech was one of many recent instances of historical denialism and attempts at rewriting the past, something made more ironic by his urging that “we should not obscure history. We must know it.” This article will attempt to follow this particular piece of Aliyev’s advice by exploring the Armenia-Azerbaijan Nagorno-Karabakh conflicts as a means of having a broader discussion on historical denialism, cultural destruction, and the human rights implications of recasting the past to fit the narratives of the present.
Territorial disputes between Armenia and Azerbaijan have largely centered around the Nagorno-Karabakh region, which is internationally recognized as situated within Azerbaijani borders. Despite this, the first Nagorno-Karabakh war (1988-1994) resulted in the region being ruled by a breakaway state known as the Republic of Artsakh. The region's populace is estimated to be 99.7% ethnically Armenian, although this statistic may now be inaccurate due to mass displacements. This explains both why the nation of Armenia has historically claimed sovereignty of this region and why Azerbaijan has attempted to undermine the region’s historic ties to Armenia.
This is no simple question of precedent and ownership, however, as the region’s complex past means both Armenia and Azerbaijan have rich cultural heritages rooted in this disputed territory. Collective cultural memory has the power to polarize and stoke tensions as historical associations to the geography, such as the Armenian melikdoms of the early modern period and the medieval and culturally-Azerbaijani city of Shusha, are used to support modern conflicts.
Prior to the start of the first Nagorno-Karabakh war, the Azerbaijani government began to actively promote Turkey’s denial of the 1915-1922 Armenian genocide. This was by no means a new phenomenon (the Azerbaijani people had also largely embraced this belief of genocide denial), but this decision of government-sponsored denialism is worth exploring as we consider similar cases from Palestine to Ukraine, where questions of historical precedent and cultural legacy are equally significant.
At time of writing, the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict remains unresolved and there have been reports of sporadic border clashes resulting in fatalities, despite a ceasefire agreement reached in 2020. In September 2022, dozens, if not hundreds, of people were reported to have been killed in these skirmishes. This is a tragic and complex story which this article cannot fully do justice (see the reports by the Global Conflict Tracker and the International Crisis Group listed in the sources below for this). However, this article will provide an introduction to the efforts of both Armenia and Azerbaijan to attack the histories of their adversaries.
In November of 2019, Joshua Kucera wrote of an increase in denialist rhetoric from both Armenian and Azerbaijani leadership. Several acts of violence toward civilians, such as the Azerbaijani deaths at Khojaly in 1992, had been recast as either not having happened at all or at the fault of extremist groups. This effectively shifted blame away from the actual perpetrators while stoking international tensions. While we must keep in mind that both nations have actively attempted to rewrite the past in this way, in recent times Azerbaijan’s challenge to Armenian sovereignty has escalated to the point of reported active destruction of cultural sites and displacement of Armenian populations.
In this way, Azerbaijan has joined Turkey in attacking Armenia’s cultural legacy, to the extent that denial of the Armenian genocide and support for Azerbaijan in the Nagorno-Karabakh war have become intertwined. A symbolic example is the Lyon Armenian Genocide Memorial which was vandalized in 2006 and 2007 with graffiti denying the genocide. It was further vandalized in 2020 by The Grey Wolves, a Turkish far-right group, which has expressed support both for the Azerbaijani war effort and for an Islamonationalist Turkish state.
Prompted by Azerbaijan’s attacks on both the Nagorno-Karbakh region and Armenia, in September 2022, a report by Genocide Watch indicated that Azerbaijan had reached four of the ten Stages of Genocide through its efforts to dehumanize and persecute the Armenian people, prepare for the elimination of Armenian peoples in Azerbaijani-controlled territories, and deny current and past conflicts. Researchers have found that in the Nakhchivan region, which is governed by Azerbaijan but has been recognized historically as being part of Armenia, 98% of Armenian cultural heritage sites have been destroyed over the last two decades. Preliminary reports suggest that a similar process is now taking place in the Nagorno-Karabakh region as all evidence of Armenian habitation, which arguably began as early as the 7th century BC, is systematically demolished.
It is worth noting that Azerbaijan has accused Armenia of similar acts of cultural destruction, however, the contentious and complex nature of this debate can discourage casual observers from interrogating state-sponsored narratives of the past. Transforming these questions of historical and cultural heritage into intricate, nuanced debates can lead to human rights being tread upon more flagrantly as the international community may choose to prioritize conflicts in which the sides are more easily defined as good versus bad. Context and history must be respected and understood, the complexity of the situation cannot be an excuse to overlook human rights violations of this nature.
There is a larger conversation to be had about the necessity for recognition and acknowledgement in conflict resolution. Tsolin Nalbantian’s recent article “On ‘Recognition’” explores the impact of outside actors openly recognizing conflicts to achieve justice. Nalbantian’s academic research centres on Armenian Communities in the Middle East and she writes about the complicated envy which some Armenians have felt towards Jewish populations for receiving international support and recognition for the Holocaust, while the Armenian genocide remains a politically avoided topic. Similarly, Armenia has recently hoped to receive a small portion of the worldwide attention on the war in Ukraine by emphasizing any similarities to the Azerbaijani and Armenian conflict; from Russian involvement to the use of Turkish drones. Despite this, Armenia’s reliance on Russia for trade and peacekeeping has elicited a mixed response from the West, as pro-Russia Armenians who advocate for peace in their own country are often viewed with suspicion due to concerns that expressing support for the Kremlin may imply backing the conflict in Ukraine.
It is worth quoting Nalbantian at length, as she concisely captures the problem the heart of the problem surrounding international recognition of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict:
“Armenians dominated the conversation about the Armenian Genocide for years. They did valuable work inserting it into Middle Eastern Studies and, most notably, Ottoman Studies. And yet, I’m not convinced it has become intrinsically part of either. Recognition does not integrate Armenians in these fields. That is evidenced by the silence that met the violence in the Caucasus in 2020. The field pushes us to “move on” since the genocide has been recognized: the basic requirement has been met; no need to push further. But that reaction only exposes the lack of integration of Armenians in these fields and reinforces a sense of marginality in its scholarship. This likewise is evidenced by the gatekeeping that Armenian Genocide scholars engage in when they do not include or expand the field to Assyrians and others. It is as if they work on the assumption that recognition is not enough and that it could be withdrawn at any time. This keeps everyone engaged in the tiresome, predictable, and tautological process.”
This shows us that not only is this article an inherently political act in its attempt to raise awareness of an under-acknowledged conflict, but that it also problematically lacks the voices and perspectives of individuals involved in the conflict. I hope that readers will give due attention to the history and provide Armenians and Azerbaijanis with a space to discuss and bring global attention to the conflict and human rights abuses. History disappears when we turn a blind eye to its destruction.
1 Samadov, Bahruz (16 April 2021). "Azerbaijan's authoritarianism and Baku's "Military Trophies Park"". EurasiaNet. Archived from the original on 17 April 2021.
2 Ben Aharon, Eldad. ‘Recognition of the Armenian Genocide after Its Centenary: A Comparative Analysis of Changing Parliamentary Positions’. Israel Journal of Foreign Affairs 13, no. 3 (2 September 2019): 339–52. https://doi.org/10.1080/23739770.2019.1737911. 3 Sanjian, Ara (24 April 2008). "Armenia and Genocide: the Growing Engagement of Azerbaijan" (PDF). The Armenian Weekly. pp. 28–33.
4 Casualties, September 2022 5 ‘Armenian and Azerbaijani Leaders Embrace Denialism | Eurasianet’. Accessed 16 December 2022. https://eurasianet.org/armenian-and-azerbaijani-leaders-embrace-denialism.
6 Chapple, Amos. ‘An Eyewitness To Shelling Along The Armenian-Azerbaijani Border’. Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 14:04:13Z, sec. Armenia. https://www.rferl.org/a/armenia-azerbaijan-border-conflict-september-2022/32041073.html. 7 "Memorial to Armenian Genocide Victims Profaned in Lyon". L'Obs. 1 November 2020. Retrieved 2 November 2020. 8 Genocide Warning: Azerbaijan and Nagorno-Karabakh (genocidewatch.com) 9 Hadjian, Avedis. ‘US Researchers Confirm 98% of Cultural Armenian Heritage Sites in Nakhichevan Destroyed by Azerbaijan’. Hyperallergic, 16 September 2022. http://hyperallergic.com/761723/cultural-armenian-heritage-sites-in-nakhichevan-destroyed-by-azerbaijan. 10 R. Schmitt, M. L. Chaumont. "Armenia and Iran". Encyclopædia Iranica; Cornell Chronicle. ‘Report Shows Near-Total Erasure of Armenian Heritage Sites’. Accessed 16 December 2022. https://news.cornell.edu/stories/2022/09/report-shows-near-total-erasure-armenian-heritage-sites. 11 How Armenia looted & erased Azerbaijani heritage | Medium
12 Nalbantian, Tsolin. ‘On “Recognition”’. International Journal of Middle East Studies 54, no. 3 (2022): 566–70. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0020743822000666. 13 See, for example: Stronski, Alexa Fults, Paul. ‘The Ukraine War Is Reshaping the Armenia-Azerbaijan Conflict’. Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Accessed 17 December 2022. https://carnegieendowment.org/2022/04/25/ukraine-war-is-reshaping-armenia-azerbaijan-conflict-pub-869 94. 14 Nalbantian, p. 570
Aghayev, Nasimi. “How Armenia looted & erased Azerbaijani heritage,” Medium. (2 Feb, 2022)
Ben Aharon, Eldad. ‘Recognition of the Armenian Genocide after Its Centenary: A Comparative Analysis of Changing Parliamentary Positions’. Israel Journal of Foreign Affairs 13, no. 3 (2 September 2019): 339–52.
Chapple, Amos. ‘An Eyewitness To Shelling Along The Armenian-Azerbaijani Border’. Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 14:04:13Z, sec. Armenia.
Hadjian, Avedis. ‘US Researchers Confirm 98% of Cultural Armenian Heritage Sites in Nakhichevan Destroyed by Azerbaijan’. Hyperallergic, (16 September 2022).
Hill, Nat. Genocide Warning: Azerbaijan and Nagorno-Karabakh (genocidewatch.com) (23 Sep, 2022).
Kuchera, Joshua. “Armenian and Azerbaijani Leaders Embrace Denialism”. Eurasianet, (22 Nov, 2019).
"Lyon : le mémorial du génocide arménien profané par des tags pro-Turquie". L'Obs. (1 November 2020).
"Memorial to Armenian Genocide Victims Profaned in Lyon". PanARMENIAN.Net. (18 April 2006).
Sanjian, Ara . "Armenia and Genocide: the Growing Engagement of Azerbaijan."The Armenian Weekly. (24 April 2008) pp. 28–33.
Samadov, Bahruz. "Azerbaijan's authoritarianism and Baku's "Military Trophies Park". EurasiaNet. (16 April 2021).
Schmitt, R., M. L. Chaumont. "Armenia and Iran". Encyclopædia Iranica; Cornell Chronicle. ‘Report Shows Near-Total Erasure of Armenian Heritage Sites’. (16 December 2022)
Stronski, Alex, Paul Fults. ‘The Ukraine War Is Reshaping the Armenia-Azerbaijan Conflict’. Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. (25 Apr. 2022).