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Nagorno Karabakh under fire: a war of misinformation

 

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The Nagorno Karabakh (NK) conflict is one of high complexity. The region is by some seen as a "disputed" region, yet the reality is far from it. Internationally, no state, government, or international organization recognizes NK as an independent state nor as part of Armenian territories. Indeed, in the 90s after the first NK war, the United Nations Security Council passed four resolutions (822, 853, 874, 884) that call for a ceasefire between the two armies of Armenia and Azerbaijan, withdrawal of Armenian occupying forces from the region, and condemn the violations of the said ceasefire. Despite this, NK has stayed occupied since the end of the war and as a result, 600.000 Azerbaijani Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) had to move out of their homes.

Discussing the reasons for the conflict is useless, the war is going on and thanks to the help of Turkey and the lack of Russian support to Armenian forces, it seems that victory is on our side this time. However, we wanted to address a few things. First, the misinformation or perhaps even purposeful omittances in the reporting of this war, then the future of the IDP population.

The population of NK

One such misinformation is quite often seen in both newspapers and politics related journals. Reuters, National Geographic, Bloomberg, and others seem to speak of an Armenian majority NK without stating the reasons for it. Are Nagorno Karabakh and the regions surrounding it truly mainly populated by ethnic Armenians who demand independence from Azerbaijan?

Despite it being true as of today, this argument is invalid when used as proof that NK should be separated from Azerbaijan. The population of NK that lived there before the 1993-1994 war was artificially replaced because of the occupation of this territory by Armenian forces.

Demographics of occupied districts as of 1989. Based on 1989USSR data. Source.

According to the 1989 USSR population census, the total population of the occupied territories was over 75% Azerbaijani. As of 2015, the "Artsakh" population was 150.000 persons. Compared to the 600.000 that were forcefully removed from the region, these numbers do not represent the reality of the conflict.

Another argument used is the “transfer” of the Nagorno Karabakh to Azerbaijani SSR by Stalin back in 1921. Again, the mistranslation of the original document gives the idea that this region was not part of Azerbaijan before. However, the correct wording used was: “It was decided that NK stays part of Azerbaijan”.

Furthermore, even Russia despite being Armenia's military ally does not recognize this land as Armenian, which is partly why it did not interfere in the current war. Another reason is that Russia is currently involved in several conflicts. Its inability to broker a ceasefire that would be maintained between the two contestants might show Russia’s weakness or maybe pure disinterest in the new NK war.

So why is it that so many of the Western media omits all of this? The fact that the then majority Azerbaijani population had to move and have been since then classified as IDP has been documented in research (see Thomas de Waal and Audrey Altstadt books and papers). The people who have rights to live peacefully in Nagorno Karabakh are Azerbaijani citizens (now refugees), that were and are still in higher numbers than that of "Artsakh".

Some have even gone as far as negating the existence of the Azerbaijani state itself pre-USSR. However, in 1918 like many others, Azerbaijan had proclaimed its independent state with a flag, hymn, and people. That is until it was yet again put under Russian rule in 1920. Such statements as the one cited at best serve an ultra-nationalistic role, at worst invalidate any pro-Armenian argument.

Is this a religious war?

Nowadays, wars more than ever are not only on the ground. To win one you must also participate and act strategically in the information war. Currently, some Western media (e.g., Foreign Policy), as well as politicians (e.g. President Macron) have tried portraying this conflict as a religious war between Muslims and Christians by referring to the "extremist jihadist" mercenaries sent by Turkey to fight in Nagorno Karabakh. Yet, as much as some would like to see this as a war between religions, the conflict over Nagorno Karabakh has never been one.

The attempts at portraying at as such are not only an obstacle to understanding better the reasons for the conflict. They also can be very dangerous. Mis- and disinformation have been the causes behind terrible wars, and in this case, could also lead to violent escalation. One example that comes to mind is the US involvement in Iraq prompted by the supposed use of banned weapons, later proven to be false.

In the same way, misinformation around the conflict that our people are suffering from currently could escalate it with the involvement of other international powers that have interests in the region. The reality is that population displacement is what led this region to be mainly inhabited by ethnically Armenian people today. The excuse of a thousand-year-old history is not enough for what has been done in Nagorno Karabakh.

IDPs and their future

To finish, we wanted to discuss here is what will happen once our land is taken back. The Azerbaijani government must implement a clear strategy when it comes to the IDPs. What do the refugees want and for those who want to go back to their home region, and how will their reinstalment in NK be organized? No conversation has been initiated between the government and the IDP population regarding the consequences of a victory.

The IDP population might have fallen from the initial 600.000 to around 350.000, however, they have suffered from an uncertain life for almost 30 years. Returning to their homeland Karabakh is only one step in achieving stability, the next one is reclaiming property and rebuilding a decent life.

Furthermore many cities have stayed empty since the 1994 ceasefire, and thus large investments need to be deployed to ensure the livelihoods of these refugees, especially when it comes to housing, heating, electricity, and of course access to water and food. Despite being often discussed, many IDPs have lived and are living in difficult conditions for the last 25 years.

The same goes for the cities outside of the NK that were shelled. The civilians of Ganja, Barda and Terter that lost their homes or members of their families will also need help rebuilding their lives.

Consequences of shelling in the city of Terter, Azerbaijan. Photo: Aziz Karimov, Caucasian Knot.

Recently, a video of the execution of two Armenian soldiers has been circulating. True or not, it can only have negative repercussions on Azerbaijan and its perception in the West. It is important for the Azerbaijani army to consider how to manage the current Armenian population of Nagorno Karabakh. Do we really want to perpetrate the same genocidal acts as in Khojaly? As much as revenge for the recent and past civilians’ deaths can be tempting, it is important not to succumb to it and act humanely.

Many of us see the only outcome as a win-lose situation. It is either us or them keeping the territories. This is not a durable situation if left unresolved. Just like Armenia thought they won NK back in the 1990s, Azerbaijan will be in the same situation with its population living at risk of another war. Maybe the only way to resolve it is a lose-lose scenario where Armenia does not get to keep and occupy the whole region, and Azerbaijan doesn't get to take back the whole of the 7 regions under conflict.

Is our national pride more important than the livelihoods of our IDPs? In the end, it is all a question of priorities.

Sources:

Altstadt, A. (1992) The Azerbaijani Turks : power and identity under Russian rule. Hoover Institution Press, Stanford University.

Gureyeva-Aliyeva. Y., Huseynov,  T. (2011) “Can you be an IDP for twenty years?” A comparative field study on the protection needs and attitudes towards displacement among IDPs and host communities in Azerbaijan. Brookings Institution-London School of Economics Project on Internal Displacement. Baku, December 2011.

International Displacement Monitoring Center. (2019) Azerbaijan. Annual conflict and disaster displacement figures. Available online: https://www.internal-displacement.org/countries/azerbaijan

De Waal, T. (2013) Black Garden. Armenia and Azerbaijan through Peace and War.

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