October 21, 2020

Take the Time to Understand What’s Happening in Armenia

UChicago community members must learn about the attacks on Armenia in order to support their Armenian colleagues.

Most UChicago students were beginning this quarter with anxiety about busy schedules, grades, and online learning. Armenian students were waking up to a war. On September 27, Azerbaijan launched a full-scale offensive along the line of contact in Artsakh, as well as the Republic of Armenia’s internationally recognized borders. They have continued attacking since, targeting civilian populations and cultural sites. And they continue, despite a ceasefire on October 10. Armenia and Artsakh, with a combined population of three million, face an existential threat from Azerbaijan, a country of 10 million, aided by Turkey, a country of 82-84 million.

As a diaspora Armenian, the experience has been surreal. My family came to Chicago fleeing the Armenian Genocide of 1915, so, unlike many of my Armenian classmates, I do not have immediate family in Armenia. But in the past few years, I have spent significant time working on a project telling stories of non-violent resistance from Armenia, and I have made friends from around the country, including the regions that are directly under fire. My dreams are full of the places I visited a summer or two ago, some of which are now in rubble. I think of the people I met for a quick conversation or a passing interaction. How many of them are dead?

My last three weeks have been an experience that some call “diaspora paralysis,” a mix of anxiety, grief, frantic action, and survivor’s guilt. In the blur of constantly looking at the news and checking on my friends in Armenia and Artsakh, I always find myself asking questions like: Should I be there on the front lines? Is this a second Armenian Genocide? How can I focus on class when my friends are fearing for their lives? What can I do to make sure my children won’t have to say “2020 Never Again?”

Every Armenian I know is feeling this too. As you see our faces in our Zoom classes, our hearts are somewhere else. Most of us are descended from Armenian Genocide survivors, so the existential threat from Azerbaijan and Turkey, the country that committed and continues to deny the Armenian Genocide, feels like déjà vu.

 The current attacks are centered on Artsakh, also known as Nagorno-Karabakh. Artsakh is an independent republic with an ethnically Armenian population that remains unrecognized by the international community. The region has historically been populated by Armenians and shows numerous traces of Armenian culture over 2,000 years old, but it was given to the Soviet Republic of Azerbaijan by Josef Stalin in 1923 in an attempt to forge closer ties with Azerbaijans ally, Turkey. During the collapse of the USSR, in response to the mass ethnic cleansing of Armenians in Azerbaijan, the citizens of Nagorno-Karabakh declared independence. They did so in a series of referendums, which was their right based on the principle of self-determination.

Nagorno-Karabakh’s initial declaration of independence was not recognized and instead was met with attacks by the Azerbaijani armed forces. This started a war that lasted four years, until Artsakh gained its de facto independence. Since then, Artsakh has functioned as an independent country, participating in democratic self-governance, rebuilding its cities, and going on with ordinary life. But it remains in a constant state of military threat because the international community refuses to recognize its independence.

This frozen conflict is not simply an academic matter. For the citizens of Artsakh, it is deadly. The 1994 ceasefire is often violated with small attacks that kill soldiers, and in 2016 increased attacks were known as the Four-Day War. But the recent attacks are the worst since the ’90s. Artsakh has seen intense military fighting, with over 729 deaths many of them conscripts as young as 18. Azerbaijan has also carried out intense bombing of the region’s capital of Stepanakert, targeting schools, churches, and homes, causing major human rights violations.

The international community’s refusal to end this conflict is a matter of geopolitical interest. Azerbaijan is an oil-rich country that has been known to bribe European politicians and carry out money laundering operations involving influential Americans including Donald Trump. Thus, the international community has prioritized Azerbaijan’s claim on the land over the self-determination of the people of Artsakh, giving Azerbaijan justification to carry out deadly attacks on civilians.

 The conflict also poses a danger to the region. Azerbaijan has drawn in Turkey, which has taken over control of Azerbaijani air forces. Furthermore, reports from foreign intelligence communities confirm that Turkey has been hiring Syrian mercenaries to fight on the front lines, deceiving many and telling them that they were going to guard military posts. Attacks have spilled over into Armenia, firing on several civilian areas, including near Armenia’s capital of Yerevan. This has the potential to create an even greater threat, as the territorial integrity of Armenia, not just that of Artsakh, has been compromised.

In response to this danger, a ceasefire between Armenia and Azerbaijan was called on October 10. The ceasefire was brokered by Russia after talks in Moscow for humanitarian purposes, including an exchange of bodies and prisoners. It was also intended to pave the way for future peace talks, but so far, it has not been respected. Azerbaijan has not only continued to attack Artsakh and Armenia, but has also sent a team of special forces into the civilian region of Hadrut, intending to terrorize civilians, and killing a mother and her disabled son. The continued acts of hostility, despite the ceasefire, show a desire for further aggression on Azerbaijan’s part. Given this, and the history of Azeri and Turkish aggression in the region, there seems to be no end to the conflict in sight.

But an end to the conflict is possible. It will likely not come through the negotiations that the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe has been carrying out for the last 26 years. These negotiations do not recognize Karabakh, denying its people a representative in the process of deciding their own fate. They often view the conflict as a land dispute between Armenia and Azerbaijan, which is not the current reality. The facts are this: Artsakh is an unrecognized, but independent, democratically self-governed country; Azerbaijan claims this land; The people of Artsakh want their right to self-determination.

Any negotiations that do not take into account the reality on the ground are not a viable path to peace. Instead, the most realistic way to end this conflict is for the international community to recognize the Republic of Artsakh. The people of Artsakh have a right to self-determination and to live in peace, and this would provide a precedent for resolving other such conflicts and preventing further human rights abuses in the future.

 The people I have met in Artsakh want what all of us want: to live in peace, to rebuild their cities, to go to university and pursue careers, to focus on the little struggles of everyday life without worrying that they will be bombed tomorrow. But as of now, the international community has chosen geopolitical interests over peace. In this dire situation, your Armenian classmates need your support. We do not have oil money, PR firms, or resources that will gain us geopolitical influence. We rely on the strength of our communities and our dedication to fighting for the truth. We are asking you to do what UChicago students do best: to learn, to critically examine the information you see, to find the truth, and use your voice to advocate for what you know is right. For us, it is a matter of life and death.

To learn more about the situation visit www.recognizeartsakh.today

To take political action, visit www.anca.org/alert

To donate relief to the people of Artsakh, visit www.himnadram.org

Araxie Cass is a fourth year in the College.