Nagorno-Karabakh: Lingering Shadows of the Past


The conflict of Nagorno-Karabakh has been proclaimed ‘frozen’ but it can be more accurately compared to a volcano.  It can appear quiet but it is alive and there is an imminent danger of eruption.  Everyday life tends to push the sentiments and worries about the unresolved conflict to the background. Anniversaries of tragic events of conflict are times when all grievances, frustrations and hurt become renewed.  For Azerbaijanis, this time is in February, which marks the anniversary of Khojaly events.

The tragedy of Khojaly – a killing of hundreds of Azerbaijani civilians in 1992 by Armenian forces, represents the brutality and ugliness of war in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.   Perhaps the most emotional and important event of the conflict for Azerbaijanis – it is remembered every year and has become a symbol of Armenian aggression towards Azerbaijanis, a dark picture of what enemy is capable of.

Azerbaijanis all over the world organize and hold public awareness raising events, protests, and lectures as well as publish articles and op-eds on the topic. For ordinary people who join and organize these events, achieving recognition internationally is also about getting recognition for the on-going and frustrating status quo, for the losses of the war and the plight of displaced who are not able to return to their homes.

This year commemorations of Khojaly reached an unprecedented size and scale both domestically and around the world.  Public presentations and lectures organized by student organizations and diaspora groups in the capitals of Eastern and Western Europe as well as the United States have already been happening every year. This year added a number of events and a large public awareness campaign funded by Azerbaijani Government sources.  In addition to the protests in front of the Armenian Embassy in Washington, DC and United Nations in New York, which are organized by grassroots groups – a diaspora group called Azerbaijani American Alliance launched a large public awareness campaign, which covered the advertising space of metro stations in Washington, DC and New York with ‘Justice for Khojaly’ posters.  Washington Post ran a story but also a large advertising page devoted to Khojaly.  The expansive public awareness campaign in the United States shows the increased effort by the Government of Azerbaijan to exert pressure on Armenia and to counter the influence of Armenian lobby in Washington.

Most significantly, the commemorations took a new turn, when thousands of Turks joined Azerbaijanis on the streets of Istanbul and Ankara in solidarity for Khojaly and against Armenia.  The protest which according to organizers brought out 100,000 people, included members of labor unions, nationalist groups and Turkish-Azerbaijani Associations[1].  Minister of Internal Affairs of Turkey made an appearance in the rally and gave a speech.  Most likely initiated by groups in Baku, Initiated by Baku, protest was organized through various organizations as well as with the use of public awareness campaign on Khojaly in Turkey.  The event capitalized on the recent passage of the bill in France that bans the denial of Armenian Genocide and that has angered many Turks.

The commemoration is a reflection of the grim situation with conflict in the region.  The mobilization of thousands of people in Turkey shows how interlinked the conflicts of Armenia and Turkey and Nagorno-Karabakh are and will remain. According to analyst Nigar Goksel, it is partly a reaction from those groups who resent the empathy to Armenians that has been demonstrated in Turkey.  It is also a portrayal of solidarity to Azerbaijan, meant to deter the normalization process with Armenia. Moreover, it also reflects a backlash to perceived Armenian hostility and lobbying of resolutions against Turkey in third countries.

In Azerbaijan, the increased scale and size of commemorations is a sign that the frustration with the status quo is alive and remains important.  International efforts of Armenian lobby groups in Europe and the United States with their grievances against Turkey exacerbates the perception of injustice Azerbaijanis suffered from Armenians.  On societal level this strengthens the sympathies between Azerbaijan and Turkey and on state level it intensifies lobbying battles internationally.  All of this further complicates the peace process on all tracks of the conflicts in the region.

For the Armenians such display of alliance between Azerbaijanis and Turks adds to the sense of insecurity as well as confirms the stereotypes they hold of aggression of Turks and Azerbaijanis.  Armenian National Committee of America called the protests in Turkey “the determined actions of pre-genocidal Turkish society that is angrily lashing out at its imagined enemies”[2].  Such statements will only infuse the enemy image among public and intensify the support for lobbying efforts.

In this already grim picture of the conflict in the region, another complication is how various groups utilize commemorations.  Radical individuals and ultra-nationalist groups use these events to spread the messages of hatred and violence.  Throughout the protests there were a number of racist slogans that portrayed Armenians as murderers.  These are only to add to the animosity and enemy image on both sides  – one of the obstacles to peace process.   These also make it easy for Armenians to dismiss the issue of Khojaly.  For politicians on both sides, these events present an opportunity to mobilize people in support of their politics and delay committing to solving of the problem.

Most if not all international claims as well as the citizen protests organized by Armenians and Azerbaijanis are done with animosity.  While this is predictable and even expected in the current situation – what’s troubling is a lack of alternative actions that are collaborative and resolution oriented.  There are people on both sides who both acknowledge the tragedies of this conflict and want to see a different future.  But the current environment that is dominated by uncompromising war narrative on both sides leaves no space for those individuals and groups to express themselves.

Taking responsibility for crimes of war and recognition of losses and pain of conflict between the societies are crucial for the reconciliation to occur.  Khojaly must be acknowledged for sustainable peace to come.  Honoring the dead and the victims are important rituals, which should help realize the terrible cost of war and inspire peaceful future where everyone can feel safe.  The question is how to do this without making the conflict worse and creating more fear and anger on both sides? This is a discussion Armenians and Azerbaijanis should be engaging in both internally and jointly.  Commemorations and acknowledgements must be means to peace and cannot be the ends on their own which fuel the conflict. Otherwise, we will remain in endless cycle of conflict and violence.



[1]Tens of Thousands Remember Victims of Khojaly Massacre in Istanbul, Today’s Zaman, February 26, 2012

[2] Armenian Diaspora Criticizes Khojaly Rallies in Turkey. Azerbaijan News Network.  February 27, 2012

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