In this exclusive interview for Truthout, sociologist Artyom Tonoyan discusses the ongoing Nagorno-Karabakh territorial conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan. In this under-reported case of cultural genocide involving political persecution, strains on due process rights, torture, lack of healthcare and food supplies, tens of thousands of ethnic Armenians have fled from Nagorno-Karabakh region after surrendering to Azerbaijan on September 20. Azerbaijan is currently seeking reassurances from the United States to continue peace talks with Armenia.
Tonoyan lays out the conflict’s historical background, its geopolitical ramifications, as well as the ways in which it is discussed in the agenda-setting U.S. press. He argues that not only is the issue overshadowed by larger conflicts relevant to U.S. interests but that a lack of social, economic and political power renders thoughtful and knowledgeable Armenians and Azerbaijanis silent. The following transcript has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Daniel Falcone: Can you provide a brief historical background regarding the Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict? How did we get to where we are now?
Artyom Tonoyan: Armenians first appeared on the scene in history as a coherent ethnic group in the seventh century BCE. Nagorno-Karabakh has been pretty much populated by Armenians and the Armenians are Indigenous to the region. This is a place of continual habitation. At the tail end of the Russian empire at the beginning of the 20th century, Armenians and Azeris fought brief wars over the control of the territory.
When the Russian empire finally collapsed in 1917 because of the Bolshevik Revolution, the Russians retreated from the South Caucasus. They had only a small presence in Georgia and so Azerbaijan and Armenia were no longer in the Russian empire, and they proclaimed independence. In 1918 Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia proclaimed independence and brief wars again ensued over Nagorno-Karabakh in South Armenia. As a result, in 1920, the Armenians, Azeris and Georgians lost independence, and Soviet rule was established over the region. The Azerbaijani government, an early Soviet government, recognized Armenian sovereignty over Nagorno-Karabakh.
Within a day of Azerbaijan’s recognition of Nagorno-Karabakh as part of Armenia, Joseph Stalin was adopted commissar of nationalities. He was basically Vladimir Lenin’s point man to deal with the issues of borders and nationality — in general, questions in the South Caucasus as Stalin himself was from Georgia.
Stalin reversed the decision of the Azerbaijan government. We don’t know why. Historians have spent countless hours of research and writing trying to figure out why Stalin reached this decision. … We just know about the fact of the transfer of Nagorno-Karabakh from Armenia to Azerbaijan.
So, this union was established, and Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia became part of the Soviet Union. As you can imagine, a lot of these questions became barred as the Soviet Union tried to consolidate its rule. They tried to keep all these issues under wraps but also, as you can imagine, the population of Nagorno-Karabakh, mostly Armenians, never agreed to this.
These grievances, in the beginning, were quite simply suppressed. As we got closer to the 1960s, Armenians were increasingly more vocal about their fate and about the culture of discrimination in Azerbaijan. You saw a revival of Armenian nationalist thinking in the 1960s. In 1964, Armenians wrote a letter to the Kremlin saying that Armenians were discriminated against and that churches were being destroyed. The letter was, of course, ignored. Brief repression followed as Armenians were chastised, marginalized, and so forth. At the time of the incorporation of Nagorno-Karabakh, about 89 to 90 percent of the population was Armenian.
And in 1969, Azerbaijan KGB General and later President Heydar Aliyev, the father of the current president of Azerbaijan, was elected as the head of the Communist Party of Azerbaijan. Aliyev implemented policies aimed at reducing Armenian demographics in Nagorno-Karabakh. By the time he was elected to become a member of the Politburo, the central committee of the Soviet Union Communist Party, he managed to reduce the Armenian population of Nagorno-Karabakh from 90 percent in 1920 to 75 percent. So, you can see the trend.
Aliyev instilled and implemented economic discriminatory policies; he failed to invest in the region. … Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh compared their economic mobility and economic performance not to the Azerbaijanis but to their Armenian brethren in Armenia.
Fast forward to the 1980s when Mikhail Gorbachev came to power in 1985. He implemented the two-pronged reform program. One was Perestroika, or the re-structurization of the economy; the other was Glasnost, or freedom of speech. Armenians voiced grievances, mostly economic, cultural and religious. In the 1980s, these issues were debated, and Armenian intellectuals started discussing this in public. In 1986, when the Chernobyl nuclear power plant went boom, it created an enormous strain on the Soviet government. The Chernobyl power plant had been built not far from the Armenian capital of Yerevan, so in 1987, a year after the Chernobyl disaster in Ukraine, Armenian environmentalists and a green nationalist movement sprang up and called for the closure of the nuclear power plant just outside of Yerevan. In other words, a sort of nationalist awakening movement commenced.
It [got] an additional impetus by calling the attention of the Soviet government to the plight of the Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh. In 1988, the population in Nagorno-Karabakh started a letter-writing campaign to Moscow and asked for the transfer of Nagorno-Karabakh to the Soviet Army. They again ignored the popular demand of the population in Nagorno-Karabakh.
The leadership in Nagorno-Karabakh, on February 20, 1988, did something quite unprecedented — they passed a resolution that called for the transfer of Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia. It was a popular movement that became institutionalized within seven or eight months.
It was not only the intellectuals in Armenian Nagorno-Karabakh that called for the reunification of the territory, it also had taken an institutional shape. Within 10 days of the leadership of Nagorno-Karabakh calling for reunification with Armenia, Azerbaijan, in an Azerbaijan city called Sumgait, broke out in mass violence against the Armenians. A pogrom ensued where 32 people were killed. Unofficially, it’s speculated that around 200 people perished.
Is the geopolitical history and reality of Nagorno-Karabakh just as complicated and messy?
Yes, geopolitically it’s an absolute mess, I’ll try to disentangle it. Azerbaijan started buying military equipment and offensive weapons from Israel as far back as 2009. So that’s one thing. But the main supplier of weapons to the region was Russia. Russia would sell most weapons to Azerbaijan and some defensive weapons to Armenia. This was to keep a balance of power in the region so no party could have the military edge. Russia had two treaties with Armenia, meant to protect Armenia from external attack. One was within the Collective Security Treaty Organization framework, the other was a bilateral treaty that basically obligated Russia to come to Armenia’s aid. Then, there was the U.S. involvement in the region, especially in the post-9/11 world and after the 2008 Russia-Georgia War. The U.S. was completely on the side of Georgia. Russians see the region as their backyard and don’t like U.S. presence in any shape or form.
The two other actors involved in the geopolitical dance were Iran and Turkey. Turkey had been pushed out of the region since the establishment of the Soviet Union. This was essentially their chance to enter the region by helping Azerbaijan. It also allowed them to reduce Russia’s presence in the region.
Israel has extensive intelligence networks in Azerbaijan. They pilfer a lot of Iranian intelligence in the direction of Iran, and they confer a lot of information through Azerbaijan as far as I know. On top of selling weapons to Azerbaijan and buying cheap oil from them, Israel also has an interest because of Iran.
Whatever Israel is doing, the U.S. is supporting and vice versa. Thereby the geopolitical weight of Armenia is reduced, and the geopolitical weight of Azerbaijan has risen. Overall, it’s a quite complex situation and quite a tangled web, if you will.
What do you say about how the Western media or the U.S. covers the conflict?
When it comes to domestic politics, the U.S. media functions as this check on power in theory. Less so with the mainstream media, but you will still have, even within the mainstream media, some adversarial journalism. When a government official does something wrong, the media tries to keep their feet over the fire. They often try to pursue the story to its logical end and to see that there is a resolution to any number of issues that they raise, that they think is contributing to the decline of civility.
In domestic politics you have a multiplicity of voices but when it comes to U.S. foreign policy, U.S. journalists are almost always — unless you are a maverick like Seymour Hersh — reverting to basically becoming stenographers for the State Department, or the Central Intelligence Agency or the Federal Bureau of Investigation or any number of government agencies. They, in a sense, reflect the position of the government.
Imagine if there is a scoop that comes from the CIA or from the State Department, and imagine if the scoop is going to challenge the position of these institutions. Think if you were a journalist. Do you want to keep your access to these people that give you the scoop, or do you want to become adversaries to them? What happens in this relationship, be it CNN or The New York Times — they will always favor keeping their channels with these institutions and with these organizations open rather than undergo a foreign policy story and have no access. This is not just on the Armenian/Azerbaijani issue. In general, not many journalists are interested in small countries like Armenia or in small geopolitical regions like the Caucasus. These stories end up becoming just footnotes in a larger story. If you compare what’s happening in Gaza, Israel and Ukraine to what’s happening in the Caucasus, that region is not high up in the priority list.
That allows petro-dictatorships like Azerbaijan to have their way with small countries like Armenia. They know that the State Department is not going to hold them accountable.
That’s very difficult, especially given the fact that you have quite a sophisticated sort of point guards in think tanks within the U.S. and in Europe — in essence, a garden variety of white guys who don’t have a dog in the fight, and they’re presented as objective and appear neutral about these issues.
Armenians and Azerbaijanis often get labeled as nationalists. Recently, this famous British analyst came out and labeled an Armenian-American poet Susan Barba, an editor at New York Review of Books who had written an article about what happened to Nagorno-Karabakh and the ethnic cleansing, a nationalist. Further, The New York Times bureau chief in Istanbul, Carlotta Gall, at the height of the 2020 war, wrote extremely [negative] articles against the Armenians. Armenians don’t have nearly the presence in this country, in terms of academia or journalism, to voice what is happening.
So the genocide in Tigray is completely being marginalized; you will not read about it in the U.S. press unless something horrible happens, like a massacre of 2,000 people in one day, then they may write about it. But even if that happened, the context would get lost.
The New York Times is not going to pursue investigating the problem of the ethnic cleansing in Nagorno-Karabakh. You’re not going to see 30 stories in 30 days come out, as they’re not interested or responsible in creating the story. They are merely interested in reflecting the State Department or selling news to constituents. But believe me, if Armenians lived in battleground states, instead of just California, which has been blue forever, you would have more coverage, and you would have more pronouncements from both the White House and the State Department.
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