Anna Cervi discusses the humanitarian crisis in Artsakh from the point of view of the Armenian community in Wales.
Since December 12th 2022, Azerbaijani state-backed groups disguised as ‘environmental activists’ have been blocking the Lachin Corridor of Nagorno-Karabakh (Artsakh).
Russia, the traditional dominant power in the region, has chosen to sacrifice the Armenian-populated democratic country to Azerbaijan and Turkey. This is only a small price for Putin to pay to gain control of strategic crossroads linking the west to the east and the north to the south, and the use of a military base in Artsakh (and from the perspective of Moscow, in Azerbaijan).
The Lachin Corridor is the only road linking Artsakh with Armenia and the rest of the world. Its closure means that citizens cannot get essential items like food and medical supplies. Vital hospital services are not able to function, and the region’s 22,000 children are unable to go to school due to a lack of heating. Gas and electricity supplies are periodically disrupted by Azerbaijan to bring the people of Artsakh to its knees. Patients requiring urgent treatments are heavily reliant on the Red Cross for ensuring their safe passage to Armenia.
What Armenians in Artsakh need from Wales and the international community is not money or weapons, but condemnation of the criminal activities led by Azerbaijan.
Azerbaijan is an authoritarian country that has not had any environmental activist initiatives for the past decade. They have included special forces among civilians camouflaged as activists to employ fear, compulsion and terror. Armenian mothers separated from their children were offered a chance to reunite with them only through a one-off outbound trip from Artsakh – ethnic cleansing at work. When a children’s bus, accompanied by Russian peacekeepers, was to cross the Lachin Corridor, the fake activists burst into the bus and filmed the children in utter terror with one of them fainting. The filmed material was triumphantly shown on Azeri television.
In a distorted way, as members of the Welsh Armenian community, this crisis has given us even more appreciation for the safety, security, and respect for human rights we experience in Wales and the UK. However, we also feel disbelief and consternation about the lack of consolidated international efforts at curbing Azerbaijan’s criminal actions through punitive measures. The Welsh Government has committed to providing £4 million financial and humanitarian aid for people in Ukraine. Media, charities and other international organisations are broadcasting, criticising and taking strong measures against Russian aggression towards Ukraine. Armenia is a hostage in the hands of the Russians, terrorised by Azerbaijan, and yet all the powers chose to turn a blind eye to the ongoing situation. What Armenians in Artsakh need from Wales and the international community is not money or weapons, but condemnation of the criminal activities led by Azerbaijan. This is a matter of taking a moral stance.
Llyr Gruffydd MS/AS submitted a statement of opinion to the Welsh Parliament, aimed at ‘recognising the long standing historical ties between Wales and Armenia’ and calling on the UK Government to ‘provide aid to avert a humanitarian crisis’ that has the potential to occur if nothing more is done.
So far only a few other MSs have signed it. The Armenian community of Wales cannot explain such indifference. They were sure that Wales would understand the pain of Armenians, as Wales knows only too well from its own history the pain and torture of invasion.
The conflict in the area has been known for a century now. The autonomous republics of Nakhichevan and Nagorno-Karabakh have never been a full part of Azerbaijan: the annexation of both places echoes Stalin’s foreign policy of divide and rule. This made Armenia’s secession from the Soviet Union next to impossible due to the risk of leaving Armenians in those two regions hostage to the Soviet Union and Azerbaijan.
Meanwhile the West has taken an ambivalent approach to Azerbaijan’s crimes because of its reliance on gas.
The first ethnic cleansing of Armenians by the Azeris took place during the Soviet years (1921-1975) in Nakhichevan. By the end of the 1970s, all Armenians had been driven out of the region and any monuments and cultural features of Armenian heritage in Nakhichevan were destroyed between 1997 and 2006. The Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh, however, managed to resist the constant pressure from Azerbaijan. After the collapse of the USSR, they seized the opportunity and used their constitutional right to vote and decided to reunite with Armenia. However, Russia and the rest of the world did not accept the vote and their right to self-determination, and the conflict has been ongoing ever since.
Giving Nakhichevan and Nagorno-Karabakh to Azerbaijan was the beginning of the far-reaching project of pan-Turkism. Today, there are no more Armenians in Nakhichevan. In Karabakh, intensive depopulation is continuing to take place through military force and terrorist acts.
In September 2020, Azerbaijan launched an invasion of Nagorno Karabakh, killing thousands and expelling tens of thousands of Armenians from their homes. Armenian civilians caught behind the enemy lines were systematically killed or kidnapped. According to OpenDemocracy: ‘Unlike the Russian-Ukrainian war, the international community is not rushing to directly support one side or another in the conflict. The exception here is Turkey, which supplies Azerbaijan with weapons, training its army and striking lucrative contracts with Aliyev. During the Second Karabakh War, Ankara is reported to have sent mercenaries to Azerbaijan recruited from Turkish-controlled Islamist groups in Syria, through Turkey.’
Meanwhile the West has taken an ambivalent approach to Azerbaijan’s crimes because of its reliance on gas. The impending catastrophe has garnered international attention. The European Court of Human Rights applied interim measures against Azerbaijan over this blockade; the President of the Council of Europe’s Committee of Ministers called for the blockade’s urgent lifting; and Amnesty International, the European Union, Brazil, France, Germany, Greece, the Helsinki Commission, the Netherlands, Norway, Spain, Switzerland, the United States and USAID have each separately called for the immediate lifting of the siege.
Yet, the European Union has signed billions of dollars’ worth of gas and investment deals with Azerbaijan since Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022. Azerbaijan’s sense of impunity and ongoing hostilities, as recorded by the UN International Court of Justice, are potential precursors of far worse. The dangers are heightened by the absence of international eyes and ears in Artsakh. The Genocide Prevention Network has warned that it is an attempt to ‘ethnically cleanse and drive Armenians out of Artsakh.’
The question today is whether members of our Senedd, and the Welsh Government led by Mark Drakeford, will draw the same conclusions.
On 22 February, the International Court of Justice ordered Azerbaijan to end the blockade of the Lachin corridor. Yet, Azerbaijani special forces acting with impunity, while ignoring the order, attacked a police car in Artsakh, killing three and injuring one. This happens 10 days after the court’s decision, immediately after the visit of Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to Baku.
And yet no concrete international intervention is on the horizon.
While the whole world stands together in condemnation of these acts – Russia, Azerbaijan, and Turkey are pressing ahead to implement the 100-year plan drawn by Lenin and the Young Turks: to carry out the cleansing of native Armenians from region piece by piece; first from Karabakh, then Syunik, then the rest of Armenia.
As Dr. Michael Rubin, a contributing editor at international politics publication 1945, writes: ‘History does not always repeat, but patterns emerge.’ The Ukraine crisis did not begin with Russian tanks rolling into the country, but months earlier, when Putin began laying down the intellectual and diplomatic justification for his aggression. The West may not have listened until it was too late, but Aliyev did. The question today is whether members of our Senedd, and the Welsh Government led by Mark Drakeford, will draw the same conclusions. Or will they take action, instead of passive virtue signalling, before it is too late?
This article was commissioned by Maisie Allen and co-edited by Kaja Brown, thanks to the Book Council of Wales’ New Audiences Fund.