The Armenian-Azerbaijan ‘soft war’ over the Nagorno-Karabakh region is still claiming lives. A recent visit there provoked questions concerning Azerbaijan’s close ties with Israel.
BY YAIR AURON
YEREVAN—Ever since I learned that I would be traveling to the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic, my ears have hummed with the words of a song that I’d heard in my youth and that was still etched in my memory, though it had been many years since I heard it. The song was “At the Edge of the Volcano,” written by Dan Almagor and Danny Litani in 1972; I remembered Chava Alberstein’s hauntingly evocative rendition well. Even 40 years ago, the song left me restive and edgy. Since rediscovering it, I have been listening to it nonstop, singing the lyrics: “Why don’t they run away from there, and seek a safer place, where they can finally live in peace, once and for all… ”
I thought I was traveling to a dangerous, sad, perhaps forlorn and hopeless place, a place where again people are being persecuted due to their ethnic Armenian identity.
Now, after six extraordinary days in Nagorno-Karabakh, I think I know the answer to the question of why they don’t run away from this small republic in the southern Caucasus: It is an incredibly beautiful place; legends say it is the entrance to paradise.
Still, even a beautiful place, in my opinion, it is not worth dying for.
Three-hundred-and-fifty kilometers separate Yerevan, the capital of Armenia, from Stepanakert, the capital of Nagorno-Karabakh, at opposite ends of a road that traverses a flat plain, and most of which passes through stunning mountains bisected by deep canyons. Most of the mountains are covered in snow – snow that fell on us as we drove and even more heavily once we’d arrived in Stepanakert.
About 51,000 people live there, all of them Armenian. It is a small but beautiful city, astonishingly clean and well designed. Stepanakert is the seat of an elected parliament, an elected president, a government and a cabinet.
Nevertheless, not a single country in the world recognizes the Nagorno- (Russian for “mountain”) Karabakh Republic. Even Armenia cannot recognize the de-facto independent state, because then Azerbaijan would cut off the tenuous channel of communication it maintains with Armenia in the hope of furthering conciliation, via mediating parties.
The republic was established on May 12, 1994, following a cease-fire agreement between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Its total population is 140,000 – 98 percent of whom are ethnic Armenians. (The total population of Armenia is approximately three million.) The cease-fire ended a bloody war that had begun in 1988, and that ended with the Azeris being driven out. At the time, military observers and experts assessed that Armenian Karabakh would not survive for long. They estimated that it would vanish within days and that the region would be reoccupied by the army of Azerbaijan, a force that is better equipped and more advanced than that of Armenia.
Approximately nine million persons live in Azerbaijan, which defines itself as a secular Muslim state (although it has recently exhibited some extremist Islamic phenomena). The border between it and Nagorno-Karabakh is 370 kilometers long; along it, on the Karabakh side, are hundreds and perhaps thousands of bunkers.
I have no doubt that I am being subjective, and also probably partisan: My prolonged efforts in favor of the State of Israel’s recognition of the Armenian genocide have forged deep bonds between me and the Armenian people. I am currently teaching at the American University of Armenia in Yerevan, and enjoying myself immensely. From my first day here, I have felt at home.
I decided to go to Karabakh for a few days. I am an “official visitor,” if that can be said about a state that has no official visitors. For even when senior-level visitors from other countries arrive, they take pains to emphasize that they are on a private visit, so as not to antagonize neighboring Azerbaijan. I was received by the president, Bako Sahakyan and the head of parliament; I toured the border zone and spent a few hours in an Armenian bunker, where I was able to speak with complete freedom with the soldiers.
A sign at the entrance to the bunker read, roughly: “If we lose Artsakh [the Armenian name for Karabakh], we will be sealing the fate of Armenian history.” This feeling is shared by many of the Armenians with whom I spoke.
A “prolonged war” – or “soft war” – is now under way, one that is liable any day to develop into a full-scale conflict. This is the tensest and most difficult period since the cease-fire was declared, 21 years ago. Twelve Armenian soldiers were killed in January alone, and farmers working their land along the border are also killed every so often. Thirteen soldiers serve in the military position I visited; the Azeri military post is a mere 200 meters away. The Armenian outpost was clean and orderly and heated; the temperature outside was below freezing.
The Armenian soldiers are forbidden to shoot without explicit orders. However, the Azeris fire indiscriminately, and one mustn’t walk erect through the tunnels of the outpost. The Azeris also employ snipers. I was allowed to peer toward the Azeri lines for only a few seconds.
The Armenians are also forbidden to use aircraft other than helicopters in Karabakh: Azerbaijan has vowed to shoot down anything else. Several weeks ago, an Armenian helicopter was shot down during a training flight, and crash-landed inside the 250-meter-wide no-man’s-land that separates the two armies. For 10 days, the Azeris refused to return the bodies of the three pilots. International mediation efforts failed. It was then decided at the highest levels of Armenian and Karabakh officialdom to enter the border zone in the darkness and extricate the frozen corpses of the three pilots from where they had been left in the field, and bring them home for burial. Two Azeri soldiers were killed during the rescue operation, which could have served as the trigger for all-out war. The Karabakh army was placed on high alert.
A civilian airfield that was built in recent years near the capital city of Karabakh and that is ready to commence operations has been paralyzed, because Azerbaijan has openly declared that it will shoot down any civilian aircraft flying in proximity to it.
Seeking peace, ready for war
The biblical story of David and Goliath stayed with me all through the week. The Karabakh David is certain of the justice of his ways and of his eventual victory. Everyone shares this feeling of certainty, from the president to the head of the parliament and senior army officers, down to the lowest-ranking soldiers. The prevailing sentiment is “We want and we seek peace, but we are ready for war and we will win it. Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan told me he is prepared to make significant territorial connections between Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia. Armenia has only held off from officially annexing the enclave and the additional section of Azerbaijan it has occupied because it knows it will lead to all-out war.
The Armenians in Karabakh receive significant aid in the conflict from Armenia, but not from anywhere else. “We have no one to rely upon other than ourselves,” is another refrain I hear more than once during my visit. “We are alone, totally alone.”
The Karabakhis exude determination, and confidence in their power and in the righteousness of their struggle. They speak proudly of the “Karabakhi spirit” as a significant factor in bolstering their military prowess.
Often, during my visit, I thought of my own country, Israel, in its early years, during the 1948 War of Independence. And in the 1950s and the early 1960s, times when the nascent country fought for its existence. The pre-1967 years eventually gave way to an extraordinary military victory, which has been leading us to the brink of an abyss ever since. Today Israel is not fighting for its existence, but is rather in a struggle over control of territory. I am nagged by the thought that we Israelis, too, are fighting a David and Goliath war, only with the roles reversed from what they were a half-century ago.
I told this to the Karabakhis I met – students, men of letters and writers with whom I had fascinating and instructive conversations. They were familiar with the story. They belong to the Armenian Apostolic Church, and they know the Bible; some even know it well. But the thought – which I share with them – that in our dispute with the Palestinians we are like the Azeris and the Palestinians are the Karabakhis – this thought is disconcerting.
The Israeli weapons that are shipped to Azerbaijan, valued at billions of dollars, and the denial over the years by the State of Israel of the Armenian genocide have in the past few weeks been supplemented by new developments in the complex relationship between Israel and the Armenians.
Rafael Harpaz, Israel’s ambassador in Baku, Azerbaijan, told a press conference there in January that Israel would not recognize as “genocide” the killings of Armenians perpetrated by the Ottoman Empire 100 years ago. (He did not, however, use the word “never,” as some Armenians charge.) No Israeli diplomatic representative has ever said such a thing. Asked who gave him the authority to make this statement, the envoy replied, “I am not saying anything new. Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman has said the same thing.”
I have found no evidence of that claim, but there is no doubt that the ambassador’s position meets with the approval of the Israeli foreign minister.
This is another “gift” from the State of Israel to the Armenian people on the occasion of the centenary of the genocide, which has not been recognized by most of world’s other countries either. But it’s not only that the genocide is merely “not recognized” – it is denied by Israel, a country of many Holocaust survivors. Without a doubt, the prime minister, defense minister and president all know that the sophisticated Israeli arms sold to Azerbaijan are intended to achieve a single goal: that of defeating and occupying Karabakh. Of banishing the Armenians from there.
Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev has publicly reiterated this objective, in nearly every speech he has made in recent months. Nonetheless, as early as 2012, there were published reports that Israel had agreed to a colossal arms deal, valued at $1.6 billion, by which it would supply drones to Azerbaijan.
Moreover, last summer, immediately after Operation Protective Edge, Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon saw fit to travel there for a visit. Afterward, Aliyev declared to his soldiers on the border: “We have beaten the Armenians in politics, we have beaten them in terms of the economy. Now we will be victorious over them in the battlefield. We will destroy their villages and cities and we will restore our lands to us. We have the most advanced weapons in the world.”
He was referring to the weapons sold by Israel, among other countries.
For their part, during the war, the Armenians seized a substantial amount of territory from Azerbaijan, mainly in that country’s southwest, and they have expelled nearly all of the ethnic Azerbaijanis from both there and Karabakh. They also lost some territory in the north. The Karabakhis justifiably claim that the latter are territories belonging to historic Karabakh that were wrested from them by the Soviet Union in the 1920s, during the rule of Lenin and Stalin. They cite the presence of ancient Armenian churches in the area, some dating back to the 10th century and even earlier.
The Soviet Union divided up the regions inhabited by the various ethnic groups it controlled, as part of a well-known imperialist policy of divide and conquer. So it was that Karabakh was annexed to Azerbaijan, against the will of the Karabakhis, who were ethnically Armenian, and the region was severed from the Armenian Soviet Socialist Republic. “Soviet Karabakh,” however, was not identical in terms of its territory to historic Karabakh.
During the years of Soviet rule, the Azerbaijanis adopted a variety of methods to augment the proportion of their compatriots in Karabakh and to reduce the number of Armenians, who in the early 1920s numbered about 95 percent of the residents.
‘We’re not barbarians’
At the start of the war, in the late 1980s, war crimes and crimes against humanity were almost certainly perpetrated by both sides. I saw several destroyed Azerbaijani villages close to the border. The remnants of the houses and fences now stand as monuments, in a stunningly beautiful region. The sites remind me of destroyed cities from other wars in other places. However, in all of the villages the mosques were left intact. “We are not barbarians,” one soldier told me.
The Ottoman Empire, Turkey in its wake, and then Soviet Azerbaijan demolished hundreds of churches – converting some of them into mosques.
In a wide-ranging and informal conversation with President Sahakyan over lunch, he refused to say a bad word about the Azeris. He said repeatedly that his country seeks peace, but is certain of victory in the event of an all-out war. But he wishes to emphasize: Our long-term vision is to gain independence and peace, and to take our place in the family of enlightened and democratic peoples.
The days I spent in Karabakh were formative ones for me, and I intend to return. I identify with the struggle of the Karabakhis for freedom and independence, and as much as possible will endeavor to take part in that effort. I am doing so, first and foremost as a human being, but also as a Jew and an Israeli.
If out-and-out war breaks out in Nagorno-Karabakh during the centenary year of the Armenian genocide, the Karabakhis will once more be alone, with only Armenia to rely on. The world was silent in 1915, was silent during the Holocaust, was silent during the genocide in Rwanda, and has been silent in the face of many other similar events.
The thought of Israeli weapons going to Azerbaijan makes me lose sleep at night. This is a betrayal of the memory of the Holocaust and the memory of its victims; it is an act of moral bankruptcy.
While I was there, I heard from Itai Mack, an Israeli lawyer who has been working with me to expose the Israeli arms sales that were made to the governments of Rwanda and Serbia during the months when genocide was occurring in those countries. Up until now, Israel’s judicial system has rejected our petitions – based on the Freedom of Information Law – for the release of information, citing security considerations. We are now awaiting a ruling from the Supreme Court, which Mack told me has not been scheduled for December of this year.
For the past few months, we have been raising the call to end widespread arms shipments to Azerbaijan. The entire region is recognized by international organizations as one of tension, where humanitarian catastrophes and war crimes are liable to occur.
Yoram Ziflinger, the acting director of the Defense Export Controls Agency, an arm of the Ministry of Defense, wrote us this past February 24: “Every decision embodies a variety of considerations, the common denominator of all of them being the national interest.”
In response to a Haaretz request to address the subject of defense industry sales to Azerbaijan, a Ministry of Defense spokesman said: “The ministry is not in the habit of relating to issues of subjects related to security exports.”
Prof. Yair Auron is a genocide researcher who has for the past 30 years struggled on behalf of recognition of the Armenian genocide by the State of Israel.