14:35 GMT31 October 2020
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    Armenia and Azerbaijan have accused each other of breaching a humanitarian ceasefire agreed over the weekend to stop fighting over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region. The Armenian diaspora is spread around the world and includes Kim Kardashian, who has tweeted about Nagorno-Karabakh to her 67 million Twitter followers.

    Armenia claims the fighting began when Azerbaijan, supported by Turkey, attacked Armenian positions in Nagorno-Karabakh on 27 September. Azerbaijan's President Ilham Aliyev insisted the opening shots were fired by the Armenians.

    Ara Iskanderian, a British Armenian lawyer and historian who lives in London, explains how he sees the conflict and its historical context and how it affects the Armenian diaspora around the world.

    Sputnik: Firstly, how is the war going as you understand it? Both sides claimed to have inflicted damage on the other side but have either side made any significant territorial gains?

    Mr Iskanderian: The human cost to the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh has been tremendous. Officially the authorities in Nagorno-Karabakh are reporting the death of nearly 500 servicemen. There has been an exodus of ethnic Armenian civilians, half the population of Nagorno-Karabakh has been displaced by Azerbaijani shelling, rocket attacks, and cluster bombs, which Amnesty International have now confirmed. For the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh this is not about gaining territory, it is about defending their homes and the land upon which they have lived on for centuries. For them, it is a defensive war.

    A man stands near a house with a row of destroyed barns in the background in Stepanakert, a self-proclaimed Republic of the Nagorno-Karabakh.
    © Sputnik / Валерий Мельников
    A man stands near a house with a row of destroyed barns in the background in Stepanakert, a self-proclaimed Republic of the Nagorno-Karabakh.

    ​The President of Azerbaijan has listed seven villages as being taken by the Azerbaijani army, if that is true, then the place names he has listed are close to the frontline and particularly the Iranian border, which would explain the Iranian concerns that shells are landing on their side of the border and their concerns about being drawn in. 

    'Deplorable Human Cost'

    The human cost has been called out as deplorable by France, Russia, the US, the UK, Iran, Greece, the list goes on…Turkey seems to be alone in supporting continued military operations. The truth is there is no military solution to this, as frustrating as it might be for all sides, negotiation is key.

    Sputnik: Turkey says it fully supports Azerbaijan but has denied sending Syrian fighters to the front. Ankara has said it would favour talks involving Armenia, Azerbaijan, Russia and Turkey

    Sputnik: Can you briefly explain the Armenian position. Technically they are occupying the land (Nagorno-Karabakh and bits of Azerbaijan proper) which they seized illegally in the early 1990s. But that is obviously not how Armenians see it.​

    Mr Iskanderian: Armenia and Azerbaijan are independent republics whose internationally recognised borders are the very same borders that both polities enjoyed when they were both part of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, the USSR...Within the Azerbaijani Soviet Socialist Republic was a large Armenian population -approximately 350,000, roughly 150,000 of them lived in a compact area of settlement in the mountainous part of Karabakh. This area was delineated during the drawing of internal borders under Stalin and made an autonomous region: Nagorno-Karabakh, but within Azerbaijan. This was part of a Stalinist logic of divide and rule. The autonomous region was to serve as an apple of discord between the two internal republics. 

    You will see on a map that, again as part of a Stalinist logic of divide and rule, Nagorno-Karabakh was deliberately delineated so as to deny it a border with Armenia.

    Yegor Ligachev (left), Alexander Yakovlev (center) and Mikhail Gorbachev (right) converse during the 19th All-Union Conference of the Communist Party in June 1988 in Moscow.
    © Sputnik / Юрий Абрамочкин
    Yegor Ligachev (left), Alexander Yakovlev (center) and Mikhail Gorbachev (right) converse during the 19th All-Union Conference of the Communist Party in June 1988 in Moscow.

    In 1988 with glasnost and perestroika under Mikhail Gorbachev the Nagorno-Karabakh Armenians petitioned for their unification with Armenia. This move was met with violence that ultimately spiralled into open warfare...Bear in mind that Armenia and Azerbaijan themselves only became internationally recognised in 1991 and you can see that Nagorno-Karabakh had separated long before the international community had recognised those two countries' borders as international boundaries.

    ​To be sure, Armenia has made no secret that it aids and supports Nagorno-Karabakh, and there are many Armenians who point to all the territory to which you refer as being historically Armenian, irrespective of where you draw lines, legal, ceasefire, or otherwise.

    Sputnik: Azerbaijan says Nagorno-Karabakh remains legally part of Azerbaijan and it is simply recovering its land.

    Historical Context

    Sputnik: Many people will have heard of the Armenian genocide. Can you explain how that has impacted the Armenian psyche in the last 100 years and are there similarities with what happened to the Jews?

    Mr Iskanderian: Nine-tenths of the lands of historic Armenian habitation are now in Turkey. Under the cover of the First World War and between the years 1915-1921 the Ottoman Turks killed 1.5 million Armenians in what all serious scholars term a genocide.

    American actress and model Kim Kardashian has attended a wreath-laying ceremony at the Eternal Flame at Tsitsernakaberd Armenian Genocide Memorial Complex.
    © Sputnik / Str
    American actress and model Kim Kardashian has attended a wreath-laying ceremony at the Eternal Flame at Tsitsernakaberd Armenian Genocide Memorial Complex.

    What is less well known is that in the wake of the Russian Revolution in 1917 and the dissolution of the Russian Empire, the Ottoman Turks invaded the Caucasus, linked up with Azerbaijani Turks and carried out a series of massacres that saw the Armenians depopulated in such areas as Nakhchivan and the lowland part of Karabakh. Collusion today between Turkey and Azerbaijan harks back to that historic collusion. This is what I presume the Armenian Prime Minister is referring to as the existential threat.

    There is no internationally agreed information or facts about any alleged massacres in Nakhichevan or Karabakh in this period. Turkey has denied having committed any acts of genocide.

    ​Long Memories in the Caucasus

    With the end of the First World War and the Red Army victory in the Russian Civil War the Caucasus was reconquered and those crimes were never addressed, nor spoken of. But people have long memories and absolutely what you are seeing in the Caucasus is an issue that remains unresolved from that day.

    Most Armenian survivors of the genocide ended up as refugees in the Middle East, particularly Lebanon and Syria, as well as in Greece, Cyprus, France and the United States.

    ​Turkey never apologised for those crimes, nor provided the Armenians with any restitution. Armenians were not allowed to return, were paid no compensation, and Turkey continues to deny that the genocide ever took place. As you can imagine this is hardly reassuring when a country that denies engaging in such acts then throws its weight behind another country, in this case Azerbaijan, effectively writing them a blank cheque to launch a war against one of those few areas in the world where Armenians have been able to survive in their historic homeland.  

    Why Armenians are Alarmed by Turkish Involvement

    Today Turkey is saying it wholeheartedly throws its support and diplomatic clout behind Azerbaijan, writing them that blank cheque for military adventurism, and both Turkey and Azerbaijan refer to each other as one nation, two states. Well you can see why Armenians are alarmed by this. Turkey's self-declared involvement serves no positive purpose.

    ​I hesitate to compare the Armenian and Jewish experiences…but imagine if an unrepentant Germany, never punished and having never paid any reparations to Jewish communities, today decided to blockade Israel, militarily support an enemy of Israel, and if that analogy helps in understanding the Armenian psyche, then let that analogy serve.

    Sputnik: Turkey has always claimed the number of Armenian deaths has been exaggerated and also, crucially, it claims there was no intent involved and those who died were effectively collateral damage during a military conflict. It has been recognised as a genocide by France and several other countries. 

    Sputnik: ​Did the Armenian diaspora begin as a result of the genocide or were Armenians living in western Europe, the Middle East and the Americas before that?

    Mr Iskanderian: The oldest Armenian Church in Europe is in Moldova, there remains a large Armenian community in Lviv with a church dating back to the 14th century… and so many Armenians lived in the Crimea and Romania that you find settlements named for them: Armenopolis [modern day Gherla] in Romania and Armyansk in [northern] Crimea.

    Charles Aznavour and Liza Minnelli performing at the Palais des Congres in Paris in 1991
    © AP Photo /
    Charles Aznavour and Liza Minnelli performing at the Palais des Congres in Paris in 1991
    The Armenian Diaspora

    Sputnik: How many Armenians (or people of Armenian heritage) are believed to live overseas (ie not in Armenia) and where are the largest concentrations?

    Mr Iskanderian: There are around 700,000 people of Armenian origin in France - the most famous was singer Charles Aznavour, who died in 2018 - and much smaller communities in Germany, Italy and Bulgaria. The most famous sons of the small Armenian community in Britain are the actor Andy Serkis and the surgeon and NHS bureaucrat Lord Darzi.

    ​There are as many as two million Armenians in the United States. LA is jokingly said to stand for Little Armenia, but there are communities across the US: Massachusetts and California are home to the overwhelming majority, but there are nonetheless important communities in New York and Chicago.

    They are a very vocal and successful community, and from their ranks come the Kardashians, (rock band) System of a Down and the founder of Reddit, Alexis Ohanian.

    Sputnik: How much political lobbying power do they have and in what states have they been able to influence the national governments to put pressure on Azerbaijan (or Turkey)?

    Mr Iskanderian: This idea of an Armenian political lobby is something of a myth that Turkey and Azerbaijan accuse Armenia of having. The truth is there is no all-powerful lobby pressurising governments to do their bidding, that’s just unfounded conspiracy talk.

    ​Yes, Armenian communities all over the world donate money, time and other resources to develop Armenia and show solidarity with the Armenians of Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh, primarily in humanitarian aid. If the lobby was that powerful, or existed in the way that Turkey and Azerbaijan make mention of, then the international outcry right now would, I suspect, be louder then it is.

    'Peace is the Right Thing to Do'

    Governments have applied pressure on Turkey to reign in their support for Azerbaijan, and for talks between the two sides to start again, not because of any Armenian lobbying but because calling for peace is the right thing to do.

    ​The Armenians of Syria have declined with the civil war there. Many have chosen to make a new life in Armenia itself. The community in Iraq was nearly 30,000, but it's significantly less than since the 2003 invasion.

    ​Armenians, like most peoples, migrated in significant numbers to the United States, Canada and Australia, but also South America, particularly Argentina, for better lives and opportunities. Their numbers were bolstered by Armenians fleeing the genocide, and later fleeing conflicts in the Middle East.

    With the collapse of the Soviet Union there has been more movement as people leave to find work, again, sometimes that has bolstered existing communities in the West, or established new ones such as in Novosibirsk and other cities in Siberia.

    ​The point is that Armenians have always lived separate to a state, and as such they place a premium on their culture. But if you meet an Armenian, it is far likelier that they are not from what is today Armenia, or Nagorno-Karabakh, than that they are.

    But wherever you find Armenians, California or Karabakh, Argentina or Artsakh, they are united in that common desire to enjoy their culture, language, and faith, in peace in that small parcel of land they happen to call home.

    The views and opinions expressed in the article do not necessarily reflect those of Sputnik.

    diaspora, Turkey, Nagorno-Karabakh, Azerbaijan, Armenia
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