The lightning offensive of Azerbaijan against the self-declared Nagorno Karabakh Republic launched on September 19 has significantly changed the regional security architecture, which emerged after the 2020 Nagorno Karabakh war. Within 24 hours, Azerbaijan forced the unrecognized Republic to surrender, followed by the forced displacement of the entire Armenian population. As of early October 2023, around 102000 Armenians entered Armenia from Nagorno Karabakh, while, according to various estimates, from 15 to several hundred Armenians remained in the area. This new status quo raises many questions regarding the future of the Russian peacekeeping contingent in the area, the prospects of the Armenia – Azerbaijan peace treaty, and the fate of Armenians from Karabakh, including such issues as the right of return and property compensation. Finding answers to these questions is challenging, as Armenia is focused on accommodating the forced displaced persons. It is not easy for a republic of less than 3 million people, which already saw the influx of up to 100,000 Russians into Armenia starting from February 2022. Yes, most of the Russians came to Armenia with sufficient financial resources, boosting Armenian economy, but nevertheless, they put a lot of pressure on the Armenian housing market, pushing rental prices up, and adding pressure on Armenia’s educational and medical capacities of Armenia.
Meanwhile, worrying signs are coming from Azerbaijan about Baku's intention to change the cultural heritage of Nagorno Karabakh. A few days ago, Azerbaijan announced that the Gandzasar monastery was "vandalized by Armenians." The State Service for the Protection, Development, and Restoration of Cultural Heritage attached to the Ministry of Culture of Azerbaijan announced that "violating the norms and principles of international law, the occupying country carried out illegal repair and restoration works in one of the most significant monuments of Christian architecture in Caucasian Albania." The notion of the "Caucasian Albania" is widely used by Azerbaijan in its "history wars" against Armenia and in efforts to "prove that Armenians appeared in the South Caucasus only in the early 19th century". The same ideas have been extensively in use since the end of the 2020 Nagorno Karabakh War to challenge the history of Dadivanq, a mediaeval monastery complex located in the security zone that was established around Nagorno Karabakh after the 1992-1994 first Karabakh war.
It is very tempting to go deep into history and bring pieces of evidence from multiple foreign sources, written both before and after Christ (BC and AD), which speak extensively about the rich Armenian history and culture on the territory of the South Caucasus, or mention the writings of numerous distinguished modern historians and other scholars about the vibrant Armenian culture present in Nagorno Karabakh for millennia. However, the primary problem here is not the Azerbaijani attempts to rewrite history, which academicians can discuss and refute in books, presentations, and conferences. The main problem is that any such attempts will destroy almost nonexistent trust between parties, deepen hatred and animosity, and hamper any efforts to bring long-term stability to the South Caucasus.
Another burning issue in this regard is the access to graveyards by displaced people. Graveyards and respect to deceased people have a special significance for the people of the South Caucasus. This was a problem for Azerbaijanis in the period of 1994-2020, and now, as all Armenians were forced to leave Nagorno Karabakh, they face the same issue.
It is worth mentioning that we all are very aware of Azerbaijani frustration and anger at the situation in the security zone established by the self-declared Nagorno Karabakh Republic during the 1992-1994 first Karabakh war, including Azerbaijani complaints and resentment about the destruction inflicted there. Many Azerbaijanis probably still feel the "26 years of humiliation," as many of them refer to the period between the first and second Karabakh wars in 1994-2020, and some are arguing that Armenia and Armenians should feel the same for at least another 26 years "to restore the justice." One cannot exclude that Azerbaijani leadership is well aware of these sentiments and, by taking steps to humiliate Armenians, seeks to harness these feelings and increase its prestige among Azerbaijanis.
It is challenging to go deep into the personal and collective psychology of conflict-inflicted human beings and groups and to find explanations for some actions or inactions. However, as relevant specialists hopefully will deal with these issues and may offer some long–term solutions, what should and can be done now is to send a clear message to Azerbaijani authorities by all actors who influence Baku. The message should be straightforward – any actions to destroy or distort the Armenian cultural heritage in Nagorno Karabakh is a direct way to more conflict and more hatred between two peoples. It will undermine any actions to bring stability and peace to the region. Some may argue that probably Azerbaijani leadership is not interested in peace and stability, as it always will need a conflict and an external enemy to solidify Azerbaijani society around itself, and that is why, even after the destruction of the self-declared Nagorno Karabakh Republic, Azerbaijani leaders continue to actively circulate the notion of the "Western Azerbaijan" organizing hearings in Azerbaijani Parliament. This narrative may or may not be accurate; however, regardless of the real intention of Azerbaijani leadership, those interested in regional peace and stability, including the Council of Europe, UNESCO, and other actors, should take necessary steps to prevent the dangerous path of cultural wars in the region.
source: Benyamin Poghosyan is a Senior Fellow on foreign policy at APRI Armenia and the founder and Chairman of the Centre for Political and Economic Strategic Studies in Yerevan.
photo: Dadivanq Monastery (archive picture)
The views expressed in opinion pieces and commentaries do not necessarily reflect the position of commonspace.eu or its partners.