The recent iteration of fighting between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the region of Artsakh (also referred to as Nagorno-Karabakh) has left in its wake thousands of lives lost, injured, and displaced. The six-week long war is but one instance in a decades-long series of conflicts over Artsakh, traditionally Armenian land with a historically long-established Armenian majority. Previously a part of the Azerbaijani Socialist Soviet Republic, the citizenry within the autonomous oblast (NKAO) held a peaceful referendum in accordance with laws at the time and voted for independence from the Azeri SSR on February 20, 1988. Following the unfortunate collapse of the Soviet Union, the conflict spiraled into the first war during the early 90s. Presently, the most recent conflict ended with Azerbaijan keeping the land they gained through fighting, including land from the Artsakh proper, as well as the seven raions, or regions, Armenia gained during the first war in the early 90s — regions whose purpose, until recently, was to be used in negotiations in order to secure the territorial integrity of Artsakh itself. In addition to territorial changes, a guaranteed travel corridor was enforced through Armenia to connect Azerbaijan to its exclave of Nakhichevan, which borders Turkey, as well as the deployment of Russian peacekeepers into the area.
Viewed in much of the Western world as simultaneously a Russian-Turkish proxy conflict and the latest outbreak of ethnic infighting in the region, the continuous struggle over this land means so much more for the Armenians living in both the unrecognized Republic of Artsakh and the Armenian state itself. For Artsakhtsi and Hayastantsi (Armenians from Artsakh and Armenia, respectively), the conflict is existential. Given the long history of genocide Armenians have faced from Turkish and Azeri actors alike, there is no wonder that the 44-day war is seen as not only as a fight for survival for the indigenous Armenians on the land, but also as an extension of historic anti-Armenian sentiments and cleansing campaigns. Many in the diaspora understand this conflict similarly. In terms of diaspora involvement during the war, many Armenians outside of the homeland organized countless petitions, protests, and anti-war demonstrations in the hopes of pressuring their respective governments to respond to the conflict, recognize Artsakh’s independence, and even sanction Azerbaijan and its long-term ally, Turkey.
Now after the war, several vital questions must be posed. Were these tactics enough for our people? Did any action amount to significant changes in our continual struggle? Thousands have been lost, hundreds have been displaced, and more who remain on the lands face the difficult choice of either destroying their homes and upending their lives entirely or remaining and being subject to anti-Armenian violence and harassment. There is no doubt of the palpable grief many in the diaspora felt the day the ceasefire was signed, and as many Hayastantsi voice their discontent with the current liberal bourgeois leaders of Armenia, we in the diaspora must critically interrogate the methods and movements on our end. We must ask ourselves whether the appeals to Western governments and media were effective, and if such tactics were even viable in the first place. Doing so while noting the silence and neglect from those very same actors leads to one revelation that should be internalized by everyone aligned toward Armenian liberation: the West did not come to our aid, nor was it ever going to. And even then the greater truth, as I hope to outline in this piece, is that the colonial, capitalist sites wherein much of the diaspora resides will never support Armenian liberation, because our erasure, much like the erasure of and violence towards marginalized people all over the world, is a business ripe for profit.
This truth does not mean to discredit nor diminish the most prominent discourse regarding the nature of this war – the looming specter of ethnic cleansing that is part and parcel of pan-turkic ideologies. The genocidal motivations are clear and have been so since the Sumgait pogroms in 1988 and even further back. They remained clear during the First Nagorno-Karabakh War. And even throughout the past two decades, every demolition of Armenian cultural monuments, every revision of Armenian history and presence on our lands, and every state-sanctioned murder of Armenians is a testament to the predominant goal of the current Azerbaijani government: “the complete elimination of Armenians.”
Far from abandoning the rallies against ethnic cleansing, recognizing foreign capitalist intrigue and involvement in this conflict should rather serve to indict the governments wherein much of the diaspora reside. Take, for example, the case of Anglo Asian Mining, a public mining company with a portfolio of gold, copper, and silver production in Azerbaijan. It lays claim to three mines within both Azerbaijan’s borders and three within the raions that Armenia formerly occupied before the ceasefire, most important of which is the largest gold mine in the region: the Soutely contract area. In fact, as more territorial gains were made during the recent war, the company outright stated that it was “in close contact with the Azerbaijani government” over areas where such mines were located in order to extract resources from these mineral-rich areas once again. Perhaps more grim is that since the ceasefire and the displacement of hundreds of Armenians from their homes, the company’s shares have been increasing (10% since the ceasefire and the overturning of land).
One might venture to ask what is outrageous about a mining company based in Azerbaijan standing to gain even more money through the recent war and displacement of Armenians from their homes. After all, war has always been a profitable business. What I hope is shocking is the sheer amount of foreign, and specifically Western leadership involvement, in companies like Anglo Asian Mining. Notably, out of its board of directors, more than half of Anglo Asian Mining’s directors are not even Azeri —this contingent is composed of an American oil executive, an emeritus British professor, and even a former American governor. To further place this in perspective, this is just one company with heavy foreign ties and profiteers. Other companies of note that operate in the region include foreign giants such as Exxon Mobil and BP, who, like any giant corporation, tactfully condemned Armenia and its people fighting to ensure the territorial integrity of their lands. And even following the war, scores of foreign companies and governments view the newly cleansed lands as ripe for investment. Since the war, countries such as Turkey and Hungary have announced their commitment and interest in investing in business in the overturned lands, with the former’s nationalist party going so far as constructing a school in occupied Shushi. In a recent video, Azerbaijani president Ilham Aliyev thanked the United Kingdom’s Minister of Exports for the country’s more than $30 billion investments into Azerbaijan as well stating the U.K. companies were some of the first invited for “new prospects in liberated areas.” Furthermore and specifically in Artsakh proper, British company Chapman Taylor won the state tender and a $2.9 million dollar contract to manage the city planning of occupied Shushi after the recent expulsion of its Armenian population.
While businesses that are insidiously dumping loads of capital into the overturned areas illustrate the parasitic nature of foreign capitalists from countries such as the United States, the United Kingdom, and so on, observing the participation of foreign governments in the conflict, active or otherwise, should serve as an alarm to those opposed to imperialism around the world. In addition to Azerbaijan, there is no debate as to whether the country’s long-term ally, Turkey, had a decisive role in the actual military conflict. But if one zooms out, a new set of Western actors and accomplices emerges.
An immediate actor in the recent war can be found in Israel, who has consistently been supplying arms to the Azerbaijani side for years, and in a recent article was reported to have provided 60% of the country’s weapon imports. These weapons, which included drones and cluster munitions, were not absent from this war, and neither were official statements from the Israeli military on the conflict in support of their Azeri military partners. It should be clear to everyone when an Israeli military minister tells news sources that “Azerbaijan would not be able to continue its operation at this intensity without our support” that the ethnic cleansing carried out by Azerbaijan against Armenians and the ongoing colonization of Palestine are fundamentally linked by bloodshed and profit. And what an effective exchange for both partners! Azerbaijan receives the latest military technology (paid for by the United States) used against Palestinians, and Israel receives the blood money Azerbaijan extracted from the land it expelled Armenians from, as well as a prime view of how effective such weapons are for later colonial offensives.
But the complicity in ethnic cleansing does not rest solely on Israel. Western nations that send Azerbaijan, Turkey, and Israel military aid similarly have Armenian lives in their long, blood-soaked ledger. The United Kingdom hosts several Israeli weapon manufacturers. Canada most recently granted export permits for drone-targeting sensors to Turkey (sensors that were later found in Artsakh) despite existing import bans. The role of the United States should also not be dismissed. In addition to shelling out billions of dollars in military aid to Israel, the U.S. provides direct military aid to Azerbaijan, increasing its aid to $100 million just over two years ago., It is worth pointing out for those still entrenched in American electoralism that liberal or progressive control would still mean the continued military aid to the governments directly involved in the displacement and cleansing of Armenians in Artsakh. Just recently, U.S. President Joe Biden waived restrictions in order to once again provide Azerbaijan with military aid, citing the need to combat terrorism in the area. However, this justification becomes more concerning when provided with the fact that Azerbaijan has unequivocally labelled its Armenian POWs as terrorists.
Knowing that the many countries wherein the diaspora reside are deeply entwined with the expulsion of Armenians off their traditional lands, what does that mean for diaspora organizing within these imperial sites? In the six weeks of fighting between September 2020 and November 2020, diaspora responses included in-person protests and demonstrations, petitions, fundraising, and general appeals to foreign governments, human rights organizations, and celebrities. Needless to say, very little has been done in response to any of this. And in turn, this inaction has led to a sentiment among the diaspora that the international community has abandoned the people of Artsakh and their plight. But such a sentiment assumes a general commitment to such issues, and as shown by the track records of governments like Israel, the United Kingdom, and the United States, the true commitment has always been to profit and blood. But then a significant question remains for those of us in the diaspora: what is to be done?
Realizing the extent of involvement from the countries we reside in should serve as a significant impetus to interrogate and change organizing tactics. There is no doubt that a sizable presence, online or in-person, can bring attention to these issues; however, with no pressure, little should be expected to occur. In the case of petitions that are broadly aimed at defending Artsakh, what material change can be expected to happen with support that is thousands, or even millions, strong? That somehow an equitable peace deal emerges out of signatures and nothing else? Time and time again, history shows that petitioning does little, especially without the promise of physical retaliation.
In that same vein, appeals to elected officials will provide neither solace nor aid to struggle, regardless of conservative or liberal leanings. Within the American context, that conclusion has emerged and re-emerged with every domestic struggle and movement for justice. Instead, those of us committed to the struggle should keep in mind the current state of both Armenia and Artsakh. Like many post-Soviet states, Armenia has suffered significantly from the influx of privatization and economic “reform.” Until 2013, the country’s population had declined significantly. Likewise, a significant percentage of the population falls below the poverty line (26.4% in 2018), according to Asian Development Bank. This is coupled with not only a 20.2% unemployment rate in 2020, but with an average monthly wage of about $350 USD in its capital city. Recently, the country faces new territorial crises as the Azerbaijan military wholesale invades sovereign, internationally recognized Armenian land in the name of “border demarcation.” And while the aforementioned is most obviously prime concern, the underlying problems accompanying a post-socialist state should be of a greater importance for the diaspora if we all are invested in post-war Armenia. As Markar Melkonian points out, “Yes, they need secure borders: they need a strong army… But if they and their grandchildren are to make lives on their ancestral lands, they need jobs, too, and decent housing, healthcare, childcare, and education.”
A clear distinction must also be made: investment in post-war Armenia cannot be taken as the current capitalist notion of investing in the country as some of the diaspora is wont to do. Doing that would benefit few of the people in Armenia struggling the most. No amount of startup companies would provide the necessary aid that uplifting the Armenian working-class would. No NGO could compare to building political education among the populace. Therefore, it is vital that in this post-war period that the diaspora readjust their lens and stop viewing the homeland as a living museum — a site that exists solely for the transient consumption of our history and culture. The Armenian homeland is more than a summer trip, more than the one-off money order sent to family, more than a place of origin to be remembered overseas. On the contrary, Armenia and Artsakh are not lost, and in a post-war era, need to be struggled for. For the diaspora, that means moving away from movements that aim for a Western, neocolonial presence in Armenia, and aiding in the struggle that Armenians face currently.
Our response also calls for the need to build coalitions with groups resisting the existential threats of capitalism, colonialism, and racism. Not in a transactional sense, but through solidarity with similar struggles which serve to show the importance of our own. As illustrated above, the expulsion of Armenians from their lands does not occur in isolation and is not carried out by a single actor. Rather, a whole score of imperialist and colonial actors benefit from our destruction, and we are not the only people they profit off of. Whether it is Palestinians fighting against the same weapons our people fight against on their occupied lands, or Black Americans still facing an ever-warping system of state-sanctioned murder and white supremacy, or any Indigenous people being driven out from their lands, our struggles are inextricably linked. The need for coalition building is present now more than ever as resistance against capitalism and colonialism grows around the world.
Lastly, as we turn inward to advocate for change in Armenia, we must recognize and advocate for a “strong, combative party of the working class.” This may be unpopular for those already living in the imperial core — but with the years of historical revisionism surrounding the Soviet Union and in particular the non-Russian Soviet Socialist Republics, such as Armenia, this is unsurprising. Of course, there is also the matter of those who are already well-integrated within the system or who have become capitalists themselves. These people, most certainly the latter, are not allies and should not be depended upon in the struggle. Precisely, Armenian revolutionary Monte Melkonian wrote on Armenian-American capitalists: “Their rejection of socialism amounts to a political stand which, despite all protestations to the contrary, simply excludes most of them from participating in the future of our nation.” Their protests will be vocal and they will denounce any movement that radically rejects, regardless of party, the current ruling class of Armenia, but ultimately, “their loudly professed nationalism cannot be heard beyond a ten-mile radius of a Los Angeles shopping mall.” On the contrary, the diaspora and its allies must be resolute: we must reject the distraction and the division that is the squabble over Armenian electoral politics; we must educate our circles over the existential need for a socialist Armenia; and we must organize for this movement while simultaneously organizing against the countries that aid in and profit from our ethnic cleansing. This work is the priority and our efforts should be tireless; we may end up becoming fatigued or disheartened, but none of that compares to the ongoing fight for survival our people face on their lands. The oft-quoted and existential warning remains true: “If we lose Artsakh, then we turn the final page on Armenia’s history.” The strategy therein is the simultaneous resistance against neocolonialism and the establishment of socialism.
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