Azerbaijan International

Spring 1998 (6.1)
Page 22

Media Watch
Myths Related to the Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict

by Adil Baguirov

In 1993, when we first started publishing this magazine, Azerbaijan was rarely in the news except in the context of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Even then, it was always depicted as the aggressor despite the fact that the entire war was being fought on its own territory. Later, especially after the first major international oil contract was signed in 1994, more articles began to appear in the context of Azerbaijan's vast energy resources.

These days, many articles are being written about the complexity of the region and the complications of getting oil to international markets, especially Western markets.

With increased coverage comes misinformation that gets repeated over and over. In this new column, "Media Watch," Adil Baguirov calls attention to some of the most flagrant errors.

Myth #1: The Armenian-Azerbaijani war over Karabakh started in the city of Sumgayit (Azerbaijan).
Such misinformation has been perpetrated since the late 1980s. In fact, many people probably first heard of Azerbaijan in relation to what the press refers to as the "Sumgayit pogroms," when Azerbaijanis purportedly massacred peaceful Armenian residents in the city of Sumgayit (near Baku) on February 28-29, 1988. Armenian propaganda, which virtually shaped all early reports about the conflict, was quick to blame the entire Azerbaijani nation for these events and to inflate the numbers of casualties to the high 60-70s, and even more. They claimed that all who died were of Armenian ethnicity. They quickly labeled these victims as the "first blood" of the renewed conflict over Karabakh.

However, the truth is quite different. The Nagorno-Karabakh war is really about the aggression of Armenia with one intention: acquisition of more territory. The first casualties were really two Azerbaijani youths, Bakhtiyar Uliyev, 16, and Ali Hajiyev, 23, shot dead on February 24, 1988 (i.e., before Sumgayit). But even prior to these murders, and virtually unreported in the media, was the expulsion of thousands of Azerbaijanis from Armenia, particularly from the Megri and Kafan districts. The combination of both of these situations is what really triggered the incidents in which a total of 32 people died, 6 of them Azerbaijani and 26 Armenian, according to the official investigation reports.

However, even lesser known is the fact that several Armenian nationals actively participated in inciting the mob as did the KGB (who later confiscated all relevant court materials and transferred several of the instigators out of the republic). While the provocation and incrimination of Azerbaijan and its people was largely successful by those who masterminded the plot, it was not complete since Azerbaijani people refused to participate in the atrocities and actually were involved in saving the lives of many of their Armenian neighbors. Otherwise, the casualties would, indeed, have been much higher as Sumgayit has a population of 300,000.

Myth #2: Stalin gave Karabakh to Azerbaijan.
This is a gross falsification; the truth is quite the opposite. After the Soviets took over Azerbaijan in 1920, Azerbaijan began losing territory to Armenia [see the map of the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic (ADR) on page 30]. Azerbaijan's territory was reduced from 114,000 sq km during ADR (1918-1920) to its present size of 86,600 sq km, which is actually even less now if you subtract the territory occupied by Armenians.

The Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast (NKAO) inside Azerbaijan was created on July 1923 after years of intense debates and opposition from the Azerbaijani people. An oblast, the Russian term for "province," was purely an administrative division, totally subordinate in every aspect to the union republic, Azerbaijan SSR.

Carving out enclaves was deliberately practiced in various Soviet republics to exacerbate ethnic tensions. It served the Soviets well by distracting the republics from seeking their own independence because they always had to be occupied with ethnic tensions inside their own borders.

Myth #3: Stalin gave Nakhchivan to Azerbaijan.
The truth is that Nakhchivan, just like Karabakh, is historically part of Azerbaijan. After Soviets gained power (1920), the foundation for Nakhchivan gaining its autonomy was laid by the Moscow and Kars international treaties of March 16, 1921, and October 13, 1921, respectively. These treaties are still in force, stipulating that Nakhchivan remain within Azerbaijan, a legal fact that prevented the Soviets from giving Nakhchivan to Armenia at the time. The status of "Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic (ASSR) ," being within Azerbaijan SSR was established in 1924. Nakhchivan used to be "connected" to the rest of Azerbaijan through the Zangazur district which was given to Armenia in December 1920. When the Soviets assigned this strip (46 km) to Armenia, they separated Azerbaijan into two parts, effectively cutting off Turkey from other Turkic-speaking peoples in Central Asia.

Zangazur was continuously "cleansed" of its indigenous residents. In 1897, its Azerbaijani population was 51.7%, but by 1926, it had declined to 6.4%. during the same period, the ratio of Armenians increased from 46.1% to 87%! Tens of thousands of Azerbaijanis had to flee for their lives at that time in much the same way as they have had to flee from Nagorno-Karabakh and surrounding districts in the 1990s.

Myth #4. Nagorno-Karabakh is an independent Republic.
These days, this term is beginning to appear in the press along with the acronym NKR. No nation in the world has recognized the legitimate entity of Nagorno-Karabakh as a sovereign state.

In truth, this region has been seized by separatists who are militarily occupying lawful Azerbaijani territory. The international community, including the United Nations, has repeatedly condemned the Armenian military occupation of Azerbaijan's territory and demanded immediate and complete "withdrawal of all occupying forces" since 1993.

In the guise of seeking independence from Azerbaijan, Armenians are really attempting to attach Karabakh to Armenia, by whatever means necessary. In March 1998, hard-liner Robert Kocharyan, a resident of this disputed area and technically an Azerbaijani citizen, was even elected as President of Armenia in clear violation of international law.

A comparable analogy would be if the state of Colorado, which does not even share a border with Mexico, suddenly declared independence from the United States and went to war to attach themselves to Mexico, and in the process a Coloradan became the President of Mexico.

Back in December 1989, the parliament of the Armenian SSR voted to annex the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh to their own republic. This legislature is still on the books and has not been rescinded even after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The declaration was immediately proclaimed illegal by both Azerbaijan SSR and USSR Supreme Soviet (Parliament), the supreme legislative authority at that time. Legally, an autonomous oblast (province) could not secede, especially without approval of both the USSR and Azerbaijan Parliament. It is also important to note that the Supreme Soviet of Azerbaijan legally abolished the status of NKAO (Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast) on November 1991.

Some might dismiss these points as trivial. Others might excuse them as simple negligence on the part of the journalists. Nevertheless, as long as there is preferential treatment of one side in the international mass media over the other, conflicts will persist, and bitter feelings will be perpetuated.

Adil Baguirov is deeply involved with disseminating news about Azerbaijan via Habarlar-L (an Internet list service, meaning "news" in Azeri). He currently studies at the University of Southern California.

From Azerbaijan International (6.1) Spring 1998.
© Azerbaijan International 1998. All rights reserved.

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