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Waiting For War?

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Issue: 43 Section: Accounts Geography: Europe Armenia, Azerbaijan Topics: migration, war

February 13, 2007

Waiting For War?

Azerbaijan's refugees see little hope

by Kristian Gravenor

Armenian military forces continue to occupy about 20 per cent of Azerbaijan, displacing about one million Azerbaijanis--fully one eighth of the country’s entire population--who are now living in makeshift structures. This woman lives in a hut with a mud floor. Photo: Kristian Gravenor

Azerbaijan has been enjoying the sunshine these days. After several lean years, oil revenues have started flowing into the former Soviet Republic and a fresh breath of hope hovers in the air like the construction cranes that seem to dot every horizon.

Optimism isn’t prevalent everywhere, however, and the problem that has dogged the country since it was founded in 1991 remains. Armenian military forces continue to occupy about 20 per cent of the country, displacing about one million Azerbaijanis--fully one-eighth of the country’s entire population--who are now living in makeshift structures. For years, these internally displaced Azeris lived in villages in a bucolic land-of-plenty in Western Azerbaijan. Today, war has forced them into abandoned train cars--without plumbing or electricity.

Last summer, I strolled through one of these Azerbaijani train yards and stumbled in on a family of three: a man, wife and tiny undernourished-looking son, who has lived all of his nine years making like an immobile king of the road in a big metal tin. They showed me around their train-car home, debating whether the searing summer sun was worse than the punishing winter cold.

Internally displaced children living in an Azerbaijan refugee camp. The Azerbaijan government is slowly building newer refugee settlements, but it’s a half-hearted effort, as most Azeris want the internally displaced people to be allowed to return home to the land that Armenia now occupies.

Photo: Kristian Gravenor

The Azerbaijan government is slowly building newer refugee settlements, but it’s a half-hearted effort, as most Azeris want the internally displaced people to be allowed to return home to the land that Armenia now occupies.

The troubles began in a region of Azerbaijan called Karabakh when the Soviet Union was splitting up. The Azerbaijani province had a majority Armenian population that Armenia had its eye on. Azerbaijani-Karabakh residents were forced to flee when Armenia invaded, as the country had the upper hand in the early skirmishes. As they left their homes, many were shot dead along the highway and what became known as the Khojaly massacre became a powerful rallying symbol for Azerbaijanis. In the ensuing battles, Armenia managed to take much extra territory around the Karabakh province as a sort of military buffer zone.

Karabakh has since become an independent republic but its attempts to become a legitimate country have stalled; not a single country recognizes it.

The adjoining areas taken by the Armenians have long been assumed to be a bargaining chip that Armenia will return only after Azerbaijan surrenders the Karabakh province to the Armenians.

An attempt to settle those areas by paying Armenians to move to the occupied territories of Azerbaijan has largely failed. Few have taken the government up on the offer, however, and the once-thriving Azeri towns are now empty and decaying without water or electricity.

A few years ago, Armenia’s president was rumoured to have agreed to withdraw from the occupied territories of Azerbaijan and was quickly deposed for his efforts, to be replaced by the hard-line, former Karabakh resident Robert Kocharian.

Azerbaijan’s president Heydar Aliyev and his successor-- his son, Ilham -- have vowed not to give up an inch of Azerbaijani soil. They have managed to get several resolutions condemning Armenia passed at the United Nations Security Council, but that has had little effect.

Armenia has also suffered its disappointments. Its military victory has become an economic burden, as neighbouring Turkey and Azerbaijan have cut diplomatic ties with Armenia and imposed a trade embargo.

In spite of the mutually damaging status quo, the standoff appears destined to continue. A peaceful resolution is nowhere on any horizon.

After years of international pressure to come up with a negotiated settlement, many in Azerbaijan now feel that the only way for the occupation to end is if Azerbaijan restarts the war that claimed an estimated 30,000 lives until hostitilies ended with the 1994 ceasefire. Bullets are no longer flying, but the war of words has never stopped and the animosity between the countries has continued. War would not be a hard sell to much of the general public.

University of Montana Professor Thomas Goltz was on the front lines of the Karabakh War, which he reported on in the influential Azerbaijan Diary. He has mixed feelings about Azerbaijan's possible attempts to recapture its occupied territories.

"I remain really ambivalent about that and it comes from hating this thing called war on a profound, visceral level. I’ve just seen way too much of it. At the same time, I can understand my Azerbaijani friends and their frustrations with the negotiating process. And whether that means they’ve got to include the threat of renewed violence in order to get back the occupied territories and maybe Karabakh, I’m not going to second-guess them. It’s just that if it does go bang, it’ll be really nasty, as both sides are determined and entrenched. If Azerbaijan were to go forward, they’d be going forward against an entrenched opposition that has been there for 10 years waiting for an attack and they’ll be attacking uphill, which isn’t ideal."

Last summer, Azerbaijan loudly announced that its new military budget is larger than the entire Armenian government budget.

Thomas de Waal, perhaps the world’s leading expert on the conflict, recently predicted that the conflict will remain in a deadlock. He cites three reasons: there is no dialogue or the slightest sign of goodwill between the two countries; neither government could withstand the public perception of giving in that compromise would require; and Azerbaijan will not likely go the military route now, as it would be costly and damaging at a time when the country is finally developing some infrastructure and creating a bit of wealth.

The Azerbaijani refugees now sit hoping for a day when they can finally return to their homes behind Armenian lines, but barring an unforeseen event, that day will not come soon.

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Author Taking sides

I respectfully object to this author's mis-characterization of the Karabakh war. He should get the facts before he writes articles. Karabakh has always been an Armenian province. It has never been a part of an independent Azerbaijan. It was given to Azerbaijan by the Soviet Union in the 1920s for geopolitical purposes. Muslim Turks and Azeris (they are ethnic cousins) have always violated the human rights of the Christian Armenians of Karabakh. The only option for the Karabakh Armenians was to become independent from Azerbaijan. If they did not move forward in that way, another Genocide would have destroyed the Christian Armenian Nation, similar to the one perpetrated against the Armenians by the Muslim Ottoman Empire in 1915 in which 1,500,000 Armenians perished at the hands of the Turks.

UN resolutions about Karabakh problem

The objective details of what happened in Karabakh can be found in the following UN resolutions:

Resolution 822 (30 April 1993)
Resolution 853 (29 July 1993)
Resolution 874 (14 October 1993)
Resolution 884 (12 November 1993)

Although Armenian side occupies Karabakh claiming "it was always Armenian", the name means "Dark Vineyard" in Azerbaijan language. Unfortunately, Armenia occupies surrounding Azerbaijan (with ethnic Azeri majority) territories around Karabakh which is larger than Karabakh itself. And Armenia justifies this as making a safe buffer zone for Karabakh. Practically Armenia occupies Karabakh and all other Azerbaijan land between it and herself. This has happened of course with the help of Russian army, which still enjoys the Imperialistic role in the Caucauses region today.

For the interested reader: search Khodjali Genocide to find more details about this forgotten war.

And for more details on Armenian official (?) policy of enlargement: search "Hai Tahd" (or Armenian Cause) that aims to "re-create" Greater Armenia, liberating lands from Turkey, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Syria and Iran.

Hope this helps everyone to hear both side of the stories before making any action; not only the louder side.

typical armenian propaganda

So called Armenian genocide has nothing to do with Karabakh conflict. Please do not distort the facts. Whatever happened in Turkey almost 100 years ago has nothing to do with the recent Azerbaijani-Armenian war.

Do you really think that Western public is so gullible and stupid and will forever believe this nonsense?

You may have been able to deceive the West in the past, but sooner or later they will hear the other side of this story and will forever change their opinion.

Author provides the objective image of situation

I have to note that the author truly describes the situation in Azerbaijan during and after the Karabakh war. Karabakh have never been part of Armenia or its province. If you Mr/Mrs Arsahakian argue that Karabakh was given by Soviet Union to Azerbaijan for geopolitical reasons, please state them.
The rights of representatives of different cultures and religions have never become object of violation in Azerbaijan and by Azeris. If we start to speak about Genocide then I should say Azeri nation faced with Genocide by Armenians in Khojali in 1992.
Don’t try to mislead people and express the Karabakh war as Muslim and Christian war. It is not war between two religions. Islam and Christian religions are calling for Peace and Tolerance.

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