By Martin Sonneborn and Dustin Hoffmann
This month, several Armenian police officers in Nagorno-Karabakh were killed in an ambush by the Azerbaijani military. As always, Azerbaijan’s spin doctors blamed Armenians, facts be damned. Media reports handled from far away, unable to verify the truth, reported the claims of “both sides.” So it generally goes – the news media’s gift to a dictator controlling the narrative with lies.
These lies are critical at the moment in the South Caucasus, where besieged ethnic Armenians in the enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh are enduring a climate of growing fear and uncertainty. Most of the rhetoric from the Azerbaijani government has undertones of veiled threats and ultimatums towards the Republic of Armenia and against the Armenians living in Nagorno-Karabakh.
The implication is that Azerbaijan, which seized wide swaths of Nagorno-Karabakh in a 2020 war it launched, will not rest until the remaining Armenians in the enclave leave, until it seizes more land in Armenia proper, and just possibly until the country is wiped off the map.
This kind of aggression unchecked endangers countries all over the world, and especially in the environs of the former Soviet Union.
This dynamic – and the muted global reply to it, approaching acquiescence – was on stark display at February’s Munich Security Conference which we attended. Normally a leading global gathering on geostrategic issues, it felt like the Twilight Zone as soon as the South Caucuses came up.
Tellingly, the panel on the region did not include an Armenian until a day before. But once that oversight was rectified as a result of a Tweetstorm, it did seem promising: on stage were Armenia’s and Georgia’s democratically elected prime ministers, Nikol Pashinyan and Irakli Garibashviliaria, together with Azerbaijan’s dictator Ilham Aliyev (as well as Helga M. Schmid, Secretary General of Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe). As the three regional leaders had never jointly met, this had the makings of a historic event.
Sadly, the moderator, Christoph Heusgen, Angela Merkel’s former diplomatic advisor and now chair of the Munich Security Conference, allowed Aliyev free rein for his propaganda and war rhetoric. And the Butcher of Baku does have some skill, in the words of a character in the Matrix films: between him and his ally Vladimir Putin, it is hard to tell the pupil from the master.
In Aliyev’s view, his unprovoked 2020 attack only rectified a wrong. He views Armenia itself as part of Azerbaijan and believes there were no Armenians in the past in Nagorno-Karabakh (the Armenian churches there originally belonged to Caucasian Albanians; he says). Aliyev argued on the panel that the name Nagorno-Karabakh should no longer be used. He admitted he had been preparing for the 2020 war for some time, even though at the time his spin doctors claimed – as always – that Armenia was the aggressor.
It is part of a wider pattern of outrage: one notorious Aliyev Tweet says ‘Armenia is not even worthy of being a servant’. A museum he opened celebrates dead Armenian wax soldiers.
Aliyev claims he only wants peace and adherence to the 2020 ceasefire agreement, but his actions demonstrate the opposite. Since the end of the war, Armenia and the people of Nagorno-Karabakh have been targeted continuously.
Last September, his forces invaded sovereign Armenia and occupied several areas. After overrunning some of Armenia’s military positions, Azerbaijani soldiers executed prisoners of war before a camera and left the corpses of mutilated women behind.
In December his operatives blocked the only road to Nagorno-Karabakh’s capital Stepanakert, blockading the 120,000 ethnic Armenians remaining in the core area of Nagorno-Karabakh; he again denied being behind this, although many world leaders and a court in Europe have urged him to end the action.
And now again, more violence.
Whether or not he believes his own lies, Aliyev is clearly determined to force them onto his own captive population and anyone else who will listen – and sadly, that appears to include international partners in need of his country’s energy wealth.
Perhaps himself terrified of the combustible dictator, Pashinyan himself did little to debunk the lies. He used the panel as an opportunity to underscore his view that the elements of a solution are democracy, transparency, dialogue and respect. That was similar to his statements at the same conference in 2020, when Pashinyan strongly reiterated his commitment to a peaceful solution in Nagorno-Karabakh and urged that more time is needed after Armenia’s nonviolent pro-democracy revolution in 2018 to resolve the issue. Seven months later, Azerbaijan launched its war; thousands of Armanian soldiers died, Azerbaijan bombed cities with cluster munitions and its troops tortured and executed elderly civilians.
Aliyev’s agenda was and is clear. There is no question that if unchecked, he will keep attacking. Events like the Munich Security Conference should do more to push back when dictators use them as a respectable venue for spreading lies.
Social media platforms should also try to mitigate fakery, and the news media are absolutely derelict in their duty when they promote bothsidesism and false equivalence.
Dictators around the world thrive on alternative facts. Aliyev and his deplorable ilk – stooges and bots and spin doctors – should not spin their web of lies unchecked.
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Martin Sonneborn is a member of the European Parliament for Die PARTEI and a member of the parliamentary delegation for relations with the South Caucasus, Dustin Hoffmann is legal expert and heads his EU parliamentary office.