“The EU is turning to trustworthy energy suppliers. Azerbaijan is one of them,” Ursula von der Leyen declared in July. Over the past week, the EU’s “trustworthy partner” — a phenomenally corrupt hereditary dictatorship in the Caucasus — has slaughtered more than two hundred people in unrelenting attacks on its democratic neighbour Armenia. The carnage in the Caucasus can seem startling because Ilham Aliyev, Azerbaijan’s ruler, has been engaged in talks with Armenian prime minister Nikol Pashinyan since Armenia’s defeat in the 2020 war over Nagorno-Karabakh. The two men shook hands just over a fortnight ago in Brussels.
But so little about Azerbaijan’s attack, which goes beyond the disputed territory of Karabakh and targets Armenia proper, is surprising. Emboldened by Europe’s deepening dependency upon Baku — and by the weakened state of Russia, which has a security treaty with Armenia and has traditionally brokered peace in the region — Azerbaijan views this as the perfect moment to coerce Armenia into total submission. The West is as distracted today as it was in the autumn of 2020 when Azerbaijan and Turkey — bound by a “two states, one nation” policy — launched a joint military operation against Armenia at the height of the pandemic in which Syrian mercenaries on Ankara’s payroll were deployed alongside regular soldiers.
Travelling through the region in the aftermath of that war, it was impossible not to notice that Azerbaijan’s animus against Armenia, the world’s oldest Christian state, was founded on more than territorial disagreements over Karabakh. It was animated by something much more sinister: a chauvinistic belief in the superiority of the Turkic peoples over Armenians. It was a continuation of history. In April 1915, Ottoman Turkey inaugurated a methodical campaign to exterminate its Armenian population. A community of two million Armenians lived under Turkish rule at the time. Four years later, fewer than 200,000 remained. The rest were either massacred, marched into death camps, or starved to death. Countless women and children were forced to relinquish their faith and submit to the religion of their overlords. The Armenian diaspora, one of the largest in the world, is a result of the dispersal triggered by the genocide. The word “genocide” was in fact neologised by the Polish lawyer Raphael Lemkin to describe the Armenian tragedy. Every Armenian heart is a repository of inextinguishable grief and loss. (To its enduring shame, Britain refuses to confer official recognition on the Armenian genocide.)
More than a century after that protracted atrocity, there is a resurgence of the same homicidal rage against the Armenians, a people shaped by the harrowing memory of death, dispossession, and displacement. On the eve of the Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day in April, for instance, Turkey’s foreign minister, Mevlut Cavusoglu, taunted Armenians mourning their tragic past by making a “grey wolf” sign with his fingers — the gesture devised by unrepentant Turkish ultranationalists. The Armenian Genocide is clearly a source of mirth and gratification for Turkey and its client in the Caucasus.
Among the hundreds of murder reels circulating in the Caucasus, the horror of one, which I saw on the phone of a refugee from Karabakh, continues to stalk me. It shows Azeri soldiers decapitating an elderly Armenian civilian with a knife and then mounting his head on the carcass of a pig. The gruesomeness of it all — the beheading, the pig — is soaked in religious symbolism.
Human Rights Watch has verified numerous videos of Armenians being tortured by Azeri authorities. New horrors are being added to old. A video now circulating in the region, filmed by an Azeri soldier mocking the dead, shows the mutilated corpse of a female Armenian soldier: her body has been stripped naked, her eyes have been gouged out and replaced with stones, and her head is half decapitated.
Lest anybody should doubt its intent, Azerbaijan has expended considerable labour to raze Armenia’s ancient religious heritage in areas it has seized. In any other context, we could call this murderous imperialism by its name. But in this context, we resort to polite euphemisms. Imperialism is clearly imperialism only when Europeans do it; when the Turks do it, it’s a cultural exchange programme.
Armenia is crippled also by the absence of a strong leadership. Petty domestic political machinations prompted Armen Sarkissian, Armenia’s fourth president and its most respected statesman on the international stage, to resign earlier this year. The poverty of political talent has been on glaring display ever since. At a time when Armenia needs desperately to generate international solidarity, Sarkissian’s successor as president, Vahagn Khachaturyan, handpicked by the government to rubberstamp legislation, succeeded in reducing his country to a joke by having his staff take an unauthorised photo of him in front of Queen Elizabeth’s coffin. His clownish conduct in London managed to overshadow the trip to Armenia over the weekend by Nancy Pelosi, the speaker of the US House of Representatives.
Pelosi’s visit, precipitated by the upcoming elections in US where the Armenian diaspora forms an important voting bloc, is difficult to reconcile with Europe’s squalid deal with Azerbaijan. The embrace of Aliyev doesn’t merely encourage Azerbaijan to pursue its expansionist ambitions. It also negates the West’s much advertised “values”. Every sin that can be attributed to Vladimir Putin’s Russia can also be ascribed to Aliyev’s Azerbaijan. The fortunes amassed by Azerbaijan’s ruling dynasty make many Russian oligarchs appear like demure amateurs: their property empire in the UK alone is estimated by the NGO OCCRP to be worth nearly $700 million. Aliyev’s Azerbaijan is also measurably more politically repressive than Putin’s Russia: on Freedom House’s index of civil and political liberties, it sits ten places behind Russia. And the militant nationalism espoused by the regime, steeped in ethnic hatred of the Armenians, makes its Russian counterpart appear tame in comparison. Aliyev used to maintain a museum in Baku, the Azeri capital, in which the chief exhibits were the helmets of Armenian soldiers slain by Azeri forces.
Azerbaijan, equipped and supervised by Nato member Turkey, has now butchered its way into the sovereign territory of Armenia. One of the unlikeliest democracies in Russia’s neighbourhood is not merely being brutalised. It is being forced to accede to its own extinction. The pitifully ironic thing about all this is that Europe is not going to gain much from its commercial partnership with Azerbaijan. Baku, itself dependent on imports of natural gas from Iran and Turkmenistan, is struggling to meet domestic energy demands. Besides, the Azeri gas field that is supposed to be the source of Baku’s future supplies to Europe is owned partly by Russia’s Lukoil. By paying Azerbaijan, Europe is indirectly putting wealth in Russia’s hands. Europe has fostered the illusion of energy independence from Russia. The Armenians are paying the price of its self-deception.
Kapil Komireddi is the author of Malevolent Republic: A Short History of the New India