Bulent Kilic/AFP via Getty Images
An Azeri soldier passes over a wall in the city of Jabrayil, where Azeri forces regained control during fighting with Armenia over the breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh, on Oct. 16, 2020Bulent Kilic/AFP via Getty Images
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In the West Bank of the Caucasus

A visit to Azerbaijan and the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh reveals a far different reality than the Christian-centric, pro-Armenia narrative that saturates Western media

by
François Margolin
May 13, 2022
Bulent Kilic/AFP via Getty Images
An Azeri soldier passes over a wall in the city of Jabrayil, where Azeri forces regained control during fighting with Armenia over the breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh, on Oct. 16, 2020Bulent Kilic/AFP via Getty Images

The recent war in Nagorno-Karabakh, seen from the Azerbaijani side, is a topic about which it is nearly impossible to write without finding yourself immediately accused of being funded by the government of Azerbaijan. Indeed, the very fact of looking into the topic, which is the founding principle of journalism and documentary filmmaking, raises suspicion.

The stock cast of characters typically includes the good guy (Armenia), the thug (Azerbaijan), and the villain (Erdogan’s Turkey). But the reality is entirely different.

I have had this intuition for a while now—since the fall of 2020, in fact, when the conflict was met with near-total unanimity in the media, on social networks, and among the French political class. Such unanimity is a rare thing indeed, no matter what the subject. Only the Armenian point of view was heard, and the entire French press swung to that side. Almost no one came down on the other side.

There are good explanations for this, of course. The Armenian community has been planted in France for so long and is so well integrated that it used all of its networks to espouse its ideas, and you can’t fault them for that. Almost no one has Azerbaijani friends, whereas many of us, myself included, have friends of Armenian origin who are deeply attached to their heritage. Which is utterly normal.

There is another explanation as well. Azerbaijan has the reputation of being led by a horrible dictator, or rather a family of dictators who pass on power from father to son. True, Azerbaijan is far from being a paragon of democracy as we understand the word. The press is not formally free, presidential portraits adorn every road in the country, and the habits formed in the KGB schools where Heydar Aliyev, father of the current president, was trained are still very much present. That said, I do not believe Armenia is much better. It occupies 51st place in the World Press Freedom rankings of Reporters Without Borders (though it has risen rapidly in recent years). One need only observe how its current prime minister, Nikol Pashinyan, came to power in 2018: through what is politely known as a revolution, and more crudely as a coup d’état.

To explore this a bit further, I took off a month last year with my friend Camille Lotteau to film a documentary in Azerbaijan. Getting visas for Baku was not an easy matter, particularly in view of the raging pandemic. But once there we were very well received. We were able to move about freely within the country, including in the areas of Nagorno-Karabakh retaken by the Azerbaijani army at the end of 2020. Only the city of Shusha (Shushi to the Armenians), claimed by both sides as a potent symbol and presently in Azerbaijani hands, was off limits. And that was because of the presence of Russian troops controlling access to it, and because of the snow that was making access extremely difficult.

First observation: Azerbaijan is not the terrible Islamic country against which we’ve been told that Armenia stands as our last rampart, a rampart we must hang onto if we are to preserve our Judeo-Christian heritage. Think the “clash of civilizations” that Michel Onfray described in a 2021 report.

The country has been a secular republic since 1918. Women have had the right to vote since that same year (i.e., almost 30 years before France), and we saw not a single veiled woman in Baku or even in the countryside. Nowhere. On the contrary, young Azerbaijani women wear short skirts and go for drinks with friends in the many bars found in the large cities. Alcohol flows as freely there as in Paris.

Although 96% of the population has a Muslim background, you do not hear the muezzin, the mosques are nearly empty, and the religions live in complete harmony. The leaders of the Jewish community laughed in my face when I asked them if there was antisemitism in the country. The head of the Ashkenazi community, Alexander Sherovsky, swore to me that in the entire history of the country there had not been the slightest hint of a pogrom, which is exceptional for the region, and particularly for the former Soviet republics, where antisemitism was common currency. He added: “I think there’s a lot more antisemitism in France!”

The Mountain Jews are a unique community that has been here for more than 3,000 years. When I asked Milikh Yevdayev, their leader, if the same were true in Armenia, he answered, with a broad smile, “First find me an Armenian Jew, then we can ask him.”

That discussion occurred in the great synagogue in the center of Baku, a synagogue with no police in evidence, which speaks volumes about the absence of fear of attacks in this city located less than 200 kilometers from the Iranian border.

The same people made me aware of the existence of the strange hero admired in Armenia, General Garegin Nzhdeh. Head of the Armenian units in the Russian army (who were already battling the Turks at the outbreak of the First World War), a key figure in the defense of the Armenian republic founded in 1918, an adherent of the idea of Greater Armenia (encompassing Georgia and Azerbaijan), Nzhdeh came in the 1930s to embrace the racial theories of the Nazis to the effect that “one and the same race exists in Germany and Armenia.” In 1942, Nzhdeh formed the Armenian Legion within the Wehrmacht. Thirty-thousand strong, the unit was responsible for numerous massacres of Jews in Ukraine, Crimea, and even the South of France until Nzhdeh reversed course in 1944, switching to Stalin’s Red Army when he felt the tide turning. His ploy was ultimately unsuccessful, however, and he ended up in a gulag.

It would be unfair to hold all Armenians responsible for the actions of Nzhdeh’s Legion, of course. But the erection of an immense statue of Nzhdeh in the center of Yerevan in 2016, and even more so the recent refusal of the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh to dismantle the statue of the same general that they had put up in Martuni, is revealing of the country’s curious attachment to this sad “hero,” who bears more resemblance to Marshal Pétain or the Croat Ustasha than to an ordinary military leader. As someone who had always thought that there was a sort of metaphysical alliance between Jews and Armenians, the victims of the two largest genocides of the 20th century, this discovery brought me down with a bump.

Is it thanks to the Shiite Islam that predominates in Azerbaijan that the country has never experienced an Islamist wave? Perhaps. The ayatollah who oversees the congregations, Sheikh Ul-Islam Allahshukur Pashazade, emanates a different sort of holiness than do his Iranian neighbors. Indeed, he told me that he preached the “enlightened Islam” that we in the West try so hard to find elsewhere—usually in vain. Even so, it seems that there were some young recruits left for the Islamic State in 2013 or 2014, but no one is able to say for sure or to point to any mosques that underwent a radical shift. More to the point, it seems highly improbable that Shiites would have been accepted by the ISIS fighters, one of whose main activities in Iraq and Syria was to summarily exterminate Shiites, who were viewed as renegade apostates.

The same thing occurs to me when I hear that mercenaries from Syria and the Islamic State supposedly came to fight for the Azerbaijanis. This assertion, emanating from no one knows precisely what source (“the services,” a European diplomat told me), is more than just odd: It has all the hallmarks of fake news. In fact, no one can explain why a large (60,000 men) and well-equipped army would have needed help from such volunteers. Here and there one hears that they served as cannon fodder in ground combat, but no one—certainly not the Armenians, who would have been only too happy to do so—has been able to produce the body of one of these fighters. It should have been easy to do so: Syrians are easy to distinguish from Azerbaijanis.

It is also said that the mercenaries were hired by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan as a sign of support for the Azerbaijanis. The support is real, with Turkish flags flying beside Azerbaijani flags pretty much all over the country. But Erdogan’s support is more diplomatic and geostrategic. The Azerbaijanis speak a Turkic language and have historically been tied to Turkey. It is obvious that the alliance falls within Erdogan’s strategy of restoring the Ottoman Empire, while pursuing a more religious version of Ataturk’s dream.

The problem is that Azerbaijan is profoundly secular, and its secular nature is protected by a regime that can be described as authoritarian. Moreover, the country is rich enough, thanks to its oil and gas resources (it was in Baku that the Nobels and Gulbenkians made their fortunes) to make its own way without help from a guide.

The proof lies in the country’s odd—one might say “original”— alliances. Israel is its chief arms supplier; drones from the Jewish state won the recent war for Azerbaijan. That alliance also has deeper roots: Azerbaijan distrusts Iran like the plague. And it possesses an indisputable trump in the 35 million ethnic Azeris who populate northern Iran and control a large share of political and economic power in the Islamic Republic. Consequently, Azerbaijan allowed Israel to install on its territory all of the technological tools that enabled it to take out Iran’s nuclear weapons program.

That outcome seems to have suited the entire world. The Israeli flags that can be seen flying alongside those of Turkey, Azerbaijan, and even Pakistan are an obvious manifestation of that compatibility.

The country also maintains economic alliances with numerous European countries, notwithstanding French President Emmanuel Macron’s support for Armenia during the conflict. One such alliance is with Italy, which is the endpoint of the recently completed Trans-Adriatic gas pipeline. The pipeline was designed from the outset to skirt Russia, which is why it passes through Turkey and crosses Greece and Albania before going under the Adriatic Sea. What is at stake is the energy independence of several countries—a matter the Azerbaijani regime knows very well.

And that is why we saw a Catholic country (Italy) supporting a nominally Muslim country (Azerbaijan) against a Christian country (Armenia), whereas an Islamic Republic (Iran) supported Christian Armenia, and Israel was the ally of Baku. Not to mention Putin’s Russia, which, though officially neutral, has a defense treaty with Armenia that obliges it to defend the latter’s borders militarily and made it Armenia’s main weapons supplier during the recent conflict.

We were able to see those weapons, abandoned in cases covered with Cyrillic characters in the towns of Nagorno-Karabakh retaken by the Azerbaijanis, ghost towns that call up images of Hiroshima after the bomb. Aghdam, for example, had a population of 180,000 in 1988, before the incidents began between Azerbaijanis and Armenians—incidents stirred up by what was still the Soviet Union, which hoped that by lighting fires in Nagorno-Karabakh, Chechnya, and elsewhere, it might still have a small chance of remaining in place.

In Azerbaijan, what happened between 1988 and 1994 is called the First War. And the scars of that war are still there: No inhabitants remain in the “occupied territories.” It is as if Armenia didn’t have enough people to repopulate the conquered towns. Trees have grown up everywhere, now measuring 10 or 20 meters high. You might think you’re on the set of a disaster film.

Nothing remains. Not a house, not a farm shed. Or rather, yes, an old mosque of which it is said (but is it true?) that it was transformed into a pigpen, the ultimate sign of contempt for the Muslims of Azerbaijan. And then, further on, a building still standing: another mosque with its two minarets. Why did it survive? To serve as a point of reference for soldiers to use when sighting other targets? Or perhaps to try to demonstrate that Armenians don’t attack religious symbols, unlike those bad Azerbaijanis …

Indeed, the main media argument of Armenians the world over is that the Azerbaijanis destroyed the Christian religious heritage of the region so as to erase all trace of the Armenian presence. With support from UNESCO, Macron organized a mission to inventory that heritage. In reality, nothing is really clear except that Nagorno-Karabakh was populated for centuries by a mixture of Armenians and Azerbaijanis getting along more or less well. One comes upon forts built by the local Muslim pashas, such as the one we visited in Askeran, which the Armenians call Mayraberd, since even the names of towns are disputed. Askeran, in territory retaken by the Azerbaijanis, lies a few kilometers from Stepanakert, the de facto capital of Nagorno-Karabakh and still in Armenian hands. But one also encounters Armenian churches, for example, in Shusha, a few kilometers away.

No one knows whether the inhabitants of these places liked each other, but they lived together. Stalin even created for them a single Transcaucasian Socialist Federative Soviet Republic. The First War, from 1988 to 1994, set in motion a veritable ethnic cleansing—mainly of Azerbaijanis, like the 600-some-odd villagers massacred by the Armenians in Khojaly on Feb. 26, 1992. This was no doubt done to encourage the rest of the population to clear out. The result was approximately 600,000 people living in tent cities around Baku. But many Armenians were also expelled from their villages in retaliation; some 120,000 left Nagorno-Karabakh. It was a violent, merciless battle between two peoples who could no longer stand each other.

In the recently recaptured areas (Jabrayil, for example), we saw not a few destroyed cemeteries, looted tombs, demolished Muslim religious systems, bones and sculls of cadavers strewn about willy-nilly. It was horrifying. But who is to say that the same can’t be found on the other side?

Here you encounter the same argument about the defense of Christian civilization against ‘the Muslims.’

In Nagorno-Karabakh, as in other places around the world beset by conflicts more ethnic than religious, both sides strain to prove they were the first ones there. The Armenians say they were the first Christian settlement in the world; the Azerbaijanis claim an even older presence. The evidence is far from clear. One might think one was in Palestine, where Israeli archaeologists dig for signs of ancient Judaism.

We’ll probably never know. And, in the end, what difference does it make? One thing is clear, however: Nagorno-Karabakh is an occupied territory. An Azerbaijani territory located in the very middle of Azerbaijan, as plain as the nose on your face. It was conquered by the Armenians about 30 years ago. It is an imaginary “country” recognized by no other state, not even Armenia, and certainly not by the United Nations.

This land was inhabited mostly by Azerbaijanis, but entire stretches of it were populated by Armenians. And no one has the right to tell them to leave. On the other hand, to have an independent country seems absurd. Such a solution is denied to the Kurds of Iraq and the Catalans in Spain. Why give it to the Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh? One logical solution would be for them to resume their status as a minority in Azerbaijan—on the condition that the tensions die down, of course.

The authorities with whom we met seemed open to such a solution, and I honestly don’t see any other, unless one is willing to accept an endless, hopeless war.

But the Armenians would have to accept it. All Armenians—including those of the diaspora, which is nearly four times the size of Armenia’s actual population and for years has been the cheering section for war with Azerbaijan, even though it doesn’t live there and doesn’t experience the great poverty of the majority of the Armenian population.

The phase that began with the First War ended with the defeat in open battle of the Armenian armed forces in 2020, and if it hadn’t been for Big Brother Russia, Nagorno-Karabakh in its entirety would now be part of Azerbaijan. Everyone agrees that Azerbaijan’s army was blocked by the Russians barely 2 kilometers from Stepanakert.

So why try to justify this lost war using the same tricks of language that were deployed in 1992, during the Bosnian war, when the promoters of Greater Serbia—Karadzic, Mladic, and their allies in numerous Western chanceries—wanted to destroy the new multifaith republic of Bosnia’s President Izetbegovic? You encounter the same argument about the defense of Christian civilization against “the Muslims.” The same fake news about Islamist mercenaries coming to aid the Azerbaijanis: But whereas in the 1990s it was 20 Iranian henchmen with no real power, now it’s “2,000 ISIS fighters” who seem to have left no trace.

This is certainly not how the region will return to peace and be able to enjoy its wealth. Only through mutual acceptance will Armenians and Azerbaijanis begin to build a future. Obviously this is easier said than done. But if it can be brought about, the result of the most recent phase of the conflict might turn out to be a good thing.

Translated from the French by Steven B. Kennedy

François Margolin is an award-winning French writer, director, and producer who has made over 20 films.

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