Yesterday, February 3, the government of Azerbaijan announced the creation of a state organ for purging politically-undesirable monuments in Nagorno-Karabakh (Artsakh in Armenian), the disputed Armenian region that Azerbaijan partially conquered in late 2020.
“A working group of specialists in [Caucasian] Albanian history and architecture has been set up to remove the fictitious traces written by Armenians,” pro-government media quoted Azerbaijan’s minister of culture Anar Karimov referencing a popular state-sponsored conspiracy theory that reimagines indigenous Armenian monuments as appropriated from an extinct civilization.
Despite Azerbaijan’s extraordinary record of state-sanctioned cultural erasure — from 1997 to 2006, the Aliyev family’s regime (former president Heydar Aliyev and his son, Ilham, the current president) flattened every trace of the vast Armenian heritage of the exclave of Nakhichevan — the announcement that a government body would so brazenly identify epigraphic heritage for elimination still sent shockwaves.
“We are going to see Julfa II soon,” tweeted Baku-based Azerbaijani researcher Cavid Aga, whose work focuses on the Caucasian Albanian language. His tweet referenced the destruction of Julfa (also spelled Djulfa, originating from Armenian Jugha,) which until December 2005 was the world’s largest medieval necropolis of khachkars, distinctive Armenian cross-stones. Situated in southeastern Nakhichevan on the border with Iran, Djulfa was eradicated by the armed forces of Azerbaijan, despite the government’s earlier rebranding of the sacred Armenian site as “Caucasian Albanian.” Today, the Azerbaijani government insists that Djulfa, like the medieval Armenians it memorialized, never existed to begin with.
“I can’t find any justification for or logic in the creation of the new state organ to remove Armenian inscriptions,” Aga told Hyperallergic in an interview. “It doesn’t serve Azerbaijan’s international standing; it doesn’t serve multiculturalism policy; it won’t serve the future. There is simply no reason to do this.”
To picture what the promised erasure of epigraphic heritage would look like, consider the 2020 renovation of a church in a small village in Azerbaijan inhabited by the Udi Christian minority, who descend from Caucasian Albanians. During the renovation, Aga wondered whether the main entrance’s Armenian inscription would be preserved. Photos of the church opening in early November 2020 clarified that the answer was no. In May 2021, the Office of the President of Azerbaijan released photos of Aliyev and his wife Mehriban Aliyeva, who is also the country’s vice president, visiting the renovated church. They reviewed pre-renovation photographs that showcased the Armenian inscription and an adjacent fresco depicting the Mother See of Holy Etchmiadzin (the Armenian Church Headquarters) — both of which had been purged. Aga says that local Udis supported the destruction of the epigraphic data, “because their motive is not to be associated with Armenians in any way.”
The new purge organ announced yesterday is particularly startling in light of a precedent-setting decision by the International Court of Justice (ICJ) on December 7, 2021, ordering Azerbaijan to stop destroying Armenian monuments. The ICJ ruled in the Armenia v. Azerbaijan case that the latter must “take all necessary measures to prevent and punish acts of vandalism and desecration.”
The new working group is a brazen defiance of the ICJ’s order. Yet it is consistent with the March 2021 presidential pledge to polish over Nagorno-Karabakh’s numerous Armenian inscriptions, when Aliyev declared at a captured medieval Armenian church that “All these stones are fake. This is Armenian forgery.” There is precedence for such a body: In 2005, during the final phase of the erasure of Nakhichevan’s Armenian past, an 11-member commission was created to “inventorize” the region’s monuments.
Gabriel Armas-Cardona, a Germany-based international lawyer, told Hyperallergic that Azerbaijan’s intent to violate the ICJ order may have to do with testing limits. “Azerbaijan is probably doing this to see what it can get away with,” he said. “By creating the working group now, Azerbaijan is assessing if steps that lead to a violation but are not themselves a violation are tolerated by the Court.”
Since the ICJ decision, however, Azerbaijan had significantly toned down its cultural politics rhetoric: Azerbaijani diplomats, for instance, have been refraining from their favorite pastime of posting on social media photos of Armenian churches mislabeled as “Caucasian Albanian.”
What may have prompted Azerbaijan, then, to not only create but also to suddenly publicize the new organ?
The answer may be found in a nearby conflict, in the ongoing Russo-Ukraine crisis, which has created opportunities for Azerbaijan to remind the West of its strategic importance. In recent days, Azerbaijan has expressed readiness to the West to provide more natural gas in light of Russia’s reduction of gas exports.
In exchange, Azerbaijan has likely requested that Washington release military aid, which would effectively signal to the country that it will face no sanctions for the 2020 war against Nagorno-Karabakh.
US military aid to Azerbaijan would not only whitewash Azerbaijan’s recent belligerence of cluster-bombing densely populated civilian areas, deploying chemical weapons, beheading civilians, bombing sacred sites, and refusing to return Armenian prisoners of war despite US State Department calls to do so, but also allow the Aliyev regime to project to foreign foes and domestic dissidents alike that it can practically get away with anything. As exiled Azerbaijani historian Arif Yunus once explained his government’s erasure of Armenian heritage accompanied by outreach to UNESCO: “Nothing projects the Aliyev dictatorship’s power to Azerbaijani dissidents like committing cultural genocide in Nakhichevan then showering in international praises of tolerance.”
Close observers of Azerbaijan understand the dynamics of this behavior. Ruled by the same family for decades, Azerbaijan’s current president Ilham Aliyev has long sought to legitimize and cement his rule. In 2003, after inheriting the presidency from his father, Aliyev started pumping Azerbaijani oil to Western markets, using the energy riches to benefit his family (in London alone, as has been recently discovered, the presidential family owns $700 million worth of real estate) while buying international influence to polish its image. Last month, the FBI revealed that influential individuals, including Texas Congressman Henry Cuellar, are under investigation for potential corrupt ties with Azerbaijan. (In a video he posted on Twitter, Cuellar said there was “no wrongdoing” on his part.)
The possibility of Azerbaijan compelling the release of US military aid is not mere speculation. In a statement to Hyperallergic, a Department of State spokesperson said that “there are no current plans to provide additional security assistance under State Department authorities” to Azerbaijan. However, a credible source, speaking with Hyperallergic on the condition of anonymity, disclosed that key members in Congress have been recently notified of the White House’s consideration to release military aid to Azerbaijan.
US Department of Defense Spokesman, Marine Corps Lieutenant Colonel Anton T. Semelroth, neither denied nor confirmed the news of the anticipated military aid to Azerbaijan. Instead, he told Hyperallergic that “The Department of Defense continues to cooperate with Azerbaijan on a range of activities that are in the national security interests of both the U.S. and Azerbaijan.” He cited “maritime border and southern border with Iran, respon[se] to disasters, counter Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) proliferation, and counter illicit drug trafficking” as areas of cooperation.
Azerbaijan’s announcement of the purge committee coincided with the high-profile visits of European Union Commissioners for Energy, Kadri Simson, and Neighbourhood and Enlargement, Olivér Várhelyi. Azerbaijan’s president appeared highly satisfied with the Simson meeting, stating today, February 4, that “Cooperation between the EU and Azerbaijan in the (energy) sphere has entered a new phase.” Later in the day, during a meeting between Várhelyi and Azerbaijan’s foreign minister, the EU announced the allocation of a two-billion Euro package to Azerbaijan.
In a comment to Hyperallergic, EU spokesperson Peter Stano said that the union “consistently calls on all parties to respect and protect all cultural and religious heritage in the region, without any differentiation based on ethnic or religious ground.”
“The EU supports the UNESCO intention to pursue an assessment mission in the framework of the 1954 Hague Convention, that has been currently discussed,” Stano continued. “This is to establish a first factual assessment of the cultural heritage in the region and possibly, at a later stage, to support preservation, restoration and rehabilitation of cultural heritage through knowledge transfer and expertise. The EU has been and will continue working with both sides to promote a comprehensive peace settlement.”
All eyes are on Washington now, to see if it will, like Europe, turn its eyes away from Azerbaijan’s human rights violations and war crimes in exchange for energy.
In 2020, when Turkey supported Azerbaijan’s military as the latter sought the complete invasion and ethnic cleansing of Nagorno-Karabakh, then-presidential candidate Joe Biden deplored the move as “irresponsible.” It remains to be seen whether Biden will follow his own advice or make the monumental mistake of further emboldening a belligerent regime.
Editor’s note 2/9/22, 12:00pm EST: In a statement on February 7, Azerbaijan’s minister of culture Anar Karimov walked back his previous comments on forming a committee to “remove the fictitious traces written by Armenians” but confirmed that a working group has been set up to “study ancient Albanian heritage” in Nagorno-Karabakh and examine “alterations on the historical and cultural heritage.”
Editor’s note 2/9/22, 11:26am EST: This article has been updated to include a comment by European Union spokesperson Peter Stano.