The Holy Savior Ghazanchetsots Cathedral in Shushi in 2015, before it was attacked twice by Azerbaijani forces (photo Yelena Ambartsumian/Hyperallergic)

On March 10, the European Parliament adopted a resolution that “strongly condemns” Azerbaijan’s intentional destruction of Armenian cultural heritage in Nagorno-Karabakh (or Artsakh in Armenian).

The resolution was adopted with 635 votes to two, with 42 abstentions, and with sponsorship by six of the seven groups of the European Parliament, except for the Identity and Democracy Party, a nationalist far-right group that ironically purports to “protect Christian heritage.” It read:

“The erasure of Armenian cultural heritage is part of a wider pattern of a systematic, state-level policy of Armenophobia, historical revisionism and hatred towards Armenians promoted by the Azerbaijani authorities, including dehumanisation, the glorification of violence and territorial claims against the Republic of Armenia which threaten peace and security in the South Caucasus.” 

Azerbaijan’s “continued policy of erasing and denying the Armenian cultural heritage” in the area of Nagorno-Karabakh, the resolution added, violates international law and a 2021 decision by the International Court of Justice (ICJ) ordering Azerbaijan to “prevent and punish” the vandalism and desecration of Armenian churches, monuments, landmarks, cemeteries, and artifacts.

The resolution came several weeks after Azerbaijan’s Minister of Culture, Anar Karimov, announced a working group of specialists to “remove the fictitious traces written by Armenians,” in reference to Azerbaijan’s debunked claims that the founding inscriptions on Armenian medieval churches and monuments, written in the Armenian language, are recent additions. (The minister later tamed his statement, saying the group will “study ancient Albanian heritage” in Nagorno-Karabakh and examine “alterations on the historical and cultural heritage.”) 

Azerbaijani forces bombed the Holy Savior Ghazanchetsots Cathedral in Shushi twice in 2020, causing damage to its crosses, pointed domes (a staple of Armenian church architecture), and angel reliefs. (via Wikimedia Commons)  

The concern for Nagorno-Karabakh’s cultural heritage is grave, since Azerbaijan, with the help of its ally Turkey, launched a war of conquest in late 2020, which saw attacks on civilian infrastructures, such as schools, homes, and a maternity hospital, in addition to religious and cultural heritage, such as churches and archaeological sites. Since the November 2020 ceasefire, which resulted in the handover of much of the Armenian-populated Republic of Artsakh’s territory to Azerbaijan’s control, Azerbaijan has reportedly continued to destroy and vandalize Armenian cultural heritage, while also refusing access to religious sites to Armenians seeking to worship there. After the Russian-brokered ceasefire, Azerbaijan and Turkey held a joint military “victory” parade in the capital city of Baku, during which they set their sights beyond Nagorno-Karabakh and laid claim to Armenia’s capital, Yerevan, while also blessing the souls of the architects of the Armenian Genocide. Azerbaijan’s president then inaugurated a military “victory” museum, with wax mannequins depicting chained and injured Armenian prisoners of war (that Azerbaijan claims it does not have).

Azerbaijan’s destruction of Armenian cultural heritage in Nagorno-Karabakh is not unprecedented. In Nakhichevan, an exclave of Azerbaijan that has been ethnically cleansed of its Armenian population, there have been no consequences for Azerbaijan’s destruction in the early 2000s of 89 medieval Armenian churches, 5,840 intricate cross-stone monuments, and 22,000 tombstones, as revealed by Simon Maghakyan and Sarah Pickman on Hyperallergic.

As was the case with Nakhichevan, UNESCO has failed to send an independent fact-finding mission to Nagorno-Karabakh to survey the status of cultural heritage properties because of Azerbaijan’s refusal. The European Parliament’s resolution references this refusal and “[s]trongly insists that Azerbaijan enable UNESCO to have access to the heritage sites in the territories under its control.”

Unfortunately, for both the people and the cultural heritage of Nagorno-Karabakh, it appears that their fate is intertwined with the national and regional interests of other players, namely the EU and its pressing need for an alternative to Russian oil and natural gas.

In February, news emerged that the EU allocated a €2 billion aid package to Azerbaijan, as it seeks to increase the latter’s export capabilities of its oil and natural gas.

Shortly after securing the aid package from the EU, petrol-rich Azerbaijan then signed an alliance with Russia on February 22. Paragraph 40 of Azerbaijan and Russia’s “Declaration on Allied Interaction” references the duty to protect and preserve the cultural and religious heritage of “national minorities living in the territories of the Parties,” though it is unclear whether these protections would apply to Armenian heritage. A few days earlier, Russia’s second-largest oil producer, Lukoil, increased its stake to 19.99% in Azerbaijan’s Shah Deniz natural gas project. The Trans Adriatic Pipeline, through which the EU seeks to increase its gas imports from non-Russian sources, originates in Azerbaijan’s Shah Deniz II field.

Thus, it is telling that the European Parliament’s resolution rejected the proposal by the Socialists & Democrats Group to “strictly condition” the €2 billion aid package on “Azerbaijan’s respect for its international commitments on human rights, including regarding the preservation and protection of the cultural and historical heritage on the territories under its control.”  

The resolution did, however, call out Azerbaijan as the aggressor. That is a notable departure from numerous false equivalencies and “bothsidesism” rhetoric from other governmental and intergovernmental players, whose statements would have one think that the Holy Savior Ghazanchetsots Cathedral in Shushi (a city recently ethnically cleansed of Armenians for the second time in a century) somehow bombed itself. Twice.

At the time of the European Parliament’s resolution, Azerbaijan had cut off gas (needed for heat, cooking, and hot water) to the remaining 120,000 inhabitants of the Republic of Artsakh, by tampering with a pipeline originating from Armenia but part of which now passes through territory occupied by Azerbaijan. According to the Human Rights Ombudsman of the Republic of Artsakh, Azerbaijani armed forces also opened fire on several Armenian-populated villages on the very day of the resolution’s announcement.

Days later, the gas supply was briefly restored, as United Nations representatives participated in an event in Shushi. It appears that while the UN cannot send an independent mission from UNESCO to assess the cultural heritage in Shushi, its representatives, including Resident Coordinator Vladanka Andreeva can attend an event there to celebrate Azerbaijan under the UN flag. 

In a statement to Hyperallergic, Armenia’s Permanent Representative to the UN Mher Margaryan said of the March 18 ceremony: “We have made it abundantly clear that any visit by the UN representatives to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict zone must be fully in line with and in support of the mediation efforts towards the peaceful settlement, and that such visits should not serve as an instrument of propaganda that seeks to legitimize attempts to resolve conflict by force.”

“Azerbaijan continues to resort to various forms of violent acts and provocations that seek to disrupt normalcy of life in Nagorno-Karabakh, such as the deliberate disruption of the supply of natural gas amidst severe weather conditions,” Margaryan continued. “Equally disturbing are the attempts to instrumentalize the issue of POWs and detainees, whose captivity Azerbaijan continues to deny, as well as the lack of goodwill to commit to the preservation of cultural heritage and to effectively address anti-Armenian rhetoric — all in defiance of the Provisional Measures issued by the International Court of Justice against Azerbaijan as a matter of urgency on 7 December 2021.”

After the visit, which was dedicated to the 30th anniversary of Azerbaijan’s UN membership, the country reportedly stopped gas to Nagorno-Karabakh, once again, as temperatures dipped below freezing. In the days that followed, the United States Department of State said it was “deeply concerned about the movement of Azerbaijani troops in Nagorno-Karabakh.” France also expressed its concerns and Russia urged Azerbaijan to pull back its troops and observe the ceasefire.

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Yelena Ambartsumian

Yelena Ambartsumian is a New York lawyer and founder of OrigenArt.com. She is a descendant of the Sumbatian princely family, which moved from Artsakh to Baku during the late 19th century.

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