“The Karabakh conflict taught me that we need a statute of limitations on history,” the American journalist Bill Keller once observed to me, when I wrote to ask him about his experience of covering the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict in the 1980s.
“Amen to that,” most neutral watchers would have concluded after the painful debate between Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan and Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev on February 15, 2020, during the Munich Security Conference.
Aliyev and Pashinyan tried at times to be constructive. But their performance showed that this three-decades-old conflict over the territory of Nagorny Karabakh is bigger than two men. In Munich, Aliyev and Pashinyan were not so much leaders as conduits for the dark narratives of two nations. They reechoed the traumas and conspiracy theories of their own peoples and had no real message for the other side.
“First of all, we need to go back. . .” Aliyev began, before starting with a treaty signed in 1805 to justify Azerbaijan’s claim on Karabakh. Later, Aliyev offered the Armenians of Karabakh minority rights should control of the territory be returned to Azerbaijan, but he had already turned off any Armenians watching by claiming that “there is no Armenian historical legacy on these territories.” A prime reason why the dispute broke out three decades ago, in 1988, was precisely because the Karabakh Armenians feared Soviet Azerbaijan was not respecting their centuries-old cultural heritage.
The Armenian prime minister said that he wanted to talk more about the present than the past. He made the welcome assertion that a final peace settlement must be acceptable to the people of Azerbaijan. But he spoiled this overture by repeatedly denying an atrocity committed by Armenians in 1992. And in his final words of the day he bizarrely referred to the Roman-era Armenian king Tigran the Great.
The end of February is always a hard moment in the calendar for this conflict, as Armenians and Azerbaijanis each commemorate the horrible atrocities committed at Sumgait in 1988 and at Khojaly in 1992.
With the dispute still unresolved, it is too much to ask to have the leaders acknowledge their own side’s guilt for these episodes—as a Serbian president finally did in 2013 for the 1995 Srebrenica massacre. But both Aliyev and Pashinyan are actively obstructing conflict resolution by recycling conspiracy theories.
What is at stake here? The Sumgait pogroms, which began on February 27, 1988, were the moment a localized dispute turned into a full Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict. A week before, the Karabakh Armenians had begun campaigning to leave Soviet Azerbaijan and join Soviet Armenia. Mostly peaceful rallies were held in both republics.
However, the Azerbaijani rallies grew much angrier when the news broke that two young Azerbaijani men had died in disputed circumstances. In most Azerbaijani cities, the protests were contained, but in the town of Sumgait, a crowd of young men began attacking the Armenian quarter. Twenty-six Armenians were killed, others were raped or suffered horrific injuries. The whole of the Soviet Union was shocked.
Eventually, eighty-four men were convicted of crimes in Sumgait. Many Azerbaijanis were deeply ashamed, while some radicals praised the “heroes of Sumgait.” Over time, however, in time-honored fashion, a conspiracy theory emerged because one of the eighty-four accused, Eduard Grigorian, had an Armenian surname. In recent years, half of Azerbaijan has come to believe that Grigorian somehow masterminded the Sumgait pogroms and ordered Azerbaijanis to kill Armenians. No matter that Grigorian was a nobody and a sadist, a thrice-convicted criminal, whose Armenian father had died when he was young, leaving him with only a surname and his Russian mother.
Unfortunately, the Azerbaijani president himself has repeated this grotesque theory—and may do so again this week.
Four years later, on the night of February 26, 1992, the worst atrocity of the Karabakh conflict was committed by Armenian forces who killed whole columns of Azerbaijani civilians fleeing the besieged town of Khojaly. Azerbaijan now officially puts the death toll at 613.
The horrific episode has been well documented in reports by Human Rights Watch and Memorial. It has been confirmed by Armenian sources in the memoirs of Markar Melkonian, brother of famous Armenian volunteer commander Monte Melkonian, and indeed in my own interview with former Armenian president Serzh Sargsyan. These tell us that savage irregular Armenian fighters did the killings, wanting to turn the tide of the conflict. A British journalist later called the killings a “Revenge Tragedy” because he heard that some of those responsible were Armenian refugees from Sumgait.
It’s all clear. Except that former Azerbaijani president Ayaz Mutalibov later gave a bitter interview to a Czech journalist, which was printed in the Russian newspaper Nezavisimaya Gazeta, blaming his Azerbaijani political opponents for carrying out the attack on Azerbaijani civilians in an effort to discredit him.
Mutalibov was a tainted figure who was ousted as president largely because he failed to evacuate the civilians from Khojaly. The interview is muddled and he later disavowed his words. No matter. Some Armenians have seized on this as a weapon to evade their side’s responsibility for the killings. Including, unfortunately, as we saw in Munich, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan.
The Munich fiasco will have shown neutrals how Armenians and Azerbaijanis are still deeply trapped in the Karabakh conflict and the chronic need for a third alternative narrative that does not merely rehearse two distorted versions of the past.
History can also be deployed to support such a third narrative. Someone should perhaps reprint the text of the 1724 Persian-era friendship treaty signed between the Armenian lords of Karabakh and the Azerbaijani khans of Ganje (against the Ottoman Turks!).
The subject of a book published in 1977 by the Azerbaijani historian Suleiman Mamedov, it’s an inconvenient reminder that, over the centuries, Armenians and Azerbaijanis both inhabited Karabakh and frequently lived in friendship.
Otherwise, before the next international forum stages a similar event, the organizers should ask the two leaders to sign a ceasefire agreement on historical issues, to prevent bad history from further poisoning present negotiations.