More than 100,000 Armenian Christians are fleeing their homes in Nagorno-Karabakh, desperate to escape the arrival of the Azerbaijani army. Publicly, Azerbaijani diplomats promise they will treat the Armenian community no differently than they treat Azerbaijanis, hardly a promise that wins confidence given how repressive the Aliyev dictatorship has become in Azerbaijan. Freedom House ranks Azerbaijan alongside China and the military junta in Burma, and below Russia, Iran, Cuba, and the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip in its freedom rankings. Privately, Azerbaijani officials bargain for favors from the State Department in order to allow refugees to flow unmolested. This is equivalent to 1930s Germany seeking favors to allow small numbers of Jews to leave. Then, there has been Azerbaijani Telegram channels that range the gambit from mocking Armenians to glorifying the desecration of Armenians bodies to offering to buy women and children as slaves in postings reminiscent of the Yezidi genocide. World leaders may say “Never Again” but it is clear, then, that they have a collective case of Alzheimer’s disease.
Those who carry water for the Azerbaijani regime may justify any action with the argument that the international community recognizes Azerbaijani sovereignty over Nagorno-Karabakh. The American positions dating to Secretary of State James Baker were more nuanced and conditional, but Secretary of State Antony Blinken has forgotten, waived, or ignored those conditions, first and foremost a negotiated agreement with Nagorno-Karabakh’s residents. It will be curious to see if my friends at the Hudson Institute like Michael Doran and Luke Coffey, for example, apply the same principles of “freedom-be-damned; listen to the United Nations!” to side with Palestinian rejectionists over Israel when adjudicating disputes over Jerusalem or the West Bank, or for that matter China’s equally ahistorical claims over Taiwan.
What really makes this moment as spectacular as it is tragic is that, Azerbaijan’s claims aside, Azerbaijan has never controlled Nagorno-Karabakh. Prior to rising to the Soviet premiership, Joseph Stalin had gerrymandered borders to rip Nagorno-Karabakh away from Armenia, but it remained an autonomous “oblast” within Azerbaijan, with its own parliament and administration. As the Soviet Union crumbled, the region was the first (even before Ukraine) to use the hitherto theoretical freedoms under the Soviet constitution to demand self-determination. This ultimately culminated to a referendum in which 99 percent of residents sought independence. A series of Azerbaijani pogroms and attempts to drive out Armenians or starve communities into submission failed, and the region governed itself since 1991.
Before Stalin, Turks—both from the Ottoman Empire and the newfound Azerbaijan Republic tried to wrest control of Nagorno-Karabakh from the Republic of Armenia. Indeed, the September 2020 Azerbaijan-Turkey surprise attack on Nagorno-Karabakh coincided with the centenary of that invasion. The 1920 invasion was unsuccessful, though, as neither side was able to consolidate full control over the region prior to the Soviet Union overrunning the Caucasus in their entirety.
Of course, before 1918, there was no Azerbaijan. Nagorno-Karabakh at the time fell under titular Russian and, before 1828, Persian control although in practice, it was autonomous at these times as well.
Make no mistake: Today, tens of thousands of Armenians flee an ancestral homeland in which they have lived for thousands of years. Their flight before Azerbaijani forces resembles the 2014 Yezidi flight from Sinjar under the Islamic State’s assault or the Kurds fleeing Saddam’s advancing armies in 1991.
The difference is in 1991 and 2014, the United States sided with freedom. In 2023, we betrayed it.