Azerbaijan should guarantee Armenians access to Nagorno-Karabakh’s churches

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https://www.washingtonexaminer.com -by Michael Rubin

STEPANAKERT, NAGORNO-KARABAKH — Azerbaijanis celebrated the recapture of Shusha, a cliff-top town revered by both Azeris and Armenians, shortly before a Russia-imposed ceasefire in the war over this disputed territory. Shusha is less than five miles from Stepanakert, the capital of Nagorno-Karabakh’s self-declared independent Republic of Artsakh. Many refugees from the Shusha fighting now search for shelter within sight of a town whose homes had been in their family for generations. While Azerbaijani leader Ilham Aliyev has said ethnic Armenians can remain as residents of Azerbaijan, the actions of his forces and those of the Syrian militiamen who support them tell a different story: They have tortured and mutilated prisoners, both military and civilian, and posted videos of gruesome, Islamic State-style beheadings on social media platforms such as Telegram.

Azeris may justify their actions in Armenian attacks on Azeri villages in previous Nagorno-Karabakh wars and the fact that many Azeris had fled towns such as Shusha when they fell under complete Armenian control more than a quarter-century ago. Without moral equivalence, the reality is that both Azeris and Armenians have narratives that are often diametrically opposed, and both can point to abuses perpetrated by the other side. There is a darker reality that while Armenians often refer to Azeris as adversaries, Aliyev has incited his population to despise Armenians in the crudest ethnic and religious terms. The fact that Azeris, or the forces they fought alongside, now behead Armenians while chanting “Allahu Akbar” is not a spontaneous development.

Against this backdrop, this mountainous quarter of the Caucasus is increasingly subject to both great power and regional competition. The shattering of the status quo was less due to a precipitous erosion in Armenia’s ability to deter the Azeri army than in the fact that Turkey and Israel supported and supplied Azerbaijan, while Armenia not only fought alone but also found itself blockaded by Georgia and Iran. The United States forfeited its diplomatic role despite its Minsk Group co-chairmanship, while Russia, despite its extensive ties to Armenia and professions of neutrality, sold arms to Azerbaijan. Washington may consider the Caucasus peripheral to its interests, but the competition and potential for genocide, jihadism, and instability throughout the region amplify Nagorno-Karabakh’s importance.

Perhaps Shusha can provide both an opportunity to reverse demonization in this mountainous region and restore accountability, especially in the face of Azerbaijan and Turkey’s framing of their war in religious terms.

Rather than cleanse Armenians from a town so intertwined with their heritage, the Minsk Group co-chairs (Russia, France, and the United States) might insist on the right for Armenians to visit Shusha and other key towns by prearranged permit and group buses escorted by Russian peacekeepers. Azerbaijan might cry foul, but there is precedent.

To drive rapprochement, North Korea created a special tourist zone for South Koreans at Mount Kumgang, 30 miles north of the demilitarized zone. Within a decade, a million South Koreans made the day trip to a resort there. It did not always go smoothly (in 2008, North Korean troops shot and killed a South Korean woman) but it did enable some interaction subsequently augmented by the construction of the Kaesong Industrial Park.

The situations are not exactly analogous: Korea is divided by ideology; Azerbaijan and Armenia are divided by language and religion. But the basic logic holds, and so does a test: Should Aliyev refuse access to escorted Armenian visitors, he will confirm himself more closed-minded than even North Korea’s leadership. Should he instead acquiesce to site visits to the region’s churches, monasteries, and other Christian sites, he will increase accountability and could prevent desecration and destruction of the region’s Christian heritage.

The guns may be silent, but key details of diplomatic arrangements in the region remain unresolved. The Minsk Group should reinforce that Aliyev’s triumphalism is both premature and inappropriate. Azeris may have been taught to hate Armenians, but it is time to remind Baku that they must nevertheless live with them and that the world will ensure that the erasure of Armenian heritage begun more than a century ago by Ottoman and Turkish troops cannot continue under Aliyev’s watch.

Michael Rubin (@Mrubin1971) is a contributor to the Washington Examiner’s Beltway Confidential blog. He is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and a former Pentagon official.

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