Consistent Passive Aggression and Realpolitik A History of the UK Government’s Attitude Toward Armenia

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I write as an Anglo-Armenian academic that was brought up in London. I remember my childhood in the 1960s, marching with my Dad to the Turkish embassy on April 24 to protest the denial of the Assyrian and Armenian Genocide by the Turkish and British Governments. Fast forward to 2020: nothing and everything has changed. Both authorities remain obdurate in their repeated denials but now catapulted into the mix has come Artsakh/Nagorno-Karabakh. But what are the origins of the relationship?

The UK and Armenia: A Brief History

The historical record shows Armenians playing an important role as bridging people between East and West, acting as intermediaries for the British in their colonies of India, Bangladesh and Singapore (where there are still Armenian churches that have outlasted their communities). There was, for example, John Martin – an Armenian tobacconist and cultivator of silkworms, who was an early settler (1607) of the Jamestown colony in Virginia, in what is now the United States. A community of Armenian silk merchants settled in Manchester starting in 1835, as it underwent mechanization during the Victorian Industrial Revolution.

The Armenians also feature in “the Great Game” of the nineteenth century, in which Britain sought to protect its Indian colony from Russian encroachment in and around Afghanistan and Persia. In 1918, the British sent the Dunsterforce as a prototype special operations unit of about 1,000 troops to occupy some of the Caucasus. Dunsterforce supported around 7,000 Armenians in Baku, whilst under siege by the Turkish army. It was this expedition that first reassured the Armenians of Karabakh to accept an interim Azerbaijani governor, until the Paris Peace Conference could solve their disputes. (In a strange coincidence, I happen to live in a house in a small English town, whose neighbouring property was called Enzeli – a place on the Caspian Sea – and lived in by a man who served in that British expeditionary force.)

During the First World War, there was a lot of UK Government advocacy by its domestic population about the plight of the Armenians, leading to large sums being raised for the Near East Relief Foundation. In 1915, British historian Arnold Toynbee published Armenian Atrocities: The Murder of a Nation. Also in 1915, two superpowers – France and the UK – negotiated the Sykes-Picot Agreement, which left Armenia within Russia’s sphere of influence and, as a result, the UK government was able to wash its hands of any responsibility to take up the League of Nations Armenian Mandate. Canada, still a British Dominion at the time, and the United States did consider taking up the Mandate, but ultimately decided against it, amid a general sentiment to “bring the boys home” after a particularly destructive war. Palestinian historian George Antonius (1938) called the Sykes-Picot Agreement “a shocking document… the product of greed at its worst… it also stands out as a startling piece of double-dealing.”[1]

Continuing the theme of Armenians acting as intermediaries for the British, the industrialist Calouste Gulbenkian was key to securing oil rights for the British in Iraq, which made him one of the world’s wealthiest men. A foundation in his name continues its philanthropic work for Armenia and globally. Gulbenkian financed the construction of St. Sarkis Church in London, which continues to serve the community to this day. There are accounts claiming that the British tried to cut him out once their oil claim had been secured, and during World War II Gulbenkian was for a while declared an enemy alien by the British and his assets were seized.

Michelle Tusan, a professor of history concluded that the British Empire’s dealings with Armenians and the Armenian Genocide in particular “fell victim to political expediency and was forgotten as one of the unfortunate casualties of Total War.”[2]

The UK and the 2020 Artsakh War

One look at a map of the South Caucasus clearly shows the geopolitics, with little, relatively poor Christian Armenia surrounded by large, ambitious regional players – such as Turkey and Azerbaijan – with pan-Turkic ambitions and linguistic fraternity. The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) convenors – France, Russia and the United States – tried to negotiate a ceasefire but only Russian President Vladimir Putin was willing to go beyond public statements and eventually deploy peacekeeping troops to separate the combatants in Artsakh. Armenia has been able to function as a fledgling democracy with its Turkish and Azerbaijani borders closed and only Iranian and Georgian crossing points open (though, it should be added that Georgia hindered the movement of military hardware across its territory to landlocked Armenia during the war).

Throughout the recorded use of illegal incendiary bombs and shelling of civilians in the 2020 conflict, my United Kingdom Government has remained practically impotent. The UK Government has not acted on Armenian evidence of Azerbaijani war crimes and instead provides blind, sometimes tacit, support for Turkey directly and its ally Azerbaijan indirectly.

Britain has always seen Turkey as strategically useful. During the Cold War, Western powers including Britain and America used Turkey as a bulwark against the Soviet Union, whose front line was in Armenia. Turkey’s position was rewarded and strengthened with its accession to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in 1952. The concept of NATO standing for democracy is a relatively new concept, given that the alliance was content to count dictators among its members (including those who came to power through coups) during the Cold War. Russia, it could be said, views NATO ambitions as a resurgence of the Great Game, in terms of an attempt to encircle and contain it, which obviously has impacted the democratization process and color revolutions in the countries on its periphery.

In 2020, there remains the outstanding issue of whether Turkey will be admitted to the club that is the European Union. It was formally recognized as a candidate for membership at the end of 1999, since which time the process has stalled. However, mass migrations from war zones including Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan have thrown into sharp focus the need to contain a large-scale flow of migrants by effectively renting land in Turkey to act as a buffer and confinement point from which refugees can be prevented from entering the Union, and returned to their countries of origin. On the other hand, such dependence puts Turkey in a strong bargaining position, in that it can threaten to open the flood gates to Europe if it doesn’t get its way.

A further indication of which side the UK sees its “bread buttered” comes in the form of successive Governments – of whatever political color – consistently denying the atrocities in the Ottoman Empire, in its dying days, as genocide. A look at who does and does not acknowledge the murderous events of the early twentieth century points once again to the geopolitical realities leading up to the 2020 Artsakh War: the British and American governments acquiesce to Turkey’s sensitivities at least in censoring mention of the Armenian Genocide by government officials. Ironically, most genocide scholars recognize the subsequent global scatter of those of Armenian descent, as significantly resulting from the forced uprooting of their forefathers. In 2020, Armenia itself has a population of around 3 million with a diaspora far in excess of that figure.

Among the major powers, only Russia and France expressly confirm the massacres as systematic, state-sponsored genocide. A look at the diaspora will, to an extent, explain the recognizers and deniers – Russia is home to the largest single diaspora with over 2 million citizens of Armenian descent. France hosts an Armenian diaspora numbering around 500,000.

Britain, on the other hand, has an Armenian population of just 18,000. The size of the native diaspora and its political clout can be argued to translate into acknowledgement or denial of the Genocide. Running counter to this argument, however, is the fact that “there are as many as 1.5 million Armenians living in the United States, with most diasporans concentrated in California”;[3] and yet most Presidents have not acknowledged the Armenian Genocide. Notably, in late 2019, both the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate passed resolutions officially recognizing the Genocide with overwhelming bipartisan majorities. In 2020, now President-Elect Joe Biden pledged his support for these motions. (It should be noted, however, that Senator Obama before him made the same promise but never publicly used the ‘G’ word during his two presidential terms).

Which brings us to the 2020 Artsakh War. Hansard, the official record of UK parliamentary proceedings, notes the upper house (of Lords) debating the war on October 7, 2020: “My Lords, the UK continues to urge de-escalation and an immediate return to the negotiation table… we continue to believe that the best solution to this conflict is a peaceful negotiation under the framework of the OSCE Minsk Group… Turkey is a key NATO partner and we continue to work in NATO to encourage it to use its influence to calm tensions.” However, in a previous speech, the same Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, Baroness Sugg, on September 30 surely showed the Government’s hand when she pronounced: “My Lords, the UK supports the sovereignty, territorial integrity and independence of Azerbaijan…”

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, Wendy Morton MP, followed up on October 13 by expressing the UK Government’s concern “about the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh, calling on all parties to take every measure possible to protect civilians. That is why, on 29 September, the UK called for discussion at the UN Security Council. The day before that, on 28 September, I spoke to both the Azerbaijani and the Armenian Foreign Ministers to urge a return to dialogue under the OSCE Minsk group to ensure a peaceful and sustainable settlement.” Words, words. In echo of this, Labour’s Lord Collins (September 30) queried, what “has the UK done to encourage the US Administration to renew their efforts as part of the Minsk Group, and what have we done within NATO to seek the de-escalation of tensions?”

On November 2, Baroness Sugg did state that all “allegations of war crimes or other atrocities must be investigated, prosecuted and, if appropriate, punished. We completely condemn any attack on civilians.” She went on to welcome “new UK aid support, which is directly targeted to help thousands of people who have been affected by the conflict. That support includes urgent medical supplies, food and safer shelters. It is a £1 million aid package in response to an appeal through the International Committee of the Red Cross.”

Behind it all, we also need to consider what American President Eisenhower termed in 1961 the “military industrial complex”:

“In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.

“We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together.”

In the case of the United Kingdom, there is a question mark over the “unwarranted influence” of an industrial complex that enables arms acquisition by Azerbaijan. This particularly relates to British Petroleum: BP petrol stations are visible throughout the UK. According to BP’s website, “In Azerbaijan, BP operates under several production sharing agreements and host government agreements (HGAs) signed with the government of Azerbaijan. In Georgia and Turkey, it operates under HGAs that cover export pipelines and terminals.” The company mentions employing 2,500 Azerbaijani citizens and pledges to “remain committed to Azerbaijan’s future.” The company’s installations in Azerbaijan produced 3.5 billion barrels of oil between 1997 and 2018, as well as 100 billion cubic meters of gas “from first gas in 2006 to the end of 2018.” Investment to date in Azerbaijan by BP stands at $72 billion. BP’s Azerbaijani pipelines all bypass Armenia to reach Turkey through Georgia, a route that added tremendous cost, because of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. It is a shame that economic resource integration, similar to the European Coal and Steel Community formed between France and Germany in the aftermath of World War II, was not pursued through greater diplomatic overtures, as it could have contributed to bringing lasting peace to the region.

Then there is Anglo Asia Mining (AAM) which, according to Mining News and Intelligence, as a result of Azerbaijani territorial gains, now has control of the Vejnaly deposit, which is estimated to yield almost 9 tons of gold. The five Board members of AAM include two Brits, one of whom is a retired academic from the Royal School of Mines, London, and an American ex-chief of staff to former U.S. President George H.W. Bush. These appointments indicate a clear UK interest in Azerbaijan’s economic success.

Over the past few years, the role of Lydian International in Armenia has also been a contested political topic, with reports that the UK Government tried to pressure Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan into dismissing health and environmental concerns raised by local citizens protesting the project. The NGO Global Justice Now refers to evidence “that the UK is acting on behalf of a company seeking to open a dangerous gold mine.”

On a separate issue, according to a 2016 Panama Papers report by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, there is the issue of tax havens that Britain tolerates among its Overseas Territories, that are used by Azerbaijan’s ruling family – the Aliyevs – to shelter their wealth. This circumstance makes the threat of UK sanctions against Azerbaijan a realistic policy tool; one which, to date, remains unused by the British authorities.

This brings us to the heart of the matter. First, as far as genocide recognition is concerned, the UK Government places its priority on strategic advantage, as opposed to the evidence-based fact that 1-1.5 million Armenian and other citizens were slaughtered on the orders of the Ottoman authorities in and after 1915. International human rights lawyer Geoffrey Robertson reaches “the inevitable conclusion that the Armenians in 1915 answers to the description of genocide… parliament has been routinely misinformed, by ministers who have recited the FCO (Foreign and Commonwealth Office) briefs without questioning their accuracy. Her Majesty’s Government’s only policy has been to evade truthful answers to questions about the Armenian Genocide, because the truth would discomfort the Turkish government.”

In relation to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, in 2020, the British Government individually and via membership in NATO and the UN Security Council has been a spectator to lethal gladiatorial combat in which a biblical giant Goliath defeated David. In so doing, the UK has enabled a dictatorial regime in Azerbaijan to clear Armenians from more of their indigenous territory. They have also ceded the initiative to Russia, who now has boots on the ground.

As I write, the Russian-brokered deal is a ceasefire, another lull in fighting. What is needed now are hard-headed diplomatic talks to hammer out a lasting peace. Surely, it is time for the UK Government and its allies – by all means (through the EU, OSCE, UN, NATO) – to protect the security of Armenians in Artsakh as was done in Kosovo, whereby NATO members enforced a no-fly zone. Such practical support should include recognition of the independent state of the ethnically-Armenian Artsakh. Both the French Senate and National Assembly have already voted for France to take such an approach.

 

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[1] Antonius, G. Arab Awakening (1938) cited in Rogan, E. (2015) The Fall of the Ottomans. Allen Lane Books: UK, p. 285.
[2] Tusan, M. (2017) The British Empire and the Armenian Genocide. I.B. Tauris: London, p. 244.
[3] Bolsajian, M. (2018) The Armenian Diaspora: Migration and its Influence on Identity and Politics, Global Societies Journal Vol. 6, p. 29.

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