Vicken Cheterian

Khojaly, Genocide, and Other Taboos

Only some days back, the Prime Minister of Armenia Nikol Pashinyan remembered again the words of Ayaz Mutalibov. While in Milan at the Armenian Church, during a meeting with the local Armenian community, he was confronted by an Azerbaijani blogger who accused the Armenian side of “genocide”.

Usually, Armenian politicians and public figures do not believe what Azerbaijani politicians say. For example, when Azerbaijani leaders promise “the highest form of autonomy” to Karabakh Armenians, most, if not all, Armenian political representatives doubt the sincerity of such declarations. They have the right to be sceptical: Azerbaijani political leadership does not tolerate even a marginal autonomy of Azerbaijani opposition itself, suppresses with much violence any movement of protest. Is it possible for a political system that does not tolerate the autonomy of its own kin to give “the highest degree of autonomy” to Armenians with which it fought a difficult war, a conflict that continues now for decades?
This Armenian scepticism of Azerbaijani politicians and what they say has one exception: the former Azerbaijani President Ayaz Mutalibov, and what he said concerning the massacre of Khojaly. It was in February 1992, at the height of the Karabakh war: the Armenian forces had initiated an attack on the strategic town of Khojaly, ten kilometres to the north of Stepanakert, where an airport is situated. The Armenian inhabitants of Karabakh were under total siege, and it was imperative for their survival to take over the airport. Yet, the controversy is not in this military operation, but what happened afterwards: a massacre the circumstances of which remains an issue of controversy until today.
Only some days back, the Prime Minister of Armenia Nikol Pashinyan remembered again the words of Ayaz Mutalibov. While in Milan at the Armenian Church, during a meeting with the local Armenian community, he was confronted by an Azerbaijani blogger who accused the Armenian side of “genocide”. Nikol Pashinyan gave the following answer: 

“This is an ordinary lie, because even the former president of Azerbaijan, Ayaz Mutalibov, said in an interview with Nezavisimaya Gazeta that the Azerbaijani opposition had organized the events in Khojaly in order to carry out a coup.”

Ayaz Mutalibov’s interview with Czech journalist Dana Mazalova is the only statement coming from Azerbaijan that Armenian politicians and mainstream media tend to believe. But is it possible to critically evaluate what Ayaz Mutalibov said back in 1992: the former Azerbaijani president, who had already resigned at the time of the interview, placed the blame of the Khojaly massacre on the Azerbaijani opposition, on the fighters of the Azerbaijani Popular Front, in order to provoke his downfall. 
Could it be that Ayaz Mutalibov was saying the truth? On the other hand, could it be that Mutalibov like any other politician declared what was convenient to him, to blame the cause of his downfall on his adversaries –the Azerbaijani opposition? Could we believe that the Azerbaijani opposition organized the massacre of its own people to provoke the downfall of its own government and take power?
Khojaly massacre of February 1992 is not the only violent event that receives such a treatment. The Karabakh conflict started four years earlier, when on February 20, 1988, the local Karabakh legislative voted for an act demanding that their autonomous region that was part of Soviet Azerbaijan, be transferred to become part of neighbouring Soviet Armenia.  This was a political demand, it was not a violent conflict yet. A week later, anti-Armenian pogrom erupted in Sumgait, over 300 kms away, where groups of murderers during three days attacked Armenian civilians in the town, raping and killing.
What is the official Azerbaijani interpretation of this event? That Sumgait massacre was organized none other than the Armenians themselves, by the Tashnaktsutyun Party, who prepared the massacre of the Armenians itself, plus hid cameras to film the event, with the sole purpose to discredit Azerbaijan and claim the territory of Karabakh. This conspiratorial version became the official version in Azerbaijan of late. 
The victims themselves accused of the crime, to tarnish the good image of dominant powers to be. Massacre is the language of hegemonic powers that refuse political dialogue.  
In Azerbaijan, the Armenian Genocide by Ottoman Turkey is denied vehemently. Azerbaijan has adopted a denialist version concerning the Armenian genocide that even Turkish officials would not repeat anymore. In reaction to the US House of Representatives recognizing the 1915 genocide as such, Azerbaijani Presidential advisor Hikmet Hajiyev declared the following

“Armenia and the circles of the Armenian lobby have turned the fictional Armenian genocide into a subject of political speculation (…) Falsification of history, attempts to rewrite history and its use for the purpose of political pressure are unacceptable.”  

Why does an Azerbaijani high official feel the necessity to make such denialist declaration, mixing the complicated Armenian-Azerbaijani relations with the history of Armenian Genocide?

On the other hand, Azerbaijan has officialised its own “genocide”: a presidential decree in 1998. Curiously, it is not the genocide historians have written about, but a genocide, which became “law” in Azerbaijan by a presidential decree back in March 26, 1998. This strange document starts by saying that genocide “has been repeatedly committed against the Azerbaijani people” and quotes “the treaties of Gyulistan and Turmanchai, signed in 1813 and 1828” after which the presidential decree continues to accuse “the Armenians” for every possible misfortune. This decree was sent to the United Nations, and it could be much interesting for historians to read . 

Back in November, journalist exchange took place between Armenia and Azerbaijan, for the first time in about ten years. I wonder what those journalists had to say to each other, now that state propaganda has taken the two sides so far from each other. How difficult this dialogue has become, yet how important it is to talk truth to the masters of hegemonic power and propaganda.