I am an American, but by blood, I am an Armenian. I rose from the ashes of the Armenian Genocide of 1915. I am the grandson of a survivor and the great-grandson of a man who was among those murdered.
There is now fierce fighting between Armenians and Azerbaijanis in the region known as Nagorno-Karabakh. As an Armenian, as a lawyer trained in public policy, and as an advocate for human rights, I need to speak out and use my unique background and experience to explain this crisis of human proportions, which threatens the peace of an entire region.
Most importantly, I feel the need to voice my most profound concern for the people of Nagorno-Karabakh (Artsakh), Armenia, and the Caucasus. Sadly, there will be no peace without the proper recognition of Artsakh by civilized nations.
Encouraged by its ally Turkey, Azerbaijan’s offensive that started on September 27 has targeted churches and schools in Artsakh’s cities Stepanakert and Sushi. Turkey’s genocidal past against the Armenians and its supplying to Azerbaijan of advanced weaponry and mercenaries fresh off Syria and Libya’s battlefields contribute to the world’s concerns about the unnecessary loss of life in a potential regional war.
For Azerbaijan, the crisis relates to its misconstruction of an ill-conceived plan designed by none other than Stalin as a concession to the newly established Turkish Republic of 1923 and post-soviet law about self-determination. Under that law, Artsakh convened referenda in 1988 and 1991 to declare its independence from the Soviet Union and secede from Azerbaijan.
During the ensuing war between 1988 and 1994, 30,000 people died for that independence to secure Artsakh’s liberation. While there have been small border scrimmages and disputes with Azerbaijan over the last 26 years, Artsakh peacefully established a successful democratic republic on her ancestral land of more than 3,000 years.
So why now and why the extreme, hateful violence by Azerbaijan to uproot 150,000 people living in peace?
The answer lies in the interest and motivation of two authoritarian leaders of two ideologically bound states. History is critically relevant today to understand the misguided cause of Presidents Erdogan of Turkey and Aliyev of Azerbaijan; Two regional authoritarians seeking an external enemy to redistribute power and distract from internal concerns of moral and economic bankruptcy.
By all accounts, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk (Father of Turks) ended that failed ideology by declaring the Republic of Turkey free of Ottoman rule by abolishing the sultanate.
Years later, Turkey excelled in diplomacy until the EU suspended accession talks due to Turkey’s reversal of course in western democratic norms and the return of the same ideology that once almost destroyed an entire country. Turkey’s pretensions were reborn.
President Erdogan did, in fact, dramatically alter the course of Turkey. As an authoritarian, enamored by the Ottoman caliphate, Erdogan has consolidated power by forcing a once independent media to become his Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) messenger. After an alleged coup against his government, Erdogan was able to jail military, judicial, media, and political opponents. One of his most notable accomplishments for his authoritarianism brand was his ability to tame the Turkish army, which Ataturk established as an independent safety valve to political corruption.
Today, once a country full of promise, Turkey is on the verge of complete collapse again based on this past and failed ideology of expansionism and ethnic hatred. Sadly, the good Turkish people are trapped in a country they no longer recognize. This country is not what Ataturk established nor envisioned.
Similarly, President Aliyev of Azerbaijan consolidated the power of the Aliyev dynasty, which has held power since 1993. The ruling party dominates the media, uses public resources freely, and cracks down on public protest. Like in Turkey, critical journalists and political opponents are harassed, arrested, and jailed. On the Transparency International’s Corruption index of 2019, Azerbaijan ranks 126th out of 180 ranked countries. Some of the Azeri people are equally trapped in a country they wished it lived in peace with its neighbors.
Erdogan and Aliyev revived the pure ethnic ambitions of the Ottoman Committee of Union and Progress, which masterminded and ordered the extermination of its Christian minorities in 1915.
Erdogan’s and Aliyev’s expansionism and colonialism are perhaps their last act. Turkey attacked Syria, Libya, and now its peaceful neighbor Armenia and Artsakh with the help of her ally in violation of international law to divert attention from its decaying economy, failed internal policies, and disgraced foreign policy even in the Muslim world. While Erdogan blames the West for trying to harm Turkey, the truth is that his investors are spooked by his excesses and his pursuit of a failed ideology.
Aliyev, on the other hand, has been waiting for this opportunity for years. The international chaos on the pandemic, the contentious US elections, the US, Russia and EU’s lack of leadership gave these two the perfect opening to reclaim their Ottoman ambitions.
Their last act to prop up another failed, corrupt regime clinging to fossil fuel in Azerbaijan may very well be the final draw to permanently damage whatever is left of their respective credibility in the world.
*Frank V. Zerunyan, J.D. LL.D. (hc) is a Professor of the Practice of Governance and Director of Executive Education and ROTC Programs at the University of Southern California Sol Price School of Public Policy
Frank Vram Zerunyan, JD is a Professor of the Practice of Governance at the Sol Price School of Public Policy and Director of Executive Education at USC Price Bedrosian Center on Governance and The Neely Center for Ethical Leadership and Decision Making, an Interdisciplinary Center USC Marshall USC Viterbi and USC Price (DECIDE), as well as Director of ROTC Programs. His key areas of expertise include Local Governments, Public Private Partnerships, Civic and Ethical Leadership, Land Use, Regulation, Negotiation and Executive Education.
He teaches graduate courses on Intersectoral Leadership (Collaborative Governance), Business and Public Policy, International Issues in Public Policy, Negotiation, Place Institutions and Governance as well as International Laboratory. Frank also lectures locally and globally to build capacity and foster leadership among public executives worldwide. In his capacity as an honorary instructor colonel in the Armenian Army and Air Force, he lectures, coaches and advises on academic affairs at the Vazgen Sargsyan Military University in Armenia. For his influential work over the past five years in Armenia, he was awarded LL.D. Doctor of Laws – Honoris Causa by the Public Administration Academy of the Republic of Armenia.