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Karabakh Peace Process Must Be Fully Inclusive

Many of the hundreds of thousands of Azeris displaced from Nagorno-Karabakh and the surrounding territories occupied by ethnic Armenian troops continue to live in camps in Azerbaijan.
Many of the hundreds of thousands of Azeris displaced from Nagorno-Karabakh and the surrounding territories occupied by ethnic Armenian troops continue to live in camps in Azerbaijan.
The dispute over the Azerbaijani region of Nagorno-Karabakh has festered for more than two decades. One of the keys to finding a peaceful resolution of the conflict is achieving the normalization of relations between the region's ethnic Armenian and Azeri communities.

In 1992, a mission of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE, precursor to the OSCE) headed by then-U.S. Secretary of State James Baker worked out the so-called Baker Rules, which were agreed to by all sides in the conflict. Those rules recognized the two communities of Nagorno-Karabakh as "interested parties," and Armenia and Azerbaijan as "principal parties."

In this context, one could only welcome the headline of an RFE/RL commentary by Robert Avetsiyan, a representative of Nagorno-Karabakh's ethnic Armenian community, entitled "Nagorno-Karabakh Must No Longer Be Barred From The Negotiating Table." Unfortunately, the author stopped short of mentioning the ethnic Azeri community that, prior to the 1988 conflict, comprised one-third of Nagorno-Karabakh's population and 99 percent of the population of seven other adjacent districts of Azerbaijan currently occupied by Armenian forces.

Falling into the general pattern of Armenian-Azerbaijani disagreements, Avetsiyan's piece quickly shifted from discussing the legal and political aspects of conflict resolution to counterproductive historical allegations attempting to deny the Azeri identity. Unfortunately, some of these assertions need to be addressed.

First Christians In The Caucasus

The modern Christian heritage of Nagorno-Karabakh has its roots in the ancient kingdom of Caucasian Albania, called Aghvank in Armenian. While the Armenian language belongs to the Indo-European family of languages, Caucasian Albanians -- the pre-Islamic ancestors of modern Azerbaijanis -- spoke an indigenous Caucasian language. Both Caucasian Albania and Armenia were converted to Christianity in the fourth century.

The religion was first brought to Armenia by an ethnic Parthian noble, St. Gregory the Illuminator, but the first Christian church in the Caucasus was built in Albania. The church of Kish was established in the present-day Sheki region of Azerbaijan by St. Eliseus, a disciple of St. Thaddeus, who in 201 A.D. converted King Abgar IX of Edessa, making Osroene the first Christian state.

The territory of present-day Nagorno-Karabakh (Artsakh) belonged to Caucasian Albania in the first century A.D. ("Great Soviet Encyclopedia," 1973). Upon the Islamic conquest of the Caucasus in the ninth century, Artsakh was ruled by the Albanian princes (C. J. F. Dowsett, "A Neglected Passage In The 'History Of The Caucasian Albanians'", BSOAS, 19(3), 1957), while the Albanians in the eastern plain of Karabakh mixed with the Turkic population and became Muslims (R.G. Suny, "Looking Towards Ararat: Armenia In Modern History," 1993). Thus the "Canons Of Aghvan," composed in the fifth century, were a part of the Caucasian Albanian historical heritage shared by present-day Azerbaijanis.

Ancient Albanian Church, Qapaqtepe, Azerbaijan's Dashkasan district
The monasteries of Amaras and Gandzasar remained the citadels of an autochthonous Albanian Apostolic Church up until 1836, when the Russian authorities incorporated it into the Armenian Apostolic Church. At the time, Gandzasar was the see of the Catholicate of Caucasian Albania, while the Amaras monastery was first claimed by the Armenian Church only in 1848.

Territory Of Karabakh

The first independent state in Nagorno-Karabakh was the 18th-century Karabakh khanate, established with a capital in present-day Shusha circa 1751 and ruled by an Azeri khan (R. Hewsen, "Journal Of The Society For Armenian Studies," Vol. 6, 1995, p. 270). Throughout the 19th century, Armenians remained a minority on the territories of Karabakh and present-day Armenia despite their major resettlement from Ottoman and Persian domains after the Russian conquest.

Upon the fall of the Russian Empire, in 1918-20, the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh was under the control of the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic, whose authority over Karabakh was officially recognized by the Allied powers. After the establishment of the Azerbaijan SSR in 1921, the Bolshevik Kavburo voted to not to incorporate but to retain Nagorno-Karabakh in Azerbaijan.

While the nationality of "Azerbaijani" was first indicated in the 1939 Soviet census, the millions of Azeris did not appear out of nowhere. The formulation of a uniform Azerbaijani identity started in pre-Christian Caucasian Albania and Atropatene, incorporating Islamic and Turkic elements in medieval times, to become the first secular, democratic Muslim nation in 1918.

Prior to 1939, Azerbaijanis were called Turks, until Stalin decided to disassociate the Turkic people of the Caucasus and Central Asia from Turkey. In a similar move in the 1920s, Soviet authorities granted the Zangezur region to Armenia, separating Azerbaijan into two disjoined parts, and got rid of the Turkestan toponym in Central Asia.

Violence Erupts

The Armenian side often claims that the Sumgait events of February 27, 1988, were a precursor to the violence in Nagorno-Karabakh. But the first acts of violence took place in the Gugark region of Armenia in the fall of 1987. Subsequently, thousands of Azerbaijani refugees were forced to flee Armenia and were settled in Sumgait by the Soviet authorities.

These events were followed by clashes in the Askeran region of Nagorno-Karabakh on February 22, 1988, when two ethnic Azeris were killed by an ethnic Armenian mob. Among the convicted perpetrators of the Sumgait events were also three ethnic Armenians who killed a quarter of the 26 ethnic Armenians who died in the violence, according to the deputy prosecutor-general of the USSR at the time.

While Sumgait is often highlighted in the context of Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, less attention is paid to the 1992 Khojaly massacre of ethnic Azeris by Armenian forces. Named the "largest massacre" of the conflict by Human Rights Watch, Khojaly's civilian death toll was some 20 times that of Sumgait.

A monument to the victims of the Khojaly Massacre in Baku
While both Azerbaijani and Armenian perpetrators in Sumgait were tried and sentenced by the court of law, those responsible for Khojaly were never brought to justice, despite the fact that the then-military commander in Nagorno-Karabakh (and now the president of Armenia), Serzh Sarkisian, has admitted Armenian responsibility for this atrocity (Thomas De Waal, "Black Garden: Armenia And Azerbaijan Through Peace And War," NYU Press, 2004).

In its efforts to settle historical differences with Turkey, the Armenian side often appeals to the notion of justice. Yet the so-called Nagorno-Karabakh Republic (NKR) is an unjustly established monoethnic Armenian entity in the Caucasus. It is not independent, because it cannot sustain itself without the existence of its sponsor, Armenia.

But most importantly, it was established after the exodus of one ethnic group forced by another. The self-proclaimed "NKR officials" cannot speak on behalf of the people of Nagorno-Karabakh, because one-third of them were stripped of the right to choose their leaders due to their ethnicity. Therefore, Azerbaijan -- along with all reputable organizations including the United Nations, the Council of Europe, and the OSCE -- consider the "NKR elections" and "NKR officials" illegitimate. Moreover, in the words of then-U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Elizabeth Jones, these "NKR officials" constitute "criminal secessionists."

Contrary to the Armenian allegations that Azerbaijan intended to cleanse Nagorno-Karabakh's ethnic Armenian population, in a letter addressed to the UN Security Council on November 9, 1993, the chairman-in-office of the CSCE Minsk Conference on Nagorno-Karabakh detailed the territories occupied by Armenian forces and outlined the required timetable for their withdrawal. Additionally, all four of the 1993 UN Security Council resolutions on Nagorno-Karabakh call for the immediate withdrawal of Armenian forces from the occupied territories of Azerbaijan. It has been 16 years since the "NKR officials" and their protectors in Yerevan refused to fulfill these international demands.

At present, Armenia's military occupation of the region precludes the much-desired participation of Nagorno-Karabakh's ethnic Armenian community in the peace process, because the region's ethnic Azeris were stripped of this right. Lasting peace in Nagorno-Karabakh cannot be achieved without a return of the region's ethnic Azeri population and their harmonious coexistence with the ethnic Armenian community. Furthermore, to reestablish the much-needed trust between the two nations, it is important for both Armenians and Azerbaijanis to refrain from any hostile, derogatory, or inflammatory rhetoric.

Dr. Javid Huseynov is general director of the Azerbaijani-American Council. He was assisted in the preparation of this article by U.S. Azeris Network Managing Director Dr. Adil Baguirov, Azerbaijani National Cultural Association (Hungary) founder Dr. Vugar Seidov, and Azerbaijan Society of America President Tomris Azeri. All four are originally from the once Azeri-populated regions currently under Armenian military occupation. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL