“No piece of land is worth it”: Moscow’s Armenians and Azerbaijanis on the Karabakh conflict

Note from LeftEast editors: At LeftEast we are trying to source locally-grounded analyses on who profits from the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh: what is the national and international balance of power among the political and economic elites; and what a leftist strategy could be? Meanwhile, we are very happy to publish this article by Aleksey Sahnin, which aims to disrupt the hatred coming from both sides. Translated from the original Russian on MoskvichMag.ru

Azerbaijanis and Armenians facing off in Moscow in July 2020. Photo credit: BBC Russia

Armenians and Azerbaijanis are the two largest national diasporas in Moscow. According to official statistics, they number 106 thousand and 57 thousand people, respectively. According to unofficial estimates, the figures are much larger. The Dean of Moscow’s Azerbaijani community, Shamil Tagiyev estimates the number of his compatriots in the city at half a million people. Estimates of the number of people with Armenian roots start at 500,000 and go up to 1 million.

In any case, this is a huge number of people. Today, when the war has actually resumed in Nagorno-Karabakh, they have become hostages of the situation. Emotions are running high. In July, when armed clashes also took place on the border of Armenia and Azerbaijan, these emotions spilled out into the streets of Moscow. At that time, Armenian trucks were not allowed to enter Moscow’s largest agro-industrial market, Food City, owned by Azerbaijani billionaires Goda Nisanov and Zarakh Iliev. There were were several violent fights and attacks by representatives of the two diasporas on each other. Videos have appeared online of young people attacking drivers of cars with Armenian license plates or, conversely, beating Azerbaijanis in a Moscow park.

Now the military engagement has reached a much larger scale than in July. Hundreds of soldiers and civilians are being killed at the front in Karabakh. But in 2,500 kilometers to the North, in Moscow, new clashes have not yet been recorded.

Diaspora

Moscow authorities have realized the scale of the threat that will hang over the city if it becomes another theater of war between the two formerly fraternal peoples. And they started preventing possible violence. “The Azerbaijani community of Moscow calls on its compatriots not to participate in the dissemination of false information and to exercise restraint at this emotional moment for every Azerbaijani,” the website of the Azerbaijani community in Moscow says. According to its leader Shamil Tagiyev, authoritative figures in the diaspora are actively working to explain to Azerbaijani youth that “it is unacceptable to transfer the conflict to the territory of third countries. Thanks to this, the situation remains very calm. There are and won’t be any clashes.”

The leadership of the Armenian Diaspora is also carrying out similar work with the mediation of the Russian authorities. On October 1, they took part in a meeting with leaders of the Azerbaijani community in Moscow at the Federal Agency for ethnic Affairs. As a result, a joint statement was issued. “Addressing our compatriots, we strongly ask them to remain calm, show respect for each other and not give in to provocations. It is necessary to carefully assess the situation, respect and comply with the laws of our country, and preserve interethnic harmony,” it says.

However, the leaders of both communities have taken positions that fully fit into the official line of the governments of Azerbaijan and Armenia. The leaders of the diasporas place all responsibility for the renewed war on the “enemy”, though qualifying this with the caveat that they do not consider the entire neighboring people an enemy, but only their political leadership. Among Moscow’s Azerbaijanis and Armenians, there are those who are willing to go to the conflict zone as volunteers. But national organizations are cautious about this issue. Shamil Tagiyev says that in response to such appeals, they explain that Russian citizens are prohibited from participating in military operations in third countries, as they would be penalized under the criminal article on mercenaries. Therefore, Azerbaijanis with a Russian passport are directly prohibited from such actions, and citizens of Azerbaijan are sent to the Embassy. However, so far Tagiyev does not know any real volunteers, but “there is no such need”.

I was told at the headquarters of Aid for Artsakh [the Armenian name of Nagorno Karabakh], established under the Union of Armenians of Russia (SAR), that the most ardent patriots are advised to go to their homeland and defend it there, and not create conflicts on the streets of Moscow. However, this is said only in private, and the SAR itself does not engage in any recruitment of volunteers. However, the Armenian Embassy also spoke about the desire of many Armenians to go to their historical homeland as volunteers. There was an immediate reaction from the Azerbaijani community, which sent several appeals to the Investigative Committee of Russia [an organ duplicating the role of the Attorney General] and the FSB.

The official statement of the SAR about the volunteers says in a streamlined way: “since the early morning of September 27, the Union of Armenians of Russia has received thousands of appeals from our compatriots and friends from all regions of Russia, expressing extreme concern about the escalation and actual start of the war and readiness to provide any support to the people and the defense army of Artsakh. We are confident that the Armenian Armed forces and, if necessary, the worldwide Armenian diaspora are capable of fighting back against any attack on the freedom and independence of Artsakh and Armenia.”

But the SAR, unlike the Azerbaijani community, is busy collecting money and humanitarian supplies for the residents of Karabakh. On the organization’s website and in its Facebook group, there are details for collecting donations and news about the first shipment of humanitarian supplies. “Artsakh, hold on! We are together! The first batch of humanitarian aid from the Union of Armenians of Russia is on its way. Everything that is necessary for the civilian population, the elderly, for women and children who are forced to stay in bomb shelters, is being sent to Stepanakert.” The Azerbaijani community in Moscow answered my question that “unlike Armenia, Azerbaijan has enough resources and there is no need for additional assistance.”

Official representatives of the Azerbaijani and Armenian communities do not trust each other. They accuse each other of aggressive intentions and warn of possible provocations from opponents.

Enmity

The nationalist rhetoric of the warring parties is fully reproduced by their diaspora organizations in Moscow. It also finds fertile ground in the minds of ordinary people. “I can personally say: I hate the leadership of Azerbaijan and the leadership of Turkey with all my heart and soul for plunging both their children and our children into war,” a volunteer from the Armenian Center for Aid for Artsakh told me. Many Azerbaijanis respond in kind: “The war was started by the criminal regime of Pashinyan. What kind of peace can we talk about now while the enemies occupy our homeland?» — says one of them in an interview.

The ethnic conflict between Azerbaijanis and Armenians has a long history. For most of the Soviet period, it seemed to have disappeared, but during perestroika it flared up again. The bloody Karabakh war left a terrible mark on the historical memory of both peoples.

A journalist from Moscow Artur Avakov tells a typical case:

“My father and all his relatives are Armenians from Baku. We also have many relatives left in Armenia. But I was born and raised in Moscow. And then, in 1993, when there was fighting in Karabakh, my grandfather and I went to the market. My grandfather stopped at a counter and started talking to the salesman. I did not immediately realize that this person was Azerbaijani. They spoke quite amiably. They remembered how they lived peacefully in the Soviet years. I remember this conversation; that, they said, this is what the politicians brought us to, and so on. And at some point, the seller handed me a pear as a gift. We thanked them, said good-bye, and went. And just 20 meters later my grandfather squeezed my hand and said: “Throw away the pear. It could be poisoned”.”

Russian social networks are full of hate speech. “What are they doing on the territory of Azerbaijan? This will happen to everyone who comes to our lands with weapons in their hands,” an Azerbaijani user writes about the artillery shelling of Stepanakert. “These are keyboard heroes, people, who haven’t smelled gunpowder in their lives, haven’t heard what automatic shots are,” explains Shirvan Kerimov, a member of the Council of the Elders of the Federal Community of Azerbaijanis in Russia.

“While in Moscow, our people often become more conservative than back at home, explains an Azerbaijani writer of Gunel Movlud Imanov. —Many of them get to experience racism first hand and find themselves in social isolation. Therefore, they communicate primarily with fellow Azerbaijanis and rarely leave the community. While young people in Baku embrace new, global values and mores, in Russia our people often cling to religion and nationalism. The same thing happens in the West — Arabs, Kurds, Pakistanis find themselves in a cultural ghetto and end up rarely communicating with locals. Fundamentalism flourishes in such circumstances. That’s true of Russians, too: they become more patriotic while abroad.”

Gunel wrote an autobiographical novel “Camp”, which tells about the nightmarish life of Azerbaijani refugees in a tent camp. The writer spent several years of her childhood there, after her family fled the regions of Azerbaijan occupied by Armenian troops. The novel is currently being prepared for a Russian publication. But the book, which was well received in Europe, caused a very mixed reaction in Azerbaijan. Gunel describes the terrible consequences of the war. Her characters, who find themselves on the social bottom, deprived of their usual way of life, crushed by poverty and humiliation, lose their humanity. They are often cruel, treacherous, and mean. Girls and boys are raped by other camp inhabitants; they cheat and rob each other. War turns many of these people into monsters. The novel is written not as an epic about a national tragedy, but as an anti-war pamphlet, but in the laconic language of children’s photographic memories.

“After my novel, I have had a difficult time with my parents,” says Gunel. “Only my mother hasn’t said anything yet because she can’t read the Latin script.” The rest of the family has turned away from me. They did not forgive this “betrayal”.” The age-old hostility and distrust is targeted not only at “strangers” but also at “their own”, who dared to retreat from the sacred national idols.

Although there pacifist-minded Armenians and Azerbaijanis in Moscow, their voice is almost inaudible: “They don’t talk about it, so as not to come out as traitors in the eyes of society.”

“My uncle was conscripted into the army yesterday,” says Ashot, a Muscovite. — Of course, I sit and read the news about Artsakh and this whole nightmare without stopping. Of course, this really hurts me. Dozens, hundreds of people are killed every day. Guys my age. No piece of land is worth it.”

Ashot speaks Russian without any accent. But he has not lost his connections to Armenia, goes to visit relatives, studies Armenian culture. In principle, on the issue of the fate of Nagorno-Karabakh, he stands on the Armenian point of view: “This land is inhabited by Armenians and, probably, we should proceed from this.”

Although the Ashot family has never evaluated people by their nationality, there is a difference between the worldview of different generations. “When my grandmother, for example, found out that my best friend is Azerbaijani, she looked at it very askance. But I have never felt any tension in dealing with Azerbaijanis. For me, it doesn’t matter what nationality a person is, what’s inside them is important.”

Ashot and his Azerbaijani friend often troll each other. “We used to joke about our ethnic feud. But now we’ve stopped. People are dying there, it’s too serious.” When I ask if he can imagine himself as a volunteer in the ranks of the defenders of Karabakh, Ashot is silent for a few seconds.

“Honestly, no, I can’t. I constantly call my relatives, I’m very worried about them… But to the front with weapons… No, I can’t. Not because I like Armenia less. But if I do that, I’ll become one of those who exacerbate this problem. I just said that this war did not affect our friendship, but if I take a machine gun and go to shoot Azerbaijanis, it turns out that I will probably shoot my best friend’s relatives.”

Such a way of thinking at a time of anger and the rise of nationalism is unlikely to be shared by the majority. Still, it’s not uncommon — in interviews and even in comments on social media. As a rule, this is the opinion of young people who did live through the war of the 1990s.

“I am a pacifist, so I have no desire to take up arms. War is not normal, ” says Narek from Yerevan, who has lived in Moscow for ten years. — I think this idea is shared by many. I hope we are a majority, maybe a quiet one, and I hope that we will also be heard. But I think about these guys all the time. They are my peers, many even younger than me. These are the guys I went to school with. And it’s even a little strange that I could be in their shoes. But this is the reality: zoomers are dying in the Boomer war.”

Kirva

“You know, there was such an institution in Karabakh — Kirva, — says Gunel Imanova. — Kirva is an Armenian who held the son of an Azerbaijani when he was circumcised. It’s like being a godfather. Such a person was very much loved, almost idolized. There was even a proverb in Karabakh: “you renounced Allah, but you couldn’t renounce your Kirva”. And I think that this Institute has not been forgotten yet. And my own pacifist thoughts come not only from modern values, from pacifist classics, but also from a friendly, peaceful past with Armenians. Even the stories of refugees and massacres in the 1990s on both sides are full of anecdotes about Armenians helping Azerbaijanis and vice versa.”

Gunel tells about his conversation with her mother, who has lived through the war and seen the destruction of the house she built with her own hands. She lost everything. For many years, she lived in a miserable tent camp for refugees. Now she is crying, saying that she didn’t want to see the war again. “But you know what propaganda is,” Gunel suddenly ends the story about the conversation with her mother.

A group of young Azerbaijani activists published an anti-war Manifesto on the Internet. “We do not see our future or the resolution of the conflict in further military escalations and spreading mutual hatred. Recent military clashes in NK don’t do any good for the purpose of the establishment of peace in the region. We do not even want to envision the risks of being dragged into a full-scale war, as we understand what kind of implications it could have for our societies and future generations. We strongly condemn every move taken to prolong the conflict and deepen hatred between the two peoples. We want to look back and take the steps necessary to rebuild the trust between our societies and the youth. We reject every nationalist and state-of-war narratives that exclude any possibility of us living together again on this soil. We call for peacebuilding and solidarity initiatives.”

I ask one of the signatories of this Manifesto, Bahruz Samedov, what these “steps in the field of peace and solidarity” can be. In response, he tells about an Azerbaijani activist who had to go to an international camp organized with the money of one of the European funds. When he received the invitation and told about it at the family dinner, his younger brother dropped the spoon and asked in amazement: “And there you will see a real Armenian?» The real problem, Bahruz says, is that for almost 30 years after the war, most Azerbaijanis have not seen a single Armenian at all. For them, there is only the image of the enemy dehumanized by military propaganda. It must be the same on the other side.


Armenian-Azerbaijani friendship. Courtesy: author

Between the two former fraternal republics today is a front line that can only be crossed in full military gear under enemy fire or in a column of prisoners of war. It’s hard to expect that people there will be able to just talk or even look at each other in the near future. But Moscow is home to half a million people and half a million others — the largest diasporic communities of these two nations. It is a pity that diaspora organizations only broadcast the nationalist rhetoric of their governments, which send cannon fodder to the trenches. In Moscow, it may be a little easier for Armenians and Azerbaijanis to communicate to each other. Here you don’t need to cross the front line yet. Perhaps then the old Karabakh institution that Gunel Imanova told about — Kirva-would have been revived in this city. And the Armenians and Azerbaijanis would not feel like enemies. This, perhaps, would make a greater contribution to the “preservation of national cultures” than all of the city’s folk festivals and official state patriotism combined.

Alexey Sakhnin is a Russian activist and a member of the Left Front. He was one of the leaders of the anti-Putin protest movement from 2011 to 2013. He later emigrated to Sweden and lived as an exile there, before returning to Russia to continue his work as a left oppositional activist and journalist. He is also a member of the Progressive International Council.

 

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