Genocide Debate Complicates Search for Karabakh Peace
by Clare Doyle 7 March 2002
BAKU, 6 March (EurasiaNet)--One of the bloodiest episodes of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict was the capture of the town of Khojaly by Karabakh Armenian forces, during which hundreds of Azeri civilians were reportedly killed. Ten years after the tragedy, officials in Baku are asserting that the Khojaly events constitute genocide. Such rhetoric seems destined to complicate international efforts to promote a political settlement to the Karabakh conflict.
The OSCE Minsk Group is preparing a new set of proposals designed to produce a political solution to the Nagorno Karabakh conflict. The OSCE's chairman, Portuguese Foreign Minister Jaime Gama, was in Armenia on 5 March, striving to get negotiations back on track.
The continuing debate over the Khojaly events, however, indicates that Armenia-Azerbaijan tension remains high. Rhetoric employed by both Armenian and Azerbaijani officials also suggests that both sides remain unprepared to compromise.
Azerbaijan commemorated the 10th anniversary of the loss of Khojaly, a town located within Karabakh, on 26 February. Traditionally, the anniversary has been commemorated in Azerbaijan with a presidential address, a parliamentary debate and repeated television broadcasts on the tragedy. This year, however, the main focus of the commemoration appeared to be the campaign to have the Khojaly events recognised internationally as an act of genocide.
In an address printed by the Bakinskii Rabochi
newspaper, President Heidar Aliyev described the Khojaly events as "the bloodiest page in the policy of ethnic cleansing and genocide regularly perpetrated by Armenian chauvinists."
"Today, the government and the people of Azerbaijan are facing the task of informing countries [around the world], parliaments and the general public about the Khojaly genocide... and achieving the recognition of all this as an act of true genocide," Aliyev continued.
At the same time, the Azerbaijani parliament issued a statement that called on international organisations and governments to recognize the "genocide of Azerbaijani people in Khojaly." The parliamentary statement went on to urge the international community to "finally name the aggressor and render assistance to liberate the territories occupied by the Republic of Armenia, and help refugees and displaced migrants return to their homes."
During the Karabakh conflict, Armenian forces captured and continue to occupy roughly 20 percent of Azerbaijan's territory. Officials in Yerevan vigorously dispute Azerbaijan's version of events, and say that under no circumstances would Armenia consent to a peace deal that leaves Karabakh under Baku's jurisdiction.
The capture of Khojaly occurred on 26 February 1992, which was the fourth anniversary of the anti-Armenian pogroms in the Azerbaijani city of Sumgait. Some observers suggests that revenge was one motive for the killing of civilians in Khojaly.
According to some reports, advancing Karabakh Armenian troops were able to overwhelm Azerbaijani forces defending Khojaly. In a chaotic retreat, Azerbaijani troops found themselves intermingled with hundreds of civilian refugees as they all fled to the nearby town of Agdam. Armenian forces fired on this group as they crossed open ground. Estimates vary widely, but it is clear that at least 200 and possibly more than 600 people were killed, among them many women and children.
The Khojaly events delivered a serious blow to the morale of Azerbaijani's fighting in Karabakh. Following the tragedy, Armenians went on to capture a series of crucial strategic positions in rapid succession.
The Azerbaijani use of the term "genocide" seems certain to raise tension in the region. Armenia has long campaigned to have the large-scale killing of Armenians in 1915 by Turkish forces recognized as genocide. Last April, during a commemoration speech, President Robert Kocharian said the 1915 events were "the greatest tragedy" in the nation's history.
The issue has proven extremely sensitive in both Armenia and Azerbaijan. For example, Israel and Armenia were involved in a diplomatic spat after the Israeli ambassador to Yerevan said that while the 1915 killings of Armenians were undoubtedly tragic, they could not be described as genocide. Meanwhile, Azerbaijani media condemned the Iranian ambassador to Baku over his reluctance to describe the Khojaly killings as genocide.
Recent developments connected with the Khojaly debate do not bode well for the OSCE-mediated Karabakh peace talks. The American co-chair of the OSCE Minsk Group, Rudolph Perina, has warned that Azerbaijan and Armenia would lose out on promised aid for reconstruction if the peace process continued to drag on. The co-chairs have called repeatedly on both sides to refrain from war-mongering, and to make efforts to prepare the public for the compromises that will inevitably be part of a peace agreement.
However, the continued debate over claims of genocide are a sign of how little progress Azerbaijan has made in this regard. Authorities in Baku now appear to be more concerned with winning the public relations struggle over Karabakh than they are with making peace on the ground.