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06 b08 21 - Nagorno Garabagh
Top 5 Myths Circulating about the Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict-
By Adil Baguirov, Ph.D.
Often disputes and conflicts arise due to misinformation and provocations. Once the conflict starts, these myths perpetuate, serve as the basis for additional propaganda and misinformation of the people, and especially the younger generation, to whom the torch of hatred is being passed. Over time, these myths become the unquestionable foundation for publications and media reports, which only aggravates the relations further. Unfortunately, Karabakh war is an example in the case, which many observers blame on provocations and propaganda, and the resulting "myths". The aim of this brief overview is to correct and straighten out some of the key facts. Of course a more comprehensive scholarly analysis should be done, to fill this important void and alleviate at least some of the grievances.

Myth #1: The Armenian-Azerbaijani war over Karabakh started with Sumgait (Sumqayit).

Such misinformation has been perpetrated ever since the tragic provocations that became to be known as "Sumgait pogroms". In fact, it would be not surprising to hear that many people in the West first heard of Azerbaijan in connection with the "Sumgait pogroms." It has been widely spread that Azerbaijanis massacred peaceful Armenian residents in the city of Sumgait (city close to the capital, Baku) on February 28-29, 1988, and that this incident triggered the conflict.

Armenian propaganda, which virtually shaped all the reports before and during the conflict, was quick to blame the entire Azerbaijani nation for these events, and inflated the numbers of casualties to at least the high 60-70s, although sometimes more. They also claimed that all who died were of Armenian ethnicity. These victims were quickly labeled as the "first blood" of the renewed conflict over Karabakh, and in its extreme elevated to allegation of genocide.

However, the true account of events contrasts a bit. This war is about aggression of Armenia with one aim in mind: acquisition of Azerbaijan’s territory. The reality is that the first casualties of the Karabakh war were two Azerbaijani youths, Bakhtiyar Uliyev, 16, and Ali Hajiyev, 23, shot dead on February 24, 1988, in Karabakh region (i.e., four days prior to the Sumgait events).

Moreover, even before these murders, there was the fact of expulsion of Azerbaijani population from Armenia, particularly from the Megri and Kafan districts, by February 1988 numbering in thousands, even according to official statistics. However, this was seldom reported in the media, and even concealed by the authorities, including the Azerbaijani Communist Party Central Committee, and therefore virtually unknown, especially beyond the region. The combination of both factors triggered what has become known as the "Sumgait pogroms", where a total of 32 people died, 6 of them Azerbaijani and 26 Armenian, according to the official investigation reports by the USSR Prosecutor General’s office.

However, even lesser known was the fact that several Armenian nationals actively participated in the mob as well as the involvement of the KGB (which later confiscated all the relevant court materials from Azerbaijani authorities and transferred several of the mobsters out of the republic).

While the provocation and incrimination of Azerbaijan and its people was largely successful, by those who masterminded the plot, it was never complete, since Azerbaijani people refused to participate in any atrocities, and actually were involved in saving the lives of many of their Armenian neighbors. Otherwise, the casualties would, indeed, have been much higher in that large city with population of 300,000, or started out in the cities with larger numbers of Armenian population, such as Baku, or even smaller and thus defenseless, such as in Gabala.

Myth #2: Stalin gave Karabakh (Qarabagh) to Azerbaijan.

This is a gross falsification; the truth is quite the opposite. After the Soviets took over Azerbaijan in 1920, right from the beginning, Azerbaijan began losing territory to Armenia [see the map of the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic (ADR), e.g., one prepared in 1920 by Russian MFA or the one presented in Versailles Peace Conference (France) in 1919]. Azerbaijan’s territory was reduced from 114,000 sq. km. during ADR (1918-1920) -- which was, along with Armenia, de facto recognized by the League of Nations in those borders in 1920 -- to its present size of 86,600 sq. km., which is actually less now because of the Armenian military occupation.

The Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast (NKAO), inside Azerbaijan, was created in July 1923, after years of intense debates and opposition from the Azerbaijani people to its transfer. An oblast, the Russian term for "province," was purely a Soviet administrative division, which meant that in all aspects it was subordinated to the union republic, Azerbaijan SSR.

Unlike an "oblast", such as Karabakh (NKAO), Naxcivan, for example, was an "autonomous republic" (ASSR within Azerbaijan SSR), which had much broader rights, its own parliament, constitution and other privileges.

Carving out enclaves in the various Soviet republics exacerbated ethnic tensions and was deliberately practiced. It served the Soviet Union well by distracting the republics from seeking their own independence because they were always occupied with ethnic tensions brewing inside their own borders.

Myth #3. Stalin gave Naxcivan (Nakhchivan) to Azerbaijan.

The truth is that Nakhchivan, just as Karabakh, is historically part of Azerbaijan. After Soviets gained power (1920), the foundation stone for the autonomy of Naxcivan was laid by the Moscow and Kars international treaties of March 16, 1921 and October 13, 1921, respectively. These treaties are still in force. They stipulated that Naxcivan remain within Azerbaijan, a legal fact that prevented the Soviets from giving Naxcivan to Armenia. This did not, however, prevent from giving small bits of territory to Armenia in the 1920s and 1930, as well as occupation of the Kerki village in the north of Naxcivan by Armenia in 1990. The status of Naxcivan Autonomous Republic (ASSR) within Azerbaijan SSR was established in 1924.

Naxcivan used to be "connected" to the rest of Azerbaijan by the Zangezur district, which was given to Armenia in December 1920. Effectively, assigning this strip (46 km) to Armenia separated Azerbaijan in two sections cutting off Turkey from the other Turkic-speaking peoples in Central Asia.

Zangezur was continuously emptied of its indigenous residents. According to the official Russian censuses, in 1897 its population was 51.7% Azerbaijani but by 1926, the population had declined to 6.4%. During the same period, the ratio of Armenians increased from 46.1% to 87%! Tens of thousands of Azerbaijanis had to flee for their lives in much the same way as they have had to do in the 1990s.

By the way, as more documents see light and archives get open, the researchers have discovered shocking USSR Council of Ministers decrees, dated 23 December 1947 (No. 4083) and 10 March 1948 (No. 754), signed by Stalin himself, with advise from top officials L. Beria and A. Mikoyan, ordering a forced "resettlement" of more than 100,000 Azerbaijani nationals from Armenian SSR to Azerbaijan SSR in the period of 1948-1951 (half of them died in the process). Settling in their homes were to be incoming Armenian expatriates from abroad....

Myth #4. Karabakh’s regional center town, Khankandi (Xankandi), is Stepanakert.

The issue of the names of the cities, towns and villages in the region has also played a role in the conflict. It is well known that proper names (toponyms) are representative of the local cultures and history. Well, in order to erase reference to Azerbaijani historic presence, more than 2,000 Azerbaijani towns and villages were renamed throughout the century, mostly in what is today Republic of Armenia. One of the main examples was the town of Khankandi (Village of the khan, in translation), provincial center of Karabakh (which incidentally means "black garden" in translation from Azerbaijani), which was renamed to Stepanakert in the Soviet period.

According to the Encyclopedia Britannica:

Xankandi, formerly STEPANAKERT, city, southwestern Azerbaijan. Situated at the foot of the eastern slopes of the Karabakh Range, the city was founded after the October Revolution (1917) on the site of the village of Khankendy and was renamed Stepanakert in 1923 for Stepan Shaumyan, a Baku Communist leader. After Azerbaijan [re]gained independence the name was changed [back] to Xankandi, though Armenians continue to call the city Stepanakert.

It has a long history of abuse in the mass media worldwide. Despite the fact that the city was renamed back to its historic name of Khankandi after Azerbaijan’s independence from USSR, some of the media outlets stubbornly call it by its old name, which is of course incorrect. First, because newsmakers do not honor the legal name of the city, which is under Azerbaijan’s jurisdiction, and thus showing their bias. Second, because honoring one of the biggest murderers of the period, responsible for the deaths of thousands of people (in March 1918, up to 30,000 Azerbaijanis were killed in Baku alone [to read more:]), is deemed as appropriate and right; while legal, historically-correct name is ignored.

Myth #5. Nagorno-Karabakh is an independent Republic.

These days, this term is beginning to appear in the press along with the acronym "NKR." No country in the world, including Armenia, has recognized the legitimacy of this entity in Karabakh region of Azerbaijan as a sovereign state.

In truth, this region has been seized by separatists who are militarily occupying territory which is lawfully Azerbaijan’s. The international community, including the United Nations, has repeatedly condemned the Armenian military occupation of Azerbaijan’s territory and demanded immediate and complete "withdrawal of all occupying forces" (UN Security Council resolutions 822, 853, 874 and 884), while US Government "has expressed its deep concern about the offensive to the highest level of the government of Armenia," all since 1993. More recently, the international community condemned the "elections" being held on the occupied territories.

In the guise of seeking independence from Azerbaijan, Armenians are really attempting to attach Karabakh to Armenia, by whatever means necessary. In March 1998, and then again in 2003, hard-liner Robert Kocharyan, a resident of Karabakh region, and technically an Azerbaijani citizen, was even elected President of Armenia, in clear violation of international law.

The chronology of the legal acts passed by the Parliament of Armenia over Karabakh since the first days of the war was the following:

* On 15 June 1988, the Armenian SSR Supreme Soviet [Parliament, highest legislative organ of the Republic] passed an (illegal) resolution granting the (illegal) request (February 1988) of the Nagorno Karabakh Autonomous Oblast (NKAO) Oblast Soviet (Council) to unite the NKAO with Armenia.

* Then, on December 1, 1989, Parliament of Armenian SSR issued decree on unification of NKAO as well as Shaumyan and Khanlar districts (not part of NKAO) to Armenia, thus infringing Azerbaijan’s sovereignty and territorial integrity once more.

* On January 9, 1990, Armenian SSR Parliament adopted economic-financial plan (budget) of Armenia and included Karabakh (NKAO) into the plan.

* On August 23, 1990, NKAO of Azerbaijan was "recognized" as an integral part of the Republic of Armenia in its declaration of sovereignty.

* On July 1, 1992, Parliament of now independent Armenia forbidden the country’s leaders from signing any international documents in which Nagorno-Karabakh figures as part of Azerbaijan.

It should be stressed that all of the above legislatures are still on the books and have not been rescinded even after the collapse of the Soviet Union (in fact, on February 2003, the Yerevan Court in Armenia reiterated the above decrees, and viewed Karabakh region as part of Armenia, with all the privileges bestowed upon its residents, including R.Kocharyan). The illegal declarations were immediately proclaimed null and void by both Azerbaijan SSR and USSR Supreme Soviet (Parliament), the supreme legislative authority at that time, as well as by the Milli Majlis (Parliament) of independent Azerbaijan Republic. An autonomous oblast (province), such as NKAO, could not secede, especially without approval of both USSR and Azerbaijan Parliament. It is also important to note that the Supreme Soviet (Parliament) of Azerbaijan legally abolished the NKAO on November 1991. Despite the openly pro-Armenian attitude of President Gorbachev and the USSR Supreme Soviet, both in the end agreed that Karabakh had to remain within Azerbaijan and not be awarded to Armenia

[revised article, previously published in Azerbaijan International magazine, Spring 1998, #6.1][revised article, previously published in Azerbaijan International magazine, Spring 1998, #6.1]

Adil Baguirov is the founder of -- Virtual Azerbaijan Resources (VAR) website (since 1995), -- first Khojaly Commemoration Website (since 1997), Habarlar-L Caspian Distribution List, Yeni Dostlar Network, and a frequent contributor on Azerbaijan-related matters.
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