By Representative Adam B. Schiff
When the Soviet Union broke apart twenty years ago, simmering ethnic and regional conflicts that had been suppressed for decades reemerged with great suddenness. Concentrated in the Caucasus, the fighting has ebbed and flowed over the years, with several of the conflicts left unresolved, or “frozen,” as American and European policymakers have been preoccupied with crises in the Middle East and South Asia, and economic woes at home.
The most bitter of these clashes, and the one most likely to flare anew, is the standoff between Azerbaijan and Nagorno-Karabakh or “Artsakh,” an almost exclusively Armenian area that was placed under Azerbaijani administration in 1923 by the Soviet Government, despite centuries of cultural, linguistic and religious ties to Armenia.
In 1988, as Soviet central control was beginning to weaken under Mikhail Gorbachev, the Armenian population of Nagorno-Karabakh renewed their longstanding struggle for independence from Azerbaijan, touching off six years of conflict that would claim tens of thousands of casualties on both sides and push thousands more from their homes by the time a cease-fire was reached in May 1994.
The years since the end of the war have been uneasy – punctuated by frequent sniper attacks by Azeri forces along the line of contact and an unremitting stream of threats from a broad array of senior Azerbaijani government officials, including a threat to shoot down civilian airliners should the Nagorno Karabakh Republic proceed with plans to reopen Stepanakert Airport. In addition, the people of Artsakh face the daily threat from the estimated 100,000 land mines that were planted during the fighting of the early 1990s, and which remain largely uncleared.
Since 1992, the United States, France and Russia have spearheaded international efforts to mediate the impasse through the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s “Minsk Group.” Despite repeated efforts, including a renewed declaration of purpose by the three co-chairs in May 2012, the process has been stalled by repeated Azerbaijani demands for preconditions and added pressure on the Armenian side.
The volatility of the situation was greatly heightened last month by the egregious repatriation and release of Ramil Safarov, an Azerbaijani army captain who had confessed to the savage 2004 axe murder of Armenian army lieutenant Gurgen Margaryan, while the latter slept. At the time, the two were participating in a NATO Partnership for Peace exercise in Budapest, Hungary. After the murder, Safarov was sentenced to life in prison by a Hungarian court.
On August 31, Safarov was sent home to Azerbaijan, purportedly to serve out the remainder of his sentence. Instead of prison, he was greeted as a hero – promenading through the streets of Baku carrying a bouquet of roses. President Ilham Aliyev immediately pardoned Safarov and he was promoted to the rank of major and given a new apartment and eight years of back pay.
Safarov’s rapturous welcome in Baku is testament to the degree of anti-Armenian hatred that is being incited in contemporary Azerbaijan. That a man who nearly decapitated a sleeping comrade could be treated as a national hero is so inexplicable and appalling, it vindicates the concern of many Armenians that the forced imposition of Azeri sovereignty over the free people of Arstakh would result in a bloodbath.
The Aliyev government, for its part, by so publicly embracing a confessed murderer, has deliberately provoked all Armenians and defied the rule of law – while at the same time foreclosing any progress towards a resolution of the status of Artsakh in the foreseeable future. Azerbaijan’s transgression must carry a price, but it should also serve to remind us of the pressing need to ensure the rights of the Artsakh people to determine their own destiny.
I have long supported self-determination for the people of Nagorno-Karabakh and I believe that unless the United States and its Minsk Group partners take concerted efforts to resolve the status of Nagorno-Karabakh in a way that reflects the will of the people of Artsakh, the prospect for renewed fighting and horrific casualties will grow. It is in everybody’s interest to see this matter settled and it should be a diplomatic priority for 2013.
Years of fighting and economic isolation have left Nagorno-Karabakh seriously underdeveloped. With the assistance of the Armenian-American community, I have been pressing for USAID to devote more assistance to Artsakh. While I have succeeded in getting the amount for next year more than doubled (to $5 million) in the State Department funding bill pending in the House of Representatives, the need is much greater and more aid will be necessary.
Building a strong, independent Artsakh is only half of the equation, however. Azerbaijan must also be reminded that the price for its actions is high. Azerbaijan treasures the security assistance that it receives from Washington, not because it needs the money (it does not), but because it signifies a certain closeness in the bilateral relationship. By cutting off military aid to Azerbaijan, the United States would signal its disgust with the Safarov affair, while also reminding Aliyev that the United States will not tolerate any acts of aggression against Armenia or Artsakh.
The people of Artsakh – overwhelmingly Armenian and overwhelmingly Christian – cannot be allowed to fall into the hands of Aliyev. By celebrating a murderer, he and his country have shown the world their true nature and made a compelling case for hastening full recognition of independent Artsakh.