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Artillery Row

Don’t forget Armenia

Armenians, once the target of genocide, are under threat again

Arriving at the international airport in Armenia’s capital city Yerevan at 3:30am was a uniquely discombobulating experience. The combination of harassment by entrepreneurial taxi drivers and signs universally adorned in letters alien to a lifelong user of the Latin alphabet left me unable to ground myself in my new surroundings.

Yet as I sat in a quiet corner of the airport awaiting the arrival of my partner, my focus was reorientated by the commanding sight of Mount Ararat. Seeing the snow-dusted twin peaks of Great Ararat and Lesser Ararat as the sun began to rise is one of those rare experiences that makes me understand the use of “breathtaking” as an adjective. To employ a second consecutive cliche, photographs really cannot do it justice.

It was clear why Ararat is revered by Armenians. According to tradition, it is the resting place of Noah’s Ark. Sat in that drab, Soviet-era airport, my staunchly atheist mind reconciled itself to the fact that were religious pseudo-archeologists to find solid evidence of a large ancient ship on or around that glorious mountain, a Yerevantsi conversion may be on the horizon.

But my awe was short-lived. Taking a close interest in Armenia as I have since my university days, I was all too aware that this national monument is located in Turkey. To be clear, I do not intend to make a faux-profound Otto English-esque observation that one of Armenia’s greatest national symbols is not Armenian at all. Nor am I saying that Armenians should have any less reverence for it — it would be absurd for Iranian or Israeli Muslims to downplay the importance of Mecca because it is located within the borders of an historic geopolitical foe.

It is the particular circumstances of why that grand mountain came to be in Turkey and, more importantly, why most Armenians can see but likely never access it, that makes this realisation so gut-wrenching.

109 years ago yesterday (24th April), the Armenian Genocide began in earnest.

Like many mountains and ranges, Ararat has stood at the crossroads of competing tribes for centuries. Once, it was a monument to division between some of history’s monumental empires: the Ottoman, Russian, Persian, and Soviet to name a few. It has been the staging post for rebellions against those empires by both Armenians and Kurds. The border disputes surrounding it today are, historically speaking, normal.

Like Europe’s large continental empires, the Ottoman realm governed a patchwork quilt of different ethnic, religious, and political groups. It was never a multicultural utopia; religious minorities, including those from non-Muslim Abrahamic religions like Christianity (which predominated in Armenia) and Judaism were subject to special taxes. Marginalisation, discrimination, and denial of self-determination for minorities were consistently present. Armenians suffered particularly badly.

But the growth of militant Turkish nationalism, starting in the late 19th Century propelled the oppression of Armenia into genocidal overdrive. Muslim immigrants and refugees were given access to land confiscated from ethnic Armenians beginning in the late 1870s. Many of these refugees sought shelter from lands now occupied by the likes of Russia, Britain, Serbia, and Romania.

Not only were Armenians easy targets to make room for Muslim resettlement, they were also obvious scapegoats. The armistice of 1878 between the defeated Ottomans and their victorious Russian-led opponents contained a provision to guarantee the safety of the Armenian minority. But this merely intensified the ire of Ottoman political and military leadership who now saw Armenians as a set of rogue subjects who gave foreign nations pretext for intervention in Turkish affairs.

Theft of property, forced conversion to Islam and massacres became commonplace over the next two decades. With the creation of Armenian resistance groups like the Armenian Revolutionary Federation in the 1880s and 1890s, the perception of an Armenian threat grew stronger.

From 1891, militias made up of Kurds, Turks, Circassians, and Turkemn loyal to the regime were able to carry out assaults on Armenian population centres with impunity. In the 1890s, at least 100,000 Armenians were murdered and many more fled.

As Ottoman military losses piled up, so did resentment towards the Armenians. Ottoman defeat in the Balkan Wars of the early 1910s provoked fears that Armenia would follow suit by fighting for independence and forcibly expelling Turks from their lands.

After the outbreak of World War One, Ottoman losses in battle against the Russian Empire in 1914 and 1915 were blamed on subversive Armenian civilians and soldiers. Armenian villages were routinely sacked and pillaged by retreating Ottoman forces. After his offensive failure at the Battle of Sarikamish in January 1915, Turkish nationalist Ottoman war minister İsmail Enver Pasha blamed his loyal Armenian troops. He ordered Armenian divisions to be called up so as to disarm and ultimately execute them. Advancing Russian forces regularly found Armenian towns and villages littered with corpses. In the Van region alone, which hosted over 100,000 Armenians before the war, the Russians claimed to have discovered between 50,000 and 60,000 dead.

This was merely the prelude to what became the Armenian Genocide. Pogroms and official deportations were targeted at Armenians in Anatolia, including much of the community’s intellectual class based in Constantinople. This descended into mass murder and deportations in the historic region of Western Armenia, which is home to Mount Ararat. Around one million were sent on death marches into the Syrian desert between 1915 and 1918. At least 100,000 more were forcibly converted to Islam and assimilated into Turkish culture. Waves of Turks were brought in to occupy the lands now cleansed of Armenians.

Like fellow defeated powers Germany, Austria, and Hungary, the Ottoman Empire was forced to negotiate a treaty of punishment at the end of the First World War.

The Treaty of Sèvres, signed in 1920, signalled the end for the Ottoman Empire with the creation of the first Armenian Republic, the Kingdom of Hejaz (later absorbed into Saudi Arabia), British mandates in Iraq, Transjordan, and Palestine, French mandates in Syria and Lebanon, and the handling of several Mediterranean islands over to Greece. Reflecting the growing post-war international consensus, the treaty established ambitions to give self-determination to national minorities like the Kurds and create processes for these nations to peacefully negotiate disputes under the arbitration of the Allied powers and League of Nations.

But in a sign of things to come, these ambitions were laid to waste. Long before Germany plunged the world into darkness while embarking on a revenge mission for its national humiliation, Turkey did just that in its local neighbourhood.

Like most humiliated countries, Turkey’s nationalist movement needed groups of people to blame for the Ottoman Empire’s failures. Fellow Muslim Arabs were not suitable and were now mostly under military control by the British and the French. But in the Anatolian region which formed the empire’s core, large populations of Christian Greeks and Armenians provided perfect foils.

Turkey’s war of independence delivered the new nation a perfect pretext to complete its cleansing and extermination of Armenians in the western part of their homeland. The First Armenian Republic was liquidated in 1921, partitioned between Turkey and the new Soviet Union.

Soviet Armenia did welcome Armenian survivors of the genocide. Many also fled to Europe and the United States. The protection of the Soviet umbrella largely shielded Armenians from further Turkish aggression. Indeed, many Armenians and Turkic Azeris lived peacefully together in the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Region, an Armenian-majority sub-division of Soviet Azerbaijan.

But the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and with it, the new found independence of Armenia and Azerbaijan reignited this conflict. In 1993, ethnic Armenians took control of the region and unilaterally declared the independence of the Republic of Artsakh. This breakaway state was not recognised by any UN member countries, not even Armenia. There was never any legal or diplomatic controversy that this was a breakaway movement within sovereign Azerbaijani territory.

Azerbaijan’s economic and diplomatic clout grew significantly during the 1990s, 2000s, and 2010s. The oil-rich nation had established itself as a crucial non-Russian and non-Gulf energy supplier to Europe. Its desire to retake the de facto independent Nagorno-Karabakh was checked by Russian power in the region. That was until 2020, when Azeri forces liberated much of the land surrounding the historical Armenian region, leaving Artaskh cut off from the world save for a narrow supply corridor to Armenia guarded by Russian peacekeepers.

With its brutal and unsuccessful invasion of Ukraine in 2022, the Russians revealed the true weakness of their potemkin military. The Azerbaijanis knew that the Russians would not prevent them from retaking Artsakh and in 2023, the republic dissolved in the face of a short military offensive.

The Azerbaijiani government pledged that Armenians in the area could safely remain with all the rights of Azeri citizens. But the cultural memory of the genocide and continuing discrimination against Armenians in Azerbaijan understandably rendered that promise worthless for most of Karabakh’s Armenians. This was made all the more powerful by Azerbaijan’s efforts to restrict supplies of food and water through the Lachin corridor between 2020 and 2023, and reports that Azerbaijanis planned to build large new detention facilities to house Armenian males.

Only a handful remained with more than 100,000 fleeing for Armenia. After occupying Artsakh’s abandoned capital city, Stepanakert, the Azerbaijanis have made good on their pledge by demolishing Armenian monuments and arresting Artsakh’s political leaders. Reports suggest that they have also confiscated the passports of remaining Armenian residents and issued maps of the capital with one of its main streets renamed after Enver Pasha, one of the genocide’s key architects.

The question after the reoccupation of Nagorno-Karabakh is whether Armenia is next in the firing line. For centuries, Turkish nationalists have seen Armenians as a wedge preventing the unification of Turks in Anatolia and the Caucuses. After retaking Nagorno-Karabakh, the Azerbaijani president has reiterated calls for a land corridor linking the bulk of his nation to the Nakhchivan enclave, which is surrounded by Turkish and Armenian territory.

With Russian power in the region fatally undermined, this is a profoundly dangerous moment for Armenia. Diplomatic efforts to bolster relations with NATO and European Union countries are welcome but they risk being too little too late. And the stakes could not be higher. Turkey and Azerbijan expressly deny that a genocide of the Armenians ever took place during and after the First World War. Neither country has shown any respect for the rights of Armenians when entertaining their dream of Turkic reunification. A direct conflict would be as existential for Armenia as the wars being fought by Ukraine and Israel.

The process of reconciliation and creating a lasting peace starts by acknowledging history. Only 35 countries officially recognise the Armenian Genocide. I felt a constant, palpable sense of shame throughout my visit to the Armenian Genocide museum in Yerevan that the United Kingdom is not one of those countries. The need for wider recognition is all the more pressing when one realises that even Adolf Hitler acknowledged the genocide in 1939. Not as a tribute to the fact of Armenia’s suffering, but as a blueprint for what he was about to do in Poland:

I have placed my death-head formations in readiness – for the present only in the East – with orders to them to send to death mercilessly and without compassion, men, women, and children of Polish derivation and language. Only thus shall we gain the living space (lebensraum) which we need. Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?

So as the growing violence, chaos, and brutality of international politics dominate the headlines, do not forget Armenia. Its almost three million people live in the morbidly beautiful shadow of Mount Ararat, a symbol of Armenian nationhood and the oppression of its people.

There are many who would jump at the opportunity to finish what was started in the 1910s and cast aside the Armenian people in pursuit of Turkish nationalism, but there are all too few willing to defend their would-be victims. We cannot, we must not, walk by on the other side if Armenia and her people are once again threatened by genocidal intent.

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