Dr. Artyom Tonoyan

Zohrab Center Presents New Book on Russian Press Coverage of Karabakh Conflict

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By Florence Avakian

NEW YORK — The Zohrab Information Center, after almost two years, returned to its in-person meetings at the Armenian Diocese in New York, and Zohrab Director Dr. Jesse Arlen, welcomed a sizable crowd for a presentation of the book Black Garden Aflame: The Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict in the Soviet and Russian Press, by Dr. Artyom Tonoyan, on November 10. The lecture was also available on Zoom and YouTube.

Arlen called it important to “gather in person to talk, listen, think deeply, and appreciate experts’ presentations on how to engage most effectively with the homeland and Armenian culture. We have had virtual events, but there is something different about getting together in person, after having spent so much time separated from one another.”

Tonoyan began his eye-opening and fascinating talk by discussing the situation post the second Karabakh war in 2020, saying that though Russian President Putin was “interested in tranquility along its southern borders, he was not going to interfere in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict militarily on the side of its regional ally Armenia.”

Russia has treaty obligations with Armenia, yet those can only be activated if Armenia itself comes under attack, and since Nagorno-Karabakh has been internationally recognized as a part of Azerbaijan, Russia would not get involved. In addition, there were questions of whether Prime minister Nikol Pashinyan had strayed from Russian dependency and was leaning more to the West geopolitically.

However, back in 1988, nationalism and ethnic grievances first reared their heads, the speaker continued. In Sumgait, pogroms and wanton violence raged against mostly Armenian-populated towns by Azerbaijani thugs. Hundreds of Armenians were brutally murdered in Kirovabad, Khojaly, Maragha and Baku by Azerbaijani mobs and troops, resulting in the exodus of Armenians from Azerbaijan.

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Simultaneously, a group of Armenian intellectuals from Nagorno-Karabakh had started a campaign to redress what they considered a historical injustice that Stalin had perpetrated in 1921 and reverse the overwhelmingly Armenian populated Nagorno-Karabakh from Azeri jurisdiction to Armenian control. They stipulated that the area had suffered greatly both culturally and economically.

“Following the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, Moscow’s influence over the anti-Armenian pogroms in Azerbaijan and the conflict dynamics in Nagorno-Karabakh diminished as Russia turned more or less inward, seeking to solve its many domestic problems and deal with new foreign policy challenges that would account for its weakened international standing,” Tonoyan explained.

In Nagorno-Karabakh, where Armenians were fighting to regain the territory, Azerbaijani victories from 1991 were reversed by 1992 by poorly planned and executed operations, and by the spring of 1994 Armenians had taken full control of Nagorno-Karabakh, except for Shahumyan and seven Azerbaijani regions. However, Armenians controlled the important towns of Kelbajar and Lachin.

“Exhausted by the cascading defeats on the ground, and fearful of continuing political instability and social unrest, Azerbaijan pressed for a Russian-brokered ceasefire in May 1994. Although fragile, the ceasefire would largely hold for the next two decades,” Tonoyan said. “International mediation efforts led chiefly by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe [OSCE] Minsk Group co-chairs [Russia, the US and France] tried unsuccessfully to bring the conflicting parties to negotiate a lasting peace.”

Fast forward to three decades later, when the simmering tensions led to a new, full-blown war. Azerbaijan, with its oil wealth, amassed a huge array of advanced Israeli, Turkish and Russian weapons systems, and dismissive of western mediators, they “first tested the waters in 2016 with its Four-Day War.” Hundreds were killed on both sides.

 

“If there was no meaningful international pressure on Armenia to cede territories, Azerbaijan was willing to take matters into its own hands, by fair means or foul,” Tonoyan stated, adding, “cross-border clashes were becoming increasingly frequent, deadly and ominous, a harbinger of things to come.”

With Pashinyan coming to power in 2018 with a fervent promise to reform Armenia’s politics, and sagging economy, “the result left much to be desired,” Tonoyan surmised. “Reform often meant a badly concocted mix of popular sloganeering, some democratic initiatives (and some clearly undemocratic ones), and made-for-TV arrests of long-feared politicians and oligarchs, and emboldened by this new confidence and a mandate from the people, Pashinyan set out to tackle the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh with Azerbaijan.”

In addition, Pashinyan insisted that any negotiated deal “must be equally acceptable to both Armenians and Azerbaijanis, something that previous Armenian governments were loath to voice publicly.” Making the “biggest unforced diplomatic error as prime minister, and providing Azerbaijan and its allies with fresh grounds for a renewed diplomatic onslaught,” “with characteristic bombast, he declared at the opening of the 2019 Pan-Armenian Games in Stepanakert, “Artsakh is Armenia, period!” The reaction in Baku was furious and “unforgiving,” Tonoyan said.

Bloody cross-border clashes followed in July 2020, including mass demonstrations in Baku with protesters demanding all-out war against Armenia. The 2020 invasion of Artsakh by Azerbaijan with the assistance of Turkey was inevitable, Tonoyan declared.

The South Caucasus, and especially Armenia and Artsakh, “are not and have not been in the attention of the Western media.” If and when the area is covered very infrequently, it involves either the subjects of tourism, or war such as the case of Georgia and South Ossetia in 2008. “People do not know (or perhaps do not care) about the region until and unless something of note takes place,” Tonoyan said.

“Western journalistic interests probably match the general or even the precise contours of Western geopolitical interests in the region,” Tonoyan noted.

And as far as Russia is concerned, he stated that “Moscow’s knowledge of the region is as strong as it is permanent, dictated mainly by geopolitical interests, and depending on the political — and increasingly geopolitical — winds blowing in the region. Moscow has at times favored Yerevan, and at other times Baku. But in all circumstances, it has favored Moscow,” he said.

Laurence Broers, co-editor in chief of the Caucasus Surveys has commented that “despite its devastating human consequences on the global stage, the Karabakh conflict unfortunately remains obscure. Not so in the Russian-language press, including Pravda, Izvestia, Nezavisimaya gazeta and other papers by Russian and Soviet journalists.”

Broers writes that Black Garden Aflame is an “indispensable resource that brings to an English-speaking readership the shock and fury of the conflict’s outbreak in 1988, the inability of the broken Soviet system to contain it, the descent into war, the protracted ceasefire that followed, the multiple geopolitical interests in play and a catastrophic new war in 2020.”

A native of Gyumri, Armenia, Tonoyan received his PhD from Baylor University in Texas. A sociologist and a research associate at the University of Minnesota’s Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies, he has researched the sociology of religion, and politics in the South Caucasus, and religion and nationalism in post-Soviet Russia, and has authored many articles. He has also been a frequent guest on the BBC, Deutsche Welle, France 24, and other media.

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