Azerbaijan preplanned the ethnic cleansing of Nagorno-Karabakh’s indigenous Christian population. With proceeds from BP’s multibillion Caspian deal and international assistance, President Ilham Aliyev purchased drones and artillery from Israel and Turkey to give Azerbaijan a military edge over Armenia. He feigned commitment to Minsk Group diplomacy to cover his intentions. Prior to the outbreak of the second Nagorno-Karabakh War, Aliyev even initiated several border skirmishes to test the waters, confirm Azerbaijan’s readiness and probe Armenian weakness.

Azerbaijan quickly determined that the West was a paper tiger and so Aliyev viewed an attack on Nagorno-Karabakh not as a gamble, but rather a sure thing. So, on September 27, 2020, Azerbaijan launched full-scale, multi-front surprise attack timed to coincide with the centenary of the Ottoman invasion of independent Armenia.

In hindsight, the November 9, 2020 ceasefire had nothing to do with recommitment to resolve the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute peacefully. For Aliyev, it was about rearmament and resupply. President Vladimir Putin meanwhile hoped the pause would lead outraged Armenians to reverse the 2018 revolution and end Armenia’s westward tilt.

When 13 months ago, Aliyev renewed his campaign of aggression, he took a page from Putin’s playbook. Just as Russia invaded Crimea with men lacking uniforms or insignia to obfuscate and confuse the West, so too did Aliyev seek to confuse the West. Rather than men in black, Aliyev used self-described environmentalists to block the Lachin corridor, the ceasefire-designated lifeline for Nagorno-Karabakh’s Armenians.

In press interviews with friendly Azerbaijani or Turkish journalists, the so-called environmentalists declared themselves to be independent activists motivated by the pollution caused by Armenian goldmining. That some Washington think tank analysts accepted such nonsense at face value shows either naïveté or willingness to amplify Azerbaijani propaganda as unregistered foreign agents. After all, according to Freedom House, Azerbaijan is among the world’s most autocratic states. Independent civil society does not exist. Azerbaijan’s Freedom House civil liberties score falls below the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip and Myanmar (Burma) under the military junta. CivilNet, an independent Armenian platform dedicated to encouraging liberalism, transparency, and democracy, found that many of the so-called environmental activists were actually state officials closely tied to Aliyev’s inner-circle. They served their purpose. They initiated the starvation of Nagorno-Karabakh’s Christians and normalized the blockade. Ultimately, they set the stage for Aliyev to complete his conquest.

The irony, however, is that while Aliyev’s environmentalists mobilized for an imaginary crisis, they are absent for the real environmental crises Azerbaijan faces. Consider, for example, goldmines controlled by Leyla Aliyeva, Ilham Aliyev’s eldest daughter and Arzu Aliyeva, his younger legitimate daughter.

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The Azerbaijani government awarded control of the Chovdar mining parcel to Leyla and Arzu through a series of shell companies stretching from Azerbaijan to the United Kingdom to Panama dating back to 2007. Between 2012 and 2016, the Aliyev daughters’ stake in the $2.5 billion mine increased from 11 percent to 56 percent.

The Aliyev family exists above the law and so Leyla and Arzu sought to maximize profits at the expense of local safeguards. First, they used imminent domain to expel several dozen villagers from areas rich in gold. In 2016, several hundred Chovdar workers protested lack of salary payment by the Aliyev-controlled companies running the mine.

Any quiet over subsequent years was due to police tactics rather than acquiescence. Such placidity ended on June 20, 2023, when huge protests erupted near the Gadabay (Gedabek) gold mine. At issue was popular anger at the mining company dumping of cyanide-laced wastewater and poisoning local residents and their livestock. At least 17 children have died of rare cancers in the area.

The Azerbaijani government’s reaction was telling. Out were the spontaneous protestors. In were the storm troopers who sealed off Soyudlu village, the epicenter of the environmental protests. Videos leaked showing Azerbaijani security forces pepper-spraying grandmothers. The police arrested and detained without charge scores of young men and even a former parliamentarian.

Neither Washington nor Yerevan should be silent. Aliyev cynically shielded his ethnic cleansing campaign behind a façade of environmentalism but, by so doing, he made environmentalism fair game for broader diplomatic discussion. The poisoning of wells and villagers in Azerbaijan represents criminal negligence on the part of both Leyla and Arzu Aliyeva, both of whom deserve prison for their environmental crimes under Azerbaijani law. What happens in Azerbaijani does not stay in Azerbaijani, however: Much of the Nagorno-Karabakh watershed drains into Lake Sevan.

Armenians should not simply wring their hands. The inconsistency of the Lachin activists and their failure to protest Soyudlu shows their motivation was never environmentalism but rather genocide. As such, it is time to designate every Azerbaijani involved in the Lachin blockade for their role in a criminal conspiracy to commit genocide.

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