There were full-page newspaper ads in New York City, films in Paris, and commemorations and marches from Argentina to Latvia. Twenty years after a massacre of ethnic Azeri residents in the Nagorno-Karabakh village of Khojaly, Azerbaijan is pressing a campaign to have the 1992 slaughter recognized as an act of genocide.
The tragedy occurred February 25-26, 1992, during the height of the armed struggle between Azerbaijani and Armenian forces for control of Karabakh. Baku maintains that Armenian armed forces, along with members of the Russian army’s 360th regiment, carried out an attack on Khojaly that left 613 ethnic Azeri civilians dead, and forced over 5,300 residents to flee. Armenian leaders steadfastly deny that civilians were targeted in Khojaly.
Azerbaijani officials have not explained why they have stepped up efforts now to have the Khojaly tragedy recognized as genocide. The driving force behind the campaign is the semi-official Heydar Aliyev Foundation, which is headed by First Lady Mehriban Aliyeva, the daughter-in-law of the deceased former president.
Some Baku observers believe there is a connection between the Khojaly push and a diplomatic tussle between France and Turkey over a French bill that would have criminalized the denial of Ottoman Turkey’s 1915 slaughter of ethnic Armenians as genocide. France’s two houses of parliament approved the bill in January, but on February 28, the country’s Constitutional Council ruled that it was unconstitutional.
Turkey, with which Azerbaijan shares close cultural ties, easily ranks as Baku’s closest ally. While Baku often is willing to assist Ankara diplomatically, the timing of the Khojaly campaign has helped Baku score points of its own, some Azerbaijani observers note.
"There are many people and politicians who support the Turkish position, and it definitely helped Azerbaijan in campaigning about the Khojaly tragedy," asserted political analyst Togrul Juvarly.
Initiatives to build international awareness about the Khojaly tragedy began in 2009. But until this year, those efforts remained relatively low-key.
Measures passed by the Pakistani and Mexican parliaments in late 2011 that recognized the Khojaly events as genocide “would have been close to impossible” to secure without the international controversy over the French legislation, Juvarly said.
To mark the 20th anniversary of the Khojaly tragedy, about 80,000 people, including former US Ambassador to Azerbaijan Matthew Bryza, attended a rally in Istanbul. The Turkish parliament is soon expected to consider a draft resolution on Khojaly. Little opposition to the measure is anticipated.
In France, where the Heydar Aliyev Foundation has strong ties, Diaspora activists and several sympathetic French senators and MPs participated in a one-day Khojaly conference on February 27. Along with the handout of flyers, a film festival was also staged.
In Germany, where the Bundestag is considering a proposal similar to the French bill, a small demonstration condemning the Khojaly massacre occurred in Berlin. Meanwhile, members of the leftist MP faction Die Linke (The Left) characterized the Khojaly tragedy as a “military crime.”
Some observers say the Khojaly campaign helps Azerbaijan’s chances of regaining control of Karabkah by denting what they describe as Armenia’s international image as a “victim.”
“It strengthens the position of the Azerbaijani community of Nagorno Karabakh in the peace process . . . in terms of demanding the right to return to their lands,” commented Erkin Gadirli, co-chairperson of the Respublikaci Alternative opposition group. “Baku demonstrates that it is not going to interfere with the historical question of the 1915 events [in Turkey], but that it has its own claim against Armenia concerning the massacre of civilians.”
What direction the Khojaly campaign will take next remains open to debate. While some see the initiative as linked to the outcome of France’s genocide denial bill, Azerbaijan appears to have its own alliances in mind.
A February 22 statement by an Israeli parliamentary committee condemning the Khojali killings as “one of the biggest tragedies of the 20th century” is widely seen as the fruit of growing tensions between Israel and Iran, an Armenian ally, and Tel Aviv’s growing friendship with Azerbaijan, which recently agreed to purchase $1.6 billion worth of Israeli military equipment.
For now, government officials remain reticent when it comes to discussing the Khojaly campaign. But it’s clear it enjoys broad domestic support. Thirty-four-year-old Aybeniz Mammadli, an Internally Displaced Person from Karabakh who now works for a Baku insurance company, believes that the Khojaly campaign is one instance when the government has spent money appropriately.
“Armenians successfully promote their so-called ‘genocide’ around the world,” she said in reference to the 1915 massacre in Ottoman Turkey. “And we should be active and inform the world about what [Armenians] did with civilians in 1992.”
Shahin Abbasov is a freelance reporter based in Baku.