Let the People Speak

December 21, 2010

This post is part 3 of 3 of Cultural Oppression in Azerbaijan series

“A medieval cemetery regarded as one of the wonders of the Caucasus has been erased from the Earth in an act of cultural vandalism likened to the Taleban blowing up the Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan,” reflected the London Times after independent journalist Iddrak Abbasov in ex-Soviet Azerbaijan confirmed in April 2006 that the world’s largest historic Armenian cemetery had vanished.

When Mr. Abbasov returned to the exclave of Nakhichevan – where Djulfa existed – to investigate other human rights violations, he was interrogated, harassed, accused of being an Armenian spy, and instructed never to return to the region. Abbasov’s interrogation was mentioned in our 2009 “Azerbaijan: Independent Journalists under Siege” report.

Two months before the abuse against Abbasov, Azerbaijani president Ilham Aliyev hosted a meeting for the culture ministers of Council of Europe in December 2008 – on the third anniversary of Djulfa’s destruction. In his welcoming remarks Aliyev said that “cultural monuments [in Azerbaijan] are duly preserved.” No delegate dared mention Djulfa’s destruction then, neither did U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton when she phoned Aliyev this past Wednesday, on the 5th anniversary of the vandalism, “to convey her regret for the WikiLeaks disclosures.” In one wikileaked document, Aliyev was described as Sonny Corleone – a fictional hot-headed mafia boss from the movie The Godfather.

While the accusation that Aliyev runs the country as a mafia may not be completely true, his personal knowledge (and possible involvement) in remote area conflicts in Azerbaijan support such sentiment. In a Wikileaked document, for instance, Aliyev accused its southern neighbor, Iran, of organizing “violent Ashura ceremonies” – the Shia religious commemoration of Hussein, grandson of Mohammad, that typically includes flagellation (Azerbaijan, like Iran, is predominantly Shia Muslim). What was actually violent, according to some human rights reports, was the police reaction to the late-December 2009 ceremony, which included forced transfer of participants to a psychiatric hospital. When US and Norwegian diplomats traveled to the village to investigate allegations of human rights abuses against Ashura participants, suspected state workers stopped the diplomats’ cars and forced them to go back.

The December 2009 Ashura incident – like the December 2005 destruction of Djulfa cemetery – happened in the tiny district of Djulfa (Culfa) in the exclave of  Nakhichevan (Naxçıvan), southwestern Azerbaijan. Locals call their exclave “Azerbaijan’s North Korea;” and abuse there has a weird environmental twist: “Tying someone to a tree and beating him up has strangely turned into a common practice among the Nakhchivani police,” says Vugar Gojayev, a local journalist. “Two years ago police tied a villager to a tree because that villager had failed to pay the electricity bill.”

The Ashura incident and destruction of the Djulfa khachkars in Azerbaijan’s North Korea has not been the only manifestation of cultural oppression. In 2005 – the same year when the cemetery was destroyed – the authorities in Nakhichevan destroyed teahouses in order to stop public gatherings and, therefore, prevent any dissent. According to one source, Nakhichevan’s “iron ruler” Vasif Talibov (related by marriage to Azerbaijan’s president Ilham “Sonny” Aliyev) had ordered the tea-house destruction, and probably the cemetery’s, too.

Indeed the destruction of Djulfa’s ancient cemetery isn’t solely part of abuse of human rights against civilians in Nakhichevan. It also has connection to the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict, and that may be the reason why it has received so little coverage . In the words of Thomas de Waal, an expert on Armenian-Azerbaijani relations, “Foreign investors and diplomats in Azerbaijan are very sensitive towards anything that touches on the Armenian-Azerbaijani issue and the peace process and are therefore very timid about raising the issue of the destruction of cultural monuments.”

Indeed, the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh (in which Amnesty International takes no position) has been a nasty war of hard and soft manifestations. Killing thousands of on both sides in the early 1990s, the conflict has polarized the two neighbors and locked them in not-so-productive negotations for the past sixteen years. Armenians mourn their brethren killed during the pogroms of Baku and Sumgayit that sparked the war; Azeris mourn their countrymen massacred during the takeover of the village of Khojalu during the fights. Yet neither side, generally speaking, accept guilt for civilian deaths.

Such an uncompromising situation has put western negotiators between two rocks. The destruction of the Djulfa cemetery, alas, has become the victim of political correctness. “Objectivity,” in the eyes of negotiators, would require condemnation of all cultural destruction. Yet there is not equal opportunity for the latter: Armenia, unlike Azerbaijan, has not been deliberately destroying “enemy” monuments – at least not on a state-sponsored systematic level. On the contrary, Armenia is renovating Azerbaijani mosques, albeit without participation of Azerbaijani specialists.

While western organizations’ “political correctness” may be attributed to many factors, including Azerbaijan’s oil reserves, less understandable is Azerbaijan’s civil society’s silence. Save for a few journalists (Idrak Abbasov who confirmed the destruction; prisoner of conscience and human rights defender Eynulla Fatullayev, whose now closed newspaper reported the destruction; and Alekper Aliyev who called the destruction in an interview “our shame”), many in Azerbaijan have kept silence if not participated in their authoritarian government’s denial of the destruction (a young parliamentary candidate recently arrested in Azerbaijan, for instance, passionately denied the destruction of the Djulfa cemetery, citing “our country’s position” at a November 2007 conference at Harvard where he studied at the time).

Indeed Armenia’s civil society hasn’t protested violations against Azeris either – such as the 1992 massacre of civilians in Khojalu. But someone has to start the wave of peace somewhere, even though journalists who tried to do so – Abbasov, Fatullayev, and Alekper – have had their own peace disturbed for speaking out on human rights.  Azerbaijan’s civil society stands up for these individuals; it should do so for their ideals too. Let us hope for a day when Armenians and Azerbaijanis start blaming each other for starting peace.