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Sumgait: 20 years later

Sumgait: 20 years later

In early February 2006, the European Parliament passed a resolution condemning Azerbaijan’s destruction of Armenian religious and cultural monuments in their formerly-Armenian populated region of Nakhichevan. The same resolution says that efforts must be made to stop the practice of ethnic cleansing.

Ironically, 20 years ago, almost to the day, Azerbaijani authorities sanctioned the ethnic cleansing of Armenian citizens, living in Azerbaijan’s capital, Baku, and in the factory-town of Sumgait. That, too, was condemned by the European Parliament.

Those pogroms of Armenians in Sumgait in February 1988 have the dubious honor of being the first -- the first time that ethnic cleansing was utilized in what was still Soviet space – even before this scourge of modern humanity reared its head in the Balkans.

The Nagorno Karabakh problem, which still festers in the South Caucasus, began 20 years ago as a series of peaceful demonstrations by Armenians who wished to determine their own lives, their own futures, NOT under the jurisdiction of Azerbaijan. The Azerbaijani government responded to these calls with violence and repression. The first violent and obviously political instance of this response were the massacres which took place on three days in February 1988 in the industrial town of Sumgait, miles away from the territory of Nagorno Karabakh and the peaceful calls for self-determination. The violence against Armenians in Sumgait changed the nature of the Karabakh conflict.

George Soros spoke about this in Moscow Znamya Journal. He actually confirmed that the first Armenian pogroms in Azerbaijan were instigated by local bands, managed by the future President of Azerbaijan, Heidar Aliev.

Andrei Sakharov said, "We need a fair trial for the Sumgait massacre perpetrators not only to save Azerbaijani SSR from disgrace, but we need it to save the future of the whole country."

It didn’t happen. This was not an isolated incident. The assault of a sovereign government against its citizens continued and the conflict became militarized.

What started with Sumgait continued in May 1988 in Shushi, when the local authorities initiated the deportation of Armenians living in that hilltop city. After that, they used Shushi as base to shell Karabakh’s largest city, Stepanakert.

Another city, Khojaly, was similarly used as a missile base. Armenian forces attacked the city to protect the population of Stepanakert and its environs. Azerbaijan’s then-President Mutalibov said at the time, that the attack on Khojaly was not a surprise, and that the Armenian forces had allowed a corridor for the civilian population to escape. According to Mutalibov, it was the Azerbaijanis themselves who set up the destruction of the escapees, in order to compromise the Mutalibov administration. Thus, hundreds of Azerbaijanis and Armenians were killed and wounded in the village of Khojaly.

Czech journalist Yana Mazalova, invited by the Azerbaijanis to cover the ‘atrocities’ noted that the corpses only became mutilated several days later when journalists were called in.

Today, in 2007, rather than trying to put enmity and violence behind us and creating an environment of even tentative normalcy, Azerbaijani authorities resort to war-mongering statements and veneration of those who commit anti-Armenian violence. A major political party has just bestowed the Man of the Year award on Ramil Safarov, a lieutenant in the Azerbaijani army, who, two years ago this month, murdered an Armenian officer Gurgen Margarian with an axe, in his sleep, during a NATO Partnership for Peace program in Budapest, Hungary. Just last week, Azerbaijani MP Havva Mamedova, said, "It is time to wipe Armenia from the face of the earth." She is not alone in expressing such sentiments. Similar statements have been made by the Azerbaijani Defense Minister, more than once. President Aliyev has boasted that their military budget will exceed Armenia’s entire national budget. Calls to resolve the Nagorno Karabakh conflict by military means are regularly heard in Baku.

In this context, it should have come as no surprise that the tentative approaches to a peace settlement by the leadership of the two countries will not be taken seriously by either Armenians or Azeris, if the backdrop against which these negotiations are taking place is one where a violent past is glorified, and the possibility of resorting to violence in the future is flaunted.

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