Ilya Shablinsky:  ‘White Turks’ – on the Armenian exodus from Artsakh

2 October 2023

by Ilya Shablinsky


The situation in Karabakh was to be expected, but still, it came as a shock to many people. Like me, for example. My daughter has been living and working in Armenia for over a year and a half now. She found herself a job there and moved, relocating from Moscow last May. She has a degree in journalism, but freedom of speech has all but ended in her homeland. She was leaving a country at war for one that was at peace and more or less free. How the tables have turned!

Azerbaijan cited the death of six of its citizens, from landmines, as the official reason for its resumption of war on 19 September. The details of these events are unclear, but Baku announced that it was the work of Karabakh armed groups or even the Armenian army. Experts, including Russian ones, were continuing to argue about this, while the Azerbaijani army had already commenced heavy shelling.

It is quite clear that the landmines were just a pretext. Baku understood there was no time like the present and decided they needed to get the job done. The war in Ukraine served as a distraction, drawing as it did the lion’s share of public attention. The Russian state, which once really felt itself to be the guarantor of Armenia’s security, is now completely mired in this war and has turned into an evil dictatorship. It can no longer guarantee anything to anyone. But, as ever, it is set on subjugating and controlling others. It didn’t want to help Armenia and Karabakh and, more importantly, wasn’t able to do so.

The war ended three years ago, demonstrating that Armenia simply does not have the strength to fight on in defence of Artsakh and that no one will be coming to help. This explains the announcement by Armenian Prime Minister Pashinyan that Yerevan would not be taking any military action.

Here we should highlight the international legal dimension of the situation. Nowadays, no one, including Armenia, disputes that the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh belongs to Azerbaijan. It’s no longer a question of how this land ended up as part of one republic under the Bolsheviks, and not the other one. The only issue at stake has been the survival of around 120,000 residents of the historical region of Artsakh and their right to live in the territory where for several centuries their ancestors lived and died, and built schools, churches, and monasteries.

A fortnight ago, in Yerevan, thousands of angry protestors took to the streets and squares. Most demanded the resignation of Prime Minister Pashinyan, and several hundred people shouted slogans against Putin outside the Russian embassy. So, in effect, two rallies were going on in parallel in the capital. They weren’t that big, though. Yerevan was to see something much bigger in its central square.

My daughter Nastya spent the whole day in that square, as did all the friends she has made over the past year and a half. My daughter is twenty-five, but she looks much younger. It’s scary for me to think about: a fragile fair-haired girl in the middle of this tense country down south. She assured me everything was fine, but then two of the girls she knows in Artsakh are in grave danger. One managed to get away, quite incredibly, by crossing the Lachin corridor, while the second has refused to leave. 

I asked Nastya, “Do people accept that Artsakh residents will be able to live under Baku rule, after getting Azerbaijani passports?”

My daughter answered darkly, “No, nobody can imagine that. It’s out of the question. There’ll be a purge.”

“Nastya, they want Pashinyan to resign, so what’s next? Keep trying to wage war?”

“No, everyone understands that we can’t fight now, but they all think he has to go. A person who’s taken that course of action, even if it was under duress, needs to go. Do you see? It doesn’t matter any more who’s going to take his place – that’s a minor detail.”

“Did people in the square blame Russia?”

“Yeah. That’s the general feeling. Do you know what they’re calling Russians now? ‘White Turks’. Haven’t you heard that yet? They’re saying it over and over in the square. But it’s about the government, all right? It’s about the people who decided that they share common interests with Azerbaijan.”

“The government, then?”

“Yes. You know, I think I’ve only come across this here, among Armenians. They get that the Russian state has betrayed them, but they treat Russians as well as they did before. Almost everyone speaks Russian and they’re every bit as nice as they were before – especially if they see us with them. And all the Russians here now truly are united with Armenian society.”

“So Armenia actually has more reasons than ever to apply to NATO now. What’s more, it’ll be accepted. Are people talking about that?”

“No. I haven’t heard that at all. NATO definitely won’t be any help right now, and people aren’t discussing it at the moment. But, yeah, they do hope that Western countries will somehow be able to help – to do something, at least.”

“Nastya, I think Putin has led the country to a dead end. It’s losing all its former allies. It’s losing ground in the South Caucasus, too.”

My daughter chuckles:

“It’s full of Russian agents here. They’re working very seriously on the protests. Everyone knows it. The Russian authorities can’t really help Armenians, but they want to use this moment and put their man in charge of Armenia… Yes, people are terribly angry. That’s the atmosphere. But among them now there are those who are purposefully pushing the Russian agenda. There are no real leaders there. Completely murky people, all sorts of ‘Miki Badalyans’ and the like. Their task is to write one thing in blogs: ‘Pashinyan is a traitor, a Judas, everyone needs to storm the Pashinyan government, if you don’t storm with us, you are an accomplice in the surrender of Artsakh.’ Margarita Simonyan would repost it. Then talk about it on Russian federal TV channels. Together with Solovev… So Russia is working on this.”

“On taking over the government?”

“I’m telling you: it’s important for them [Russia] to ride this movement now and put one of their own in place.”

“Who exactly?”

“I don’t know who. They have enough agents here. Someone will surface at some point… The Kremlin’s main thing now is gloating. Look at Medvedev’s latest posts, he’s already rubbing his hands together. He’s shouting: Pashinyan’s wife shouldn’t have travelled to Ukraine, you shouldn’t have got involved in the Bucha! Here, take this… Bastard.”

“He probably remembers the joint exercises with the Americans. And the fact that Yerevan is going to ratify the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court… The one that issued the arrest warrant for Putin, remember?”

She agrees:

“Yes, this all made the Kremlin wildly angry. But what was left for Pashinyan to do? The blockade of Artsakh has lasted for 10 months, people there are really starving, they are running out of medicine. Before that Azerbaijan had already shelled the territory of Armenia itself. Not Karabakh – Armenia! And what did Russia do? Nothing. Although Russian peacekeepers were supposed to control this corridor. The West supported Armenia, the European Parliament adopted a resolution demanding the blockade be lifted. Then the UN court and the court in The Hague ruled that the blockade of the Lachin corridor should be immediately stopped. The courts passed down these judgments! Azerbaijan spat on them. And Putin’s Russia smiled… And now Medvedev is jeering.”

“They are talking about it in propaganda programmes all the time, or are hinting at it.  That Armenia should not have sought support in the West.”

“Well, I’m telling you: there was no other way out… No, don’t even talk about the likes of Solovev and others. Simonyan is universally despised by everyone in Armenia, from old people to young people. She is ridiculed in all local media. Because she is a lackey of Putin’s regime… Exactly so – she is deeply despised! Ask anyone.”

“What can Armenia do now for the 120,000 Karabakh Armenians?”

“That’s a difficult question. You know, there is a common point of view – common, because I haven’t heard another one: get them all out. There is humanitarian aid collection going on, all over the country. You have no idea. Everyone wants to help in some way. And all the Russians who have recently moved to live here are trying to help.”

“So the option of living under the Baku government is out?”

“With this level of extreme hatred? Well, what do you think? And then, people from Baku have already stated that they want to get from the Karabakh Armenians several thousand ‘activists’ or ‘extremists’, as they say, who pose a threat to Azerbaijan’s security. What does that mean? In Karabakh, almost every family has a man who fought in the war….”

After my conversation with Nastya, I watched bits of Russian propaganda programmes once again. I realised that there is indeed gloating in the intonations of those who carry out the Kremlin’s orders. They are broadcasting the feelings that now possess the Russian dictator. Putin is indeed now much closer to the dictator of Azerbaijan (with whom, by the way, he has common interests) than to Armenia, which remains democratic. And in fact it’s already defenceless at this stage of the confrontation.

Now there is no talk of any compromise between Armenia and Azerbaijan. But Aliyev obviously does not want to be associated with the notion of ‘ethnic cleansing’. He too has hopes of strengthening ties with Western countries. And his main ally, Turkey, is a NATO member. It may also be significant that the US Secretary of State and other Western leaders intend to speak with Aliyev, urging the Azerbaijani dictator to be moderate and restrained. Perhaps he will listen to them.    

At the same time, tens of thousands of people have already left their homes and an endless stream of displaced persons has poured into Armenia. Meanwhile, Azerbaijani officials talk about guarantees for the residents of Karabakh, guarantees for those who will receive an Azerbaijani passport. They also talk about amnesty. But Karabakh Armenians categorically do not believe this rhetoric. They have reasons.

Translated by Lindsay Munford and Ecaterina Hughes

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