“Nothing special is happening,” a frustrated local journalist tweetedRecently, she spoke out about the humanitarian crisis that had broken out in her post-Soviet country. It’s just our neighbor, she explained, “trying to finish the ethnic cleansing.”
Anush Ghavalyan, a TV presenter, wasn’t talking about Russia’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine, but a disputed region called Nagorno-Karabakh, a self-declared independent republic nestled within the internationally recognized borders of Azerbaijan, but with deep cultural and historical links to Armenia. A year and half ago, it was the focus of violence as energy-rich Azerbaijan attempted to resolve the long-running conflict in the region over who controlled it. Despite the November 2020 ceasefire that sealed Azerbaijan’s partial victory, persecution of the remaining indigenous Armenian population continues. And, even as the war in Ukraine has drawn the world’s attention to the consequences of depending on Russia for energy, this lesser-known conflict also shines a light on how fossil fuels can become a weapon of coercion—and whether the world is really ready to break their grip.
Following the Russian Empire’s WW I-era collapse, the South Caucasus region saw the reemergence of Armenia and Georgia as independent states, joined by their new neighbor Azerbaijan. Their eventual Sovietization was due to the fact that they had territorial disputes. Soviet leader Joseph Stalin saw a separate Armenian province administered by Azerbaijani as a way to resolve conflict in Nagorno Karabakh. In the 1990s and 2020, he would be proved wrong.
Part of Stalin’s calculation was based on economics: Azerbaijan’s energy riches made it more important to him. Even though the country has been around for many years, it is still an example of how managing energy resources can create geopolitical strength. But all of Nagorno-Karabakh’s natural gas—which is its leading source for heat, hot water, and electricity—comes via a single pipeline that runs from the disputed region’s lifeline, Armenia. Since the 2020 war, some of the territory the pipeline traverses is Azerbaijani-controlled—meaning that Azerbaijan has the de facto power to turn the gas on and off at will.
Just a few weeks ago, on March 8, International Women’s Day, Nagorno-Karabakh’s primary energy supply was abruptly cut. The locals were initially astonished. joked that Azerbaijan’s authorities, assumed to be behind the stoppage, were congratulating the women of Nagorno-Karabakh, giving them a break from cooking or showering.
The problem continued for several weeks. Affected were all of the region’s households and critical infrastructure: hospitals, schools, bakeries. This March saw heavy snowfall and temperatures that were unseasonally cold. Unfortunately, there are not enough electric heaters and boilers to replace the gas. Azerbaijan has denied having blown up the pipeline. A ruling party lawmaker said that Armenians themselves had damaged the pipeline to smear Azerbaijan: “This is an Armenian plot, Armenian filth.” But, following an outcry, Azerbaijan fixed the pipeline, though only restoring supply for one short weekend without acknowledging intentional damage, while, according to Nagorno-Karabakh’s Armenian authorities, installing a shutoff valve.
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A dictatorial regime using fossil fuels as a weapon to oppress a population seeking their self-determination is not new or unique. Experts have used the term “petro-aggression” to argue that oil-rich regimes are more conflict-prone. Other experts have claimed that overreliance upon oil in domestic affairs is tied to the rise of repression. This could be because tax-paying citizens are more likely not to pay taxes and therefore, less willing to hear their concerns. In order to compensate for their ineligibility, dictatorial states frequently look on the demonized enemy to mobilize against.
In Armenians, Ilham Aliyev, who has been Azerbaijan’s president for 18 years, has found the perfect foe. In his own words, “Our main enemies are Armenians of the world and the hypocritical and corrupt politicians under their control.”
The gas crisis is hardly the first time Aliyev’s line of thinking has found expression. Since replacing his father as president in 2003, Aliyev has, one exiled Azerbaijani dissident has said, “upgraded Armenophobia to the levels of fascist Germany’s anti-Semitism.” In 2005-2006, Aliyev completed the erasure of over 28,000 medieval Armenian monuments in the exclave of Nakhichevan, which were supposed to be protected by UNESCO but that Aliyev now says never existed to begin with. His extradition and pardon were followed by the promotion of an Azerbaijani official who killed his Armenian classmate in a NATO training exercise. This state-sponsored persecution of Armenians also includes the denial and mockery of Armenian history. Azerbaijani dissidents that challenge the narrative are quickly punished. The elderly Akram Aylisli, once Azerbaijan’s most revered author, now lives under house arrest for writing a novel memorializing the Armenian antiquity of his birthplace.
Today, Armenian cemeteries newly occupied by Azerbaijan are being bulldozed, as seen by Caucasus Heritage Watch satellites, while other historical sites are being proclaimed “artificially-aged” or stolen.
The sense that Armenians deserve punishment for the early 1990s Nagorno-Karabakh war’s outcome, to avenge the massively displaced Azerbaijani population that lived as poor refugees for decades, has meanwhile continued in Azerbaijan, despite the fact that it brutally conquered most of contested Nagorno-Karabakh in late 2020. This March, when Italian journalist Claudio Locatelli interviewed an Azerbaijani volunteer soldier in Ukraine, what Aliyev calls “the Azerbaijani model of multiculturalism” was on full display. “We are all brothers: Muslims, Jews, Christians,” boasted the soldier. But when asked of Armenians, he said “they are worse than animals.”
The obvious goal is to demoralize the Armenians remaining in Nagorno Karabakh and force them into self-exile. This policy, however, requires international support in the form close to universal silence.
Aliyev has just what he needed with the ongoing Russian invasion in Ukraine. In fact, the West’s moving away from Russian energy sources has given Azerbaijan even more power than before. The E.U. announced in February that it would offer Azerbaijani natural gas for two billion euros. The E.U. announced that it would offer a 2-billion euro package to Azerbaijani for natural gas in return for Russian imports.. Azerbaijan and Russia signed an alliance agreement the day prior to the invasion of Ukraine. The U.S. Embassy in Baku was opened on Thursday tweetedThe U.S. Department of Defense received more than $30 million in equipment for Azerbaijan; earlier in the year, U.S. Government Accountability Office criticized the Departments of State and Defense because they failed to give Congress adequate information regarding aid to Azerbaijan. This is not supposed to happen except under certain circumstances..
Nagorno Karabakh is seeing warmer temperatures. Azerbaijan might turn the gas off and on again whenever it wants. The short weekend window for gas supply restoration is barely a weekend. The local United Nations office was quick to agree to participate in an event that would be held in Azerbaijan, which has been the scene of multiple ethnic cleansings, including one of Armenians. The presence of international organizations in newly conquered territories is critical for legitimizing Aliyev’s proposition that “territorial integrity” is a license for ethnic cleansing.
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Following the March 18 U.N. event, Azerbaijan’s army captured one more Armenian village in Nagorno-Karabakh, while harassing many other villages with loudspeakers, telling the residents to “evacuate,” for no reason whatsoever. The town of Parukh’s entire population is now homeless. Azerbaijan, after public statements by Washington, Paris, Moscow and Washington regarding this ceasefire violation, stated that it would resume gas supplies. The gas has been restored as of the time this article was written. No one knows how much longer. “If each day we need to give one village for natural gas,” a local resident of Nagorno-Karabakh’s capital and largest city, Stepanakert, told a TV journalist, “we don’t need that natural gas.”
According to the US sanctions on Russia, international relations are not safe from fossil fuels. It is encouraging that many nations are willing to find other resources or accelerate their transition to green energy, instead of allowing aggression to slide.
The White House will likely continue to lift Section 907, the sole sanction that Azerbaijan has against it. Despite recognizing the Armenian Genocide last year, the Biden Administration apparently sees no dilemma in limiting its response to the crisis to sporadic statements of “deep concern.” Even USAID chief Samantha Power, an anti-genocide advocate and a long-time friend of the Armenian-American community, is not pushing for substantial new humanitarian aid for Nagorno-Karabakh.
Today, Aliyev uses energy to gaslight Nagorno-Karabakh, one “nothing special is happening” at a time. Tomorrow, his genocidal aggression will continue—unless the West shows that it is willing to stand up to Azerbaijan too, and to live without its natural gas. Nagorno Karabah residents are well-versed in living without gas.
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