A “cancerous tumour”. “Dogs”. “Humanoid creatures”. If these descriptions were attributed to editorials in Der Stürmer — the rabidly antisemitic daily whose publisher, Julius Streicher, was condemned to death during the Nuremberg trials — that would be eminently believable. Yet, all these terms were used during this past year by official bodies of a member state of the Council of Europe to describe a much-maligned ethnic group. The Armenian Diaspora was thus referred to as a “cancerous tumour of Europe” by the International and Inter-Parliamentary Relations Committee of Azerbaijan’s Milli Mejlis – its parliament; “dogs” and “humanoid creature” were just some of the many instances of dehumanizing language directed by the country’s head of state, Ilham Aliyev, against ethnic Armenians.
None of these extreme forms of official hate speech elicited any reaction where it would otherwise be expected. European Union officials remained curiously silent at the direct, collective, and extreme racist language targeting one of its ethno-linguistic communities — Europe’s Armenian diaspora — not by extreme right-wing thugs, but by the legislature of a third state; neither has a crescendo of insults and threats by Azerbaijani officialdom — often amounting to open threats of ethnic cleansing voiced at the highest levels, and at times crossing the bounds of vulgarity — resonated much beyond the targeted group.
This silence shouldn’t be surprising: the Caucasus is, after all, a relatively far-away place of which European voters know virtually nothing. And the West has a long and proud record of ignoring the warning signs of impending humanitarian catastrophe — including the kinds of dehumanizing hate speech mentioned above — when its attention, and interests, are not quite aligned with its victims’. Its white saviours have their useful minorities and “causes célebres” in places where the tectonic plates of its geopolitics collide: Xinjiang, Myanmar, Kosovo. There, any such repressive language would be countered with a loud cacophony of outrage, and report after report on the nationalist excesses of dictatorships. Minorities less propitiously and usefully situated in the West’s configuration of interests — say, Palestinians, Kurds or, in fact, Karabakh Armenians — are worthy of an embarrassed silence, or, at most, crocodile tears after the fact.
The problem, however, is not just confined to what happens, and is said “over there”. In the early 21st century, ideas and attitudes percolate across borders; and just as authoritarian states — including Azerbaijan — increasingly resort to transnational repression, they also take care to complement commercial and cultural links with efforts at influencing public opinion, directly and indirectly, overtly or covertly. From Moscow to Riyadh to Baku, authoritarian states know the value of maintaining a coterie of propagandists, fellow travellers and the occasional useful idiot; and judging by the chance revelations regarding these regimes’ murky financial dealings, they are also prepared to expend a fair amount to maintain these coteries.
This makes Armenophobia more than “just” a regional problem, confined mainly to Turkey, Azerbaijan and broader Eurasia. Piggybacking on the networks studiously created and maintained by Azerbaijan or by extreme nationalist groups in Turkey’s diaspora, and profiting from a broad lack of Western familiarity with the phenomenon, this particular form of bigotry — with a long history in those parts — is now being normalized in the West. From authorities’ relative inaction at the Grey Wolves’ racist, denialist ideology to the singling out of Armenia and ethnic Armenians in well-worn narratives sourced from Eurasia’s long-standing Armenophobic tradition, recent years have seen an upsurge in this new form of prejudice; unaddressed, this targeting of a small, relatively insignificant minority risks becoming a new normal.
This drip-drip normalization is already visible in the unhealthy — and largely unchallenged — fixations of some commentators in the West on Armenia, and Armenians, as a state, and as an ethnic group. The ethnicity of propagandists Margarita Simonyan and Tigran Keosayan, and other Russian Armenians close to the Putin regime, for instance, is highlighted, accompanied by crude generalizations; Armenians are essentialized as somehow inherently, a-typically terroristic. Armenia is singled out — from among dozens of larger, and far more comfortably situated and economically significant states — for circumventing sanctions against Russia. The collaboration of a tiny minority of Armenians with the Nazi regime is highlighted; the complex and multifaceted Armenian diaspora is reduced to conspiratorial, ultra-nationalist caricature. The country’s complicated, vulnerable geopolitical predicament is reduced to that of a “Russian puppet”, while any attempts at pivoting to the West are denounced as insincere ruses.
Any of the above-mentioned tropes would, if applied to other, more familiar minorities — Jews, or Muslims — effortlessly be identified as the product of prejudice. But Westerners are more familiar with antisemitism and islamophobia: the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion” are well-known, Russian early-20th-century publicist Vassily Velichko’s pseudo-scientific anti-Armenian rants — published and popularized in Azerbaijan in recent decades — less so. The same goes for the trope of the Muslim-as-born-terrorist — in contrast to the Armenian-as-terrorist. This general ignorance in the West of the ingrained nature of Armenophobia among some forms of Eastern European and Eurasian radical right-wing nationalism has left communities and individuals throughout Europe and North America (and beyond) exposed to a constant flow of racist innuendo, humiliating insults, and imported discriminatory practices.
Such Armenophobia has a long track record in Eastern Europe and Eurasia. Over a century ago, various nationalisms converged to create the stereotype of the venal, treacherous, parasitic, “brachycephalic” Armenian – attributes imputed to the ethnic group by the aforementioned Vassily Velichko in his rabidly Armenophobic 1904 missive. Tropes about “sly, greedy Armenians” also emerged in Georgia, when the nationalism of its relatively impoverished aristocratic elite was defined, in no small part, against the ethnic Armenian bourgeoisie in urban centres like Tbilisi. Meanwhile, on the other side of the Russian-Ottoman boundary, an extreme dehumanization of the Armenian minority by Young Turk ideologues preceded the horrors of the 1915 genocide.
These attitudes re-emerged in the late 20th century, first in Turkey — especially among extreme right-wing pan-Turanist groups like the Grey Wolves — then in Azerbaijan, where they became government policy. Velichko’s image of the cunning and manipulative Armenian was taken over by the Azerbaijani regime, amplified into grotesque proportions, resulting in the kinds of extreme hate speech specified above. Through its transnational networks, they have now reached the West, where — absent a clear taboo on Armenophobia — they are at risk of being normalized.
Consider the above-mentioned examples: if any Western author highlighted the Jewish backgrounds of, say, Arkady Rotenberg or Vladimir Solovyov instead of Simonyan or Keosayan’s Armenian roots and freely generalized away at “the Jews”/Israel’s support for genocide in Ukraine, they would — rightly — expose themselves to charges of antisemitism. Suggestions imputing some form of terroristic cultural tradition to Muslim communities would – and are – also immediately countered as “islamophobic”. An author or politician constantly and disproportionately singling out Israel for behaviour also seen in other states would likewise not escape similar opprobrium. Neither are crass, conspiratorial statements on diasporas unknown in anti-Semitic circles; as is, incidentally, a reflexive, automatic tendency to disbelieve one side, and always give a corrupt, and autocratic regime with genocidal intent against the target group the benefit of the doubt, no matter what the context.
Judging by their complete silence on any of the excesses of the regime in Baku, its Western propagandists and cheerleaders appear to have no problem with its outbursts. Quite on the contrary: the Armenian obsession of some of these commentators appears to involve the transference of radical right-wing conspiratorial views on the former to the latter. Not able to revel in their habitual discourses on Jewish-Bolshevik — or Judeo-Masonic — conspiracies for fear of ostracism, they now settle for the next best thing: its Armenian-Russian variant. In these quarters, over-excited references to Simonyan’s and Lavrov’s Armenian roots — rather than their Russian citizenship — have become the equivalent of one-time fascist obsessions with Trotsky and Zinoviev’s Jewish backgrounds.
We all know where such dehumanization leads. For the diaspora, it turns into a normalization of everyday bigotry, clearly visible in the flood of psychopathic social media posts denigrating victims of the 1915 genocide in ways unmentionable in this piece, but apparently fit for consumption on Twitter on and around April 24. For the population of Nagorno-Karabakh, it enables the normalization of ethnic cleansing. Indeed, the general thrust of this trolling, and re-trolling — whether by amateurs, or by Westerners all too willing to sell their names and the added credibility they convey to the highest bidder — is that the devious Armenians deserve what they are getting.
But the ladies and gentlemen in the European Commission don’t appear to mind; they don’t register hate speech as long as it originates from reliable purveyors of hydrocarbons, and remains safely off the public radar. One would, after all, have expected some form of pushback in response to particularly vile attacks on the European-Armenian community by the legislature of a purported Eastern partner — but none were forthcoming. “European values” can apparently only go so far: the geopolitical EU is more than prepared to throw its own citizens under the bus. How credible, then, are its expressions of “concern” for the security of the Karabakh Armenians, who are very much in the eye of this Armenophobic storm?
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