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I am an American, but by blood, I am an Armenian. I rose from the ashes of the Armenian Genocide of 1915. I am the grandson of a survivor and the great-grandson of a man who was among those murdered.
There is now fierce fighting between Armenians and Azerbaijanis in the region known as Nagorno-Karabakh. As an Armenian, as a lawyer trained in public policy, and as an advocate for human rights, I need to speak out and use my unique background and experience to explain this crisis of human proportions, which threatens the peace of an entire region.
Most importantly, I feel the need to voice my most profound concern for the people of Nagorno-Karabakh (Artsakh), Armenia, and the Caucasus. Sadly, there will be no peace without the proper recognition of Artsakh by civilized nations.
Encouraged by its ally Turkey, Azerbaijan’s offensive that started on September 27 has targeted churches and schools in Artsakh’s cities Stepanakert and Sushi. Turkey’s genocidal past against the Armenians and its supplying to Azerbaijan of advanced weaponry and mercenaries fresh off Syria and Libya’s battlefields contribute to the world’s concerns about the unnecessary loss of life in a potential regional war.
For Azerbaijan, the crisis relates to its misconstruction of an ill-conceived plan designed by none other than Stalin as a concession to the newly established Turkish Republic of 1923 and post-soviet law about self-determination. Under that law, Artsakh convened referenda in 1988 and 1991 to declare its independence from the Soviet Union and secede from Azerbaijan.
During the ensuing war between 1988 and 1994, 30,000 people died for that independence to secure Artsakh’s liberation. While there have been small border scrimmages and disputes with Azerbaijan over the last 26 years, Artsakh peacefully established a successful democratic republic on her ancestral land of more than 3,000 years.
So why now and why the extreme, hateful violence by Azerbaijan to uproot 150,000 people living in peace?
The answer lies in the interest and motivation of two authoritarian leaders of two ideologically bound states. History is critically relevant today to understand the misguided cause of Presidents Erdogan of Turkey and Aliyev of Azerbaijan; Two regional authoritarians seeking an external enemy to redistribute power and distract from internal concerns of moral and economic bankruptcy.
By all accounts, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk (Father of Turks) ended that failed ideology by declaring the Republic of Turkey free of Ottoman rule by abolishing the sultanate.
Years later, Turkey excelled in diplomacy until the EU suspended accession talks due to Turkey’s reversal of course in western democratic norms and the return of the same ideology that once almost destroyed an entire country. Turkey’s pretensions were reborn.
President Erdogan did, in fact, dramatically alter the course of Turkey. As an authoritarian, enamored by the Ottoman caliphate, Erdogan has consolidated power by forcing a once independent media to become his Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) messenger. After an alleged coup against his government, Erdogan was able to jail military, judicial, media, and political opponents. One of his most notable accomplishments for his authoritarianism brand was his ability to tame the Turkish army, which Ataturk established as an independent safety valve to political corruption.
Today, once a country full of promise, Turkey is on the verge of complete collapse again based on this past and failed ideology of expansionism and ethnic hatred. Sadly, the good Turkish people are trapped in a country they no longer recognize. This country is not what Ataturk established nor envisioned.
Similarly, President Aliyev of Azerbaijan consolidated the power of the Aliyev dynasty, which has held power since 1993. The ruling party dominates the media, uses public resources freely, and cracks down on public protest. Like in Turkey, critical journalists and political opponents are harassed, arrested, and jailed. On the Transparency International’s Corruption index of 2019, Azerbaijan ranks 126th out of 180 ranked countries. Some of the Azeri people are equally trapped in a country they wished it lived in peace with its neighbors.
Erdogan and Aliyev revived the pure ethnic ambitions of the Ottoman Committee of Union and Progress, which masterminded and ordered the extermination of its Christian minorities in 1915.
Erdogan’s and Aliyev’s expansionism and colonialism are perhaps their last act. Turkey attacked Syria, Libya, and now its peaceful neighbor Armenia and Artsakh with the help of her ally in violation of international law to divert attention from its decaying economy, failed internal policies, and disgraced foreign policy even in the Muslim world. While Erdogan blames the West for trying to harm Turkey, the truth is that his investors are spooked by his excesses and his pursuit of a failed ideology.
Aliyev, on the other hand, has been waiting for this opportunity for years. The international chaos on the pandemic, the contentious US elections, the US, Russia and EU’s lack of leadership gave these two the perfect opening to reclaim their Ottoman ambitions.
Their last act to prop up another failed, corrupt regime clinging to fossil fuel in Azerbaijan may very well be the final draw to permanently damage whatever is left of their respective credibility in the world.
*Frank V. Zerunyan, J.D. LL.D. (hc) is a Professor of the Practice of Governance and Director of Executive Education and ROTC Programs at the University of Southern California Sol Price School of Public Policy
Frank V. Zerunyan is a Professor of the Practice of Governance at the University of Southern California (USC) Sol Price School of Public Policy (USC Price) and Director of Executive Education at USC Price Bedrosian Center on Governance. Professor Zerunyan oversees USC’s Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) as the Director and University Liaison for the U.S. Air Force, Army, Naval Reserves ROTC, and Nautical Science Programs.
Professor Zerunyan’s principal areas of expertise include governance, public-private partnerships, civic and ethical leadership, land use, medical regulation, negotiation, and executive education. He lectures locally and globally to build capacity and foster leadership among public executives worldwide. He is the author of books, book chapters, and many short articles published nationally, internationally, and on USC Price’s “Faculty Perspectives.” Professor Zerunyan is often quoted in the media and is a USC resource for journalists as an expert in governance and leadership. He is also an expert on public administration at the United Nations Innovation Branch (formerly Capacity Building Branch).
For his influential advisory role in the Republic of Armenia, he was awarded LL.D. Doctor of Laws – Honoris Causa by the Public Administration Academy of the Republic of Armenia. Professor Zerunyan designs curricula and teaches at the American University in Armenia, Yerevan State University, and the Vazgen Sargsyan Military University in Armenia, with an honorary rank of colonel. He also teaches for the U.S. Navy at the U.S. Naval Service Training Command.
Professor Zerunyan serves on the editorial boards of the Public Administration Scientific Journal for the Republic of Armenia and the Ukrainian Law Review. He is on the board of councilors of Anahuac University Law School, Xalapa, Mexico (Consejo Consultivo de la Escuela de Derecho).
Professor Zerunyan earned his Doctor of Jurisprudence (Doctor of Laws) degree from Western State University College of Law and his Bachelor of Arts degree from California State University Long Beach. He also completed his advanced legal education in Corporate Taxation at the University of Southern California Law Center (USC Gould). He is a graduate of the California League of Cities’ Civic Leadership Institute.
Professor Zerunyan, trained and practiced as a lawyer, is a four-term Mayor and Councilmember in the City of Rolling Hills Estates, California. He serves on several city, county, and regional policy boards and committees. He was also a gubernatorial appointee under Governor Schwarzenegger, serving 38 million medical consumers on the Medical Board of California.