by Muriel Mirak-Weissbach
the Armenian Mirror Spectator
AUGUST 31, 2023 – It was two hundred years ago that Edmund Burke coined the term, the Fourth Estate, but the point he made is as relevant today as then. The reference is to the press, which the British philosopher and politician catalogued as a major power in public affairs, after the three “estates” of the clergy, the nobility and the commoners or bourgeoisie.
Roughly analogous today would be the church, government and the people. Notwithstanding modern perversions and manipulations of mass media, it remains true that the capacity for moral judgment and action, be it on the part of political bodies or the general public, depends on knowledge — awareness and understanding of increasingly complex developments in today’s world affairs.
The threatened genocide of Armenians in Artsakh (Nagorno-Karabakh) is the immediate issue. In Germany the press had been silent or low-key, even after Azerbaijan had effectively isolated the entire region, depriving the Armenian population of basic daily needs for survival. Following publication (also in this newspaper) of the expert opinion by former International Court of Justice Prosecutor Luis Moreno Ocampo, journalists opened their eyes and followed up with increasingly attentive, documented coverage, informing the reading public and political establishment of the alarming developments. In parallel, human rights organizations and political figures mobilized on governmental bodies.
The Ocampo Effect
The appearance of Ocampo’s report in early August was a wake-up call. Most important in Germany was coverage provided by Deutschlandfunk (DLF: Radio Germany), a public broadcasting radio. On August 22, it ran an interview with Anna Aridzanjan, a Yerevan-born journalist for the weekly Stern magazine, significantly titled, “An Underreported Conflict.”
Aridzanjan explained the dearth of coverage with the fact that Azerbaijan bars outside reporters from entrance. Asked if her sources, Artsakh journalists and human rights organizers, were reliable, she explained, they would reap no benefits from false reporting; their interest is to provide accurate information. German press attention has been scant, she said, due not only to lack of access, but because some consider the conflict too distant to be of interest. One asks, why should Germany pay attention? Germany should pay attention, she stressed, and cited Ocampo’s report on the genocide danger. “That is newsworthy,” she said, adding that it was not the first Armenian genocide. Furthermore, in 1915 the Germans knew it was underway and, as acknowledged in the 2016 Bundestag resolution on genocide, were therefore co-responsible. Locating the current crisis in the historical context is the task of journalists.
The themes introduced by the Armenian writer would be echoed and expanded in following coverage, on a daily basis. To cite the most important: on August 25, Germany’s largest press agency, Deutsche Presse Agentur (DPA), issued a release, picked up in the Berlin press, entitled, “No Bread, No Medicine: Desperate Situation in Caucasus.” Providing objective, factual information, it cited Ocampo’s report, adding that this recalls the genocide of 1915. Another dispatch that day dealt with “Europe’s Role in the Berg-Karabakh Conflict,” and a Berlin daily, Tagesspiegel, carried an article, whose title quoted a Karabakh Armenian, “We Have Lost the Right to Dream.”
The expert opinion of Ocampo was featured as well on August 25 in Zeit Online, the online platform of Germany’s largest weekly, Die Zeit, with over a half-million distribution.
“Nagorno-Karabakh: Facing Starvation” presented facts and figures — 20 trucks with 400 tons of humanitarian goods waiting at the border — and complained that “only appeals” had been forthcoming from the international community, European Union, and Germany. What is required is a UN Security Council resolution to lift the blockade, and an airlift. The daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ), also a newspaper of record, joined the growing press coverage on August 26 with a major article, “Blockaded, Threatened, and Vulnerable: Nagorno-Karabakh Cut Off Since December: The Situation Continues to Worsen.” Friedrich Schmidt, correspondent for Russia, Belarus, Caucasus and Central Asia, received his report via video hook-up from 26-year-old Gohar Gyurjyan in Martakert, who described the lack of all vital needs, food, medicine, fuel, electricity (none at night and limited by day). The energy crisis has been aggravated, she said, by reduced efficiency of hydropower plants, due to low water levels. A social worker, who walks to work daily and has lost ten pounds, Gohar sees no future as part of Azerbaijan: “How can you co-exist with people who want you dead, merely because you are Armenian?” Aliyev’s “main aim is Artsakh, but without the Armenians.” Nonetheless, she will remain, convinced that “Evil will lose out.”
The FAZ also speaks with Luis Moreno Ocampo, who reiterates points from his written opinion, saying Aliyev’s destructive intent is clear in his resolve to persist with the blockade regardless of the court’s demands. The Azerbaijani leader must be aware of the consequences of his actions, “not only because they are apparent,” but because politicians and the court have said so. “The intention should be deduced from the facts,” he reiterates. For Ocampo, the international community is duty bound to halt the “continuing genocide.” This could occur if the UN Security Council referred the case to the International Criminal Court; something legally “possible,” but politically complicated, considering Baku’s raw materials exports. Ocampo, as a “private individual” can only issue warnings and open people’s eyes. The same day, an updated commentary by Ronya Othmann in the FAZ sounded the alarm: “Look at Nagorno-Karabakh!” Rejecting denial of genocide, then and now, Othmann reviews the facts and urges preventive action before it is too late.
A leading expert on the region, Dr. Stefan Meister, provided insight into the geopolitical and economic dimensions of the crisis in an OpEd appearing August 27 in Zeit Online under the heading, “People Are Starving in Nagorno-Karabakh, the EU Looks the Other Way.”
Meister, who is head of the Center for Order and Governance in Eastern Europe, Russia, and Central Asia at the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP), draws attention to the role of Russia. Though a military and political ally of poorly armed Armenia, Russia seeks relief from sanctions through alternate trade routes, like the north-south corridor from Azerbaijan to Iran and India, as well as Turkey. “This, in turn,” he writes, “strengthens the negotiating position vis-à-vis Russia of Azerbaijan and Turkey,” who have deep military and economic ties. Meister believes Russia and Azerbaijan must have agreed on the latter’s aggressions against Artsakh, since Russian troops “always withdraw in time and do nothing against the blockade.” As for Azerbaijan’s strategy, Meister sees a “salami tactic” at work: Aliyev moves from blockade to isolation, progressively blackmailing Yerevan to accept Azerbaijan’s unconditional sovereignty over Artsakh.
Not only Russia, but also the EU is seeking alterative trade routes, via the Caucasus to Asia; and the EU, increasingly dependent on Azerbaijan for gas, is looking the other way. In an understatement, Meister writes, this is “problematic … when people in Karabakh are starving.” Furthermore, though these energy supplies may be important, they are “not decisive;” nor will massive deliveries be available. “Here the EU’s credibility regarding values and geopolitics suffers. Deals with authoritarian Azerbaijan at the expense of the more pluralistic Armenia cast the EU in a negative light, in the region and beyond.” Meister sees the need for authentic EU—and German—commitment to conflict resolution. Concretely he calls for “mechanisms for implementation, sanctions, and political will to become active with its own peacekeeping troops beyond the EU observer mission.” Europe should develop negotiating leverage in relations with Azerbaijan; the EU is a powerful market for energy, and could provide industrial capacities for infrastructure development. “Instead,” he concludes, “the Europeans seem to let themselves be played and don’t want to burn their fingers in this conflict in a key geopolitical region.”
By August 28, public exposure of the genocide danger—and of governmental inaction—escalated. The leftist Tageszeitung (TAZ) featured a commentary by Tigran Petrosyan, who minced no words. “Germany Shares Guilt/ The Accepted Genocide: Armenian Nagorno-Karabakh is Cut Off from the World, the Population is Starving, Fuel-rich Azerbaijan is More Important to the West.” For Petrosyan this is “a Déjà-vu.” In 1915 it was 1.5 million Christian genocide victims, today 120,000 Armenians face starvation. “This genocidal situation,” he writes, “could come into being because the international community – as earlier during World War I – is not looking. The German federal government too, like the German Empire 1915/16, bears a share of the responsibility.” After reviewing the facts, the journalist elaborates on the historical parallel: just as back then German diplomats and missionaries appealed for intervention, the Imperial Chancellor Bethmann Hollweg replied with his notorious pledge to preserve the alliance with Ottoman Turkey regardless of the consequences for Armenians, so today Berlin turns a blind eye. Petrosyan recalls the 2016 Genocide resolution passed by the Bundestag, which acknowledged German co-responsibility. And he reminds readers that, following protests by Turkey, the government two months later specified that the resolution was “not legally binding.” Thousands of parliamentarians, he writes, have “looked the other way, while Ankara delivered,” and goes further to denounce Baku’s notorious corruption of its lobbyists.
Petrosyan’s prose may have offended sensitive readers, but when one learns what he was referring to, one should think twice. What, indeed, has been the federal government’s response to the growing press exposure of impending genocide? On August 22, at a government press conference in Berlin, government spokesman Steffen Hebestreit was confronted by a question on Karabakh. It was all well and good, said Jenny Günther, for the government to express concern regarding the crisis. Comparing the clear sanctions against Russia and Putin for the Ukraine aggression with the response to genocide threatened against ethnic Armenians, she referenced Chancellor Scholz’s appreciation of Azerbaijani President Aliyev as a reliable partner in energy deals. The question she had was, whether a genocide of Armenians was being considered “acceptable.”
Hebestreit, who is also Head of the Press and Information Office of the federal government, replied, “I almost reacted with ‘Naja’ – that’s what I say when I’m confronted with propaganda and not questions.” The German “Naja” is a slang expression of dismissal, roughly translated as “oh, well” or “y’know,” “anyway” or perhaps better, “whatever….” Hebestreit continued, saying the Russian war on Ukraine was not comparable to the “case” of Armenia and Azerbaijan, that the international community was concerned and engaged. He denied ignoring a genocide, criticizing use of the term as a “battle cry,” “inappropriate,” and “propaganda.” It is not to be overlooked that similar language was uttered by Yashar Aliyev, the Azerbaijan Ambassador at the August 16 UN Security Council session, in refuting Armenia’s assertions.
The incident provoked an uproar in the press. It was not the first time Hebestreit had had problems with the issue of genocide. It was recalled that he had committed a comparable blunder one year ago, when he failed to react after Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, at a joint press conference with Chancellor Scholz, had uttered offensive remarks relativizing the Holocaust.
When Will Berlin Respond?
Pressure is building not only in the press but in the streets of Berlin. The human rights organizations, Society for Threatened Peoples (GfbV), and Against Genocide, for International Understanding (AGA), staged a large demonstration on August 23 in front of the Chancellor’s office. Following greetings by Sarah Reinke, Eastern Europe Speaker for GfbV, AGA chairwoman Tessa Hofmann said in brief remarks, they were protesting not only the 8-month long blocked of the Lachin Corridor but the “silence of the German government.” After summarizing the devastating impact on the population, lacking food, medical care, fuel for transportation, and energy, she cited Armenian UNICEF representative Lussine Karachanyan, who deplored the fact that on September 1, when worldwide, schools at all levels will open, in Artsakh “the school bells will not ring” but “silence will be deafening” as “thousands of undernourished children and youngsters” must bear the brunt of this terrorist action. “For the love of God, prevent this Hell … otherwise it will guarantee the destruction of human civilization.”
Hofmann documented Azerbaijani President Aliyev’s genocidal intent, citing his own ultimatum to Artsakh Armenians, either to capitulate or suffer the consequences. Refuting the notion that the crisis stems from a territorial conflict, Hofmann recalled the “more than century-long denial of self-determination of an indigenous majority, with genocidal consequences,” and referenced the Lemkin Institute’s latest Red Alert, charging those political leaders of Europe, Russia, and the USA, who have respected Aliyev’s impunity, for responsibility in the starvation death of Karo Hovhannisyan. She also quoted a poll among Baku Azerbaijanis, showing that only 38 percent thought coexistence with Armenians were possible, whereas 67 percent believed they would be expelled or killed. Hofmann called for the German government to impose sanctions, lift the blockade, and guarantee the rights to self-determination.
Gerayer Koutcharian recalled Turkish President Erdogan’s comment at the 2020 “Victory Parade,” that they were “finishing what we began in 1915.” Today, Azerbaijan has assumed the role, aiming to eliminate Armenia, seen as an obstacle to the union of Turkic peoples; “first Artsakh, then Syunik” in southern Armenia, a country Aliyev considers “West Azerbaijan.”
Similar appeals have arrived on the desks of government officials. Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock, for one, received a letter from Till Mansmann, a Liberal Party (FDP) member of the Bundestag and President of the German-Armenian Forum. On August 2, he wrote describing the dramatic conditions in Nagorno-Karabakh, and called on the foreign minister to “increase political pressure” on the Azerbaijan government to allow unhindered access to humanitarian relief goods. In addition, he asked her to consider German aid shipments. “We cannot solve this conflict in the short term,” he concluded, “but we must not allow a hunger catastrophe on our continent.” The reply he received two weeks later from Baerbock’s office was disappointing. The Foreign Ministry had been following the “tense supply situation” with “concern,” and the German representative at the UN Security Council session had joined those calling for humanitarian access, etc. Azerbaijan offered the Agdam route, but the “Armenian de facto ‘authorities’ from Nagorno-Karabakh” reject this. Foreign Minister Baerbock “spoke unambiguously of the importance of the Lachin Corridor” when Armenian Foreign Minister Mirzoyan visited on February 8, 2023. Conclusion: Germany continues to support conflict resolution, etc.
Prime Time News
Amid mounting exposure in the press, official media finally covered the crisis on August 28. The Second German Television, ZDF, carried a report from Karabakh on its prime time news program, and at the 9:45 p.m. late news, the coverage was expanded. Despite Azerbaijan’s ban on foreign media access, ZDF had fresh film footage of Armenians lining up for bread, waiting for their number on a list to be called; among them, a mother of four, three of them soldiers. A dentist was receiving only emergency cases due to lack of supplies. His message: Azerbaijan has posed an ultimatum; our only option is to fight. The late news broadcast included a short clip with Ocampo, saying the situation has a name, “genocide.” The aim of the blockade was to starve the Armenians. Anchorman Christian Sievers added that 20 trucks with 400 tons of humanitarian goods were at the border, not being allowed through.
The Fourth Estate has showed what it can do. That would not have been possible without the pressure exerted by the Third Estate, the People, in the form of human rights organizations. On September 23, the GvfV and AGA will hold an expanded demonstration in front of the Chancellor’s office. Now it is up to the government to open its eyes and take action.