Letter to Lord Laird : Deceived by Propaganda from Azerbaijan

On 30 April, the new Azerbaijani film ‘Xoca’ (Khoja) was screened at the Soho Hotel to over 130 Londoners, representing many sections of the capital’s multicultural population. The audience included H.E. Fakhraddin Gurbanov, Azerbaijani Ambassador to the UK, Lord Laird of Artigarvan and Pavel Bobek, Second Secretary, Embassy of the Czech Republic to the UK and other members of the diplomatic community in London. The event was organised by The European Azerbaijan Society (TEAS) and the ANS Group. Before the screening Lord Laird spoke about Nagorno-Karabakh. This letter is in response to this screening, as well as other documented statements that he has made about the conflict.

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Dear Lord Laird

I read with interest the press release by the European Azerbaijan Society about the showing of the film, Xoca, in London on 30th April 2013. The film, a fictional story based on the events of 1992, which was directed by an Azerbaijani military journalist, presumably without any Armenian involvement, stated that it “reflects the reality and truth of the Khojaly Massacre”. Any impartial observer would know that the events around Khojaly are enshrouded in much controversy, and that there is evidence to question the sequence and location of events, the numbers involved and the direct role of the Azeri military in the deaths. There are questions with many of the photographs used in the Azeri propaganda some of which are clearly taken directly from conflicts and tragedies in other parts of the world. To state that something represents the “truth” on this subject only makes sense in the context of a partisan audience with no interest in seeking and understanding all sides of the story. In this context, I am disturbed that a member of the UK House of Lords and therefore a representative of this country is involved in such propaganda.

You are quoted as saying in the Press Release :

“I have personal experience of the conflict in Northern Ireland, and understand what has happened in Azerbaijan regarding territory. During my multiple visits to Azerbaijan in recent years, I have come to realise that the ongoing Armenian occupation of Azerbaijani territory is a far greater issue than was the case in Northern Ireland. It must be remembered that four United Nations Security Council resolutions have been passed against the occupation, yet remain unimplemented.”

The only connection that I can see between Northern Ireland and Azerbaijan is that they both did not exist before 1920, and so, any long term claims to territorial rights are questionable for both countries. The over-arching philosophy that was applied to Northern Ireland, by the UK Government was the respect for the rights of self-determination; a philosophy that is not being applied to the people of Nagorno-Karabakh. I am sure you will be well aware that in February 1988 that the people of Nagorno-Karabakh voted, democratically, under the laws of the Soviet Union and in line with Gorbachev’s policy of restructuring under perestroika to join with Armenia. This led, in a matter of weeks, to the killings of Armenians in Sumgait and their eventual forced evacuation in the following months and years.

The war in Nagorno-Karabakh was an act of aggression by Azerbaijan. The blockading of the Lachin corridor which prevented humanitarian aid getting from Armenia to the people was perpetrated by the Azeris. This resulted in a serious lack of food, water and medical supplies to the men, women and children who merely wanted to live peacefully in the place where they had lived for generations. The Azeris continuously bombed Stepanakert from Shushi and Khojaly for years, killing and wounding hundreds, if not thousands, and subjecting the citizens to daily misery. Together with the Russian military they carried out Operation Ring which resulted in the forced arrest of ordinary people in the outlying villages, subjected them to torture, beatings, and in most cases only released them after paying money. And in April 1992 there was the terrible massacre at Maragha, and your colleague, Baroness Cox, was one of the first people on the scene.

I know all of this, not because I have just read books, or listened to people representing the Government, or benefited from funded trips to Nagorno-Karabakh or because I’m an influential member of the UK establishment. I know this because I have spoken to ordinary people in Stepanakert, Shushi and the villages, and seen and heard it directly. I have listened to their stories, watched them cry, and seen their wounds.

You are reported in a Trend.az news article that “Armenia lies about the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict”; and you believe that Azerbaijan doesn’t?!

The latest Freedom House Report condemns Azerbaijan’s record and explains the decline in their rating to “increased violence against journalists and also legal amendments that further limited access to information.” Transparency International, in their Corruption Perceptions Index for 2012 placed Azerbaijan at 139 out of 176 countries; this is lower than previous years. The Organised Crime and Corruption Reporting Project awarded President Aliyev their “Person of the Year”:

“The President of Azerbaijan has been compared to a mafia crime boss in US diplomatic cables, and is referred to as a dictator by many analysts. What is clear is that the Aliyev family has been systematically grabbing shares of the most profitable businesses in the country. This year, investigative reports by OCCRP and Radio Free Europe revealed for the first time well-documented evidence that his family has secret ownership stakes in the country’s largest businesses including bank, construction companies, gold mines and phone companies. They also secretly amassed property abroad in places like the Czech Republic. The Azeri government has responded to these revelations with silence. Aliyev’s administration also failed to investigate the harassment and blackmail of OCCRP journalist Khadija Ismayilova earlier this year. While Azerbaijan has worked hard to improve its image worldwide, this year’s reporting paints a picture that looks more like a petty dictatorship”

In your opening speech in the House of Lords on 6th November 2012 on “Azerbaijan and the South Caucasus” you stated that “The president is genuinely popular, and people are optimistic about the future of the country.” How do you know that? Did he, or his representatives tell you that? It certainly would not have come about through independent journalism

You also state:

“However, there is one large cloud which hangs over the whole country. That cloud is the 20 year-old conflict with Armenia, which is the continuing illegal military occupation of Nagorno-Karabakh and the seven surrounding Azerbaijani regions. There are also the resultant 875,000 refugees and internally displaced persons who are still unable to return to their homes and lands.”

I assume you do not believe that those 875,000 people were displaced from Nagorno-Karabakh. In the 1979 Soviet survey there were about 40,000 Azeris in Nagorno-Karabakh, out of a total of 160,000. If the 875,000 is a real figure then these people are refugees from Armenia. Do you think that it is likely that 800,000+ people will want to return to the Republic of Armenia? Given that Azerbaijan has a military budget in excess of Armenia’s GDP why do you think these refugees are still living in camps when, if the Government really cared about their welfare, they would divert some of their oil wealth to decent accommodation; that’s what a modern, caring country would do.

Tale Heydarov, the Chairman and Founder of The European Azerbaijan Society, was also at the film screening. Heydarov is the son of Kamaladdin Heydarov, the Minister of Emergency Situations (MES), and who is the head of the second most powerful commercial family in Azerbaijan. The MES is considered by some to be a para-military unit. He was also, at the age of 35, Chairmen of the State Customs Committee, an organisation that is considered corrupt even by Azerbaijani standards.

Given the patronage that you, and a number of other people give to The European Azerbaijan Society do you feel that you have done sufficient due diligence to ensure that representatives of the UK Parliament are adequately protected in their relationships with this regime?

The lessons that Northern Ireland does tell us is that the vast majority of the ordinary people just want peace from whichever side. However it does rely on those who have influence putting their personal pride, lust for power and money, to one side, and representing the citizens of their country. The people of Nagorno-Karabakh never wanted war, they just wanted to be connected with their fellow Armenians ( just like the people of Northern Ireland want to remain part of the UK) – this was met with aggression from Azerbaijan. Many ordinary men and women from the towns and villages joined forces and defended their families against these attacks and to this day they are only concerned about defence. Only Azerbaijan will restart the war.

I am always concerned that people like yourself, and other members of the UK institution, unwittingly give credibility to the Azerbaijani propaganda which does nothing to move any peace talks further forwards, and actually reinforces an anti-Armenian position.

You said in the House of Lords debate in November 2012

“There has also been a blurring of the lines, with some Armenians unable to separate Nagorno-Karabakh from their campaign for recognition of the genocide”.

I’m sorry to say, but this highlights just how little you know about the plight of the Armenians. They were subjected to massacres at the hands of the Turks of the Ottoman Empire from the late 19th Century to well into the 1920’s; events which remain unrecognised for being Genocide. When something remains unrecognised, it can happen again. Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh are wedged between Turkey and Azerbaijan who regularly publish anti-Armenian rhetoric, and promote the notion of ethnic cleansing of Nagorno-Karabakh – and you think the Genocide is not relevant?

I have been to Nagorno-Karabakh on 7 occasions as an independent person, with no Armenian background, funded totally by myself, and with no invite whatsoever from any citizen of the Republic. I have been allowed free entry and have always been welcomed. I guarantee you that if you chose to go, then you would have no problem whatsoever and I could even help you with the arrangements. If I tried to go to Azerbaijan I would be surprised if they would let me in, and if they did, I would expect to be followed, with a high risk of being taken into custody.

Whilst I understand that the UK has to find ways to trade and engage with many different types of countries throughout the world, I do not understand why it is necessary for organisations to actively promote propaganda on behalf of questionable regimes, particularly where that effort is to the detriment of another group of people in an on-going conflict. I think we should avoid losing our moral compass at all costs.

I hope you will give due consideration to my perspective and I look forward to your response.

Yours sincerely

Russell Pollard

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Categories: Khojaly, Letters

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