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Azerbaijan's assault against Armenia threatens democracy everywhere

Azerbaijan's assault against Armenia threatens democracy everywhere
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On September 27, Azerbaijan began a coordinated full-scale aerial and missile attack on Artsakh, Armenia. Turkey has played an especially active role by not only supporting, but also driving much of Azerbaijan’s aggression. It has provided its proxy with foreign mercenaries and the full extent of its military arsenal, including its F-16s . In fact, shortly after the assault on Artsakh began, Turkish President Recep Erdogan announced his full support for Azerbaijan and called for the overthrow of the Armenian government. These tactics are not new: Erdogan has employed them countless times, from its intervention in Libya to its dispute with Greece in the Mediterranean.

Unfortunately, some actors in the international community have dismissed Azerbaijan's role as the aggressor, calling both sides to “prepare populations for peace.” But if Armenia was never in search for war in the first place, what more do they have to prepare for?

In contrast, Azerbaijan has been preparing its population for war over the past two decades — institutionalizing anti-Armenian sentiment, stockpiling military assets purchased from Turkey and Israel, and steadily sidelining efforts for a negotiated solution to the conflict. In fact, Azerbaijan recently disavowed the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Minsk Group peace process when President Ilham Aliyev called the Nagorno Karabakh (Artsakh) mediation efforts “pointless” and threatened to resolve the issue militarily. What’s happening now shouldn’t come as a surprise to the international community — Azerbaijan telegraphed it all along.

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Azerbaijan and Turkey have been working strategically to influence international public opinion, especially in the United States, Israel and Europe. Azerbaijan’s nefarious foreign dealings were recently exposed by an Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) investigation into the “Azerbaijani laundromat,” an extensive money laundering operation that saw Azerbaijan funnel over $2.9 billion dollars between 2012 and 2014 into foreign shell corporations to buy favor among international institutions, politicians, lobbyists and journalists. UNESCO and the European Parliament were extensively targeted, and recent reports have surfaced from Israel of the transfer of a significant amount of funds from the state-owned Israeli Aerospace Industries to a laundromat-linked account after a $5 billion contract was signed between the two.

Azerbaijan's public relations efforts have sought to obscure the international community’s awareness of the virulent state-sponsored anti-Armenian racism throughout Azerbaijani society that has resulted in the incitement of hate crimes, such as the destruction of cultural monuments and the granting of impunity to the perpetrators of hate crimes. Moreover, Azerbaijan and Turkey have repeatedly dismissed and denied the Armenian genocide, not only refusing to take accountability for the actions of their predecessors in perpetrating this crime against humanity, but going to the lengths of openly espousing the very ideologies that informed the genocide 105 years ago.

These actions have had international reverberations. For example, following Azerbaijan's aggression against the Republic of Armenia in July, tens of thousands of Azerbaijani demonstrators chanted “death to Armenians” in the streets of Baku. That has spread to diaspora even in the United States, where in recent weeks, most notably in San Francisco, a series of attacks were waged against an Armenian church and elementary schools.

Ironically, Azerbaijan has often touted itself as a leader in human rights and religious liberty. But according to measures of religious liberty from the Varieties of Democracy, Azerbaijan ranks within the 10th percentile of countries across the world as of 2018 — far below the median. In contrast, Armenia ranks at roughly the unweighted mean across all countries in the data.

While religious liberty might seem like a luxury to some students of international relations, it is an important determinant of human flourishing. Using a sample of over 150 countries surveyed between 2006 and 2018, new research from one of the authors shows that religious liberty has a causal effect on human flourishing, particularly among religious minorities. Importantly, these results are present even after controlling for measures of economic freedom (e.g., property rights) from the Heritage Foundation’s Index of Economic Freedom and measures of economic activity (e.g., GDP).

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The research suggests that religious liberty is a prerequisite for democratic governance, aiding the process for civic engagement and women's empowerment and reducing the potential for public and political corruption. Not surprisingly, limiting the freedom to choose and arrive at even the most basic judgments about their identity stifles creativity and increases the potential for corruption by overly zealous and powerful bureaucrats. In this sense, until Azerbaijan recognizes the legitimate right to self-determination of the Armenian people free of threat of persecution for their religion, culture and ethnic identity, peace is going to be impossible.

Through the years, the chief failure of the OSCE Minsk Group – the entity mandated with finding a settlement to this conflict – and its three co-chairs – the United States, Russia and France – has been the refusal to directly attribute blame to Azerbaijan for its constant aggression. Despite efforts by the U.S to curtail Azerbaijan’s aggression during the 1991-94 war, and in recent years its advocacy for the implementation of the Royce-Engel peace protocols, successive administrations have continued to appease Azerbaijan, including the recent earmarking of $100 million in military assistance to the Caspian dictatorship earlier this year.

While Azerbaijan has positioned itself as a key strategic partner to the U.S. in the region, often cynically deploying its relationship with Israel as an example of its good-faith partnership, its close ties to an increasingly dictatorial and expansionist Turkey, as well as its oft-overlooked relationship with Iran and Russia, demonstrates that Azerbaijan is only out to serve its own interests, even if that means transferring millions of dollars into Russian and Iranian state-linked companies, or selling Iran a 10 percent stake in one of its major oil pipelines despite international sanctions regimes.

While Azerbaijan has attempted to shield itself from international scrutiny by riding on the presence of tense domestic politics in the United States and a global pandemic, we cannot ignore it any longer. The international community must recognize that failure to stand up for religious minorities anywhere is a threat to them everywhere. Inaction creates precedent and emboldens dictators.

Christos A. Makridis is an assistant research professor at Arizona State University, a non-resident fellow at Baylor University, and a senior adviser at Gallup. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram @camakridis. Alex Galitsky is communications director of the Armenian National Committee of America - Western Region, the largest Armenian grassroots advocacy organization in the United States. Follow him on Twitter @algalitsky.