This February marks the 30th anniversary of the events that launched the still-simmering war between Armenia and Azerbaijan, and the milestone has been marked by politicized, conspiratorial distortions of history that illustrate how far the region is from an honest reckoning of what happened.
On February 22, Azerbaijan's Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Prosecutor General’s Office held a joint event marking the February 1988 pogroms in the city of Sumgayit, in which mobs rampaged for days, beating and killing Armenians. The violence came just days after Armenian representatives in the then-Nagorno Karabakh Autonomous Oblast voted (while their Azerbaijani colleagues boycotted) to ask to leave Soviet Azerbaijan and join Soviet Armenia.
The Sumgayit attacks were carried out by local Azerbaijanis, “due to a combination of what we now call 'fake news' about alleged Armenian atrocities against Azerbaijanis, enraged crowds, and a cowardly local leadership, and were made worse by a lack of decisiveness in the Kremlin,” wrote Thomas de Waal, a Caucasus scholar at Carnegie Europe, in a recent commentary marking the anniversary.
But the Azerbaijani official event told a different story, in which “Armenians living in Sumgayit tried to provocatively burn down their homes and property and blame Azerbaijanis,” according to a local media account of the event. An investigation by the prosecutors office claimed to find that a “diversion group” of 20-25 people who “weren’t residents of Sumgayit and were speaking in Armenian among themselves” instigated the attacks, said Nadir Mirzayev, a senior investigator.
The Armenians were in turn supported by the Soviet central authorities who, in this version of events, carried out other such nationalist provocations around the USSR. “The similar unrest and provocations were carried out by the KGB in Osh (Kyrgyzstan), Fergana (Uzbekistan), Tbilisi (Georgia), Vilnius (Lithuania) and other peripheral parts of the Soviet Union,” the Azerbaijani MFA said in a statement issued on the anniversary.
This is not a new conspiracy theory, but it appears to be the first time it's been embraced so formally by the government. “There's never been this sort of announcement, especially on such an official level,” wrote Azerbaijani journalist Shahin Rzayev in a public Facebook post.
Also not new is Azerbaijan's efforts to deflect attention from Sumgayit by emphasizing another February tragedy, the massacre by Armenian forces of hundreds of Muslim civilians in the village of Khojaly in 1992. Baku has exerted substantial efforts in recent years to gain international recognition of the massacre, which it often refers to as a “genocide.”
In Baku's rhetoric, however, it's the Armenians who are deflecting. “Over the years, Armenian separatists have been referring to Sumgayit events in order to justify their aggressive policy, the Khojaly genocide and other crimes committed in Azerbaijan,” said Eldar Sultanov, the prosecutor's office spokesman, speaking at the Baku event.
This year, an “action plan” put together by the presidential administration called for marking Khojaly by “holding press conferences, commemorative ceremonies at embassies, consulates and diaspora organizations of Azerbaijan in foreign countries, ensuring media coverage of these events both within the country and abroad.” The Center for Strategic Studies, a state think tank, also took the occasion to launch a new book, Armenian Fraud. The History Based on Fraud.
Armenia has responded to all of this with distortions of its own. At a February 22 hearing in Armenia's parliament on the Sumgayit massacres, speaker of parliament Ara Babloyan said that “Azerbaijani fascism surpasses Hitler's in its cruelty.”
The historical conflict spilled over into the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe last month, as well, when Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan spoke and was challenged by an Azerbaijani official to account for Khojaly. Sargsyan denied that Armenians had carried out the attack, and referred to a discredited theory blaming Azerbaijan itself for the massacre. “Why do you need to call something that never occurred and was never carried out by the Armenians a ‘genocide?'” he asked.