By Emil Danielyan
The Armenian-Azerbaijani war of words over cultural heritage escalated on Wednesday when Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian pleaded with the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization to intervene in the alleged destruction of Armenian historical monuments in Azerbaijan.
In a speech at UNESCO's biannual general conference in Paris, Oskanian accused the Azerbaijani government of “systematically” demolishing a medieval Armenian cemetery in the Nakhichevan exclave.
His calls followed repeated Azerbaijani allegations, also made in the international arena, that the Armenians are destroying Muslim shrines in the lands occupied by them in the 1991-94 war for Nagorno-Karabakh. Each party to the conflict has flatly denied the other’s accusations of cultural vandalism and is trying to win international support for its case.
“Azerbaijan succeeded in eliminating the Armenians of Nakhichevan. There are none there today. However, even when the live Armenians were gone, memorials of their centuries-long past remained,” Oskanian said, referring to the cemetery near the local town of Julfa, called Jugha by Armenians.
The historical site used to have the largest collection of traditional Armenian cross stones or “khachkars” dating from the 9th to the 16th centuries. Armenian sources say that the destruction of the estimated 5,000 stones encrusted with crosses, Armenian inscriptions and patterns began in Soviet times and was completed this year.
“Witnesses on the other side of the [Azerbaijani-Iranian] border observed what could only be government-sanctioned operations,” Oskanian charged. “Photos shot from a distance show systematic, individual destruction of each huge monolith.”
“I once again repeat, with full responsibility and with a clear conscience, our invitation to UNESCO to send monitors to the region to see the destruction where and as it is happening,” he added.
The Jugha cemetery was the subject of recriminations traded by Oskanian and an Azerbaijani deputy foreign minister, Mahmud Mamedkuliev, at a joint news conference in April. Mamedkuliev, who was attending a Black Sea regional forum in Yerevan, denied the Armenian claims. “This is a fabricated issue, and we can respond to it by citing the devastation carried out in the occupied Azerbaijani territories,” he said.
The Azerbaijani government has already voiced its grievances at the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. It claims that the Armenians have been wiping out traces of Azerbaijani presence inside Karabakh and the surrounding Armenian-controlled lands. Earlier this month, the spiritual head of Azerbaijan’s Shia Muslims wrote to the head of the Armenian Apostolic Church, Catholicos Garegin II, to call for his intervention.
Garegin responded by denying the allegations which, in Oskanian’s words, are aimed at “drawing attention away from [Azerbaijan’s] own internationally condemnable actions.” “Azerbaijan is a country living in fear of its past,” the minister said.
The mutual accusations are one of the practical manifestations of the unresolved Karabakh dispute. The hitherto unsuccessful international efforts to settle it were effectively put on hold last year, but are expected to resume with a fresh momentum after the October 15 presidential election in Azerbaijan.
The likely winner of the vote, Prime Minister Ilham Aliev, is trying to cast himself as a strong leader who can secure a pro-Azerbaijani solution to the dispute and will never come to terms with the loss of Karabakh. Campaigning in the country’s Bilasuvar district on Wednesday, Aliev vowed to win back the occupied Azerbaijani lands “at any price.”
Turan news agency quoted him as admitting that Azerbaijan will use proceeds from exports of its oil through the future Baku-Ceyhan pipeline to strengthen its battered army and, if necessary, defeat Armenia. Baku will get $1 billion in oil revenues each year after the pipeline begins transporting the crude to the Turkish Mediterranean coast, he said. The threats came on the heels of Aliev’s address to the UN General Assembly last week in which he accused Armenia of sponsoring international terrorism.
Speaking to RFE/RL in Strasbourg earlier this week, Oskanian warned that Aliev’s tough talk “seriously complicates” the ongoing search for a peace formula. “He is putting himself into a corner which he will find it hard to leave after the elections,” he said.
Meanwhile, Oskanian and his Azerbaijani counterpart, Vilayat Guliev, held separate meetings in Paris on Thursday with French, Russian and U.S. negotiators spearheading the Karabakh peace process.