Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev and Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian discussed the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict after trading barbs during a summit of former Soviet republics held in Turkmenistan’s capital Ashgabat on Friday.
Aliyev started the tense verbal exchange at a plenary session of the summit of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) by accusing Armenia of “glorifying fascists.” He noted that the former Armenian government erected in Yerevan the statue of Garegin Nzhdeh, an Armenian nationalist statesman who had fought against the Bolsheviks and later collaborated with Nazi Germany.
Pashinian responded by accusing Aliyev of distorting the history of Armenia and the Second World War.
“Ilham Heydarovich’s speech leaves one with a sense that [Adolf] Hitler played a secondary role and that the Nazi movement was led by Garegin Nzhdeh,” he said. “Yet the truth is that Garegin Nzhdeh fought against Turkish occupation of Armenia, against the genocide of Armenians and … also commanded, together with many Russian officers, a very important section of the frontline during the Armenian-Turkish war in 1918.”
“I think it’s inappropriate to use this [CIS] format for distorting history and adding some tension to the atmosphere of this important meeting,” added Pashinian.
Despite the public recriminations, Pashinian and Aliyev spoke with each other at a dinner in Ashgabat hosted by Turkmenistan’s President Gurbanguly Berdymuhamedov for fellow CIS leaders later in the day.
Pashinian’s spokesman, Vladimir Karapetian, told the Armenpress news agency that the two men discussed the Karabakh conflict and, in particular, “possibilities of reducing tensions” and “upcoming steps” in the negotiating process mediated by the United States, Russia and France. The conversation lasted for about two hours, said Karapetian.
Aliyev and Pashinian held five face-to-face meetings between September 2018 and May 2019, raising hopes for a settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Their first meeting was followed by a significant decrease in ceasefire violations in the conflict zone. There have been no signs of further progress in Armenian-Azerbaijani peace talks in the last few months.
Born in the Russian Empire in 1886, Nzhdeh was one of the prominent military leaders of an independent Armenian republic formed in 1918. In 1920, he mounted armed resistance against the republic’s takeover by Bolshevik Russia in Syunik, a mountainous region in southeastern Armenia.
Nzhdeh was one of several exiled Armenian leaders in Europe who pledged allegiance to Nazi Germany in 1942 with the stated aim of saving Soviet Armenia from a possible Turkish invasion after what they expected to be a Soviet defeat by the Third Reich.
Nzhdeh surrendered to advancing Red Army divisions in Bulgaria in 1944 after reportedly offering Josef Stalin to mobilize Armenians for a Soviet assault on Turkey. In 1948, a Soviet court sentenced him to 25 years in prison on charges that mainly stemmed from his “counterrevolutionary” activities in 1920-1921.
Speaking at the Ashgabat summit, Pashinian portrayed Nzhdeh as a victim of Stalin’s political repressions. “Nzhdeh died in the Vladimir prison [in 1955,]” he said. “Many prominent Soviet figures died in the Vladimir prison and [writer Aleksandr] Solzhenitsyn was in the Gulag. Do we consider everyone imprisoned from 1937 through the 1950s political prisoners?”
Nzhdeh was rehabilitated in Armenia after the republic’s last Communist government was removed from power in 1990. He is widely credited with preserving Armenian control over Syunik. He is also revered by many Armenians as the founder of a new brand of Armenian nationalism that emerged in the 1930s.
Former President Serzh Sarkisian’s Republican Party of Armenia (HHK) has espoused his Tseghakron ideology, which puts the emphasis on armed self-defense and self-reliance, ever since it was set up in the early 1990s.
Senior HHK representatives, who are highly critical of the current Armenian government, were quick to praise Pashinian’s reaction to Aliyev’s remarks. “Nikol’s response was appropriate,” the former ruling party’s deputy chairman, Armen Ashotian, wrote on Facebook.