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The Violence of Dispassionate Objectivity

Since September 27, Azerbaijan’s military, with the aid (in weapons and technology) of Turkey and Israel, have been bombing Armenian villages and cities in the autonomous region of Nagorno-Karabagh (NK) and Armenia. In response to these bombings, Armenia’s military has held strong to its territories and vied to protect the citizens of both Armenia and NK by sending defense units to the regions affected.

For objectivity’s sake, let me start by illustrating some basic facts about these varying political entities. Armenia is a small country of about 29,000 square miles in the South Caucasus with an official population of about 3 million. Azerbaijan has a population of over 9 million on about 86,000 square miles of land. There is a vast difference not only in GDP (estimated by the UN) between these two countries (Armenia’s at 10.57 and Azerbaijan’s at 37.85 billion), but also a difference in military spending. Azerbaijan spends 2.73 billion on its military, while Armenia only 500 million. Azerbaijan’s arsenal includes vastly more tanks, armored vehicles, and artillery than that of Armenia and has multi-purpose aircrafts and navy vessels that Armenia does not have. What’s more, Azerbaijan is being backed by Turkey, which has been paying Syrian mercenaries to fight in NK. Lest we forget, Turkey has also consistently denied the Genocide against Armenians committed in the early 20th century by the Ottoman Empire and continues to be a hostile home for Armenians living there. Israel (backed by the U.S.), which is currently supplying Azerbaijan with drones, is lauding itself for its innovative technologies. The Armenian state, which won a war over the territory of NK and agreed to a ceasefire in 1994, has no interest in escalating a conflict. In fact, it has absolutely nothing to gain from such a conflict and much to lose. Azerbaijan and Turkey, however, not only have more political, economic, and military capital than Armenia, but they also have much interest in this conflict and much to gain. While Armenia has deployed forces to defend its people in NK for the right for self-determination, Azerbaijan’s (and Turkey’s) interest is in the expansion of territory.

It needs to be made clear that these are not “clashes” or a “conflict” between two equal sides. This is war, and one that was started by Azerbaijan and Turkey and one with potential to entirely devastate the new democratic possibilities of Armenia (which successfully carried out a revolution to oust its oligarchic Prime Minister in 2018) as well as the lives of thousands if not millions. This is a war against democracy; it is a war for petro-oligarchic interests; it is a war for territorial and imperial expansion being waged by authoritarian regimes.

As this horrifying scene of terror plays itself out, through which many have lost their lives in a few days time, international media continues to rely on the trope of “clashes” and the representation of these attacks as an “ethnic conflict.” A “both sides” approach is now a major hegemonic requirement of much media, which aims to give an objective picture in the press, to be valued and judged by readers in whatever way they see fit. This form of capturing the stakes and positions of “both sides” is passed on as objectivity, as if seeing the truth means seeing it from the side of the victim as well as the perpetrator, from the side of the violated as well as the violator regardless of power and regardless of violation. Indeed, “clashes” refrain even from the judgement of who the violator and violated might be. Even international human rights organizations – such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch – have taken this approach to the war in Armenia and NK when they insist that “both sides” should differentiate between civilians and combatants. This “both sides” approach obscures the basic truth and fact that these are currently violations carried out not by both sides, but by one side: Azerbaijan’s armed forces (with the help of Turkey and Israel).

There is potential, however, for a truthful “both sides” narrative. Both Azerbaijan and Armenia have, for nearly three decades, been turmoiled by the emergence of a post-Soviet oligarchy. Until recently, Armenia’s political and economic machinery was entirely dominated by a corrupt oligarchy that came to power through the privatization and liquidation of Soviet industry, the selling off of public lands to mining companies, and reaping benefits from militarization. The 2018 “Velvet Revolution” was successful in ousting Prime Minister Serzh Sargsyan from power and replacing him with a more democratically-oriented leader Nikol Pashinyan, but has not entirely repaired the damages the oligarchy has done to the Republic’s people, its political machinery, and its infrastructure. The current war greatly jeopardizes this work and the democratic possibilities that have been emerging. Azerbaijan’s people are governed by the oligarchic authoritarian Aliyev dynasty that has used its territorial oil reserves to amass wealth and power not only in Azerbaijan but through global networks. Both the peoples of Azerbaijan and Armenia have suffered systemic violence at the hands of oligarchs. Armenians and Azerbaijanis have suffered decades of trauma as a result of this ongoing war. Nationalism is also a plague on both nations – both sides almost entirely losing any possibility of contact with the other – which has prompted difficulties in sustaining peace and reconciliation efforts.

Many of the soldiers who have been fighting in the war, many of whom have lost their lives on both sides, are poor young men who were born in the early 2000s, a decade after the war in the region began. Indeed, because Armenia was not prepared to be involved in warfare, the vast majority of those who were initially deployed were 18-20 year old men who were doing their obligatory military duty. Many other young men have also volunteered. It was not until October 5 that Pashinyan asked for those who had been off deployment over the past 12 months to volunteer for duty – not as a legal obligation, but as volunteers. While war is the desire of those who govern Azerbaijan, peace would be of great benefit to the livelihoods – indeed life – of people on both sides. It is in this context that many Armenians in the Republic, in NK, as well as in the diaspora have been struggling and calling for peace (on the defensive side of the other’s military campaign). Some Azerbaijani’s have called for peace as well. These realities on both sides, however, should not be mistaken for equal terrain, equal power, nor equal intention. A more truthful “both sides” approach might also account that the lives and livelihoods on both sides are being played with, as if pieces on a chess board, at the whims of international powers.

While journalism is to remain dispassionate and “objective,” there has also been a rallying cry against “fake news.” We might, however, regard writing on war, violence, genocide, and hatred that is not emotionally invested as itself fake news. Not taking a side when there are clear violations of the rights of one group, violations of international humanitarian law, and an outright attack with the intention to destroy and dispossess is to perpetuate a fake sensibility of equality – a fake sensibility of humanity. These forms of fakeness benefit those in power and benefit the perpetrators, who are taken out of the context in which they commit violence and placed in the position of an equal stakeholder in “opinions” or “clashes.”

The political (and economic and social) context of the world today, with the rise of what we might call “illiberal populisms” or just outright fascism, demands more from us than an accounting of all sides. It demands that we feel for what is happening, that we passionately take a side. (It demands this of journalism as well as of the social sciences, I might add.) As producers of knowledge on the world we have a serious responsibility in speaking not in the name of some false objectivity, but in speaking to the truth. And the truth is that there are violators; there are agents of violence and dispossession. The truth is that there are beneficiaries of violence. The truth is that this is interested violence and not “clashes” and not “contest” and not “conflict.” The most objective form of knowledge is to speak to these truths and to remain responsible to the vulnerable, the marginalized, and the dispossessed.

Importantly, speaking to truth means also speaking beyond the languages of nationalism that inform divisions rather than solidarities. My hope is that the reader of my words will see them as speaking about justice and not about a side having to do with my own national or ethnic belonging. My hope is that the reader, even if without a sense of national belonging to Armenia (or Azerbaijan, Turkey, Israel, or any other parties involved) will feel interpellated by a call for truth and a call for justice.