• Ideas

How Azerbaijan Weaponized Environmentalism to Justify Ethnic Cleansing

7 minute read
Maghakyan is a visiting scholar at Tufts University and a Ph.D. student in Heritage Crime at Cranfield University. He writes and speaks on post-Soviet memory politics and cultural erasure, and facilitates global conversations on protecting Armenian heritage

Blocking the only highway that connects 120,000 people of Nagorno-Karabakh with the outside world, a fur coat-wearing woman held a dove in one hand and a megaphone in the other as she yelled that the besieged region “belongs to Azerbaijan.” But instead of flying once released, the strangled dove dropped dead. This was meant to resemble an environmental demonstration.

Masqueraded as activists protesting the environmental impacts of ore mining operations, rotating affiliates of the authoritarian regime of Azerbaijan have blockaded the Armenian-populated mountainous region of Nagorno-Karabakh since December 12. This has left the disputed region, which is still recovering from the 2020 war launched by Azerbaijan, in the cold and on the brink of starvation.

The mining operations, along with much of Nagorno-Karabakh’s economy, have since halted, but the illegal blockade that violates the 2020 ceasefire has not. On Feb. 22 the International Court of Justice ordered Azerbaijan to end the blockade. But without an immediate enforcement mechanism, Azerbaijan may try to buy some extra time. Food and fuel are in such low supply in Nagorno-Karabakh that the local authorities now distribute coupons to ratio key groceries. Only vehicles belonging to Russian peacekeepers and the Red Cross have been allowed through, bringing in small quantities of vital supplies for the most vulnerable. But, according to Amnesty International, that’s not enough. On Feb. 9 the human rights watchdog reported that “access to healthcare has become the most pressing issue in the blockaded region”—a cardiologist sees only five or six patients per month, down from the typical 30 to 40, due to insufficient stent supply.

More from TIME

Read More: The Humanitarian Crisis in Nagorno-Karabakh Is a Textbook Example of Ethnic Cleansing

Ilham Aliyev, Azerbaijan’s dynastic president—whose 20-year recipe to remain in power has consisted of cultivating anti-Armenian hatred and weaponizing Azerbaijanis’ trauma of losing the first Nagorno-Karabakh war in the 1990s—makes no secret of the blockade’s ultimate goal. Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh are free to leave: “the road [to Armenia] is open,” he says, suggesting ethnic cleansing as the resolution. It’s not the first time that his regime blends ethnic cleansing with environmentalism: Azerbaijan celebrated the 2020 war victory against Armenians with a stamp of a biohazard remediator fumigating Nagorno-Karabakh.

At the ICJ on January 30 Azerbaijan’s lawyers argued that there is no blockade and that the protesters are engaged in grassroots environmental demonstrations. Never mind that oil-rich Azerbaijan—one of the most repressive regimes according to Freedom House, and home to “the ecologically most devastated area in the world,” including a city dubbed “an ecological Armageddon”—doesn’t tolerate public protest. To science-wash the blockade, as a prominent academic exposed last month, Azerbaijan sought out professors abroad to rubber stamp the ongoing “eco-protest” in media outlets.

This weaponization of environmentalism sets a dangerous precedent for other dictatorships to hijack vital causes.

A man holds fruit in an empty market in Stepanakert, the capital of Nagorno-Karabakh, on December 23, 2022.Davit Ghahramanyan—AFP/Getty Images

Scholars have diagnosed such bad-faith goodwill as “sharp power,” a term proposed in 2017 by the National Endowment for Democracy to describe authoritarian states’ efforts to influence the world’s perception of their actions through manipulation and distraction. While the term is new, the phenomenon is not. Exploiting fragile Western institutions and using popular causes is an ongoing authoritarian practice. In environmentalism, Azerbaijan has found a convenient, universal cause. Since losing the first Nagorno-Karabakh war to Armenians in the 1990s, it has long claimed “ecocide” in territories Armenians controlled until the second war in 2020.

But neither private nor public criticism has stopped Azerbaijan from weaponizing environmental movements. Even now, as international bodies and Western governments condemn the blockade, Azerbaijan doubles down on its messaging. It recently announced a “historic” environmental legal action against Armenia under the Bern convention over forest loss and other delinquency in the areas Armenians controlled until 2020. The announcement explicitly justified the blockade, stating that “these protests were not orchestrated by the Government of Azerbaijan.” Commenting on this move, a forest watchdog noted that satellites tell a different story: “between roughly 2000 and 2020, the region had gained more tree cover than it lost.”

More recent forest loss is connected with Azerbaijan’s activities, such as its use of white phosphorus against Armenian forces in 2020, as analyzed by the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab, along with the ongoing “victory road” construction. The 63-mile highway follows the military attack route of Azerbaijan’s capture of a key city in late 2020, during which the entire south of Nagorno-Karabakh was ethnically cleansed of Armenians. As a U.N. environmental assessment report requested by Azerbaijan notes, this construction “is also having a significant impact on forest cover.” Satellites show oversized swaths of greenery gone for good.

And as Caucasus Heritage Watch’s satellite reports show, the “victory road” and another highway construction are often accompanied with the flattening of Armenian villages and sacred sites, despite the IJC’s December 2021 provisional order to the contrary. Most ironically, there is also ongoing deforestation caused by the blockade: Nagorno-Karabakh, whose gas supply, electricity, and imported fuel are under Azerbaijan’s siege, is utilizing firewood to survive the winter.

A vendor sells gasoline in the town of Lachin on November 29, 2020, after six weeks of fighting between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the Nagorno-Karabakh region.Karen Minasyan—AFP/Getty Images

Before the ICJ’s Feb. 22 decision, President Aliyev bragged that nothing would stop his efforts in the Lachin corridor, and he had reason to believe so. The European Union is repeatedly courting him as a “reliable partner” in substituting Russian gas supplies, and the U.S. has continued to waive Section 907 sanctions, a U.S. law meant to stop Azerbaijan’s aggression against Armenians. “No one can influence us. There may be some phone calls and some statements, but we do not need to pay attention. We take those phone calls simply out of political courtesy,” he states, “but this will not change our position.”

The remarks primarily target the U.S. and France. During the U.N. Security Council hearing in December and in subsequent statements, both countries, among others, called on Azerbaijan to end the blockade. Russia—the third mediator of the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict along with the U.S. and France—has been largely silent on the situation.

Read More: History Suggests This Winter Could Be Dangerous for Armenians

There is something brazenly cynical about a repressive petro-aggressor weaponizing environmentalism in 2023. Not only does it make a mockery of the existential crisis we face as a species, it serves to further corrode Azerbaijan’s civil society. By undermining the credibility of what is likely the most important cause in the world, Aliyev is setting an example for fellow dictators to pursue “sharp power.” He sends a message that there is no cause too sacred to exploit and no lie too absurd to pronounce if it allows the leader to stay in power.

When Aliyev’s activists transported doves to the blockade, the stunt was in line with a new tradition in Azerbaijan that reimagines the birds as victory symbols of war. But instead, the strangled dove symbolized the blockade’s methodology: choke the besieged people of Nagorno-Karabakh until they have no choice but to flee—an ethnic cleansing strategy of strangle-and-release, sugar-coated as environmentalism.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary on events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. Opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of TIME editors.