Armenia and Azerbaijan have never been the best of friends, but after an outbreak of fighting in April over the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh the vitriol coming from both sides has reached new lows.
A renewed ceasefire on April 5 might have brought about a shaky and frequently interrupted lull in the shooting, but a war of words is still very much continuing in the media, where inflammatory accusations, parading of martyrs and ludicrous proposals make the headlines daily in both countries. Azerbaijani newspaper Azernews even has a special section dedicated to the “Armenian aggression” on its website, as does Trend news agency, though it at least has named it a more diplomatic “Nagorno-Karabakh conflict”.
Reading the headlines in Azerbaijani and Armenian newspapers, one cannot help but be concerned about the implications of the constant trading of accusations, for they signal that peace is as distant a prospect as ever. Ranging from plain charges (“Armenian leadership continues provocations”, “Armenia severely shells Azerbaijani village”, “Armenia committed crimes against Azerbaijani civilians”, “Armenia will recognise Artsakh independence if Azeri aggression continues”); to the sentimental (“Vladimir killed in Artsakh [the Armenian name for Nagorno-Karabakh] hadn’t seen his only brother in three years”); and to the downright ludicrous (“The Armenian parliament proposes the creation of a military sperm bank for recruits to insure reproductive rights of citizens”), the media has become a proxy for the battleground in the mountains of Nagorno-Karabakh.
Meanwhile, any statements by foreign leaders, analysts and diplomats on the issue are immediately parsed by the media to discern any support for other side. Newspapers pick up any reference to the conflict; they have even developed templates for their version of events that they copy/paste into the numerous articles published daily on the topic. And now even Hollywood celebrities are fair game.
In comes Hollywood
Unbeknownst to them, Hollywood power couple George and Amal Clooney found themselves in the headlines in Azerbaijani and Armenian newspapers this past week as unsuspecting partisans in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.
The actor and the human rights lawyer are no strangers to controversy thanks to their political activism on issues of international interest, like the Armenian genocide, human rights in the Maldives and, more recently, freedom of speech in Egypt and Azerbaijan, which have brought these issues to the attention of a much broader international public – the kind that follows Hollywood celebrities.
The two have yet to actually take sides in the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh, but that hasn't stopped the Azerbaijani media from making it plain where they think their sympathies lie.
Recent accusations have appeared in the Azerbaijani media that Amal Clooney is Armenian (her family actually hails from the Druze minority in Lebanon) and she is “Armenia’s weapon”. The accusations against Amal surfaced as her husband, a supporter of the recognition of the Armenian genocide, travelled to Yerevan on April 24 to commemorate the 101st anniversary of the massacre and displacement of 1.5mn Armenians during the last days of the Ottoman Empire, and to chair a committee that awarded a $1.1mn humanitarian prize.
As Armenians fawned over his arrival, Amal came under fire following an interview she gave with the BBC about human rights in Azerbaijan and the case of jailed Azerbaijani journalist Khadija Ismayilova, who is serving a sentence on trumped-up charges after reporting on the first family’s wealth. Since Amal announced in January that she would take Ismayilova’s case at the European Court for Human Rights (ECHR), Azerbaijani media have regularly accused her of pursuing fame by attacking Turkic countries like Azerbaijan and Turkey. In the past, the lawyer has also represented the Armenian state in trials at the ECHR against Turkish politician Dogu Perincek, who had been convicted in Switzerland for denying the Armenian genocide.
Sharing Turkic origins, Azerbaijan and Turkey are the closest of partners, and both have long-standing conflicts with Armenia. Baku and Yerevan are at odds over the breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh and seven surrounding regions, while Ankara and Yerevan have long fought over the term “genocide” and whether it applies to the massacre and displacement of some 1.5mn Armenians from the Ottoman Empire starting in 1915. To Azerbaijanis, anyone who advocates for the Armenian genocide is an enemy of the state by default, despite the fact that the event is unrelated to the more recent conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh.
Friends of Hillary
Amal’s choices of cases in recent years and her newfound celebrity status thanks to her actor husband certainly brings issues like freedom of speech in Azerbaijan and the Armenian genocide to the attention of a public that would otherwise have never learned about them. Furthermore, George’s use of his soft influence on Washington to persuade the US government to recognise the Armenian genocide – 44 US states already recognise the event, after West Virginia joined the list on May 4 – and his recent visit to the country draw attention to a long-standing controversy that is not a priority for Washington at the moment.
And seeing how he and his wife are some of the more important fundraisers for the campaign of leading Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton, the Clooneys’ activism on Armenian and Azerbaijani causes could even have some influence in Washington if Clinton wins the Democratic nomination and general election.
Even before marrying Amal Alamuddin in 2014, Clooney’s strong political beliefs came through in his work both on and off screen. The son of a journalist with congressional aspirations and a confessed liberal, Clooney directed and starred in movies that were critical of Republican politicians and ‘Big Oil’, like “Good Night, and Good Luck” (2005) and “Syriana” (2005). He also addressed the UN Security Council to urge them to find a peaceful settlement for the conflict in Darfur in 2006. Marrying the high-profile human rights lawyer Alamuddin has only expanded his interest in international politics.
Following his wife’s lawsuits at the ECHR in defence of Armenia, George took on the cause by collaborating with US-based Armenian organisation 100 Lives. Amal lost the overall case at the ECHR – the court ruled that Perincek’s denial of the genocide was freedom of speech – but won a small battle whereby the ECHR admitted it had no jurisdiction to decide whether genocide had taken place or not.
The Clooneys and other celebrities of their calibre have the luxury of picking causes they believe in, without much regard for the official rhetoric in repressive countries that feel attacked by their activism. Perhaps more such activism would help bring causes that are otherwise of limited interest to the international community into the limelight, and rally support in favour of human rights and historical injustices in the Caucasus.