Author’s note: The following commentary was sent to the editors of The Tablet on May 20, 2022. No response was forthcoming. The article in question is essentially a commentary or opinion piece, but this does not grant the writer license to egregiously distort reality—not least because of the author’s insistence that he is presenting “the reality” of the situation. We are all, indeed, entitled to our own opinions but not to our own facts. One encounters no shortage of writings that distort, misrepresent, or deny fundamental facts about Armenian history, culture, and current affairs, whether in academic forums, traditional mass media or social media. The majority tend to reproduce, in one fashion or another, talking points promoted by the Turkish government or the Azerbaijani government. (Which is not to suggest that no Armenians ever misrepresent Armenian issues in other ways or to excuse such practices no matter who engages in them.) These writings do not deserve to be treated as fodder for “debate,” no matter how much they may seek this status. Most of them do not merit responses at all. It is important, though, to be aware of them and to note well their rhetorical strategies. Occasionally one feels compelled to push back against blatant misrepresentations, particularly when offered up by an author and publication with no apparent agenda in these matters.
To the Editors:
What possessed The Tablet, “a daily online magazine of Jewish news, ideas, and culture,” to publish filmmaker François Margolin’s ludicrous paean to Azerbaijan, “In the West Bank of the Caucasus”, which has precious little in it that is Jewish, news, ideas, or culture? Anticipating blowback, the author attempts to preempt criticism of his work, claiming a sort of high ground by asserting that he is simply “looking into the topic, which is the founding principle of journalism and documentary filmmaking.” However, his work in this article is lightyears from reaching such a standard.
Margolin claims that “Nagorno-Karabakh, seen from the Azerbaijani side, is a topic about which it is nearly impossible to write without finding yourself immediately accused of being funded by the government of Azerbaijan.” Indeed, Margolin should be given the benefit of the doubt and not accused of such a thing without evidence. In practice, though, recirculating Baku’s propaganda pro bono rather than for pay is a distinction without a difference.
Liam Hoare, writing in The Tablet, has cautioned against the instinct “to give Azerbaijan a pass for the simple reason that the state is good to its Jews, strong on anti-Semitism, and friendly towards Israel. It’s a rare combination, I’ll concede, but that instinct is lazy and sloppy, anti-intellectual and debasing, and ultimately dangerous.” Although written in 2015, Hoare’s description fits Margolin’s puff-piece to a ‘T.’ “Nothing should justify journalists conducting public relations for one of the most authoritarian governments in Europe,” Hoare writes. “If Azerbaijan is an example of anything, it’s how to pull the wool over impressionable visitors’ eyes,” he aptly observes. Unlike Margolin, Hoare provides facts to support his statements.
Azerbaijan’s efforts to gain favorable depictions through bribery are well known. The corruption of Azerbaijan’s ruling Aliyev/Pashayev clan has been documented by the Guardian and the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP), among other entities. Transparency International writes that “The ruling family has extended its reach into virtually all lucrative sectors of the economy and patronage networks permeate all spheres of public life and hamper the long-term economic and social development prospects of the country.”
According to Human Rights Watch, “Azerbaijan’s government continues to wage a vicious crackdown on critics and dissenting voices. The space for independent activism, critical journalism, and opposition political activity has been virtually extinguished as so many activists, human rights defenders, and journalists have been arrested and jailed, and laws and regulations restricting the activities of independent groups and their ability to secure funding adopted.”
These assessments are not what Margolin would call “the Armenian point of view” nor are they manifestations of a (mythical) “Christian-centric, pro-Armenia narrative that saturates Western media,” as Margolin absurdly claims. They are the damning verdicts of international watchdog organizations.
Margolin writes that “Azerbaijan has the reputation of being led by a horrible dictator, or rather a family of dictators who pass on power from father to son,” giving the impression that Azerbaijan merely has an image problem. The fact is that by any objective measure, Azerbaijan is ruled by a brutally repressive regime whose crimes go far, far beyond the all-too-familiar cult of personality habit of having “presidential portraits adorn every road in the country,” which is about the worst deed Margolin attributes to the government. It is led by a dictator: full stop.
Margolin, scrambling for euphemisms, allows that the Azerbaijani regime “can be described as authoritarian.” It can be described as authoritarian because, if the word has any meaning, it is authoritarian: full stop. He admits that “Azerbaijan is far from being a paragon of democracy as we understand the word.” Indeed, it is far from a “paragon of democracy” as anyone understands of the word, if they understand the word to mean that the Azerbaijani people have any say in how the country is governed. It is not a democracy: full stop.
Likewise, it is simply not adequate to concede, as Margolin does, that in Azerbaijan “the press is not formally free.” It is not free: full stop. If Margolin truly embraced the principles of journalism and documentary filmmaking that he purports to espouse he would have shared with his readers that Azerbaijan is currently ranked a dismal 154 out of 180 countries by Reporters Without Borders. Margolin “do[es] not believe Armenia is much better,” even though he acknowledges that it is ranked 51 in the world. Margolin may not “believe” there is a difference between being ranked 51 (and thus with a higher press freedom ranking than Italy, Japan and Israel, to name but three) and 154, but the issue is not one of belief or disbelief but rather of facts.
Margolin, however, unfazed by the ugliness of Azerbaijan’s autocracy, is more interested in ooh-la-la-ing over the length of skirts worn by Azerbaijani women, the availability of alcohol in the country, and the abundance of oil and gas—as if anyone was arguing that Azerbaijan was an Islamic theocracy, and as if secularism and petroleum covered its multitude of crimes.
Margolin presents seemingly shocking information about the Armenian Garegin Nzhdeh (1886-1955), who is memorialized with a statue in Yerevan, the capital of Armenia, and who, he states, “formed the Armenian Legion within the Wehrmacht [during World War II]. Thirty-thousand strong, the unit was responsible for numerous massacres of Jews in Ukraine, Crimea, and even the South of France.” Generously, Margolin does not hold all Armenians responsible for the actions of “Nzhdeh’s legion,” which is fortunate, since he has almost all of his facts wrong.
If Margolin had “looked into the topic” he would have found that, whatever else one wishes to say about Garegin Nzhdeh, he did not form the Armenian Legion. Nor was the legion that was formed involved in massacres of Jews. As a responsible journalist and documentary filmmaker, Margolin might also have mentioned that in addition to the Armenian Legion there was also an Azerbaijani Legion in the Wehrmacht along with other “Eastern Legions,” which were formed and led by the Germans. He would have consulted a serious work such as Islam and Nazi Germany’s War by David Motadel (Harvard Univ. Press, 2014) rather than uncritically repeating Turkish and Azerbaijani state propaganda. As Motadel and others have shown, Hitler had no trust in the non-Muslim, i.e., Armenian and Georgian, legions.
Margolin, “as someone who had always thought that there was a sort of metaphysical alliance between Jews and Armenians, the victims of the two largest genocides of the 20th century,” is brought “down with a bump” by his “discovery” regarding Nzhdeh. I am not sure what a “metaphysical alliance” is, but there is an undeniable bond between many Armenians and many Jews formed out of similar histories of suffering and persecution. The bond is genuine, but it is one between people and not governments. Also genuine is the “bump” felt by many Armenians when the Israeli government, for its own strategic, realpolitik reasons, declines to recognize the Armenian Genocide and supplies Azerbaijan with weapons of death used against Armenians.
Margolin dismisses as “fake news” the reports that jihadist mercenaries fought for Azerbaijan during the war in 2020. But this has been documented by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, The Independent, and Columbia University’s Institute for the Study of Human Rights. It is startling that a writer with Margolin’s self-proclaimed zeal for journalistic integrity does not reference these respected sources that contradict his assertions.
“In reality,” Margolin writes, and by now, when he says “in reality” the reader can anticipate the exact opposite, “nothing is really clear” about Nagorno-Karabakh. This is only true if one is prepared to ignore a huge body of literature and scholarship on the several millennia of Armenian presence there and Azerbaijan’s concerted efforts to fabricate an alternative history in which the Armenians don’t exist—and Margolin appears very much prepared to do so, claiming contra-factually that “This land was inhabited mostly by Azerbaijanis, but entire stretches of it were populated by Armenians.”
Margolin may be correct that for centuries Armenians and Azerbaijanis living in Nagorno-Karabakh got along “more or less well.” However, when he offers as proof of this state of blissful coexistence the claim that “Stalin even created for them a single Transcaucasian Socialist Federative Soviet Republic,” one begins to wonder if he is laughing up his sleeve—as if Stalin bestowed this gift, which included placing Nagorno-Karabakh, which was at the time more than 90-percent Armenian, under the control of Azerbaijan out of his boundless wisdom and benevolence; as if much of the post-Soviet conflict between Armenians and Azerbaijanis is not traceable to Stalin’s divide-and-conquer nationalities policies.
Freely mixing fact, fiction, and relativization, Margolin throws sand in the eyes of readers. His noble words about the principles of journalism and documentary filmmaking are, in short, just so much hot air. But it is reassuring to know that he is not being funded by the government of Azerbaijan.