By Christopher Atamian and Haykaram Nahapetyan
Aleksander Lapshin holding up his three passports.
Who’s out there? A bewildered Hamlet queries at the beginning of Shakespeare’s greatest of plays. In the case of Azerbaijan, a dictatorial Caviar Republic on the Caspian, the answer is a particular type of insane unscrupulousness that is perfectly in tune with the new wave of right-wing leaders and human rights violators coming to power and ensconced everywhere from Washington D.C. to Moscow. Journalists facing violence, even death, is nothing new but this particular story takes on unique importance because several governments (Belarus and Azerbaijan) have collaborated directly or indirectly in order to persecute an innocent man--Aleksander Lapshin--as if he were guilty of murder.
In the process, all manner of civilized behavior and inter-state norms seem to have been violated. The outline of this political version of Alice looking down the rabbit hole is relatively simple: blogger Lapshin, who was actually born in the Ukraine, visited the Armenian Republic of Nagorno Karabakh (also known simply as NKR or by its historical Armenian name, Artsakh) in 2011 and then blogged about NKR’s free and sovereign statehood. This won him the immediate enmity of Ilham Aliyev and his cronies in Baku.
In more ways than one (complexity, historical memory, seemingly unending ethnic conflicts) the Caucasus is really a Northern extension of the Middle East, part of what used to be referred to as Asia Minor. For those not well-versed in the history of the region and the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan, the roots of this particular story go back to 1921, when another dictator--Joseph Stalin--officially placed the Armenian enclave within the territory of Soviet Azerbaijan. This in spite of the fact that 95% of Nagorno Karabakh’s population was Armenian and had repeatedly requested to be part of the Armenian SSR. The move belonged to Stalin’s strategy of divide and conquer, wherein he arbitrarily cut up the map of the region to make sure that the different ethnic groups would remain in conflict between themselves. Abkhazia, Ossetia and Georgia suffered similar fates, as did ethnic groups within most of the 15 Soviet Republics. The Muslim Tatars in the Crimea faced even worse treatment and were summarily killed and deported to Central Asia.
Fast-forward some seventy years later to 1991 when, encouraged by the Baltic independence movements to the North and Gorbachev’s policy of perestroika, Nagorno Karabakh voted to reunify with Armenia. Eventually the republic declared outright independence, which led to a bloody war with its neighbor Azerbaijan and a thorough routing of Azeri forces. Although its sovereignty has only been officially recognized by 8 US states and Australia’s New South Wales, Nagorno Karabakh has steadfastly held its ground. Meanwhile, Azerbaijan and the Aliyev clan that has ruled the country with an iron fist for a quarter century, have spent literally billions of dollars to strengthen the country’s army in a futile attempt to regain territory by force of international appeal and military incursions. The US, Russia and France have tried to mediate a peaceful solution, which remains as seemingly intractable as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to the South.
Among other ploys, Baku has continued to insist that any foreigner who visits NKR has actually illegally trespassed onto Azeri lands. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Azerbaijan has declared 683 of these unfortunates as personae non grata. When you consider that over 25,000 tourists have actually visited NKR in the last two years alone, you realize how incomplete the list is and how absurd Baku’s persecution of Aleksander Lapshin. Of course, Azeri officials can only blacklist those people whose names come to them through print and social media or other public avenues. The US astronaut Charles Duke, the Spanish opera star Montserrat Caballe and France’s incumbent Minister of the Interior Bruno Le Roux all figure prominently on this list. Duke was the 10th human being to walk on the moon aboard Apollo 16, but after visiting NKR, he may never set foot in Azerbaijan--assuming he’d ever want to.
Lapshin is a traveling journalist who has visited over 120 countries in his lifetime. In late 2016, in a decision that he must surely now regret, he decided to come to Belarus: the Belarussian police summarily arrested him, as per President Ilham Aliyev’s request, and extradited him to Baku on February 7. The Committee to Protect Journalists has twice demanded his unconditional release. Not surprisingly, both Aliyev and Belarussian President Aleksander Lukashenko are on Reporters Without Borders’ Predators of Press Freedom list. Lukashenko originally cited Lapshin’s supposed presence on Interpol’s database as grounds for his decision to detain him. Interpol headquarters in Lyon, France deny its participation in the blogger’s arrest: “We have checked and confirm that the subject is absent from our databases,” Interpol’s Command and Coordination Center recently stated.
Why Azeri authorities have decided to persecute Lapshin in particular remains partly a mystery, apart from the fact that Baku seems to be losing all hope of ever regaining NKR--by either violent or legal means. Aliyev even dispatched a special plane in order to fly Lapshin to Baku, although paradoxically he was banned from entering Azerbaijan six years ago. Lapshin has officially been charged with illegally entering Nagorno Karabakh and for “making statements against the Azeri Republic,” which may bring a sentence of up to 8 years eight years in prison. While a state-sponsored lawyer has been appointed for Lapshin, the first charge is somewhat crazy given the fact that NKR is now entirely under Armenian control--it is somewhat akin to Germany asking for someone visiting Alsace-Lorraine (today in France) to be extradited for violating German territorial integrity! The second charge of course smacks of the worst of state fascism and is a clear violation of the right to free speech. As Beatrice Evelyn Hall famously wrote in her 1903 biography of the great French writer, The Friends of Voltaire: "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it." For Armenian National Committee of America (ANCA) Executive Director Aram Hamparian, the Lapshin case is just another example of Azerbaijan’s attempt to isolate NKR internationally, as he recently stated in another publication: “Azerbaijan got Belarus to extradite Lapshin for the ‘crime’ of visiting Artsakh in order to scare others, including journalists, from ever visiting there. That is Baku’s aim. To isolate and undermine Artsakh—on the battlefield, in the media, and in the political world,” Hamparian wrote in a recent Facebook post.
Not surprisingly perhaps, strange happenings have occurred on Lapshin’s Live Journal blog since he arrived in Baku: his posts about NKR have disappeared and Nagorno-Karabakh has been removed from the list of countries that he has visited. According to the CPJ, some 259 journalists worldwide currently languish in jail, six in Azerbaijan alone, a remarkable number for the small country of seven million on the Caspian. Reaction around the world in defense of Lapshin has been swift. And in a possibly related answer to Azeri tactics, Russia recently detained 200 Azeri citizens in a sports hall in Dagestan, citing territorial violations as the reason for their actions.
The question now becomes: who in power will stand up for Lapshin and help to free the unfortunate blogger? Neither Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu nor the respective Presidents of Ukraine or Russia seem in any hurry to come to their citizen’s aide. As this piece goes to press Lapshin’s future--and that of imprisoned journalists everywhere--remains uncertain.
To Read Lapshin’s blog as it currently stands, click here: