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The Russian Foreign Ministry issued a highly unusual statement containing harsh criticism of the Azerbaijani government’s treatment of Russian citizens of Armenian descent.
“Russian citizens visiting Azerbaijan are discriminated on the basis of ethnicity,” the July 6 statement said. “So far this year 25 Russian citizens were refused entry into Azerbaijan,” before being detained and expelled at their own expense, according to the ministry.
“The basis for this mistreatment were Armenian last names, names or patronymics of our citizens. There were also cases when individuals with Russian last and first names and patronymics would be interrogated to determine if they might have ‘Armenian ancestry.”
The statement called such treatment “savagery” and a direct violation of Russian-Azerbaijani treaties.
The policy of detaining or expelling all individuals of Armenian descent, independent of their citizenship, has been in place since the start of the Karabakh conflict in 1988, but this is the first time a foreign government has reacted to it so publicly. In addition to detentions and expulsions, over the past year the Azerbaijani government arrested and imprisoned two Russian citizens, one of whom is of Armenian descent.
Some of the known cases of expulsions from Azerbaijan, most upon arrival at the Baku airport, in recent years include:
Separately, in September 2010, Georgia’s nominee for ambassador to Baku Irakli Kavtaradze withdrew from consideration over suspicions by Azerbaijani officials that he was of Armenian descent.
According to America’s former ambassador to the Soviet Union Jack Matlock (1987-91) nomination of his would-be successor Ed Djerejian was also blocked over objections from Azerbaijan, then still part of the USSR. The U.S. State Department warns in its travel advisory that U.S. citizens “with Armenian surnames” could face detention and expulsion, but the United States is not known to have ever publicly protested these discriminatory measures.
The current expulsion policy is in some ways an improvement over practices during the Karabakh war of the early 1990s when ethnic Armenians from Russia, Georgia and elsewhere would be detained as hostages for potential exchange for Azerbaijani prisoners captured in the war. Azerbaijan continues to arrest all Armenian citizens who end up crossing onto the Azerbaijani side of the frontline and is currently holding two Armenian citizens who were charged with “attempted sabotage.”
Those Armenian citizens or other individuals of Armenian descent who in recent years visited Azerbaijan mostly for international or government-sponsored events did so after receiving high-level permission from Azerbaijani leadership and with mandatory round-the-clock security by the Azerbaijani State Security Service (successor to KGB) while in Azerbaijan.
Russian state TV journalist Vladimir Solovyev said that he addressed the Armenian ban at a meeting with the Azerbaijani president Ilham Aliyev last April. According to Solovyev, Aliyev explained the ban all ethnic Armenian entries into Azerbaijan in the following way:
“There is no guarantee that someone with an Armenian name would arrive at a hotel [for registration] and would not be butchered on the spot.”
UPDATE 11/27/2017: Months after the July 6 statement by Russian Foreign Ministry, it emerged that Azerbaijan had refused to grant an agrément to Russia’s nominee for ambassador to Azerbaijan Georgi Zuev. A government-controlled outlet haqqin.az cited Zuev’s “pronounced pro-Armenian views” as the reason, though without citing any specific views.
Notably, Zuev’s name was first publicly mentioned as Russia’s nominee just a day before the Foreign Ministry statement, when he received an endorsement from a Duma committee. While no specifics have been made public, online chatter suggests that Zuev was blocked because he has ethnic Armenian relatives. The refusal may have therefore contributed to the foreign ministry statement being issued when it was.
Later in July, writing about the meeting between presidents of Azerbaijan and Russia, haqqin.az claimed that “ethnic Armenians that occupy senior state positions in the Russian political hierarchy are pursuing the interests of the world Armenians (sic), rather than Russia’s national and state interests.”