Ariel Kogan

Ariel Kogan is an independent researcher specializing in the Caucasus Region and Turkic states of the former USSR. He is currently monitoring and analysing local media sources in former Soviet Countries, Turkey and Iran.

The collapse of the USSR in December 1991 had manifold consequences for the peoples that inhabited it, including challenging the elites and societies of its 15 successor states with difficult questions of nation-building and geopolitical choice. The Russian Federation, after a series of “liberal” experiments in the 1990s, eventually returned to the neo-imperial model of “a unique country-civilization and a vast Eurasian and Euro-Pacific power that brings together the Russian people and other peoples belonging to the cultural and civilizational community of the Russian world… and one of the sovereign centers of world development.” The rest of the post-Soviet states have long oscillated (and some still do) between different variants of “ethnocracy” vs the idea of a civil/political nation, and orientation towards various global and macro-regional centers of power – Russia, the USA, China, the EU, the Islamic world, etc.

Relations with the ethnic diaspora have become an important factor in this choice. Especially if the number of representatives of “their” titular nations in certain foreign countries is statistically significant both in absolute numbers and in relation to the population of the country of origin – for example, Ukrainians (in Poland, Canada, the USA and Germany), Moldovans (half of whom today live and work in Romania, Italy and other EU countries), Azerbaijanis, Tajiks and Kyrgyz (mainly in Russia) and Armenians, whose diaspora significantly exceeds the population of Armenia itself. Such communities, in some cases with their own organizational infrastructure (NGOs, “ethnic economy”, lobbying structures, digital and print media, cultural institutions, etc.) are extremely important as a source of transferring earned money and investments, as well as channels for lobbying in the host country for the interests of their physical or historical homeland. As well as often influence the processes taking place there.

Israel as a Role Model

For these countries, immediate establishment of diplomatic relations and cooperation with Israel, as a “collective Jew”, became a part of the departing of the state Antisemitism of the USSR times. Besides for many of them Israel became a “role model”, as a liberal democratic country that simultaneously managed to preserve its national character; as a part of the Western world, closely integrated into international structures (OECD, financial institutions, standings in almost all EU programs, often outperforming countries such as the UK after Brexit, or Switzerland) — and at the same time with a high degree of autonomy in geopolitical decision-making, etc. And finally, as an important focal point of identity for Jewish communities in the diaspora, including the most important one in the US, that function as a powerful pro-Israel lobby.

Israel, with its powerful armed forces and special services, advanced military-industrial complex, close defense partnership with the United States (it was the first country in the world to receive the status of “a USA ally beyond NATO”) and the theme of national survival at the top of the scale of national priorities, above political and socio-cultural differences in society, is often seen as a successful model of defense policy for post-Soviet countries. First, those who face existential threats to their security (e. g. Ukraine from Russia and Azerbaijan from Iran), but unlike the post-Soviet Baltic states, are not members of NATO and have questionable prospects of joining it or a similar defense alliance in the near future.[1]

In all these cases, the Jewish state is presented as a positive symbol and an important existing or potential partner, a source of investments, unique agricultural, medical, industrial, and humanitarian technologies and/or as an ally capable to “opening doors to the Western world”. This scheme turned out to be appealing even to the Muslim countries of the Caucasus and post-Soviet Central Asia, which rather quickly became disillusioned with the possibilities of co-operation with the Muslim Middle East and were reluctant to become dependent on Islamic fundamentalists from Arab countries. As a result, paradoxically, the most attractive partner in the region was the State of Israel; as a result, this bloc of countries turned “into the most pro-Israeli part of the Islamic world”.[2] The furthest along this path was Azerbaijan, which at the beginning of the second decade of the 21st century turned into a strategic partner of Jerusalem in terms of economic, military, and geopolitical relations.

Post-Soviet ruling elites use Israel and Jews as a negative symbol in their foreign and domestic policy doctrine much less frequently. Clear, that latent Antisemitism has not gone anywhere in the post-Soviet countries, but its manifestations in the public space are generally not welcomed. Nevertheless, anti-Israeli and antisemitic declarations are occasionally heard not only at the societal level, but also in government and pro-government circles in Russia and several other countries of the former Soviet Union[3], and often – especially with the outbreak of war in Ukraine[4] – this antisemitism is increasingly taking on an instrumental character[5]. However, until very recently, it was commonly believed that Judeophobia and anti-Israelism, in their “classical” forms as an element of the state and public identity, with very few exceptions, was left behind in the Soviet past. 

The Case of Armenia

Armenia provides us today with one of the yet few, but very revealing examples of the revival of such a new-old phenomenon. The above-mentioned strategic partnership of Jerusalem with Armenia’s main enemy, Azerbaijan, as well as the alleged unwillingness of Israel to recognize the Armenian tragedy of 1915 as a phenomenon similar to the Holocaust of the European Jewry, are the leading contributing factors, apart from local household antisemitism recorded by surveys of different years. Different opinions exist concerning the degree of its entrenchment in Armenian society.[6] Moreover, the anti-Israeli and anti-Jewish (often combined with anti-Azerbaijani) propaganda constructs circulating in both at the level of the authorities and the general public, often include classic antisemitic clichés, and in many cases clearly bear the “made in Iran”[7] label.

They simultaneously use two mutually negating claims – tropes, even at first glance, both problematic in terms of facts and context. The first one: “Jews participate in the genocide of Armenians in Karabakh, getting paid from Azerbaijan for their weapons”. In fact, the supply of Israeli arms to Azerbaijan is carried out within the framework of the joint struggle against the hegemony of the radical Islamist regime in Iran, which is an existential threat to both Israel and Azerbaijan and acts as a leading geopolitical patron and supplier of arms and strategic resources to Yerevan.

The second statement is no less problematic: “Armenians in Karabakh are like Jews in Nazi Germany”. Problematic both in terms of making a biased equivalent between two events. First, let us not forget that Jews did not occupy German land, did not revolt against German rule, did not have territorial demands, did not commit atrocities even after the Holocaust. And in terms of the Holocaust depreciation and appropriation of the tragedy in effecting of which Armenians took part (monuments to the Nazi collaborators in the country).

Here is one of the numerous statements of this kind in public forums of the Armenian diaspora: “A genocide-survivor nation of @Israel continues its support for the brutal dictatorship of #Azerbaijan that right now is sabotaging a slow genocide in #NagornoKarabakh #Artsakh by starving 120K Armenians”.[8]  In approximately the same style, privatizing and trivializing the Shoah of the European Jewry, activists of the pro-Armenian lobby in the USA operate. For example, at a Congressional Human Rights Commission hearing, one such activist argued that “Armenia to me…is really kind of the Israel of Christendom, where it stood there so long, and we should stand with them, and we should not allow them to be driven out of this ancient homeland with the use…of US weaponry…we should stand up policy-wise here, and we should stand up compassionately.” [9]

It should be noted that officials in Yerevan and figures close to the leadership of the country, which now, in parallel with the ongoing military and diplomatic partnership with Tehran and Moscow, demonstrate a desire to get closer with Western countries expecting to receive material and diplomatic support from them, however, prefer to choose somewhat more cautious expressions. But at public events and in Internet forums in Armenia itself and in Armenian communities abroad, especially in the United States and France, blatant anti-Jewish and anti-Israeli manipulations have become unprecedentedly widespread. A typical example is the interview of the first commander of the Artsakh (Karabakh) Defense Forces, Colonel Arkady Karapetyan, given to the Armenian news agency “Realist”. “Israeli instructors shot at us to test their weapons… Jews recently celebrated the day of remembrance of the victims of concentration camps and it was widely covered in the world media. Meanwhile, Israel is actively promoting the transformation of Artsakh into a death camp – with the tacit consent of the entire “civilized” world… Israel uses Azerbaijan as an executioner, but the executioners themselves do not understand that they too will face a terrible punishment”.[10]

The latest wave of such discussions was triggered by the readiness of the Nikola Pashinyan government to accept the idea of “1991 borders”, i.e., to recognize Azerbaijan’s sovereignty over Karabakh. Some of the critics of this move, hinting or directly saying that this is almost an American-Jewish-Israeli conspiracy, put these and all the other above-mentioned tropes in the form of more correct statements, as did the speakers of the group of prominent civic organizations in Karabakh (Artsakh), who equated the international community’s insistence that Artsakh be part of Azerbaijan and be under Baku’s rule, asking “whether the international actors interested in a peace whether they would make the same proposal, equating Azerbaijan to a Nazi state”.[11]

Others do not see fit to keep themselves within the bounds of minimal decency: “Allegedly – the Armenia’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, these days in the States “discusses” with Turks and Jews [such as] US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken – perhaps the main beneficiaries of the destruction of the Armenian Artsakh – and how to further surrender Artsakh to the Turks” – states on one of such sites a certain Sergey Shakaryants. “And we have repeatedly received the main information – that behind the scenes it is the USA that demands from its mutts and whores to create something quickly so that Russian troops would get away from Armenia… and from Artsakh. So, they are in a hurry to “recognize” Artsakh as Caucasian-Tatar territory, thereby giving the genocidal fascists an irreplaceable trump card: Armenia has “recognized”, that’s it – no Armenians, no problems!”[12]  

The Ombudsman of the “Republic of Artsakh” (NKR), Gegham Stepanyan, spoke in a similar vein: “Let all those who still have illusions about this issue answer whether Jews could have imagined life in Nazi Germany. Yes, Azerbaijan is the very Nazi country, where the society is completely imbued with Armenophobia, hatred and hostility towards Armenians. Everyone should have been convinced of this long ago. This is one of the greatest tragedies of the 21st century.”[13]

Scathing manipulations of anti-Zionists and Antisemites, allegedly defending the interests of Armenia (and, rather, harming this country), without caring about minimal logic, claim that Russia is also part of the allegedly existing conspiracy of “Jews of Israel and the United States” against Armenia, accompanying their fantasies with various wishful thinking regarding the “prospects” of the participants of this “bloc”. “The “velvet” gang introduced in Armenia by the Mossad-MIT-GRU special services, supported by their pro-Russian and “pro-Western” backers, has begun the decisive phase of Armenia’s abolition…”, claims one such “expert”. “Israel, as well as Turkey and Russia, exist now solely because of the partition of Armenia in 1921. Those facing the threat of disintegration (Medvedev) pounced like predators in Armenia, and the geographical dimensions of our country do not matter here at all.”[14]

Moreover, according to the same opinions, Russia in this project is also run by Jews, more precisely – “anti-Putin liberals” of the Jewish origin, who, according to the authors of such conspiratorial antisemitic myths, are “closely connected with the Russian and Israeli special services” (such as liberal Echo of Moscow – Zhivoy Gvozd radio, and personally Movchan, Dubnov, Bykov, Dymarsky, Venediktov, Shenderovich, Belkovsky are among those mentioned). And their aim is allegedly to implement “Israel’s plans in the South Caucasus”.[15]

It is no coincidence that another popular – and clearly motivated by widespread antisemitic clichés – construct in these circles has become the uncritical assimilation of the Arab-Islamic narrative of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, which, in fact, leads these propagandists to deny Israel’s right to exist and, accordingly, the right of Jews to their national self-determination – which falls under the internationally recognized definition of antisemitism. Thus, in recent months, the Armenian segment of the Internet (including the Russian and English language segments) has been abundant with expressions of unconditional solidarity with Palestinians on the 75th anniversary of the Nakba (“the catastrophe of the Palestinian people”, which, according to this narrative, is the

creation of the State of Israel). In the view of the authors of one of the many declarations of this kind, the creation of Israel is “a crime that never ended. Armenians called Palestine home for millennia. During the Nakba, many were forced out – including genocide survivors, once again uprooted by the forces of nationalism & colonialism.”[16]

The author of the previous quote, Alex Galitsky, the Armenian National Committee of America – ANCA Program Director (who has long-term anti-Zionist record[17), has attracted attention with a few controversial anti-Israel statements. Commenting on Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Galant’s visit to Azerbaijan to “widen defense cooperation”, Galitsky claimed that this “means selling Azerbaijan cluster munitions, suicide drones and artillery systems to kill Armenian civilians in Artsakh.”[18]

To conclude, the antisemitic card played by pro-Armenian lobbies, as in most conflicts in the former USSR, is mainly instrumental, but the danger of introducing classical antisemitic and anti-Zionist narratives into Armenian public discourse against the backdrop of the trauma of Yerevan’s defeat in the second Karabakh war and the rise of radical Armenian nationalism looks quite real.