As the humanitarian crisis worsens in the Nagorno-Karabagh of Azerbaijan amid ongoing tensions with neighboring Armenia, System of a Down‘s Serj Tankian has drafted an open letter urging stronger intervention into the matter.
In an exclusive interview, the artist tells SPIN that more than 120,000 people are without critical food and medical supplies due to Azerbaijan’s seven-month blockade of the Lachin corridor, the only road connecting Nagorno-Karabagh to Armenia. The sovereignty of Nagorno-Karabagh is disputed; it is internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan but is made up of land historically occupied by Armenians for thousands of years. The conflict broke out into a short war in 2020.
“The residents of Nagorno-Karabagh have since relied on humanitarian aid from Russian peacekeeping forces and the Red Cross,” reads the letter, which was also signed by musicians such as Peter Gabriel, Roger Waters, Tom Morello, and Stewart Copeland as well as other notable entertainment industry figures. “Azerbaijani soldiers are now blocking the entry and exit of aid convoys and the humanitarian crisis is worsening. In shops, essential food items are running out. Hospitals have an acute shortage of drugs and medical supplies. In February, the [United Nations’] top judiciary body, the ICJ [International Court of Justice], ordered Azerbaijan to ensure free movement on the road. Azerbaijan continues to ignore the ruling.”
Tankian, who is of Armenian descent, has long used his platform to advocate for the country’s well-being. “Everyone is supporting opening the blockade, from the United States to the State Department to the European Union, but it’s all talk,” he says. “But while people are starving, telling a dictatorial regime to open up an illegal blockade is not going to help them survive. They’re just words. There’s no actions, and that’s the issue. Everyone has already condemned it, but no one is doing anything. For example, USAID [United States Agency for International Development] could easily tell Azerbaijan, we’re going to fly in supplies. They have an office in Armenia, and the Armenian government has supplies that have been sitting around. We’ve been trying to reach out to [USAID administrator] Samantha Power to get her attention on the issue, and she’s aware of it, because she posted about it on Twitter.”
Tankian admits the problem is complicated by Russia’s ongoing war in Ukraine, which has further destabilized the region. “Alliances have re-aligned between Russia, Azerbaijan, and Turkey,” he says. “Once the war started, Russia looked to Turkey and Azerbaijan as a way of surviving because their oil is being funneled through Azerbaijan pipelines. Turkey is then playing both sides between NATO and Russia to their benefit, and that has even become a stumbling block for Finland and Sweden’s NATO membership. They’ve basically been blackmailing NATO to get what they want, which is the arrest of Kurdish activists living in Europe. In the long run, these changes might be great for Armenia, because Armenia has definitely been pivoting towards the west since the 2018 peaceful revolution, but right now, I don’t think things are changing for the better.”
“Most people read about Ukraine everyday in the press but don’t know that this is even happening,” Tankian says of the Nagorno-Karabagh crisis. “[Ukrainian president] Volodymyr Zelenskyy on Twitter praised Azerbaijan and their corrupt, fascist dictatorial leader Ilham Aliyev for helping Ukraine with energy supplies. So be it, but at the same time, the same dictatorial leader has put a chokehold on these people in Armenia and has invaded our proper, United Nations-recognized territories. He’s taken about 150 kilometers and his soldiers aren’t backing up. We’re being hypocritical as an international community, because we can’t sacrifice one country for another. It’s not right.”
On the musical front, Tankian confirms he will release a “rock EP” next year and that he has some collaborations with as-yet-unnamed artists in the pipeline as well. Having recently composed the score for the Netflix series Down to Earth With Zac Efron, Tankian is also “working on another series on a major streamer that I can’t name. I don’t think we’ll be putting out the soundtrack, but that will be out by late this year. There’s a few films coming down the line to work on too. There’s a lot going on.”
Alas, there is no activity on the books for System of a Down, which hasn’t released an album since 2005’s Mesmerize and Hypnotize and has played less than 20 shows in the past five years. The band made its only scheduled appearance of 2023 at the Sick New World festival in Las Vegas in May. “It was very fun,” Tankian says of the show, which also featured fellow nu-metal Mount Rushmore acts Korn, Deftones, and Incubus. “There were a lot of friends and family there, and seeing so many of our peers from the late ‘90s and early 2000s was a unique and beautiful experience.”