Anthony Bourdain has traveled the world with his cooking show, “Parts Unknown.”
But top officials in Azerbaijan, an oil-rich country nestled between Russia and Iran, want him to know this: He just became persona non grata.
His crime? Traveling to Nagorno-Karabakh, an extremely contentious pocket of land that is located, technically, in Azerbaijan. The enclave is about the size of Delaware, and has been a source of tension between Azerbaijan and Armenia since 1988. At that time, the region was part of Azerbaijan, but its legislature voted to join Armenia since many of the region's residents are ethnic Armenians.
Azerbaijan rejected the secession attempt. But after the Soviet Union fell, the region's legislature declared independence outright. In 1992, a full-scale war broke out between Azerbaijan and Armenia. Armenia quickly gained the upper hand, seizing control of Nagorno-Karabakh.
By 1993, Armenia controlled nearly a fifth of Azerbaijan. (Today, it controls about one-seventh of Azerbaijan's land, according to the Council on Foreign Relations.) During the conflict, hundreds of thousands of Azeris and Armenians were killed and displaced. In 1994, Russia brokered a tenuous cease-fire. All told, nearly 25,000 people died during the conflict.
Today, more than a decade later, peace between the two countries is fragile, at best. Earlier this year, fighting broke out along the border, sparking fears that a full-scale political crisis was in the offing. And it's hard to imagine a solution anytime soon. As the Council on Foreign Relations explained last year:
One obstacle to peace is the issue of sequencing. All three sides — Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Nagorno-Karabakh — refuse to budge until the others make a concession: Azerbaijan wants Armenia to end its occupation first and withdraw its forces before discussing the republic’s final status; Armenia is seeking a resolution first on the status question before pulling out its forces; Nagorno-Karabakh wants its independence officially recognized prior to all other negotiations.
Azerbaijan is opposed to foreigners visiting Nagorno-Karabakh without permission from the government in Baku. Doing so is considered a criminal offense. Azerbaijan maintains a list — with more than 700 names — of people from all over the world who are no longer welcome. The list includes government officials, European Union members, journalists and activists.
Hikmat Hajiyev, a spokesperson for the country's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, explains that the government believes it's dangerous for Azerbaijanis to visit Nagorno-Karabakh. He says, also, that Armenian officials use visits by foreigners to legitimize their position. He says that Azerbaijan does sometimes grant reporters, like those at the New York Times, authorization to visit.
This week, one more name was added. Bourdain “has been put onto the persona non grata list for his disrespect of Azerbaijan's territorial integrity and sovereignty,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Hikmet Hajiyev told Agence France-Presse. “Filming a food show on Azerbaijan's occupied territory is an insult to one million Azerbaijani refugees who were forcefully expelled from their homes."
This post has been updated to clarify the history of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. This post has also been updated with comment from the Azerbaijan government.