Thursday, 28 August 2014

Nationalism Sparks a Summer of Deadly Violence in the Caucasus

By Dr. Kevork Oskanian, University of Birmingham

The world has been brutally reminded of the unresolved conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh, an enclave in the South Caucasus which Armenia and Azerbaijan have locked horns over for more than 25 years. While the situation is clearly at a low ebb, the facts of what is happening are far from clear.

The two sides' accounts of the violence are, as ever, directly contradictory. In the absence of third-party monitoring, the only certainty seems to be that dozens of Azeri (or Azerbaijani) and Armenian soldiers have lost their lives in tit-for-tat exploratory and retaliatory raids, while civilians around the line of contact have been plagued by an upsurge in shelling and sniper fire.

Mediation between the presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan by Russia’s Vladimir Putin appears to have calmed the situation on the ground for now. Any such calm, though, can only be temporary.

Azerbaijan’s government has repeatedly stated its readiness to change the status quo by force if necessary, and the Armenian side is not in any mood to compromise on its central demand – and the conflict’s main bone of contention - the “Nagorno-Karabakh people’s right to self-determination".

But rather than being the product of some inevitable, eternal enmity between Armenians and Azeris, this conflict is the result of competing narratives that emerged in modern times – and which were reinforced at the fall of the Soviet Union.

The official story

The pressure to establish at least an impression of democracy after the Soviet era forced both Azerbaijan and Armenia to invest in strong nation-building ideologies. The competing nationalisms that resulted are deeply embedded in the region’s two centuries of Russian and Soviet imperial rule.

For instance, while the 1915 genocide was at worst suppressed and at best minimised in the official narratives of Soviet Armenia, the Russians and the Bolsheviks were invariably portrayed as the saviours of the Armenian nation from annihilation at the hands of Persians and Turks.

Soviet Azerbaijan’s official history, meanwhile, often emphasised both the country’s Caucasus Albanian heritage (especially when a line had to be drawn between the Turkic Azeris and Turkey) and its Persian cultural inheritance – for instance, when Stalin began coveting Iranian Azerbaijan after World War II.

The audience for these new histories was not just the local population, but also late-Soviet Moscow, where all decisions affecting the Union Republics were made. In the strange and intensely ideological Soviet empire, only the dictats of Marxism-Leninism stood in the way of the unbridled nationalism this thinking could have unleashed.

But the the liberalisation of the final years of Soviet rule fuelled the output of this revisionist history. Moscow held sway over the fate of Nagorno-Karabakh, and a flurry of history-writing in both republics saw them fight to bolster their claims to the territory.

Breaking free

At the same time, the Gorbachev-era policy of Glasnost (“openness”) gave oxygen to both sides' nationalist zeal. Some Armenian claims portrayed the Caucasus’s Azeris as Central Asian, Turkic interlopers; some Azeri historians tried to completely expunge the Armenians from the history of the region.

As nationalism became the ideology of choice for elites on both sides of the divide, unbridled revisionist histories and sometimes plainly nonsensical claims were eagerly adopted by these newly independent states – and propagated by their media, by textbooks, and by institutions of higher education.

Today, instead of doing justice to this region’s immense complexity, these countries' official histories still traffic in selective, self-serving readings of “facts”, and ultimately unfalsifiable assumptions on how “historical ownership” of a given territory is established.

These deeply nationalist official histories have helped push their respective nations’ identities to directly contradictory and mutually exclusive extremes, each side dehumanising the other. The upshot is a mess of absurd nationalist claims made with equally absurd confidence.

Give me liberty …

Consider how, just as in many other nationalist conflicts, the concept of “liberation” is liberally applied by both sides. For many Armenians, the territories surrounding Nagorno-Karabakh are “liberated”, a term that blithely justifies the ethnic cleansing of hundreds of thousands of Azeris with nothing more than a nod to the tortured history.

Azerbaijan’s president has himself similarly stated his willingness to “liberate” Nagorno-Karabakh in the future, pointedly inviting any ethnic Armenian “guests” disagreeing with Azeri rule to leave.

The absurdity of designating historically imagined territories as in need of “liberation” is ignored in both cases. But this is what happens when nationalist history becomes a guide for moral action. It ends up normalising the idea of ethnic cleansing by basing what should be on a contrived notion of what used to be – and by prioritising that historical abstraction over everything (and everyone) else.

In the end, it’s quite simple: one cannot liberate territories, one can only liberate people. But of course, authoritarian and semi-authoritarian regimes don’t particularly like to see the concept of “freedom” extended towards individual citizens.

People before nations

The Karabakh dispute desperately needs to be refocused on the rights and integrity of humans, rather than “nations” and artificially sacralised territories. But this is a distant prospect indeed; the South Caucasus’s elites still draw too much power from the nationalism they whipped up to bolster their legitimacy decades ago.

After all, in pseudo-democracies, nationalism just helps keep things together. It diverts attention from the difficult things and people that matter; most of all, as recent events in Azerbaijan have shown, it provides a valuable tool for demonising regime opponents as traitors. And as the two presidents well know, any leader trying to move away from the consensus would risk the ire of new a political opposition pushing a reinvigorated nationalist myth.

National histories will always be full of internal contradictions, omissions, and double standards – but allowing nationalism to proceed unchecked this conflict deteriorate further. These official histories are emperors with no clothes. It is time for their distortions to be directly and aggressively addressed.

The Conversation
Kevork Oskanian does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


  1. The current stage of the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan started in November 1987 because of the Armenian SSR’s territorial claims to Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast in the Azerbaijan SSR. This article keeps silence on the true reasons of the conflict, which were and are the Armenian nationalism and territorial claims. Not Azerbaijan, but Armenia made claims to its neighbour’s territories.
    ‘Enclave’ is a term applied to an area completely surrounded by the territory of another country. Nagorno-Karabakh was and is part of Azerbaijan and was/is surrounded by Azerbaijani territory. For that reason, ‘enclave’ was not/ is not applicable to Nagorno-Karabakh.
    Nagorno-Karabakh is an internationally recognised part of Azerbaijan, which together with surrounding seven districts of Azerbaijan, was occupied by the Armenian Armed Forces in 1992-1993. There is no such a people like ‘Nagorno-Karabakh people’. According to the All-Union Census of 1989, the population of Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast of Azerbaijan consisted of about 73,5% Armenians and 25,3% Azerbaijanis, who were cleansed of their territories by Armenians. These are not ‘historical narratives’, but facts, which the author of this article did not find to be necessary to mention, and thus repeating the Armenian nationalist narrative of the conflict.

  2. I won't comment on 'who started it'. Most importantly, because, as in almost all ethnic conflicts, that usually results in a chain of claims and counter-claims that can go on 'ad infinitum', with both sides using different criteria and selective data to identify the actual reasons things having 'kicked off'.

    One important point that you seem to be missing, however, is the role played by the Armenian population of NK itself in demanding the territory's transfer to the Armenian SSR. This conflict did not only start out as one between two republics; it was also one between one Republic, and a minority within it, adding to its complexity.

    As for the term 'enclave': it is commonly denoted to refer to areas whose demographic - usually ethnic - composition differs substantially from their surroundings, which was obviously the case in Nagorno-Karabakh up to 1993. From that perspective, use of that term is perfectly justifiable.

    You should also note that 'NK people' is explicitly and purposefully placed in quotation marks, as an illustration of the Armenian position.

    Finally, on historical narratives and 'facts' - those are two different things. 'Facts' do not stand on their own, they are connected and selected to create complex narratives, which represent more than just the sum of their factual parts. History offers a wealth of facts from which to choose, and construct such narratives; in the case of nationalist history-writing, that usually leads to two sides being absolutely convinced of their 'right' simply by selectively focusing on some facts, while ignoring others. And such is the case in both Armenia and Azerbaijan: neither have been immune to nationalism's excesses in their selective historiographies.

    As for the 'fact' that the NKAO's population was 73,5% Armenian and 25,3% Azerbaijani: I do not see how NOT mentioning that (while mentioning the fact that Azeris were indeed ethnically cleansed) would somehow replicate an 'Armenian nationalist narrative'. Quite on the contrary.

    1. ‘Who started it’ is very important and can be established based on the facts of 27 years ago when the first Azerbaijani refugees from Armenia arrived in Azerbaijan. It was not the Armenian population of Nagorno-Karabakh, but the Armenian nationalists in Armenia and diaspora who started it. There are a great number of facts confirming this argument, just to bring one of them. In his interview with Thomas de Waal, Igor Muradian, one of the main leaders of the separatist movement, in addition to admitting the support of Karen Demirchian, the then leader of Armenia, for the Karabakh movement, also confessed his own contacts with members of the then banned nationalist Dashnaktsutiun Party in their underground cells in Yerevan and abroad, and even the procurement of weapons. According to Muradian, the activists of the Karabakh campaign received a first consignment of small arms from abroad in the summer of 1986, and more then came at regular intervals. A lot of Czech weapons were among them, most of which went straight on to Nagorno-Karabakh. As noted by Thomas de Waal, this confirmed that Muradian knew that the conflict could turn into an armed one. This also confirms the widely-held view that the Armenian separatists were prepared well in advance, from organisational, propaganda and military points of view, under the guidance and support of Armenia, the Armenians represented in the high Soviet governmental positions and Armenian diaspora representatives. The Armenian population of Nagorno-Karabakh was used as a tool in the territorial claims of Armenia to Azerbaijan.

      No student of English linguistics, international law and geography would dispute that ‘enclave’ is a term applied to an area completely surrounded by the territory of another country. ‘Commonly denoted’ is not an academic justification for the use of this term with regard to Nagorno-Karabakh.

      You did not oppose to the use of so-called Nagorno-Karabakh people definition by the Armenian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which could pave the way to different interpretations of your position on this issue.

      Historical narratives may and may not be based on facts, whereas my previous comment was based only on facts, which cannot have different interpretations. You cannot deny the fact that Nagorno-Karabakh and surrounding districts occupied by the Armenian Armed Forces are internationally recognised parts of Azerbaijan. There is no way of interpreting it differently.

      On your final point: You did not mention on the ethnic cleansing of Azerbaijanis from Nagorno-Karabakh also. You mentioned on their cleansing only from 'the territories surrounding Nagorno-Karabakh'.

  3. You cite the shenanigans of Igor Muradyan & Co., and you could of course plausibly argue that this is where the conflict started. But Armenians will then counter that it began with the repressions (real or perceived) of their ethnic brethren in Karabakh during preceding years. To which Azeris would probably reply that these repressions were either imagined, or fabricated; to which Armenians would in turn retort that Soviet-era reports and statistics were repressed and doctored in Baku. And so forth, and so forth, pointlessly into infinity.

    Perhaps it started in October 1987 in Chardakhlu? Or in January 1988 in Kapan? February 1988 in Yerevan? Or in Sumqayit? I've looked through one chapter of Black Garden and found any number of events and processes in the beginning stages of the conflict that could be seen as the 'start' of hostilities, depending on whom you grant the benefit of the doubt, and the assumptions you employ. This makes 'How to end it?' a much more important question than 'Who started it?', because, as in Israel-Palestine, or Cyprus, or Northern Ireland, such questions will end up in endless cycles of tit-for-tat.

    You made me doubt myself for a second here, but after performing a search for 'enclave' on Google Scholar, I found about a dozen academic articles that speak of 'ethnic', and 'immigrant' enclaves in places like London and New York, so I can be quite confident that use of the term is indeed justifiable. As for my 'crimes of omission' - there are plenty of other things I could have put in this article, but there's only so much one can fit into 800-1000 words.

    The important point here is that Armenian and Azeri histories and narratives that denigrate the other side, rub it out of history, demonise it, ultimately do not contribute to that all-important question - 'how to end it?'. They serve to perpetuate distrust, hatred, ignorance, and fear. And no one, least of all the sides involved, can be served by that.

  4. Your reference to Chardakhly in October 1987, when, according to Thomas de Waal, the Armenians objected to the appointment of a new collective-farm director, were beaten by the police and in protest sent a delegation to Moscow, was one of the results of the activities of the ‘emissaries’ from Armenia, who had been regularly visiting Nagorno-Karabakh Armenians and Armenian-populated settlements in Shamkhor, Khanlar and Shaumyanovsk districts of Azerbaijan since 1986-87. This is further evidence to my argument in my previous comment. These emissaries from Armenia hold separatist-oriented meetings and gatherings, compelling the Armenians of the above-mentioned places to hold actions of civil disobedience and to claim secession from Azerbaijan. Although you call the confessions of Igor Muradyan as ‘shenanigans’, the role of Muradyan as one of the leaders of the separatist movement in the conflict is undeniable. The background preparations of every kind to make open territorial claims to Azerbaijan when the time was ripe were followed by open territorial claims made by Aganbekyan in Paris on 16 November 1987 not only to Nagorno-Karabakh, but also to Nakhchyvan, both in the Azerbaijan SSR. This was followed by the flow of the first refugees of the conflict, Azerbaijanis from Armenia in November 1987, who arrived in Azerbaijan, and thus the current open stage of the conflict started and continued with the internally displaced Azerbaijanis from Nagorno-Karabakh in early 1988 and the death of two Azerbaijanis on 22 February near the settlement of Askaran in NKAO, who were the first deaths of the conflict. The Sumgayit events happened later and were not the beginning, but one of the consequences of the Armenian territorial claims to Azerbaijan. Instead of condemning the Armenian territorial claims to Azerbaijan and pointing to it as the reason of the conflict, you try to justify it. If Azerbaijan had made territorial claims to any country, I would not have justified it. More than anything else, it is a moral issue for me.

    In no part of your piece you mentioned that Nagorno-Karabakh was part of the Azerbaijan SSR when the current stage of the conflict started, and is still an internationally recognised part of Azerbaijan occupied by the Armenian Armed Forces. Moreover, I am not convinced that no mention of cleansing of the Azerbaijani population of Nagorno-Karabakh was because of the word limitation, since while mentioning about the hundreds of thousands of Azerbaijanis cleansed from ‘the territories surrounding Nagorno-Karabakh’, you could also add Nagorno-Karabakh. Even in this case, you avoided mentioning which country ‘the territories surrounding Nagorno-Karabakh’ belonged to. As for Nagorno-Karabakh, you presented it as ‘an enclave in the South Caucasus’, as if there was such a state like the South Caucasus and Nagorno-Karabakh was its ‘enclave’, which was not a scholarly approach. As for terms of ‘ethnic’ and ‘immigrant’ enclaves in different cities, I am familiar with them. It is not acceptable in regards to autonomous regions within different countries, the application of which in the latter case would be not social, but legal and politically-motivated.

  5. 'Who started it?' and 'How to end it?' are equally important questions. As without a correct diagnosis you cannot treat any illness, without identifying the reasons of the conflict you cannot solve it. My diagnosis of the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict is that it is the result of the Armenian nationalism and territorial claims which have paved the way to the defensive nationalism of Azerbaijanis. If the Armenian territorial claims to Azerbaijan are given up and not nationalism, but internationalism are propagated, the conflict will be solved. The main thing is to be respectful to each other’s internationally recognised borders like honest and decent people who do not have eyes for what do not belong to them, and respect each other as peoples who used to live together. In order to achieve this, Armenia has to make the first step and give up its territorial claims to Azerbaijan so that Azerbaijan believes in its sincerity.