The Cultural Construction of Political Violence In Armenia and Azerbaijan

Nora Dudwick. Problems of Post-Communism. Volume 42, Issue 4, July/August 1995.

In the bloody conflict between Armenians and Azerbaijanis over Nagorno-Karabakh, it is often difficult to distinguish victims from aggressors. For the parties to the conflict, however, this distinction is a function of differing constructions of national identity and rights to territory.

War—judging by various conflicts around the world, from Rwanda to Northern Ireland, from Bosnia to the Gaza Strip—is more than a continuation of politics by other means. War results from a failure to compromise, and its psychological and physical costs are often so high they would seem to outweigh any potential gains from military victory. To outsiders, the war between Armenians and Azerbaijanis over the political status of Nagorno-Karabakh appears brutal and senseless. Populated primarily by ethnic Armenians, Nagorno-Karabakh is an autonomous oblast within the republic of Azerbaijan that has sought to secede from Azerbaijan and unite with Armenia. Strikes, violence, and bloodshed ensued. “The Armenians and the Azerbaijanis are both mad!” was the comment made privately by an American representative at the Organization on Security and Cooperation in Europe negotiations on the conflict after seeing a roomful of corpses. Twenty thousand deaths and even more injuries, dozens of destroyed communities and homes, and hundreds of thousands of people living in buildings never intended for human habitation or in squalid tent cities—all these have been committed in the name of determining the status of 4,000 square kilometers of mountainous, landlocked territory. The perpetrators would indeed appear to be mad.

Coming to grips with this war is even more difficult for the outsider, given the problem in sorting the victims from the aggressors. This confusion is not simply the result of Armenian or Azerbaijani propaganda or of the vicissitudes of the war itself. It arises from the fact that each side defines political violence and aggression according to its distinct conception of national identity, history, and territory. The way in which Armenians and Azerbaijanis date the origin of the war provides important clues in explaining their contrasting ideologies of identity and their interpretation of the violence used to defend these ideologies.

Origins of the War

The Azerbaijani View. The Azerbaijani analysis is relatively a historical; it rarely takes into account the relations between the Armenians of Karabakh and Soviet Azerbaijan that preceded and laid the ground for conflict, nor does it delve into pre-Soviet history. Azerbaijanis generally date the conflict to 1988, when Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh first publicly challenged Azerbaijani role of the enclave through their regional soviet. Focusing on the contemporary context of the war, Azerbaijanis generally describe it as nothing but overtly aggressive Armenian claims to Azerbaijani national territory as presently constituted.

True, before the onset of armed confrontation in Karabakh, when Armenians accused Azerbaijan of violence—the February 1988 killings at Sumgait, for example, or the fall 1988 pogroms in Baku and Kirovabad—Azerbaijanis responded by alleging earlier and precipitating atrocities, such as pogroms against Azerbaijanis living in Armenia. Without evaluating the veracity of these accusations, what is significant is that when Azerbaijanis search the past to explain present behavior, they do so mainly as an immediate defense against Armenian accusations, rather than as a preferred mode of argumentation.

In analyzing inter-ethnic violence, such as the 1988 attacks on the Armenian population in the Azerbaijani city of Sumgait, Azerbaijanis generally blame the KGB and Armenian agents provocateurs. They downplay the complex of class and ethnic tensions that, in the case of Sumgait, exploded in response to rumors of anti-Azerbaijani violence in Karabakh. By placing the origin of the Karabakh conflict in the late 1980s, Azerbaijanis also implicate Soviet authorities, who, they believe, provoked the conflict to intimidate and control them politically. Even more than Armenians, who also acknowledge Russia’s involvement, Azerbaijanis accuse Moscow of perpetuating the conflict for Russian regional strategic interests and to maintain hegemony in the “near abroad.” They view the conflict mostly in the context of Soviet state politics and ascribe blame equally to Armenian expansionism and Soviet or Russian machinations. They root their own behavior in the immediate precipitating events rather than in the longue duree of history.

The Armenian View. The Armenian chronology of the conflict, by contrast, shifts according to the political context and the audience. Armenian activism began during the full bloom of glasnost and perestroika, when Armenians formulated their campaign to unite Karabakh with Armenia in terms of fights articulated in the Soviet constitution. During the first stage of the Karabakh movement, Armenians explained the Karabakh issue as deriving from the 1921 decision made by the Caucasus Bureau of the Communist Party—allegedly in response to pressure from Stalin—to award the contested territories of Nagorno-Karabakh and Nakhichevan to Azerbaijan rather than to Armenia. In Armenian eyes, this decision was clearly unjust, because these regions were part of their historical territory, and Karabakh, at least, was populated by a large Armenian majority. Stalin therefore received the brunt of the blame for violating the normal historical order (and the right of national self-determination, explicitly championed by Lenin) and making future conflict between the two peoples inevitable. As glasnost allowed Soviet citizens to delve more critically into their history, Armenians shifted the blame to Lenin, whom they accused of sacrificing Armenian interests to Turkey, in order to curry favor with Kemal Ataturk, whose revolution Lenin hoped would inspire and politicize the Muslims of Central Asia.

Blaming Stalin and Lenin for the Karabakh problem, however, was a tactic Armenians used when appealing to Moscow to intervene in their favor. Among themselves, they looked further back in time to identify the “real” culprit: Turkey. Turkey is responsible for the fate of Karabakh in a metaphoric rather than literal sense, since before its annexation by the Russian empire in the early nineteenth century, Karabakh had been subject to Persian hegemony. Yet Armenians considered the loss of Karabakh to Azerbaijan, and the subsequent proportional decline of its Armenian population, as a continuation of the state-organized slaughter of between 1 and 1.5 million Armenians in the Ottoman empire during 1915-17. Armenians blame both Lenin and Turkey for the loss of another disputed region, Nakhichevan, which Turkey insisted be incorporated into Azerbaijan.

This link is so real for most Armenians that many view the recent military successes in Azerbaijan as direct revenge for their losses in Turkey over seven decades ago. During the winter of 1994, an Armenian friend explained how he had made the “difficult decision” several years ago to volunteer in the Karabakh army. Many of his relatives and neighbors had been “repatriates,” he explained, Armenians who had fled Turkey after 1915, lived many years in the Middle East or Europe, and chosen to settle in Armenia after World War II. Many of these repatriates had been teenagers in 1915. As children, he and his friends repeatedly questioned their elders, trying to understand why these old men, seemingly so masculine and powerful, had not fought back. And how could they explain their own survival? Often, the old men forgot the presence of the inquisitive boys and reminisced about their experiences in 1915, expressing keen regret that they had not defended their people. Their lingering regret, my friend concluded, fueled his own motivation to go to fight in Karabakh. He wanted to be able to answer his own children and grandchildren in the future, when they asked what he had done to defend Karabakh.

As this chronology suggests, for Armenians, the war is simply one episode in an ongoing battle against Turks for their own physical and cultural survival. Within this expanded chronology, Armenians equate Azerbaijanis (whom they refer to as “Turks”) with the Ottoman Turks and view both as nomadic invaders who have consistently sought to displace the peaceful Armenian people from their homeland. In this respect, the war is not just the outcome of problems or “inadequacies” that accumulated during the Soviet period, but results from the centuries-old ethnic incompatibility and territorial struggle between a settled agricultural people and warlike nomads.

Self-defense or Aggression?

These chronologies should help clarify the different terms Armenian and Azerbaijanis use to describe the current military confrontation. On the Armenian side, we have a language of “victimization,” “massacres,” and “self-defense” alternating with “liberation” and the “struggle for survival.” On the Azerbaijani side, we hear about “expansionism,” “aggression,” and “occupation.”

Both peoples manipulate these terms—sometimes for purely pragmatic, propagandistic reasons, sometimes ironically—reflecting the user’s awareness of the ambiguities of war. For example, on a fieldwork trip to the Armenian-Azerbaijani border in November 1994, one of my colleagues referred to the territory lying between Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh, now under Armenian control, as “occupied territories.” My other colleague raised his eyebrows and suggested that he avoid that term in front of his Karabakh comrades, or he might find himself the worse for wear. Lacking field experience in Azerbaijan, I am unable to assess the range of opinion among Azerbaijanis, but I can say that in Armenia readiness to apply the terms of “occupation” and “aggression” reveals an increasing lack of unanimity regarding the recent course of the war. Public opinion is not monolithic, but certain trends prevail.

The Armenian Perspective. Despite general exhaustion and even indifference toward the war in Armenia, especially in regions farthest from the action, the language and imagery remain those of victimization and the straggle for survival. Even military successes are interpreted according to paradigms of genocide and survival, neither of which can be overemphasized as keys to Armenian views about their place in the world. Because the events of 1915-17 so profoundly shape Armenian thinking, their preoccupation with survival should not be dismissed as mere rhetoric. Given Armenian conceptions of the current war as the historic continuation of their struggle against further depopulation and loss of land, it becomes natural for them to view their own violence as a justified and natural response to what they perceive as a serious threat.

Recognizing, however, that much of the world is insensitive or indifferent to historical arguments, Armenians use a double approach to justify their military actions. They explain all but strictly defensive actions in both strategic and historic terms. In May 1992, for example, Armenians established a “safe corridor” through the Azerbaijani district of Lachin, thereby linking the Armenian border town of Goris to Stepanakert, the capital of Nagorno-Karabakh. Armenians argued that the corridor was necessary for strategic reasons: Azerbaijan had blockaded Karabakh by road and rail, and their bombs had closed the Stepanakert airport several times, further isolating the region. Two weeks before seizing the Lachin corridor, Armenian forces occupied the Azerbaijani-populated mountaintop town of Shushi (Shusha to Azerbaijanis), from which Azerbaijanis had been bombarding Stepanakert. In 1993, Armenians seized the much larger territory of Kelbajar, lying between Armenia and Azerbaijan north of the Lachin corridor, from which Azerbaijanis had fired at convoys using the Lachin road. Finally, Armenians seized a swath of land to the south and the east, in the process deliberately destroying Azerbaijani towns and villages to create a depopulated no-man’s-land.

For the most part, Armenians argued that they had taken Shushi, Lachin, and Kelbajar, and established a buffer zone around Nagorno-Karabakh, for defensive reasons. They emphasized the humanitarian purpose of the corridor in allowing food, fuel, and medicine to reach the embattled and blockaded region, and down-played allegations that they were occupying foreign territory. As Oleg Yessayan, then prime minister of Nagorno-Karabakh, told Armenian International Magazine in June 1992, “This corridor is not about capturing another’s territory. It is a road for life.” At the same time, Armenians and Azerbaijanis were aware that troops and arms also moved along this corridor. Yet given Armenians’ fundamental assumption that the military defense—even enlargement—-of Nagorno-Karabakh is a matter of survival, most Armenians viewed the military and humanitarian purposes of the corridor as compatible.

The issue of Shushi is even more ambiguous. Azerbaijani control of Shushi posed a serious daily threat to the Armenian population of Stepanakert. But in taking Shushi, Armenians were also open about their longer-term aims. They stressed the necessity of breaking the siege of Stepanakert, but also made it clear they considered Shushi—albeit an Azerbaijani population center in the Soviet era—a historically Armenian city. Until it was burned down by Azerbaijani and Turkish troops in 1920, Shushi had a large Armenian majority and was a thriving center of Armenian culture in the Transcaucasus (although it was also important culturally to Georgians and Azerbaijanis). After the fall of Shushi in 1992, then-president of Nagorno-Karabakh, Georgi Petrosian, attributed the spectacular success in storming this seemingly impregnable fortress town to the fact that Armenians were only reclaiming what was rightfully theirs: “Personally, I had my doubts that we would ever be able to recover Shushi … But our will to take it was stronger than their will to defend it. We were recovering our city and they were defending a foreign city” (Armenian International Magazine, June 1992). Even more telling was chairman of parliament Karen Baburian’s comment about the function of the buffer zone around Karabakh: “The truth is that there is no buffer zone: Karabakh units have never exceeded the NKR [Nagorno-Karabakh Republic] borders. Historically, Karabakh had larger territories than those currently controlled (Lragir, September 7, 1994).

For most Armenians, their imagined “Armenia” is far greater than the tiny, truncated territory they inherited from the Soviet regime. In response to accusations of “occupying Azerbaijani territory” that lies outside Nagorno-Karabakh, Armenians respond by invoking the historical past to explain how they have simply retaken territory that was once theirs. They rhetorically transform what others describe as “aggression” to the “liberation” of their own historic lands, which by implication had been unjustifiably seized in the first place. In this way, they conflate their territorial losses to Turkey with their losses to Azerbaijan. They doubly justify their actions as both securing the survival of the Armenian people and righting a historic wrong. Their conviction in the self-evident nature of their historic claims is demonstrated by Baburian’s comment that Azerbaijanis lack will because they realize the validity of Armenian claims.

The Azerbaijani Perspective. If Armenians justify their actions by referring to historical events that many Westerners judge irrelevant to the war, Azerbaijanis resolutely ignore factors that seem eminently relevant to the military conflict. If Armenians rhetorically turn “occupation” into “liberation” and “aggression” into “defense” by claiming they are only taking back land the Azerbaijanis earlier stole, Azerbaijanis refuse to acknowledge Armenians’ obvious strategic reasons for what Azerbaijanis label “expansionism.” During negotiations, for example, Azerbaijanis have consistently protested the Armenians’ occupation of Kelbajar and the destruction and looting of Azerbaijani towns, and insisted on the return of Shushi and Lachin as prerequisite to any settlement. Yet Azerbaijan refuses to acknowledge the strategic significance of these highland regions and their use as vantage points to bombard Armenian settlements and terrorize Armenian civilians.

When Azerbaijanis accuse Armenians of territorial aggression, why do they completely ignore their own role in creating conditions that virtually forced Armenians to seize these territories? How can they insist on the non-negotiability of the return of Shushi, and especially the Lachin corridor, which broke the blockade of Karabakh? Granted, warring states rarely characterize their own behavior as aggression or excuse the behavior of their enemies. Nevertheless, another factor has also influenced the Azerbaijani stance. Azerbaijan views the conflict strictly in its Soviet context. Although Azerbaijani historians have argued for Azerbaijan’s historical claims to Karabakh, they have yet to produce a widely accepted and agreed-upon narrative. Because Azerbaijan is a multi-ethnic republic with a multi-cultural heritage and was defined only in the Soviet period, territory has played a central role in the construction of national identity. For this reason, contemporary borders are a far more important determinant of national identity for Azerbaijanis than for Armenians, for whom identity conceptually precedes and defines territory.

Azerbaijani nation-building is still in process, and Azerbaijanis are still grappling with the problem of national identity. Should they stress their linguistic and ethnic ties to Turkey or their Persian historic and cultural heritage? To what extent should one or both of these cultural strands shape identity in a multi-ethnic state? This uncertainty about who they are leads Azerbaijanis resolutely to maintain the primacy and legitimacy of their borders, for if the nation is to be defined by the territory it occupies, then changes in that territory could easily disrupt a fragile national identity.

Since, according to their reading of the international legal norms regarding the sovereignty of the state within its borders, their present territory is rightfully theirs, Azerbaijanis feel morally justified in defending this territory at all costs, including blockade or bombarding of civilians. As far as they are concerned, these are acts of self-defense against Armenian encroachment, and by implication, against their cohesion as a nation. In contrast to Armenians, who view territory in terms of its historical significance, Azerbaijanis believe that the moral authority of the present overrides that of the past.

For Azerbaijanis, the fact that Armenians are fighting them within the borders of Azerbaijan is sufficient to define Armenians as aggressors. As Hadi Musaogly Rajabov, chairman of the Council of Ministers’ Commission on Refugees, explained in an unpublished interview in October 1993: “Until now Azerbaijan is being shown in the world as a villain and aggressor, and although Armenians are the real aggressors, they are being shown as peaceloving defenders against aggression … [but] you must understand that the war is taking place on this territory, on the territory of Azerbaijan.”

Moreover, Azerbaijanis are aware that the West often views Muslims as backward and fanatical. In this respect, Azerbaijan’s ties to Iran further implicate it as fundamentalist and aggressive. For these reasons, perhaps, Azerbaijanis are defensive about publicly admitting their share in responsibility for the escalation of violence and suffering in the war.

History, Identity, and Territory

Azerbaijanis are aware of the different attitudes toward territory. In October 1993, the historian Leila Yunusova acknowledged that for Armenians, the Karabakh question was rooted in “ancient history”:

They think about themselves as an ancient people, with a more interesting history … And it is not a great surprise that Armenian children … know their history very well. The Azeris do not know [their history] so well … for the Armenians, there are no differences between the Turks and the Azeris. And they see the enemy in the Azeris. But the Azeris don’t see an enemy in anybody. They don’t have such a history, where they were killed… It is another history … It is another mentality. It is another vision … [The Armenians] publish maps about Great Armenia from one sea to another, from the Black Sea to the Caspian. And every Armenian schoolboy knows that this is Great Armenia, that this is our [Armenian] territory.

Extracting from Yunosova’s words, one can distinguish two conflicting visions that drive the war. In both cases, war has become central to the articulation and defense of national identity and territory. For Armenians, identity is linked to all the territories they have inhabited over the last two thousand years, even if few of them have any interest in pursuing claims to this land. As Yunosova suggests, for many Armenians the real Armenia is Greater Armenia.

For Azerbaijanis, on the other hand, a firm and un-ambiguous identity has yet to expand even to the frontiers of the present-day republic. For the majority of Azerbaijanis, village and regional loyalties have far greater significance and emotional weight than an abstract “Azerbaijani nation.” Armenian challenges to their territory, ironically, have encouraged the development of such a national identity.

The story of aggression and counter-aggression, and the escalation of violence from episodic provocations and harassment, is complicated by the involvement of Soviet (now Russian) interests. This article focuses on the indigenous Armenian and Azerbaijani interpretations of the roots of violence and conflict in order to make sense of the looking-glass quality of this war, in which victims are also aggressors, occupation is also liberation, murderers become martyrs, and blame shifts among the KGB, Gorbachev, Stalin, and the Turks. The sharp contradictions in how they view the past and construct their own national identity makes it exceedingly difficult for Armenians, who identify themselves as the historic victims of Turkic aggression, to see themselves as aggressors, especially against their “traditional” enemies, and for Azerbaijanis, who are still constructing a meaningful national identity within their frontiers, to make territorial concessions to the Armenians.