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Nationalism sparks a summer of deadly violence in the Caucasus

Vladimir Putin with Azerbaijani president Ilkham Aliyev (l) and Armenian president Serzh Sargsyan. EPA/Ria Novosti

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.

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