Decolonizing the Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict

The September-November 2020 war between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh exacerbated the already hostile and fragile relationship the two have had with each other for the past 40+ years. Quite a few prominent individuals, journalists, (pseudo-)historians and of course, politicians claim that the two peoples have always been in conflict with each other and that this is part of a greater “ancient hatred” between the two. Most people in the region under the age of 40 have probably never met the “other” yet have learnt to detest and despise them, but older people have indeed interacted with this “other,” and pre-1980s Armenians and Azeris have had cordial ties. Friction and sometimes tension existed, but coexistence was the norm in Yerevan, Baku and Shushi/Shusha.

The problem started in the post WWI period with the advent and propagation of (both) nationalism and the “self-determination of peoples.” The former is an entirely European product of the 19th-20th centuries while the latter is often described as an extension of the former and was advocated by the then US president, Woodrow Wilson. They do not entirely mean the same thing though. The different peoples of Anatolia, the South Caucasus and the Middle East, adopted nationalist ideology to supposedly learn of their true selves, prove their worth and demonstrate a strong, supposedly centuries old bond with the territory which they inhabit by seeking to establish a state exclusively for themselves — a nation-state. Nationalism is almost entirely rooted in “other-ing”; Nationalists must first be able to pinpoint who the “other” is, which makes it simpler to say who they themselves are not, to finally manifest ardently who or what they imagine to be. In the South Caucasus, this took place under the guise of “self-determination of peoples.” Wilson was indeed a visionary and a respected individual enough to know that meddling in other peoples’ affairs, located thousands of kilometres away, is wrong and unethical. Indeed, when he suggested (and advocated for) the establishment of a “Wilsonian Armenia” in what is now Eastern Turkey, he refused calls for an “American Mandate” on this territory. When the League of Nations adopted articles 73 and 76 on the “self-determination of peoples” with regard to those living under either colonial rule or grander empires (Ottoman, Russian, Austro-Hungarian), the Great Powers would not nicely let go of their influence and the subjugation of the colonized. France and Britain sought mandates to “help” the ignorant and impoverished locals to be able to rule themselves after a certain period of time. We can therefore witness the mis-use and abuse of the phrase “self-determination of peoples,” as attested by the emergence of the new colonial phenomenon of foreign mandates. After the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution in Russia and until the establishment of the Soviet Union and the advent of the conquering Red Army to the region, there was a two-year vacuum in the South Caucasus. From 1918 to 1920, horror, uncertainty, poverty, famine and war overcame the region. Armenians had suffered the Genocide of 1915-17 by the Young Turks government of the Ottoman Empire and the area from Kars and Gyumri to Yerevan hosted thousands of refugees, especially (often sick) orphans. Armenians, Georgians and Azeris fought extensively for the establishment of their respective nation-states, each having overlapping claims on territory — including the Nagorno-Karabakh region. With the Soviet invasion of the three South Caucasus republics, such matters were put to rest; the Soviets would divide and rule the vast union, causing tension and immense pain. One could argue that the Soviets brought an odd form of ‘peace’ or calmness in a turbulent region, but the truth is that these feelings were suppressed and oftentimes even paradoxically encouraged by the leadership in Moscow.

It must be said that the ‘fear’ between the Armenians and Azerbaijanis stems from factual historic events of ethnic cleansing from both sides between 1980-1994. The anti-Armenian pogroms of Sumgait, Baku and Shushi/a coupled with the ethnic cleansing of the Azerbaijanis of Armenia in 1991-1994 (or arguably as far back as the 1980s), resulted in the displacement of millions of people from both communities. History is being used and weaponized by the “other” nationalists resulting in accusations of the other “other” for not being indigenous to the South Caucasus. During the 2020 war, Armenians were called “dogs” and treated as outsiders who need to be driven out en masse from Karabakh and what the President of Azerbaijan, Ilham Aliyev, considers (what he calls) the Irevan Khanate, an area comprising Yerevan and the surrounding region, an “ancient Azerbaijani territory.” The Azerbaijanis, in turn, have been described as “barbarians,” and condescendingly accused of solely being descendants of the Turkic tribes of Central Asia (as opposed to being indigenous) by the Armenians. The erasure of historical and cultural localities is commonplace, and harmful discourse such as “we shall reach Baku” and “we shall reach Yerevan” is often echoed in Armenia and Azerbaijan respectively. 

The question of “who is indigenous” is a tricky one since the question of “who is a colonizer” arises concurrently. It is quite easy to accuse the other of being a colonizer, but how easy is it to prove that one’s group is indigenous to the land? — sure, one can look at recorded history and of course archeological artefacts; but how far back can one go? The world has witnessed different peoples moving in and out of different regions of the world; those who move out either keep or lose any attachment they have to their “homeland,” while those who move in transform their new host-land into a homeland, all the while mixing with the local population. This presents a fait accompli which shows how the group accused of not being indigenous has settled on the land for centuries and most often, has no other place to go. Indeed, it is better to compromise and learn how to live side-by-side to seek a better future together, rather than “other” one another, which leads to conflict or worse. 

There have been various studies on the topic of “decolonization” in the past 20 years or so, but very rarely have they been applied to the South Caucasus region and in turn, to its (many) conflicts. The three (internationally recognized) South Caucasus states are indeed small, but their strategic location makes them susceptible to falling under spheres of influence. Since the 2020 war, Russia has yet again proved itself to be the foremost player in this small area of the world. The European Union, United States, Turkey and Iran, also have a say in what should take place in this region and how (and by whom) it should be run. The leaders, and in turn the inhabitants of the South Caucasus, have therefore managed to become puppets of larger countries who feed the already present nationalism among the former. For example, the Artsakh National Assembly has declared Russian an official language in the republic. 

Decolonization does not always necessarily reference the direct efforts of a people to fight for liberation from the supposed colonizing force. In fact, through the dismantling of spheres of influence and in turn the decolonization of the mind, Armenians, Azerbaijanis, Georgians and the other minorities of the region could indeed take back agency for their collective benefit rather than either their personal interests or that of their supposed patron country. 

Nationalists often claim to strive to “take back control” through decolonization, all the while using a somewhat colonial phenomenon. Indigenization, on the other hand, is a local de-colonial and communitarian endeavor which seeks to establish a means of “taking back control” void of xenophobia, racism and other-ing. It seeks to decolonize the mind by giving the locals the opportunity to live peacefully through the intellect of both the masses and the intelligentsia, rather than just the latter; it emphasises going back to the indigenous knowledge which predates nationalism (a new foreign phenomenon). The interests of both the Armenians and the Azerbaijanis must be met, void of nationalist, racist, xenophobic and often fascist tropes. It should also be void of individual victimization, instead emphasizing on the collective future they both aspire for. The decolonization of society, its political institutions and peoples’ minds are imperative; this can only be achieved through the collective effort of decentralization, grassroots democracy, human rights, nonviolence and respect. Feminism and environmentalism are also important for a prosperous South Caucasus. Fortunately (or not), achieving peace often requires a compromise; it is not the easy route to take, as hatred and playing the blame-game is much easier than admitting to ones own past wrongdoings to move forward. The postcolonial concept of peace-building through indigenization is therefore indispensable to establish a post-conflict-ridden South Caucasus for all of those who live there. Conflict resolution through ceasefire agreements is not enough. A proper strategy of conflict transformation is needed in Nagorno-Karabakh. Conflict transformation is a cross-way between conflict resolution and peace-building — it englobes and intertwines both. One cannot have peace through conflict resolution alone. It is a process and takes time. Indeed, decolonizing “Peace” is needed, which questions the modern eurocentric notion of “war” as well. How did local Armenians and Azerbaijanis solve their inter-communitarian problems before the advent of European ideology (today, often considered dogma) on “peace” and “war” ? 

Armenians and Azerbaijanis must remember their past and question their identity. They can (and must) reimagine a future worthy of the honor which they supposedly claim to uphold. 

Photo: Sign reading Shusha on the road from Armenia proper to Stepanakert. The Russian flag can be seen on the left due to the presence of peacekeepers, and the Azerbaijani and Turkish flags can be seen on each side of the sign. Important to note that this sign is only visible to the Armenians going to Stepanakert.

One comment

  1. Well written and thoughtful analysis Antonios. This is a major question we all have to ask ourselves as individuals if we’re not already doing it.

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