‘History, Identity, and Ethnicity’ at Tufts Karabagh Symposium

MEDFORD, Mass. (A.W.)—On Sept. 26, the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy held a symposium on the topic of “Reassessing the Nagorno-Karabagh Conflict” with a panel examining the subtopic of “History, Identity, and Ethnicity” as they pertain to the conflict.

 Eileen F. Babbit, a professor of international conflict management practice, introduced the event. Milena Oganessyan, an anthropologist from the University of Montana-Missoula, spoke first on the issue of “Constructing and De-Constructing Histories, the Ethnicity Factor.”

“What I’m arguing today are the ways in which ethnicity can be interpreted and its correlation to the Nagorno-Karabagh conflict.”

“Primordialism,” she explained, “is the concept that ethnicity is immutable. A majority of Soviet scholarship and post-Soviet perceptions in scholarship have been affected by primordialism.”

“Intentionalism,” by contrast, “views ethnicity as fluid and completely changeable. It is a tool to be used for political gains, while ‘constructivism’ views ethnicity as not quite fluid, but based on social relations, institutions, and social agents.”

“Constructivism views ethnicity as primarily constructed and mythologized, thereby making the idea of practical relations existing [between two groups of different ethnicities] possible.”

Regarding the future of Armenian-Azerbaijani civil society and the relation between the local populations, Oganessyan said that in the Caucasuses today, “People are identified as their ethnicity and not by their country.”

Oganessyan, who is ethnically Armenian but recognizes herself as a Georgian by nationality, explained that “peaceful coexistence is possible, but there must be mutual understanding through anthropology on how to interact with ‘the other.’”

She spoke of the territories in the Karabagh region currently under the control of Armenian military forces and installations, and the form of Armenian-Azerbaijani trench-war relations that are present today. “Claims to space and territory are very important in anthropology and we must advance anthropologically the study of our [Armenian and Azerbaijani] common history through education on the local, national, and political levels,” she said.

Oganessyan ended by reciting a Sayat Nova poem in the Armenian, Georgian, and Azerbaijani language to emphasize her point of sociological commonality and the potential for co-existence in the region. “These words are poetry of love and when it comes down to the cultural values of food, music, and folklore, there is hope for peaceful co-existence.”

Humay Guliyeva, an economic development researcher at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, spoke next about her personal experiences with Armenian-Azerbaijani relations. Previously, she said, “this idea of a historical grievance by both sides was not able to be forgotten, but at least it was talked about between both groups during the Soviet period in the spirit of brotherhood.”

She spoke about the perceptions that are common among Azeris regarding the Karabagh independence movement, which began in the late 1980’s. “For Azeris, it led people to accuse themselves of having been excessively hospitable in their relations towards Armenians” during the Soviet period, she noted.

The Sumgait massacre of ethnic Armenians and the Khojaly massacre of ethnic Azerbaijanis are both cemented in the narratives of each side as examples of ethnic cleansing, she said. Yet, each side “tends to forget that these instances were not the norm for relations and have been institutionalized by various factions.”

Guliyeva ended by noting that “the peace process cannot be solved by half-hearted presidential signatures. It needs to go deeper than that in society. For that to happen, both sides need further democratization policies in both countries to be able to hear the voices of dissent in their own countries. And no one will go back to Karabagh if they don’t feel safe at night with their neighbors.”

Jale Sultani, the Azerbaijani facilitator for the Imagine Center for Conflict Transformation (an independent, non-political organization dedicated to positively transforming relations and laying the foundations for lasting and sustainable peace in conflict-torn societies) spoke next, and described the center’s work.

“Phil Gamagheyan and I have worked with various groups in Armenia and Azerbaijan on ethnicity and historical perceptions and their methodologies,” she said. “When we talk about history, we often don’t talk about it as a form of academic study, but as how the subject perceives it.”

The center’s workshops are “…divided into three parts: starting in the past, continuing into the present using difficult problem-solving strategies, and moving on into scenarios for the future.”

Sultani explained that initially in the first phase, “The Armenians and Azerbaijanis are separated and must come up with 10 events crucial to the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict to them, not to history. In the next session, they prepare 10 lessons to understand the other side’s story. This is still a very challenging process for participants and for us to manage.”

Sultani emphasized that the most important phase in the workshops comes next, when “in the narrative meditation the participants tell a personal story about how the Karabagh war affected them. This is agreed by the participants as the transformative moment of the process.”

“Most important is putting together both timelines and going through them, giving both sides a chance to emphasize with the other, and leading to more analytical and constructive events about the future for joint action.”

“In the end, these exercises allow for practical applications for these conflicts. And the relationships between the participants become more positive. The trust factor of ‘the other’ goes up and it’s no longer a zero-sum game between societies.”

Like the “Seeds of Peace” program in the U.S., facilitated by the American Quaker community, Sultani defended her program as a governmental tool for progress. “If the national leadership in Armenia and Azerbaijan wants to move this conflict even an inch towards peace, there’s a lot of work to be done and these kinds of efforts will create bargaining chips later.”

Guliyeva said, that from the Azerbaijani perspective of the Armenian Artsakh independence movement, “despite the violence it was a very democratizing force in both countries [Armenia and Azerbaijan], in that it created public protests and for once in both countries the public felt like they were in charge of something.”

From her Azerbaijani perspective, Sultani responded to the Karabagh conflict by saying, “Azeris get frustrated by getting blamed by Armenians for the genocide of 1915 when a majority of their grievances come from recent history. The ancient history is of much more importance in the timelines to Armenians, we’ve found.”


Andy Turpin

Andy Turpin has been the assistant editor of the Armenian Weekly since 2006. He was raised in Palma City, Fla. His family is of Italian, Welsh and Armenized-Romani stock. He graduated from Earlham College in Richmond, Ind., with degrees in history and journalism. Following graduation, he went to Armenia as an English as a Second Language (ESL) U.S. Peace Corp volunteer. He received his CELTA-ESL degree from Cambridge University in 2006.

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