Book Review: Ethnicity, Nationalism and Conflict in the South Caucasus

In his book “Ethnicity, Nationalism, and Conflict in the South Caucasus: Nagorno-Karabakh and the Legacy of Soviet Nationalities Policy” (2012), Dr. Ohannes Geukjian analyzes how ethnicity and nationalism became a catalytic cause of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and how they have affected Armenian-Azerbaijani relations since the early 1900s. The book examines the underlying factors of the conflict in the South Caucasus from 1905 to 1994. It also analyzes the historiography and politics of the conflict, including the ethnic and territorial dimensions of the first Karabakh War. Dr. Geukjian presents both the Armenian and Azerbaijani perspectives. He also argues that the policy of spreading Soviet rule in Nagorno-Karabakh and attaching it to Soviet Azerbaijan should be viewed within the context of Bolshevik-Kemalist cooperation, keeping in mind that in the early 1920s, the territories of Nakhichevan, Zangezur and Karabakh were “disputed” between Armenia and Azerbaijan and that Turks were pushing hard to have a land bridge with Azerbaijan. 

In his presentation of the historical and territorial dimension of the conflict, Dr. Geukjian explains the “Caucasian Albanian” myth and how Azerbaijanis try to legitimize their claim not only over Karabakh and Nakhichevan, but also Syunik. It is no secret that many Armenians were not familiar with this myth before the 2020 war, which plays a crucial role in modern Azerbaijani nationalism. The book mentions that over decades, Azerbaijani scholars and later politicians emphasized their indigenous origins based on the ancient Caucasian Albanian kingdom to legitimize their possession and argued that Armenians of Artsakh are “Armenianized Albanians.” Azerbaijani scholars have neglected the fact that the Church of the Kingdom of Caucasian Albania was a branch of the Armenian Apostolic Church.

Another historical fact that the author mentions which is distorted by Azerbaijani scholars and plays an important role in Azerbaijani identity construction is the Russian annexation of the South Caucasus from the Persian Empire. Azerbaijani scholars assert that the Treaty of Turkmenchay (1828) plays a tragic role in the history of the Azerbaijani people and led to the division of “historic Azerbaijan.” They insist on the idea that Russians had brought thousands of Armenians from Persia to resettle them in the South Caucasus thus paving the way for a future Armenian statehood, neglecting the fact that Persian Shah Abbas had relocated an estimated 500,000 Armenians from Armenia during the Ottoman-Safavid War (1603-1618) to New Julfa (Isfahan). Dr. Geukjian refutes the Azerbaijani claim arguing that by bringing Armenians back, Russia’s policy was not in favor of establishing an Armenian state in its territories. To prevent the formation of ethnic homogeneous territories, the Russians adopted the “divide and rule” policy and incorporated Karabakh in Elizavetpol province where it had a large Tatar population. Imperial Russia justified this act for “economic reasons.” This separated Armenians of Karabakh from Armenian majority areas in the South Caucasus. It is important to note that both the British and later the Bolsheviks justified the annexation of Karabakh to Azerbaijan by force under the pretext of linking mountainous Karabakh to the plains to the east since trade and transportation networks were closer.

Dr. Geukjian also highlights how imperialism and great power politics constructed the Armenian-Tatar (Azerbaijani) relations and antagonism. Many authors, including some Azerbaijani scholars, argue that the Armeno-Tatar clashes from 1905 to 1906, where the outbreak of violence coincided with the upheavals of the 1905 Russian Revolution and the weakness of Russian authority, were probably instigated by Russian officials to deviate the attention of the peasants revolting in the Caucasus. Clashes occurred in Baku, Yerevan and Tbilisi, but also in villages and towns in Karabakh including Shushi. 

What was new for me was the British role in the Karabakh conflict (1919-1920). Britain was neither interested in granting recognition to the newly independent republics nor committed to solving their disputes. The British adopted a pro-Azerbaijani policy driven by strategic and economic concerns represented in the vast oil reserves near Baku. Besides, they believed that a strong and independent Azerbaijan would ally and form a buffer against pan-Islamism and future Soviet encroachments upon British interests, mainly the road to India and British mandates in the Middle East. In accordance with their policy, the British promised the Musavat government (the ruling party in Azerbaijan from 1918 to 1920) the attachment of mountainous Karabakh, Zangezur and Nakhichevan to the Azerbaijani republic. 

Not all Armenians welcomed the British presence in the South Caucasus. In January 1919, the British appointed Dr. Sultanov as governor-general of Nagorno-Karabakh (assuring the Armenians this was a temporary measure). However, Armenia protested and considered this a “violation of its territorial rights.” During that time, the number of Armenians in Nagorno Karabakh was estimated as 170,000 inhabitants, comprising 95-percent of a total 180,000 inhabitants. On April 23, 1919, the Fifth Congress of the Karabakh Armenians, (which met in Shushi) refused any Azerbaijani domination since Azerbaijanis were committing atrocities against Armenians elsewhere. Britain threatened the Armenians and forced them to submit. Despite the British efforts in bringing stability to the region, clashes continued around Karabakh. Perhaps we could argue that British diplomacy in the Caucasus in 1919 largely contributed to the Karabakh conflict since the British prevented the unification of Karabakh with Armenia. As the British started to withdraw from the region, Armenians in Karabakh were subjected to massacres and the Armenian quarter of Shushi was razed to the ground. Thousands of Armenians were killed by Azerbaijani authorities. Meanwhile, on the ashes of Armenians, Bolsheviks started to cooperate with the Kemalists, and under the banner of “anti-imperialist struggle,” they sought to topple the “Western-oriented” Armenian government.

Dr. Geukjian brings forth the factors that pushed the Armenians of Karabakh to seek civil (collecting signatures), legal (constitutional), political (declaration of independence), and later armed (self-defense) means to secede from Soviet Azerbaijan. From the book, we understand that it was not the Armenians of Armenia who called for a unification of Karabakh with the Fatherland (unlike what Azerbaijani scholars portray). Rather, it was Karabakh Armenians who demanded separation and reunification with Armenia. The book explains that the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh never practiced real autonomy and were discriminated against and subordinated to Baku. There was a clear policy of cultural discrimination by the Azerbaijani authorities. Armenian schools were attached to the Ministry of Education of Azerbaijan, and Armenian history was prohibited from lesson plans. These measures were taken to “hamper Armenian cultural development” in Nagorno Karabakh. Thus being separated from the cultural life of Armenia, Karabakh Armenians were threatened to lose their identity.

Moreover, Soviet Azerbaijani officials aimed to change the demography of the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Region in favor of Azerbaijanis. The author provides archival sources on how Soviet Azerbaijan merged purely Armenian villages with Azerbaijani villages and towns for electoral purposes to prevent eligible Armenian candidates from holding political office. Thus the administrative divisions were drawn in such a way to grant Azerbaijani inhabitants of Nagorno Karabakh a majority and gain access to public office. Village chiefs and top officials were to be Azerbaijani. After 1920, Soviet Azerbaijani authorities pursued a migration policy towards the region; the aim was to increase Azerbaijani members in the Regional Soviet parliament of Nagorno Karabakh, which subsequently would imply the dissolution of the Nagorno Karabakh Autonomous region. 

It was only with the start of Gorbachev’s reformist agendas that the Armenians of Nagorno Karabakh started publicly complaining about discrimination and openly demanding unification with Armenia. Soviet authorities viewed these demands as “growing nationalist tendencies” of Karabakh Armenians. Meanwhile in Armenia, anti-Soviet sentiments ran high starting in 1988 when Gorbachev refused to attach Karabakh to Armenia and Soviet troops failed to prevent the Sumgait pogrom. As such, the Armenians of Karabakh had no choice but to go forward toward a referendum and declare independence from Azerbaijan in 1991. 

For those interested in identity construction, political history and the regional dynamics of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, I urge them to read this book as it contains both perspectives and helps readers critically understand the roots of the century-long conflict viewed from the lens of local actors and regional powers. Dr. Geukjian is an expert scholar who teaches conflict resolution, nationalism and regional politics at the American University of Beirut. He has conducted an enormous amount of scholarly research and assessment to provide us with an invaluable book of post-Soviet politics and how issues of ethnicity and nationalism can escalate a conflict. 

Yeghia Tashjian

Yeghia Tashjian

Yeghia Tashjian is a regional analyst and researcher. He has graduated from the American University of Beirut in Public Policy and International Affairs. He pursued his BA at Haigazian University in political science in 2013. In 2010, he founded the New Eastern Politics forum/blog. He was a research assistant at the Armenian Diaspora Research Center at Haigazian University. Currently, he is the regional officer of Women in War, a gender-based think tank. He has participated in international conferences in Frankfurt, Vienna, Uppsala, New Delhi and Yerevan. He has presented various topics from minority rights to regional security issues. His thesis topic was on China’s geopolitical and energy security interests in Iran and the Persian Gulf. He is a contributor to various local and regional newspapers and a presenter of the “Turkey Today” program for Radio Voice of Van. Recently he has been appointed as associate fellow at the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut and Middle East-South Caucasus expert in the European Geopolitical Forum.
Yeghia Tashjian

@yeghig

Regional analyst & researcher. PPIA graduate @AUB_lebanon. Associate Fellow @IFI_AUB co @ArmenianWeekly, Instructor IA @aust_lebanon #MiddleEast #SouthCaucasus
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