Beyond the “Line of Duty” – Nagorno-Karabakh’s rivalry between otherness and social imaginary
Future prospects for conflict transformation in Nagorno-Karabakh should focus more on the future human relationships, which may theoretically transform the sense of Armenian-Azerbaijani Self alongside the examination of the conditioned and motivated biases of the Self towards the Other.
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By Francesco Trupia
The ethnic conflict that erupted within the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast in 1988 between the majoritarian Armenian population and the SSR Azerbaijani administration was the first in a series of secessionist and rising wars in the wake of the downfall of Soviet Union. Since then, the Nagorno-Karabakh rivalry became one of the bitterest and the oldest within the formerly Soviet space, yet stubbornly unresolved and constantly prompt to heat up.
Today’s imperfectly pacified situation guaranteed by umpteenth ceasefire agreements maintains a limbo within which Armenians or Azerbaijanis continue to live on both sides of the so-called Line of Contact (LoC) under enemy’s fire. Nagorno-Karabakh’s (un-)frozen conflict reminds the international community that this long-ignored rivalry might potentially impinge the human security of this disputed territory from within. On the one side, Azerbaijan continues to proclaim “unshakeable” its territorial integrity, whose protection implies a full liberation of lost territories occupied by separatist Armenians as main prerequisite for any substantial negotiations with Armenia, to which assigning blame for supporting an illegal occupation. On the other side, Armenia has always supported the de facto Republic of Artsakh-Nagorno-Karabakh’s right to exist and self-determination as result of an ex factis ius oritus, namely a “legal scenario” arisen from and attached to Karabakh-Armenians’ struggle carried out to guarantee justice and protection to their community from whimsical re-appropriation of their historical land of origin.
This February marked the thirtieth anniversary of the birth of the “Karabakh Movement”, a mass movement that stirringly campaigned for the transfer of the Armenian-inhabited enclave into Armenia, coalescing afterwards into a self-defencing force against Azerbaijan’s attempts to keep the historically disputed territory inside its de jure national borders throughout and after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Moreover, while this forthcoming April Azerbaijan’s people will be called to vote for the snap elections that President Ilham Aliyev urged to hold, Armenians will worldwide commemorate the cruel “1915 Armenocide” carried out by the Turkish Ottomans by historically linking it with atrocities conducted by Azeri soldiers in Nagorno-Karabakh throughout the so-called “Four-Day War” in April 2016. The latter, triggered by an Azerbaijan’s military operation at night between the 1st and 2rd April 2016, has positively dispelled among Azerbaijanis the Armenian invincibility myth after the first war in the 1992-94 and brought Karabakh-Armenians to face “the worst” escalation since 1994 ceasefire and more uncertainty for their future accordingly.
In the aftermath, while those military clashes succeeded in restoring the idea among Azerbaijanis that a full return of the Nagorno-Karabakh to Baku’s control might be possible, Armenians went (once again) through experiences of anguish and “suffering destiny” that even influenced the public opinion about the Sargsyan’s strategy and the role of Yerevan in defence of Karabakh’s countrymen. In between, a cluster of collective emotions triggered by the traumatic experience of war, conflicting memories and perceptual distortions of Otherness have been constantly manipulated by ruling élites in the political arena. Three decades onwards, Minsk Group’s attempts to reach a peace resolution in long-term perspective have failed so far in front of a systematic lack of political motivations and wills clinging to “all-or-nothing” outlooks that both young Caucasian Republics have stubbornly sustained. Most of external commentators and regional observers tend oftentimes to try to “unfreeze” the oldest ethnic conflict of the former Soviet space by either privileging more categories of security building measures, or trying to bring peace-resolution plans aimed at bringing Armenia and Azerbaijan to a historical compromise through peace-building plans.
Unsurprisingly, rather than turning today’s climate of fear alongside the Line of Contact (LoC) and suspicion for the Other-side into a sustainable future settlement and thereby looking beneath the surface, both approaches are more likely oriented to ensure the disputed territory from potential escalations. Cultural and social dimensions are largely overlooked even though they might deeply unravel issues regarding the territorial rivalry. In fact, all psychological and cultural aspects of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict are painlessly holding the idea of a society of loss in both sides, in which lasting trauma may never fade from memory. In the Armenians’ eyes, Nagorno-Karabakh is the symbol of survival and revenge after the 1915 mass-scale genocide throughout the First World War, the Soviet takeover and the loss of “Armenian territories”, such as Nakhchivan and “Western Armenia”, namely the contemporary Eastern Turkey, they portray and understand as part of their historical legacy. On the other side, Qarabağ is the Azeri storehouse nurturing finest musicians, poets and writers of Azeri literature and composers of the national anthem.
After the dissolution of the Soviet regime, Nagorno-Karabakh has constituted the condition for the possible emergence of an Armenian-ness understood as an entity within an enchanted space whose meaning is based on the historically communitarian experience of sorrow triggering an act of self-embodiment in defence of “one’s community”. For Azerbaijanis instead, such condition to be has been denied and it is thus at the heart of today’s collective identity, which remains partially incomplete. In fact, the loss of Qarabağ has been exteriorized due to the harmful Armenians, who (inter-)/play the “hostile exterior that must exist” in order to interiorize a sense of victimhood within which politically justifying the “power struggle” that stood in the way of mobilization between 1991-93 in Baku and brought the Aliyev political dynasty to power since then.
As the time went by, post-Soviet Armenia’s and Azerbaijan’s generations have been (forcedly) asked to interiorise images and sounds of the “Khojaly Genocide” and Armenian pogroms in Sumgait, Kirovabad and Baku, as well as the Armenian capture of the town of Shoushi on 9th May 1992 and the temporarily Azeri occupation of the Armenian-inhabited village of Talish in April 2016. Although the youngest generations have never had experience of encountering the “Other” because they have never personally experienced the war, nor they are descendants of Armenian or Azeri displaced families from Karabakh, nor former Soviet Karabakh dwellers, their sense of “being wounded”, which seems impossible to heal, continues to deeply-rooted intertwine images of war in their collective consciousness. It followed that all emotional and psychological patterns and objects of gross violence, a “life of purgatory” and heroic struggles for survival and resistance have strengthened and exacerbated a negative process of persuasion towards the image of “Otherness” understood as “enmity” or “theft”, whose responsibility for the death of innocent civilians must receive an appropriate punishment.
In this instance, political discourse and conflicting memories around which the narrative of Nagorno-Karabakh’s rivalry has been in time (re-)constructed, has constantly maintained an unsustainable status quo without which it would be impossible for Armenians to maintain their coherent struggle for self-determination and for Azerbaijanis to keep campaigning for having Qarabağ back. To sum up, Armenian and Azerbaijani refusal to look for a peaceful solution has in time shaped a collective inability to forget the horror and worsening pages of collective traumas. Lyudmilla Harutyunian, an Armenian sociologist who was one-time deputy in the Republic Supreme Soviet, has pointed out how Armenians have forgotten the noble pages of their own history and they have created an image of Armenians as victims.
The lack of questioning whether both populations are ready to set a well-living together up when the conflict will be solved remains at the core of the matter. As proven that social development preceded political development, the so-called “Other Question”, for instance, may definitely come to represent a challenging paradigm for potential conflict (trans-)formation, which seems nowadays to be left out from classical military-oriented approaches that aim to create new resolution mechanisms for future and sustainable peace in the disputed territory. The “Other Question” will also serve as a conﬂict transformation approach to the future peace agreement among embittered adversaries. Definitely, future prospects for conflict transformation should focus more on the future human relationships, which may theoretically transform the sense of Armenian-Azerbaijani Self alongside the examination of the conditioned and motivated biases of the Self towards the Other. This “Other Question”, indeed, may perform as a new relation between Self-ness and Other-ness on the level of Armenian-Azerbaijani intricate constellation of interconnectedness that can be restored and (re-)/established.
However, questions raised previously remain open. What is to be forgotten from the wrenching past? What is to be forgiven? How will the figure of the “Other” affect the post-conflict scenario currently negated by cultural debris of prejudices and élites’ propaganda?
Francesco Trupia is PhD Candidate at St Kliment Ohridiski University of Sofia.
This article was presented in August 2017 at the PACSA Bi-annual Meeting at University of Amsterdam and originally published by Journal of Liberty and International Affairs and available by clicking here.
The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect those of TransConflict.