Ethnicity, Nationalism and Conflict in the South Caucasus

“The Soviet Union,” which has two contradictory definitions like “Prison of Peoples” and “Free Association of Peoples,” is called as the perpetrator of many ethnic and regional problems in Eurasia today. Its managing culture on numerous ethnic and religious elements with its ideological perspective closed to criticism is one of the most important issues to focus on understanding the Soviet Union. Nationalism, religious movements, local conflicts, and decomposition constituted by communist ideology in social and cultural life instead of uniting tell the true story of the Soviet geography.

The book called “Ethnicity, Nationalism, and Conflict in the South Caucasus” written by Ohannes Geukjian examines the problematic culture of living of the Soviets in a general sense within its historical origins actually in approaching these issues from the perspective of the South Caucasus. The Author, starting from the examples of Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Georgia, draw the portraits of the other Soviet countries having common problems too. Geukjian, who evaluates the reflections of the nested chronic issues on today by going over Nagorno-Karabakh at first, explores the history of these two countries, noting how a historiography is performed through the eyes of Armenia and Azerbaijan. Because the background discussions of the problems gain a meaning at the present times by the peoples prove their historical existences in the region.

The Author, who states the first Armenian existence in the region is seen in the Hayasa-Azzi Confederation in the regions of Erzurum-Erzincan and an Armenian culture evolves in built-in with the Arimi-Urumea Confederation in the regions of Van-Mus, indicates the Atropatena civilization as a reference point for the history of Azerbaijan. If we consider this historiography begins in the 1940s, namely in the Soviet period, we can say the initiatives of both sides to strengthen the claim of being the oldest civilization of the region are more elaborative. Geukjian actually tries to draw a cultural picture of the region to retrace the historical roots of the Karabakh issue. Nevertheless, the existence of the Albanian civilization in the Caucasus, which is a historical enigma today, leads the two sides to fight intensely on history. Albania, which is an ancient Christian civilization in the Caucasus, was a former state of Azerbaijan according to Azerbaijan or a former state of the Christian Armenians according to Armenia. Geukjian offers such names as E. Buniatov, F. Mamedov and Akhundov of the Azerbaijani historians with reference to these discussions (p.33).

Geukjian, who points out that the first conflicts between Armenia and Azerbaijan were the cause of the Russian-Iran wars and that the first attempts to break the Caucasus began in the 19th century, cites some interesting data about the period of the Russian dominance in the region. The Author expresses that Russia deported 57 thousand Armenians from Russia and the North Caucasus to Karabakh and Yerevan, and 35 thousand Azerbaijani Muslims from Karabakh to different regions to destroy the homogenous ethnic structures in the region and manage these places more conveniently during this period (p.41). The conflicts between the two sides, despite this migration policy, reheat because of the Armenian dominance in the Baku market in the period of discovering the Baku oil. The events occurring in the early years of the 20th century are politicized by the Russian, Armenian, and Georgian social democrats (p.44).

The Author, referring to the tides experienced among the Turks, the British, and the Russians in the region during and after the period of the First World War and eventually the interesting parsing policies under the dominance of the Soviet Union in a different style, emphasizes on having to be scrutinized the moves of Sovietization and Russification in order to understand ethnic and regional problems more clearly (p.81).

While Geukjian states there was a real consciousness of “Soviet People” under the period of Lenin but after serious decompositions were formed between Russians and non-Russians, he indicates three main headings of the Sovietization policy as follows: economic development, anti-nationalism, and collectivism movement (p.87). When we examine these moves, we see that the ethnic disintegrations and the nationalism of the Soviet rule increased because of this policy and the decision-makers made the conflicts political. As such practices as political murders, intellectual genocide, intervention to publications, and censorship, which were carried out in context of the policy of Sovietization, boost nationalism inwardly, it also fuels the hatred against the central government.

Geukjian draws attention the extreme practices of the Stalin era backfired and the Leninist policy gained importance during the period of Khrushchev. The administration trying to form an artificial sense of shared history with the understanding of “Soviet Peoples” in 1962 was though unable to prevent the gap between Russians and non-Russians. The political nationalism rising in 1973-75 became the biggest problem in Ukraine, the Baltic, and the Caucasus. Georgian Zviad Gamsakhurdia was criticizing the pressure of Russification on them through Samizdat and Eduard Shevardnadze was carrying the issue of Abkhazia in Georgia on agenda in such period (p. 100). In short, the practices during the era of Stalin led to the emergence of interethnic problems via anti-religion/nationality oppressive motions. An inextricable of problems emerged because intellectuals opposing to cultural repression were destroyed, citizens who do not speak Russian were treated as second-class citizens, and the central government improved some Soviet capitals more than others. In the 1980s, the feelings of anger and hatred that peoples suppressed for decades appeared through political activities but this turned into a great act of revenge both against the center and among the neighboring countries.

Geukjian, who treats the reflections of these policies on the Karabakh issue largely by the Armenian and the Western sources, describes such formations as the Karabakh Committee, the Miatsum Movement, and the Armenian National Congress, which were established by the Armenians, as the first independence movements under the light of the free political activities in the 1980s and states that it shines also on the other Soviet countries. Geukjian, emphasizing on the counter-organizations and the local conflicts in Azerbaijan were realized with the support of the Soviet government, draws attention that the Armenian militarist approaches in Karabakh strengthened in this manner. However here, the question why the Russians supported Baku against the Armenians is the most important question to be asked. Because, despite it is known that conflicts, occupying and slaughtering movements in and around Karabakh were carried out largely under the Russian-Armenian partnership, a question mark emerges in minds why the Author emphasized on the Russian-Azerbaijani association.

Geukjian, who addresses also the political frictions between Yerevan and Karabakh after the independence, offers the most important proof of the friction among the Armenians because the then Armenian President Levon Ter Petrosyan gave the Karabakh Armenians a guarantee that it would not claim on Karabakh. It is clearly states that the ongoing decomposition of Yerevan-Karabakh was inherited from that period.

Because the Author trying to examine the period with vast resources shares the rhetoric of the Azerbaijani side in a limited way, a problem of one-sided approach rises. However, the Soviet polices, which are analyzed in the case of the Karabakh problem by the Author who draws a picture of the region since the ancient times, have an extremely efficient content. The book in which the ethnic and regional conflicts emerged by the question of nationalities are examined within a cause-effect relationship makes the inter-communal problems more understandable.

Author: Ohannes Geukjian
Review: Mehmet Fatih Öztarsu 

Insight Turkey

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