Can Europe Make It?

Black Garden: Armenia and Azerbaijan through peace and war

This year marks the 25th anniversary of a devastating, yet little-known war at the gates of Europe which to this day remains unresolved. Book review.

Moh Hamdi
16 February 2016

The situation in Nagorno-Karabakh (click to enlarge). Wikimedia. Public domain.This year marks the 25th anniversary of a devastating, yet little-known war at the gates of Europe which to this day remains unresolved. In his book Black Garden, the analyst and Caucasus-expert Thomas De Waal retraces how a territorial dispute escalated into a full-scale war between the newly independent states of Armenia and Azerbaijan.

At the heart of the dispute lies Nagorno-Karabakh – a mountainous region barely twice as big as Luxembourg – that has politically been part of Azerbaijan since 1921 but that Armenians have laid claim to on historical and demographical grounds. Indeed, Nagorno-Karabakh houses several ancient Armenian sites and was mostly populated by ethnic Armenians before the war broke out.

However, the region has been a crossroad of cultures throughout its history and to Azerbaijanis, their cultural heritage in Nagorno-Karabakh is equally as important. Whereas Karabakh's Armenians have justified their entitlement on the basis of the principle of self-determination, Azerbaijan has insisted on the right to territorial integrity. Karabakh is in fact situated within the internationally accepted borders of the Republic of Azerbaijan.

Despite having declared its independence at the outset of the war, the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic has not been recognized by any other state in the world – interestingly enough not even by Armenia which has been treating the region as a de facto province since the ceasefire of 1994. Adding to the quagmire, Armenia's victory resulted in the full occupation of 5 Azerbaijani regions around Nagorno-Karabakh, equalling a total of approximately 14% of Azerbaijan's internationally recognized territory.

Geopolitically the Caucasus is a strategically crucial region as it borders not only Iran, Turkey and Russia but also provides access to the Black and the Caspian Seas. Furthermore, Azerbaijan has become a major international player thanks to its important oil and gas reserves. As for Armenia, the large and vociferous diaspora has been very influential in its lobbying efforts – most notably in France and in the US. Yet despite all this, the war has elicited comparably little public interest. Apart from several personal accounts by journalists and former combatants few books have been dedicated to the Nagorny-Karabakh war. De Waal's monograph is one of the very rare scientific studies devoted to the topic – and may arguably be the most significant to date.

Chronology of a war

The actual dispute over Nagorny-Karabakh has started long before the armed escalation in 1991. The first mass-protests in Yerevan and Stepanakert that demanded a secession of the region from Azerbaijan date back to February 1988 when both republics were still constituent parts of the Soviet Union. The protests were promptly followed by counter-demonstrations in Baku. Given that these mass mobilisations triggered the spark that ignited the flame as they galvanized the population of both republics and led to a radicalization of the opposing positions, February 1988 is often pinpointed as the beginning of the war. Incidentally, 1988 is also the year during which some of the first atrocities were committed - such as the anti-Armenian pogroms in Sumgait or the mass expulsions of Azerbaijani civilians from Armenia.

The incidents hit the Soviet Union unexpectedly at a crucial point of its history as Gorbachev had just passed reform plans known as perestroika and glasnost. Despite these reforms the moribund system of the USSR was slowly reaching its end. In this unstable setting, the ground was fertile for the emergence of armed violence: Armenian guerilla troops calling themselves fedayin – insinuating the rebels that fought against the Ottoman Empire at the turn of twentieth century – started to surface and infiltrate Armenian villages in Nagorno-Karabakh and Azerbaijan. As a response, Azerbaijani authorities in tandem with Soviet troops launched a controversial campaign of repression known as 'Operation Ring'. But it was only following the failed coup d'état against Gorbachev and the eventual collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 that the armed violence took an extreme turn and spiralled into a proper war.

The first years of independent Armenia and Azerbaijan were written in blood. Both sides have engaged in all kinds of atrocities ranging from kidnappings, ethnic cleansing and dismemberment of enemy corpses to the mass-killings of civilians as exemplified by the infamous massacre of Azerbaijani villagers in Khojaly. Meanwhile Russia played an ambiguous role as the war progressed. It seems to have played a double game in order to keep its influence in the region intact. The crisis also gave rise to organized crime which established a flourishing shadow economy in the war zone. Furthermore, as the fighting on the front was proceeding, both states were also undergoing sweeping domestic crises that left their imprints up until today.

Armenia's economy still suffers severely from the closed borders with Turkey and Azerbaijan. As a consequence, political unrest keeps erupting to the surface as the parliamentary shootings in October 1999, the March 2008 crisis and more recently the mass-protests against the constitutional referendum in December 2015 clearly attest. In Azerbaijan, the oil boom led to a prospering economy but the regime of President Ilham Aliev is characterized by its repressive measures against journalists and political opposition groups, as is being demonstrated by the recent incarceration of the human rights advocate Arif Yunus. Furthermore, despite the growing wealth social inequalities are becoming more and more acute, as is the level of corruption.

Since 1994, both countries are separated by a ceasefire line patrolled by the soldiers of both republics. Approximately 30 soldiers die each year on the border from sniper shootings despite the ceasefire. Though the war is over, the tensions are still looming and the fundamental issues remain unsolved. A series of negotiations involving international mediators – most notably by the OSCE Minsk Group – haven't yielded any satisfying results so far. The last serious mediation plan failed in 2006 as the presidents of both countries 'believed it was more risky to embrace peace than to stick with the status quo', to use De Waal's wording.

The scholar as a bridge-builder

However, De Waal's book is more than just a story about the birth of two nations or the fall of the Soviet Union. Rather, it is the story of two peoples who, despite violent instances in the early twentieth century, were living peacefully side by side for the most part of their shared history until the recent war tore them apart in a most radical way: as a result of forced deportations and mass-flights both countries have today rid themselves of their respective Armenian or Azerbaijani population and it remains forbidden for each to travel into the neighbouring country. Yet, De Waal insists that it would be wrong to explain the war in terms of innate ethic or religious hate. The vast majority of the people he has met throughout his investigation have expressed deep sorrow for what happened and have shared fond memories of the period before the war when both groups were living alongside one another without paying much attention to ethnic, religious or cultural differences.

Some of the interviewees have shared very moving personal stories with the author that illustrate the absurdity of the conflict. Zaur, for instance, a Karabakh Azerbaijani who grew up in Shusha, remembers the anguish he felt during the war at the thought of seeing his close Armenian friends through the sight of his gun. The war tore up a gulf between both groups, pitting neighbour against neighbour and separating old friends ideologically and ultimately also physically.

De Waal, whose research had him travel back and forth between both republics, grew into a sort of broker between the two communities. In the course of time he had become a bridge connecting former acquaintances and friends as he started to pass messages from one side of the border to the other to people who haven't seen each other for decades.

De Waal does not merely stop at the description of the bloodshed which, in fact, takes up a large part of his book. As the sub-title already suggests, the author wants to mention the peaceful coexistence, too, and the common grounds that exist between the two groups. Though it may not have been its initial aim, the book may eventually bring opposing parties closer together by emphasising the shared suffering, as well as the shared hopes. It is, in short, a story of a human tragedy and an incentive to overcome the abyss that this tragedy has created. The author seeks to develop a 'third narrative' distinct from the existing narratives that have developed on each side. 

Information wars and the quest for objectivity

The unpartisan reconstruction of how the events have unfolded was certainly no easy task considering the great amount of propaganda that has been produced before, during and after the war.

As in every incident of hostile confrontation, misinformation has been rampant resulting in a downright 'information war' that is still ongoing. This proliferation of half-truths and exaggerations, often coupled with racist statements, fuels the antagonism in each camp and adds further barriers to an already intricate situation. De Waal's book is a welcome contribution to debunk the myths that have been divulged and repeated on both sides. What is needed according to De Waal is a compromise on both sides and the acknowledgment that Azerbaijanis and Armenians have both committed crimes and suffered injustices.

As he states in the introduction, he is well aware that obstinate factions won't be satisfied with some of what he has written as they continue to cling on their respective national narratives which are for the most part misleading and incomplete. The narratives in question do not only relate to the propaganda that has been manufactured during the war but also include earlier attempts to discredit the other side, such as the rather odd academic debates in the 60's and 70's which saw the production of pseudo-scientific humbug by both Armenian and Azerbaijani scholars.

Whereas the former argued that Azerbaijanis were really Turks or Persians and did therefore not really exist before they were 'invented' in the course of the nineteenth century, the latter took great pains in demonstrating that present-day Armenians had no historical link to Nagorno-Karabakh which in Medieval times had been populated by Albanians rather than Armenians. History had thus been instrumentalized to serve ideological purposes – a trend that became all the more intense once the dispute escalated.

Like every serious scholar, De Waal strives to avoid the pitfall of partisan reporting – a challenge inherent to the art of journalism and history writing that raises the old question of whether objectivity is a viable target. In a touchingly honest passage De Waal shares the intimate psychological struggle he experienced as his research progressed, an experience he jokingly described as schizophrenic: 'I found that after a few weeks in Azerbaijan the Azerbaijani argument on the tragedy of Karabakh would become familiar and persuasive to me. […] Then, travelling across the ceasefire line via Moscow or Georgia, I would cross to the Armenian side and slowly begin to see the dispute through their eyes […]'.

The end result of his efforts to understand both sides is a deeply humane book that offers an unpartisan yet intimate view on the events of 1988 to 1994 and beyond. Apart from being the authoritative book on the subject it is also indispensable to anyone interested in the culture and politics of the Caucasus in general as De Waal manages to analyse micro-history without neglecting the larger-scale repercussions. Black Garden blends personal accounts collected during a staggering 120 interviews with archival documents, reports and investigations from both sides producing a truly neutral account of the events.

However, while being the undeniable strength of the book the neutrality could also be argued to be at the same time its major weakness. One may venture to ask whether the obligation to create a neutral reconstruction of the events does not jeopardize its objectivity. Putting equal blame on both sides in order to uphold neutrality and to promote the rapprochement of the opposing camps raises the larger moral question whether contributing to the settlement of a conflict is better or more important than objectively explaining the events.

Yet, this criticism presupposes one party to bear more blame than the other – an accusation which each party readily levels against the other without hesitation but which De Waal's seems to reject outright. He concludes that everyone bears their part of the blame. One could accuse him of thereby opting for peace over objectivity – but even if the criticism were appropriate this may be what is mostly needed at this stage of the dispute where both positions are still at daggers drawn.

Thomas de Waal: Black Garden. Armenia and Azerbaijan Through War and Peace. New York University Press. 2013 (Tenth Anniversary Edition). 386 pages.

Get weekly updates on Europe A thoughtful weekly email of economic, political, social and cultural developments from the storm-tossed continent. Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData