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Can rancour in the south Caucasus go beyond tit for tat?

For close on a millennium Azeris and Armenians co-existed reasonably peaceably. At the end of the Soviet period tensions erupted and they have been bubbling ever since. No need, thinks William Gourlay, because they are actually quite similar. Is it just a case of ‘must try harder’?

At the end of August, Ramil Safarov, the Azeri soldier convicted of murdering a sleeping Armenian at a NATO training camp, was released from prison in Hungary, returning home to Azerbaijan to be pardoned immediately by the president and to receive a hero’s welcome.  There is concern that this turn of events could reignite hostilities between Azerbaijan and Armenia, with tensions kept barely at simmering point since the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict ended in 1994. Fears are compounded by the possibility of any renewed conflict drawing in other regional players, including Turkey, Russia and Iran. Attempts at forging peace between Azerbaijan and Armenia are now stumbling. 

In the meantime, the blogosphere and other social networks are buzzing with claim and counter claim, accusation and counter accusation, evidence of the all-consuming nationalism that grips so many Azeris and Armenians. Armenians are outraged not only by the fact that Safarov received an immediate pardon, but that he should be lauded by so many of his countrymen. Some Azeris, to their credit, agree. 

'Politically straitjacketed by an oppressive regime today, Azerbaijan was, during the early years of the 20th century, at the forefront of civil activism and reform in the Russian empire.'

But many more Azeris point to the case of Varoujan Garabedian, a member of ASALA (the Armenian Secret Army for the Liberation of Armenia), who after serving 17 years in a French prison for his role in the bombing of a Turkish check-in desk at Orly airport, was released and returned home to Armenia, in 2001, similarly receiving a hero’s welcome. From the Azeris side at least, the prevailing chorus appears to be, what’s good for the goose is good for the gander…

Past history

Yet, while the nationalist impulses of both peoples seem set to rage, the irony is that the Armenians and the Azeris have much more in common than they like to admit, not least cohabiting, largely peacefully, in the south Caucasus and eastern Anatolia, for close to a millennium. As Caucasus analyst Thomas de Waal points out, the downplaying of long-standing economic and cultural links in the rush to define separate identities and territories in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet region has been to the detriment of all the countries of the south Caucasus.

Politically straitjacketed by an oppressive regime today, Azerbaijan was, during the early years of the 20th century, at the forefront of civil activism and reform in the Russian empire. The great Azeri satirical magazine Molla Nasreddin, published from 1906 until 1931, pushed a progressive agenda of women’s rights, educational reform, and the privileging of ‘reason’ over ‘superstition’ while skewering local officials, clerics and colonial powers alike for corruption, political interference and sundry venalities. 

The magazine received plaudits and established a broad readership largely on the basis of its extrordinary artwork and bitingly parodic cartoons. One Molla Nasreddin cartoon, particularly topical since the Nagorno-Karabakh war of the 1990s, reveals the devil dancing gleefully as he comes upon an Armenian and an Azeri peasant, wearing identical traditional garb and virtually indistinguishable, trading punches.

'When the Other, through any activity deemed inappropriate, encroaches on one’s national turf it provokes popular opprobrium, but then that very same inappropriate activity gives the aggrieved nation the right to act in exactly the same (inappropriate) way in response.'

But in the close proximity of their fisticuffs the two realise their inherent similarities and fall into a loving, fraternal embrace, leaving the devil dejected and disappointed. Such an image now appears like so much wishful thinking. Nationalistic fervour, fed by the recent memories of both peoples, keeps antagonism at fever pitch these days, so the figurative peasants remain at odds and the devil dances on.

Who started it?

The circumstances of, and reactions to, Safarov’s return and pardon serve to highlight a paradox of nationalistic mindsets. When the Other, through any activity deemed inappropriate, encroaches on one’s national turf it provokes popular opprobrium, but then that very same inappropriate activity gives the aggrieved nation the right to act in exactly the same (inappropriate) way in response. Thus the Azeris can decry the Armenians’ behaviour in pardoning the convicted murderer Garabedian, but then use it to justify their pardoning of the convicted murderer Safarov. It’s a variation of the playground ‘you started it’ argument.

Some Turkish hardliners use a similar ‘justification’ for the horrors visited on the Armenians of the Ottoman Empire during WWI. Citing the alleged excesses of certain Armenian paramilitaries in eastern Anatolia, they claim that the Ottoman military authorities’ actions were a legitimate response.  (Comparable arguments were used by all sides in the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s, creating a cycle of violence that for a time appeared unstoppable.) And perplexed by ongoing Western melancholy for the fate of the Anatolian Armenians, Turkish nationalists wonder, with some justification, why there is no equivalent sympathy for the millions of Muslims expelled from the Balkans during the latter years of the Ottoman Empire and eventually absorbed into the new Turkish state.

This is not to single out Azerbaijan, Armenia, Turkey or any other nation or actor for any particular action, far less to create the case for any dubiously defined ‘fracture zone’ or ‘bloody border’ between Christendom and the Muslim world. But it is the case that in all these instances nationalisms dwell on and draw strength from past wrongs, rather than looking to future opportunities. It’s always possible to look back to find an earlier outrage perpetrated against your compatriots that can therefore ‘justify’ a more recent outrage perpetrated in response by your compatriots, or at least can be used to bang the drum, rally ‘patriots’ to the cause and shore up local political support.

'Nationalist rhetoric may serve short-term political ends for individual parties, but enduring regional cooperation would only serve to better the lot of all the peoples of the south Caucasus.'

And now why not….?

In the course of ongoing nationalist rancour over these geopolitical issues, what would be refreshing to see is not national leaders – who may purport to be statesmen – falling over themselves to point out that the Other started the hostilities, rather to see them falling over each other to be the first to begin a process of dialogue and reconciliation with the Other. Nationalist rhetoric may serve short-term political ends for individual parties, but enduring regional cooperation would only serve to better the lot of all the peoples of the south Caucasus.

Getting beyond tit for tat. Now that would be statesmanlike.


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