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The Critical Corner - 05/25/2009

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Armenian News Network / Groong
By Eddie Arnavoudian

May 25, 2009

The end of Soviet Armenia dealt a heavy blow to the Armenian
publishing industry. The republication of Armenian classics slumped,
as did print runs for new books. But the lifting of restrictions led
to a flood of new titles. Many are of no value. But there are plenty
that, even when hugely controversial, widen and even create new space
for debate and discussion of the manifold issues confronting men and
women in the 21st century.
After nearly 16 years of a relatively stable armed peace the future of
the Armenian populated Republic of Mountainous Garabagh is no nearer a
satisfactory settlement. Besides the rights and security of Armenian
citizens, also unresolved is the plight of its exiled Azeri population
and that of Azerbaijani refugees from Armenian occupied territories
that had threateningly encircled Garabagh. Both in Armenia and in
Azerbaijan the post-Soviet elites continue to demonstrate a casual
indifference to the fate and future of the common people of Garabagh
readily whipping up nationalist frenzies to use as political
instruments to retain control of power and privilege.
Despite uncertainty the Garabagh Armenians remain committed to total
separation from Azerbaijan. During the Soviet era they had experienced
Azerbaijani power as a colonial force. This determination was
reinforced by the fate that befell the substantial and ancient
Armenian community in the province of Nakhichevan. Also incorporated
into Azerbaijan Nakhichevan's Armenians were methodically removed from
a province that had been part of historic Armenia. For its part the
contemporary Azerbaijani state and elite also remains unrelenting in
refusing to countenance surrender of what it considers a strategically
and economically valuable territory. The Azeri elite also fears that
an Armenian Garabagh might become a Trojan horse for greater Armenian
nationalist ambitions.
In the first decades of Soviet power the 4388 sq. km landlocked
Garabagh, populated even then overwhelmingly by Armenians was, against
the will of its majority, incorporated into the Azerbaijani state. As
the USSR collapsed, Armenians proclaiming the right to national
self-determination demanded unification with Armenia. In opposition
the Azerbaijani elite brandishing the principle of territorial
integrity rejected Armenian demands. In the war that followed the
Armenian side proved victorious, but at enormous cost: up to 50,000
Armenian and Azeri dead, more than 500,000 Azeri and Armenian
refugees, Armenian and Azeri districts damaged or destroyed and all
this topped by a vast reservoir of nationalist hate available to fuel
renewed war.
Bagrad Ouloubabian's History of Artsakh: from the earliest to modern
times, (380pp, Armenia, Yerevan, 1994) for all its own sometimes
blinkered nationalism, is a necessary reminder of some of the
important features of the regions history. But even as one considers
the historical background to this conflict and the prospects for a
permanent and acceptable solution one must take as a starting point
the present real threat to the Garabagh Armenian community's very
right to existence. Fuelled by oil wealth, support from the Turkish
elite as well as a European and US indifference, the Azeri state is
preparing for war determined to re-establish its rule over Garabagh at
any cost and in complete disregard for the views of the majority of
Garabagh's population.


A central plank of chauvinist Azeri war preparation is a campaign of
historical fabrication that denies any ancient and unbroken Armenian
presence in Garabagh, and presents Armenians as colonial settlers
against whom all means of struggle are justified.
Armenians however were among Garabaghs earliest inhabitants. This is
registered among others by Greek historians such as Plutarch, Ptolemy
and Straphon. The ancient Armenian presence is also affirmed by 5th
century Armenian historians such as Pavsdos Puzant, Yeghishe and
Khorenatzi in whose work Garabagh features as an integral part of
Armenia. Armenian domicile is underscored by architectural, historical
and cultural monuments. It is further reinforced by studies of 19th
and 20th century Garabagh dialects that show these retaining close
ties to classical 5th century Armenian. Ouloubabian's narrative also
effectively puts to rest the claim of an allegedly Albanian Garabagh
falling victim to Armenian conquest and then suffering the forced
assimilation of its indigenous population. He notes that Movses
Traskhanagerd's epochal primary source The History of Aghvank is
despite its title, actually the history of an Armenian province, not
of Albania further to the east and refers therefore solely to
Armenians, never to Albanians.
Being on the mountainous edges of Armenia, adjoining regions from
whence foreign invasion never ceased Garabagh's fortunes did diverge
from the Armenian mainstream, especially after the 4th century
collapse of the Arshagouni dynasty. Yet isolated as it was, it
retained a decided Armenian identity. As a feudal estate under
Vatchakan in the late 4th century Garabagh registered remarkable
cultural and political advance. To Vatchakan is accorded the honour of
devising the first Armenian collection of legal documents known as
Laws of the Constitution. In the 7th century Garabagh fell to warrior
settlers of Sassanid descent who were then assimilated completely into
Armenian life.

In the 8th century the Garabagh nobility, alongside the Mamikonians,
played a prominent part in the resistance to Arab rule. Thereafter
throughout the Bagratouni period, the subsequent 11th century
Seljuk-Turk invasions, the 12th and 13th century recovery under the
Zakarians and then the Mongol-Tatar era, Garabagh and its local elite
remained identifiably Armenian despite the settlement of a significant
mass of non-Armenians. In contradistinction to other regions of
Armenia, it retained its Armenian political physiognomy with estates
such as the Broshians, the Orbelians, the Khabganks and others, whose
reign produced prominent political, military and cultural figures.
Among them was Hassan Jalal Tolal (1200-1261c) who managed to keep the
ship of state afloat during the Mongol invasions and who played an
important role in the Mongol-Hetum treaties that contributed to
securing the new Cilician Armenian kingdom. Other figures include the
brilliant legal mind of Mekhitar Kosh (1120-1213). The region's
Armenian architectural legacy boasts some marvels and its intellectual
heritage is registered by the 13th-14th century Gladzor and Datev

In establishing this unbroken stretch of Armenian political authority
in Garabagh Ouloubabian advances a radical re-evaluation of Armenian
history. He dismisses as pitiful misperception the longstanding view
that for some five centuries after the collapse of the Bagratouni
dynasty Armenians remained stateless and without political power. In
Garabagh despite their weakened form and diminished size Armenian
elites did in fact maintain relatively independent principalities
right up to the 19th century Russian conquest. Sometimes fostered by
the Persian State as bastions against Ottoman attack, Armenian lords
were encouraged to retain armed forces, did battle against Ottoman
aggression and in the 1720s under David Beg even secured virtual
political independence.

Garabagh's quasi-independent Armenian principalities proved however to
be intolerable to Tsarism. An alliance between Garabagh's Armenian
political principalities, its sturdily independent Church and the then
formidably expanding Armenian merchant and commercial capital
threatened to present Russian trade with an unwanted competitor. So as
it extended its influence the Russian state began denuding the
Armenian lords of their ancient powers, transferring their lands to
Azeri lords and cultivating the settlement of non-Armenians.
Provincial boundaries were redrawn and Armenian territorial units were
variously attached to Georgia and Azerbaijan. Garabagh itself was
detached from its Yerevan and Nakhichevan hinterland and tied to Baku
and Shamakh. So, concludes Ouloubabian, was destroyed that last
remnant of Armenian national statehood that previously neither the
Persian Shahs nor their place men had been able to remove.

But despite Tsarist endeavour Garabagh remained a bastion of Armenian
life and during its 19th and 20th century revival played a central
role. It was home to schools, libraries, printing houses and other
national and cultural organisations and institutions and produced some
of the most outstanding modern Armenian intellectual and literary
figures as well as freedom fighters. But even as it testifies
forcefully against Azerbaijani chauvinist fabrication this history
does not assign to Armenians any exclusive rights to the region.
Through the centuries as the proportion of non-Armenians increased,
parallel to the Armenian experience was an emerging (conditionally
termed) Azerbaijani one.  Within Garabagh Azerbaijani people
established communities, developed their customs and their traditions
and this alongside Armenians. According to historians, Ouloubabian
among them, Garabagh and Shushi in particular played an important role
during the 19th and 20th century process of Azeri nation formation.

For both Armenians and Azerbaijanis Garabagh became a vibrant centre
of national culture and politics. But in the wake of the defeat of
democratic nationalism it also became a hotbed of nationalist hatreds
and wars that exploded into war at the turn of the 20th century.


The Armenian and Azeri revivals coincided with intensified European,
Ottoman and Tsarist intervention in the Caucuses. Imperialist powers
succeeded in subordinating respective national elites to their designs
and ensured that these elites then played a decisive role in
subverting Armenian and Azerbaijani democratic forces.
As early as the 17th century the leadership of the Armenian movement
made the appeal for European and Tsarist intervention the axis of its
programme for national emancipation. It enthusiastically assisted
Tsarist invasions and European interference, militarily, politically
and economically. Parallel to this an (again conditionally defined)
Azeri national movement emerged as a component of Turkic peoples
resistance to Tsarist oppression. This movement saw its salvation in
an alliance with the decaying Ottoman Empire that was regarded by
Armenians as a primary foe. Close and subordinate relations between
local elites and their external sponsors were such that frequently
Armenian-Azeri clashes took on the form of hostilities between the
imperialist predators.
This subservience to external power provided fertile ground for
chauvinist nationalism. Its Azeri wing could incorrectly depict all
Armenians as agents of the hated Russian Tsar whilst their Armenian
counterpart depicted all Azeris as agents of Ottoman violence.
Democratic forces had little effective response to hatreds and fears
being whipped by the well-established and well-funded elites. So the
ground was set for the 1905 anti-Armenian pogroms and the bloody
1918-1921 Armenian-Azeri wars in which at least 25,000 Armenians
died. Though correctly dismissing the view that these clashes were
exclusively the result of Tsarist manipulation, Ouloubabian does give
a shocking account of Russian and of British manipulation of national

In the imperialist manipulation of Caucasian national animosities the
Armenians consistently came off worse. Despite deceitful pro-Armenian
proclamations both Tsarist and British leaders had Baku oil as their
primary concern and so bent to the desires of the Azerbaijani
elites. Here Ouloubabian's evaluation of British policy in particular
is endorsed by Christopher J Walker, who writes:

	` is no exaggeration to say that the present (1991)
	problem of Karabagh is due largely to British diplomacy in the
	first half of the year 1919, the effect of which was to
	prevent Mountainous Karabagh from being permanently attached
	to Armenia.' (Armenia and Karabagh, p97)
The establishment of Soviet power put a halt to slaughter and
pogroms. But it did not resolve Armenian-Azeri conflict. The Soviet
reliance on remnants of older nationalist elites and its breeding of
new ones opened the way for nationalist control of local states
through which they continued the project to create as monolithic as
possible national entities. They did this by peaceful means, by
cultural discrimination and forced assimilation and by economic and
political pressure that led to forced emigration.
In Garabagh where Armenians had succeeded in securing autonomous
status within Azerbaijan, the Soviet Azeri authorities laboured to
undermine and eliminate their community. To isolate it from Armenia,
part of Garabaghs territory (Shaumyan and Lachin) was detached while
it was also encircled by artificially created administrative
districts. The local Garabagh administration was in addition staffed
disproportionately by non-Armenians and Armenian leaders, regularly
denounced as nationalists, were removed from posts of responsibility.
In educational and cultural institutions Azeri departments were
privileged while Armenians were denied access to cultural resources
from Armenia.
The Azeri elite also operated to retard economic development. In the
1930s Russian language Armenian writer Marietta Shaghinyan noted that
Garabagh was even then being starved of resources.  Economic relations
with Baku assumed colonial form. Wood, a plentiful raw material could
not be processed locally but in Azerbaijan. Justified under the guise
of rational planning these measures were designed to shift Garabaghs
economic foundations further into the Azerbaijani axis. All this went
hand in hand with the plantation of Azeri communities that together
with cultural and economic pressures was to contribute to a steady
decline of the Armenian majority. In 1921 Armenians constituted 94.4
per cent of Garabaghs population. Twenty years later the proportion
fell to 88.1 percent and in 1979 it was 75.9 per cent.
But the Armenians that remained continued a vigorous defence of their
national rights. Gorbachev's so-called democratic renewal was to give
them a new confidence. The Azeri nationalists disregarding the wishes
of Garabagh's Armenian population mounted their violent campaign to
clear them from the region at the same time as they were cleansing
Baku and other Azerbaijani districts of their Armenian populations. In
1991 they abolished Garabagh's autonomous status and in 1990-1991 they
drove thousands of Armenians from their homes and villages in the


Within the terms of current elite control of political life and the
prevalence of sectarian nationalism that has flourished
internationally since the last quarter of the 20th century the
national question in the Caucuses and Garabagh in particular appears
intractable and all the more so in view of the regions particular
character, history and the evolution there of the nation-state.
Twentieth and pre-20th century demographic fragmentation in the
Caucuses precluded any easy division of the territory into exclusive
or homogenous national territorial units. Despite the demographic and
economic relations that bound different peoples together, national
oppositions became rooted as conflict over land resources and early
industrialisation and commercial competition developed along national
lines. During the era of nation formation cultural, religious and
linguistic differences were deployed to define each nationality off
from the other. With a keen eye on their interest in maintaining
division and thus enhancing their power, imperialist intervention
exacerbated and manipulated these oppositions.
During the Soviet era national animosities were accentuated in
significant part as a result of the prohibition of open democratic
discussion. Subterranean often grossly exaggerated remembrances of
past pogrom, slaughter, ethnic cleansing and other injustices came to
acquire a dominant place in the defining national identity in the
popular consciousness. This offered chauvinists ample ground to whip
up nationalist frenzies as they themselves, in the wake of the Soviet
collapse and indifferent to the fortunes of the people, fought to
seize privilege exclusively for themselves.
Yet a democratic and harmonious settlement of the Garabagh conflict is
not an absurd utopia. The interests of the Armenian and Azeri people
are not irreconcilable. The land can sustain both. It is fertile and
capable of development. Its natural beauty and rich cultural heritage
can also attract visitors from all corners to help oil the wheels of
the economy. Moreover embedded in both Armenian and Azerbaijani
history is a viable framework for a democratic settlement, a vision
that that is not merely a profession of faith by an isolated minority
but an integral aspect of modern Armenian and Azerbaijani social,
cultural and intellectual development. Among Armenians this is
represented by some of their most prominent thinkers, intellectuals
and artists, by men such as Khatchadour Abovian, Mikael Nalpantian,
Berj Broshian, Ghazaros Aghayan, Hovanness Toumanian and others.
Toumanian sums up the spirit in his remark that:

	I am not worn down and despondent by the absence of an
	Armenian kingdom. For me the Armenian people's cultural
	independence within a brotherhood of cultured people is
	entirely adequate.

Azerbaijani Azis Shariff, the first translator of Toumanian into
Azerbaijani, recalls that Toumanian spoke of the possibility of
harmony between the two peoples that he felt was borne of aspects of
their common historical experience. Shariff adds that in the difficult
year of the 1918 Armenian-Azeri clashes, he had worked hand in hand
with Toumanian to secure harmony between the two people.
In the early 19th century Khatchadour Abovian who was admirably fiery
in condemnation of the enslavement of the African people and the
genocide of the American Indians also demanded freedom for all people
oppressed by the Tsarist, Ottoman and Persian empires, whether
Armenian, Turkish, Kurdish or Azeri. Later Ghazaros Aghayan urging the
elimination of national antagonisms insisted that the Armenian elite,
which had disproportionate economic weight, support all the destitute,
whether Armenian, Turk, Russian or Georgian. In the 20th century
novelist Shirvanzade who lived across Shamakh, Baku, Tbilisi and
Yerevan developed an Armenian patriotism that incorporated a
multinational Caucasian identity. In his autobiography he defends this
against what he regards as the ARF's extreme nationalism. He held the
ARF along with chauvinists within the Azerbaijani movement partly
responsible for the bloody 1905 Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict and
undertook an active role in trying to end it.
So deeply ingrained was this vision that even a more conservative
representative of the Armenian national movement such as Berj Broshian
gives it expression. A vigorous supporter of the emancipation of the
western Armenian peasant Broshian also urged the liberation of the
poor and oppressed Turkish peoples, who also heave and sigh beneath
the burden of their own (Ottoman) exploiters and immoral judges. In
Huno an Armenian Robin Hood-like bandit of the same name listened with
care to everyone and within his means offered help without asking
whether one was Armenian or Turkish.
This vision also acquired its political manifestation, most remarkably
in the writings of Hovsep Der Movsissian a late 19th critic of
conservative nationalism. A correspondent of The Armenian Bee his
starting principle is that in territories inhabited by different
nationalities all have an inalienable right to equality and to free
national development:

	`We are all members of one great human family. In the Caucuses
	more than anywhere else it is necessary to spread the idea of
	friendship among nations, to spread the notion that (different
	peoples) should strive for enlightenment hand in hand (p387).'

Different peoples have a right to develop their national culture,
their language, their religion and their literature. But:

	`There are many other areas of life where it would be a crime
	to consider them in nationalist terms, or to adopt narrow
	nationalist attitudes. (p387)'

This was the case especially where political and economic organisation
is concerned. In this regard taking into account the demographic
structure of Yerevan, Movsissian criticises Armenian proposals to
secure two thirds of Yerevan's city council positions leaving only a
third for the city's Azerbaijani inhabitants. Through this he
elaborates democratic principles for governing relations between
people of different nationalities.

	`Bearing our national interest in mindit is necessary, as far
	as possible to approach those nationalities living around us -
	to approach them, befriend them and enjoy with them equal
	rights and equal duties (While) we will not permit others to
	deny us our rights, simultaneously we cannot permit ourselves
	to deny others their own rights. (p386)'

Appropriately replacing the term Turks with that denoting other
nationalities in the region Movsissian makes a universally urgent

	`If we do not have the patriotic sensibility to love the Turks
	(or Armenians or Georgians or Kurds or Azerbaijanis, etc), to
	love them without reservation and without dissimulation, then
	bearing our national interest in mind we should at least work
	to live together with them in peace and friendship. The future
	of Armenian and Turk is bound closely together and the
	friendly co-existence of these two peoples is to both their

* * * * * * * * * *   
In the current cacophony of hyped-up expectation mingled with war
rhetoric it is a matter of the greatest urgency that the more
honourable Armenian and Azerbaijani leaders fashion from their
historical resources a democratic, non-exclusive political settlement
that can address all the issues that have now festered with dangerous
consequences for future generations. Its contours are not clear, the
form of state or relation of states that can secure harmony is not
clear. But the alternatives on offer at the moment can be brought
about only by force and will in turn be challenged by force whether
sooner or later leading to new and rounds of war and destruction.
Yet, pending any permanent democratic resolution the Armenians of
Garabagh must retain every right to organise and prepare defence
against the escalating Azerbaijani state war preparations that today
threaten to drive them from their historic homeland.

Eddie Arnavoudian holds degrees in history and politics from
Manchester, England, and is Groong's commentator-in-residence on
Armenian literature. His works on literary and political issues
have also appeared in Harach in Paris, Nairi in Beirut and Open
Letter in Los Angeles.

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