Analysis - Saturday, May 1, 2010 0:21 - 10 Comments

Clash of Narratives: The under-appreciated role of identity in non-resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict


Until now, the Nagorno-Karabakh (NK) peace process has been by and large limited to official negotiations between the governments of Armenia and Azerbaijan over the status of Nagorno-Karabakh and the return or exchange of territories. Yet while the political process is certainly central to the conflict and its potential resolution, there are also other factors that influence the conflict, and those typically are ignored. The sustainable resolution of the conflict, however, requires a comprehensive approach that will address all the underlying causes of the conflict, and not only the political ones.

The focus of this particular article will be on an underlying cause which up to date is given very little attention in the peace process or conflict related literature — the identity-conflict between Azerbaijanis and Armenians that manifests itself in deep mutual mistrust rooted in hostile historical memories. It analyzes the relationship between the most commonly-held historical narratives in present-day Armenian and Azerbaijani societies and the continuation of the conflict. The article is written with the hope of initiating a discussion and receiving suggestions about the role of historical narratives as well as on the broader topic of identity in the conflict and its resolution.

The narratives presented below are certainly subjective. Their sources are notes taken by the author during four separate Armenian-Azerbaijani dialogue workshops between 2007 and 2009. Yet the topic of the article is not the objective history (as it happened), but rather the collective memory of history (as it is transmitted and commonly “remembered”) and its influence on the conflict. These subjective yet collective narratives, therefore, have a particular relevance for the purpose of this article.

The formation of the present-day Armenian identity is an important factor contributing to the continuation of the conflict. Armenians place great pride in considering themselves an “ancient nation.” They commonly trace their ancestry to the sixth century B.C. According to Suny, Armenian identity was consolidated as a “unique, identifiable, ethno-religious community when they adopted an exclusive form of Monophysite Christianity and a common language in the fourth century A.D.” (Suny 1993).

The Armenian popular narrative often refuses to acknowledge Azerbaijanis as a distinct ethnic group and associates the Turkic speaking Azerbaijanis with Turks. According to the Armenian narrative, ancestors of the present-day Turks and Azerbaijanis played a devastating role in Armenian history. They invaded the region along with other Turkic tribes between the tenth and twelfth centuries and were responsible for innumerable massacres and the colonization of indigenous peoples, including Armenians. This historic injustice culminated in the Armenian Genocide of 1915 in Ottoman Turkey, in which the entire Armenian population of Anatolia was destroyed (Hovannisian 1988). In the Armenian collective memory, therefore, the Turkic speaking Azerbaijanis are considered part of the “genocidal” Turkish nation, responsible for massacres, ethnic cleansings, and the destruction of Armenian culture. As a consequence, Armenians fear discrimination, ethnic cleansing, or possible genocide of the Nagorno-Karabakh Armenians, should NK become part of independent Azerbaijan. The nationalistic public rhetoric of the Azerbaijani authorities and repeated threats of a new war, along with the policy of support of Turkey’s denial of the Armenian genocide, does not discourage those perceptions either.

Nagorno-Karabakh has a particular importance for the Armenian collective memory. According to some Armenian historians, Nagorno-Karabakh has always remained autonomous or independent, even when the rest of Armenia was under the rule of one or the other empire (Hovannisian 1988). Armenians in other regions were assimilated, but in Nagorno-Karabakh they preserved their identity. This notion has become a major component of the Armenian collective memory in the last two decades, contributing to the perception of Nagorno-Karabakh as the “last Armenian stronghold,” the surrender of which will result not only in the loss of territory but in the loss of a big part of the Armenian identity.

The formation of the Azerbaijani identity is another factor contributing to the intractability of the conflict. Azerbaijanis trace their ethnic ancestry from the aboriginal Caucasian Albanians and the Turks. The Azerbaijani cultural traditions are mainly those of Shi’a Islam (Croissant 1998). By some accounts, Azerbaijani identity consolidated in the 17th-19th centuries, while others trace it as a distinct identity group going back to the 10th century or earlier (Atabaki 2000). This discrepancy might have to do with the fact that the Muslim groups in the Ottoman and Persian Empires, although they had many distinct features such as culture and language, did not have a tradition of describing themselves in present-day ethnic terms and had one overarching Muslim identity. The situation changed after the Russian conquest of the Caucasus and the overall rise of nationalism as a dominant ideology replacing religion.

Similar to the Armenian case, Nagorno-Karabakh has a special place in the Azerbaijani collective memory. It is remembered as the birthplace of Azerbaijani identity, the center of Azerbaijani culture, and the home to many Azerbaijani poets and musicians. The loss of Nagorno-Karabakh equated to the loss of a big part of national identity.

According to the Azerbaijani narrative, Armenians play a very destructive role in the history of Azerbaijan. Tsarist Russia employed policies of assimilation and relocated large numbers of Christians, mostly Armenians, to the region populated by Azerbaijanis while simultaneously deporting Muslims from the same areas. Russians also favored local Christians, particularly Armenian Christians, who assumed political and economic control. The Azerbaijani collective memory also contains examples of 1918 Russian massacres of Azerbaijanis that Armenians participated in. At that time, the Azerbaijani identity was also consolidated and defined in ethnic terms, reinforced by the ideology of Pan-Turkism, a secular form of Turkic nationalism. Azerbaijani (or Azeri) identity, although it developed in protest to Russian (Christian) policies and colonization, was mainly directed against the local “privileged” Christian Armenians (Atabaki 2000). Armenians were seen as opportunistic aggressors that used their good relationship with Russia to expand to the east into Azerbaijani territories. The present-day Russian-Armenian military alliance and the continuing presence of the Russian army in the Caucasus reinforce this perception.

In the last two decades, since the onset of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict in 1988, the Azerbaijani and Armenian historical narratives have grown increasingly hostile, each portraying its own group as indigenous and peaceful. The other has become the archenemy who methodically destroys their population and cultural heritage with the help of the assimilatory and discriminatory policies of the regional powers, Russia and Turkey respectively. Both narratives blame any possible past or present tragedy exclusively on the other group, be it injustices, genocides, the destruction of cultural heritage, the start of the Nagorno-Karabakh war, ethnic cleansings resulting in hundreds of thousands of refugees, or economic disaster. Both consider the other’s historical accounts to be lies, manufactured for political purposes. This mutual perception has grown so hostile that any compromise or concession, particularly related to the status of Nagorno-Karabakh, is now seen as humiliating, defeatist and unacceptable to either side.

The current Armenian and Azerbaijani governments have risen to power on radical nationalistic slogans with mutually exclusive claims to deliver Nagorno-Karabakh to their respective constituencies. Every politician who takes a moderate stand and tries to improve relations is inevitably stamped as a traitor. This dynamic creates a vicious cycle of political outbidding in which politicians are forced to take more and more radical positions so as not to appear unpatriotic compared to the opposition. This war of rhetoric, produced mostly for internal consumption, forces the leaders on both sides to adopt an increasingly radical stance vis-à-vis the other side. It widens the gap between the positions of the two parties and leaves little room for a solution. Even worse, the rhetoric penetrates the media and educational institutions, gradually transforming them into propaganda machines. Entire generations have been raised on this propaganda during the 20 years of conflict. It has intensified the feeling of mutual mistrust and hatred, while elevating the mutually exclusive myths of Nagorno-Karabakh to such a level that no politician can suggest any concession without producing public outrage. The polarization of public opinion is so deep that if the leaders of Armenia and Azerbaijan could reach an agreement, they would likely fail to implement it because of the fear of making such agreements public. The current negotiation effort, therefore, is something of a farce since any possible solution that would determine the final status of Nagorno-Karabakh would be dissatisfactory to at least one party and likely both. Both sides refuse to acknowledge any need to cooperate until a solution is found, and each side wants that solution to satisfy its own demands.

The above analysis shows that the collective memories and identities of Azerbaijanis and Armenians have developed in opposition to each other and the “Us versus Them” dynamic is central to defining relations between the two societies. This has a direct negative influence on the political process and the inability of the leaders from both sides to find a compromise, as identities based on the exclusion of the other preclude a possibility of peaceful coexistence. The game indeed becomes zero-sum, when either of the groups, if it finds itself a minority in other’s state, is guaranteed exclusion, to say the least. A meaningful peace process intended to achieve a lasting solution, therefore, should approach the identity dimension of the conflict as seriously as the political one. A long-term comprehensive strategy that addresses the identity-dimension of the conflict has to go hand-in-hand with the political process and complement it. Every success story in conflict resolution, be that the French-German, Jewish-German, Northern Irish, and others suggest a strong need to work on the resolution simultaneously from a number of angles and that focusing on the political process alone is a short-sighted approach that will be short-lived and might even backfire.

Yet any work with non-political dimensions of the NK conflict, until now, has been conducted sporadically, with very limited financial or political support, and often despite it. Almost no scholarship exists that would examine the conflict from non-political perspectives. This article is not written to insist that identity is the problem in this conflict. It is a problem. A problem ignored.

Why do the narratives grow increasingly hostile? How are the memories created, transmitted?  How much influence do the narratives have on the identity formation? What is the correlation between the collective memories and policy making? What is the exact role of oral narratives, commemoration ceremonies, historical educational materials, and electronic and printed media in shaping policy? How can agents of memory transmission be transformed into factors contributing to the resolution rather than exacerbation of conflicts? Can a better understanding of the relationship between memory and conflict be used to produce less dichotomous policy-making? How can this knowledge contribute to the peace process? These questions are worthy a discussion, a research paper or two, perhaps are even central questions. It is hard to know until the discussion happens.

This article is a modified version of a chapter on identity from ‘Rethinking the Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict: Identity, Politics, Scholarship’ originally published in the International Negotiation Journal, Volume 15, Number1, 2010, pp. 33-56(24) available at;jsessionid=178t73sadfqcs.alice


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May 2, 2010 6:17

great post as usual!

May 3, 2010 3:08

So true!!

Harutyun Marutyan
May 3, 2010 15:36

Hi, Phil,

I’ll suggest you to have a look to Mikayel Zolyan’s articles and his PhD thesis, as well as my newly published book in Armenian and in English: “Iconography of Armenian Identity. Volume 1: The Genocide Memory and the Karabagh Movement” (Yerevan, Gitutyun pres, 2009). There you may, at least, find more references.

Phil Gamaghelyan
May 4, 2010 1:04

Dear Harutyun,

This particular article, as mentioned in the beginning, had an aim of examining what are the collectively held, subjective historical narratives of 4 groups of well educated young people from Armenia and Azerbaijan with whom I was working. And how these narratives influenced their relations to the other side, to the conflict, to Karabakh. In that sense, the references to other authors would be relevant only if the group was already influenced by them and these writings were part of their memory prior to the workshop.

I thank you, however, for taking time to write and for the information provided. I very much look forward to reading your book. I am also aware of Mikayel Zolyan’s articles. Have read what I found on-line. A while ago, I corresponded with him about acquiring a copy of ‘Narratives of History and the Representation of an Ethnic Conflict’, which is not available electronically, but that did not work out. If you could suggest where I can find a copy, I would appreciate.


Laurence Broers
May 5, 2010 6:13

Dear Phil,
Thank you for this excellent discussion. Working in the fringes of the Karabakh peace process for a few years, everything you write rings true. Tom de Waal addresses the theme of narratives to some extent in his book Black Garden, where he identifies master ‘hate narratives’ directed by Armenians towards ‘Turks’ (understood generically as you mention) and directed by Azeris towards Russia and their supposed Armenian proxies.

With an academic background on Georgia, and an interest at least in Turco-Armenian relations, what occurs to me is the way in which certain standard narratives emerge over and over again in the nexus of relations between external great powers (and former imperial masters), local but historically not dominant majorities and minorities. What we see emerging repeatedly across different contexts are the same narrative tropes:

– the colonizing great power, with a range of destructive agendas ranging from genocide to partition or at least cultural assimilation – and its inverse, the benevolent, mentoring empire, enforcing affirmative action policies friendly to minorities
– the local tyrannical majority, pursuing its own internal colonialist agenda, with violent means once empowered to do so – and its inverse, the authentic indigenous population confronting repeatyed assaults on its culture and integrity
– the treacherous minority, the proxy for hostile outside powers, claiming victimhood but perpetrating equivalent crimes of ethnic cleansing with outside backing – and its inverse, the frontier minority, aboriginal, but isolated from ethnic compatriots on the other side of the mountains and facing an encroaching majority

These tropes intersect with categories of indigenous/non-indigenous, authentic/’imperial’, self/other – usually in ways that paradoxically owe a lot to the categories and thought of the former imperial system. In my view one of the key problems behind these narratives is that once they are overlaid with the highly emotive and black/white categories of national versus colonial, it becomes impossible for some groups to acknowledge the role of colonial policies in shaping/consolidating their own sense of identity. What emerges are grand narratives of national history characterized by massive omissions. The narrative of the other group lies in the omission. So – as I understand it – while the Armenian master-narrative of modern history is genocide at the hands of Ottoman Turks, the Turkish master-narratives is of imperial collapse and the cleansing of Muslims from former Ottoman territories. The problem is to make these narratives meet, to complete each other.

I think there could be enormous value in a comparative project looking at the similarities/differences in narrative formation and how narratives from one context come to shape the discourse in another. You are quite right to point to successful examples where a grand narrative has been broken (French-German relations, Jewish-German relations, English-Irish/Protestant-Catholic relations) – this shows that it is possible to break free of a historical pattern. The issue is whether there is the will to challenge a long-established identity and the comforts it provides.

Laurence Broers

Phil Gamaghelyan
May 6, 2010 20:01

Dear Laurence,

thank you very much for this well elaborated post, and for putting the conversation into a larger context of ‘master narratives’ and patterns. 

I see a great potential for bringing stability and peace to this and other regions, if we work on transforming the narratives to ‘include the other’. At a closer look, ‘long established identities’ are usually not that long established. The narratives and corresponding identities, I am sure you will agree, are in fact very fluid. They are subjective; unself-conscious; impatient with ambiguity; rooted in emotions; focused on stable, unchanging group essence; uncritical of ones own group.

Yet most importantly, historical ‘facts’ are only a part of a collective memory; and not necessarily the most important part. Clear pattern, if we follow literature on collective memory,  is that the narratives, while often misleadingly called ‘historical’ are actually a-historical. Our collective memory does not preserve history as such. Rather, it represents the present-day needs as we project them into the past to find justifications and explanations for our present day selfish and non self-critical behavior (interestingly, while an extreme selfish behavior of an individual is socially unacceptable, groups are encouraged and expected to engage into such behavior. We even have a nice sounding word for it called ‘national interest’). Memory of a social group is selective, and it always ‘chooses to remember’ parts of the common past that correspond with the present-day interests of the group and ‘forgets’ the rest. 

This pattern, while it might seem quite depressing, I think also gives us a clue about how it can be transformed. Because the narratives reflect the present day interests, it is probably not very efficient to start directly from trying to change the narrative. In this case one will be appealing to the ‘consciousness’ of people and leaders. One should hope that they will be nice enough to abandon the selfish yet glorified ‘national interests’ in favor of peace, of inclusive narratives and tolerant identities. Instead, one can try to question and re-frame the underlying interests. If leaders, teachers, and finally societies see that the exclusivist or even victim narratives are only assumed to cater to our interests, but in reality just keep us in a self-delusional bubble, and that the groups that opened up their ‘century old’ narratives are the ones that are actually benefiting, when the understanding that the selfish interests can be better fulfilled by practicing ‘inclusion’ gets enough supporters, then perhaps the ground for new narratives will be organically formed.  

And yes, let’s do it. The comparative project I mean. 

Кавказский Выпуск – Война нарративов: недооценка роли идентичности – фактор, препятствующий разрешению нагорно-карабахского конфликт
May 14, 2011 23:57

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Jul 21, 2016 9:57

I am currently writing a Master’s Thesis on Narratives of War and Narratives of Peace in Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict. What I have so far elaborated, is that self-identification and perception of “the Other” are in interplay, and both play a significant role in “writing the narratives of war”. Among important items of self-identification are exceptional nationalism (as a politicized ideology, a belief in the national uniqueness, excluding “the Other”), historical grievances (loss of independence, the Genocide), nation-building in the aftermath of the Soviet Union collapse. In the perception of the Other there are dominating patterns of episodes of inter-communal violence (history of war), denying identity of “the Other”, and fearing/preparing for war. To my mind, both nations draw the future of war, they are getting ready for it, almost in expectation. It seems like, every action has been directed towards war -the propaganda of the media, the military-industrial complex, education, economy, active search for strategic allies among external parties on both sides. Almost every action from within and outside has been drawn to getting ready for the “Grand Battle”. There we see prophesies being self-fulfilled -first they expect a war, then they get ready for it, and in the end, after so many powers have been put into it, war becomes inevitable. There is another question of why, and what for. The elites can excuse economic mismanagement, development problems, and “tighten screws” in domestic affairs, by creating “the arch enemy” (the Goldstein from 1984), and organizing Orwellian minutes of hate to redirect public frustration with poverty and negligence of human rights. However, almost every country of the former Soviet Union has to cope with similar problems, but not every country is in a state of war. Therefore, the elites cannot be seen as the only ones responsible for “writing the narrative of war”. So far, my conclusion. I am still in the process of writing, after I find something else, I will continue

Philip Gamaghelyan
Aug 20, 2016 18:27

Dear Leyla, thank you for your comment. I very much agree with your suggestion that the upcoming war, should we not manage to avoid it, will not be a testament of any “inevitably” but that of a “self-fulfilling prophecy” perpetuated by the channeling of all the intellectual and material resources of the two societies into a future war effort and and our failure to imagine and build another alternative.

I look forward to reading your thesis when it is completed, should you be kindly share it.

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