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 http://brill.publisher.ingentaconnect.com/content/mnp/iner/2010/00000015/00000001;jsessionid=178t73sadfqcs.alice