Constructing and Deconstructing Histories: The Ethnicity Factor








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A cradle of civilization, “a living museum of ancient races,” and the “Mountain of Languages”—Jebel al-Alsan in Arabic—these are some of the expressions that have been used to refer to the Caucasus region. These descriptions reflect a rich mosaic of cultural traditions, languages, religions, and identities of the Caucasus.  The Caucasus is also associated with the ancient legend of the Golden Fleece that brought Argonauts from Greece to Colchis, an ancient kingdom on the eastern shore of the Black Sea as well as Mount Ararat, the location where Noah’s Ark was supposed to have ground to a halt. The Caucasus has been at the crossroads of great civilizations for centuries, each of them leaving their traces on the region.  Due to its location on the ancient trade routes between East and West as well as North and South, it is a meeting place of Greek, Roman, Persian, Slavic, Turkic, and native Caucasian cultures.  The area also has attracted the interests of the Byzantine, Persian, Russian, and Ottoman empires, the Soviet Union, and recently the European Union and the United States.

The Caucasus, however, has also been known for its violent conflicts and wars leading to massacres and massive population displacement. During the final stages of the disintegration of the Soviet Union from the late 1980s till the early 1990s, a number of ethnic groups in the Caucasus have experienced violent conflicts that continue to this day, impeding the peaceful development of the region. Numerous studies have sought to explain the roots of post-Soviet conflicts by developing and applying various theoretical approaches and proposing ways to understand and possibly resolve these conflicts. The following discussion focuses on the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict that first erupted in February 1988 and led to a war between Armenia and Azerbaijan in 1992–1994.  The argument of this paper is built around the notion of ethnicity. Why ethnicity? One of the reasons is that ethnicity and divisions along ethnic lines still have a strong meaning and expression in a post-Soviet South Caucasus; people identify themselves based on their ethnic heritage rather than civic nationalism.  This study attempts to synthesize a number of theoretical approaches to the notion of ethnicity and ethnic conflict. It draws on the strengths of these frameworks to analyze the role of history-writing in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. These frameworks include primordialism, instrumentalism, and constructivism. A theory of “symbolic politics” will also be discussed.  Finally, this paper considers some possible ways, including anthropological knowledge that can contribute to the process of conflict resolution.  The conflict around Karabakh is very complex and its full understanding cannot be confined to one paper. Therefore, this is merely one interpretation of the Nagrorno-Karabakh conflict.

Definitions and Theoretical Approaches

Ethnic conflict has been a driving force behind many of the bloody wars around the world.  It is argued that the concept of ethnicity helps to shed light on the root causes of certain conflicts as well as to understand the nature of these conflicts.  The word “ethnicity” is derived from the Greek ethnos that denotes a collectivity of humans living and acting together.  Interestingly, there is no agreed general definition of the notion of ethnicity.  Rather, numerous anthropological studies stress that ethnicity should be defined and understood within the contexts of each particular case under investigation.  In this regard, the diverse concepts of ethnicity play an important role in the “politics of group differentiation… in the culturally diverse social democracies of Europe, and North America and, increasingly, globally” (Jenkins, 2008, p. 10).

As for the definition of an ethnic group, which can also be perceived as a minority in a particular state, it is generally viewed as a group of people within a society who are thought to have a common ancestry, share common culture, and “who, in addition, participate in shared activities in which the common origin and culture are significant ingredients” (Yinger, 1994, p. 3).  For Anthony Smith (1991), an ethnic group is “a type of cultural collectivity, one that emphasizes the role of myths of descent and historical memories, and that is recognized by one or more cultural differences like religion, customs, language, or institutions” (p. 20). Depending on local contexts, the definition of an ethnic group may also be expanded to include additional features and explanations.

In conflict studies, the notion of ethnicity is viewed and interpreted based on particular theoretical approaches to conflicts. Primordialism, instrumentalism, and constructivism are some of the theoretical frameworks that provide different perspectives for understanding the relationship between the notion of ethnicity and ethnic conflict. Primordialism views ethnicity as mostly an immutable and fixed characteristic of identity stemming from the “natural” division between various groups that is based on common language, collective memory, history, and culture. In other words, ethnicity is perceived as “one of the ‘givens’ of human existence,” which “exists in nature, outside times” (Smith, 1991, p. 20).  For primordialism, conflict arises from these divisions and “ancient hatreds.” On the one hand, primordialism contributes to the understanding of the intensity and longevity of an ethnic conflict. On the other hand, primordialist theory cannot fully explain why conflicts break out in some places and time and not in others.  One of the reasons that make primordialism particularly relevant to the questions posed in this paper is that Soviet and the majority of post-Soviet research on ethnic studies and history has been strongly influenced by the primordialist approach.

In contrast, instrumentalism views ethnicity as completely fluid and changeable. According to instrumentalists, ethnicity gets politicized and is often used by the elites as an instrument to advance their political and other interests.  In this sense, “Ethnicity is simply a way of aggregating individuals for collective ends which is seized and used by politicians for political advantage” (Robertson, 1997, p. 269). Thus, ethnicity leads to conflict when ethnicity is played out, and there is something to gain from the conflict. While instrumentalism can reveal the overall political and economic structure of a society and help analyze the creation of new identities within these structures, this approach ignores cultural and psychological factors that lead to violent ethnic conflict.  Instrumentalism can explain the relationship/connection between the writing of history, including its manipulation and politicization by the elites, and the structural changes like the collapse of the Soviet Union and the need for new identity-building and nation-building.

Constructivists, in turn, view ethnicity as “… social and relational—neither real nor completely malleable” (Robertson, 1997, p. 269).  Therefore, the concept of ethnicity is not quite fluid and has a constructed nature; it is based on social interactions.  Contrary to primordialism, constructivism does not view ethnicity as conflict-generating per se.  Rather, it is mainly social relationships between agents, structures, and institutions that can lead to ethnic conflicts. In addition, emotions, memory, and ideas can influence identity and behavior of people.  Constructivists perceive a shared history of an ethnic group as either mythical or invented (Kaufman, 2000). Constructivism provides good explanatory tools that are, however, sometimes hard to apply, and the approach is weak on causality. Some constructivists suggest that it is possible to “deconstruct” certain concepts and ideas, even histories, and work toward building understanding and trust between ethnic groups in conflict.  In this regard, anthropological methods of studying and understanding “the Other” are relevant.

The three approaches to ethnicity and ethnic conflict briefly discussed above clearly demonstrate that the concept of ethnicity is complex.  Thus, depending on an interpretation of ethnicity, the explanation of conflicts may vary. The rest of the paper draws on strengths of each of the approaches discussed above as well as Stuart Kaufman’s theory of “symbolic politics” and applies these perspectives to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.  It also analyzes the connections between the concepts of ethnicity, the writing of history, identity formation, and conflict resolution measures.

Nagorno-Karabakh: A Brief Historical Sketch


“The land of Artsakh, the central and largest part of which
was better known throughout the 20th century as “Nagorno
Karabakh” or “Mountainous Karabakh,” is one of three
ancient provinces of Armenia located in the eastern end of
the Armenian Plateau…. Artsakh is important for Armenia’s
history and civilization in many ways…”[1]

“Karabakh is one of the ancient regions of Azerbaijan. The
name of this inseparable part of Azerbaijan consists of two
different Azerbaijani words: “gara” (black) and “bag”
(garden). The combination of these two words is as ancient as
the nation of Azerbaijan.”[2]

The history of the South Caucasus differs, depending on the perspective one takes. As Suzanne Goldenberg (1994) notes, “History is a dangerous thing in the Caucasus” and is highly controversial (p. 10). Two main opposing versions of the history of Nagorno-Karabakh are prevalent; both Armenians and Azerbaijanis claim the territory of Artsakh/Karabakh as central to their national identities. Karabakh also has an important cultural meaning for both. Indeed, in Thomas de Waal’s words,

For Armenians, the meaning of Karabakh lay in the dozens of Armenian churches
dotted around the territory, its tradition of local autonomy through the “melik” princes of the
Middle Ages and the martial reputation of Karabakh Armenians. For Azerbaijanis, the
associations were primarily with the khanate based around the great eighteenth century city of
Shusha and with the great cultural flowering of composers and poets such as Vagif, Natevan,
and Uzeir Hajibekov (De Waal, 2005).

The name Nagorno-Karabakh reflects the imprints of Russian, Turkic, and Persian influences.  Nagorno or nagorny means “mountainous” in Russian, kara means “black” in Turkish, and bagh denotes a “garden” in Persian.  Armenians call this region Artsakh, while Azeris call it Yuqari or Daghliq Karabakh. The current territory of Nagorno-Karabakh comprises 4,400 sq. km. According to the 1989 Soviet Union census, the population of the region was 186,000 people, the majority of which was Armenian (Soviet Union Census, 1989).  Today, the population of Nagorno-Karabakh is entirely Armenian.

Some of the major clashes between Armenians and Azerbaijanis in Karabakh first erupted in 1905-1907 during the so-called the “Armeno-Tatar Wars.”  A number of wars, massacres, and deportations continued throughout 1918 and 1920 following the collapse of the Russian Tsarist Empire, and the emergence of independent Azerbaijan and Armenia.  The two states continued fighting for the control of three disputed regions: Nakhichevan, Zangezur, and Karabakh. The current territorial boundaries of Karabakh trace their roots to the early 1920 and the incorporation of the Caucasus into Soviet proper.  On July 3, 1920, the Kavbuiro—the Caucasian Regional Bureau of the Central Committee of the Russian Communist Party—assigned Karabakh to Soviet Armenia. However, in 1921, the decision was changed and Nagorno-Karabakh became an autonomous part of Soviet Azerbaijan. Three years later, in 1923, the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast (NKAO) was established.  Until the fall of the Soviet Union, the Karabakh Armenians would continue making appeals to the Soviet government for putting Nagorno-Karabakh under Armenian control. No major clashes occurred until the late 1980s.

The claims for separation from Azerbaijan renewed after Gorbachev’s new policies of glasnost and perestroika. In 1988, Soviet Armenians joined NKAO Armenians to demand the unification of Nagorno-Karabakh with Armenia. In 1991, after Azerbaijan declared its independence from the USSR, the leadership in NKAO declared its own independence from Azerbaijan.  The same year, Azerbaijan resorted to military operations to force the region into submission which led to a war between Azerbaijan and Armenia in 1992.  By 1993, Armenians occupied Nagorno-Karabakh and large portions of south-west Azerbaijan. In May 1994, Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Nagorno-Karabakh signed the Bishkek Protocol and the 1994 Moscow cease-fire agreement.  The mediated cease-fire has been maintained since 1994.  However, numerous negotiations and international mediation attempts have failed to resolve the problem of the future status of the region. Today, the conditions surrounding Nagorno-Karabakh are described as “no war, no peace” with Nagorno-Karabakh being de facto independent.



History, Ethnicity, and Conflict

A number of factors shape an ethnic identity. Among others, history and memory play an important role.  An ethnic group that has no memory of its cultural past and has no link to connect that past with the present behavior, identity, or ideology is “virtually unthinkable” (Eller, 1992, p. 29).  According to Eller, an ethnic group defines “what we really are” in terms of “what we were” as their cultural past or tradition. In this regard, “the language the group has ‘always’ spoken, the religion it has always followed or that it converted to at some ancient time, the customs, the clothes, the stories and music, the values and morals—these things are effective identifiers and legitimizers of the group” (Eller, p. 29). History and memory are particularly important in constructing, deconstructing, and conceptualizing the past and shaping group identity.  According to Ronald Suny,

… Histories […] are based on memories organized into narratives. Whatever actually
happened is far less important than how it is remembered. What is remembered, what has
been forgotten or repressed, provides the template through which the world is understood.
Nationalist violence or inter-ethnic cooperation and tolerance depend on what narrative, what
tales of injustice, oppression, or betrayal are told. Tellers of tales have enormous (though far
from absolute) power to reshape, edit, share their stories, and therefore to promote a future of
either violence or cooperation (Suny 2001, p. 864).

This paper discusses the way ethnicity has been interpreted in Soviet and post-Soviet scholarship and its impact on shaping of group identities as well as the construction of political ideologies that, in turn, feed into the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.  The interpretation of ethnicity among Soviet and the majority of post-Soviet scholars is mainly based on the primordialist approach.  Beginning from the 1970s, the works of a Soviet anthropologist Yulian Bromley had a significant impact on Soviet and post-Soviet research in ethnic studies and history. According to Bromley, “ethnos is a historically stable entity of people developed on a certain territory possessing common, relatively stable features of culture (including language) and psyche as well as a consciousness of their unity and of their difference from other similar entities (self-awareness) fixed in a self-name (ethnonym)” (Bromley, 1981, p. 27).  It is also important to bear in mind that Bromley’s theory of ethnicity was developed within the Marxist framework, which views the historical past of a particular society as an evolutionary transformation through various social formations, communism being the final.  Bromley and his followers, therefore, took a primordialist approach on the concept of ethnicity, something that is rather fixed and exists throughout all social formations (Banks, 1996, p. 17–18).

After the 1990s, the majority of post-Soviet historians continued to interpret the past and perceive ethnicity through the prism of primordialism. With the breakup of the Soviet Union, a new national identity emerged in newly independent states that began to supersede the old Soviet collective identity. In this process, the national elites, the so called “intelligentsia,” including leading historians, have played an important part in transforming and “driving the process of history-writing, thereby striving to find a consensus on their nations’ past as a basis for national mobilization” (Minasyan, 2009, p. 10). Often, these initiatives developed within specific political contexts and have been used as an instrument to mobilize the masses.  In this regard, Vicken Cheterian, a journalist and an analyst, observes the continuity rather than change in politicizing history-writing in and after the Soviet Union. He writes,

The role of historians was not limited to developing a version of history in which the role
of the nations they represented had a dominant role and that of neighboring nations was
diminished. Nor was it limited to preparing politicised and clashing versions of the past in the
work context created by Soviet policies. In the early years of mass politics, at the height of
perestroika and glasnost, they played a direct role in articulating political positions and
demands, addressed initially to the Soviet leadership in Moscow, based on the specific vision
of history their profession has developed in the previous years. Those demands rotated
around the idea of territorial exchanges and the upgrading or downgrading of the political
status of certain regions, and in particular that of autonomous republics and regions. The

politicized work of historians fitted well with the Soviet tradition whereby historians
prepared studies that directly reflected official ideology, or tried to justify it. Thus the role
historians played in the period of Soviet collapse can be seen as a continuation of, and not a
break with, the Soviet legacy. In the late 1980s many historians ceased to be historians and
entered the arena of political struggle, by providing the ideology of mass mobilization
(Cheterian, 2008, p. 80).

The politicization and manipulation of history can serve as an instrument to advance the political and nationalist agenda in order to mobilize the masses. The introduction of Gorbachev’s glasnost, the break-out of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, and the eventual dissolution of the Soviet Union, all have opened up new trends in history writing within Armenia and Azerbaijan. The theme of Karabakh has become one of the key research topics among Armenian and Azerbaijani scholars that continue to drive the countries’ opposing official histories on Nagorno-Karabakh. Some of the dominant trends in the process of history-writing in Armenia, for example, include the expansion of the scope of the historical research to encompass the connection between the notion of ethnic identity and the territories of Armenian settlements throughout the past (Minasyan, 2009, p. 12).  The Armenian historiography concerning Nagorno-Karabakh focuses on the period of the 1920s, when the region was integrated into Azerbaijan proper.

Among others, one of the ideological trends in recent Azerbaijani historiography has been the emphasis on proving the ancient roots of the nation and justifying claims to the territory of Karabakh. This argument is often employed to counteract Armenian ancient history.  In addition, “the aspiration to prove its [Karabakh’s] historical bond with Azerbaijani khanates, state, the Azeri speaking population and its meaning for Azerbaijani culture with Shusha as its center” is another focus of Azerbaijani history writing (Gasimov, 2009, p. 7).  In short, the works of Armenian and Azerbaijani historians and scholars resemble a “battle” of opinions, positions, and mutual accusations.

Up until today, there are still strong perceptions of ethnic divisions along racial (Aryan vs. Turkic), religious (Christian vs. Muslim) and linguistic (Indo-European vs. Turkic) lines used by the representatives of Armenian and Azerbaijani circles to stress the differences and create a wider gap between the two camps.  As time goes by, these sentiments grow stronger producing chauvinistic and biased literature on both sides. Clearly, the first conflict that erupted in the late Communist period of the Soviet Union, the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, is not over yet, while the debates around “ancient” histories and attempts to reconstruct the past continue to nourish the conflict today.

Some of the factors that contribute to the violent conflict include myths and symbols. Stuart Kaufman’s (2001) theory of “symbolic politics,” laid out in his book Modern Hatreds: The Symbolic Politics of Ethnic War, provides another way to understand the depth of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and seek possible solutions.  In this approach, the meanings of myths, emotions, and fears that drive ethnic groups and lead groups to conflict can be relevant to understanding the process of history writing.  According to the author, ethnic wars occur because of the politics of myths and symbols that are rooted in emotions. These myths also generate hostilities between ethnic groups, in this case, Armenians and Azerbaijanis that contribute to mass mobilization and justify violence.  In this regard, mutual prejudice, fears, and a “hostile myth-symbol complex” resulted in a competition for dominance, a security dilemma, and then violence between the Armenians and the Azerbaijanis beginning in 1988.  Kaufman (2001) writes that “the conflict occurred because of a fundamental clash between an Armenian myth-symbol complex focused on fears of genocide and an Azerbaijani one emphasizing the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the Azerbaijani republic” (p. 49).  Indeed, for the Armenians, Nagorno-Karabakh became a symbol of national identity and independence, a symbol of past and future losses as well as the prospect of reunification with Armenia, while for the Azerbaijanis, Karabakh was a means to strengthen weak identity and nationhood as well as to prevail. This, in turn, advanced both sides’ politics of nationalist extremism that eventually led to war between Armenia and Azerbaijan.  In this approach, Kaufman  argues that myths, fears, hostilities, and then security dilemma led to violence, while nationalist politics further triggered the war. (p. 49)

What is Next?


It is very important to draw a clear distinction between the study of history as a scholarly field and the (mis)use of history and its further politicization. While the former is crucial in understanding the past and the present, the latter can become rather dangerous. Today, the way history is perceived by many in the South Caucasus continues to play an important role in shaping ethnic identities and feeding into the conflict between Armenians and Azerbaijanis.  Realistically, it is hard to speak of a concrete way to settle the conflict. Collective memories, fears, and “ancient” histories continue to promote alienation between Armenians and Azerbaijanis.  Moreover, all major attempts to resolve the conflict, including international mediation, have failed.  Numerous meetings between the leaders of Armenia and Azerbaijan have not yielded any breakthrough in the resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. The fact that the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic, although de facto, exists as an “independent” entity with its own governing bodies should not be taken lightly either. Even though it does not enjoy the support of the international community, Nagorno-Karabakh functions as an independent political unit.

Also, the geopolitical factor is likely to continue to play an important role in either preventing or facilitating the resolution of the conflict, depending on the balance of power and the interests of the major parties involved in the regional and global politics.  The 2008 Five-Day War between Georgia and Russia has once again demonstrated Russia’s strong political and economic interest in the South Caucasus.  At this stage, what is needed is to continue opening up more possibilities for constructive and engaging dialogue that would address concerns, fears, and mutual interests of the parties involved in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. The goal of the dialogue should be aimed at defusing stereotypes and deep-seated biases as well as building trust at the personal level. It is important to understand what the common interests and the commonalities are that bring these groups together as well as the ways in which the perceptions of history feed into the existing conflict. Assurances are also needed at the state level to prevent any violent outbreaks.  The strategy of promoting joint educational and cultural efforts supported and maintained at the local, regional, and international levels could also play an instrumental force. Producing common history and/or analyzing official versions of history may be challenging but not impossible to do.


A synthesis of theoretical frameworks presented earlier, the expanded understanding of the concept of ethnicity, and the role of history, all help to illuminate different facets of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.  A primordialist view of history helps to understand the intensity of the conflict and the role of the Soviet and post-Soviet interpretation of the concept of ethnicity in writing national histories. Instrumentalism focuses on instances when history can be politicized by certain groups in power to serve particular ends.  The theory of “symbolic politics” considers myths and symbols to understand the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. As already discussed above, constructivism, interprets ethnicity as socially constructed and as subjectively defined, “which emphasizes the ways in which group identities emerge and change over time” (Harff and Gurr, 2004, p. 97).  This theoretical approach suggests that peaceful coexistence between ethnic groups, one that is based on trust, is possible.  In this regard, Robertson (1997) writes “For constructivists, ethnicity can be transformed from a resource in and cause of conflict into a form that can be used to construct trust between groups. Confidence building measures that provide information and solve problems of credible commitments between groups can resolve the ‘security dilemma in ethnic conflict’” (p. 279).  Thus, according to constructivists, it is possible to change the very nature of interaction of groups by a re-conceptualization of the notion of ethnicity.

Another way toward conflict resolution between Armenians and Azerbaijanis could be through the critical examination of national histories.  As Robertson suggests, “Political myths and the ethnic entrepreneurs that use these constructions for group cohesion can be inhibited by the production of non-biased, non-national histories, media outlets, and institutions that encourage political entrepreneurs to mobilize different aggregations or to develop interests in different non-ethnic cleavages” (p. 279).  A question arises: how can this be possibly done?  One way of looking at the problem is through anthropology.  Anthropological perspectives and methods of participant observation and ethnographic data gathering can certainly play an important role.

Oftentimes, the ways in which groups perceive each other are influenced by deep-seated cultural biases.  One of the tasks of anthropologists in understanding the Other is to attempt to “deconstruct” claims and concepts, compare and analyze symbols, structures, meanings, and values used by ethnic groups by engaging in intensive fieldwork and working cross-culturally.  A self-reflexive nature of anthropological perspectives and the methods of applied anthropology can identify and reveal cultural biases of the researchers and the researched as well as improve the communication process. In addition, “… most anthropologists would rather concentrate on showing the ways in which historical accounts are used as tools in the contemporary creation of identities and in politics. Anthropologists would stress that history is not a product of the past but a response to requirements of the present” (Eriksen, 1993, p. 72).  Anthropological theory can also serve as a resource for policy-makers in order to help them understand how to interact with the Other successfully. Asking specific questions, documenting, addressing various contexts (e.g. political, social, cultural, global, etc.) that affect ethnic groups, and studying claims to space and resources are some of the main pillars of anthropological knowledge that can be applied to conflict resolution. This, in turn, can reveal and open up new perspectives for a constructive dialogue around Nagorno-Karabakh.

Native literatures may also unravel some clues to dialogue and understanding. In the historic section of old Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia, there is a monument to an eighteenth-century troubadour, or ashugh, Sayat Nova.  Armenian by birth, Sayat Nova wrote and performed his songs in Azerbaijani, Georgian, and Tiflis Armenian.  In fact, the majority of Sayat Nova’s songs were in Azerbaijani. The monument of Sayat Nova symbolizes the unity of the peoples of the South Caucasus. The literature of Sabir, a prominent Azerbaijani literary figure in the early 1900s, calls for a peaceful coexistence and cooperation between the Azerbaijanis and the Armenians. When it comes down to native songs, musical instruments, cultural norms and values shared by the peoples of the Caucasus, it is clear that there is a way towards a deeper understanding and possibly peace.


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