A new book details how dueling, yet mutually reinforcing geopolitical identities have locked Armenians and Azerbaijanis into an intractable rivalry.
Armenia and Azerbaijan: Anatomy of a Rivalry, by Laurence Broers, is the most significant book on the conflict since Black Garden, Thomas de Waal’s 2003 account of the Nagorno-Karabakh war in the 1990s. De Waal’s account was journalistic, while Broers’s is academic. But Anatomy of a Rivalry is not a narrowly focused monograph, rather a wide-ranging, multi-disciplinary rethinking of every major aspect of the conflict.
Broers argues that the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict has less in common with the post-Soviet disputed territories, like Abkhazia or Transnistria, than with long-standing rivalries like those between Israel and Arab states or between India and Pakistan. “In terms of the balance of power between the belligerents, the scale of forces deployed and the sustainability of real destructive potential, the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict presents an entirely different picture to other Eurasian conflicts dating from the 1990s,” he writes.
The theoretical center of the book (although it is a loose one) is an emphasis on the “geopolitical cultures” of the two sides, or the ways in which official and popular narratives portray “their state’s place, origins, ideals, and allegiances in a world of states.” These issues are especially fraught for Armenia and Azerbaijan, neither of whose state boundaries correspond very closely to what are thought of as the “true” homes of the two peoples. Those competing geographical self-perceptions are fundamental to the rivalry, Broers convincingly argues.
“Popular perceptions on either side have come to think of increasingly more of the same space as ‘theirs’, while granting ever less space to the other,” Broers writes. “It is a path to mutual existential denial, entrapping Armenians and Azerbaijanis in mirror images of each other.”
The conflict defies easy explanations, and Broers’s account is necessarily complex. He carefully and perceptively outlines how the history of settlement in the region, Soviet nationalities policy and the peculiar form of nationalist scholarship that spawned, late Soviet liberalization and then territorial claims and ethnic cleansing in the war of the 1990s have all shaped Armenians’ and Azerbaijanis’ geopolitical self-perceptions.
The geopolitical cultures of the two sides have each taken many forms over the years, and Broers identifies the current dominant narratives as “augmented Armenia” and “wide Azerbaijanism.”
“Augmented Armenia” sees Armenia as an indivisible unit together with Karabakh and the occupied territories surrounding Karabakh (which Broers calls “the wild frontier of Armenian nationalism”). This vision has taken over from the early post-Soviet “compliant Armenia,” which saw the occupied territories as merely bargaining chips in negotiations with Azerbaijan and elided the issue of Karabakh’s status pending the results of those negotiations.
“Wide Azerbaijanism,” meanwhile, places an emphasis on the historic presence of Turkic peoples on what is today Armenian territory to imply that Armenians’ control of that land is contingent or illegitimate. This is a vision that started gaining dominance in the mid-2000s, taking over from the “Azerbaijanism” of the Heydar Aliyev era, which focused on Azerbaijan’s internationally recognized borders, which in turn took over from an earlier irredentist vision that looked south, toward the Turkic areas of Iran, rather than west toward Armenia.
As Broers notes, the two sides’ current geopolitical visions fit awkwardly with the respective sides’ formal arguments for how the Karabakh conflict should be resolved. Armenia’s arguments on the basis of self-determination (that the population of the territory should have the right to decide under which state it lives) are undercut by Armenians’ hardening control of the occupied territories surrounding Karabakh, which were ethnically cleansed of their Azerbaijani residents.
Azerbaijan, meanwhile, argues on the basis of territorial integrity (adherence to the Soviet borders), while increasingly casting doubt on Armenia’s historic right to its own territories. “In sum, Azerbaijani geopolitical culture has absorbed the schizophrenia of its adversary,” Broers writes.
Having traced the geopolitical visions of both sides, the balance of the book is devoted to rich, subtle reinterpretations of all of the major issues surrounding the conflict: the more than a million civilians displaced on both sides, the military balance, the roles of foreign powers and diasporas in the conflict, the nature of the de facto Nagorno-Karabakh state, and the long-running peace negotiations.
Perhaps the most dynamic of these issues is the relationship between the conflict and the internal politics of the two states. Both Armenia and Azerbaijan have used the conflict as a “demobilizing” force, to discredit moves toward democracy in the name of security, and have conducted the negotiations in a way that consolidates the power of the respective ruling regimes.
“[I]t is the extremely partial nature of the democratisation that has taken place that is the greatest obstacle to resolving the rivalry,” Broers writes. “Simply put, Armenian and Azerbaijani leaders have been authoritarian enough to block challengers from entering the political arena, and to dominate the policy-making process, but when they have proposed compromise solutions themselves they are not authoritarian enough to enforce them (or even to survive politically).”
But Armenia now has the potential to change this trajectory, as for the first time in the conflict one of the parties has a government with a genuine claim to democracy. Noting that the sporadic history of democracy between India and Pakistan has done little to mitigate that rivalry, Broers notes that: “At least in the short to medium term, then, rivalries can persist independently of regime effects. Armenia’s ‘Velvet Revolution’ in April 2018, which saw a civil uprising overthrow a long-established authoritarian regime, is a test of these dynamics.”
Thus far, democracy in Armenia hasn’t had much impact on the conflict: the new government has changed very little about its approach to Karabakh and the negotiations with Azerbaijan, and has not given the space for any other voices in Armenia to contribute to the peace process.
And what kind of impact will the conflict have on Armenia’s democracy? “[A] central problem confronting the new Armenian leadership,” Broers writes, is “whether Armenia could be liberalised while still upholding the practices of an illiberal peace, or whether only a limited variety of ‘garrison democracy’, undermined by continued reliance on islands of authoritarian practice to sustain rivalry, was possible.” The question remains unanswered.
Joshua Kucera, a senior correspondent, is Eurasianet's former Turkey/Caucasus editor and has written for the site since 2007.