Sunday, May 17, 2009

Stereotype Wonderland, and the Rubbish-Bin of History

One of the attractions of the Caucasus for anyone trying to make sense of security in the contemporary world is its marvellous complexity. South of the mountain chain, the three major ethnic groups bear cultures that at times display eerie similarities, even if they speak languages that are entirely unrelated. The emergence of Soviet Republics and nation-states has evened out the intricate, intermingled patchwork of ethnic settlement that characterised the Caucasus in the pre-modern period, and narrow nationalism has created and upheld an almost entirely fictional myth of historical-territorial homogeneity, one that does much to drive regional conflict. In Armenia, it is anathema today to admit that at the beginning of the 20th century, the Azeris formed a plurality in the province of Erevan. Conversely, Azeris don’t like to be reminded of the fact that a majority of Nakhichevan’s population was Armenian at the beginning of the Soviet period, not to mention the demographics of Karabakh. Georgian nationalists, finally, bristle at the suggestion that ¾ of Tbilisi’s population was ethnic Armenian at the end of the 18th century, or that the Azeri majority in Kvemo-Kartli might be anything except a result of foreign intrusion.

An idealised image has emerged of homogenous, nation-state like entities that were, supposedly, the forerunners of Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia. The real tragedy is that these ideas have translated into territorial identities that overlap to a great degree: with millennia of history to trudge over, each group takes a historical best-case scenario and translates it into a territorial idea that overlaps with the neighbour’s. To Georgian nationalists, their historical territory is Georgia under David the Builder, or perhaps even Queen Tamar – incorporating large tracts of today’s Armenia, Azerbaijan and Turkey. To Armenian nationalists, the historical ideal is that of pre-Christian, Artaxiad Armenia – reaching from the Southern shores of the Caspian, and deep into Eastern Anatolia. To Azeri nationalists, it seems any region ruled by a Turkic-Muslim khan at some point in the last few centuries qualifies as historical “Azerbaijan”. Especially when it comes to historical borderlands – like Javakheti and South Ossetia – the wonderful thing for nationalist historiographers is that they can never be wrong: pick the right period and you’ll find that this or that territory ‘belongs’ to the ‘right’ ethnic group – your own.

While a just tiny – and slightly deranged - minority in each of these states seriously considers restoring these territories, the way they have been integrated into the local historical narratives nevertheless serves to exacerbate conflict and distrust. In Georgia, the image schoolchildren often receive in their history lessons is that of the gradual decline of Tamar’s unified Georgian kingdom under constant Muslim attack, and large-scale immigration – in places like Ossetia and Javakheti. In Armenia, the main story is one of a thousand-year Turkic encroachment into historical territories following the fall of Ani, culminating in the 1915 Genocide. In Azerbaijan, Armenians are routinely depicted as foreign intruders into the Southern Caucasus, cunningly chipping away at Azeri lands by abusing their presumed hosts’ hospitality. With each nationalist narrative expanding historical territory to the maximum extent possible, the principal (and inevitable) lesson one gains from this is one of territorial loss at the hands of one’s neighbours.

Added to this paranoia-generating view of history, are the many stereotypes that infest all societies in the region. In short, Georgians see Armenians as cunning, uncouth, unreliable (pro-Russian!), materialist crooks, while Armenians hate them right back by describing them as lazy, pompous, unreliable (pro-Turkish!), ostentatious, rash good-for-nothings with a penchant for elaborate banquets and long toasts. To Armenians, Azeris are axe-wielding barbarian baby-killers from Mongolia whose only mission in life is to conquer Armenian lands, while to the Azeris, the Armenians are a bunch of lying psychopaths with an innate, sadistic fondness for terrorism and a masochistic obsession with supposedly invented Genocides. To each of the ethnic groups, the other is, moreover, absolutely uncultured. “They don’t have a culture of their own, they stole it [our music, our food, our poetry, our architecture...] from us” is something you hear everywhere in the Caucasus. Depressingly, what sounds as a grotesque caricature is, actually, far too close to the truth for comfort. These stereotypes appear and reappear in local discourse, over and over again, in different guises, refined and recycled by people of authority – politicians, “social scientists”, “historians”, “artists”. Only in a few (very few) enlightened places does it dawn on people that the similarities in their cultures – rather than being the result of cultural kleptomania on the others’ part – might be the result of centuries of symbiosis.

Where does all this bigotry come from? It is quite clear by now that the story of ‘ancient tribal hatreds’ doesn’t measure up, either in the Balkans or in the former Soviet Union. The nationalisms we see in the Caucasus today are a product of modernity; and part of the problem is that modernity was introduced into the Southern Caucasus, for the most part, by a totalitarian entity called the Soviet Union. As formerly agrarian societies industrialised and urbanised, Georgians, Azeris and Armenians were subjected to the vagaries – and contradictions – inherent in Soviet nationalities policy. And the Soviets, as is commonly known, had a very essentialised view of ethnicity; idiotic concepts like ‘national character’, ‘national psychology’, or even the particularly fascistoid ‘national gene-pool’ ("genofond") are still used in these societies today as reminders of a uni-dimensional, totalitarian mindset. Historiography and ethnography were – like any other ideological endeavour – state monopolies, and historians in various republics thus sought to construct orthodox histories that, on the one hand, conformed to Soviet ideology, and, on the other hand, reinforced their respective Republics’ claim to historical territory and an artificially distilled, processed and essentialised ‘national culture’.

The Soviet Union aimed at producing republican cultures that were ‘national in form, and socialist in content’; instead it produced national cultures that were totalitarian in form, and incompatible in content. As long as universalist Communism was the official state ideology, the long-term goal of constructing a ‘homo sovieticus’ did act as something of an integrating counter-balance to these narrow nationalist narratives. Exit the Soviet Union, and the result was an orgy of nationalist historical revisionism – still within that old Soviet totalitarian mindset, but with an even more exclusivist, chauvinist and parochial outlook. Why is one surprised, then, when Armenian politicians describe Armenians and Azeris as “genetically incompatible”, or when their Azeri counterparts coolly suggest the Armenian minority in Karabakh should just pack up and leave if it doesn’t want to be included in Azerbaijan? Or when regional historians produce histories that systematically maximise their own suffering, while minimising the pain of others? Or, most absurdly, even deny the very existence of the other side?

Ultimately, it is up to the Southern Caucasian societies to decide on whether to continue down that self-destructive path of mutual recrimination, consigning themselves to the status of small, miserable and endlessly bickering tribes. The alternative is to listen to those who advocate an alternative view that rejects a black and white vision of the region in favour of colour and complexity - and, luckily enough, those voices do exist in Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan. They should be encouraged by a West that has, in the name of 'national sensitivities', so far been much too tolerant of the garbage produced by some local 'historians', commentators and 'political scientists' pandering to the nationalist orthodoxies advocated by their respective regimes. Propaganda masquerading as history, and bigotry packaged as policy, should be confined to the rubbish-bin of history through relentless critique, and, where necessary, ridicule.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Killing the Messenger.....(2)

As I said in the previous post on Harut Sassounian’s article, it would be rash and unfair to reject out of hand the recommendations made by the International Crisis Group in its recent report on the Armenian-Turkish rapprochement. The ICG is among those think-tanks with a proven track record in studying security and conflict in the Caucasus, and what this Brussels-based organisation says should be taken seriously instead of being approached with emotional bluster and an a priori reference to its Turkish connections. This does not imply, however, that the substance of its report is beyond criticism – far from it. For while the overall content of the report presents a positive contribution to the complex puzzle of Turkish-Armenian relations, it nevertheless displays deficiencies that cannot be ignored and must be substantively addressed.

Looking at the recommendations themselves (those to the Turkish and Armenian sides), one is struck by their apparent (? - see below) symmetry – they mirror each other almost perfectly. For every demand to the Turkish side, there is one for the Armenian side. The document proposes a series of practical steps aimed at increasing trust between both sides. It asks both governments to prepare public opinion for a normalisation and to cultivate pro-settlement constituencies in the other’s society. Turkey is asked not to penalise Armenia for third-party statements on the genocide; Armenia is requested to avoid statements and international actions that might inflame Turkish public opinion. While Turkey is urged to decouple the Karabakh issue from the normalisation process, Armenia is asked to work towards a resolution of the conflict, including a withdrawal from the occupied territories. Yerevan is also urged to recognise the Kars treaty, while Ankara is asked to do more to preserve the Armenian heritage on its territory, for instance, by co-operating with its neighbour in the preservation of Ani. Finally, both sides are urged start joint studies of their shared history (particularly around 1915), to open their archives, and modernise their textbooks.

The outrage felt by some Armenians of the more nationalist persuasion is quite understandable, and, in some cases, justifiable. It is understandable, because the ICG touches upon several sacred cows of Armenian nationalism – the inapplicability of the Kars treaty, the inviolability of the narratives surrounding the period between 1914 and 1923, the view of the buffer zone around Karabakh as untouchable ‘liberated’ Armenian territory, among others. However, the ICG is right in challenging and de-reifying such ethno-nationalist discourse from a purely political point of view that aims to practically engender a normalisation of Turkish-Armenian relations, and the howls of outrage expressed by Armenian nationalists of all stripes deserve to be ignored.

The Kars treaty is a valid treaty under international law, and Armenia, as a successor state of the Soviet Union, is legally bound by it; those who continue frantically waiving an earlier treaty that was never ratified by anyone and does not have any force of law are trapped in hopeless self-delusion. While the extermination of the Armenians by the Ottoman state is an undeniable fact, it is used by many of our nationalists to uphold a crudely essentialised stereotype of the evil, barbarian Turk versus the good, civilised Armenian that deserves to be discredited. And while the buffer zone around Mountainous Karabakh should be given up only at a very high price, it remains a legitimate bargaining chip in negotiations with Azerbaijan – in fact, the most important bargaining chip of all, one whose non-negotiability would seriously hamper the negotiations process and the establishment of a lasting, secure and just peace for Karabakh and its population.

However, there are three major shortcomings in its study that deserve criticism, not from a narrowly ethno-nationalist viewpoint, but from a more universalist perspective. Firstly, the ICG fails to forcefully call on Turkey to remove the one major impediment to a fruitful dialogue between the Armenian and Turkish societies and a deepening of the crucial process of self-reflection that would be necessary for a multi-faceted understanding by Turkish society of the Armenian genocide – article 301. Secondly, the study contradicts itself and disturbs its prima-facie even-handedness by calling on Yerevan to deliver something it cannot deliver on its own – progress in the Karabakh talks. And, thirdly, the study makes a mistake often made by think-tanks – including, contrary to its stated aims, the ICG – of completely disregarding the ethical aspects of its recommendations: in fact, in situations where guilt and responsibility are unevenly distributed, aiming for symmetry in one’s counsel may turn out to be fundamentally unjust, as it is in this case.

The ICG is right in calling for a dialogue on the Genocide between the Turkish and Armenian societies. Crucially, it rejects the idea of a bilateral ‘Genocide commission’ as impracticable and inevitably too politicised. The construction of new narratives is dependent, first and foremost, on the free transnational interaction of Turks and Armenians, including historians, political scientists, politicians, ordinary citizens. Contrary to what many would think, this does not automatically denote some kind of conspiracy aiming to scuttle the recognition of the Genocide in third countries. Rather, it denotes a view – expressed by Hrant Dink, among others – that the time has come for Armenians to engage directly with Turkish society. I had the honour of meeting the late Mr. Dink a few years ago, and he made the convincing point that Turkey had changed, that some people were prepared to talk and listen. While the recognition campaigns in third countries did play a role in raising the Armenian question outside and within Turkey, without such direct engagement and a major rethink of how the Genocide issue is handled, the Armenians’ ultimate aim – recognition by Turkish state and society – will remain an unattainable goal.

In that respect, the ICG’s failure to more forcefully call on Turkey to abolish 301, or at least end its applicability to the Armenian Genocide, remains a major, unacceptable omission. How are Turks and Armenians going to freely construct compatible narratives if those Turks who depart from nationalist orthodoxy are put through a criminal process – as were the initiators of the internet-based apology campaign? Ultimately, article 301 is a symptom of a deeper-seated problem – that of a nationalism that is based on the politics of ‘my-country-right-or-wrong’. How could there be true Armenian-Turkish reconciliation of those Turks that reject this approach so central to the historical reconciliations in contemporary Europe are persecuted and stigmatised, like Hrant Dink was in the final years of his life?

The second problematic demand by ICG is for Armenia to ‘produce’ progress in the Karabakh negotiations. Contrary to all demands made on Turkey – whose performance is dependent on Ankara alone - Yerevan is thus asked to deliver something it would not be able to produce on its own – save if it capitulated its positions here and now. The complexities of the Karabakh negotiations process should be well-known to ICG by now, and it does seem contradictory to ask Turkey to decouple the normalisation process from Baku, only to re-couple this issue through ICG’s demands on Armenia. While this may at first seem like a Solomonic solution to an admittedly difficult problem, it does strike one as a return to square one – the issue is still being coupled, not by Turkey, but by ICG. This recommendation should have remained in a separate report on the Karabakh conflict: the problem here is that ICG is, willingly or unwillingly, giving in to Turkish ethno-nationalism, the main (but not only) driver behind Ankara’s near-unconditional relationship with Azerbaijan, and its coupling of the Karabakh issue with its Armenian policies.

The third problem in ICG approach is one that is found within almost all policy-oriented think-tanks: an almost-complete absence of ethical considerations. ICG approaches the issue of Turkish-Armenian rapprochement primarily in practical terms; the central question asked is how one can maximise the chances of such a normalisation taking place by producing a report that is maximally balanced in its demands from both sides. ‘Justice’ does not seem to figure in the think-tank’s vocabulary; and this is not so much a question of malice or bias, rather, it is a result of the generally complete absence of ethical thought among most mainstream think-tanks (ICG’s claims notwithstanding). This, in turn, reflects the precarious position of ‘the ethical’ in the international system, where ‘justice’ is usually not among states’ and policymakers’ primary considerations. Politics is still very much a practical art, and save for a few critical theorists – mostly working in academia – both analysts and policymakers see ethics as an interesting sideshow to the blood, sweat and tears that that art is all too often based on.

So how should Armenians take the ICG’s recommendations? Surely, as the aggrieved party in what was – all of ICG’s cynical quotation marks and qualifications notwithstanding – the 20th century’s first major genocide, they could not accept recommendations that do not differentiate between victim and perpetrator? Such a rejection, however, would be based on an entirely mistaken conception of international politics – which, all lofty intensions and declarations by Western states notwithstanding, is still based on the above-mentioned blood-sweat-tears triad. As Gordon Gekko in Oliver Stone’s Wall Street, Michael Douglas once advised a Wall Street novice to get a dog if he wanted a friend. If Armenia is to survive – no, thrive – in the unstable and dangerous 21st century, it would have to similarly understand that there is just as much justice in international politics (on which think-tank reports are after all based) as there is friendship on Wall Street.