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
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
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’.
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.