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.

4 comments:

Danielbeast said...

I found this to be a very knowledgeable and even-handed analysis of the situation as it currently exists in the region. Thank you and good job.

LIVLIVS MAXIMVS said...

The only remaining thing is to join Danielbeast's words. Brilliant.

The Blogar said...

Yes, thanks for this post. You did a good job of analyzing this from all angles and I love the way you explained the transition period from communist nationalism to nationalist nationalism.

Michael Hikari said...

excellent post