So, what about those lonely voices of the writers who try to imagine a future without the deadly war between two countries that once were relatively peaceful neighbors within another country, the Soviet Union? Is anyone listening to them?
When a small vulnerable country like Armenia is engaged in conflict with its neighbor, a larger, richer state like Azerbaijan and has other hostile neighbors like Turkey on its borders, it is extraordinarily difficult for people to question the policies of the state. Yet Armenia is notable for its lively civil society, its active and fearless citizens who never stopped criticizing their government, even when mafia-like leaders controlled and corrupted the country. One of our graduate students at the University of Michigan, Arakel Minassian, recently analyzed several short works by Armenian authors who challenged the master narrative that dominates Armenian thinking about the long, seemingly endless war between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the beautiful, mountainous region of Karabakh. He found a short story by Hambardzum Hambardzumyan written in 2010, “Erku zham” [“Two Hours”], and an experimental piece by Karen Gharslyan written in 2016, Aterazma: Tpagrayin film [Aterazma (a made-up word): Typographic Film) that demonstrated that there are a few isolated literary voices that look critically at the costs and effects of the war on Armenian society and mentality.
In 2018 Armenians marched from Giumri to Yerevan and protested until the authoritarian government resigned, and a popular democratic government was elected. The government of Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan has worked hard to end the corruption of government officials and the so-called “oligarchs” who still flex their economic muscles in this vulnerable moment of transition from authoritarianism to democracy. If that were not enough, Armenians have to consider that their most needed ally, Russia, is far away, cultivates its own relationship with Azerbaijan and Turkey, and follows its own interests that do not always coincide with those of Armenia.
The new democratic government of Armenia shares the nationalist understandings of most Armenians. The story they tell is of a small, martyred nation, the victim of genocide one hundred and five years ago, its survival and resurrection in the twentieth century, and its constant betrayal at the hands of powerful states near and far. No one loves you, Armenians say, for your dark eyes! Armenians have long believed that life is a struggle for survival, and one must learn to depend on oneself and ones’ compatriots. The great nineteenth-century Armenian novelist Raffi rallied his people with slogans like: “Happy is the people that can hate…. He who cannot hate, remains deprived of love;” or “He who cannot use arms, who is incapable of shedding blood and killing people, he is told: you have no right to be free.” [from his 1881 novel, Khente (Deli)].
When conflict broke out in the last years of the Soviet Union (1988-1991) over Mountainous Karabakh, many Armenians interpreted the subsequent war through the lens of history. This was another genocide; the Azerbaijanis were like the Ottoman Turks. When Azerbaijanis attacked and killed Armenians in Sumgait and Baku, these pogroms were connected to the massacres and deportations of Armenians in 1915. For Azerbaijanis, the Armenians were the guilty party, the instigators of the conflict; Armenians had taken Azerbaijani territory and driven out the Muslim peoples. For more than three decades the war has gone on, punctuated with armistices, renewed killing, and constant accusations from both sides about the atrocities committed by the other side. The ceasefire brokered by Russia in 1994 was broken in April 2016, and a Four-Day War ended with hundreds of soldiers and civilians killed. In the afternoon of July 12, 2020, Armenian and Azerbaijani forces engaged once again, firing into each others’ positions for two weeks. Turkish officials declared their solidarity with Azerbaijan, and some thirty thousand Azerbaijanis, almost entirely young men, marched through Baku chanting “Karabakh is ours;” “End the quarantine and start the war;” “Commander-in-Chief, give us weapons;” and “Karabakh or death.” The very dimensions of the demonstrations threatened the regime of President Ilham Aliev, and armed forces dispersed the protestors.
Real war between the two countries remains a dangerous possibility. Armenians are determined to hold on to Karabakh, which they consider part of their historic homeland, and Azerbaijanis, who have international law on their side, refuse to give up part of their state territory. Two principles clash here: national self-determination, which would favor the Armenian side, which was in the years before the conflict (and still has) an overwhelming majority of the population in Karabakh; and territorial integrity, the principle that guarantees that territory of an independent state cannot be taken by force by another state, which favors the Azerbaijani side. While some older people keep a nostalgic memory of Soviet times when such conflicts either did not exist or were muted and kept from the public sphere, most of the population of both countries has grown up in the environment of this conflict, demonizing the other side. After more than thirty years and more than 30,000 deaths, with hundreds of thousands of people forced from their homes as refugees, resolution of the conflict appears further away than ever.
So, what about those lonely voices of the writers who try to imagine a future without the deadly war between two countries that once were relatively peaceful neighbors within another country, the Soviet Union? Is anyone listening to them? Are there people ready and willing to find a way out, to compromise, negotiate, and resolve what seems to be irresolvable? The stories that most Armenians and Azerbaijanis tell themselves are about how they are victims of evil others and that the others are the only perpetrators of the horrors they have befallen. To stop the continuing cycle of violence both sides have to find a new story, a more conciliatory narrative, but sadly it does not yet exist. What both sides feel is pain, not hope.
Democratic Armenia, a country that overthrew a corrupt government, guards its borders against authoritarian Azerbaijan, ruled by a dictator who is the son of a dictator. Critics of the ruling elite in Baku are regularly jailed. Newspapers and history books are ruthlessly censored, and there is no effective opposition. A new narrative is unlikely to come from Azerbaijan. The question then is: can the popular democratic government in Armenia think its way out of this conflict? Can Pashinyan and his followers, who walked miles to Yerevan to create a new future for their people, take a few steps away from the nationalist narrative of condemning the other and toward negotiation with those across the Karabakh Line of Contact? Such steps would require as much imagination and courage as those first steps that Pashinyan took from Giumri just over two years ago.