Armenian exodus and the pains of history

RASHMEE ROSHAN LALL October 22, 2023
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TWTB collage: Top photo by IsaaK Alexandre KaRslian, Unsplash of the ‘tatik-papik’ or grandmother and grandfather sculpture hewn from volcanic rock in Nagorno-Karabakh. It’s seen as a symbol of Armenian identity

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The Big Story:

More than 100,000 ethnic Armenians have fled their once defiantly autonomous region of Nagorno-Karabakh, after Azerbaijan reclaimed the territory. There are continuing reverberations of the mass exodus in Europe’s immediate neighbourhood.

The Backstory:

  • Nagorno-Karabakh, a landlocked region in the South Caucasus mountains, was claimed by both Armenia and Azerbaijan following the breakup of the Soviet Union.
  • The territory is within Azerbaijan and the international community has long recognised it as such, but it has been controlled by its ethnic Armenian population since 1994.
  • The predominantly Christian Armenians regard Nagorno-Karabakh as an ancestral homeland, a cradle of their culture. Muslim Azeris also have cultural ties to the territory, particularly the city of Shusha, the home of Azerbaijani poetry.
  • Armenia and Azerbaijan have fought three wars in as many decades. At the end of the first war in 1994, more than a million people had been displaced, including Azerbaijanis from Nagorno-Karabakh. That war had what’s called the Khojali massacre, the killing of Azeris by Armenians in the town of Khojali. Armenians dispute the characterisation, though a former advisor to the then Armenian president has admitted “something unacceptable did happen”.
  • Armenian history provides a grim backdrop to the current Nagorno-Karabakh exodus. In September, Kim Kardashian, perhaps the world’s best-known Armenian-American, wrote an opinion piece calling on US President Joe Biden “to Stop Another Armenian Genocide”. The reference was, in the words of the UK’s Holocaust Memorial Day Trust, to “policies of expulsion and extermination” carried out by the Ottoman empire from 1915, resulting “in the deaths of an estimated 1.5 million Armenian men, women and children”. The atrocities against Armenians prompted Polish lawyer Raphael Lemkin to coin the term “genocide” in 1933. Turkey says it “does not deny the suffering of Armenians, including the loss of many innocent lives (but) objects to the one-sided presentation of this tragedy as a genocide by one group against another.”
    Kim Kardashian at the Armenian genocide memorial in Armenia’s capital Yerevan in October 2019. Photo by Novosti Armenia, CC BY 3.0

This Week, Those Books:

  • A Turkish bestseller on a taboo subject.
  • An on-the-ground report from Azerbaijan.
  • A forensic analysis of the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan.

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  • The Bastard of Istanbul

    By: Elif Shafak

    Publisher: Viking

    Year: 2006

This, the sixth of Elif Shafak’s 19 novels, became the first to be tried in a Turkish court for “insulting Turkishness”. That’s because the story – about two families, one Turkish Muslim, the other Armenian-American – refers to the “millions” of Armenians “massacred” by “Turkish butchers” who “then contentedly denied it all.” Shafak examines how differently Turks and Armenians view the past and the shadow cast by long-ago atrocities on the present.

Choice quote:

“We have first managed and then badly failed to live together.”

  • Azerbaijan Diary: A Rogue Reporter’s Adventures in an Oil-rich, War-torn, Post-Soviet Republic

    By: Thomas Goltz

    Publisher: M.E. Sharpe

    Year: 1998

Veteran American correspondent-turned-academic Thomas Goltz, who sadly died in July, wrote this account in the early 1990s. It was, he said, “a dirge for a dead country”, where “it was impossible to find a new toilet seat”, such was the “level of chaos, confusion, and self-destruction”. Then, Baku became an oil-boomtown, with Mercedes dealerships “springing up like hydrocarbon-fed mushrooms”. Through his satirical social commentary, Goltz shows how everything changes – but doesn’t – in Azerbaijan. This diary, which he calls “history as contact journalism” (laced with lots of vodka), portrays the “no war/no peace” situation over Karabakh.

  • Armenia and Azerbaijan: Anatomy of a Rivalry

    By: Laurence Broers

    Publisher: Edinburgh University Press

    Year: 2019

    One of the world’s leading experts on the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute explains that it was inseparable from the mostly peaceful unravelling of the Soviet Union and exceptional in having become violent. The Armenian and Azerbaijani conception of their homelands was always “older and wider than a Soviet frame of reference”, he writes. This nuanced book looks at the role of foreign powers and diasporas in the longest-running dispute in post-Soviet Eurasia. After the September 19 Azerbaijan takeover of Nagorno-Karabakh, Broers, co-founder and co-editor of the journal Caucasus Survey, said “Russia’s acquiescence…tore up the ‘Putin’s frozen conflicts’ script”, which shows Russia’s decline.