Resolving the current conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh is impossible without understanding the complex history of the region and the specific grievances of Armenia and Azerbaijan.

Pictured: A soldier of the Nagorno-Karabakh army on the first line of defense. Photo: RIA Novosti

Twenty-two years ago, the ceasefire treaty in Nagorno-Karabakh entered into force: After the collapse of the Soviet Union this region became a disputed territory between Armenia and Azerbaijan. For the next two decades, there were many initiatives to find a peaceful resolution to the conflict, but little success in finding a lasting solution.

As a result, military and political escalation is becoming a new normal today. The two sides are still intransigent. While Baku sees the conflict as the aggressive occupation of its own territories by neighboring state, Yerevan views the standoff as the struggle of Nagorno-Karabakh’s Armenians for self-determination.

However, what is most important is the historic aspect of the problem and the arguments used by the opposing sides. As British researcher Charles Blandy argues, history indeed has a great impact on people’s perception and attitude to the ethnic conflicts in the Caucasus. Deep-seated beliefs are transmitted from generation to generation, making it harder to end the cycle of confrontation.

Today Armenian and Azerbaijani historians cannot agree on the roots of Nagorno-Karabakh. Prominent Armenian experts Alexander Iskandaryan, the director of the Yerevan-based Caucasian Institute, and Babken Arutiunyan, a professor at Yerevan State University, use the term “karabakhization of historiography” to describe this problem, which is common to both nations. In short, they have attempted to show that Nagorno-Karabakh is theirs based on their unique interpretation of history.

The historical debates about the origins of Nagorno-Karabakh became topical in the period of the Soviet “thaw” from the early 1950s to the early 1960s. However, during this period they were based on the Marxist as well as official Soviet rhetoric. With the support of the official Communist party, the Karabakh disputes turned into an information campaign in local media outlets in the period of perestroika.

Amidst this background, Armenia’s Academy of Science released a brochure about Nagorno-Karabakh in 1988. It presents historical facts and events to prove the validity of Yerevan’s view on the problem and the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic’s territorial claims. To counterbalance these views, historian Eldar Namazov, who later served for some years as the advisor of Azerbaijan’s former president Geydar Aliev, together with Zardusht Alizade, came up with their own publication, which proves that Nagorno-Karabakh belongs to their country.

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This becomes the major problem of contemporary Azerbaijani and Armenian historiography, with each side trying to prove that historically the disputed region was predominately occupied either by an Armenian or Azeri population, depending on the political agenda and interest of these countries.  For example, some of Azerbaijan’s historians argue that, more than 200 years ago, the Azeri people outnumbered Armenians in 1810 – 9,500 Azeri families compared to 2,500 Armenians ones.    

Meanwhile, both sides commit a fundamental mistake by trying to prolong the time span of the conflict and looking for the historic origins back even as far as agrarian times, when the population of Nagorno-Karabakh saw their loyalty under the rule of their political and military leaders: Khan and Meliks. At the time, of course, they were not preoccupied with the ideas of national self-determination.   

In the nineteenth century, it was impossible to talk about Armenia or Azerbaijan as separate national states. As a result of the 1804-1813 Russian-Persian War the Karabakh Khanate, a semi-independent entity, established under the Persia’s suzerainty, became the part of the Russian Empire, which, of course, doesn’t mean that this region should be included in today’s Russia or that there should be the restoration of the Soviet Union.

A knowledge of the region’s history is necessary to prevent oversimplification and misinterpretation: There should not be any attempts to use history to defend one’s interest in a nationalistic conflict. It creates new artificial dilemmas and only exacerbates the standoff. Neither Armenia, nor Azerbaijan, existed in the early nineteenth century as sovereign states. That’s why all talks about 300 years of conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan are political in nature and don’t contribute to finding out the historical truth.

In fact, after the urbanization of Transcaucasia, Armenians and Azeri people started thinking about their national identity. Specifically, this occurred within urban communities, according to German researcher Jörg Baberowski. Actually, this was the time the dream about the national independence emerged. Later, this dream transformed throughout the entire history of the Soviet Union, with all its implications, tensions and perennial flare-ups.

According to Thomas de Waal of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Armenian campaigners sent numerous requests to Moscow, demanding the unification of the Soviet Armenia with Nagorno-Karabakh many times. At the moments, the Soviet Union was faced with political changes, be it the thaw in the 1950 and 1960s or other political shifts within the country, and the issue languished. After the 1985-1991 perestroika reforms initiated by first Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, though, the dormant contradictions between Baku and Yerevan became obviously relevant.

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One of the reasons why Armenians and the Azeri people fail to resolve the standoff is the high level of ethnic nationalism in the region – a nationalism so intense that it pervades even historiography. Today Azerbaijani and Armenian history books are founded on the conflict, with the two sides creating their own picture of the world. This conflict became the foundation of the state ideology of these two former Soviet republics. They even have their own mourning dates and holidays.

Thus, one should admit an inconvenient truth about Nagorno-Karabakh: both of the nations – Armenia and Azerbaijan - have been both victims and aggressors throughout their history. As a result, only sophisticated, highly nuanced approaches and deep understanding of the origins of Nagorno-Karabakh can be helpful in resolving the conflict in this turbulent post-Soviet region.    

However, both sides are hardly likely to stop looking at history through the political lenses of nationalism and partisan thinking. Yet, attempts to reassess the common past could draw Armenia and Azerbaijan closer to compromise. At the same time, the current policy should be based on today’s realities and prospects. Baku and Yerevan should understand that no one will be a winner in this conflict.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.