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Performative strategies in the Azeri nationalist discourse on the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict

Updated: Apr 16, 2021

Alain Navarra-Navassartian


Official logo of the Turkish-Azeri military exercises of 2019. Armenia is practically wiped off the map.
Official logo of the Turkish-Azeri military exercises of 2019. Armenia is practically wiped off the map.

For several weeks now, the various Azeri media have been reporting President Aliyev's virulent remarks on the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. These remarks have been taken up and amplified by the press and social networks. These acts of language are not insignificant, first of all by their violence, then by the reference to a system of conventions, ritual and a strategy that crosses historical references, political discourse, the symbolism of epic tales (the cult of the hero) and the most vindictive nationalism. First of all, I must clarify the position from which I am speaking: that of an individual of Armenian origin. But it is a question, as we did in the Armenian case, of seeing how the construction of the nationalist discourse takes place and how it will prohibit, in this case, a real possibility of dialogue. Since 2003 and the accession to power of Ilham Aliev, the tone has changed. There has thus been a metamorphosis of nationalist discourse, notably with the extreme personalization of the regime in Azerbaijan, which demonstrates the key role that nationalism plays in the resolution of this conflict. It should be pointed out that nationalism is seen as a modern phenomenon and not an immemorial one.

We had already looked at the effects of gendered nationalism in Armenia to see the important role of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and its militarization on a set of social behaviors.

In this case, it is the reading of newspapers, blogs, various media and the net, as well as Azerbaijani social networks over more than three months that form the basis for this article.

The first question one can ask oneself when one sees the surge of vindictive, hateful or violent remarks is whether the whole of society shares this feeling or whether it is the identity entrepreneurs who seize it and instrumentalise it?

The answer seems quite clear, the hatred of Armenians seems to unite a majority of the population, opposition included. But does this dominant and vertical discourse give way to another discourse, a horizontal one, which would allow other voices to speak? In particular, those of the inhabitants of rural areas where neighborliness and cohabitation between communities sometimes had a different face than that of hatred? Therefore, all these acts of language are done on the basis of ethnic conflict and this is repeated over and over again, emphasizing the distinction between Armenians and Azeris, which existed long before the conflict on the basis of cultural attributes, language and religion. Any possible cohesion of the populations is rejected. These are thus primordialist theses that put forward immemorial hatreds. These theses are based on "historical figures" who have been fighting the Armenian enemy since the dawn of time, in order to recover the "purity" of the territory. The modes of popular belonging to nationality are never emphasized; little mention is made of contingent relations, never of the hybridity that was one of the characteristics of this territory as in the whole of the South Caucasus. This hyper-nationalist discourse does not focus, nor does it want to dwell on the conditions of the emergence of the conflict; it only emphasizes the ethnic interpretation. Also, in this verticality there is no room for other narratives of events. South Caucasian nationalism has its own peculiarities due to the socio-historical developments in the region. One might wonder, moreover, whether ethnic identity has been the most important identity of the region at all times? This questioning is obviously no longer relevant today.

Therefore, all these acts of language are done on the basis of ethnic conflict and this is repeated over and over again, emphasizing the distinction between Armenians and Azeris, which existed long before the conflict on the basis of cultural attributes, language and religion. Any possible cohesion of the populations is rejected. These are thus primordialist theses that put forward immemorial hatreds. These theses are based on "historical figures" who have been fighting the Armenian enemy since the dawn of time, in order to recover the "purity" of the territory. The modes of popular belonging to nationality are never emphasized; little mention is made of contingent relations, never of the hybridity that was one of the characteristics of this territory as in the whole of the South Caucasus. This hyper-nationalist discourse does not focus, nor does it want to dwell on the conditions of the emergence of the conflict; it only emphasizes the ethnic interpretation. Also, in this verticality there is no room for other narratives of events. South Caucasian nationalism has its own peculiarities due to the socio-historical developments in the region. One might wonder, moreover, whether ethnic identity has been the most important identity of the region at all times? This questioning is obviously no longer relevant today.

Since the politics of memory in the region only accentuates the competition of narratives (Azerbaijan obviously supporting denialist Turkey), it becomes practically impossible to analyze the social relations on which the bases of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict also rest. Above all, one must not leave any room for rational analysis for a subject who would like to understand, first of all, the origins of the conflict and then the choice of the Armenian population of Nagorno-Karabakh to leave the yoke of the Azeri state. The work of inter-comprehension also becomes impossible, the political, even academic discourses become a form of performative construction-obstruction.


The internal situation of Azerbaijan, the oil manna squandered by the Aliev clan for its own investments, a difficult economic situation, refugees from Nagorno Karabagh who have not been so well integrated as that and twenty years of social disaster mean that Aliev needs a war discourse, freeing himself of all ethical or moral barriers to create what B. Anderson called "opportunities for unification". It should be stressed that the tone of Aliev's interventions has evolved with the various changes in Turkish foreign policy, the advances of one confirming the other. The concept of national community is thus pushed far into the future to establish an ancestral right on the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, which does not make sense. It is difficult to find any, including in the opposition of the anti-war forces. It should be noted that censorship and repression are such in the country that few people would risk contradicting the government. On the other hand, if the face of the Azeri government is known to the Western world, the latter is only just raising its eyebrows for the repression in the country, for the lack of freedom of expression or for human rights violations. The economic importance of the country, but above all its position as a supplier of gas, makes it immune to the universalist, often incoherent desires of the Western powers. There are different forms of cowardice, complicit cowardice is one facet of it.

The shaping of national consciousness is not something new in the region. The first republics of the Caucasus did it from 1918 to 1920.


It is not a question here of recounting the history of Nagorno-Karabakh and its Armenian population (the bibliography contains a series of works dealing with the history of the territory), but of using certain passages from this long history to grasp the modalities of nationalism. Different modalities according to the historical period.

The Russian penetration of the Caucasus and Transcaucasus (1801-1864) is an important experience of Russian expansion, the popular cult will not take hold of this occult expansionism. We are far from the East of splendor and opulence, from an imaginary East. The region is rather an area of indigence, which Alexis Iermolov will emphasize after a visit to the Zangezur and Karabagh. But it was after the fall of the Russian empire and the withdrawal of the tsarist troops from the Transcaucasus that the problem of Karabagh arose. The three Transcaucasian republics: Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan proclaimed their independence, and the conflict arose from Azerbaijan's territorial claim to Zangezur and Karabagh. On 29 July 1918, the first congress of Karabagh Armenians, held in Shushi, proclaimed Nagorny Karabagh an independent territorial entity and formed a government. But from 1919, the Azerbaijani-British blockade was put in place and General Soultanov, sadistic governor of a vast region dominated by the British, engaged in a policy of massacre. From 1923 to 1988, during the Soviet period, numerous steps were taken to attach Nagorno-Karabakh to the Armenian SSR. Thus, for the Armenians, from the beginning of Soviet ethnic territorialization, it was the construction of a minority fact in a relationship with violence and a system of social enclosure. A system that determines access to a certain number of rights and imposes selection criteria. Thus, even under the Soviet regime, Armenians had less access to the various social options than Azeris. Anti-Armenian sentiment was sometimes clearly expressed in "practices of distinction" (Bourdieu, 1982). It should be pointed out that this concept of minority and the treatment to be accorded to these minorities appeared in the Ottoman neighborhood at the end of the nineteenth century, with mass violence targeting minority populations; that is, not assimilated to the Nation.

But how and why has this anti-Armenian feeling in Azerbaijan, which today, obviously corresponds to the anti-Azeri feeling in Armenia, come about?

It is necessary, however, to move away from the essentialization of ethnic identities and forget the "ancestral hatred" to look at historical and social facts that reveal, at a moment in the history of the two populations, conflicts of interest in response to a crisis that is as much social as it is political and economic. Conflicts that will lead to a deep fracture in Azeri-Armenian relations.

Baku is the "workers' citadel of Transcaucasia" (A. Ter Minassian). According to the data of the 1897 census, Armenians represent 6.9% of the population in the Baku governorate (Azeris 58%), 35% in the governorate of Elisabethpol and 53% in the governorate of Yerevan. The Russian colonial order, which has established itself in the region, plays an important role in the Armenian-Azeri duo. The Azeris blame the Russians for favoring both certain social classes and certain nationalities: the Armenian bourgeoisie and the Armenian population (A. Ter Minassian). The oil economy was also of crucial importance: in 1888, out of 54 oil exploitations, only two belonged to Azeris. On the other hand, in 1913 the Armenian population of Baku practically caught up with that of the Azeris: 42,000 against 46,000, which was experienced by the new Azeri intelligentsia, practically as 'a demographic war'. Thus, the "Armenian threat" is looming, a feeling that is all the more easily shared in the Azeri community, as the two populations are experiencing a cultural, social and political renaissance that is leading to competition and rivalry.

The period of the tanzimats of the Ottoman Empire and the young Turkish revolution were, moreover, important references for these young Azeri intellectuals who dreamed of "modernizing" the social, economic and political structures of their population. Religion will also be a subject of debate and there is a willingness to make important reforms, such as, among other subjects, the place of women in Islam. Whether reformism or modernism, Tatar intellectuals are working to renew their culture. At the same time, Armenians are experiencing the same phenomenon.

The reformist wave of the Volga Tatars has reached Transcaucasia and this debate is taking a turn not only religious, but also identity and "national". At the end of the 19th century, at a time when the decrease in resources to be distributed among the Azeri population was emerging, an important question appeared: which group was privileged in the distribution of resources? The Armeno-Tatar War of 1905 was the paroxysmal point of the phenomenon.

It should be noted that class relations and ethnic conflicts in Baku during this period from the end of the 19th century to 1920 are well known. But what about the rural world, which was the vast majority in the territory? We know little or nothing about the intimacy of one group vis-à-vis the other. There is little scientific literature on this subject. But the homogenization of the nationalist discourse has resulted in a distance from those who were previously neighbors, colleagues and why not friends. There is little or no trace of life in rural areas.

With the appearance of a new type of Tatar intellectual, various actions for the cultural and social modernization of Muslims are being implemented. The first rise of a national feeling could be sought, during the 1870s, when Russian Islam came out of its torpor, thanks to Azerbaijani, Cree or Kazakh thinkers. On the other hand, we find traces of the activities of Azeri Marxist groups (a first in the Muslim world). Baku is the center of Azeri revolutionary organizations and the contacts with Turkey of young Turks are important. One finds a certain number of these Azeri intellectuals in the work of elaborating the ideological corpus of Turkish nationalism (Etienne Copeaux), such as Hüseyinzade Ali (1864-1942), who participated in the birth of the young Turkish opposition, or Ahmed Agaev, one of the leaders of the national movement in Turkey until the Kemalist period.

But what kind of nationalism was favored? Nationalism cannot be seen, unilaterally, as a phenomenon of modernization. Did we witness the birth of conservative nationalism?

Ali Bey's watchword: Hüseinzade "Türklesmesk, Islamlasmak,murasirlesmek" (Turkification, Islamization and Modernization) will moreover be taken up by Zya Gökalp: "We belong to the Turkish Nation, to the Muslim religion and to European civilization".


During the Soviet period, the steps to be attached to the Armenian SSR were constant on the part of the Armenian population of Nagorno-Karabakh, steps that were to increase with the Kruchean "thaw".

As has already been pointed out, Russian colonization incorporated multiple ethnic groups that had their own power structure, or even sovereignty, over certain territories. This is indeed the case for the Armenians of the region and the Tatars (melikat for the Armenians, Khanat and clan system for the Azeris, among others), but the administration of the Russian empire made no reference to ethnicity. It was only after 1917 that a repertoire of peoples was established through a political and scientific approach to the construction of peoples. This process was supported by a geographical approach to the establishment of borders.

"A people becomes, within the framework of the state, a person". Ethnic belonging becomes one of the central elements in the files of each person. A whole work of formalizing nationalities is put in place. It is an essentialist vision of human groups that will mark the populations for a long time.

Ethnogenesis is deeply rooted in the Russian and Soviet ethnographic school, but absent in the Western tradition; the founding fathers of a "socio-natural" history, Shirokogorov, Bromley and Gumilev, however, are linked to the German tradition of ethnicity (Volk). The people becomes an object that requires no demands or questions of definition. It is obvious that in the post-Soviet space, where issues of identity recomposition were at stake, these notions of ethnos were used with new inflections when the situation required it. The Russian and Soviet ethnos refers to a conception of nationality, difficult to understand for the Western world since citizenship and nationality are not distinct as in the Soviet world. Thus, in the 1920s, Shirokogorov, proposes, in order to account for the stability of ethnos in a region, that the correlation between the quantity of population and the size of the territory it occupies should be constant. The claims of the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh follow this logic. But the choice of the ethnic group as a reference community will be arbitrary and artificial. How can nomadic or mountainous populations, clans, lineages, etc. be grouped, delimited or listed? Drawing boundaries in these conditions is difficult and will generate sometimes violent struggles. And it was an arbitrary decision that brought Nagorno-Karabakh into the territory of the Azerbaijan SSR on 5 July 1921, although it was populated by more than 90% Armenians, who had never been subjected to Baku's rule.

Thus, in this quest for proof of the thousand-year-old "national territory", archaeology and history will be the indispensable tools for finding the clues to the rooting of this or that human group in certain places. There is therefore this will to create continuity in order to establish the permanence of a culture. A means already used by the Turks in the 1930s: the construction of ethnic territories, from which the original population is almost erased.

After 1930, the territorialization of ethnicity will never be questioned again. The dominant group is the only one to have "roots" in the assigned territory. This tutelary people will have, in certain periods of the Soviet era, advantages such as a quota system, allowing them to reach positions of responsibility. The Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh lived as "guests" on their own "soil". This is a social enclosure that is difficult to understand and admit. As the majority on their territory, they find themselves a social minority. All the more so since this policy of privileges granted to the titular populations leaves a doubt about the loyalty of others. Distrust of Armenians was also fed by these Soviet social constructions. This situation was only waiting to be set ablaze in the event of major problems: the pogroms of Armenians in Sumgait (27 February 1988) or Baku (12-19 January 1990). Thus, the petitions and the various requests for attachment to Armenia did not find any echoes under the Soviet regime, because these requests were a direct challenge to the national categories established by the state. There is no question of questioning Moscow's decisions! Drawing the "limits" that reveal the reality of a people and, from there, its territorialization, obviously has strategic and political implications (Cadiot). The 1939 census clearly demonstrates the document's only state concern. In the end, nationalities are hierarchized, and it is thus through a form of colonialist repression that national categories are definitively fixed.


No reading of the common past, ancient or close, seems possible anymore. If in Armenia the construction of national identity is done in relation to a stato-national construction, in Azerbaijan it is diverted in favor of a personal, authoritarian and hereditary power. It is therefore difficult to escape from a vertical vision of this conflict and its irreducibility. No other vision is more tolerated by Aliev, with the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict serving as the pivot of its internal politics.

He also privileges non-rational links, the intangible aspects of spiritual affinities of ethnicity. The religious fact plays, as in the three South Caucasian republics, a definite role. Azerbaijan, however, has a long anti-clerical tradition. As in the other republics, it is the post-Soviet elites, previously communist, who will use religion to serve the new identity politics. In a relatively secular Azerbaijan, the religious dynamic is driven by movements from outside: Turkey, the Gulf Salafists and, to a lesser extent, Iran, but it is also driven by private foundations. The religious remains under control, but is used by the regime in identity policies (Bayram Balci). The use of "affective" levers, where the symbolism of kinship, not to say filial relationships, prevents any rational approach to the refusal of Armenians to return to the bosom of the Azeri state.

But it must be said that the release from Azeri tutelage had become a question of survival. We have already reported the pogroms against the Armenians.

Nationalism is thus an obvious resource for political action within a system of government that produces various modes of expression of radicality: freedom of expression, access to the law, etc. When the Azeri government is reminded of its exactions, the responses are astonishing: they recall the illusion of the executioner becoming a victim. These pogroms are quickly evacuated in a discourse of justification for murderous actions. The discourse is important, it is a means of moral justification for not being the one one hates for committing sordid acts. Although today there is no longer even any need to look for moral justification. The diverse interests that Westerners have with these countries absolve them from any ethical or moral questions.

If nationalism and identity are historical products, having few or no options in developing one's own meaningful identity from different situations makes it necessary to cling to a "traditional" identity. This is a situation that can be seen throughout the South Caucasus. Prescribed affiliations are a danger and an effective weapon in the reconstruction of history in the hands of politicians to defend sovereignty. The secession of the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh reveals many of these problems: conflicts of principles of international law, geopolitics, the rights of peoples, but also social structures as well as the cycle of racial hatred and its political use.

Recently, Azeri nationalist propaganda has been using an argument that focuses on the Second World War. Thus, "information" is disseminated proving that battalions of Armenians served under the Nazi regime. The usual arguments are used to play with symbolic objects from the Russian sphere, since Russian nationalism is based, to a large extent, on the observation that the people defeated fascism. In return, the Armenians provide the opposite evidence. Memories oppose each other, and once the communist memory has been erased, only the "nationalized" memory remains, making it impossible to work on and return to the areas of mutual incompatibility. Yet, they would explain this decision of the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh and offer, perhaps, an approach of dialogue.

Were there other ways for these two communities to live together, or was everything artificial and based solely on the use of force? The official discourse no longer makes any room for this question, sometimes a voice is raised to remind us of the Armenian or Azeri neighbors, obviously timid.

And if the most important thing was the meaning of belonging to the group, who in a collective self-confidence would be able to integrate minorities? But in a country that is constituted on a nationalism very marked by Turkish theories, we have seen, moreover, how Azeri intellectuals participated in the construction of this national edification, the importance of the value attributed to the Armenian group was less important.

Two states thus find in this conflict the ideological and political impetus for the construction of their state (T. Papazian for Armenia). For Azerbaijan, it becomes a unifying element. But on both sides, the conflict led to thousands of refugees: 300,000 for the Armenians, 197,000 for the Azeris from 1988 to 1992. Not to mention Turkish-speaking populations such as the Mechkets, who had found refuge in Azerbaijan after the pogroms in Uzbekistan, a population that the Azeri government had installed in Nagorno-Karabakh in order to alter the demographic balance. This only served to accentuate Armenians' fears of a Turkification of the territory and reminded them of the events in Nakhichevan in 1921.

If nations are fictional narratives (Gayatri Chakzavorty Spivak), it takes personalities to make this imagined whole become real. Heydar Aliev's personality will be essential. He who is called the Father of the Nation will know how to establish the paternalistic character of power and will condition the form and emergence of nationalism in the construction of identity. The rapprochement with neighboring Turkey, his modernist will, the dream of a great (territorial) Azerbaijan will make him comparable to a small regional Atatürk. The conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh and his perception of the time of Heydar Aliev's government will evolve over the years, but the great change came when his son took over power in 2003. In a country where every critical voice is muzzled, where the concentration of power is organized for the benefit of the ruling family, the discourse on Nagorno Karabagh has hardened. The nationalist discourse has become an ideological weapon of cohesion, but also a tool to avoid any protest in the country, which still receives a blank cheque from Western countries for its liberticidal functioning. One needs only take the example of Leyla and Asif Yunus, human rights activists. She is the founder of the Institute for Peace and Democracy and they have worked for reconciliation between Azerbaijan and Armenia. Detained in 2014 and sentenced to eight and seven years in prison, they will ask for France's help. François Hollande will say that he "discussed" the subject with Aliev. Arms deals were on the agenda of this meeting, among others. Human rights were therefore overlooked. Leyla Yunus had received the Legion of Honor in 2013...

Did the performativity of Aliev's nationalist discourse produce the desired effects? Yes, if one considers that the majority of the population agrees to wage war against Armenia. But these same illocutionary acts create reactions in the opposing camp: Armenia and diaspora.

Since human rights, the lives of civilians, the peace of peoples or minorities seem to interest no one, one would have thought that in order to develop, or bring to fruition, the project of controlling the gas and oil supply routes, Aliev would have favored the absence of conflict on his doorstep. The Europeans bet a lot on the TAP (Trans Adriatic Pipeline) to ensure their energy security, at a cost of 400 million dollars.

It is true that the forms of conflictuality and violence that have emerged in this geographical area have not aroused much interest, including in the social sciences, and we see little more than the struggle of essentialized identities that are beginning to annoy everyone because they interfere with economic or geopolitical issues. But human and social sources are totally neglected. In this or these nationalist discourses, the other is the foreigner, the embodiment of perfect ambivalence. It is "the rationality of evil" (Zygmunt Bauman) that is put forward in this process to justify a war without ever wanting to grasp the motivations, other than ethnic, of this conflict. For reasons that are certainly rational: European energy security, sale of arms and others, the goal, the end and the objectives are envisaged without any moral considerations.

What are the factors that hinder or promote a resolution of this conflict? The answers are multiple and cross the fields of different disciplines of social sciences and history. The bibliography allows us to go further if we wish.

Obviously, and rightly so, no Armenian from Nagorno-Karabakh will return under the yoke of the Azeri state, supported in this by a worldwide diaspora that puts there all the potential and energy it has, as a logical continuation of the Armenian cause. All the more so since the words of Aliev and Erdogan echo each other. This conflict has most certainly changed the self-perception of a part of the Armenian diaspora which is no longer determined to correspond either to what one thinks of it (victim ad vitam aeternam), or to what is expected of it: to be satisfied with compassionate acts. Nagorno-Karabakh has always been an ancestral home of resistance and this example has, it seems, been emulated. It remains to organize the Armenian communities in a collective, coherent and strategic manner in order to carry, where we are, the voice of minorities forgotten by the international order.



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