Review: “Ethnicity, Nationalism and Conflict in the South Caucasus: Nagorno-Karabakh and the Legacy of Soviet Nationalities Policy” – Ohannes Geukjian

Ohannes Geukjian’s “Ethnicity, Nationalism and Conflict in the South Caucasus: Nagorno-Karabakh and the Legacy of Soviet Nationalities Policy” offers a comprehensive and rather unique analysis of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and Soviet nationalities policy in the South Caucasus.

A professor at the American University in Beirut, Lebanon, Geukjian’s analysis of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is unique in that he doesn’t focus exclusively on the belligerents (i.e., Armenians vs. Azerbaijanis) and their political objectives. Instead he examines the formation of Armenian and Azerbaijani self-identity, and the role that the Nagorno-Karabakh region had in both. In other words, Geukjian understands the conflict as less a conflict over territory than it is a conflict of national self-identities. I think Geukjian makes a strong case for why Azerbaijan is so fiercely against the secession of Nagorno-Karabakh: as a “recent formation” that lacks “an old continuous history” (p.35), the source of Azerbaijani national identity is the territory of Azerbaijan. Prior to 1918, Geukjian writes, Azerbaijanis were known as Tatars or simply Muslims. It wasn’t until the establishment of the Azerbaijani Democratic Republic (1918-20) that “Azerbaijani” was used to refer to a distinct and separate nationality, which was later incorporated into the USSR. Any threat to the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan is thus also a threat to Azerbaijani self-identity. Territory is to Azerbaijani self-identity in much the same way the Armenian Church and language are to Armenian self-identity.

Moreover, Geukjian’s analysis of the importance of territory to Azerbaijani self-identity also explains Azerbaijan’s stance towards Iranian Azerbaijan. As Cameron S. Brown has argued (see “Wanting to Have Their Cake and Their Neighbor’s Too: Azerbaijani Attitudes towards Karabakh and Iranian Azerbaijan“), Azerbaijan has simultaneously opposed the secession of Nagorno-Karabakh as a violation of Azerbaijani territorial integrity while advocating for the annexation of Iranian Azerbaijan in direct violation of Iranian territorial integrity! Azerbaijani claims to Iranian territory virtually mirror those of Armenian claims to Nagorno-Karabakh. Geukjian’s analysis of Azerbaijani national self-identity really helps explain this paradox.

On Soviet nationalities policy, more specifically the role of Stalin had in the separation of Nagorno-Karabakh from the Armenian SSR, no book compares to Geukjian’s. He offers the most comprehensive analysis of the dispute over Nagorno-Karabakh during the early years of the USSR that I have ever read, even more so than Arsène Saparov’s “From Conflict to Autonomy in the Caucasus: The Soviet Union and the Making of Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Nagorno Karabakh”. Geukjian continues the legacy of other ‘New Age’ post-Soviet scholars, such as Saparov, Adeeb Khalid, Adrienne Edgar, Terry Martin, Arne Haugen, and others, in explicitly rejecting the myth of Soviet ‘divide-and-rule’ propagated by Robert Conquest. What is really novel about Geukjian’s book is his examination of two critical aspects of Soviet nationalities policy as applied in the case of Nagorno-Karabakh: Kemalist Turkey and the July 5, 1921, meeting of the Kavburo. According to Geukjian, in an attempt to bring Kemalist Turkey into the Soviet orbit, Stalin abandoned Armenian claims to Kars, Ardahan and Artvin, and under pressure from Ankara, established the Nakhichevan Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic, without Armenian consultation. Far more interesting is Geukjian’s analysis of the July 5, 1921, session of the Kavburo which overturned the earlier, July 4 session that decided by a “majority vote” for the Armenian SSR to annex Nagorno-Karabakh. According to Geukjian, the July 5 session overturned the previous decision on July 4 “without deliberation of a formal vote” (p.70). Thus, Geukjian writes, “From a legal perspective, the decision of July 5 could be rejected because of its procedural violations, as it was neither discussed nor voted for. Therefore, only the previous decision of 4 July was de jure and could be accepted as the last legal document on the status of N-K because it was adopted without procedural violations” (p.71). WOAH! What if Nagorno-Karabakh was illegally attached to the Azerbaijan SSR under Soviet law?! Although I doubt procedural violations within the CCCP 100 years ago will have much credibility in modern international law, it does make me question the principle of uti possidetis juris in the case of Azerbaijan’s independence in 1991.

An excellent book!

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