Mutual Accusations of Ethnic Cleansing in the Azeri-Armenian Conflict: Memory Wars and Emerging State Ideologies

Accusations of genocide and ethnic cleansing during post-Soviet conflicts in the South Caucasus region of the former USSR have not received significant scholarly attention to date, despite their ongoing significance for the development of official ideologies and national identities in the South Caucasus countries. The project will thus focus on the recent history of ultra-nationalism and ethnic violence in Armenia and Azerbaijan, and its consequences for the local populations. It will give equal attention to the  two cases of post-Soviet ethnic cleansing, both of which relate to well-known incidents during the Nagorno-Karabakh war between Armenia and Azerbaijan, namely the Sumgait pogroms against Armenians in Azerbaijan and the Khojaly mass killings of Azerbaijanis in Nagorny Karabakh itself. Because the events in Sumgait and Khojaly continue to play a significant role in the Azerbaijani-Armenian conflict, the project should be of interest both to scholars seeking to understand the long-term political consequences of ethnic cleansing, and to policy-­makers seeking to find a solution to this and other similar ethnic conflicts.

Relevant field work have been conducted in different parts of the world (Karabakh, Armenia, Georgia, Russia, and the USA), thoroughly collecting oral histories from the eyewitnesses and survivors of Sumgait and Khojaly.

The project will contribute substantially to the literature on rescue and resistance during the post-communist turmoil of the early 1990s first by advancing the study of Armenian-Azerbaijani relations; and second, by advancing theoretical understanding of the commemoration and political significance of ethnic cleansing elsewhere in the world. The project takes on particular urgency in light of the recent renewal of  the military conflict along the ­Armenian-Azerbaijani “contact ­line” in early April 2016, a four-day clash that included the use of large-caliber multiple rocket launch systems and gunships, and that has significantly raised the chances of an accidental war between these two post-Soviet states.The term ‘Memory wars’, coined by Russian scholar Victor Shnirelman, refers to the process of politicization of local history and the making of a tool out of it by local elites.

METHOD: As an anthropologist, Nona Shakhnazaryan will accomplish this project by employing a combination of ethnographic and historical methods. Nona has long-term experience in using Russian, American, Armenian and Karabakhi archives and conducting interviews with refugees, military personnel, paramilitaries and government officials on the ground in all three countries (Armenia, de facto NKR and Russia). In particular, she has already done some preparatory work for my proposed research. In 2001, Nona conducted and later transcribed a number of interviews with local residents on the Sumgait and Khojaly incidents, which will be helpful in specifying the social context of the Armenian-Azerbaijani ethnic conflict. Nona has conducted a series of in-depth interviews with the immediate organizers and participants of Khojaly operation, like Colonel Vitaly Balasanian, Arkady Ter-Tadevosian, Vahram Ghahramanian in 2012, 2013, 2014. Nona conducted fieldwork among the refugees in Detroit Area in 2015. The study is supposed to make a positive contribution to post-conflict resolution and crisis management as Nona plan to focus on rescue cases during the tragedies. Nona also collected evidences from her Azerbaijani colleagues and friends during our meetings at academic events.

Library research: Hoover Institute on War, Revolution, and Peace, Stanford University; Museum-Institute of Genocide Library, Yerevan; Nubarian Library, Paris.