Blog: Can we all belong? Reflections on the war in Nagorno-Karabakh

Stephen Menendian

Assistant Director and Director of Research

By Stephen Menendian
Nov. 5, 2020

The fundamental problem in the world is the tension between people who want to build communities around a single, primary salient identity—be it racial, ethnic, religious or otherwise, and those who wish to live in diverse, pluralistic communities. Only the existential threat of the climate crisis is a more serious and encompassing matter. This problem of exclusion versus belonging has so many expressions that it is difficult to canvass all of them, from the mass slaughter and expulsion of the Rohingya in Myanmar, to the mass detention and “re-education” of Uighurs in northwestern China, to the expulsions of thousands of people of Haitian descent in the Dominican Republic.

This problem is acute in places that are racially, ethnically, and religiously diverse like the United States (as our debates over immigration attest), but it is especially fraught in places that have complex histories and contested territorial allegiances. For example, for more than a generation, Northern Ireland was a hotbed of violence in the conflict (the so-called “Troubles”) between the nationalist Catholic minority and the unionist Protestant majority. But similar complex histories and contested allegiances can be found in places like South Sudan, Iraq’s conflicts between Sunni and Shia, and between Bosnian Serbs, Croats, and Muslims in the formerl Yugoslavia, which produced the Bosnian war of the mid-1990s.

In 2019, the Indian government sent Kashmir, a disputed territory that is formally part of India, into lockdown, expelling journalists and shutting down internet connectivity. Jammu and Kashmir is India’s only majority-Muslim state in a country that is predominantly Hindu, and governed by a party that is widely regarded as a vector for Hindu nationalism. The lockdown began when India invoked a law that stripped the state of its autonomy and flooded the streets with troops.

The most recent hotspot and expression of this underlying problem is the recent war in Nagorno-Karabakh, a predominantly Armenian enclave in southwestern Azerbaijan. This disputed territory has been controlled by Armenia since the end of a war between Armenia and Azerbaijan after the fall of the Soviet Union (both states were part of the former USSR). The New York Times reports that half a million Azerbaijanis were expelled from the territory after that war, and that 10 percent of Azerbaijan’s population are people who lost their homes as a result.

Since September 27 of this year, a new conflict has erupted that has resulted in scores of civilian deaths and hundreds, if not thousands, of military casualties on both sides. Although the issue of which side initiated the latest hostilities is in dispute, it does appear that Azerbaijan was responsible for the initial series of offensives, which included launching long-range missiles into Nagorno-Karabakh. There was greater political pressure within Azerbaijan to try to reclaim this territory and a long build-up to this moment, while Armenia appeared to prefer the status quo, despite public pronunciations that my have provoked the Azerbaijani public, including suggestions that the territory was formally Armenian.

Theoretically, the conflict could be resolved by handing the territory back to Azerbaijan while guaranteeing the safety and security of Armenians currently living in the territory, an approach that international mediators have pushed for years. The problem, however, is that Armenians not only fear retaliation and similar expulsions to those that occurred 26 years ago, but there is a deeper fear.

Turkey is viewed as an ally of Azerbaijan, and has conducted joint military exercises during the conflict, perhaps even providing equipment and weaponry. Much of historic Armenia’s territory was taken from Armenia by Turkey before and during World War I and as many as 1.5 million ethnic Armenians were killed, in what is regarded as one of the first genocides of the twentieth century. To this day, Turkey denies the genocide, and it is taboo within Turkish society to acknowledge it.

Many Armenians and their diaspora (of which I am member, as the great grandson of a refugee whose family members were later killed in the genocide), fear that surrendering the Ngorno-Karabakh will place Armenian lives at risk. Or, as the New York Times put it: “That history, Armenians say, justifies their military defense of their ethnic enclave.” Given recent and not-so-recent history, there are understandable reasons to believe that the security of Armenian communities in the disputed territory is best achieved by retaining control of Nagorno-Karabakh. As one ethnic Armenian who had once lived in Azerbaijan said: “To live together is, put simply, impossible.” Or as another group of Armenians embroiled in the conflict said: “I don’t see us living together with Azerbaijanis.”

How can you convince peoples to live together who have a history of enmity and even bloodshed? Fortunately, history supplies many answers to this, although the solution is never easy. How did the North and the South reunite as a nation after the American Civil War? How did Northern Ireland finally achieve peace? How did South Africa end Apartheid without a civil war? None of these resolutions were flawless, as gross racial economic inequality and disparities in land ownership in South Africa, the friction over Brexit in Northern Ireland, and the continuing struggle over racial inequality in America each illustrate. But there is no other viable alternative. We cannot expel a people from their homes and communities and expect peace and stability in return.

The prospect of a permanent, stable separation may seem appealing, but it is a seductive mirage. One need only look at the partition of India and Ireland to see the consequences. Secession may satisfy the needs and desires of an oppressed ethnic minority, but it creates the conditions for a new potential oppressor. As john a. powell and I explained in our landmark article on “The Problem of Othering”:

"Even where a set of identities correspond to potential geographic boundaries, the overlap is unlikely to be perfect. This leaves some members of the other group in the new territory. For example, the proposal to create a Kurdish state out of parts of Syria, Turkey, and Iraq ignores the fact that this new state will have many other minority groups that may have been majority groups in their former states. In creating an ethnic state for Kurdish minorities, a Kurdistan would have new minorities with similar risks for marginalization and othering."

The only path to long-term security, not only for ethnic Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh, but Azerbaijani’s as well, is to demand an ethic of inclusion and build a community that transcends these particular identities. It may seem impossible, but is not, contrary to the quotes presented earlier: Azerbaijanis and Armenians lived together in the same communities for generations under the auspices of the Soviet Union. It only seems easier, given the circumstances, to try to claim victory over the “other” and live apart.

Living together is not risk-free. It requires some degree of vulnerability—some sacrifice of short-term security that walls, check-points, and borders can provide, in exchange for the possibility of a society of belonging. It is not possible to have a healthy, equitable society where one group is understood to be the dominant group, with the privileges and prerogatives that flow therefrom, because that necessarily results in the marginalization and oppression of others, as the examples in the opening paragraph of this article illustrate. The only truly secure and healthy society is a society in which everyone belongs.

Editor's note: The ideas expressed in this blog post are not necessarily those of the Othering & Belonging Institute or UC Berkeley, but belong to the authors.