A new book examines the mirrored geopolitical visions at the heart of the conflict.
A new book details how dueling, yet mutually reinforcing geopolitical identities have locked Armenians and Azerbaijanis into an intractable rivalry.
Armenia and Azerbaijan: Anatomy of a Rivalry, by Laurence Broers, is the most significant book on the conflict since Black Garden, Thomas de Waal’s 2003 account of the Nagorno-Karabakh war in the 1990s. De Waal’s account was journalistic, while Broers’s is academic. But Anatomy of a Rivalry is not a narrowly focused monograph, rather a wide-ranging, multi-disciplinary rethinking of every major aspect of the conflict.
Broers argues that the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict has less in common with the post-Soviet disputed territories, like Abkhazia or Transnistria, than with long-standing rivalries like those between Israel and Arab states or between India and Pakistan. “In terms of the balance of power between the belligerents, the scale of forces deployed and the sustainability of real destructive potential, the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict presents an entirely different picture to other Eurasian conflicts dating from the 1990s,” he writes.
The theoretical center of the book (although it is a loose one) is an emphasis on the “geopolitical cultures” of the two sides, or the ways in which official and popular narratives portray “their state’s place, origins, ideals, and allegiances in a world of states.” These issues are especially fraught for Armenia and Azerbaijan, neither of whose state boundaries correspond very closely to what are thought of as the “true” homes of the two peoples. Those competing geographical self-perceptions are fundamental to the rivalry, Broers convincingly argues.
“Popular perceptions on either side have come to think of increasingly more of the same space as ‘theirs’, while granting ever less space to the other,” Broers writes. “It is a path to mutual existential denial, entrapping Armenians and Azerbaijanis in mirror images of each other.”
The conflict defies easy explanations, and Broers’s account is necessarily complex. He carefully and perceptively outlines how the history of settlement in the region, Soviet nationalities policy and the peculiar form of nationalist scholarship that spawned, late Soviet liberalization and then territorial claims and ethnic cleansing in the war of the 1990s have all shaped Armenians’ and Azerbaijanis’ geopolitical self-perceptions.
The geopolitical cultures of the two sides have each taken many forms over the years, and Broers identifies the current dominant narratives as “augmented Armenia” and “wide Azerbaijanism.”
“Augmented Armenia” sees Armenia as an indivisible unit together with Karabakh and the occupied territories surrounding Karabakh (which Broers calls “the wild frontier of Armenian nationalism”). This vision has taken over from the early post-Soviet “compliant Armenia,” which saw the occupied territories as merely bargaining chips in negotiations with Azerbaijan and elided the issue of Karabakh’s status pending the results of those negotiations.
“Wide Azerbaijanism,” meanwhile, places an emphasis on the historic presence of Turkic peoples on what is today Armenian territory to imply that Armenians’ control of that land is contingent or illegitimate. This is a vision that started gaining dominance in the mid-2000s, taking over from the “Azerbaijanism” of the Heydar Aliyev era, which focused on Azerbaijan’s internationally recognized borders, which in turn took over from an earlier irredentist vision that looked south, toward the Turkic areas of Iran, rather than west toward Armenia.