The South Caucasus: In pursuit of its lost identity

Illustrations by Palina Haduika

Poka Leanui, a Hawaiian decolonial activist, wrote an essay called, “Processes of Decolonization,” where he suggests five steps to decolonizing a people group: recovery, mourning, dreaming, commitment, and action. Essentially, Leanui was suggesting that decolonization involved looking at how power was distributed within a society and what changes had to take shape in order for everyone to be treated fairly.

In the broader geographical context, the scholar’s thesis is relevant in many other parts of the world. In fact, many former Soviet countries are currently navigating their own process of decolonization. This process mostly went unnoticed until Russia invaded Ukraine, and many post-soviet nations began to reflect on their past and, specifically, Russia's role in their histories.

Russia’s military and political presence in the South Caucasus as well as the wider geography, is undisputed. Western powers were not involved in political processes in the South Caucasus for decades, traditionally regarding it as Russia’s sphere of influence — a brief overview of the history of the region attests to that. While Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 is the most recent example of the former’s interest and aspirations in the region, it is just one echo of the past that unfortunately continues to haunt not only Ukraine and its people but the entire post-soviet region. The ethnic and territorial issues of the former Soviet republics remain unresolved largely because Russia’s role and interest in keeping simmering conflicts and strife alive have damaged the prospects of peace and co-existence.

One example is Nagorno-Karabakh  (in Arm. Artsakh).

Image source: International Crisis Group. Used with permission.

The region was first incorporated into Azerbaijan in 1921 when the Soviet Union created the Transcaucasian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic, which included Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Armenia as its constituent republics. At the time, Nagorno-Karabakh was an autonomous region within the Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republic.

The decision to place Nagorno-Karabakh within Azerbaijan was made by the Soviet authorities, who were seeking to create administrative units based on ethnic and linguistic criteria. While Nagorno-Karabakh had a majority ethnic Armenian population, the Soviet authorities deemed it appropriate to place it within Azerbaijan.

The autonomy of Nagorno-Karabakh was established by the Soviet authorities in recognition of the region's unique cultural and linguistic identity, as well as the ethnic tensions that existed between the Armenian and Azerbaijani populations in the region. However, despite the autonomous status of Nagorno-Karabakh, tensions persisted, with all the parties involved seeking to exert greater control over the region. After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Nagorno-Karabakh declared independence from Azerbaijan and sought to reunite with Armenia. This led to a full-scale war — the First Karabakh war — between Armenia and Azerbaijan, which ended with a ceasefire declared in 1994 and a victory for the Armenian army, which took control over disputed territories but also occupied additional ones citing the safety of the Karabakh population.

The inability or unwillingness of leaders to resolve the conflict after the first Karabakh war kept both countries at a distance, often exchanging blame, and showering accusations against each other. Ceasefire violations and tensions followed the two countries over the next several decades until September 27, 2020, when a full-scale war broke out. The 44-day war left thousands of soldiers and civilians killed on both sides. Azerbaijan regained control over much of the previously occupied seven regions. Azerbaijan also captured one-third of Karabakh itself during the war. Russia brokered a ceasefire that ended the active phase of the war but did not resolve the conflict. Both Armenia and Azerbaijan agreed to the presence of Russian peace-keeping forces.

Although an active player in negotiations after the second Karabakh war, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine a year later, shifted its power dynamics in the region and changed the course of the post-war developments.

This shift in power dynamics was visible with post-war escalations that continued despite the 2020 agreement to end hostilities. In May 2021, Azerbaijani troops made a significant incursion into Armenian territory, crossing several kilometers into the provinces of Syunik and Gegharkunik and occupying around 41 square kilometers of land. The move drew international condemnation, including from the European Parliament, as well as the United States and France, who urged Azerbaijan to withdraw its troops from Armenian territory. Further military incursions took place in September 2022, resulting in the deaths and disappearance of at least 204 Armenian and 80 Azerbaijani servicemen, according to official records.

Bahruz Samadov, a PhD candidate at the Charles University in Prague, says that Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev’s decision to attack the internationally recognized territory of Armenia in 2021 was the very manifestation of the void Russia left behind.

For the political leadership in Yerevan, the renewed fighting in September signaled Russia’s declining influence as well as its unreliability. Instead, amid Russia's absence, the European Union and the US stepped in and took on the role of the new mediators in the Armenia-Azerbaijan peacebuilding process. They initiated high-level meetings between Armenian and Azerbaijani officials. However, with Russia largely missing from the picture, an empowered Aliyev pressed ahead with his goal: to pressure Armenia into accepting his conditions regarding Karabakh and the Lachin Corridor.

Since last year a group of Azerbaijani eco-activists, which Samadov suggests are a cover for state intervention, have been blocking the only road connecting the Armenian population living in Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia. The road closure has resulted in a humanitarian crisis and prompted the UN to issue a court order on February 22, 2023, instructing Azerbaijan to stop the blockade of the Lachin corridor.

Decolonial awakening

Although the war in Ukraine and the war over Nagorno-Karabakh may be geographically distant, both wars share commonalities. Both are the result of  Russia’s imperialist policies, which go back to the Tsarist period and were continued by President Putin.

Understandably, it is often difficult to look beyond modern cliché politics or track the developments taking place in post-soviet space from historical and anthropological perspectives, but these are no less important if not vital in order to understand the whole spectrum of complications leading to this cycle of violence. Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the Soviet past is being reevaluated by former Soviet states. The dialogue about Russia’s role in the region is unfolding among post-socialist societies of the South Caucasus too.

“Decolonial topics have started to be discussed in Armenia just in the last few years. Russia’s unfavorable politics in the region in the recent past generated new discourse about the relationships between two countries among Armenian civil society,” said Eviya Hovhannisyan, a social anthropologist whose research focuses on identity and nationalism in post soviet countries.

A few authors have published (see Hrach Bayadyan “Becoming post soviet”) on the issue of post-Soviet identity, but overall, there is no solid academic research or studies on decolonization. “Since the USSR was different from the Western empires, the question of it being an empire itself is debated every now and then,” said Hovhannisyan.

In Azerbaijan, according to Bahruz Samadov, people were always critical of Russia and often tended to blame Putin for the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Azerbaijanis and Armenians were not always enemies. Having lived together for centuries, they managed to coexist in peace. Hovhannisyan points to practices known as “Dost” (friend in Azerbaijani) and “Kirva” (similar to godfather), which created strong bonds between many Armenian and Azerbaijani families.

“When two ethnic groups have to live side by side, they create mechanisms which configure interpersonal relationships among them. After the first Nagorno-Karabakh war, Armenians and Azerbaijanis would cross already closed borders in order to attend weddings or funerals of their friends on the ‘other side,'” said Hovhannisyan.

Hovhannisyan and Samadov assert that elaborate state propaganda over the past 30 years made Azerbaijanis and Armenians hateful toward each other and unwilling to compromise for peace. Samadov notes that nationalist sentiments and now the victory are a part of Azerbaijan’s national identity, and it is unlikely to change in the future because Aliyev is not interested in changing people’s perspectives. “It is in Aliyev's benefit to be perceived as a victorious leader. If official propaganda is not changed, there will be no sustainable peace,” notes Samadov. Both Samadov and Hovhannisyan also pointed out that it was always to Russia’s benefit to have a reason for its military and political presence in the South Caucasus.

“What’s important for us is to understand that Russia is interested only in keeping its influence in the region, to always be the big brother, which is undoubtedly imperialist at its core,” said Bahruz Samadov

“Peace is more than the absence of war” – Inger Skjelsbæk

Although there have been positive signals from both Armenia and Azerbaijan about resolving their issues by diplomatic means, Eviya and Bahruz do not see sustainable peace being achieved anytime soon. “To achieve sustainable peace, we need a true democratic process, which we currently don’t have (in Azerbaijan); therefore, there cannot be any real peace. What we can have at most is some kind of authoritarian peace which will work maybe in terms of economy, but it never will transform to peace between the nations,” explained Bahruz.

Furthermore, on the civil society front, there is little that can be done in the absence of official open channels, adds Hovhannisyan. Although vital for peace promotion and conflict resolution, especially for younger Armenians and Azerbaijanis, who, unlike their parents or grandparents, never had contact with the neighboring nation, these exchanges are not useful when there is no official political dialogue in place. 

According to Samadov, the majority of local initiatives engaged in peace and pro-democracy work are no longer active, and the ones that remain lack the capacity “to provide alternatives to the government narrative. Many are disappointed by corruption and money laundering practices and either changed their jobs or left Azerbaijan.” He adds:

While Armenia and Azerbaijan are changing along with the developments discussed above, they heavily rely on an external party to solve ethnic and territorial disputes between them, preferably not spearheaded by Russia. With war narratives at their core, these two countries and their people are still in search of their own identity, and for them, imagining what comes after peace is more difficult than making steps to achieve it.

The publication takes place within the N-Ost project “Decolonizing Journalism,” developed in cooperation with JX Fund and supported by the German Government Commissioner for Media and Culture (BKM)



  • Steven

    Stepanakert and Shusha,
    one spelling from Armenia side and the other from Azerbaijan side.
    Stepanakert is Khankendi and Shusha is Shushi.
    If the two nations are seriously starting peace talk,
    use both sides’ location names.

  • Steven

    The strong influence to Azerbaijan from Turkey and other Turkic nations is not discussed in this article.

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