Armenian exodus and the pains of history
Nagorno-Karabakh basics, an account from Azerbaijan, and a Turkish taboo
Welcome to This Week, Those Books, your rundown on books new and old that resonate with the week’s big news story.
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The Big Story:
More than 100,000 ethnic Armenians have fled their once defiantly autonomous region of Nagorno-Karabakh, after Azerbaijan reclaimed the territory. There are continuing reverberations of the mass exodus in Europe’s immediate neighbourhood.
An acute humanitarian crisis is unfolding, the World Health Organisation has said.
There were hopes of a peace treaty to end the historic enmity between Armenia and Azerbaijan, with the two leaders scheduled – but failing – to meet in the Spanish city of Granada.
Nagorno-Karabakh, a landlocked region in the South Caucasus mountains, was claimed by both Armenia and Azerbaijan following the breakup of the Soviet Union.
The territory is within Azerbaijan and the international community has long recognised it as such, but it has been controlled by its ethnic Armenian population since 1994.
The predominantly Christian Armenians regard Nagorno-Karabakh as an ancestral homeland, a cradle of their culture. Muslim Azeris also have cultural ties to the territory, particularly the city of Shusha, the home of Azerbaijani poetry.
Armenia and Azerbaijan have fought three wars in as many decades. At the end of the first war in 1994, more than a million people had been displaced, including Azerbaijanis from Nagorno-Karabakh. That war had what’s called the Khojali massacre, the killing of Azeris by Armenians in the town of Khojali. Armenians dispute the characterisation, though a former advisor to the then Armenian president has admitted “something unacceptable did happen”.
Armenian history provides a grim backdrop to the current Nagorno-Karabakh exodus. In September, Kim Kardashian, perhaps the world’s best-known Armenian-American, wrote an opinion piece calling on US President Joe Biden “to Stop Another Armenian Genocide”. The reference was, in the words of the UK’s Holocaust Memorial Day Trust, to “policies of expulsion and extermination” carried out by the Ottoman empire from 1915, resulting “in the deaths of an estimated 1.5 million Armenian men, women and children”. The atrocities against Armenians prompted Polish lawyer Raphael Lemkin to coin the term “genocide” in 1933. Turkey says it “does not deny the suffering of Armenians, including the loss of many innocent lives (but) objects to the one-sided presentation of this tragedy as a genocide by one group against another.”
This Week, Those Books:
A Turkish bestseller on a taboo subject.
An on-the-ground report from Azerbaijan.
A forensic analysis of the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan.
The Bastard of Istanbul
By: Elif Shafak
This, the sixth of Elif Shafak’s 19 novels, became the first to be tried in a Turkish court for “insulting Turkishness”. That’s because the story – about two families, one Turkish Muslim, the other Armenian-American – refers to the “millions” of Armenians “massacred” by “Turkish butchers” who “then contentedly denied it all.” Shafak examines how differently Turks and Armenians view the past and the shadow cast by long-ago atrocities on the present.
“We have first managed and then badly failed to live together.”
Azerbaijan Diary: A Rogue Reporter's Adventures in an Oil-rich, War-torn, Post-Soviet Republic
By: Thomas Goltz
Publisher: M.E. Sharpe
Veteran American correspondent-turned-academic Thomas Goltz, who sadly died in July, wrote this account in the early 1990s. It was, he said, “a dirge for a dead country”, where “it was impossible to find a new toilet seat”, such was the “level of chaos, confusion, and self-destruction”. Then, Baku became an oil-boomtown, with Mercedes dealerships “springing up like hydrocarbon-fed mushrooms”. Through his satirical social commentary, Goltz shows how everything changes – but doesn’t – in Azerbaijan. This diary, which he calls “history as contact journalism” (laced with lots of vodka), portrays the “no war/no peace” situation over Karabakh.
Armenia and Azerbaijan: Anatomy of a Rivalry
By: Laurence Broers
Publisher: Edinburgh University Press
One of the world’s leading experts on the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute explains that it was inseparable from the mostly peaceful unravelling of the Soviet Union and exceptional in having become violent. The Armenian and Azerbaijani conception of their homelands was always “older and wider than a Soviet frame of reference”, he writes. This nuanced book looks at the role of foreign powers and diasporas in the longest-running dispute in post-Soviet Eurasia. After the September 19 Azerbaijan takeover of Nagorno-Karabakh, Broers, co-founder and co-editor of the journal Caucasus Survey, said “Russia’s acquiescence…tore up the ‘Putin’s frozen conflicts’ script”, which shows Russia’s decline.
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