Pathways to peace, with special guest Marat Grigoryan

"File:Berdzor060.JPG" by Ліонкінг is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

Interview by Rachel Brooks

December 30, 2020 

Pictured above, a village in Karabakh. 

The Karabakh conflict created a great deal of sociopolitical animosity for both Azerbaijani and Armenian people, who at one time lived in peace in the region. The dispute centered around the ancestral claim to the Karabakh region of Azerbaijan, which is an internationally recognized territory of the Azerbaijani Republic. Confusion over the ethnic claims to the region has, in part, fueled the territorial conflict in the region. 

To pave the pathways toward peaceful discussions between both nationalities, and establish the potential for a resumed domestic diplomacy, Republic Underground interviewed Marat Grigoryan.

Grigoryan is a citizen observer of the conflict, who became interested in discussions as the conflict coverage took to social media outlets such as Twitter. The discussion of the Karabakh conflict is more vocal and immediate in the era of social media than it would have been in the 1988-1994 era of the conflict when these platforms did not yet exist in the same capacity. 

Our special guest is Armenian, Azerbaijani, and Diasporan. See some of his commentary on these issues via Twitter. 

Mr. Grigoryan is the son of an ethnic Armenian man born in Baku and an Azerbaijani woman. He was raised in Seattle, Washington, in the United States. For these three reasons, he represents the voice of the Armenian and Azerbaijani people groups, as well as the opinions of the Armenian diaspora in the United States. Mr. Grigoryan tends to have opinions that lean more in favor of pro-Armenian politics but embraces his Azerbaijani heritage as well. 

The opinions reflected in this interview are those of the guest, and may not entirely reflect upon the documented facts of the regional issue.

For more information on the history of the Karabakh region and the episodes of the conflict, visit the Republic Underground Caucasus column and Republic Underground’s Caucasus Exchange network via YouTube, to hear from a panel of various regional sociopolitical experts. 

Interviewers questions are in bold, and Mr. Grigoryan’s responses are in plain text throughout: 

Perhaps you’d like to introduce yourself, and tell me more about your  pro-Armenian leaning views of the Karabakh issue. What are your thoughts and why do you think this way?

Thank you for the invitation to do this. I’ve had a Twitter account for a long time, but have not really been regularly active on it for a few years now. When the Armenia-Azerbaijan war flared up, I became enthralled with the way the war spilled over into the online realm and began to slowly participate myself. While I am pro-Armenia in the conflict, hopes for a peaceful resolution, and relations between the two countries has been a long-running theme in my life considering I am ethnically part of both sides. 

While each side’s position may seem very common sense and obvious to their respective people, the Artsakh/NK conflict is much more complicated than it appears to the casual observer. Armenia’s position is that Artsakh proper (Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast) is part of the historical indigenous homeland of Armenians, and at the time of the USSR collapse was predominantly Armenian in population and thus should have been awarded the independence they pushed for.

The Azerbaijani position follows the territorial integrity of the borders they inherited as the successor of the Azerbaijan SSR of the Soviet Union. It’s important to understand why each side feels they hold the correct position, as this conflict features more than enough jingoism and belittling of what the other side’s intentions and motivations are. While I take a position of which side I favor, I don’t look at this war as a battle of good vs evil or civilization vs savagery, I find these approaches reductive and largely childish in a geopolitical context.  

I am a supporter of self-determination as a matter of principle (not only in this conflict but in others around the world), so regardless of Armenian influences on my perspective I stand by the idea that a people should be granted autonomy if they pursue it and are in a position to enforce it. I side with Armenia because I do believe NKAO deserved independence and should have been granted it. The conclusion of the war in the early 1990s ended with Armenia holding on to 7 surrounding districts as a buffer zone for Armenian Artsakh, and I understand this caused a good deal of pain for Azerbaijan in terms of displacement of population and a blow to pride. Armenians saw this as necessary (and I can understand why), and Azerbaijan saw this as unacceptable (which I can also understand). I’d have loved to see a world where Azerbaijan would have kept the surrounding districts without any need for the displacement of hundreds of thousands, in exchange for recognition of the territory that was populated by Armenians as an independent state. It would have minimized harm that was to come on both sides and allowed the two nations to move forward with relations together. Instead, we had a frozen conflict that stewed in bitter mutual contempt for nearly 3 decades until eventually escalating into outright war. 

Your grandfather was born in Karabakh. Perhaps you could tell me a little bit about his life, and what his viewpoint of Armenian treatment in the area is. Did your Dad’s viewpoints have any influence on how you think now? Why or why not?

My grandfather was born in Karabakh and my father was born in Baku. My paternal grandfather was born there in a village that is now called Mets Shen. At the time, it was known by its Turkish name “Qaladarasi”, and is a short drive from Lachin right where Artsakh begins, coming out of Armenia. Myself aside, most Armenians within Azerbaijan had roots in Artsakh, as is evidenced by the similar dialect of Armenian they spoke. So yes, due to this family history, I see Artsakh as an ancestral land for my family and of great importance to Armenians. My grandfather passed away before the collapse of the USSR (and before I was born), so he was not able to see how the situation has unfolded, though I’m sure it would have affected him greatly.

The society that he was raised in was vastly different than the situation we have now. While violent clashes and animosity between Armenians and Azerbaijanis have flared up since the beginning of the 1900s, Soviet power kept hostilities in check for most of the century. Both Armenians and Azerbaijanis were constituents of Moscow, and people played nice and lived in each other’s cities. My grandfather was a Soviet patriot and the nationalism that has erupted coming out of the end of the USSR would have been unfathomable to him. 

Growing up as a person who has an Armenian dad and an Azerbaijani mom, did your extended family have any problems with their marriage, or were they accepting? Did you have cousins, uncles, aunts with radically different points of view, or were they all for the most part apolitical? What about your friends? Did you have friends of both ethnicities, or were your friends of non-Caucasus backgrounds mostly?

This question sort of ties into the previous one – my parents married at a time when the political and nationalist context of today was largely absent. They had met and were married in the 1980s, and it was right at the time I was born in 1989 when this conflict began to boil. My father and grandmother both left Baku for Moscow in 1989, with my mother and I following roughly a year later. 

It is hard to talk specifically about how each member of my extended family on either side felt about the conflict because Baku Armenians were certainly no stranger to Azerbaijanis and don’t find it inconceivable that a mixed-ethnic couple like this would exist from that time. I don’t have a large number of relatives here in the US – a few cousins from my dad’s side, whereas my mom’s side, entirely lives in Azerbaijan still. I’m sure each side’s relatives mostly favor their own country in regards to the war, but it never played a factor in terms of familial relations if that is what you were asking. 

My friends growing up were kind of a mixed bag. I grew up in Seattle, which had a decent-sized community of Armenians (mostly from Baku) but an even larger number of Russian and Soviet ex-pats which we fit into. I had Armenian, Russian, Ukrainian and of course regular American (of various backgrounds) friends. 

Can you speak the languages of both or either of your parents? Or do you only speak English? How important is it for you to understand both languages and cultures?

Actually, I’m not fluent in either language. Growing up, Russian was the language I spoke at home, though each of my parents knows their ethnic language as well. I’ve recently moved to Los Angeles and my wife is Armenian, so thus my knowledge of that language is quickly picking up. I would love to have been fluent in both languages but realistically, without a practical reason to learn nor the ability to regularly practice it probably is unlikely I’ll learn both. Culturally, it is definitely important to me to learn as I have grown closer to my culture in many aspects and it allows me to connect with it in a whole new dimension. I’ve always studied the history of the region and its culture, but the linguistic piece was always missing. Furthermore, my wife and I would like our kids to know Armenian and so this was an inevitable journey for me. 

What do you think Azerbaijani people should understand about Armenians and vice versa? How can the two people groups communicate better?

For Azerbaijanis: I would ask that you understand the Armenian mindset in the context of the various national traumas that have been experienced in their history. From a great decrease in the territory of their homeland to outright decimation of population and pogroms in cities that they called home. Azerbaijanis are not to blame for all of these, but the lens that this current conflict is looked through cannot be separated from the insecurities felt from the memories of this difficult history.

While there is a contingent of Armenians with larger irredentist dreams (towards Turkey), these don’t represent the serious realities of where the country stands, and the fight for Artsakh is not a desire to infringe upon Azerbaijani territory as much as a hope to retain what lands are left that are populated by Armenians. When images surfaced of innocents being beheaded in the territories Azerbaijan took back, it is hard to not comprehend them in any light other than what has been faced in the past. For Armenians, “genocide” isn’t just a buzzword thrown around to garner attention, but a part of our pathology due to pervasive existential fears born out of what we have learned from our history. 

For Armenians: Azerbaijanis are not “younger than Coca-Cola”, they are a real nation, a real people, with real history and cultural traditions. A common trope in the way Azerbaijan is portrayed is that it is a newcomer nation without a true ethnic continuity, or an indigenous culture, and descendent from nomadic invaders. These are largely a naive understanding of the nature of “culture” and how it manifests, or the construction of an “ethnicity” and how these are not phenomenons unique to Azerbaijan but rather how many nations/cultures around the world have formed.

 Despite the fact that they were referred to as “Caucasian Tatars” in Tsarist times (a misnomer that Russia used for all Turkic-speaking Muslims in its lands), Oghuz Turkic speaking peoples have had a significant presence in Shirvan and Northwest Iran for centuries now, and have much to be proud of, and attempting to downplay or discredit this is unproductive and largely irrelevant to the geopolitical matter at hand. 

In your opinion, what are some ways that Armenians and Azerbaijani can move on from the recent past and establish normal ties, and peace?

This is the hardest question to answer. I don’t know, because I don’t know what direction Armenia will go to come out of its current political pickle and where it will be pulled by the various domestic factions. Similarly, I’m not sure how Azerbaijan acts going forward, as the rhetoric and actions from their president have largely been underwhelming to anyone looking for a silver lining. The recent war was a brutal one, and if nationalism was a stock it would be rapidly rising right now. I would not wager that relations are normalized any time soon, but once they are, I hope to see more cooperation between the Caucasus states and this starts with diplomatic and economic ties. For now, Armenia is firmly under Russia’s thumb, and it remains to be seen how open Russia is to loosening its yoke from its primary South Caucasus ally. 

What are your opinions of the diasporas of both Armenians and Azerbaijanis? Are they being helpful or harmful to the argument? What should the diasporas understand about the Karabakh issues and the complex history to reach a better normalization process?

This is has been both a fascinating and disheartening development to watch. The diaspora plays an important role for Armenia in particular due to the fact that more Armenians live outside the borders of their nation than within it. Thus it carries immense political/economic influence and is well represented in the voices you see online. While Armenian national unity remains strong, there has certainly been a difficult splintering in terms of opinions on who is to blame for this loss (the current PM Pashinyan or his predecessors) and whether a swift ousting will be a step forward or backward. I think the diaspora tends to have a zeal that overmatches any realistic ability to influence matters in the homeland from where they live. This becomes a point of contention, between hardliners that have a direction in mind for the leadership to go, the idealists who wish for the progress of the Velvet Revolution to stay in place, and the residents of the country itself that wish to decide for themselves. I myself have criticisms of Pashinyan and agree his mandate has run short (though I hope the democratic momentum in Armenia stays on course) but I wish for the people in Armenia solely to decide what comes next.

The Azerbaijani diaspora is the one I am less familiar with, as my only interactions with them have been my recent followers on Twitter and various discussions on the Azerbaijan Reddit. From what I have seen, there’s been little dissent against the government’s actions and a pretty unified position in support of their country’s interests. 

Prior to the war, I saw far more criticism of Ilham Aliyev and a desire to free themselves of this dictatorship. That has largely changed after this outcome, and he certainly has bought himself some goodwill even with skeptical Azerbaijanis living in the west who had long hoped for a more free society back home. It is hard to ascertain their effect on the argument as they represent a smaller proportion of their home nation when compared to the Armenian diaspora.

What I’d ask from both diasporas is to attempt to build common bonds with each other and open channels of dialogue. I recently saw the talk between Rich Elmoyan and Fariz Huseynov regarding the conflict and I thought it was awesome, even if each was just there to expound on his own country’s position. It was a reasoned and measured discussion that allowed both sides to come together (with a mixed Armenian-Azerbaijani audience) and hear each other out from the mouths of experts rather than the malicious venom of online trolls deliberately intended to incite hatred.