Post-Soviet growing pains and terminology for Karabakh post-conflict

Post-Soviet growing pains and terminology 

Explainer

Rachel Brooks

April 5, 2021 

“Azerbaijani Cultural Evening” by mi) is licensed under CC BY 2.0

On April 2, Joshua Kucera, a contributor for Eurasia.net news, wrote in his Post-War report regarding the changing terminology for Karabakh. Previously, Karabakh was referred to as “Nagorno-Karabakh” a Soviet-era name for the mountain enclave that is located in a landlocked position between Armenia and Azerbaijan and is a liberated territory of Azerbaijan proper. A recent press conference saw Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev calling for Azerbaijanis to drop “Nagorno” from “Nagorno-Karabakh” and refer to the region simply as “Karabakh.” 

The west seeks to understand the conflict

Eurasia.net also reviewed the recent work of Laurence Broers who sought to understand the deeper rivalry regarding the liberated territory in a recent book called Armenia and Azerbaijan: Anatomy of a Rivalry. The western press hails this book as the most important work on the subject since  Black Garden by Thomas De Waal.

It should be noted that westernized books on the subject reflect opinions of the conflict that have been shaped by the influence of Soviet-era misinformation in the region over the years.

Likewise, the opinions reflected in the works of Broers and De Waal, show that western commentators have often either looked through the lens from the viewpoint of the western brand of democratization, and how the regional conflict has failed to match that standard, or through the lens of the conflict as an ethnic conflict. Broers referred to a deadlock of failed “democratization” as the primary “obstacle to resolving the rivalry.” Opinions such as this reflect a westernized attempt to understand the conflict which has dominated the majority of western media produced on the subject.

Before war came to Aghdam, flowers blossomed: Ilkana Goja part 1

Above, Ilkana Goja, a former resident of Aghdam, Karabakh, Azerbaijan, recalls her early life in Aghdam which was once a place mutually inhabited by Armenians and Azerbaijanis alike. This pre-conflict peaceful coinhabitance disavows the western opinion that the conflict is primarily ethnically motivated, despite some rhetoric that emerges from the Armenian nationalism lobby. 

The conflict, however, of Karabakh has largely been reported as a territorial dispute that was inflamed by the latter Soviet ethnographic politics. For example, the Karabakh conflict cannot be pigeonholed as an ethnic conflict because in the immediate era before the eruption of the First Karabakh conflict Azerbaijani and Armenians lived in the liberated region in harmony.

Azerbaijanis respond to questions regarding the correct name for their ethnicity

Aliyev’s call to change the terminology for the liberated region follows in a trend of changing post-Soviet terminology in Azerbaijan. Before Aliyev’s public change of the moniker for the liberated lands, Azerbaijanis have called on each other to stop the use of terms hailing back to the Soviet era. For this reason, some of the ethnic natives of Azerbaijan have halted the use of the word “Azeri” to describe their ethnicity, preferring “Azerbaijani” instead. Modern Azerbaijanis, see this forum, for example, agree that while the term “Azeri” is still in use, its use during the Soviet era makes it technically incorrect. 

Other forums asking the Azerbaijani opinion have referred to “Azeri” as an “artificial construct” which some modern Azerbaijani attribute to the pan-Iranist Kasravi. Kasravi held the assumption that the people of Azerbaijan, who have referred to themselves as Turkic for centuries, were an Iranic group that should be referred to be a separate race identifier.

Many Azerbaijanis state that they hate to be referred to as “Azeri” hailing back to this politicized misappropriation of their ethnicity, hailing back to the time of pan-Iranian persification in Iran, a nation that has within itself a large Turkic population. Others referred to the original use of the term “Azeri” for Turkic people living with Iran as first circulated by Stalin in the 1930s.

In these forums of discussion, the responding Azerbaijanis stated that “Azerbaijani” refers to the nation of Azerbaijan which is comprised of many ethnic groups and not one national ethnic identity. The primary population of Azerbaijan is people of Turkic descent, with assortments of Talishs, Lezgis, and others, including the Mountain Jews of Karabakh.

As the international community continues to engage the region from the polarizing politics of both players, the establishment of new terminology for the region could experience growing pains. Growing pains will likely contribute to the post-conflict political tensions as the liberated region of Azerbaijan must establish a forward-thinking identity in regional and international policy.