From Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, to the ongoing war of attrition in eastern Ukraine, to speculations about a possible Russian incursion into Estonia or Latvia to test NATO’s resolve, talk of borders dominates current discussions about politics in the post-Soviet space. While some conflicts appear to be recent developments with shallower historical roots, others have much deeper underlying causes. Unresolved territorial disputes are among the lasting legacies of Soviet rule in the South Caucasus (Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia), which is home to three breakaway states—Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and Nagorny Karabakh—that were previously autonomous entities in the Soviet Union. Rather than seeing these “de facto” states as mere by-products of political instability in the early 1990s, re-examining their Soviet-era origins can help explain why stable borders remain so elusive today.
Though often labeled erroneously as “frozen conflicts” due to the persistence of a “no war, no peace” status quo, these de facto states have been major flashpoints since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Their contested borders continue to stir nationalist passions, provoke deadly armed skirmishes, and even fluctuate in the absence of fixed boundaries. But continued fighting and the lack of international recognition have not prevented these entities from acquiring the trappings of statehood, which, in many cases, were initially introduced decades earlier. Indeed, creating a patchwork of national territories—from full-fledged republics to autonomous regions—was part and parcel of Lenin’s and Stalin’s approach to the “national question” after the Soviet Union was formed in 1922.
At first glance, the territorial arrangements that Bolshevik leaders devised seem to reflect the arbitrary nature of Soviet rule in the borderlands of the former Russian Empire. However, as revisionists such as Francine Hirsch and Arsène Saparov have convincingly argued, these administrative divisions were not the product of an explicit “divide and rule” policy aimed at subjugating non-Slavic populations. These convoluted borders were often the outcome of ethnographic expeditions and extensive negotiations with local authorities rather than top-down impositions. In some cases, new borders represented compromise solutions to defuse conflicts that might arise in the future.
The creation of the autonomous region of Nagorny Karabakh—a predominately Armenian enclave situated within the Azerbaijani Soviet Socialist Republic—in the early 1920s is a case in point. Envisioned as a means of neutralizing interethnic strife, it later became a sore spot in relations between Soviet Armenia and Azerbaijan in the 1960s during Khrushchev’s “Thaw.” Furthermore, in the post-Stalin era, the Soviet Union’s constituent republics gained increased autonomy, which led to the emergence of more overt forms of national expression. Over the next two decades, the idea that Nagorny Karabakh constituted an inseparable part of Soviet Armenia and Azerbaijan only grew stronger. The conviction that Nagorny Karabakh should be united with Armenia galvanized the republic’s burgeoning national movement in the late 1980s, while hundreds of thousands of Azerbaijanis gathered in Baku’s central squares to protest the proposed transfer, eventually leading to deadly riots, mass flight, and war between the neighboring republics over the disputed territory. By the time a tenuous ceasefire was declared in 1994, the fighting had claimed tens of thousands of lives and had turned upwards of one million Armenian and Azerbaijani civilians into refugees and internally-displaced persons. Nagorny Karabakh and seven surrounding regions remained in Armenian hands, but they were shattered and largely depopulated.
Little has changed in the past twenty-two years, aside from a brief, violent resumption of hostilities in April 2016, during which Azerbaijan regained tiny slivers of territory for the first time since 1994. Commentators are largely fixated on the stalled peace process and the arms build-up in Armenia and Azerbaijan, but the more alarming developments are happening at the ground level in both societies. Mutually exclusive images of national territory, filtered through the distorting lens of war, have become another frontline in this decades-long conflict.
Unsurprisingly, the sacralization of borders and the cult of martyrdom in Azerbaijan have tainted academic scholarship. Post-Soviet historical works represent a more militant version of Soviet-era theories of ethnogenesis that explained each nation’s historical evolution within a given territory. This growing corpus of pseudo-scientific research is unabashedly politicized and seeks to bolster territorial claims vis-à-vis Armenia. Azerbaijani historiography is replete with anti-Armenian propaganda that attributes every tragic episode in the republic’s short history to Armenian plotting. History textbooks for schoolchildren exhibit a particularly virulent strain of nationalism that uses Armenians as the central topos around which a national narrative is constructed. Furthermore, the specter of “Greater Azerbaijan” with its purportedly much wider historical borders looms large in this literature, offering dubious explanations about the true extent of national territory.
More mundane examples of this phenomenon also exist. For example, Azerbaijani state television displays weather conditions in the occupied territories in its daily forecasts, suggesting that their de facto separation from Azerbaijan is only temporary. Street signs still point the way toward “Dağlıq Qarabağ” (Nagorny Karabakh) and the towns now destroyed or populated by Armenians across the militarized frontline. Schools and universities perpetuate the politics of resentment through posters displaying lost territories and boards bearing portraits of “our martyrs” (şəhidlərimiz) who perished during the Karabakh war. These ubiquitous reminders of loss found across the country promote the recovery of captured land as the single most important objective to be achieved at any cost.
Similar trends are also visible across the border in Armenia. Wedged between two hostile neighbors, Azerbaijan and Turkey, the Armenian government and the local authorities in Nagorny Karabakh have adopted a siege mentality that is not amenable to territorial revisionism. Although Yerevan does not officially recognize the self-declared Republic of Nagorny Karabakh, the de facto state has become an integral part of an imagined Armenian homeland exhibited in maps and graffiti. The popular reference to Nagorny Karabakh as “Artsakh” conjures up the image of an Armenian cradle of culture that was unjustly awarded to Azerbaijan in the Soviet era. Visions of past territorial greatness that depict an enlarged Armenian state stretching from the Black to the Caspian to the Mediterranean seas are also used to denigrate Azerbaijani claims to its own history of statehood.
What makes many Armenians and Azerbaijanis particularly averse to compromise is that both claim to occupy the moral and legal high ground. As the geographers Alexander C. Diener and Joshua Hagen rightly argue in their recent book, “territorial disputes and competing border practices are often so intractable because individuals or groups are supremely confident in the justness of their respective claims” (12). Indeed, after decades of state-sponsored nation-building that reinforced Soviet citizens’ attachment to their national territories, Armenians and Azerbaijanis increasingly viewed their “fraternal” republics as separate ethnic homelands once the Soviet Union began to dissolve. The borders Bolshevik leaders had once drawn to resolve disputes through federalism unceremoniously unraveled seventy years later as the nation emerged as the most potent organizing principle in the Soviet Union’s constituent republics. The persistence of national identities and the gradual demise of the idea of a “Soviet people” (sovetskii narod) thus validate historian Stephen Lovell’s pithy observation that the Soviet Union was “a maker, not a breaker, of nations” (116). A territorially rooted sense of nationhood was instrumental in bringing the “national question” to the forefront of Soviet politics, for nationalism did not suddenly appear overnight at the height of perestroika and glasnost’; in fact, it had been nurtured for many decades prior.
Of course, the devastating effects of armed conflict were largely responsible for turning nationalism into a state ideology in Armenia and Azerbaijan after 1991. Six years of war (1988-1994) and mass displacement and more than two decades of political deadlock have only entrenched nationalist narratives about exclusive rights to the contested territory of Nagorny Karabakh and the seven surrounding districts. The obsession with guarding or retaking border areas has become so ingrained in both societies that the very thought of conceding territory is considered treasonous. The sanctification of borders is also the product of two antagonistic memory cultures that feed off each other. Each year, Armenians and Azerbaijanis observe two conflicting genocide remembrance days—on April 24th in Armenia and March 31st in Azerbaijan—that use emotional appeals to victimhood as a means of bolstering state sovereignty, a disturbing trend prevalent across post-Soviet Eurasia and beyond. This atmosphere of mutual antipathy does not augur well for any territorial solution to the conflict; instead, it suggests that “borderization” in all its forms—from fortified trenches to closed minds—is here to stay.
Harrison King is a researcher at the International Memorial Society and the Carnegie Moscow Center. He holds an MA in Comparative History from Central European University in Budapest and BA degrees in International Studies and Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies from Miami University (Ohio). In 2012-13, he was a U.S. Fulbright teacher in Azerbaijan.