Today 15 September is Hrant Dink’s birthday. Dink wrote about and fought for reconciliation and democracy - in Turkey, in Armenia and throughout the region. For that he was assasinated in 2007.
Since his death, his family, friends and colleagues have continued his work - and MYMEDIA is proud to be one of the Foundations’s main partners.
In 2014, the Hrant Dink Foundation published - in Turkish for the first time - what many consider to be the best book on the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh, ‘The Black Garden’ by Tom de Waal.
Here we bring de Waal’s foreword to the book – for the first time in Russian.
As de Waal himself notes, his book is also a study of “how the Soviet Union ended and of how conflicts begin” - sadly relevant in many parts of the region right now.
Some conflicts demand urgent attention. Others are hidden away, apparently quiet but unresolved and the world risks waking up to them only when it is too late, when the threat of violence is again imminent. The Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict over Nagorny Karabakh belongs to this category. More unstable than Cyprus, far less noticed than Israel and Palestine, it still lurks as a potential danger to the world in the hills of the Caucasus. The violence across the Armenian-Azerbaijani ceasefire line is a reminder that this is a conflict which could still explode again one day.
Since it was first published in 2003, Black Garden has won a readership both in the English-speaking world and in the conflict region itself and it has been translated into Armenian, Azeri and Russian. The book is a history of the Nagorny Karabakh conflict and a portrait of modern Armenia and Azerbaijan. It also aims to be a study of one aspect of the story of how the Soviet Union ended and a study of how conflicts begin.
I am now delighted to see, for the first time, a Turkish edition of the book. Although Turkey is a neighbour of both Armenia and Azerbaijan, the divisions of the Cold War still have an impact on knowledge of the Caucasus region. Turkey is driven by conflicting impulses: solidarity with ethnic cousins in Azerbaijan and a desire for peace on its borders. One thing is certain: Turkish society needs to be better informed about the conflict in its neighbourhood and I hope this book will have an effect.
For Turkey it will mean peace on its borders, a better relationship with Armenians across the world and a communication route to the Caspian Sea. However, surprisingly—depressingly—little has changed since the first edition of Black Garden was published in 2003. On the ground, the positions of the sides that I describe in the book are even more strongly fixed than before. In Azerbaijan this comes from the growing self-confidence stemming from their oil boom, which encourages the view that they can dictate a settlement to force the Armenians to give up captured territories, either at the negotiating table, by threatening war or perhaps by actually going back to war. On the Armenian side this comes from a belief that the facts on the ground that they wrote in their favor have become a new reality.
This black-and-white perception of reality is most obvious in Armenian-held Nagorny Karabakh itself. On my first visit to the territory in 1996 I encountered a sense of gratitude that someone from the outside world was visiting Karabakh, still shattered from the war, and listening to their views. On my most recent visit in 2012 the ideas I brought with me met with more resistance than before from Karabakh Armenians. Nagorny Karabakh itself has been rebuilt—or at least its Armenian parts have—and I was visiting a place that was more self-sufficient and less susceptible to a message of compromise.
Both sides cannot be right about the future, but both can be wrong. As I sketch out in my new conclusion, the danger is that this an unstable status quo will gradually disintegrate and allow a new war to break out that few people believe is in their rational interests. We know too many examples from history where people have come to believe that a new conflict will be a relief that breaks the stultifying status quo—before they experience the actual horror of warfare.
At the same time, the effort put into resolving the Karabakh conflict by the three co-chairs of the Minsk Group of the OSCE--Russia, the United States and France--has inevitably decreased. Fatigue with the issue has set in and its profile has inevitably fallen down the agenda, when set against Afghanistan, the Middle East, the Eurozone crisis and many other current problems. A strong mediation effort by Russian president Dmitry Medvedev, supported by the United States and France, foundered in 2011, chiefly because local resistance against change remains stronger than international pressure to make a peace agreement.
Resolving any protracted conflict is very hard. Interests become entrenched and inertia becomes the norm. In the case of Nagorny Karabakh, it is not hard to see why the default position of the conflict parties is to stick what they have rather than cross an uncertain Rubicon into a complicated peace settlement. A peace deal asks both sides to do something that runs against the grain of their national narrative for the last two decades. The Armenians are being asked to move troops on the ground from positions they have occupied for 20 years and thereby entrust the security of Nagorny Karabakh to someone other than themselves. The Azerbaijanis are being asked to contemplate in theory at least the loss of Karabakh, by making peace with a nation they call an “aggressor” and to treat with tolerance an ethnic group they have accused of trying to break up their state.
In writing Black Garden I made it my business to learn these stories—these myths—and then to investigate the truth behind them. For example: in Armenia there is a general belief that no Azerbaijanis suffered violence when they were expelled from their country in 1988 to 1990. In Azerbaijan most people believe that Azerbaijanis were not responsible for the anti-Armenian violence in Sumgait and Baku. I do not blame ordinary people for repeating these pseudo-facts—but neither of them are true and their repetition feeds the dangerous belief on both sides that they are the victim, the other side is the aggressor and compromise amounts to surrender.
To quote another seemingly small example, many in Turkey repeat the claim that “twenty per cent” of Azerbaijan’s territory is under Armenian occupation. As I show in my Appendix, the actual figure is smaller than that. Every allegation about this conflict needs to be treated with great caution.
When I researched the bulk of the book in 2000-1, I began to feel the psychological effects of the conflict inside myself. This was an experience that I have described jokingly as schizophrenic. I worked for approximately three months in Azerbaijan and for the same length of time in Armenia and Nagorny Karabakh, which can only be reached via Armenia.
Inevitably I found that after a few weeks in Azerbaijan the Azerbaijani argument on the tragedy of Karabakh would become familiar and persuasive to me: how the Azerbaijanis were the victims of the Armenians, who continued to occupy large parts of their land. Then, travelling across the ceasefire line via Moscow or Georgia, I would cross to the Armenian side and slowly begin to see the dispute through their eyes and hear their argument that the Armenians had no choice but to fight for their identity and rights. Only at the third or fourth crossing of the line, did I begin to feel “inoculated” against these two partial versions of reality that were coexisting in my mind. I could understand perfectly how, if I lived permanently in Armenia or Azerbaijan and had no contact with the other side, I too would begin to see the situation in this way.
Gradually, however, I was able to form my own picture of two societies that were fated to come into conflict, but actually had much in common. And when I was asked—frequently—which side I found more sympathetic, I could answer—truthfully—that there were people on both sides whom I respected and liked, while being depressed by the situation I found. Fortunately, for the writer on the road, the Caucasus provides beautiful landscapes and warm and generous people.
It is frustrating for an outsider to see how much can be gained by peace and how far away agreement is. The strong patterns of mutual insecurity between the two sides make it hard to use the many ties between them to make a political agreement work.
It is all too convenient for Armenians and Azerbaijanis to blame the "Great Power" of the Minsk Group for failing to resolve the conflict. The uncomfortable truth is that the biggest obstacles to peace lie within the societies themselves. The many drafts of the “Basic Principles” document drafted over the past five years by the Minsk Group mediators offer a sophisticated basis for a peace plan. The even harder part is generating the kind of trust to make implementation of this plan possible. In a strange way it thus falls to outside mediators and experts to act in the role of storytellers speaking a “third narrative” to Armenians and Azerbaijanis of how much they have lost and how much they could stand to gain.
It was important to me to tell in Black Garden some of the old stories of long shared coexistence between Armenians and Azerbaijanis, alongside the stories of conflict and bloodshed that inevitably comprise much of a story such as this one. I gave space to the sane reasonable voices of former friends and neighbors whose views are less audible amidst the standard propaganda on this conflict. And without minimizing the many pages of bloodshed and conflict in their shared story, I also tried to bring out the alternative history of the Armenians and Azerbaijanis in which these two cultures are compatible and complementary. The benign patron of Black Garden is the Armenian-born troubadour poet Sayat Nova, who lived at the court of the Georgian king and wrote most of his verse in the Azeri language. His poetic spirit is an example to the Caucasus today—still beautiful, still brimming with life, but still wracked by fear and division.
Thomas de Waal, October 2014