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The Karabakh Conflict in the Discourse of Post-Modernism: The Cultural Foundations of Preconceived Interpretations

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So much has been written about the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict that it is difficult to imagine that there is anything new to be said, but as an investigator not of the conflict itself but rather of one of its interpretations as offered by a recent BBC program entitled “Karabakh: History is Written in Two Versions,” I believe we have still more to learn not only about the conflict itself but also about the cultural predispositions which underlie ostensibly neutral discussions of that event.

To help us in this task, I believe we can usefully draw on certain new means of understanding and analysis of social phenomena which have arisen in the contemporary period of post-modernism.  Of particular utility is the notion of social reality as a process of social construction (Luckmann & Berger 1966).  According to this new epistemology, events and facts are the product of our narrative rather than something directly accessible, any narrative is the result of a specific act of construction (Martin 1986) and always contains an interpretation (Gergen 1998), skillful recountings can become more credible than reality (Bennett & Feldman 1981), and visual and sound cues in the media may contain more content than the accompanying words (Kress & Leeuwen 1996).  Drawing on these principles and the methodology we have used elsewhere (Garagozov 1996), in which we subject individual parts of a narrative to separate examination, we can learn a great deal by examining reporting that at one level may not appear to tell us much that is new.

The BBC program begins with a picture showing fields that are lying fallow because local residents are afraid of mines. [1] The obvious meaning given in this fragment is that there are real “difficulties in conducting agriculture in Karabakh.”  Then a voice advises that “now, the capital of the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic is like any other provincial center.  But one needs only to turn off the main street, and recent history recalls itself,” with accompanying pictures of houses that have been shelled.  And this fragment too, entirely focused on the difficulties of life of the Armenian population of Stepanakert during the “hot” phase of the conflict, can be described as “the crisis situation in [that city] produced by shelling from Shusha.”  What follows reinforces this point, with various Armenian leaders talking about what they have done to “overcome the crisis” in large part thanks, in the words of the narrator, to “the seizure of the city of Shusha and the driving out of the previous residents (Azerbaijanis).”

However, judging from the next portion of the program, it is still too early for the Armenians to feel comfortable.  Their idyllic situation is being violated by Azerbaijan which “for some reason or other” does not want to come to terms with the existing situation.  And the program continues in the same town.  The message is clear: “not wishing to make their peace with the situation, Azerbaijan is interfering with the peaceful life” of the Armenian residents.  And further frames showing cooperation at the individual level by people of the two nationalities clearly send the unspoken message that the problem lies with Azerbaijan as a state rather than Azerbaijanis as individuals.  That message that “Azerbaijan is interfering with the restoration of life in Nagorno-Karabakh” is further reinforced by discussion of Baku’s opposition to the opening of an international airport there.

The next frames of the BBC program reinforce all these unspoken points.  The narrator begins in almost epic language with the following observation: “When the time came to defend his native village, Aleksandr (in the frame is shown a wheelchair-bound invalid) went up to the hills and together with others defended against the enemy.”  Further, the narrator says, “In February 1992, along this valley flooded refugees.”  It is not clear why the Azerbaijanis from Khojaly would begin to flee from it if one were not talking about the defense by the Armenians of their own village.  Then Aleksandr speaks again: “And then when they passed by Agdam, the Azerbaijanis began to attack us.  And the artillery shelling began.”  (Here again, there is no discussion about how refugees might have done this).  “Aleksandr speaks about the bloodiest events of this war.  But this is only one of two opposing versions of what happened,” the BBC narrator continues.  “Over the course of two days, about 500 residents of Khojaly were killed or later froze to death.”  The Armenians assert, the narrator says, that Azerbaijani refugees shot at them, while the Azerbaijani side is certain that the Armenians intentionally destroyed the peaceful residents.

Because this fragment suggests that there are two sides to the story, it deserves special attention as one of the key elements of the reporting.  Although the program’s title suggests “two versions,” only in this fragment from the narrator do we learn for the first time that there exist “conflicting versions of what happened.”  This assertion, we suggest, has particular significance for the understanding of the entire report.  We deal with that in more detail below.

But let us consider what else the BBC narrator says.  “The traces of the battles are such that it is as if they took place only yesterday,” he says.  But that observation is used to make the argument that it is important to look forward rather than past and that “the Azerbaijanis must agree to [Armenian] conditions” because the latter reflect the facts on the ground, whatever principles may have been violated.  Moreover, the imagery of the program sends the message that “Karabakh is an ancient Armenian land” and that what the Armenians are asking for now is nothing more than the restoration of the status quo ante as well.

Using the methodology we have developed elsewhere, it is possible to describe the messages of the BBC program in terms of four categories: First, there was “a period of crisis and suffering for Armenians which has been overcome,” there is now “the restoration of peaceful life,” but “the crisis has still not entirely passed since Azerbaijanis who do not want to acknowledge the current situation are interfering with the restoration of the peaceful life,” and “Azerbaijanis must recognize and come to terms with the situation as it exists at the present moment.”

Thus, as can be seen from our analysis, the BBC report talks about the Karabakh conflict almost exclusively from the Armenian perspective, a constructed narrative that is clearly intended not just to report but to advocate and one that must be the basis for any assessment of the BBC narrator’s claim of objectivity.  That is all the more so the case because the destruction of Khojaly, one of the most horrible and tragic events of the Karabakh war, is not a version but a fact which is well known and well documented.

As the post-modernist approach suggests, any historical narrative fulfills a large number of social functions, including making possible the construction of our identity and the imposition on us of a particular moral position.  Such preconceived and distorted reporting about the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is of course nothing new.  In that sense, the current program does not provide us with new insights.  However, the narrative analysis of this reporting is useful to us because it provides an opportunity to see the cultural bases of these preconceived interpretations.

Research has shown (Bennett & Feldman 1981) that a well-constructed narrative which relates an intentionally devised story often strikes those without more information as more true to life than the actual facts of the case.  And while the BBC program is not without its shortcomings—it is internally inconsistent on several points—its overarching message is clearing intended to cause viewers and listeners to reach the position preconceived by the Armenian side and by the narrator as well.  As is well known, Armenian culture has a long tradition of constructed historical narratives including those which stress the “victimhood” of that nation.  Azerbaijani culture, in contrast, has a far less well-developed set of narratives (Garagozov 2005).  But as any objective observer should realize, a history which describes only the position of one of the sides to the conflict can hardly help us understand this conflict, to find bases for dialogue and to achieve a genuine resolution.  “Reality,” as the theorists of post-modernism teach us, is the product of precisely such dialogue-based communication and the bringing together of the points of view of the various sides.

In conflict situations like that of Nagorno-Karabakh, special types of “dialogue” narratives are needed, narratives that reveal rather than conceal the truth.  It is clear that for the development of dialogue, one must include the voices of the other side, in this case of the Azerbaijanis.  It is important to listen to their version of history even if it is not so compellingly packaged.  And it is also clear that only by establishing a space for dialogue and thus a deeper understanding of the problem will one be able to generate the conditions for a hopeful overcoming of that mutual hatred and distrust which the BBC narrator says at the end is the requirement for progress.

Bennett, Lance & Martha Feldman (1981) Reconstructing Reality in the Courtroom (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press).
Garagozov (Karakozov), Rauf (2005) Metamorphosis of Collective Memory in Russia and Central Caucasus (Baku: Nurlan).
Garagozov (Karakozov), Rauf (1996) “Development of Sense Comprehension in Reading”, SPIEL: 13, H. 1, pp. 114-123.
Gergen, Kenneth (1998) “Narrative, Moral Identity and Historical Consciousness: a Social Constructionist Account”, available at (accessed 10 May 2011).
Kress, Gunther & Theo van Leeuwen (1996) Reading Images: The Grammar of Visual Design (New York, NY: Routledge).
Luckmann, Thomas & Peter Berger (1967) The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge (London: Allen Lane).
Martin, Wallace (1986) Recent Theories of Narrative (Ithaca: Cornell University Press).
[1] Because the BBC program does not include texts, the author has tried to retain in his translations as much of the style of the presenters as possible.  The words reproduced below in quotes are those of the program.

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