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Nagorno Karabakh/Artsakh and the Palimpsests of Conflict, Violence, and Memory

Nagorno Karabakh/Artsakh and the Palimpsests of Conflict, Violence, and Memory

Artsakh, Statue of Mamik and Babik (Photo by Sarin Ave on Unsplash, 2020; Cropped)

The Armenian Studies Center of the UCLA Promise Armenian Institute presents "Nagorno Karabakh/Artsakh and the Palimpsests of Conflict, Violence, and Memory," a one-day International Conference in collaboration with the UCLA Richard Hovannisian Endowed Chair in Modern Armenian History, the UCLA Promise Institute for Human Rights, the UCLA Luskin Center for History and Policy, the UCLA Center for Near Eastern Studies, the Society for Armenian Studies, and the National Association for Armenian Studies and Research (NAASR).

Saturday, October 31, 2020
10:00 AM - 5:30 PM (Pacific Time)

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Registration for this webinar is required and free. To register, please click here.

The recent premeditated initiation of war by Azerbaijan on Nagorno-Karabakh/Artsakh has led to hundreds of deaths to date, including many civilians, as well as the destruction of homes and cultural monuments. The war has also triggered the fabrication of false and misleading narratives on social media and by media outlets themselves regarding the conflict’s origins, causes, and possible future directions. Organized by the Armenian Studies Center at UCLA's Promise Armenian Institute, this zoom-held international conference on the region's troubled history seeks to raise critical awareness of the complex and variegated history behind the current violence. The gathering will be the first of its kind to frame the conflict around its “deep” history, revealing its Soviet, Ottoman, and more recent geopolitical layers. It brings together scholars and seasoned experts to explore different dimensions of the conflict from Soviet nationality policy to the place of the late Ottoman Empire in the region’s history and its lingering contribution to the recent violence. The renowned American philosopher Dr. Cornel West will deliver a special address titled "Words in Solidarity" at the beginning of the conference.



ANN KARAGOZIAN: Welcoming Remarks
SEBOUH DAVID ASLANIAN: Introduction to the Conference

CORNEL WEST: Words in Solidarity

10:30AM - 12:30PM (PDT) PANEL 1 Civil Society, Traumatic Memory, and the Lived Experience of Conflict

MELISSA BILAL: Captive Citizens, Threatened Immigrants: The Karabakh War and the Armenians in Turkey

ARMINE ISHKANIAN: Civil Society in a Time of War: The Possibilities and Limits of Action 
GAYANE SHAGOYAN: NKAO/Artsakh: The Palimpsests of Traumatic Memory and the Rise of “Civic Nationalism”?
NONA SHAHNAZARYAN: Between Scylla of Democracy and Charybdis of Security: Prerequisites and Implications of the 2020 War in Nagorno-Karabakh


12:30PM - 1:00PM (PDT) MUSICAL INTERLUDE Prepared by the UCLA Armenian Music Program

UCLA ARMENIAN MUSIC PROGRAM: Presenting music by Komitas, Sayat-Nova, Arno Babajanyan, Tigran Mansurian, Alan Hovhaness, Geghuni Chitchian, Ian Krouse and others. 


1:00PM -2:40PM (PDT) PANEL 2 “The Revenge of the Past?”: The Past as a Palimpsest in the Present

RONALD GRIGOR SUNY: The Heavy Burdens of the Past: Empires, Nations, and “Ancient Tribal Struggles”
STEPHEN BADALYAN RIEGG: A War without Winners: Russian Officialdom and the Armenian-Azeri Conflict of 1905-06
VICKEN CHETERIAN: A Double Gordian Knot: Turkish Intervention in the Karabakh Conflict and its Consequences


2:40PM -3:10PM (PDT) MUSICAL INTERLUDE Prepared by the UCLA Armenian Music Program

UCLA ARMENIAN MUSIC PROGRAM: Highlighting the music of Artashes Kartalyan 



3:10PM - 5:30PM (PDT) PANEL 3 Diplomacy and Geopolitics

S. PETER COWE: Panel Chair 

ANNA OHANYAN: Bullets and Ballots over Stepanakert: Domestic Drivers of Geopolitics and Diplomacy in the South Caucasus and Beyond
GERARD LIBARIDIAN: Why Negotiations Failed?
EMIL SANAMYAN: Redrawing a Regional Map? What Could Be Turkey's Goals in the New Armenia-Azerbaijan War
ELIZABETH TSURKOV: The Syrians Fighting to Advance Turkish Ambitions







Melissa Bilal

Captive Citizens, Threatened Immigrants: The Karabakh War and Armenians in Turkey

In line with the official discourse of “one nation, two states,” the successive governments in Turkey have been consistently providing political and military support to the Republic of Azerbaijan. One of the most direct implications of this policy is Turkey’s closed border and lack of diplomatic relations with Armenia. As a country that denies the Armenian Genocide yet owns the legacy of its perpetrators, Turkey’s hostile attitude towards its neighbor often translates into escalated hate speech. Since the beginning of the recent military operations against Nagorno-Karabakh/Artsakh and Armenia, misinformation disseminated by the Turkish authorities has been manipulating public opinion to justify never-ceasing anti-Armenian sentiments. Armenians in Turkey are a tiny community of descendants of genocide survivors who remained in their country enduring decades of oppressive politics. Throughout the past three decades, there has also been a significant labor migration from the Republic of Armenia into Turkey which has created a community of mostly women and children. They have been predestined to continue a paperless life and to be repeatedly threatened by mass deportation. This presentation will focus on mainstream and alternative media sources to discuss the impact of the war on the everyday lives of Armenians in Turkey and their sense of safety. It will also address the slim but precious efforts by non-Armenians to stop the ongoing harassments in Armenian populated neighborhoods of Istanbul and to prevent possible incidents of violence against Armenians.


Armine Ishkanian

Civil Society in a Time of War: The Possibilities and Limits of Action

In times of peace, and according to normative assumptions, civil society is the arena for mutual aid, solidarity, and uncoerced collective action around shared interests, purposes, and values. But how does war impact civil societies and what roles do civil society actors play in conflict situations? In situations of war, the nature of politics changes, new and pressing needs arise, and different societal incentives to mobilize emerge. In this presentation, I consider the responses of a range of civil society actors, both local and global, to the current war in Nagorno- Karabakh/Artsakh. I critically examine the assumption that civil society is “the answer to war” (Kaldor 2003) and consider how perceptions, attitudes, and understandings of the conflict coupled with historical memories, affect civil society actions, their responses to the war, and the prospects for peace.


Gayane Shagoyan

NKAO/Artsakh: The Palimpsests of Traumatic Memory and the Rise of “Civic Nationalism”?

The presentation attempts to compare the narratives of the public reaction in Armenia of the most recent war, starting in late September 2020, to the first Karabakh war (1990s) and the four-day war in April 2016. The changing image of the “Karabakh people” in situations of various military escalations from “hero nation” through “corruption clan” to assimilation into the broader category of “Armenians” serves as one of the intersecting themes of the three military escalations and reflects the process of national unification instead of anticipated regionalization.

The presentation will rely on Aleida Assman’s discussion of the palimpsest of traumatic memory to probe how for the Armenians the theme of the genocide is the recurring mnemonic device, visible throughout the texts of successive wars over Karabakh. However, the presentation argues that in each specific situation, the theme of genocide is actualized by different plots (from the plot of “getting rid of the victim complex” in the first war to “Turkey’s participation as a problem of existential survival” in the current war). References to genocide are further reflected in narratives about “imaginary” and “real” friends, “eternal” and “new” enemies, victims and heroes. Here, a discussion of the martyrological death of Yezidi Kyaram Asoyan during the 2016 war, is illuminating as it reveals a discourse on non-ethnic citizenship, when, along with the term “Hay,” the term “Hayastantsi” first began to circulate. In the third and current war, the topic of the participation of Yezidi volunteers was also presented in the context of the Yezidi Genocide committed by Turkey not only in 1915-23, but also through its involvement in the genocide in 2014. Thus, the most ethnicized plot that formed the basis of the ethnic mobilization (including the diaspora), in fact launched a discourse of what Craig Calhoun has called “civic nationalism” in Armenia.


Nona Shahnazarian

Between Scylla of Democracy and Charybdis of Security: Prerequisites and Implications of the 2020 War in Nagorno-Karabakh

This study explores prerequisites and implications of the current war between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh. Among a half dozen of violent post-Soviet ethnic-territorial conflicts, Nagorno-Karabakh has been the most unruly and intractable inter-ethnic war resulting from the emergence of the independent de facto republic of Nagorno-Karabakh (which previously was part of Soviet Azerbaijan). Investigating narratives obtained from interviews and life stories of civil society and Karabakh Movement activists and ordinary people who are currently experiencing the war, the study attempts to embed the different (post-)war rhetoric into relevant social, civic, political and international contexts. Life in a state of limbo has had its far-reaching consequences that shape configurations of the current war. This new war has some novel dimensions and peculiarities which the study discusses. The study also examines the intersection between democracy, democratic institutions, nationalism, (nation) state-building, ethnic solidarity, security dilemma, jihadist mercenaries, and externalization of enemy involved in the national-patriotic and international rhetoric surrounding the post/war. What are the root causes and motives of the 2020 war? Is geopolitical location a destiny?



Ronald Grigor Suny

The Heavy Burdens of the Past: Empires, Nations, and "Ancient Tribal Struggles”

Although scholars have long dismissed the idea that nations have ancient and continuous existence, and empires were always doomed to fall, outside of the academy the old myths that ethnic conflicts have origins in the mists of time continuously are used in the public sphere to explain away the antagonisms of the present. The legacies of empires, tsarist and Soviet, combined with the toxic framing of the discourse of the nation, have shaped the context in which post-Soviet nations shape their understanding of statehood and the imperatives of building the nation. History burdens the present and is used to justify ongoing antagonisms and even war. Understanding the roots of the conflict more completely might be a first step toward de-escalating the passions that keep neighbors in the trenches.


Stephen Badalyan Riegg

A War without Winners: Russian Officialdom and the Armenian-Azeri Conflict of 1905-06

Inaccurately and confusingly, Western media’s scant coverage of the ongoing conflict has occasionally portrayed the violence as grounded in the early, mid, late, or post-Soviet eras. Yet even the most cavalier overviews of the current crisis note the Russian Federation’s conspicuously muted response. My presentation will focus on the causes, course, and resolution of the Armenian-Azeri clash in 1905-06, when thousands of people perished while Imperial Russian authorities struggled to ascertain the situation and to formulate a response. The talk will prioritize the tsarist government’s perspective and highlight the adaptation of the authorities’ regional and state reactions to the internecine bloodshed they did not expect and for which they had few solutions. Looking beyond the grievances of the adversaries, my presentation will contextualize the violence in late-imperial Russia’s nationalities policies in the South Caucasus that vacillated between absence, accommodation, and confrontation. During that conflict (not unlike today), the real and perceived inaction of Russia(ns) became a source of controversy and cyclical accusation among Armenians, Azeris, and external observers. My talk will highlight the policy transformations of Viceroy Ilarion Vorontsov-Dashkov, whose outreach to the Armenian and Azeri elites slowly mollified the inter-communal violence that benefited no one.


Vicken Cheterian

A Double Gordian Knot: Turkish Intervention in the Karabakh Conflict and its Consequences

Turkish political and military intervention in the Karabakh conflict in 2020 is unprecedented in intensity, but it is hardly a novelty. Turkish intervention in the Karabakh conflict dates from the early 1990s, supporting Azerbaijan militarily and diplomatically, against Armenia. This intervention had great impact on the development of this conflict, of which I will discuss three : For Armenia, Turkish intervention led to conflict perception through the lense of the historical unresolved legacy of the 1915 Genocide, hardening Armenian views towards compromise solutions. Curiously, Azerbaijan through its alliance with Turkey was also influenced by the 1915 Genocide, this time adopting Turkish denialist discourse: while vehemently denying the Genocide of the Armenians, Azerbaijan identified itself with the image of genocide victim. The end result was that by the Turkish intervention in the conflict, the already complex political issue of Armenian-Azerbaijani relations was overburdened by another complex conflict, that of the unresolved Armenian-Turkish relations, making political solutions impossible to undo this double gordian knot.





Anna Ohanyan

Bullets and Ballots over Stepanakert: Domestic Drivers of Geopolitics and Diplomacy in the South Caucasus and Beyond

Geopolitical analyses surrounding the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict have been privileged in the scholarly and the public discourse. The consideration of foreign policies and regional/global aspirations of major powers have been viewed as dominant in shaping outcomes of war, "cold peace" and peace processes around the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. I argue that a transition from a two-dimensional to three-dimensional analysis is overdue, both for understanding the conflict drivers as well as prospects and scenarios of conflict management. Drawing from scholarship in Security Studies and Peace Research Data, I will argue that authoritarian coordination between the Erdoğan and Aliyev regimes has fueled and activated their offensive alliance. Erdoğan's neo-Ottoman policies will be examined as part of that process. The political impact of military outcomes versus a negotiated settlement in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, on all conflict parties, and regional security at large, will be assessed. Regional fracture, by default and by design, will be covered, to highlight consequences of militarized and negotiated outcomes from the conflict.


Gerard Libaridian

Why Negotiations Failed?

Negotiations related to the future of the Nagorno-Karabakh territory and its majority Armenian population have been going on since the latest eruption of the fighting in 1991. During these almost 30 years there has been only one relative success, that is the 1994 ceasefire. That ceasefire agreement has become irrelevant as a consequence of the newest three episodes of intense fighting initiated by Azerbaijan from 1916 to the present.

In my presentation I will try to answer briefly the following questions: Who are the parties to the conflict? What is the essence of the conflict for these parties? What is being negotiated? Who is involved in the negotiations? What have been the negotiation formats and forums? Who are the mediators? Why is the conflict of interest to regional powers and the larger international community? The answers to these questions will lead to the answer to the main question: Why have negotiations failed?


Emil Sanamyan

Redrawing a Regional Map? What Could Be Turkey's Goals in the New Armenia-Azerbaijan War?

Last July, after a brief bout of fighting on Armenia-Azerbaijan border, in which an Azerbaijani general was killed, Turkey's reaction was harsh. Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdoǧan said that Armenia would be punished and Defense Minister Hulusi Akar said that "Armenia is punching above its weight and would drown in its own trap." Already in July, Turkey dispatched its forces to Azerbaijan, ostensibly for exercises, but they remained in Azerbaijan. Since September 27, Turkish military personnel and Turkish government-hired mercenaries have taken part in direct combat against Armenian forces for the first time since 1920.

Is Turkey's involvement in Karabakh merely an episodic vendetta, intended to teach Armenia a lesson? What precedent does the current Turkish military involvement set for the broader region? Is the Turkish government looking for a longer-term involvement in Karabakh, along the lines of Russian/Turkish division of spheres of influence in Syria? How do Azerbaijan and Armenia fit into Turkey's expansionist foreign policy more broadly?


Elizabeth Tsurkov

The Syrians Fighting to Advance Turkish Ambitions

Since late 2019, Turkey has been deploying a proxy force it created and fostered, initially to advance Turkish interests inside Syria, to arenas overseas, first in Libya and now in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. My talk will seek to explain what drives Turkish policy and will focus on examining the tool used by Turkey to advance its regional goals: its Syrian mercenaries. Who are these fighters? How are they recruited? Who profits from their recruitment? What motivates them? How do they justify to themselves fighting overseas? Why does this proxy force officially continue to deny its deployment to foreign lands? And what do areas under their control in Syria look like? Drawing on dozens of interviews with Syrian mercenaries, proxy fighters and their recruiters conducted since the creation of the Turkish proxy force in 2016, I will seek to answer these questions.

Download file: NKA-Full-Conference-Program-30Oct2020-4i-gba.pdf

Sponsor(s): The Promise Armenian Institute, Center for Near Eastern Studies, The Promise Institute for Human Rights at UCLA School of Law