Vol. 2, No. 10 (May 15, 2009)

Turkish-Armenian rapprochement and the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict: The role of collective memory and identity

Rauf Garagozov, Dr.
Leading Research Associate
Institute of Strategic Studies of the Caucasus

The recent rapprochement between Turkey and Armenia and Turkey’s agreement to open the borders with Armenia has generated serious concerns in Azerbaijan.  For many in Baku, these events have raised the question as to how the improvement in Turkish-Armenian relations will affect the resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.  Given that Armenian forces occupy 20 percent of the territory of Azerbaijan and significant progress toward their withdrawal has not been achieved, many in Azerbaijan have decided that this Turkish action will reduce the chances for a resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute, all the more so because the talks between Ankara and Yerevan were conducted in an atmosphere of secrecy.

Baku’s negative reaction at first glance would seem completely justified.  Indeed, how could one view the improvement of relations between Azerbaijan’s closest ally and its opponent not lead to a weakening of Azerbaijan’s position in the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute?  However, such a view of the situation, characteristic of those who view international affairs from the perspective of Realpolitik, is not entirely adequate for an understanding of the processes taking place here.  Still worse, it can lead to premature or even mistaken conclusions.

In order to answer the question about how the improvement of Turkish-Armenian relations will affect the resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute, one should, I suggest, focus on the factors that have generated the negative views Turks and Armenians have of each other.  As is nearly universally understood, the basic cause of the poor relations between Armenians and Turks arise from the historic memory of these peoples, from their different understanding and interpretation of events which took place in the Ottoman Empire at the beginning of the 20th century.

As a result of this, as certain political scientists have stressed, the relations between these two people cannot be understood only from the point of view of political realism but require a different approach, such as for example, constructivism which allows for the consideration of additional dimensions of the situation, including collective memory and identity (Bulent and Karakas-Keles 2002).  One should add that the factor of collective memory which gives birth to negative inter-national stereotypes, antagonistic views and competing historical interpretations is an important cause of the existence of negative relations not only between Armenians and Turks but also between Armenians and Azerbaijanis.  To a well known degree, the problem of Nagorno-Karabakh is the fruit of these ethnic stereotypes and fears (Garagozov 2006).

As our investigations have shown (Garagozov 2005), the pattern that could be designated as “a people surrounded and persecuted by enemies but remaining true to itself,” plays a major role for Armenian collective memory and identity.  It consists of the following components:  

1. An initial situation: the Armenian people exists in a glorious and wonderful time which is violated by the interventions of enemies, as a result of which
2. Antagonistic forces attack the Armenians; 
3. The Armenians experience as a result enormous persecution and suffering;
4. If they remain true to their faith, then they overcome their enemies, but if they depart from their faith, then they suffer defeat.
These qualities of collective memory and identity make the Armenians especially susceptible to fears and concerns about their fate, to what in the conception of Lake and Rothchild (2000) are called “ethnic fears.” 

Thus, if we consider the question posed above from a constructivism perspective, which considers the dimensions of collective memory and identity, then it is completely possible to come to conclusions which are very different from those reached on the basis of the position of political realism.

In that sense, the very things which seem the most effective means from the point of view of political realism, namely positions of strength and pressure, can not only not help resolve conflicts like the one over Nagorno-Karabakh but on the contrary, such actions, by increasing fears, distrust and the antagonism of the sides, contribute to the still greater mobilization of Armenians for the continuation of the conflict.  In any case, such are the particular features of Armenian collective memory and identity which must be considered in the course of an analysis of international relations.  And drawing on this perspective, one can see that the improvement of Turkish-Armenian relations, which can ultimately lead to positive movements in how the sides view each other and without which it will be impossible to develop trust among the conflicting sides, can make a positive contribution to the resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.

Considering how powerful and conservative collective memory is in its impact on group concepts, thinking and behavior, it is only possible to guess about those large number of obstacles which can arise and are already arising on the path leading to the improvement of Turkish-Armenian and Armenian-Azerbaijani relations.  This is in no way a surprise because any attempts toward the normalization of relations between the sides requires a definite transformation of one’s identity, one’s view of oneself and of “the other.”

In this sense, the fact that the Turkish side initiated this process can show not its ‘weakness’ and the impact of foreign pressure (from the US, the European Union, the Armenian lobby, and so on), as Realpolitik might suggest, but rather and above all the growing confidence of Turkish political elites in the ability of their own society to change without being stopped by fears that any change could threaten the fundamental components of national identity.

Considering the role which the theme of “genocide” plays in Armenian consciousness, collective memory and identity, the Armenian side faces a still more complicated and dramatic process of intellectual revision and transformation of its identity.  The noble theme of “victimization” is so strongly intertwined with Armenian collective memory and identity and so profitably exploited by various external forces that enormous efforts from many sides will be required in order to push this transformation forward and allow the Armenians overcome their fears concerning the possible loss of their identity. 

In fact, the Armenians and Turks must go an enormous distance in order to achieve a real rapprochement and begin a genuine dialogue.  In this process, however strange it may seem, the Azerbaijani experience can be helpful.  That is because Azerbaijani-Armenian relations, despite the latest attempts to revise their treatment, during a significant part of Soviet history not to speak about the more distant past have been almost an example of a “symbiotic” coexistence of two peoples one of whom is conceived by the Armenians as “Turks.”  There are Armenians and Azerbaijanis still alive who had a positive experience of living together and of the mutual enrichment of their cultures.  This factor, if used with skill, can become an important instrument for helping to overcome conservative aspects of the memory of these peoples.  In this connection, the Azerbaijani side could conduct a more active and even intermediary role in the rapprochement of Turkey and Armenia just starting out.

Of course, Azerbaijan will find it more difficult to begin such a dialogue with Armenia when part of its territory remains under the control of Armenian armed forces.  In this situation, any attempts at resolving these identity issues may be conceived as a manifestation of “weakness” and a concession to the aggressor.  That is why for Baku the demand for the return of its territory is so important as a first step toward this process.

And so, summing up, if we are agreed that for the resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, the principles of political realism at the very least must be supplemented by the principles of constructivism, then it becomes clear that any efforts directed at removing “the cursed past” between these peoples is one of the important and possibly the most important element of policies directed at the resolution of this dispute.


Bulent, A. and H. Karakas-Keles (2002) “Turco-Armenian Relations: A Critical Analysis,” Central Asia and Caucasus, 4 (16), pp. 102-110.

Garagozov, R. (2005) Metamorphozy Kollektivnoy Pamyati v Rossii i na Tsentral’nom Kavkaze [Metamorphoses of Collective Memory in Russia and the Central Caucasus], Baku: Nurlan (In Russian). 

Garagozov, R. (2006) “Collective Memory in Ethnopolitical Conflicts: The Case of Nagorno-Karabakh,” Central Asia and the Caucasus, 5 (41), pp.145-155, available at http://www.ca-c.org/online/2006/journal_eng/cac-05/13.kareng.shtml (accessed May 7, 2009).

Lake D. and D. Rothchild (2000) “Containing Fear: The Origins and Management of Ethnic Conflict”, in Brown, M., O. Cote, S. Lynn-Jones and S. Miller, edt. (2000) Nationalism and Ethnic Conflict, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, pp.97-131.