Reading about Nagorno-Karabakh. Sometimes it’s reported as if, or maybe it’s me, it’s just another example of third-world ethnic conflict, something civilized nations don’t understand, something to do with ancient hatreds. But of couse the conflict is between two states, not two ethnicities, and what is more, it is not irrational. You can figure it out: there is a clear territorial dispute at its heart. It was Soviet ethnic Azeris who were expelled, beaten, burned, raped and killed in Armenia; ethnic Azeris from Iran, who currently conduct most of Iranian trade with Armenia, are not harassed, expelled, or abused and are on the contrary welcomed. The story is not new and is not confined to one part of the world: a co-ethnic minority in a neighboring country requires our help, so we annex their territory. Sudetenland, Texas, etc. Nationalism only happens in ethnics when it is a defining term for nation, not otherwise. When loyalties go that way.
Certainly there are such things as ethnic differences. Groups linked by lineage and marriage share customs, language, and material culture. The traditional line from the civilized world, or maybe it’s just me again but that’s how it seems to me, the traditional line on these conflicts is incomprehension: why do people fight so viciously over such small or superficial or inconsequential differences. But they are not fighting over these differences. The differences are not a cause of war, the conflict is over incompatible claims put forward by political entities, which may or may not be defined by ethnicity, but are defined in some way, and ethnicity is one of many handy ways to define and mobilize a political entity. It is only one of many.
There’s a mythical kind of thinking I try to resist: Once upon a time, ethnic differences became a cause of war. Before that time, there were differences between human groups, but they were irrelevant to conflict, which had to do with power, not identity. That is to say, there was war, which was bad, and there were differences, which were good or neutral. States were ruled by a trans-national elite, and wars were not inspired by broad-based hatred. Then came the time of pollution, the rise of nationalism, where ethnic differences became part of what defined a state or nation. Good or neutral things became infected with evil.
This myth ignores many things. Ethnic cleansing, far from being a modern invention, has been around at least since the Babylonians deported the Hebrews from Palestine. Armed conflict breaking out along ethnic lines is as old. And occasional ethnic conflict doesn’t disqualify groups from living in peace most of the time. Pogroms and riots in 1905 and 1920 and mass deportations in the 1940s didn’t keep Armenians and Azerbaijanis from living together as neighbors, friends, coworkers and often even family until the 1980s. The point is that ethnicity is just one mobilizing force among many. It is a way to mobilize large groups quickly, like a fault line, or a wiring system connecting individuals. But nearly any difference between individuals can act be acted upon in this way: age, income, region, education status, dialect. People are wired to one another in multitudinous ways.
Each person has multiple identities. Each identity has its own loyalty. I am a son-in-law, a transplanted Oregonian, a Peace Corps volunteer, a college graduate, an atheist, a religious sympathizer, et cetera, and my actions are in part determined by these loyalties, in certain circumstances. All other things being equal, assuming no conflict with any other loyalties, I want the best for Oregon. I don’t think it’s possible to eliminate these loyalties, any more than you could eliminate differences between individuals or their tendency to identify in groups. They are extensions of healthy self-interest. So far from being the cause of conflict, the increase of them can tend to reduce or complicate conflict. It is easier to kill the Kurd who you have never met than the one who is your uncle’s son-in-law and neighbor, who you have drunk tea with and sung songs with.
The point is there is nothing about ethnicity or ethnic differences that necessarily leads to war. Azeris and Armenians, interviewed now about the past, will say: we always lived together normally. While that wasn’t entirely true, it was generally true. They did live together. The peoples of the Caucasus have shared territory for a long time.
This is another pattern of mythic thinking I notice in myself: to imagine the current national borders follow some natural, pre-existing ethnic reality. The Armenians are from Armenia, look it’s right there on the map, the Turks belong in Turkey, and the Bulgarians have a space all there own there in Bulgaria.
Whereas: It’s commonly known that Armenians inhabited much of eastern Turkey, as well as Istanbul, Izmir, and other major cities. But in those same places as ethnic Armenians lived Kurds, and Turks, and Turkmen and Greeks, as well as members of other ethnicities. Armenia’s current capital, Yerevan, was a provincial town until the emigrations from Turkey in 1915; before that time then the capitals of Armenian culture were Van, now in Turkey, Tblisi, now in Georgia, Baku, now in Azerbaijan, and Istanbul, which is still not again the international city it once was. Eastern Anatolia and the Caucasus were in general much more mixed. There were plenty of “muslims”, probably Turkish-speaking, Shi’ite Azerbaijanis, in Yerevan and Gyumri. There were Turks in Georgia, and Greeks were found all over the Black Sea coast, including Turkey, Russia, the Ukraine, until Ataturk in the 1920s and Stalin in the 1940s homogenized the regions under their control.