Black Garden: Armenia and Azerbaijan Through Peace and War
by Thomas De Waal
Release Date: May, 2003
The book is a major milestone in the Western scholarship on Karabakh. It is probably the only serious work that attempts to take a balanced view of the conflict, and it mostly succeeds, occasionally at the expense of accuracy. The book's strength is in the many dozens of interviews de Waal conducted on both sides of the conflict line with politicians, military commanders and regular people affected by the war and its aftermath. He may also be the first to research Politburo archives from the 1980s that have just recently become available. It must have been hard work but it paid off, producing probably the most complete Western narrative of the Karabakh conflict that casts aside many of the popular conspiracies about the conflict and highlights the largely spontaneous nature of history in the Caucasus. De Waal's is also a very readable book and does not merely regurgitate the chronology of events.
In his study of the conflict, De Waal reaches two key conclusions:
- The Karabakh conflict was not engineered by Moscow (as is still widely believed). It started on the ground between Armenians and Azeris, and Soviet leadership tried but failed to contain it. Conflict became possible though in part because USSR conserved nationalism in the republics. On top of mutual acrimony dating to early 20th century and before, Armenia and Azerbaijan remained competitors throughout Soviet history and tensions over Karabakh flared even under Stalin. Both sides had grievances, felt insecure and turned to arms and aggression in what they both saw as self-defense.
- While the Armenian-Azerbaijani war had been nasty and brutal, the conflict can be resolved through confidence building measures, including economic cooperation. One such step could be the opening of Baku-Nakhichevan-Yerevan railway that would benefit both sides. While de Waal keeps his distance and leaves the details of a settlement for the parties to work out, one element of the solution is clear: Nagorno Karabakh cannot be subordinated to Azerbaijan. Heydar Aliyev, the strongman of Azerbaijan now fading from its political scene, appears to have understood this as well, but stumbled in the effort to bring peace to his people.
De Waal's other achievement is identification and dismissal of several erroneous but commonly cited beliefs about the Karabakh war, promoted by Azerbaijan and frequently adopted by mainstream reporters and even some foreign governments.
In the Appendix to the book, he discusses some of them. Azerbaijan claims that 20 percent of its territory is under occupation. De Waal finds, independently of earlier research (see for example http://groong.usc.edu/ro/ro-19970917.html), that in reality less than 14 percent of Soviet Azerbaijani territory is under Armenian control. Of the 14 percent, 5 percent is the territory of Nagorno Karabakh proper and cannot be considered under "occupation." Another Azerbaijani claim is that the war displaced over 1 million Azeris. In reality, around 700,000 Azerbaijanis and over 400,000 Armenians were displaced as a direct result of the conflict.
De Waal also addresses Azerbaijan's official effort to rewrite history of Karabakh and entire Armenia. (An Israeli journalist Yo'av Karny was probably the first Western journalist to discuss this problem in his book "The Highlanders" published in 2000.) The Azerbaijani historiography purports that all of present-day Armenia, including Karabakh, is a "historically Azerbaijani territory" and its Christian monuments belonged to the Caucasian Albanian culture. In reality, the Albanian culture was largely absorbed by Armenians centuries before first Turkic descendants of Azerbaijanis arrived in the Caucasus.
Finally, Azerbaijanis insist that the Armenian victory in the war was a result of Russian assistance. In reality, Russia alternatively helped and put pressure on both sides and de Waal carefully documents that. But Armenians appeared to have greater will to defend their homes and did a better job organizing and harnessing their resources.
With the many successes, the book does have inaccuracies and omissions. In an apparent effort to seek balance in terms of violence done to both sides, de Waal relies heavily on Baku researcher Arif Yunusov for figures on anti-Azeri violence in Armenia and the so-called "Kapan incidents," to juxtapose them to well-documented anti-Armenian pogroms in Sumgait and Baku. In the late 1980s, Yunusov was charged by the Azerbaijani Communist Party leadership with creating a revisionist narrative justifying the anti-Armenian violence in Azerbaijan. Some of Yunusov's contradictory claims were investigated and proven fraudulent already at that time. But de Waal appears to be blindly endorsing Yunusov's insinuations.
De Waal also overlooks the threats made by Soviet Azeri officials that preceded the anti-Armenian violence in Azerbaijan which suggests their organized or officially instigated nature. Another aspect of the early stages of the conflict is the alleged role played by Heydar Aliyev, Azerbaijan's Soviet-era leader who was forced to retire from the Politburo in 1987. Aliyev's allies are believed to have instigated some of the worst anti-Armenian violence and subsequently led the Azeri nationalist movement.
De Waal also gives only a passing reference to Azerbaijani efforts to internationalize the war by bringing in a motley crew of Afghan, Chechen, Russian and Turkish mercenaries to join the war, most Azerbaijanis themselves were unwilling to fight.
Speaking on his U.S. book tour earlier this year, de Waal agreed that a resumption of war, as often threatened by Azerbaijani officials, would be devastating. To gain even a few kilometers, thousands of Azerbaijani youths would have to die, he said, but the "factor of stupidity" cannot be ruled out. De Waal urged a renewed push for negotiations, although he conceded that the current environment is not conducive to resolution. In the absence of such an environment, the current peace, which de Waal argues is "bad," may be the best possible arrangement for both parties today.
Black Garden attempts to objectively analyze and chronicle events before, during, and after the war between Armenia and the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh on one side, and Azerbaijan, on the other. The conflict was the most severe eruption of ethnic violence during the last days of the Soviet Union. This
truggle of self-determination versus territorial integrity temporarily concluded with a truce in May of 1994.
This book is based on a preponderance of data, much of which, unfortunately, is incomplete. De Waal assumes that no comprehensive non-partisan archive or compilation of events exists, which is why he felt this book was necessary. He uses the forced juxtaposition of seemingly related events to present the illusion of neutrality and moral equivalence. With information not readily available, a generally well-informed reader is lead down a path of comfort in the assumption that someone else has provided facts and analysis. As a result, this book has already beguiled many, as demonstrated by their reviews. De Waal forces a side-to-side comparison of seemingly equivalent events, including war crimes, in the name of "two-sides to any issue". This is a technique employed when one is not willing to take sides, or when further, in-depth research will lead to an inevitable hard conclusion. When events clearly don't lend themselves to such manipulation, de Waal does an admirable job. This is evident in his treatment of facts such as Azerbaijanis cashing in personal items, enhancing Azerbaijan's ability to purchase arms above those agreed to internationally (page 198), and the role of the Russian forces on both sides of this conflict.
The author asks the reader to evaluate his book as a whole with a neutral viewpoint; however, his conclusions are far from neutral. His widespread use of forced juxtaposition is compelling enough to label de Waal partisan. De Waal requires parity for the February 1988 anti-Armenian pogroms in Sumgait,
Azerbaijan. Upon failing to find any organized pogroms of Azerbaijanis in Armenia, he turns to anti-German violence in East London in 1915, after the sinking of the Lusitania (page 44) as a contrasting event. Once again, further research has shown that in the weeks prior to the Sumgait pogroms, Azerbaijani officials in Sumgait distributed addresses of Armenians to local henchmen. This clearly qualifies these acts as premeditated murder with the connivance of local authorities. The Sumgait events can be evaluated on their own merits. Had he done so, de Waal would be required to actually reach a
De Waal compares the circa 1990 desecration of the Armenian cathedral in Baku by the Azerbaijanis with the subsequent destruction, by Armenians, of a small, unused mosque in Yerevan (pages 79-80). In parallel, this inappropriate comparison is obfuscated by de Waal's discounting Armenia's reconstruction of
Yerevan's Blue Mosque. Having seen both mosques, it is clear that further research would have lead de Waal to either dumping this topic, or reaching the conclusion that his choice of parity in desecration is not appropriate. When de Waal's research on the Azerbaijani historian Ziya Bunyatov concludes that his writing is inflammatory, he chooses to compare this Director of the Oriental Institute of the Azerbaijan Academy of Sciences and Azerbaijani national hero of the time to a Glasnost-era Armenian journalist Zori Balayan - pointing out they have the same initials. Further investigation would have shown that in the years preceding the conflict, Bunyatov's translation of a number of original texts about the region had systematically removed the noun "Armenian" from the translation, or simply omitted entire sections. Also, De Waal cannot seem to find comparable figure anywhere in dynastic Azerbaijan to equate with the warlord like figure of Samvel Babayan in Nagorno-Karabakh, so he finds the Chechen Samil Basaev - again, two people with the same initials.
Forced juxtaposition is used in the Black Garden various ways depending upon the caliber of the event. If the event is relatively innocuous, parity is presented on the same page or even in the same paragraph. At other times the comparison spans pages or chapters. This is very evident when de Waal characterizes the Turkish genocide of the Armenians as a unilateral Armenian claim (page 75, confirmed in note 5), thus denying it from having any role or basis for actions associated with national survival or self-determination of the Armenians. He contrasts this with an unsubstantiated Azerbaijani genocide counter-claim of 2.5 million people by Armenians over the span of 200 years. This is an interesting technique both; in not taking a position on genocide, and in forcing equivalence with an invalid Azerbaijani claim. Ignoring facts and giving the reader the illusion of neutrality generates a skewed perception of reality. At the end, de Waal takes the unfortunate position that international recognition of the genocide of the Armenians discourages peace (page 277). This clearly partisan stance is finally stated some 200 pages after the issue of the genocide was first introduced.
The process of forced correlation reaches a wasteful level with the entire tenth chapter, which is dedicated to contradictory historical claims, between Azerbaijani and Armenian historians, regarding Caucasian Albanians (no relation to Balkan Albanians), the pre-Islamic inhabitants of areas immediately east of Armenia. De Waal dedicates 13 pages to finally establish that this topic was a non-issue, concluding that it took a New Jersey-based professor to confirm that the Azerbaijani claims are groundless.
De Waal would be much more credible by actually giving the events chronicled the required level of analysis. He heavily implies that the mutilation of the dead or dying is something contemporary Armenians and Azerbaijanis learned from the Armenian guerilla leader Antranik in 1918 (pages 168-169). De Waal's precluded research on the Turkish genocide of the Armenians shows that it was common for the Turkish murderers of Armenian women to cut off their nipples, dead or alive - those with more carried bragging rights. Dehumanizing one's perceived enemy this way has its origins deep in human history, and is not a twentieth century Armenian, Turkish, or Azerbaijani invention.
Avoiding evaluation of events, ideologies, etc., on their own merits assumes there is no right or wrong, only a continuum of events in human relations. The practice of forced parity serves those who are unwilling by choice or unable by circumstance to engage in an in-depth analysis of events. This method allows one not to take a position on the Nazi Holocaust of European Jews by equating it with claims that more Germans died than did Jews during the same general period. Such claims may be true in isolation, but cannot be juxtaposed, nor are they equivalent.
De Waal's utopian proposal (page 283), based on a song from an eighteenth century Armenian troubadour, Sayat Nova, calling for Georgian rule and lingua Azerbaijani as the formula for achieving nirvana in the Caucasus, is taken out of context. A more vigorous study on Sayat Nova chronicles that the Qajar
Prince Agha Mohammed Khan, an Azerbaijani, was responsible for his death in 1795 during an invasion of the region.
Peace can only be achieved through an understanding of events and their causes, not by wishfully granting "parity" to each side. The likely result of de Waal's Black Garden is to stiffen the resolve of the belligerents by obfuscation of
the historical record.