Ending Irredentism in the South Caucasus Will Bring Normalization of Relations

Taras Kuzio
Yukhari Govher Mosque, Shusha, Azerbaijan. Image: Orkhan Azim

If you’re not familiar with the word “irredentism,” it is the geopolitical term for a policy that advocates the restoration to a country of any territory that has ever formerly belonged to it. As a principle, the appeal of irredentism sounds reasonable enough. In reality, allowing irredentist ideas to reshape the world map would cause endless chaos as there would be so many overlapping historical and cultural counterclaims. Thus – rightly or wrongly – today’s world map is generally fixed with the borders set as they were at the end of colonialism in the later 20th century. In the case of the former USSR, the internal boundaries of the 15 former Soviet republics became their international borders. 


Armenia Begs to Differ

Armenia’s defeat in last year’s Second Karabakh War, and its withdrawal from territory it had occupied since the 1990s, has created a trauma in Armenian politics that is still reverberating. In the June elections, the Armenian National Congress Party, led by former President Levon Ter-Petrosian, was the only well-known political force that campaigned to normalize relations with Turkey and Azerbaijan. Yet, the party received a mere 1.54% and so failed to enter parliament. Compare that with the combined 26% received by two political forces, ‘Armenia’ led by former President Robert Kocharian and ‘I Have Honor’ led by Arthur Vanetsian. Both of these refuse to accept the November 2020 ceasefire agreement, which ended the war and do not accept the principal withdrawal of Armenian forces from Azerbaijani territory held since the early 1990s. The 30th anniversary of Armenian independence (Sept 22, 2021) was therefore gloomy in Armenia and in August this year, three mass brawls had erupted in the Armenian parliament. 


Soviet Roots

The root cause of this disappointment is an unwillingness amongst many Armenians to accept borders inherited from the USSR. Such borders were OK’d by 13 of the fifteen former Soviet republics but not by Russia and Armenia, where nationalists imagined entities far bigger than the republics inherited from the USSR. Indeed, many Russians never viewed the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic (RSFSR) as the Russian homeland at all, and all too often, the two identities, Russian and Soviet, were seen as one and the same. In the fall of 1991, the Russian SFSR never declared independence from the USSR. This has allowed irredentist Russians, whether ‘red’ (pro-Soviet), ‘white’ (pro-Tsarist and Orthodox fundamentalist) or ‘brown’ (fascist and neo-Nazi), to conceptualize today’s Russia as a temporarily diminished version of the USSR or Tsarist Empire. For such folks, there are various visions for reasserting the ideal of a Russia-centric union – for example, the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), the Russian-Belarusian Union, and the Eurasian Economic Union. Guided by such ideas, Russia has demanded exclusive hegemony in its Eurasian sphere of influence, manufactured frozen conflicts in its neighbours, recognized the ‘independence’ of Russian proxy states South Ossetia and Abkhazia (both in Georgia), invaded Georgia and Ukraine, and annexed the Ukrainian region of Crimea.

A young woman takes part in a procession to Yerablur Military Pantheon as Armenia ‘celebrates’ the 30th anniversary of independence on September 21, 2021. Those taking part in the procession include relatives of military servicemen who died in the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh War, public figures and politicians. Hayk Baghdasaryan/Photolure/TASS.

Meanwhile, Armenian nationalists, especially those in the diaspora, typically support a United Armenia, which includes the current (former Soviet) republic along with ‘Western Armenia’ (Eastern Turkey) and ‘Eastern Armenia’ (Western Azerbaijan, including Karabakh). For such Armenians, the borders of the USSR (and their republic within the Union) were always disputable as they were based on the 1921 Treaty of Moscow rather than the 1920 Treaty of Sèvres. The latter was considered so unreasonable by Turkey that it sparked the Turkish National Movement and war of independence. However, had it been honoured, the treaty would have given Armenia most of the region of today’s Eastern Turkey, from which, in 1915, massacres and forced deportations killed or displaced over a million Armenians. Whether or not these appalling events should be called ‘genocide’ has become a significant sticking point, all too often linked with the “United Armenia” territorial issue. That’s always been a central plank of the radical Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Dashnaks), who were in power in 1920 when the Armenian Republic signed the Treaty of Sèvres. The idea has been prominent again in Armenian politics since the rise of nationalism in the Soviet Union in the late 1980s, leading to the First Karabakh War (1988-1994). Armenia’s victory in that war resulted in the occupation of a fifth of Azerbaijani territory and seemingly put in place one part of the goal for a United Armenia but also led to closed borders with Turkey and Azerbaijan, leading to slow economic suffocation.

Tragedies and Treaties

The sad geopolitical reality is that, up until World War II, forcible changes in borders were all too often the norm in world history. Armenia is by no means unique in having suffered tragedy. Generally, however, other ethnic groups who have been deported and had their borders forcibly changed have not pursued irredentist policies towards their neighbours. For example, Hungary lost 70% of its territory in the 1920 Treaty of Trianon, but the ruling populist-nationalist government has not demanded the reconstitution of the pre-1918 Hungarian portion of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Poland’s territory was changed entirely during World War II, and the country was ‘moved’ around 100km westward. Some 1.15 million Poles were deported to Poland in 1944-1946 by the Soviet secret NKVD police from Ukraine, Belarus, and Lithuania. Large-scale deportations from Soviet-occupied Karelia to Finland led to the destruction of the Ingrian Finnish people. In 1944-1950, 14.6 million Germans were deported from Eastern Europe, with estimates of resultant deaths ranging between half and two million. Joseph Stalin’s USSR deported upwards of half of the 200,000 Crimean Tatars, who died on their way to Central Asia in 1944 and some 100,000 Azerbaijanis from Armenia between 1948-50. The earlier 1910 expulsion of Turks from the Balkans numbered hundreds of thousands. Even earlier, the 1862-1864 ethnic cleansing of Ciracassia affected well over a million people, some fleeing their North Caucasus homeland but a large proportion dying en-route.

Crimean Tatars being deported from the USSR on their way to Central Asia in 1944. Image: Public Domain

It cannot be understated how deplorable all of these historical events were for the peoples involved. Fortunately, the post-WWII global system is designed to stop such cynical geopolitical moves. To achieve that – like in a game of musical chairs – all nations had to accept as a fait accompli the existing borders and territorial integrity of states. For places like Ciracassia (which had lost everything) or Armenia (which had lost what nationalists believe is its western and eastern lands), that is a painful reality but is not realistically going to be up for discussion without a wholesale change of the world order. 


1915 and 2021

For today’s Armenia, decoupling territorial irredentism from discussions of what took place in 1915 should assist in the normalization of relations with Turkey, eventually leading to the re-opening of their border, which has been closed since 1993. The Treaty of Sèvres needs to remain in history books and not drive current foreign policy. Turkey has moved forward on discussing 1915 and would be amenable to moving further if discussions were decoupled from Armenian irredentism. Turkish academics and intellectuals have condemned what took place in 1915, literature on this terrible period is available in Turkey and commemorations are held each year in Istanbul. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has praised the ‘shared culture’ of Turks and Armenians and acknowledged that large-scale killings took place in 1915, albeit carefully steering clear of the term ‘genocide.’ Armenia, too, needs to move towards accepting that Karabakh and the lands surrounding it are part of Azerbaijan. This would pave the way for a peace treaty and the re-opening of both countries’ borders.

Ukraine's President Petro Poroshenko (L) shakes hands with Poland's Foreign Minister Jacek Czaputowicz during a meeting in Kiev, Ukraine December 1, 2018. Ukrainian Presidential Press Service/Handout via REUTERS 

Other countries have launched similar discussions about past tragedies. France-Germany and Poland-Ukraine are two examples of progress made in reconciliation between pairs of formerly antagonistic nations since World War II. In the latter, this took place in the diaspora and then moved to Poland in the 1980s and Ukraine in the 1990s. Armenians could follow in the footsteps of Polish and Ukrainian intellectuals who, in the absence of territorial irredentism from either side, have been discussing their traumatic history for the last seven decades. Of course, these discussions do not mean that both sides will agree on vexed questions of whether massacres constitute genocide. For example, Ukrainian historians and government experts still disagree with their Polish colleagues as to how to define what took place in the Volyn region of western Ukraine against the Polish minority in 1943. But free and open discussions can only occur when there is no longer the looming threat of irredentist repercussions.
Until Armenia opens its borders with Turkey and Azerbaijan, its trade, economy and living standards will remain stagnant, leading to continued migration in search of work. Some two million Armenians already live in Russia compared to three million in the Armenian Republic. Yet, there will be no normalization of relations between Turkey and Armenia if Yerevan remains fixated by the events of 1915, linking them to territorial irredentism based on by-gone borders. That, in turn, will continue to fuel continued demands for a ‘United Armenia’ that encompasses Western Azerbaijan and Karabakh. There must be an Armenian-Azerbaijani Peace Treaty. Without it, there will be continued political instability in Armenia, and Russia and Iran will dominate Yerevan’s security and trade policies.


Taras Kuzio is a Professor of political science at the National University of Kyiv Mohyla Academy and a Non-Resident Fellow in the Foreign Policy Institute, School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University in Washington DC. His previous positions were at the University of Alberta, George Washington University, University of Toronto, and he was Chief of Mission to the NATO Information and Documentation Office in Ukraine. 


His latest book Russian Nationalism and the Russian-Ukrainian War, is due for publication by Routledge in January 2022.