On the Struggle for Indigenous Self-Determination in the Republic of Artsakh

By Mashinka Firunts HakopianOctober 25, 2020

On the Struggle for Indigenous Self-Determination in the Republic of Artsakh
Fabulations and geopolitical fictions swirl around accounts of the crisis in Artsakh/Nagorno-Karabakh. In a breathtaking redaction of the historical record, media narratives stage a scene of military offensives unfolding between equally-matched belligerents over territory populated by Armenians but claimed by Azerbaijan. Each time these scenes appear, they flatten the reality of Armenian liberation efforts into a tale of “territorial dispute” in West Asia. No accounting of the war can be possible without recognition of a determinative fact. The Indigenous Armenian peoples who live in the autonomous Republic of Artsakh are now engaged in a struggle for self-determination.

Bombarded by cluster munitions, suicide drone strikes, and untold human rights violations, Artsakh’s people defend their right to live and govern themselves on ancestral lands populated by Armenians since antiquity. To characterize the scenario otherwise is not to commit a semantic error. It is to falsely authorize Azerbaijan’s claim to stolen Indigenous territory, and to enable its Turkish ally’s neo-Ottoman genocidal gambit.

On October 23rd, Genocide Watch issued a state of emergency in Artsakh, classifying Azerbaijan’s actions at stages 9 and 10 in a 10-step rubric of genocidal development. Stage 9 and 10 correspond to extermination and denial, respectively.

Nonetheless, media narratives in the west proceed apace with uncorroborated, chimerical fictions — fictions concocted by autocratic powers to legitimize the seizure and settlement of Indigenous Armenian land. They display what Tamar Shirinian calls an insidiously “dispassionate objectivity” that elides the truth of the situation: there are “agents of violence and dispossession” here. Such fictions are, themselves, agents of violence and of dispossession. They include the uncritical use of the name “Nagorno-Karabakh,” a cartographic invention of Josef Stalin conjured in service of the Soviet Union’s colonial regime.

Artsakh was stolen land gifted to Azerbaijan by Stalin during the region’s Sovietization. Its population was over 90% Armenian when Stalin absorbed the territory into the Soviet’s colonial cartographies in 1921 and dispossessed its people of the right to self-governance. A policy of Azerbaijani settlement was pursued in an express effort to “dilute the Armenian majority” and fortify a settler-colonial campaign through Indigenous erasure.

Today, settler-colonial logic suffuses the statements issued by Azerbaijan and Turkey’s autocratic rulers. After launching a highly choreographed offensive against Artsakh, Azerbaijani president — noted petro-oligarch and kleptocrat Ilham Aliyev — gave a televised address. He boasted, “This is the end....We are chasing them like dogs.” Perhaps most pointedly: “Nagorno-Karabakh is our land.”

Striking the same annihilatory chord, Baku Mayor Hajibala Abutalybov told a visiting 2005 delegation from Germany, “Our goal is the complete elimination of Armenians. You, Nazis, already eliminated the Jews in the 1930s and 40s, right? You should be able to understand us.” He was subsequently appointed to the post of Deputy Prime Minister.

Armenians have been Indigenous to what is now the democratic Republic of Artsakh for millennia. Greek historian Strabo affirms the presence of Armenian-speaking peoples in Artsakh in the second century BC. Crucially, the claim for Armenian Indigeneity is neither commensurate to an ethno-nationalist territorialization, nor incompatible with what Nelli Sargsyan poignantly describes as “cultivating communal ways of multi-ethnic living” and cohabitation. Now, against the backdrop of ongoing cultural genocide, Armenians are acting to secure their survival. They defend against unprovoked attacks, Azerbaijan’s disregard for humanitarian ceasefires, and an existential threat with origins in the 1915 Armenian genocide executed by Azerbaijan’s ally, Turkey.

On the day that Azerbaijan initiated military operations, Aliyev announced, “The settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is our historic duty.”

In Turkey, president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan deliberately fashions his autocratic rule after sultans of centuries past, and opines about the need to revive the same Ottoman Empire whose final act was the ethnic cleansing of 1.5 million Armenians. Erdoğan has pledged fulsome support to Turkey’s Azerbaijani proxy state, and has publicly vowed to continue the mission of Armenian extermination “which our grandfathers have carried out for centuries in the Caucasus.”

What resounds in these words if not the familiar coupling of settler sovereignty with genocidal sentiment?

Azerbaijan and Turkey charge Indigenous Armenians with the crime of occupying their own ancestral homeland and demand their withdrawal from “occupied territories.” Every reference to “Armenian occupation” shores up these historical distortions, and legitimizes Azerbaijan’s settler-colonial mandate under the pretext of “liberating” Artsakh from Indigenous self-governance.

Self-governance in Artsakh was hard won. With the collapse of the Soviet Union underway, its Armenian soldiers fought what amounts to a decolonial war for independence, though the annals of history fail to index it as such. After unfathomable violence and loss endured by both parties and a ceasefire declared in 1994, the territory was recognized by Indigenous Armenians as the autonomous Republic of Artsakh. It continues to be internationally misidentified as Nagorno-Karabakh.

Despite all this, state and media actors bracket out any mention of Armenian Indigeneity or liberation struggle, enabling Azerbaijan and Turkey to pursue genocidal aspirations of neo-Ottoman expansion with impunity, all while euphemizing a campaign of Armenian eradication as a “military conflict.”

For Aliyev, this scenario strengthens domestic power by appealing to ultra-nationalist sentiment in the midst of rising economic instability. For Erdoğan, as international relations scholar Anna Ohanyan asserts, the crisis allows Turkey to consolidate autocratic governance in the South Caucasus after Armenia’s 2018 Velvet Revolution and democratization.

In preparation for its highly calculated September 27th offensive, Azerbaijan stockpiled Israeli-supplied M095 DPI cluster munitions banned by international humanitarian law and began deploying Syrian mercenaries to the area as early as mid-September. Confronted with the prospect of a peace process, Aliyev has rejoindered, “Azerbaijan has one condition...Nagorno-Karabakh is the territory of Azerbaijan. We must return and we shall return.”

What is this but the imagining of a settler futurity that has exterminated all remnants of Indigenous life and lifeworlds?

Redressing the failures of media outlets, scholars, activists, demonstrators, and diasporan artists have rallied to demand an end to reporting that conjures false equivalencies where there are none. As arts editor Hrag Vartanian explains, “the inability of US media to identify Armenians as Indigenous to Artsakh represents another level of obliviousness to the struggles of Indigenous peoples not only in the US, but globally.” Gayatri Spivak, Cornel West, Noam Chomsky, and others call for “protection for the Armenian minority in its efforts toward self-determination.” Sev Bibar in Armenia urges decolonial action toward “post-nationalist, pluralist and sustainable cohabitation.”

Asked about the objective of Armenians in the crisis, Artsakh representative Robert Avetisyan replied,Stability. Peace. To live in our home.”

The global response to these pleas is tantamount to a cacophony of silence.

At this moment, Artsakh grapples with hundreds of lives extinguished and the displacement of 75,000 people. In its capital of Stepanakert, the remaining civilians shelter in their basements. The city has been transformed into a dystopic nightmarescape of debris, rocket shells, and vital infrastructural wreckage, punctuated by plumes of billowing black smoke.

To begin working toward justice in the region, the region first needs to be called by its name — the independent, democratic Republic of Artsakh.

The events transpiring within its territories have to be called what they are: the struggle for Indigenous Armenian self-determination on ancestral land.


An Armenian version of this essay, translated by Astghik Atabekyan, is available here.


Image: Detail from Untitled by Kamee Abrahamian.


Mashinka Firunts Hakopian is a Senior Researcher at the Berggruen Institute, and an Associate Editor of Noema Magazine. She holds a PhD from the University of Pennsylvania in History of Art, and held a teaching appointment at UCLA's Department of English from 2017-19. Her book, Algorithmic Bias: Lectures for Intelligent Machines, is forthcoming in 2021 from X Artists' Books.

LARB Contributor

Mashinka Firunts Hakopian is a senior researcher for the Transformations of the Human program at the Berggruen Institute. Prior to joining the Institute, she held a teaching appointment in UCLA’s Department of English, teaching courses in media studies and visual culture. She holds a PhD in the History of Art from the University of Pennsylvania, and an MA in Curatorial Studies from Columbia University. With Avi Alpert and Danny Snelson, she is a co-founder of Research Service, a media collective that develops performative and practice-based models of scholarship, with whom she has presented projects for the Palais de Tokyo, the Institute of Contemporary Art (Philadelphia), the New Museum (New York), and others. She is the co-editor of Present Tense Pamphlets, a hybrid digital and print publishing platform for score-based performance, released through Northwestern University and the Block Museum of Art. She is a Contributing Editor for ASAP/J and an Associate Editor for Noema. Her book on algorithmic bias is forthcoming in 2020 from X Artists’ Books.


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