Saturday, July 7, 2007

Conversation with Tom de Waal

First published in the Armenian Reporter, May 26, 2007

West’s top Karabakh expert: people’s aspirations for independence must be recognized
Conversation with Tom de Waal

De Waal is the Caucasus service editor at the London-based Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR). With reporters on the ground throughout the region, IWPR ( prepares weekly news updates and in-depth stories from both the South Caucasus and Russia’s North Caucasus. De Waal is the author of books on the conflicts in Chechnya and Karabakh.

The “Black Garden: Armenia and Azerbaijan through Peace and War” (New York University Press, 2003) became the first and still the only major study to take an in-depth and non-partisan view of the conflict (for reviews of the book go to

Earlier this month, de Waal was in Washington to participate in a conference on the Caucasus and deliver a lecture at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) on May 14, where he again called the continued standoff over Karabakh “the most serious conflict in Eurasia.”

De Waal argued that the current status quo “is not sustainable in the long term” and that greater international attention is needed to prevent a new, potentially much more devastating conflagration.

While looking at the ways to address the conflict, de Waal noted that Kosovo’s independence will set a precedent for other secessionist conflicts.

He noted, that when looking at Karabakh and other breakaway regions in the Caucasus, one must understand that their “aspirations for independence are real” and have to be factored in into the peace process. And that the “idea of independence” must be made part of the talks and positively leveraged to encourage more democratic policies.

In the end some form of “surrender of sovereignty” by states involved “is the only way forward,” according to de Waal. “There is absolutely no way you can persuade [Karabakh]” to become part of Azerbaijan, he surmised.


On May 11 our Washington editor Emil Sanamyan spoke with de Waal about the book, its impact and more recent developments:

Reporter: Your Karabakh book is it available for the readers in the region?

De Waal: The Russian language version is available – there are copies in Moscow and in the region. Last November I went to Baku, Yerevan and Stepanakert and I did presentations of the Russian version of the book. The Armenian translation is finished and the Azeri translation is about to be finished. So some time later this year it should come out in both Armenian and Azerbaijani.

Reporter: What kind of an impact are you hoping to generate? And what has been the feedback so far?

De Waal: Obviously, it’s just one book. But I think there is some interesting information in there that puts the conflict in a different light that most people in the region have not seen or are not accustomed to seeing. My hope is that it might encourage more critical debate and self-criticism. That is the idea.

And a lot of readers have said that they enjoyed the book, enjoyed an outsider’s perspective.

Having said that, there is still very much the tendency to look for information that is negative to the other side and concentrate exclusively on the bad things the other side did, and not own up to any of the bad things on one’s own part.

Reporter: In terms of any of the criticisms that you have heard since the English version came out, have you re-thought anything in the book?

De Waal: The big debate in Armenia that we had was basically about the flight of Azeris from Kapan and Meghri. As far as I am concerned there is evidence that it happened some time before [the anti-Armenian pogroms in Sumgait in] February 1988…

Reporter: So at issue now are both Kapan and Meghri?

De Waal: Well, from Kapan basically, and these Azeris went to Baku and Sumgait. And I met an Azeri, sorry, an Armenian woman married to an Azeri, who said that she saw them at the railway station in Baku. So, I suppose there is evidence.

But since this became such an important issue in Armenia, my regret is that I did not do as much research on that particular issue. I did not go to Kapan.

For me, actually, it is not such a big issue. Because there were incidents, such as [anti-Armenian violence] in Chardakhlu [in Azerbaijan’s Shamkhor district in the fall of 1987] that pre-dated that. But obviously I can see where the Armenians are coming from, since if there was indeed violence in Kapan before February 1988 then that would mean that everything was not peaceful on the Armenian side before [Sumgait]. And that is very much a part of the Armenian narrative of Karabakh events – that “we are a peaceful people.” So I can see why this is an important point.

But I can just say that conflicts escalate gradually. They start with a smaller incident and lead to a bigger incident. And for met this was part of gradual escalation and I don’t particularly attach any great moral significance to that.

Reporter: The complaints from the Armenian side though focused on an impression that one might get from the book that events in Sumgait were being given same significance as whatever happened in Kapan, which was and still is largely unknown to most people on both sides. And that this was part of an effort to balance out the grievances…

De Waal: I am not trying to weigh one side against another. In any account of the war you will get a list of things from one and another side. But I am not making an effort to weigh them. Obviously, fewer people died in Sumgait than [during the Armenian capture of] Khojali, but I write more about Sumgait because it had more significance [for the conflict] and was kind of a “Chernobyl”* for the South Caucasus.

Reporter: On the Armenian side there have also been complaints about the book’s cover. [Note: The hardcover version has a picture of Shushi with a mosque front and center, and the Ghazanchetsots church in the background and barely visible. The paperback shows an Armenian volunteer with a machine gun and dead bodies in the background.]

De Waal: The hardcover was an attempt to contain both a mosque and a church, and it was in Shusha or Shushi and it summed up the complexity of the dispute. The paperback picture was picked out by my editor in New York who, since this was a book about war, though it better represented the drama. I don’t think the editor knew that this was a picture of an Armenian who participated in the killing of the Azeris.

Reporter: Well, that was in the way a problem. The picture’s caption identifies the man as Armenian and the civilian-looking dead behind him as Azeris, but without providing any context...

De Waal: As far as I am aware these were military people who have come down from Shushi and if they look civilian it is because the Azeri soldiers were so badly dressed.

[Note: The picture in question was taken by Jon Jones in January 1992 after Armenian self-defense forces beat back an Azeri attack on the Armenian village of Karintak, just outside Shushi.]

Reporter: So, Armenians complain that first impressions these covers leave is that this is either about a culturally Islamic region or about Armenian cruelty.

De Waal: I understand that. But there is also a certain game that people tend to play, counting the photographs, looking at indexes, and trying to see if I am biased towards one side or the other. And of course another accusation that I have is that I am trying to balance something that happened to one side, with something [similar] that happened to another.

And it is true that I do feel quite balanced in my views of the conflict. I spent so much time on both sides that I almost feel schizophrenic sometimes. On the other hand, I think there are things in the book that both Armenians and Azeris should be uncomfortable with. Because this is a war and nasty things happened.

And I kind of regret that there is almost no debate within the societies about what we have done wrong and what could have been done differently.

Reporter: Overall, what were the most vivid or memorable reactions that you got?

De Waal: Well, there were all kinds of reactions. That I work for Western intelligence services, that I am a Dashnak, or Armeniaphobe. But they are usually not really very specific.

In terms of positive reactions, I have heard from a couple of natives of Baku who left the city. They told me that finally they read a book that was about them and their experience. That they never felt part of the conflict and thought people around them have gone mad, and finally read a book that made them feel better about themselves.

Someone told me about a summer school here in U.S., where an Azeri student was lent a copy of the book and then disappeared for a few days and read it. And was very moved saying that he never knew about many of the things he read.

So, if it had a few readers like, then certainly it was worth it.

Reporter: Do you have any intention to build on this book. Take it into film, perhaps?

De Waal: Not really. To be honest I never expected such big impact in the region. It was more for the international audience. But I guess so little has been written about this conflict by non-partisan people or people who have been on both sides. And not to make a big thing out of it, in such a dry atmosphere it was like a glass of water.


Reporter: Several months ago, our newspaper (see January 27, 2007 Reporter) carried your commentary that expressed strong concerns about a potential new escalation over Karabakh. Where do you see the situation going?

De Waal: There is kind of paradoxical situation. There are different signs of progress. But even if status quo changes in a positive way, things are shaken up and expectations are heightened. There is quite a lot of talk from people involved in the peace process that there would be a framework agreement between Presidents Kocharian and Aliyev based on Prague principles, involving withdrawals from occupied territories, a promise of a referendum on status.

And obviously that would be the way forward. Two central elements which are self-determination for Karabakh Armenians and returns of Azeri refugees, anything that addresses those two issues would be very welcome for me.

But I am worried that the same problems as before persists and that the two societies are completely uninvolved in any discussions in the peace process. The presidents regard it as a signature on the dotted line and yet it is the people who have to make peace, not the presidents.

And there is a lot of potential for destabilization, both domestically and cross-border, if a peace process begins to be implemented without sufficient public support.

And the other thing that worries me is the way the Presidents may try to manipulate the international community, essentially holding them hostage and saying “you can’t do anything to me, because I am the key to the peace process.”

Things like the arrest of Aleksandr Arzumanian in Armenia is obviously a disturbing development. Politically I don’t see much improvement in Armenia. There is still quite a bit of harassment of the opposition. [Note: The conversation took place a day before the most recent Armenian elections.]

In Azerbaijan, it is even more of an isolationist attitude, thinking they have a lot more money now [from oil revenue] and could arrest anyone they want.

So trends are negative. And I don’t think the better economic conditions will necessarily improve chances for democracy. Just look at Russia.

Reporter: In terms of public perception, and from the Armenian perspective, the situation is really terrible in how the conflict is being portrayed in Azerbaijan. It has gone from being an issue over territory, which is bad enough, to a war against all ethnic Armenians that involves all ethnic Azeris.

De Waal: I agree. And what particularly worries me is that the new generation in Azerbaijan seems to me more aggressive than the generation which actually fought in the Karabakh war.

If you are from the older generation and you watch something about Armenia on the [Azerbaijani] news, you do not typically take it at face value, taking it as propaganda. And they could also refer to their own memories of Armenians that they knew and remember that relations used to be fine.

But if you are from a younger generation, all you know about the Armenians is that “they took our land” and “they committed a massacre at Khojali.” And I meet Azeri students in London who are extremely aggressive and that worries me, because sooner or later these two nations will have to begin living together and to have such an aggressive generation in Azerbaijan is a big problem.

Obviously in Armenia there are less aggressive feelings, probably because the war has been won. But there are similar issues in Armenia - complete mutual isolation and very little knowledge about the other side.

Reporter: In term of isolation, Azerbaijan forbids virtually all ethnic Armenians from entering Azerbaijan, no matter how apolitical or even unaware of the conflict they may be. Most recently there was a case of a Turkish musician who was barred because he has an Armenian name. That approach used to be the approach of marginal groups of pogromshiks in Azerbaijan and it has now become government policy, which is quite creepy.

How do you move away from this to a more normal interaction, considering that status quo in the conflict is likely to persist for some time?

De Waal: It has to start at the top. I think President Aliyev is in a very secure position politically. The opposition there is very weak. I think it should be perfectly possible to say, while in a way continuing the current policy and just change the language and to say: “We still want Karabakh, we still regard it as part of Azerbaijan and we still have very serious issues with the Armenians. However, we want to live with them together in the future… we regret this [conflict] as a tragic error…” Basically, at least to try to change the language. Unfortunately, there is a very macho culture in the Caucasus, whereby to talk about peace is seen as a sign of weakness.

I was recently reading John F. Kennedy’s 1963 speech on peace and I think they should look at that speech and see how he could, while talking about peace, project himself as a strong President.

* De Waal is referring to the 1986 nuclear power at the nuclear power plant in Chernobyl, Ukraine – the word began to be used to signify great calamities, both natural and man-made.

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