Reviews

The thorny question of Higher-Qarabakh, contested by Armenia and Azerbaijan for almost two decades, is at the core of the present work, that his author has tried to make as objective as possible.  Having travelled up and down Qarabakh many times, dissected the recently opened Politburo archive for the 1980s, pursued numerous protagonists and witnesses of the conflict—whether military or not—, Thomas De Waal gets as close as possible to the heart of the problem, and provides us with one of the most serious, to this date, description of this tragedy.  His well-documented and precise account is articulated on the alternation of different levels: those of personal experiments, of military logics, and of political decisions, offering a deep and captivating narrative that avoids the traps of simple chronology.  In quest of objectivity, he has been trying to take the head out of the debate, rejecting the mythologies and legends that have been built up on both sides.  Contrary to widespread beliefs, he shows that the common hatred between the two neighbouring peoples is by far not as ancient as it is often proclaimed:  It is not older than the nineteenth century and it is in the early Soviet period that tension materialised, about newly introduced territorial divisions.  As to the origins of the war between the two Soviet republics from 1988 onwards, they are situated in the minor incidents that degenerated then into an open conflict because of the incapacity, or unwillingness of the central power to contain violence—so criticising the commonly accepted thesis of a conflict initially stirred up by Moscow.  This did not prevent both Armenian and Azerbaijani critics to reproach the author a partisan position.  The book’s appendixes with the figures of 700,000 refugees (instead of the million claimed by Baku), and of 14 percent of occupied national territory (instead of the official 20 percent) do not go down well with Azerbaijani authorities.  The author’s exact considerations over the Armenian architectural heritage of the Qarabakh also contradict official history as it is now written in Azerbaijan, characterised by its exclusive insistence on the Albanian civilisation of the Caucasus.  Last, the author’s elements on the premeditation or, at least, preparation of the anti-Armenian pogrom of Sumgait has been emphatically refuted.  As to the Armenian polemists, they already contest the book’s juxtaposition of facts such as the Armenian massacres of 1915 and the more recent anti-Azerbaijani violence in the Qarabagh and in Erevan itself.  Of course, the author can be criticised notably for having offered a tribune to internationally contested figures of both nationalist movements.  However, beyond the polemics that this publication has already been fuelling on both sides of a problematic boundary, the author’s balanced narrative, based on a patient research in archive and oral history, written in a clear style, enriched by two most useful maps, a chronology and an index, appears as one of the main contributions to an overall understanding of the history of the Qarabagh War, of its sources, chronology, consequences, and possible solutions.

Bayram Balci, French Institute of Central Asian Studies, Tashkent
CER: I-8.3.C-712