In his study of the Armenian-Azerbaijani violence of 1988-90, Laurence Broers argues that emotion-based political theories offer important insights into civilian on civilian violence, such as what had occurred in Sumgait in February 1988 early in the Karabakh conflict. Broers is an associate fellow atChatham House, a London think tank, and research associate at the University of London; he is also co-founder and editor-in-chief of the Caucasus Survey journal. The paper was presented at the conference on “Armenia: 25 years on, now what?” organized by the USC Institute of Armenian Studies on April 9-10.
Broers noted that most explanations of post-Soviet inter-ethnic violence rest on comparative studies that focus on state collapse and identity politics. He argued that conditions of state collapse were not present during the very early Karabakh-related violence in February 1988, calling for alternative explanations. Broers also pointed to dismissals of senior officials in both Soviet Armenia and Soviet Azerbaijan as evidence that fundamentally this violence was not in the interest of local elites and was therefore unlikely to be an outcome of elite manipulation.
Broers then turned to emotion-based explanations that form an important element of theories of nationalism and can offer an important insight into the early Armenian-Azerbaijani violence. Broers used the framework developed by MIT scholar Roger Petersen who examined the role of four emotions – fear, hatred, rage and resentment – as possible explanations behind such violence.
Most egregious cases of inter-communal violence in Azerbaijan and Armenia occurred fairly far away from Nagorno Karabakh itself, where violence was relatively limited in 1988-90. With a direct threat posed by targeted groups absent, Broers argued, violence was unlikely to have been motivated by fear.
In their works, Stuart Kaufmann, Ronald Grigor Suny and Thomas de Waal have pointed to hatred as driver of Armenian-Azerbaijani violence. Broers argued that in the case of Sumgait, resentment offers a better explanation. To support this view, Broers examined the context of Soviet Azerbaijan, where ethnic Armenians occupied a prominent, though by 1980s a declining place in local hierarchies, in a process he termed “delayed indigenisation.” Being particularly sensitive to the role of Armenians in their republic, ethnic Azerbaijanis perceived Armenian demands for Karabakh as challenging ethnic hierarchies, fueling resentment. Citing eyewitness accounts of Sumgait violence, Broers specifically challenged the view that that violence was revenge-based.
Turning to expulsion of Azerbaijanis from Armenia, Broers argued that hatred offered a better explanation there with Sumgait violence instantly framed in the context of Armenian genocide. Fear in turn provided a good explanation for inter-communal violence inside Karabakh itself, stemming particularly from uncertainties inherent in the local autonomous structure that did not establish clear ethnic hierarchies.