Sociologist Georgi Derluguian in his widely cited book “Bourdieu’s Secret Admirer in the Caucasus” (Verso, 2004), pp. 191-194 relates his meeting with then Nagorno Karabakh leader Robert Kocharyan:
“In July 1994 I was in Karabagh and had an unusually candid conversation with Robert Kocharyan, who was then the Chairman of Karabagh’s State Defense Committee (which had deliberately adopted Stalin’s main title during the Great Patriotic War of 1941–1945).
“At first, Kocharyan impolitely refused his foreign policy advisor who, feeling terribly impressed by my coming from America, volunteered as intermediary (this hospitable woman only recently was a teacher of German). I didn’t consider Kocharyan’s refusal a pity – encounters with officials usually force you to listen to statements rehearsed for journalists. The Karabagh leader himself sent for me when he learned that I had also been to Abkhazia and Chechnya – he avidly wanted insider information about these comparable conflicts. Excusing himself, Kocharyan offered his devastating critique of applied social science: I am visited by hordes of scholars from all those Harvard-marvard Oxford-shmoksford foreign universities, who come to teach me about conflict resolution, minority rights, and such like. In very learned language they tell me everything that I already know. But they don’t know themselves what I don’t know but want to know. Compared with the rest of the Karabagh officials, Kocharyan cut an impressive figure, albeit with a distinctly Machiavellian air.
“Kocharyan’s biography provides a good illustration of the dilemmas faced by the Armenian nomenklatura in Karabagh. After mandatory military service, he tried to get into the university in Baku, but lacking connections and the money to pay for tutoring he was failed twice in the entrance examinations. So instead Kocharyan took a correspondence course for a degree in engineering from the Yerevan Polytechnic, but once qualified could not get a job in Armenia because he lacked connections there as well. Besides, he knew Russian and the Karabagh dialect of Armenian but felt uneasy speaking, let alone writing, in the literary Armenian of Yerevan. A smart and energetic careerist, Kocharyan managed to advance in his native province to the rank of First Secretary of Karabagh’s Komsomol (Young Communist League). When he turned thirty-six, it was time to leave the youth organization, but no openings were available for further promotion within the nomenklatura.
“Since 1974 Karabagh had been dominated by a tight circle of officials, who were ethnic Armenians but had all been appointed from Baku and owed allegiance to Azerbaijan. They did not even speak Armenian, because in multi-ethnic Baku everybody communicated in Russian. Moreover, they were personal clients of the mighty Heydar Aliyev. In 1987 Gorbachev retired Aliyev from his Politburo position, and it was then that the native Karabagh nomenklatura decided to act.
“Kocharyan admitted that it all started as a carefully planned, albeit provincially naïve, bureaucratic insurgency.** In November–December 1987 the ethnic Armenian officials from Karabagh secretly traveled to Moscow seeking, through ethnic ties and bureaucratic acquaintances, to acquire patronage in Gorbachev’s circle. Back in Karabagh, the insurgent bureaucrats directed their administrative resources to sponsoring popular rallies. They hoped that, in the new spirit of democratization, these rallies would provide Gorbachev with evidence of popular support for the administrative transfer of the Autonomous Province of Nagorno Karabagh from the Soviet Socialist Republic of Azerbaijan to the Soviet Socialist Republic of Armenia – a simple decision, they thought, especially since Gorbachev’s key political advisor, Georgi Shahnazarov, was also from Karabagh.***
“An old nurse at whose home I stayed, and who seemed an improbable rebel, was genuinely surprised at my question about her decision to participate in the first protest rallies: How could I not? Surely I am an Armenian. Our nation has suffered so much in the past, and besides it was our party secretary from the hospital who told us to go to the public meeting, just as usual.
“Robert Kocharyan, however, admitted with a chuckle that if the first rally had met with KGB repression, he would have run home, shut the doors and blinds, and hoped that they hadn’t noticed him. Precisely because no serious repression followed in the wake of the first, or the second, or the tenth rally, or even after the Armenian and Azeri villagers began fighting each other with sticks**** and later with shotguns, Kocharyan began to realize that Moscow might cease to be relevant to their conflict. The older Karabagh nomenklatura could not admit such a possibility and stayed firm in the belief that their conflict with Baku would be mediated by the “Center” in Moscow. At this time Kocharyan began to make secret preparations for a real war, and this foresightedness, he claims, is what allowed him to become leader despite his relatively young age. […]
“Even during the Karabagh War of 1990–1994 we can find anecdotes that attest to an enduring sympathy between the two ethnic groups. For instance, an Armenian colonel after a battle could call his Azeri counterpart on the radio and, politely addressing him in Azeri, ask him to remove his snipers for the night. The Azeri colonel, greeting his enemy in Armenian, agreed that if they were now killing each other in battle, the least they could do was allow their soldiers to relieve themselves in the bushes without anyone getting killed with his pants down. These two officers had once attended the same military academy in Baku.
“In 1994 Robert Kocharyan told me that, of course, he knew of many such episodes at the front and regarded them as normal, even useful. If in the beginning of the conflict, said Kocharyan, his foresight was to prepare for war, in the end it would be necessary to prepare for peace. This, however, remains a distant prospect.”
*Kocharyan does not mention this in his memoirs, he reveals instead that he was expelled from a Moscow college over a fight, and then – after completion of military service and insistence of his parents- enrolled in the Yerevan Polytechnic Institute.
**There were other factors not mentioned here as well and the campaign for Karabakh’s unification with Armenia had been ongoing for years before 1987.
***Shahnazarov was born in Baku, with roots in Karabakh.
****Fighting with sticks quickly followed first peaceful protests, with first violent clash taking place in Askeran on February 22, 1988.