No Comment — March 13, 2008, 7:30 am

Armenia and the Unfinished Business of Ethnonationalism

Catholic University historian Jerry Z. Muller writes in the current issue of Foreign Affairs that Americans have a tendency to under-assess the importance of nationalism as a political force around the world. Indeed, he takes a particular focus on ethnic nationalism—the tendency to define the nation-state in terms of a particular ethnic group.

Americans also find ethnonationalism discomfiting both intellectually and morally. Social scientists go to great lengths to demonstrate that it is a product not of nature but of culture, often deliberately constructed. And ethicists scorn value systems based on narrow group identities rather than cosmopolitanism.

But none of this will make ethnonationalism go away. Immigrants to the United States usually arrive with a willingness to fit into their new country and reshape their identities accordingly. But for those who remain behind in lands where their ancestors have lived for generations, if not centuries, political identities often take ethnic form, producing competing communal claims to political power. The creation of a peaceful regional order of nation-states has usually been the product of a violent process of ethnic separation. In areas where that separation has not yet occurred, politics is apt to remain ugly.

A familiar and influential narrative of twentieth-century European history argues that nationalism twice led to war, in 1914 and then again in 1939. Thereafter, the story goes, Europeans concluded that nationalism was a danger and gradually abandoned it. In the postwar decades, western Europeans enmeshed themselves in a web of transnational institutions, culminating in the European Union (EU). After the fall of the Soviet empire, that transnational framework spread eastward to encompass most of the continent. Europeans entered a postnational era, which was not only a good thing in itself but also a model for other regions. Nationalism, in this view, had been a tragic detour on the road to a peaceful liberal democratic order.

Muller’s thesis seems instinctively right. In fact, modern history has known a number of waves of strong nationalism—usually ethnically defined—following the collapse of empires. Certainly this was an important aspect of the troubles that followed the end of the Great War, which witnessed the birth of an array of new nation-states in the rubble of the great empires that perished.

One of those nations was Armenia, to which Muller gives only passing mention. By one measure, of course, Armenia is a very ancient nation, hardly something modern. It was chronicled and discussed by writers of antiquity, and was identified around 300 CE as the first nation to adopt Christianity as its state religion. Armenian states rose and fell over the centuries and the location of Armenia on the map kept moving—though it usually fell in a swath between the Mediterranean and the Caucasus Mountains. As the modern age arrived, Armenia was divided between three empires—the Ottomans, the Russians and the Persians. But ancient as the nation was, in terms of statehood under the Westphalian system, it has been a fairly marginal and modern appearance. The Armenian Republic was founded in the waning days of the Great War, but maintained its independence only fleetingly before being reincorporated into Turkey and appearing, albeit as a nominally autonomous republic, as a part of the Soviet state.

I visited Armenia in 1992, and met with Levon Ter-Petrosian, the head of the Armenian National Movement and the nation’s president as it achieved its independence once more in the collapse of the Soviet Union. I remember spending part of an afternoon with the chain-smoking Ter-Petrosian, listening to him discuss Armenia’s drive to reemerge on the world stage. He presented it in existential terms—the aspirations for statehood were necessary for the survival of the Armenians as a people, he said, a people which had suffered genocidal assaults earlier in the century. Ter-Petrosian was and is an old-school nationalist, and indeed like European nationalists of the nineteenth century, he was drawn, as a philologist, to the glory days of Armenian statehood in the Middle Ages. Much as Ter-Petrosian likes politics, one of his aides told me, his passion was for manuscripts and historical documents of the past—he was and is a leading historian of the Armenian role in the Crusades.

As the Soviet Union flickered, nationalist flames were lit across Eurasia. But nowhere were those flames brighter than in Armenia. And the nation’s problems were likewise tied into its nationalist rhetoric, in particular the struggle over Nagorno-Karabakh, which the Armenians called Artsakh. Armenians prevailed in that struggle, at least so far, but the success had bitter notes. It left the Caucasus in a state of constant low-level warfare, and Armenia, first nationalized, soon became militarized. Levon Ter-Petrosian fell and in his place came a new, violent government. The present government has democratic aspects, but its critics are very blunt—they call it a military dictatorship.

About eighteen months back, I was in Erevan again on business, working in an office around the corner from the home of the great composer Aram Khachaturian. As usual, I found no shortage of intellectually active and extraordinarily cultured people to speak with. But attitudes about the future were dark and bleak. A constant topic of conversation was emigration, and especially to the United States. Most Armenians, of course, live in the diaspora. In fact current population statistics are a much fought over fact and the strong suspicion is that Armenia has been hemorrhaging for years as the youth seek out superior economic opportunities overseas, and as well as in Russia, with which Armenia retains very favorable relations. One of my interlocutors told me he had a clear sense of how things would unfold over the next years. There would be new elections, and while there was a growing thirst for reform and change, they would witness an electoral spectacle, but no real elections. A few people would make a stand for democracy, like the one mounted in Ukraine and Georgia, but this would be repressed violently. “The wolves are in charge,” he said, “and they won’t leave.”


This bleak prognosis seems to have been borne out. On February 19, presidential elections were held, resulting in a game of musical chairs in which the prior power-holders moved around a bit. Former President Ter-Petrosian stood as the candidate of a united opposition. The officially reported returns showed a victory for the powers in place, and observers from the OSCE raised only mild criticism of the vote right in its wake, though over time they seem to have reassessed and sharpened their criticism. Others, including the opposition, said the results were rigged.

The New York Times called the situation just right in an editorial on March 7.

The democracy that Armenians dreamed of during their long decades under Moscow’s yoke is slipping away. After opponents challenged last month’s flawed presidential election, the government imposed a brutal state of emergency. At least eight people are now dead, independent news outlets throttled and all protests silenced. President Bush and other Western leaders need to make clear to Armenia’s government that such behavior is unacceptable and will jeopardize future relations. Compared to post-Soviet tyrannies like Belarus or Uzbekistan, Armenia may not look so bad. That is why it is so important to halt this slide into authoritarianism before it is too late.

But this brings me back to Prof. Muller:

Ethnonationalism was not a chance detour in European history: it corresponds to some enduring propensities of the human spirit that are heightened by the process of modern state creation, it is a crucial source of both solidarity and enmity, and in one form or another, it will remain for many generations to come. One can only profit from facing it directly.

It seems hard to argue with this thesis, and it seems hard to doubt that Armenia’s successes and problems are tied very closely to ethnonationalism. But this analysis doesn’t get us too far in the end. Armenia is an amazingly homogenous state in ethnic terms, and ethnonationalism seems to be a common denominator. After all, both Ter Petrosian and the new president, Serge Sargsyan, are adept at using the language of nationalism.

I asked Prof. Muller to take a look at the developments of the last month in Armenia. What does this suggest to him about his thesis on ethnonationalism? Here’s what he had to say:

My thesis was that ethnonationalism is an important issue that Americans tend to discount, not that it is the source of or solution to all of the world’s problems. The issue of the suppression of political freedom in Armenia which you describe is probably due to factors having little connection to ethnic nationalism. But some connections do come to mind.

For the first five years of its brief history, the post-Soviet Republic of Armenia was focused on the recovery of Nagorno-Karabakh from Azerbaijan, a region which had an Armenian majority (and had been part of Armenia in the past). This phenomenon of irredentism (the desire to recapture a territory which has been part of the nation in the past), is a characteristic nationalist phenomenon, which is all the more potent when the lost region is inhabited by co-ethnics, as in this case. This focus on recovering lost territory and population tends toward militarization — as you have described it in the Armenian case. This ethnonationally-based territorial dispute, in turn, led to a blockade by Azerbaijan, cutting off the flow of goods across its border with Armenia. Turkey imposed a blockade as well. (It needs to be added that the tension between Turkey and Armenia is due in large part to a struggle over historical memory, an issue to which I’ll return in a moment.) The resulting decline in trade (Armenia is a landlocked nation) has no doubt harmed the country’s economic performance and prospects, making it all the less attractive as a place to live and enhancing the outmigration to which you refer.
Another characteristic element of ethnonationalism is the phenomenon of diasporas, i.e. co-ethnic living beyond the border of the homeland.

This is particularly striking in the case of the Armenians: of the roughly nine million Armenians in the world, about a third live in the Republic of Armenia, the other six million abroad, including hundreds of thousands in the US and in western Europe. In recent decades the Armenian diaspora has become politically well-organized. Yet its focus has been almost entirely on winning international recognition and commemoration of the Turkish murder of over a million Armenians during World War One (the Armenian Genocide). One might say that the Armenian diaspora suffers from a surfeit of memory. For in the politics of the Armenian diaspora, this issue seems to eclipse every other. If you look on the websites of leading Armenian associations, for example, you will see a great deal about the Armenian Genocide Resolution, but very little about the contemporary suppression of democracy within Armenia that you describe. This resolute focus upon the (very real) wounds of the past is not unique to the Armenian diaspora, but seems to be more intense there than in other diasporas. Jewish diasporic organizations, for example, certainly emphasize the commemoration of the Nazi murder of the Jews. But they don’t typically ignore the internal problems of the state of Israel.

Again, ethnonationalism doesn’t explain the problems of Armenian democracy that you describe, but it does play a role.

This analysis seems spot-on to me. Are Armenian politics captive to ethnic nationalist formulas? Has the country failed to engage creatively and pragmatically with its international challenges because it is a prisoner of nationalist ideology? That doesn’t address all of the country’s problems, but it does seem undeniably a part of them.

Single Page

More from Scott Horton:

Context, No Comment August 28, 2015, 12:16 pm

Beltway Secrecy

In five easy lessons

From the April 2015 issue

Company Men

Torture, treachery, and the CIA

Six Questions October 18, 2014, 8:00 pm

The APA Grapples with Its Torture Demons: Six Questions for Nathaniel Raymond

Nathaniel Raymond on CIA interrogation techniques.

Get access to 165 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada



September 2015

Weed Whackers

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Tremendous Machine

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

A Goose in a Dress

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Genealogy of Orals

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content


Romancing Kano·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

I recently spent a semester teaching writing at an elite liberal-arts college. At strategic points around the campus, in shades of yellow and green, banners displayed the following pair of texts. The first was attributed to the college’s founder, which dates it to the 1920s. The second was extracted from the latest version of the institution’s mission statement:

The paramount obligation of a college is to develop in its students the ability to think clearly and independently, and the ability to live confidently, courageously, and hopefully.


Let us take a moment to compare these texts. The first thing to observe about the older one is that it is a sentence. It expresses an idea by placing concepts in relation to one another within the kind of structure that we call a syntax. It is, moreover, highly wrought: a parallel structure underscored by repetition, five adverbs balanced two against three.

The Prisoner of Sex·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“It is disappointing that parts of Purity read as though Franzen urgently wanted to telegraph a message to anyone who would defend his fiction from charges of chauvinism: ‘No, you’ve got me wrong. I really am sexist.’”
Illustration by Shonagh Rae
Gangs of Karachi·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“In Karachi, sometimes only the thinnest of polite fictions separates the politicians from the men who kill and extort on their behalf.”
Photograph © Asim Rafiqui/NOOR Images
Weed Whackers·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“Defining 'native' and 'invasive' in an ever-shifting natural world poses some problems. The camel, after all, is native to North America, though it went extinct here 8,000 years ago, while the sacrosanct redwood tree is invasive, having snuck in at some point in the past 65 million years.”
Photograph by Chad Ress
The Neoliberal Arts·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“College is seldom about thinking or learning anymore. Everyone is running around trying to figure out what it is about. So far, they have come up with buzzwords, mainly those three.”
Artwork by Julie Cockburn

Percentage of Britons who cannot name the city that provides the setting for the musical Chicago:


An Australian entrepreneur was selling oysters raised in tanks laced with Viagra.

A naked man believed to be under the influence of LSD rammed his pickup truck into two police cars.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!


Subways Are for Sleeping


“Shelby is waiting for something. He himself does not know what it is. When it comes he will either go back into the world from which he came, or sink out of sight in the morass of alcoholism or despair that has engulfed other vagrants.”

Subscribe Today