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“Imperial Mindsets Survive Empires”: Gerard Libaridian on South Caucasus After USSR Collapsed

Imperial mindsets survive empires, as do imperial rivalries in collective memory, in historiography and in policy making often long after empires are gone. This was said by former senior advisor to the president of Armenia (1994–1997) Gerard (Jirayr) Libaridian (pictured) during his keynote speech at a conference titled "The Clash of Empires: World War I and the Middle East" held in Cambridge, UK, from June 13–14.

Turning his attention to the collapse of the USSR, Libaridian notes that in 1991, it seemed to some that there was a "power vacuum" in some parts of the world.

"Let’s take the South Caucasus, a region I know better than I know others. So we reach the end of 1991 and there is no longer a USSR; the former superpower has been reduced to less than a third rate power, except for its nuclear arsenal, and is withdrawing militarily from the South Caucasus, though not completely. What did the other former empires, Iran and Turkey do? They sensed a vacuum and reverted immediately back to their imperial past and thought of the region as a prize to be won, a region where they could reassert their influence, even if as a shadow of their former selves.

"This was the beginning of the nostalgia for empire which got nowhere because the absence of Russia in the region was a temporary setback, if not an illusion. But the imperial past was not an illusion for these two so-called nation-states. It was a model that was suggesting certain policies," he said.

According to the Armenian-American historian, more recently, the governments of these three former empires (Iran, Turkey, and Russia) express such behavior that transcends the feeling of nostalgia: "in some cases they have graduated from the sphere of sentimental attachment to actual policies of re-creation, in some form or another, of empires. Particularly in Russia and Turkey we now have governments that consider their imperial heritage a positive capital that justifies their renewed attempts at domination over neighbors."

"Let me also state that in my view this nostalgia is due not so much to the greatness of these empires but to the failure of the political imagination of major players on the world stage — the US, Russia, Europe and China — who did not know how to benefit from the window of opportunity for a new world order created by the collapse of the Soviet Union," he said.

In Libaridian's view, if there had been a serious critique of the imperial past of these states, we might've had a different model of behavior.

"Iranian policy makers and scholars looked upon Persian rule over the South Caucasus until 1828 as a period of benevolent government where Armenians and Muslims did not fight as they were now doing in Karabakh, where a fatherly and benevolent metropolis had managed differences wisely. And Turkish scholars argued that the Ottoman millet system had been a most benevolent system that tolerated non-Muslims to exist, as a favor, that Ottoman period was a good one, even if at the end even some of their subject peoples were denied their existence. And they implied, as did policy makers, that the extension of Turkish influence on the new republics could be the basis for peace, security and stability in the South Caucasus. Just as the Iranians had argued. Except that the Iranians had argued in favor of the restoration of an Iranian influence based on an economic common space. Turkey, more attuned to NATO terminology, promoted the idea of a common 'security' space. 

"We know that none of that came to pass, although Iran kept an even presence in all three republics and Turkey made headways in Georgia and Azerbaijan. But at the end none of that translated into a new Iranian or Turkish sphere of influence. The latter may have happened if Turkey had resolved its problems with Armenia for the sake of greater stakes in the region. 

"Fast forward to a decade or more. Russia has come back with a vengeance. Not that it was absent during this period; it is just that it was biding its time, trying to find the right leader, the right moment, the right justification.

"And now we have a slightly different situation in two ways. The vague notion of influence is replaced in Russia and Turkey with a genuine sense of nostalgia for the lost empires. In Erdogan and Putin we have leaders whose visions correspond roughly to the lost empires, the Ottoman and Russian/Soviet. And make no mistake about it, these are visions, fed by nostalgia but not limited to it. History—which includes the mess these empires left behind them– is being used to promote policies that are inspired by visions of empire redux in the name of whatever can be used: protection of ethnic Russians, Russian speakers, if not inherited natural rights over peoples and territories," he said.

The historian concludes his speech by raising the following questions: "What is the responsibility of historians and social scientists in the resurgence of imperial solutions to evaluate the present based on the past through critical lenses? Could things have been different in Russia and Turkey had historians and other social scientists been more critical assessors of imperial history, especially when educating the new generations in schools?"

He concludes: "First, we do not do well as historians when we take for granted the values of the people and institutions we are supposed to study. Second, to the extent that differences in the presentation of history are engendered by actual differences in the understanding of history and not by politics, we should find ways to bridge those differences by going deeper into history, by filling in the lacunae in our knowledge and by questioning the biases in our perspectives and not by expecting that we split the difference. And third, what we say about the past may have an impact on the future; successor states to empires with nostalgic feelings and impulse for empire may be relying on us to legitimize the imperial past and justify current policies. What we say and what we write matters for the future and not just the past."