THE HISTORIC PHENOMENON OF SHUSHI: POLITICAL ASPECTS

By Manvel SARGSYAN
ACNIS, Director
Yerevan

In connection with the coming 20th anniversary of liberation of the town of Shushi by Armenian forces, we find it worth comprehending not only the significance of that event, but also to precisely clarifying the vital political significance of that fortress-town for the Armenian people from the historic point of view.

It is so important because studies have let us come to conclusions, appropriate for understanding the present age of the history of Armenian people. Such conclusions allow us to adequately evaluate the political importance of the fact that Shushi passed under the Armenian control on May 9, 1992.

The contemporary town of Shushi is certainly most of all associated with dreams of revival of the “destroyed paradise” – the return of the bygone culture and grandeur to this town. However, the researchers, studying all these ages, are inclined to stress the strategic importance of the fortress-town of Shushi not only for the fates of the Armenian people, but also all peoples of the region. This idea lies so deep in our consciousness and our lexicon that it is hardly who may raise the question ‘Why is Shushi so strategically important?’ However, those who raised it and tried to find the answer, presented two absolutely  unconvincing arguments, insisting that the strategic significance of Shushi fortress was based on the following circumstances:

a)  the fortress was situated on the important way, connecting the historic cities of Nakhijevan and the Ararat valley with the town of Barda in the Lowland Karabakh;

b)  it was the most impregnable and secure fortress of its time.

However, these characteristics are naïve enough to reveal the true essence of the strategic importance of Shushi for the Armenian people. First, any substantial transport way via the fortress of Shushi, to connect the mentioned historic provinces and towns, simply did not exist. A more or less usable road from Zangezur to Karabakh was for the first time constructed under the Russian rule in late 1800’s. Second, the special security and fortifications of the fortress can hardly be associated with its strategic importance, as far as all existing fortresses are supposed to have such qualities of security just by the reason that they are fortresses.

So it is necessary to search for some other reasons why this fortress, situated on the unassailable rock, was so powerful for many centuries, which later became one of the most developed towns in the Caucasus. Shushi, during its whole history, was not just one of many fortresses on the territory of the Eastern Armenia that functioned in the late medieval age and in the modern period of history. To the contrary, the studies allow us to state that Shushi was (and still is) a unique political entity, the role of which is still not fully comprehended, and its importance for the fate of the region still requires a special assessment.

There are quite a lot grounds to state that since its establishment in 1752 up to 1992 Shushi had been a springboard for the alien power in Karabakh and far beyond.  During the whole history, the mechanism of execution of that power actually turned this fortress (and later, the town) of Shushi into an instrument to enslave the Armenian population of that region. Up to its passage under the Armenian control, Shushi did not lose the function of power over the Armenian population, so the liquidation of that tool in 1992 should testify significant changes in the configuration of political interests in the region.

The correct understanding of the essence of the Shushi political phenomenon can provide us with the keys to decode the logic of many contemporary social-political processes in the South Caucasus (this modern term is used conventionally). To this end, we would try briefly characterize the essence of the mentioned mechanism for execution of the alien power and the role of Shushi in implementation of operation of that mechanism.

For us the most interesting are the following familiar historic facts:

– The foundation of the fortress of Shushi dates back to the period when Persia’s influence in the Caucasus started weakening,  while the central power was paralyzed for a short period of time (in the mid-1700’s)  because of the internal struggle for the Shah’s  throne;

– The fortress of Shushi was created as a result of an alliance of one of the influential Meliks (feudal lords) Melik-Shahnazar with the leader of the Turkic nomadic tribe Panakh. The alliance took place in 1752 in the period of intestine wars between the five Meliks and was aimed at subjugating the other Meliks by joint efforts of the allies;

– Panakh served at the Persian Shah’s court in the period up to the weakening of the central power in Persia, after which he became a leader of the mentioned nomadic tribe, reaching that position by means of intrigues and overthrowing its former leader;

– as a result of joint actions of the allies, the whole Artsakh fell under control of the fortress of Shushi. The Persian authorities recognized Panakh’s son – Ibrahim’s title as a khan, actually legalizing and supporting his power over Artsakh.

Thus, in the second half of the 18th century Persia encouraged establishment of a new mechanism for execution of its power in the central zone of the South Caucasus, and the role of the main instrument in that mechanism was provided to the fortress of Shushi. The Armenian population was taken under the political control by the externally supported power of Muslims. The strategic meaning of the fortress of Shushi is explained just by that. Such a mechanism was in effect until 1828, when Persians handed over the South Caucasus to Russia. However, the main function of the fortress of Shushi remained the same. As the time showed, the support to such a mechanism of the external control became advantageous to any power, having interests in this region.

Under the Russian rule, the structure of alien power was not changed.  The Russian administration “picked up” the already established government structure; so the power over the Armenian population was executed by means of the privileged stratum of Muslims. Only the shape of government changed: the military-political mechanisms were substituted for the economic one. Let us briefly describe how it changed.

In the land policy, the right for almost all lands in the Karabakh province was handed over to the members of the khan family of Shushi and many ordinary Muslims. That stratum of Muslims got the status of Beys, and almost all Armenian villages were given as property to Muslim Beys, who lived in the fortress of Shushi. The dependence of the whole Nagorno Karabakh from Shushi was preserved and continued playing the function of a power instrument. The financial means of the whole Lowland Karabakh flew to Shushi, contributing to creation of a prosperous town here. However, even in the period when the town of Shushi was most prosperous in 19th century, when the role of the fortress finally faded away, Armenians, getting quite a lot of possibilities to develop their culture, were still economically enslaved, as far as all financial and economical capabilities of the region were concentrated in the hands of Muslim Beys. The situation remained such even in the period when Armenian capital prevailed in many basic cities of the South Caucasus.

Nothing changed in the next age either. After the establishment of the Soviet power in the South Caucasus, the traditional role of Shush was also preserved. The mechanism of execution of power even got a more universal shape, providing an effective lever of government for the new Soviet power in the whole South Caucasus. The government over Nagorno Karabakh was conducted by establishment of Azerbaijan’s control over it, providing Moscow with an impeccable lever of pressure on both Armenians and Azerbaijanis. In such a mechanism Shushi, which was included into NKAO in 1923, once again became a new instrument for controlling Nagorno Karabakh Armenians, now by Azerbaijan. The town became a center of a separate administrative region of NKAO, predominantly populated by Azerbaijanis. This circumstance allowed Azerbaijan to implement lots of anti-Armenian measures throughout 70 years of Soviet government.

The presented brief characteristic quite convincingly shows that the main function of the fortress-town of Shushi during its whole history was executing power in the region. That is why this fortress had always been an alien element in the social organization of the Armenian people. Apparently, this circumstance with its centuries-long history had created strong stereotypes of a nihilistic perception of the Shushi image by Nagorno Karabakh Armenians. It could be noticed that in the consciousness of the generation of 1990’s, Shushi had the image of an ‘enemy bastion.”

So in relation of the above arguments, the following question arises: what obvious conclusions can be have against the backdrop of the fact that Shushi has been fully controlled by Armenians since May 1992?

First, it is possible to state it is the fact that the above-described traditional mechanism of executing power over Armenians has been fully eliminated, and at the same time, that mechanism of executing power in the South Caucasus has been qualitatively transformed into a new one, now in the shape of the Karabakh conflict. It is clear that the external interest toward the century long instrument, i.e. Shushi, – has been finally lost, which is the result of the radical revision of its position by Russia. Emergence of the armed conflict as a new form of control over the region has preserved a much narrower role of Shushi as a tool of a diplomatic pressure on the parties to the conflict. Now it is not Shushi itself, but its myth possesses a real force in the relations of the peoples of the region and those, who still have their own interests here.

One should not think that a new role of Shushi is less effective than the traditional role. At least, the importance of the Shushi problem in the negotiations on the settlement of the Karabakh conflict does not leave any doubts that it is true. It is obvious that the powers concerned wish to lay perspective models of irresolvable problems into the sphere of interrelations of the peoples in the region. If such a diplomatic trend continues, the Shushi problem can become a new “headache” of the Armenian people.

Anyway, today we are witnessing how the obsolete geopolitical mechanisms are outdated and new ones are emerging. The liquidation of one of the most important springboards of the alien power on the territory of the Eastern Armenia is the first significant manifestation of our time, the evidence of a new configuration of forces and a new political status of the Armenian factor in the regional affairs, more favorable for it. At the same time, the trend of transformation of old problems into new myths always exists to serve unrestrained alien interests in the South Caucasian region.

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