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The Politics of Place Names in Armenia and the Region


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The Politics of Place Names in Armenia a
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CaucasusTalks conducted an interview with independent scholar Husik Ghulyan on the politics of place-name (toponym) changes in Armenia and the wider region. Husik Ghulyan specializes in the politics of space, the geography of nation-state building, political geography and urban & environmental studies.


1. You recently published a paper on the Armenianization of place names in the Republic of Armenia in the past few decades. Can you briefly describe the motivations behind this practice and how exactly it is implemented?


The paper, entitled “Conceiving homogenous state-space for the nation: the nationalist discourse on autochthony and the politics of place-naming in Armenia” that I recently published in Central Asian Survey presents and discusses the results of the study I conducted over the last two years. It aims to understand the motivations behind the place-(re)naming policies in Armenia and put them in relevant conceptual frames. As the study revealed, during 2006-2018, there was a systematic practice in Armenia that attempted to replace all the ‘non-Armenian’ geographical names in the country with names considered ‘Armenian’ by the entities involved in this process. As a result of those policies, the names of 8,910 geographical objects were changed in the country. That figure accounts for 31.9% of all geographical names in the country. What is interesting is that the place renaming policies in the country was conducted based on an elaborately designed legal framework. In that legal framework, particularly, the Law of the Republic of Armenia on Geographic Names, there is a designation of ‘foreign’ and ‘inharmonious’ names. Moreover, the entities involved in the policies of renaming, in various instances, also pointed out that the renaming practices in the country were conducted to replace those ‘foreign’ and ‘inharmonious’ names. Thus, to understand what is meant by those terms, one needs to systematically track and analyze the actual renamings implemented. The analysis of all implemented renamings thus revealed the motivations of the entities involved, as well as the geographical scope of those practices. The study showed that nearly all changed geographical names were of Turkic (mostly Azerbaijani), Russian and Kurdish association.


Image 1. Geographical distribution of the intensity of renamings (percentage of objects renamed)


Image 2. Geographical distribution of Turkic toponyms (percentage of all names)


There is a previous study by Arsene Saparov about place-naming policies in Soviet Armenia. According to Saparov’s main conclusion, the ‘anti-Turkish’ sentiment conditioned predominantly by the experience of the Armenian Genocide, and which, according to him, was the important direction for Armenian nationalism in Soviet Armenia, was one of the main motivations for renaming place names in Soviet Armenia. Namely, place-renaming in Soviet Armenia was mainly conducted to replace the Turkic names with Armenian ones. What I point out in my recent paper is that in modern Armenia, the ‘anti-Turkish’ sentiments again reappear as an important direction in recent renaming practices. However, the changes to Russian and Kurdish toponymic layers and their ‘Armenianization’ shows that there is also another kind of motivation behind those changes. That motivation I consider in the context of the discourse on autochthony as one of the underpinnings of Armenian nationalism. This discourse is first and foremost about geography and territory, and I argued that such a discourse was the major determinant of recent place-renaming policies. To put it in a simpler language, under such a discourse the land/territory is seen to belong to the ‘autochthonous’ people by their ‘birth’ and ‘origin’, and anything that relates to a ‘non-autochthonous’ people is considered ‘foreign’ and ‘inharmonious’. Since according to the nationalist discourse of autochthony, Armenians consider themselves as the native and primordial ‘owners’ of the territory, they also consider themselves to have the right to rename anything that is ‘non-Armenian’. That is why we see a situation wherein not only Turkic names have been changed in the country, but also the Russian and Kurdish/Yezidi names - in communities where there are substantial Russian/Molokan and Yezidi population.


Image 3. Geographical distribution of Russian geographical names (percentage of all names).


This is a pattern that substantially departs from similar practices in Soviet Armenia. For example, in Soviet Armenia, when a decision was made to rename a Russian or Turkic name, they changed them into another Russian or Turkic name considering the local context and they usually did not change an Azerbaijani place-name if it was an Azerbaijani populated place. However, in independent Armenia, we see that they changed anything that is considered ‘non-Armenian’, even in places where Yezidi and Russian/Molokan populations dominate or have substantial communities.

That is why I found it more suitable to consider the issue in the context of the nationalist discourse on autochthony because the concept of autochthony is first and foremost a spatially bounded conception. Armenians as a titular nation, with their claim of being autochthonous people, considered themselves to have the right to rename anything that relates to ‘non-autochthonous’ people, thus changing even place names that are associated with their fellow Russian/Molokan and Yezidi citizens. And this raises the issue of those peoples’ right to representation in the national space and reproduces the relations of domination and exclusion that existed since the Soviet times as a part of the Soviet policies of nativization [коренизация] and national-territorial delimitation [национально-территориальное размежевание].


It should be pointed out that the critical issue is not whether Armenians are autochthonous people in the region or the fact that Armenians compared with other major ethnic groups inhabiting the territory of Armenia (such as Kurds/Yezidis and Russians/Molokans) are relatively earlier inhabitants of the region. The critical issue is the implications of such discourse on autochthony in terms of (re)producing the relations of exclusion and domination in the country.


Here I should point out that my object of enquiry was the name changes to physical geographical objects. I did not analyze the changes to settlement names. The latter has different legal and procedural frames in Armenia. In Armenia, the (re)naming of streets, avenues, squares, parks, and educational, cultural, and other organizations of community subordination falls within the purview of local self-government authorities and is regulated by the law on local self-government. The law on local self-government also regulates the renaming of community/settlement names. Besides, to rename a settlement or community, the consent of that community is required. As a result, we have a case of the city of Alaverdi in Armenia. Alaverdi is one of few settlements in Armenia that still has a Turkic name (Allahverdi) because all the attempts of the central government to change the name of the city have been opposed by the community. At the same time, some have tried to explain the name of Alaverdi with Armenian etymology, thus opposing its renaming rather than being comfortable with a Turkic name. I think this is also important and one should bear this in mind.


Anyway, my object of enquiry was the name changes to physical geographical objects which were implemented with an elaborately designed legal and administrative framework, through a rational practice and with experts entitled to delineate what is ‘foreign’ and ‘inharmonious’. Also, the scope and the systematic nature of those changes is important. Because, as I pointed out above, more than 8,900 names were changed in the country in the last two decades. It was done systematically and the geographic scope of those changes involved the entire territory of the country. Singular cases of renaming places and their signification and discussions evolving around them are very important, as in the case of Alaverdi. But the systematic nature and changes to names of physical geographical objects in Armenia invite us to discuss the issue in the wider framework of nation-state-building, governmentality of space, and nationalism. That is why in my paper I tried to put the issue in the context of relevant theoretical and conceptual frameworks, namely in the context of such notions as the Foucauldian raison d’état as a practice of governmentality, Lefebvrean abstract space of the nation-state conceived by experts, and nationalist discourse on autochthony.


2. Are the designation of “foreign” and “native” names based on etymological, cultural or other explanations?


My study was not an etymological one, rather I focused on the associations and significations of the names and their change due to exactly those associations and significations. Etymology is beyond my area of expertise and the studies on etymology and other linguistic aspects of place-names in Armenia are abundant in local academic journals.


Interestingly, many new ‘Armenian’ names replaced ‘foreign’ names, but in terms of etymology, those names are not Armenian names. That is why the focus should be on place-naming processes as consisting of specific discourses, actors, and institutions involved, rather than on place names per se. In other words, more important is how some names are changed because of their apparent signification or association or how some names are appropriated regardless of being ‘non-Armenian’. To return to the case of Alaverdi, we see that in this case, etymologically it is a non-Armenian name and ironically Alaverdi city never had a substantial Turkic or Muslim population. The central government wanted to change it, it failed, but even those who opposed this change tried to substantiate their opposition by imputing Alaverdi with an Armenian association and signification. Another case is Sardarapat/Sardarabad, which is etymologically a Persian name, but it is associated with one of the most important events in Armenian history. That is why no one would dare to elaborate upon changing the name of the village of Sardarapat, even the most nationalist people, because here the association is important rather than its etymology and that association is more important considering that Sardarapat is associated and imbued with a victory.


3. How does the practice of name-changing complement other aspects of nationalization in Armenia (e.g. collective memory, education)?

Many aspects of collective memory or education are beyond my expertise. Thus, I would like to touch upon the issue that I studied in my paper a bit and will try to expand on it also here. It is the geography education including higher education, and cartographic production and dissemination. If we look at the academic output of Soviet Armenian geographers and those of modern Armenia, we see a kind of approach that tries to represent the geography of Armenia as that of the titular nation. Compared to neighboring countries, Soviet Armenia had more ‘fertile’ grounds for such representation, in terms of being ethnically more homogenous compared to Azerbaijan and Georgia. What I mean by this is that the geography of Armenia was represented and still is represented as a geography of the titular nation. In Soviet Armenia this kind of representation was in line with the Soviet doctrine of national-territorial delimitation and indigenization even though in Soviet times Armenia was much more multicultural and multiethnic country than it is nowadays in terms of having not only large Russian/Molokan, Kurdish/Yezidi, Greek, Assyrian communities, but also Azerbaijanis. But the geography of Soviet Armenia was represented as that of the titular nation (Armenians). The situation has not changed much in modern Armenia, except that now there is no official censorship or self-censorship as we had in Soviet times, however, the approach has remained the same. The geography education, academic production, and cartography are still that of the titular nation. For example, you see a publication of a national atlas (2008) consisting of hundreds of maps, and none of those maps is specifically dedicated to the Yezidi or Russian/Molokan people in Armenia. The reason I specifically mention these communities and people is that they still live compactly in many regions of Armenia. But for those making the atlas it was more important to make maps for the land fund of each region of the country rather than other aspects of the national geography. Or, for example, in the atlas, there is a map of the ethnic composition of Soviet Armenia but it is designed in such a way so as to make Armenians automatically appear as the dominant group in every part of the country.


Image 4. National Atlas of Armenia, the ethnic composition of the population in 1926, 1970, 1989, 2001.


That is why I think that place-renaming practices in recent decades in the country complements the other aspects of nationalization in Armenia, at least in the field of geography as education, a field of practice, and academic production. I was the student of Lemvel Valesyan, one of the most influential human geographers of Armenian SSR and modern Armenia, who was also the responsible editor of the national atlas of Armenia. I think Valesyan himself was aware of these kinds of issues since he co-authored a university textbook of political geography published by the Yerevan State University. At the same time, I remember Valesyan frequently repeating that “the geography is an attribute of statehood” and complained that “in Armenia, few are aware of the potential of geography as an attribute of statehood”. Valesyan is still remembered for this motto, among his other contributions to Armenian geographical thought and cartographic practice. The point is about how “geography as an attribute of statehood” is interpreted and represented. There may be two types of interpretations and representations: one that (re)produces the spatial frame of the nation as that of the autochthon and titular nation, or one that is an attribute of inclusive statehood. I think the latter interpretation and representation at best is a marginal way of thinking in the field of geography education, practice, and academic production in Armenia.

4. To what extent are personal names and surnames in Armenia also targeted by this process if at all?


I cannot say much about how personal names and surnames in Armenia are targeted by this process. There may be studies on the personal and family names in Armenia as a production of legal identities proper to the state that I am unaware of. In this context, I would like to point out an interesting pattern that I came across while studying place-name changes in Armenia which involves ironies and some implications.

While I was trying to understand the most systematic patterns of place-name changes in Armenia, I realized that one of the concurrent patterns in those changes is related to non-Armenian eponyms, geographical names that partly or fully are formed of apparently non-Armenian personal names. Such geographical names are abundant in Armenia. As a general rule, during the place-naming practices, non-Armenian eponyms were left intact with minor corrections. This treatment of non-Armenian eponyms can be explained by the fact that in Armenia there are thousands of persons with apparently non-Armenian first names or surnames, including my surname. I think that the experts involved in renaming places perhaps had that fact in mind and treated those non-Armenian eponyms as not ‘foreign’ or ‘inharmonious’ names and left them intact. And ironically, some of the experts and bureaucrats directly involved in place renaming processes also have non-Armenian names or surnames. I think it is quite an interesting and ironic detail. On the one hand, this fact reveals the contradictions and ironies inherent in such practices. On the other hand, it reveals the limits of such practices. Those experts and bureaucrats involved in renaming places may have other considerations while leaving non-Armenian eponyms intact. However, we can see here interesting contradictions and ironies.


5. How does the Armenian case compare to the nationalization of place names in neighboring countries (specifically Turkey & Azerbaijan)? Are the motivations and implementation processes different or is the same logic used to justify these changes?


The case of Turkey has different layers and it has involved different directions at various historical periods. Thus, I think those different layers and periods should be treated differently rather than directly compared to the case of Armenia. I am not fond of comparing the two cases as a simple comparison of two nationalisms that erased something that is the antipode to their core frames of nation-building. For example, one sees a complete erasure of all settlement names in Turkey in the early periods of the republic that were associated with or symbolized Greeks, Armenians, Kurds, Assyrians, etc. I think this policy in Turkey, among other things, should be considered as a constitutive part of the continuation of the genocide committed against Ottoman Armenians and Assyrians. In more recent periods, there are ample examples of removal of the Kurdish nameplate of municipalities in south-eastern Turkey, re-naming cityscapes according to Islamist or neo-Ottoman considerations, or name-changes that are aimed at the legitimization of the new regime in Turkey after the 2016 coup attempt. That is why I am not fond of comparing the case of Armenia and Turkey, the latter is a more elaborate case that we cannot compare here in this format of discussion.


The case of Azerbaijan is a more relevant one to compare with that of Armenia because the two cases involve some interesting parallels and differences. As the study of Arsène Saparov on the place name changes in Azerbaijan shows, there has been conscious, selective use of toponym changes and proliferation of Heydar Aliyev’s name in the cityscapes of that country aimed at bolstering the legitimacy of the regime in the country. Thus, I think in this regard, there have been completely different motivations in Azerbaijan compared to Armenia. In Armenia, there is no systematic practice that proliferates the cityscapes with a similar name aiming to bolster the legitimacy of the regime in the country, because the regimes of the two countries are different in this regard. For example, you can see the names of Nzhdeh or Andranik or other well-known personalities proliferating in the cityscapes of Armenia. Those cases should not be disregarded and should be studied, however, the motivations in the two countries are different.

At the same time, as Saparov shows, there has been also a campaign targeting Armenian toponyms, a campaign that operated firmly within the concept of primordialism and aimed to support the notion of legitimate control by Azerbaijan over the disputed region of Karabakh by reinstating Turkic place names and endorsing a legitimate claim to land in a symbolic dispute with Armenia. In this respect, we see significant parallels in Armenia and Azerbaijan in their claims of primordialism and how such claims are used to legitimize control and mastery over space and geography.


A similar approach was taken by the Armenian authorities. When the surrounding regions of Karabakh were under their control, they engaged in reinventing the ‘primordial’ Armenian heritage of those regions and legitimizing their control and mastery over them. While studying the case of Armenia, I tried to conceptualize the issue with the Foucauldian raison d’état as a practice of governmentality, the Lefebvrean abstract space of the nation-state conceived by experts, and the nationalist discourse on autochthony. I think these concepts could be also expanded to the case of Karabakh and its surrounding regions when it was under the control of the Republic of Artsakh/Karabakh. Namely, Karabakh and its surrounding regions were conceived as a part of the abstract space of the nation or as another Armenian national space on its own. In this context, the nationalist discourse on autochthony again played as a major frame. Armenians as the ‘autochthon’ and ‘primordial’ people renamed settlements in the region, even those that were formerly predominantly populated by Azerbaijanis and Kurds. The Turkish or Azerbaijani media have been using the ‘pseudo/so-called/artificial’ [sözde/qondarma] label while referring to the Republic of Artsakh/Karabakh. However, it disregards the fact that there were a state and its institutions in Karabakh. Thus, there were similar processes there, including not only changing the names of settlements but more recently a systematic change of names of physical geographical objects was implemented in Karabakh, similar to the one that was implemented in Armenia which I studied in my paper. That is why I think the similar processes in Karabakh can be framed by the above-noted concepts, namely the notion of abstract space as a space conceived and (re)produced by the state, institution, technocrats and politicians, raison d’état as a practice of governmentality and the notion of autochthony.


6. How would you characterize the existential impact on societies that live in spaces that are subject to place-name changes and how does this impact on relations with people whose identities have been erased from former homes?


I think that the kind of representations and practices I talked about here or in the paper, in any way do not have an existential impact on people leaving in those areas. In other words, no one can claim that through the practices of place renaming or cartographic representations, a homogenized and unified national spatial framework is produced in Armenia that is palpable in the material experience of everyday life. For example, in 2019, the largest Yezidi temple in the world was opened in the Aknalich community of Armenia which I think is a very important positive development. At the same time, there is this controversial issue of place renaming and the official cartographic discourse wherein there has been prevalent a kind of instrumental reason that tries to (re)produce a spatial framework of the nation that appears to be abstract, exclusionary, and subordinating.

Another problematic issue is the complete negation of the representational spaces of the people who until recently lived in those areas either through place naming or cartography. And it is equally true for the case of Karabakh and its surrounding territories. Either you see the Armenianization of place-names in Karabakh and the surrounding territories formerly populated by Azerbaijanis and Kurds. Or, as Broers and Toal note, there is a “cartographic exhibitionism”, that is “a desire within the Armenian geopolitical culture to project and display enlarged national territorial images” and naturalization of the cartographic image of an enlarged Armenian space through formal and popular cartographic products.


And there is the case of Azerbaijan, where two months ago the Armenian town of Mataghis was renamed Suqovushan immediately after its capture by the Armed Forces of Azerbaijan as a “restoration of the historical name of the town”. Or the most recent name change of Sagiyan to Guneshli, since “the name of the village of Saghiyan is in no way connected with the Azerbaijani ethnos, the national hereditary values, the history, geography, life of the Azerbaijani people and the local population.” And there is also the case of “insurgent cartographies of grievance” in Azerbaijan within the framework of which the modern territory of Armenia is represented as Western Azerbaijan.


7. In some countries with multicultural histories, place names are preserved in the relevant languages and they are not homogenised (for instance the use of both Finnish and Swedish toponyms in parts of Finland). Do you think this strategy would have a positive effect on cross-community cohesion in the Caucasus?


I think this kind of approach, namely the preservation of place names, would be very important and positive for the two countries (Armenia and Azerbaijan) and their societies for future cross-community cohesion and reconciliation, but unfortunately, the realities and recent developments show that in the foreseeable future this is not going to happen.


The Armenian society has been quite comfortable with the status quo. On the one side, for the last decades, there were negotiations between the two countries according to which Armenia was going to hand over the territories surrounding Karabakh to Azerbaijan, on the other side the schoolchildren in Armenia in their school textbooks of geography were learning that those territories are the part of their homeland. I noticed that after the realization of the devastating consequences of cherishing the status quo, some on the Armenian side started to repeat that Armenia was ready to hand those territories to Azerbaijan. Armenia was ready because it was formally negotiating for it, but schoolchildren in Armenia have been also learning that Kelbajar, Lachin, and Zangilan are the part of their homeland as Karvachar, Kashatagh or Kovsakan, “regions that historically are considered Armenian”, according to those textbooks.


Image 5. The Republic of Artsakh (Karabakh) according to the 9th grade textbook of “Geography of Armenia”


On June 13, 2020, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Armenia made a statement on the occasion of the 28th anniversary of the deportation and ethnic cleansing of Armenians from the Shaumyan district of Azerbaijan. The ministry chose the word “occupation” and expressed its support to “the legitimate demands of the authorities of Artsakh with regard to the occupied Shahumian”, a sovereign territory of Azerbaijan, a territory which was never anyway on the negotiation table. And now we see Azerbaijan’s President Aliyev claiming Zangazur [Zengezur], Goycha [Sevan] and Irevan [Yerevan] as “historical lands” of Azerbaijan, and the Armenian town of Madaghis is officially called Suqovushan.

All these show that in the foreseeable future the cross-community cohesion and reconciliation is not possible at best. I mean the two countries and societies tend to engage in reproducing relations of exclusion even on the kind of issues, like place-names, maps, etc., that bear solely symbolic roles and are representational. On the ground, the devastating realities of the recent war, especially for the Armenian side, and the most recent statements especially by President Aliyev exacerbate possibilities of future cohesion and reconciliation.


That is the reason, that while I believe that preservation of some place-names would be a positive step for the future cross-community cohesion and reconciliation, however, unfortunately, the realities are completely different. On the one side we see Azerbaijan changing the name of Sagiyan to Guneshli, on the other side, Armenia changes the name of Navchalu yayla into an Armenian name. Navchalu is a locality favored by prominent Armenian poet Paruyr Sevak and is closely associated with him. In his early writings, Sevak signed his verses with ‘Navchalu’ as the location where the verses were written. Navchalu was one of those thousands of renamed places in the country. This shows that even those representational spaces are erased for the sake of the production of uniform space of the nation-state that is free of ‘foreign’ and ‘inharmonious’ elements.

The earlier the two states and societies start to realize these issues and the earlier we can see a possibility of cross-community cohesion and reconciliation. To return to my earlier statement, the critical issue is whether the two states and societies are going to consider their geography as a kind of attribute of statehood that is exclusionary and erases the other or as an attribute of statehood that is inclusive. By geography I mean both the representation of it either through maps, place-names or discourses around them and the daily materialities of everyday life in those geographies. As of now, we have different Armenia and Azerbaijan compared to the last 30 years and the observation of the current situation leaves no hope for reconciliation and future coexistence, because the only approach to the geography sees it as an attribute of statehood that is exclusionary and erases the ‘other’ representationally and on the ground.