“Nothing has changed over the past 20 years”

Sascha Roth. Photo: ©Lina Verschwele.

Sascha Roth. Photo: ©Lina Verschwele.

More than 600.000 Azerbaijani people had to leave their homes during the war. Until today, their return rests to be impossible and turns so called IDPs into political leverage. With the PhD candidate Sascha Roth, we talk about the situation of Internally Displaced People (IDPs).


Mr. Roth, why are the Internally Displaced People (IDPs) so important for the negotiations in the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh?

The IDPs legitimate the claim of a country. If you start to integrate these people, you lose the right to claim this external territory. The legal status of IDPs is particularly interesting. Internally Displaced People can lose their entitlements to state aid, but they cannot lose their status as IDPs. In addition, the status is carried on from one generation to the next. If a man with IDP status and a woman from Baku have children, these children are also considered IDPs.

Thus, do you think the argument that Azerbaijan uses IDPs as political leverage is justified?

I think so. The arguments have some legitimacy: there is the demand that the population can return to their homes without being threatened. The majority of refugees are people who fled from the surrounding provinces. Its not about the region Nagorno-Karabakh. Experts on the issue from Azerbaijan say that the IDPs are instrumentalized for different political ends.

Although the IDPs are central to the negotiations over Nagorno-Karabakh, they are only granted official status by the Azerbaijani government since 1999. Why?

The collapse of the Soviet Union led to political chaos in Azerbaijan, especially at the beginning of the 1990s. It took the second half of this decade for the country to recover. It needed some time until people were ready to deal with questions on politics and law. We have to recall that the country had to solve more important problems. The state had to be organized from scratch. For refugees as well as for regular residents, it was difficult to buy the most basic things.

A naive but important question: Why doesn’t Azerbaijan allow these refugees to return to the occupied areas?

That has to do with political and juridical processes: even if Armenia consented to the return of the refugees, it would be difficult to put it into practice. The borders are closed. Thus, a legislative change would be needed first. First of all, trust would have to be rebuilt between the two populations. In addition, the geopolitical situation is of importance. It is impossible for a country to make decisions independently without provoking its loyal allies.

Put differently, the surrounding provinces are said to look like haunted wasteland. Do people actually want to return to these?

That is a difficult question. They say that many want to return. However, I got a different impression. In any case, you have to consider the social status, the generation etc. Those whose main residence is in Baku, and who do well economically, don’t have the same urge to go back. But there are many other cases where people who owned a house before, now live in a refugee camp. Those people do of course consider a return. Some children, although they have never been there, call Nagorno-Karabakh their home and carry pictures of it in their phones.

Also on a cultural level, Nagorno-Karabakh plays and important role for Azerbaijan. What, precisely, is this referring to?

There are innumerable examples. Among them are the horses of Karabakh, or the Mugham, which is the name of the national chant of Azerbaijan. Material culture depicts it pretty well; architecture, houses, art, carpets etc. The idea “We are only united in Karabakh” became part of the inner political rhetoric after independence. It became important for the creation of a national identity. Hence, since its independence, the Azerbaijani state has never been what it wanted to be.

In your opinion, what are the conditions for a return of the displaced people?

I am pessimistic in this respect. Nothing has changed over the last 20 years. There is a lot of talk, the Minsk Group is invited, presidents meet and meet again and in the end nothing changes. This does not only concern two countries. I have been there, when Russia annexed Crimea. Lots of people in Azerbaijan were afraid that this could also happen in other regions. Hence, its difficult to generalize. The return of displaced people is dependent on many actors and factors.

For a long time, Azerbaijan was criticized for being responsible for the poor situation of refugees. This aimed at increasing international indignation. Today, state based programs are meant to better the living standard. How much impact do these measures have?

Without doubt, the measures led to remarkable change. Lots of people lived in tents for years, today almost every person has the chance to live in a stable house. Nevertheless, many are barely integrated in Azerbaijani society. Once, we went to one of those refugee camps which are located only ten kilometers from the border to Karabakh. Those people wake up every morning and see the land which they can no longer inhabit. And the refugee camps have nothing to offer. There is no work. Hence many of the men go to Baku or Moscow in the attempt to earn money. Individual government departments aspire to help these people. But at the same time they try to find out how to establish a system….

…in which they don’t feel home too much?

Exactly. Its paradoxical, they live in their own country but are not wanted and are told to go back to where they came from. On the one hand there is the media saying that displaced people need help. In numbers, the IDPs are the biggest victim group of the war, the entire Azerbaijani state considers itself a victim. This image is constantly reproduced by national holidays, parades, and day by day on tv. On the other hand, the IDPs become stigmatized because they allegedly take jobs and housing space.

According to you, how many Internally Displaced People are well integrated, nevertheless?

Before, we have to define what we mean by integration. If you consider work only, lots of people who aren’t refugees would also not be integrated because, officially, they do not have a job. Personally, I think that the construction of houses tells a lot. Many IDPs built houses or buy houses. That already is a strong sign. You do not leave all of this a second time. But there are many people – I would suggest the majority – who do not live in conditions they want to live in. These people won’t feel integrated much.

Are these IDPs still in touch with people back home in Karabakh?

I never met anyone who is still in touch with his former neighbors in Karabakh. The reality is, that also many Armenians had to flee Baku. Still, I am not aware of any contacts. That only happens in mixed marriages – which do exist. There continue to be Armenians in Azerbaijan but most of them do no longer carry their Armenian names.

For a long time, Armenians and Azerbaijani people lived side by side peacefully. How did these nations happen to hate each other so much?

There is a lot of discussion about that. In all of the former states of the Soviet Union there is a tendency towards strong nationalism. That’s also the case for central Asia, for the Caucasus and for all of the non-Russian republics. Every young nation has to define its identity. A national identity, apart from the Russian imperial context, which became the Soviet Union, did not exist. After all, its a long process to define an identity.


Sascha Roth is ethnologist and PHD student at the Max Planck Institut in Halle. He conducts research on the societal changes in Azerbaijan but also in Baku, where he lived for a year. His dissertation was on ”The Meaning of House, Home and Family: A Comparison of Family Values, Norms and Practices in Azerbaijan, During Socialism and After the Revolution”.