Prof. Anna Ohanyan

Professor Ohanyan Argues Democracy, Connectivity Can Save Armenia


BELMONT, Mass. — On September 29, Professor Anna Ohanyan of Stonehill College spoke at the National Association for Armenian Studies and Research (NAASR) about her recently published book, The Neighborhood Effect: The Imperial Roots of Regional Fracture in Eurasia.

The book grew out of Ohanyan’s research and interest in approaching the study of politics from a regional perspective. In it, the scholar tries to answer why, when empires fall, some regions (for example, the Baltic States) emerge as democratic and prosperous while others (such as the Transcaucasia) erupt in interstate or ethnic conflict.

Ohanyan’s short answer seems to be “democracy.” Despite widespread criticism of the Nikol Pashinyan administration, Ohanyan argues that the 2018 Velvet Revolution was a valuable and necessary development for the country.

She said, “For a small nation, security comes from democracy. If you don’t have democracy, forget about security, forget about your statehood. Because at its core, democracy is for people to decide who is going to govern them. When they don’t have that choice, external powers can influence politics.”

Imperial Roots

Ohanyan said regionalism is “both part of the problem as well as the solution.”

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Having edited a 2018 scholarly volume, Russia Abroad, Ohanyan and others argued that Russia was using “deliberate fracturing,” and “undoing of regional ties to project global influence.” She stated that she then realized this phenomenon of “regional fracturing” may have “imperial roots.” For that reason, in her latest book she looked at the history of three major empires on the Eurasian continent in the late 19th and early 20th  century, namely the Tsarist Russian Empire under the Romanov dynasty, the Ottoman Turkish Empire, and the Habsburg (Austro-Hungarian) Empire.

Ohanyan freely admitted that she was not a trained historian and has utilized the latest scholarship of her colleagues in the historical field who work from primary sources, including names such as Houri Berberian, Bedross Der Matossian and Ronald Suny. Analyzing the latest available historical scholarship from a political science point of view, she arrived at the conclusions made in The Neighborhood Effect.

She noted, “I’m trying to investigate whether the power of connectivity has anything to do with whether these regions are stuck. And why is it that some of those regions have emerged peacefully.”

The theme of connectivity came up throughout her lecture. Ohanyan promotes this as the key to regional peace. While harboring no rosy view of the current regimes in Azerbaijan and Turkey, she seemed to hold out hope that these states would become more peaceful in the future, and that the way to guarantee Armenia’s security is, in a sense, to work toward creating an environment where it benefits Azerbaijan to leave Armenia and Karabakh alone, for example.

Filtering the questions from the viewpoint of “regionalism,” Ohanyan suggests conflicts exist as a product of instability in the area, while not absolving states like Azerbaijan and Turkey, and indeed Russia, for taking advantage of or further promoting instability for their own, in her view short-sighted, ends.

“The one question I’m trying to answer is, how do regions pacify? When you visit Armenia and Georgia, it’s doom and gloom and ‘this is a tough neighborhood,’” she says. Her question is as to why it is a tough neighborhood and what would make it less so.

Democratization is the inevitable answer, she said, while admitting that Armenians can’t just wait and hope for Azerbaijan to become more democratic so that Armenia can have peace.

She also criticized the widely-held notion that to live in a peaceful region or even to be democratic, you have to be industrialized, rich, and European. “Peaceful regions are not the privilege of the rich or the Europeans,” she stated, and later in her talk made several references to the vastly diverse ethnic makeup of a place like India, which while not as developed as Europe economically, is democratic and largely peaceful.

Making reference to the ongoing war in Ukraine, Ohanyan stated, “I don’t have to tell you that the Eurasian continent as we speak is going through some pretty significant tectonic shifts when it comes to geopolitics. I don’t have to tell you that the post-post-Cold War lull is seeming to come to an end, and the rules-based world order is frayed.”

According to Ohanyan, while everyone in the Eurasian continent is now looking for stability and assurance such as existed during the Cold War (1947-1991), a period when relative peace was due to a stalemate between the two world superpowers, the US and the USSR, this period might be coming to an end. The concept of “deterrence” does not seem to be as valid as a stabilizing factor as it once was.

“I hope I’m wrong, but security needs to come from various levels,” says Ohanyan. Yet the future state of world geopolitics is unclear. According to Ohanyan, political scientists and analysts are wary of the current developments, not knowing where it will lead. She asked rhetorically, “Are we going to be back to feudalism, to countries invading each other?”

Ohanyan stated that political scientists have two main theories of how regions can become pacified. On one hand you can have two major hegemonic powers that balance each other out. Another approach is that regions will enjoy peace through democracy.

Ohanyan states that this approach is problematic, because for example when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, the dominant narrative was that this was peaceful, and while it’s true that the system collapsed without much of a fight and some nations, like Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania (the Baltic States) had a stable freedom, on the other hand, conflicts and small wars broke out throughout the post-Soviet space in areas like the Caucasus. “The theory has never been reconciled with the varying levels of violence,” said Ohanyan.

Policy Implications

Ohanyan next addressed what the implications of her analysis are for the current cases of the South Caucasus as well as Ukraine. She argues that although the conflicts that broke out after fall of the USSR are referred to as “post-Soviet wars,” this is a misnomer, as they conflicts have pre-Soviet, imperialist roots.

What has been missing, Ohanyan said, is a theoretical approach to explain how these imperial roots still reverberate.

Next, Ohanyan directly explained the meaning of her book’s title. Her concept of the “neighborhood effect” refers to the way that “geographically contiguous units,” whether contemporary states or ethno-religious communities during the imperial era, relate to one another.

The neighborhood concept was developed to capture the nature of the regional fabric. In terms of “imperial peripheries” (areas of an Empire that were not central to its government or inhabited by the ruling ethnic group), “neighborhood effect” refers to societal connectivity between and within ethno-religious groups.

Ohanyan stated that at its core, the argument she is making is for connectivity through civil society. She cited contemporary India as a place where criminal violence between Muslims and Hindus was less likely to take place in neighborhood where “bridging” social capital existed. Areas where each community kept to themselves were more prone to violence.

Another example came from Africa, where after the fall of colonialism, groups that had been excluded from power in the new states were able to have more say in society if they had traditional institutions that predated colonization. Regions where traditional institutions were present succeeded in staying out of armed conflict.

Civic ties and social capital has long been applied in the context of the United States as a benefit to the social cohesion and prosperity of country, by authors such as Alexis de Tocqueville and Robert Putnam, who stressed the importance of volunteerism and professional groups to the success of the US. The strength of democracy comes from these community organizations, according to such authors.

Summing up the concept of “neighborhood effect,” Ohanyan stated that it is what differentiates between fractured and resilient communities/regions. In a fractured neighborhood, societal fabric is “clustered” with shallow institutional connections between and even within ethnic groups. This makes the region more vulnerable to attack from the center as well as victim to rivalries between powers. Resilient neighborhoods are those which have better social capital, and they end up being less vulnerable.

Historical Examples

Ohanyan analyzes three different 19th-century empires in her book, the Habsburgs, the Russians, and the Ottomans. During the lecture she spoke briefly on the Russian Empire, focusing on Transcaucasia, and on the Ottoman Empire, focusing on Eastern Anatolia; in other words, the two sections of Historic Armenia. She noted that she was surprised to find the implications of her theory for the history of the Armenian Genocide, but gave the caveat that she was not a Genocide scholar.

According to Ohanyan, all empires went through a period when they centralized and modernized, in the late 19th and early 20th century.

The Russian Empire constantly tried to deal with its problems by expanding its territory. It saw territorial expansion as leading to security, and President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine shows the same attitude. However, Ohanyan notes, territorial size is a liability, especially when it creates problems with institutional consolidation. While Russia has made territorial expansion its “signature move,” in terms of statecraft, trying to then centralize the government without allowing political participation from the peripheries was a dangerous move. Doing so caused unrest, for example in 19th-century Poland. The Russians feared ethnic uprisings and so divided the Polish-Lithuanian commonwealth between themselves and the Habsburg Empire. After the division, civic traditions and institutions developed on both sides of border in a divergent way, said Ohanyan. But after the USSR dissolved, conflict did not arise between Ukraine and Poland, though the Ukrainian and Polish peoples had been at odds in the past. Apparently this was due to “bridging” ties created when both were under Russian rule.

Moving to Transcaucasia, Ohanyan credited the book Roving Revolutionaries by Houri Berberian with providing her with much material. Transcaucasia is, of course, a “fractured” neighborhood. Ohanyan stated that Great Power rivalry was rife in the region, which was nestled between the Russian, Ottoman, and Persian Empires.

On the other hand, Russian imperialism in Transcaucasia polarized the main ethnic groups through socio-economic differences that became politicized and “securitized.” Particular occupations were dominated by different ethnicities, creating class and economic division. There were civic ties, but they were “clustered,” and there were no formal institutions where “bridging” ties could form between ethnic groups.

Another problem was that in the Russian Empire, the peoples of the peripheral areas like Transcaucasia had no say in the government, and did not have access to parliamentary politics. In contrast, such rights were extended to most regions of the Habsburg Empire, where the varying ethnicities could form political parties, come together and bargain.

In addition, the revolutionary political parties that existed under Russian rule were “globally deployed,” and they crossed national/ethnic divisions. This led to some level of organizational resilience when the Empire collapsed. Ohanyan noted that although the short-lived Transcaucasian Federation (a state unifying modern-day Armenia, Georgia, and Azerbaijan, before those three countries’ declarations of independence in May 1918) is dismissed by many as having been inconsequential since it only lasted 2 months, on the other hand, this Federation did not “come out of thin air,” Ohanyan pointed out. She also mentioned that most parties wanted to reform the empire, and did not seriously consider creating their own sovereign nation states, at least at that point. “The dominant trend was self-governance, representation and democracy within a reformed multinational state,”

The Ottoman Empire was a total contrast. Here, the situation in Eastern Anatolia was of a totally fractured region. The Ottoman Empire did not manage the pressures of centralization and modernization at all. Its signature approach was the “millet system,” where ethnoreligious groups were represented through their organized religious institutions under an overall Muslim hegemony. This proved a liability as soon as the imperial center tried to centralize and modernize its relationship with the peripheries, i.e. provincial areas like Eastern Anatolia.

While the millet system “managed” plurality, it also created a political hierarchy and institutional segregation between various groups. This meant that ethnoreligious groups such as Armenians and Kurds had a high level of “bonding” social capital as groups but no “bridging” social capital between groups, because there were no formal political institutions through which the different ethnicities or “millets” could interact with each other. Ohanyan notes that day-to-day interactions between individuals and their neighbors are not the same and are not enough. This system allowed for ad hoc negotiations between the empire and the various peoples and regions within it.

Eastern Anatolia in particular was subject to Great Power rivalry and was a “fractured” region with “bonding” ties and few “bridging” ties.

Ohanyan challenged the “deterministic” approach to explaining the causes of the Armenian Genocide (i.e. that it was the inevitable result of Great Power rivalry) by stating that the Ottoman imperial center was responsible for “fraying the regional fabric” which heightened the rivalry. One major blow was the Ottoman state’s erosion of the semi-autonomous Kurdish Emirates, leaving only “tribes” with little political power or status to negotiate with. This, argues Ohanyan, actually made the region less secure for both Kurds and Christians. The reason she gave is that “only centralized institutions are able to bargain credibly and effectively.”

Ohanyan further stated that the Ottomans made Eastern Anatolia into a fractured region by “default and by design.” On one hand, for various historical and social reasons, Armenians were more integrated into the world economy, and socio-economic stratification between different groups then coincided with their being connected to different “stakeholders” outside the Ottoman Empire.  On the other hand, the Ottomans attempted the Tanzimat reforms, resulting in increased political activity by Armenians, Turks, and others, but did not create spaces for “bridging,” thus creating a problem of “political parties without parliament.”

Ohanyan also noted the elimination of the Kurdish emirates, the creation of the irregular Kurdish militias, land grabs, settling of the Kurds and so on.

Ohanyan concluded her lecture by giving recommendations, founded on the idea that “connectivity matters.” She stated that “civic peace is important,” “local actors have agency,” and “grand geopolitical theories” are limited in how much they can explain regional politics. Top-down approaches for security are no longer enough, she said. Deterrence, the hallmark subject of Cold War era political science, “is not security,” at least not in the 21st century. “We need to be looking for ways to build security in conflict regions,” Ohanyan stated.

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