Reinterpreting the enemy

Geopolitical beliefs and the attribution of blame in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict

Article appearing in Political Geography, 70

How do geopolitical beliefs affect the attribution of blame for violent conflict? It is usually assumed that citizens in post-conflict societies come to adopt official nationalist discourses that fixate on the other side. Yet scholars of critical geopolitics recognize the importance of affect and localized interactions in shaping beliefs about the political world. This paper analyzes how geopolitical imagination shapes Azerbaijanis’ attribution of blame for the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, using data from a quasi-experimental study in Azerbaijan. Despite official narratives that demonize Armenia, the beliefs of Azeris in the study diverge in important ways from the official line. In particular, a disproportionate number of subjects “scaled up” culpability for the conflict and assigned a significant amount of blame to Russia. Subjects were prone to perceive Armenia as a Soviet-Russian proxy and to view Armenian behavior as subordinate to Russian interests rather than intrinsically derived. I argue that this causal accounting for the conflict reflects commonsense beliefs about how power is exercised, which were shaped by Azerbaijan’s structural position vis-à-vis Russia and historical tropes that emphasize subversion, duplicitousness, and hidden agendas. The findings focus attention on how geopolitical imaginations can shape the ways contemporary events, including conflict, are interpreted. They also demonstrate the need to dig beneath the official discourse to reveal the sometimes surprising ways it is contested or subverted.