Choosing a City Name Can Be a Major Offense

The other day I tried to phone someone in Shusha, a small town in the disputed Caucasus region of Nagorno-

Karabakh. Or at least I thought that I did. But an Armenian friend insisted that I’d made a mistake: “You got it wrong,” he declared indignantly. “Shusha is what the Azeris call it. But it’s an Armenian town. It’s called Shushi.”

Shusha or Shushi — depending on your point of view — was one of the most hard-fought battlegrounds during the war between Armenian and Azeri forces for control over Nagorno-Karabakh in the 1990s. The Armenians won, and the entire Azeri population fled, hence road signs in the area now refer to the town as Shushi. On the ground, at least, the winners get to choose. But because Nagorno-Karabakh is still internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan, many foreign maps continue to refer to it as Shusha.

To outsiders, the difference may appear petty. But arguments about what places should be called are another indication of how hard it is to resolve the territorial conflicts in the Caucasus. Fiercely held differences over terminology reflect the intractability with which positions are held, and language is regularly used as a political weapon. Last year, missions from the United Nations and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe in the disputed regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia were shut down when Russia refused to allow them to continue if they retained the word “Georgia” in their titles. The two regions, the Kremlin argued, are no longer part of Georgia.

Of course, some place names have changed over time to reflect altered circumstances — particularly when territories have been conquered or annexed. Since Georgia lost control of Abkhazia, the capital has been referred to locally as “Sukhum,” although Georgians still call it Sukhumi. But centuries earlier, when the Greeks were the dominant force in the region, Sukhumi was known as Dioskurias, then Sebastopolis under the Roman Empire and later Sukhum-Kaleh under the Ottoman Turks.

For a foreign correspondent covering the Caucasus, language is a constant hazard, and the decision to use one name or phrase rather than another can lead to allegations that a reporter is taking sides. But in a place where history is endlessly disputable, even the most careful choice of words is almost guaranteed to offend someone.

Matthew Collin is a journalist based in Tbilisi.

See also:

Armenia's Diplomatic Brinkmanship Over Nagorno-Karabakh (Op-Ed)

Armenia Submits Bill Recognizing Independent Nagorno-Karabakh

Russia Will Continue Selling Weapons to Azerbaijan and Armenia - Rogozin