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Azeri-Armenian enmity and citizen diplomacy

Twenty years after the ceasefire, can 'citizen diplomacy' succeed where official talks have failed on Nagorno-Karabagh?

Last updated: 12 May 2014 13:04
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Tombstones of Karabakh soldiers, killed during fighting between Karabakh and Azerbaijan forces in 1993 [Reuters]

In Kurban Said's novel, Ali and Nino, set in Baku during the final years of World War I, the "treacherous" Armenian kidnaps the Azerbaijani protagonist's true love and flees on horseback. The traitor is, of course, caught and brutally killed. Hailed as the "national novel" of Azerbaijan, this story captures the enduring hostility between two nations that have coexisted for centuries.

Substitute the kidnapped princess with the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh and therein lies an analogy for the conflict that has dogged the two Eurasian neighbours for more than two decades.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, a war broke out between the majority ethnic Armenians in the enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh and the Republic of Azerbaijan. This followed the Azerbaijani capital Baku's heavy-handed response to a peaceful demonstration by ethnic Armenians for self-determination. The Kremlin sent in troops to put an end to the slaughter. The protracted dispute resulted in more than 20,000 casualties, a million refugees, and claims of "ethnic cleansing" by both sides.

May 12 marks the 20th anniversary of the ceasefire brokered by Russia. The agreement was signed by Armenia, Azerbaijan and Nagorno-Karabakh, a de facto independent republic recognised only by other breakaway quasi-states, such as Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Transnistria.  

Many people who are fundamentally well-intentioned and wish for peace in the region are readily embracing the officially sponsored propaganda, because they do not see an alternative.

- Tabib Huseynov, Azerbaijani political analyst

While the war formally ended in 1994, the dispute is far from settled, with regular skirmishes on the border and several failed international mediation attempts.

Virulent anti-Armenian sentiments prevail in Azerbaijan, fuelled by state-run media. It is no different in Armenia, recently highlighted by Baku's granting of a pardon - and a hero's welcome - to an Azerbaijani soldier who hacked to death an Armenian soldier in Budapest in 2004.

With such reciprocal hostility, few would harbour hopes of a thawing in Armenia-Azerbaijan relations any time soon. However, proponents of cross-border initiatives, dubbed Track II Diplomacy, believe their decade-long efforts to foster dialogue will eventually bear fruit.

Propaganda overshadowing the grassroots 

For Tabib Huseynov, a Tbilisi-based Azerbaijani political analyst who has been involved in Track II initiatives since the early 2000s, the primary complication lies in diffusing state-sponsored propaganda. 

"Many people who are fundamentally well-intentioned and wish for peace in the region are readily embracing the officially sponsored propaganda, because they do not see an alternative and they do not believe the peace talks will yield positive results," he says. "Because of the failure of the peace talks so far, the dominant and officially supported discourses in both Armenia and Azerbaijan promote ethnic confrontation, and not peace-building."

Cross-border initiatives are widely viewed with suspicion, mainly as a consequence of government control on the media in both countries and the suppression of "independent civic activism", as Huseynov puts it.

This, he argues, "aggravates the problem by not allowing for a proper discussion about the role and importance of Track II initiatives in supporting the overall peace efforts".

In effect, the war rhetoric may be overshadowing the grassroots efforts.

According to Vartan Oskanian, former Armenian foreign minister (1998-2008), for Track II to work, Track I must have "progressed to a degree that both governments would have felt the need for it and they would encourage the process". This is not the case for Nagorno-Karabakh - and the seven adjacent territories.

"The parties, particularly Azerbaijan, were reluctantly drawn into the process under the pressure of the international community," he says. "Sometimes, the effort had the exact opposite effect when those involved accentuated only the negative of their opponent after their return to their respective countries."

Selling one's soul

Moreover, those involved in Track II efforts are depicted both in local media and society as traitors.

Arzu Geybullayeva, an Istanbul-based Azerbaijani activist, says she and others are habitually accused of having "sold their souls for the sake of the money", or not having "any patriotic sense or respect for their country's territorial integrity".

Azerbaijani soldiers crowd around a pot of hot tea on the front-line with Nagorno-Karabakh guerrillas in 1994 [Reuters]

When one is based in a third country, she says, one is at least spared the "hassle and harassment, the degrading words and humiliation".

The April 19 arrest of a prominent Azerbaijani journalist, Rauf Mirkadirov, is a case in point. Arrested a few weeks ago on charges of treason, Mirkadirov - touted as a forerunner of "citizen diplomacy" - is accused of spying for Armenia while attending several policy conferences in Yerevan.

With seemingly intractable positions held both by Yerevan and Baku, and the threat of treason charges hanging over the heads of any out-of-the-box thinkers, how can Track II solve anything?

Oskanian has limited faith in the potential outcome of citizen diplomacy.

"The disagreement between the negotiating parties on Track I are so deep and many, that no Track II can possibly achieve any results. There is hardly agreement on any of the contentious issues: status of Karabagh, the return of territories, return of refugees and security guarantees," he says.

Yet proponents of the initiative say it is important to focus on the achievements, however modest.

Philip Gamaghelyan, co-director of Imagine Center for Conflict Transformation, says one notable development is the growth in local capacity, which has moved "citizen diplomats" beyond dependency on international organisations.

"Up until the early 2000s, most Track II work was led by international organisations in the absence of social capital or respective expertise in the region." While such international organisations continue to play a valuable role, Gamaghelyan says, a range of efforts are now initiated and led by local actors - widening the "realm of what is possible to achieve through Track II work".

Manipulated by political elites 

Still, scepticism abounds over whether official will exists on both sides to resolve this conflict.

"When politicians realise something can prolong their stay in power for a bit longer, they will not just embrace it but start abusing it too," says Geybullayeva. "In the case of Nagorno-Karabakh, it has become the pinnacle of all political rhetoric ever since both governments realised it could be. It is abused, over and over again. No one is benefiting from the status quo but the governments."

Huseynov shares this belief that the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is being manipulated by political elites in both Armenia and Azerbaijan.

"In both countries, leaders frequently used the Karabakh conflict to mobilise support and suppress dissent," he says. "In both countries, leaders have lost power because of their decisions or indecision related to the conflict. The problem… is not that the political elites do not want to solve the conflict, but rather they do not know how to do that without putting their political power at risk."

Optimistic activists look at the successes achieved via Track II channels in other conflicts, such as Northern Ireland or the Balkans. For Gamaghelyan, Track II initiatives can work towards "humanising the other" and "implementing confidence-building measures", which can have a transformative effect on any dispute.

Both sides have become so accustomed to the status quo that any interim arrangement short of a comprehensive and final solution is hard to imagine.

Vartan Oskanian, former Armenian foreign minister 

No point blaming politicians 

Oskanian says he believes there is genuine will in both Armenia and Azerbaijan to see the conflict resolved, however, "both sides have become so accustomed to the status quo that any interim arrangement short of a comprehensive and final solution is hard to imagine".

Imagination may be key when - as Huseynov points out - there exist crucial differences in perceptions.

"For the majority of Armenians, various confidence-building measures are primarily about preventing a new conflict and legitimising the status quo… The majority of Azerbaijanis, on the other hand, view dialogue and confidence-building with Armenians with suspicion. They fear that in the absence of a political settlement, such measures may weaken the Azerbaijani position by creating an impression of 'normality' and thus, strengthen and legitimise the status quo."

But Gamaghelyan says there's no sense in blaming political leaders for a perceived lack of resolve.

"Instead of hoping that the politicians will suddenly change positions and accept the same compromises that they have been rejecting for two decades, I suggest to focus instead on identifying the dynamics that sustain the conflict," he says.

To bring about a sustainable solution to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, Gamaghelyan says formal diplomatic channels "need to be complemented by strategic efforts" from civil society to transform the conflict discourse and move away from nationalism and racist stereotypes.

These are lofty aspirations for a movement faced with challenges - perils even - that are greater than the prospective gains, at least in the short term.

Follow Tanya Goudsouzian on Twitter: @ummanais   

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Al Jazeera
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