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From Resolution to Transformation: Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict and the Need for More Civil Society Engagement


Civil society is unique as it is in a position where it can move the culture into a place in which political rapprochement becomes easier[1]. Prof. J. Sugden


Changing the Process for Substantive Results

 Over the course of twenty years, the successful resolution of Nagorno-Karabakh conflict has yielded lukewarm results. High-level negotiations within the framework of the OSCE Minsk Group process seem to have reached a stalemate.  Efforts invested toward building mutual trust and understanding among the parties involved, have not been very effective.

This article approaches the resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict from a negotiation process standpoint, propounding two procedural shifts which may facilitate substantive results better reflecting the parties’ interests.


From Conflict Resolution to Conflict Transformation

One procedural shift involves a shift of paradigm for viewing the negotiation process.  At this point, the parties have maintained the “conflict resolution” paradigm, which regards conflict as a short-term phenomenon that can be eliminated through mediation or other intervention processes (Conflict Transformation and Peacemaking, 1997). Moving forward, considering the importance of future relationship and trust in this case, parties are encouraged to redefine the process as “conflict transformation,” which is a combination of short-term conflict management with a long-term relationship building and a transformation of the roots of a conflict.  Table 1 below illustrates this shift in paradigm.

Table 1

Conflict Resolution Perspective

Conflict Transformation Perspective

Key Question

How do we end something not desired? How to end something destructive and build something desired?


Content-centered. Relationship-centered.


To achieve an agreement and solution to the present problem creating the crisis. To promote constructive change processes inclusive of but not limited to immediate solutions.

Development of Process

Embedded and built around the immediacy of the relationship where the present problem appears. Concerned with responding to symptoms and engaging the systems within which relationships are embedded.


The horizon is short-term. The horizon is mid- to long-term.

View of Conflict

Envisions the need to de-escalate conflict processes. Envisions conflict as a dynamic of ebbs (conflict de-escalation to pursue constructive change) and flow (conflict escalation to pursue constructive change).

Source: John Paul Lederach, Michelle Maiese, “Conflict Transformation”.


The term and phenomenon of “conflict transformation” is not unanimously used and accepted by everyone, with differing opinions on conflict resolution being more quick and effective and on conflict transformation being limited in many areas and having significant time-cost. In disputes where parties need a quick and final solution to a problem and do not have a significant relationship, they resort to solving their problems by negotiations or mediation and in such cases the exploration of relational and structural patterns are of limited value.

However, in cases where parties share an extensive history together and have the potential for future relations, simple resolution approaches may be too narrow. As Table 1 shows, though they may solve immediate problems, they miss the greater potential for constructive change. This is even more significant in contexts where there are repeated and deep-rooted cycles of conflict episodes that have created destructive and violent patterns. The case of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is one of such cases, and here avenues to promote transformational change should be pursued (Lederach, Maiese, 12). Although fighting between the countries ended in 1994, and there is currently no major bloodshed over the disputed territory, there has been and still is a situation of “no war, no peace” between Armenians and Azerbaijanis, with the fundamental problems of the conflict remaining unresolved (Shain Abbasov et. al, 2009). This holds true in spite of negotiations, which have been ongoing for more than 20 years – and there are slim if any guarantees that they will not last for another 20 or more years, without tangible results.

Given the aim of conflict transformation is not to eliminate the conflict, but to work with it and transform it constructively, particularly “to reduce violence, increase justice, and transform human relationships, so that the overall culture of violence will be transformed” (Strategies for Peace: Transforming Conflict in a Diverse World, 2011-2012), this process of transformation is of paramount importance on the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict settlement path. Entire generations of Armenians and Azerbaijanis have been raised with negative propaganda about the opposite side; solely achieving agreement is unlikely to break this image of the enemy and reduce mutual hatred and aggression, which endangers peaceful coexistence between the nations. Instead, with the transformation of perceptions and relations between the nations, with the establishment of trust between the societies, an agreement would be sustainable, and parties would remain committed to it. 

Multi-Track Diplomacy

The second procedural shift involves an expansion of the scope of parties engaged in the negotiation process.  By far, negotiations have been conducted by the highest level of political leadership through occasional high-profile meetings, with a focus on making incremental concessions while emphasizing the cease-fire.  As mentioned, this conflict resolution approach has spiraled into a deadlock, without much progress being made over the past two decades.  Even if the process as it stands renders a substantive agreement, the question remains whether the agreement would be a lasting one and would be accepted by societies back home.  Further, the process does not necessarily address the issues of broader issues of building relations and trust.

This shift entails the active and systematic engagement of mid-level and civil society leadership in the conflict transformation process.  The framework developed by John Lederach, a prominent scholar in this field, supports this approach:


Source: Becky Nesbit, “The Role of NGOs in Conflict Resolution in Africa: An institutional Analysis”, Indiana University: Bloomington, Indiana, 2003, 27

According to Lederach, there are three levels of actors in the peace-building process: top leadership, middle-range leadership and grassroots leadership, with each level engaging in different peace-building tasks. The logic behind this model is that relationship-building between the conflicting parties will take place from the bottom of society with the hope that repairing or “transforming” relationships will lead towards building peace between them (Sugden, 2011).

Thus, the absence of an active and systematic engagement of middle-range and grassroots leadership in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict settlement acts against a sustainable agreement as this conflict encompasses identity-based causes. Effectively addressing such causes requires more than formal political conflict settlement by top leadership, but also the involvement of broader civil society to target attitudes and stereotypes (Gahramanova, 2010).

The Armenian and Azerbaijani historical narratives have grown increasingly hostile, each portraying its own group as indigenous and peaceful, and the other side as an enemy who destroys their population and cultural heritage. At the same time, both sides blame any past or present tragedy on the other side, be it a misfortune or injustice, genocide or a destruction of cultural heritage, the start of the Nagorno-Karabakh war or an ethnic cleansing. Both consider the other’s historical accounts to be lies, created for political purposes. This mutual negative perception has grown so much that any concession in the frames of the peace process is seen as unacceptable to either side (Gamaghelyan, 2010).

Therefore, an exchange among and frequent communication between the civil societies, media representatives, young people, and political and military leaderships (currently implemented, yet in need of coordination and intensification) has the potential of humanizing the conflict, breaking down existing stereotypes and making the coexistence of the societies to the conflict possible. The people should be readied for a compromise or any possible solution, as without this readiness, no political leader is going to be successful in implementing the decision which would be made during the official negotiations (Gamaghelyan, 2010). This claim can be exemplified by the 1998 resignation of the Armenian President Levon Ter-Petrosyan and the 2001 pressure on the Azerbaijani President Heydar Aliyev. While Armenia’s first post-independence president was forced by his ministers to step down in 1998 after publicly advocating an attempt for mutual concession to Azerbaijan, in 2001 the Azerbaijani President came under pressure when he returned home from talks with Kocharyan at Key West, as a result of which the breakthrough achieved in Florida diminished in the face of domestic criticism. Consequently, Ter-Petrossian’s resignation and Aliyev’s rapid abandonment of compromise raised fundamental doubts regarding the sustainability of agreements reached by the leaders in isolation from their societies (Harutunian, 2010). In the meantime, exactly for this reason, in the last 4 years, mainly starting from 2009, the OSCE Minsk Group Co-Chairs constantly encourage the presidents of the countries to increase people-to-people contacts, implement confidence-building measures and prepare their populations for peace and not war:

“Peoples of the region have suffered most from the consequences of war, and any delay in reaching a settlement will only prolong their hardships.  A new generation has come of age in the region with no first-hand memory of Armenians and Azerbaijanis living side by side, and prolonging these artificial divisions only deepens the wounds of war. For this reason, we urge the leaders of the sides to prepare their populations for peace,” (Joint Statement by the Foreign Ministers of the OSCE Minsk Group Co-Chair Countries, 2012)

It should be stressed, however, that the active engagement of mid-level and civil society leadership would not substitute negotiations by the political leadership, but would complement it.  The top political leadership themselves are the bodies bearing full and effective authority to commit on behalf of their respective nations, and hence any final resolution should be approved first and foremost by these figures.

A Sustainable Agreement

 The goal of negotiation is not only to achieve an agreement, but an agreement which would be sustainable and operative. The goal of negotiation is not simply to affect the agreement, but also to effect it.  The possibility of achieving sustainable and substantive results is increased through setting effective processes.

Based on this approach, this article propounds implementing two procedural shifts in the ongoing negotiation process.  One shift is a shift of mental paradigm, from a “conflict resolution” perspective to a “conflict transformation” one.  The second entails expanding the scope of parties involved in the negotiation process, by actively and systematically engaging middle-range and grassroots leadership along with the top political leadership.

These shifts should lay new ground for overcoming the current deadlock in negotiations, addressing stereotypes born from identity-based causes, building mutual trust and relationship, and, eventually, creating broad understanding among societies necessary for adopting a lasting agreement.



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Gamaghelyan, Phil. “Rethinking the Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict: Identity, Politics, Scholarship.” International Negotiation, 2010: 33-56.

Harutunian, Ruben. “The Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict: Moving from Power Brokerage to Relationship Building.” International Negotiation 15, 2010: 57-80.

Huseynov, Tabib. “Mountainous Karabakh: New Paradigms for Peace and Development in the 21st Century.” International Negotiations, 2010: 7-31.

Lederach John Paul, Maiese Michelle. “Conflict Transformation.”

Mark, Mattner, Reiner Forster, Civil Society and Peacebuilding: Potential, Limitations and Critical Factors. Report No. 36445-GLB, Social Development Department, World Bank, 2006.

Nesbit, Becky. The Role of NGOs in Conflict Resolution in Africa: An Institutional Analysis. Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University, 2003.

Sugden, Jack. “Civil Society and Peacebuilding in the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict: Football for peace and the view from the bottom.” Dissertation, 2011.

Joint statement by the Foreign Ministers of the OSCE Minsk Group Co-Chair countries. March 22, 2012. (accessed April 2, 2013).

Shain Abbasov, Karen Bekaryan, Tabib Huseynov, Manvel Sarkisian, Rashad Shirinov, Mikayel Zolyan. Karabakh 2014: Six analys, ts on the future of the Nagorny Karabakh peace process. United Kingdom: Conciliation Resources, 2009.

Strategies for Peace: Transforming Conflict in a Diverse World. Undergraduate Fellows Report, Washington DC: Berkley Centre for Religion, Peacea dn World Affairs, Georgetown University, 2011-2012.

Conflict Transformation and Peacemaking. 1997. (accessed October 28, 2012)

[1]Jack Sugden, Civil Society and Peacebuilding in the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict: Football for peace and the view from the bottom, 2011, 15

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