Analysis - Thursday, July 15, 2010 0:05 - 0 Comments

Literature Matters


This article examines the trends in literature on Nagorno-Karabakh from the onset of the conflict until today and traces the impact it had on each step of the political process. It shows how the dominant trends in literature at any given period have been closely informing the political process, whether this link was explicit or not. The aim of the article is to demonstrate the importance of supporting research as one of the determining factors in whether this conflict will remain frozen, will escalate into a new cycle of violence, or will be solved.

The analysis of the trends in literature shows that the status of Nagorno-Karabakh was at the center of discussion from the early days of the conflict until the mid 2000s. Starting from 2005, writings focused on the process of conflict resolution, rather than the outcome, gradually replaced that earlier trend, contributing to major changes in the political process. This article does not represent an in-depth review of literature, but rather an attempt to group together the major themes and chronology of trends in scholarly and analytical literature on Nagorno-Karabakh and their impact on the peace process.

The bulk of literature during the early stages of the conflict (starting from 1987) ranges from open propaganda to pseudo-theoretical and theoretical analysis and is written by scholars, journalists, and policymakers who are usually of Armenian or Azerbaijani origin. All the mainstream media both in the region and diasporas also represent this trend. In this period, most of the literature, even if academically sound, such as Chorbajian or Nassibli, is focused on legitimizing the position of their own side and disregarding the most basic needs and interests of the other side.

Armenian writers focus on the right for self-determination of the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh. They write that Soviet Azerbaijani rulers have actively discriminated against the Armenian population of Nagorno-Karabakh and that the survival of Armenian identity and culture is in danger. The vital concerns of the Azerbaijanis, including the faith of the Azerbaijani community of Karabakh or that of hundreds of thousands of Azerbaijanis from the seven occupied districts outside of Nagorrno-Karabakh, are not discussed. Nagorno-Karabakh is portrayed in exclusivist terms as a historical Armenian (therefore non-Azerbaijani) territory, excluding a possibility that Azerbaijanis might also have a legitimate sense of belonging to Nagorno-Karabakh.

Azerbaijani writers focus on the right of Azerbaijan to preserve its territorial integrity within the borders of the Azerbaijan SSR and portray Armenia as an aggressor aiming to seize Azerbaijani territories. The concerns of Armenians are not addressed, including such vital ones as the security of Nagorno-Karabakh Armenians. The grievances that led to the war, such as the discrimination against the Armenian population in Soviet Azerbaijan, are not addressed or are deemed lies invented to justify the Armenian aggression. Just as in the Armenian case, Nagorno-Karabakh is presented in an exclusivist way as a historical Azerbaijani (therefore non-Armenian) land, a birthplace of Azerbaijani culture and identity, excluding a possibility that Armenians also might have a legitimate sense of belonging to Nagorno-Karabakh.

In the literature of this period both Armenian and Azerbaijani authors often use rhetorically charged language with every positive feature attributed to their side and every negative feature to the other. The conflict is seen from an adversarial point of view. Two sides are united in their critique of the international community’s inability to deliver a “just” solution, the Armenian version of which is the opposite of the Azerbaijani one. These writings suggest ways to reinforce the leverage of one side vis-à-vis the other, usually by trying to attract the sympathies or interests of international actors, and to force the other side to concede. Approaches to the resolution of the conflict look for a “win-lose” outcome in which one side will gain everything and the other will lose it all. This trend, still prominent today, had no alternatives in the early days of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, between the late 1980s and early 1990s. Key scholars and actors during that time (e.g., Balayan) contributed to the escalation of the tensions between the sides resulting in the war. Neither did the literature concern itself with a search for a sustainable solution or non-violent approach to the conflict that could account for the interests of both sides and provide a knowledge base or blueprints on which the tension could have been diffused, or an agreement built in the immediate post-war period.

The next trend emerges in the early to mid-1990s and includes authors who tend to take a neutral or objective stance, yet who also look at the conflict from a zero-sum point of view. Abasov and Khachatrian, Croissant, Carley, Crocker, Hampson, Aall, and others in that period focus on “objective” unfavorable context, conflicting interests of external actors, ancient hatreds, and internal politics of conflicting parties. The solutions proposed by these authors are typically schemes for autonomy and self-governance of Nagorno-Karabakh within the jurisdiction of Azerbaijan. Many of these ideas were immediately adopted by the Minsk Group mediators and served as a basis of official negotiations over the status of Nagorno-Karabakh in the early stages of the process. They delivered no results as offered “lose-lose” outcome that dissatisfied both sides.

A variation of this “lose-lose” trend is an option first proposed by Sakharov in 1988 but one that received more attention in the second half of the 1990s when developed further by Goble, is the so-called “territorial swap” — handing Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia along with the territory that separates the two, in exchange for giving Zangezur to Azerbaijan, thus linking Azerbaijan proper with its autonomous region of Nakhichevan, but also depriving Armenia from a border with Iran. This option also landed on negotiation table and was considered during presidential talks in 2000-2001 in Key West, Florida, again delivering no results as the concessions asked from the sides were very extensive. The other theme that surfaced in the literature in mid- 1990s was a form of a “common state,” a federation or confederation of Nagorno-Karabakh and Azerbaijan. This was offered to the conflicting sides as a solution in 1998 by the co-chairmen of the Minsk Group and was rejected by the Azerbaijani side.

Every possible variation of “compromise” or “lose-lose” solutions known to political science surfaced in the literature on the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict in the mid-1990s and made it to the negotiation table, yet not surprisingly were rejected by one party or the other, and often both.

In the mid to late 1990s a new trend of literature emerges, moving away from the adversarial views and looking for “mutually beneficial” solutions. Phillips, De Waal (in “Black Garden”), Emerson, and few others represent this approach. They look for points of common interest yet often overlook objective threats and obstacles to the solutions they offer. As an example, Emerson proposes to create a “Trans-Caucasian Confederation,” with an assumption that the regional integration can help to solve the conflicts. This proposal, as with other “win-win” oriented scenarios, never gained political currency. Despite good intentions the “win-win” scenarios share the main shortcoming of the “win-lose” and “lose-lose” approaches that were predominant in the earlier period. They focus on the final solution without elaborating on the process necessary to get to that solution. However, these approaches were met with enthusiasm by some sectors of civil societies and peace activists and served as a common ground for uniting around alternative ideas.

The latest trend in literature on Nagorno-Karabakh, starting from the mid-2000s, signals a clean break with the previous preoccupation of literature with the immediate solution to the status issue. The authors representing this trend are process, rather than outcome, oriented and include conflict resolution organizations, such as the International Crisis Group and Conciliation Resources, as well as a number of young Azerbaijani and Armenian social scientists. The positions of these authors regarding the status of Nagorno-Karabakh might greatly differ from one another, and often be similar to those of the earlier authors who took a one-sided approach when discussing the solutions. Yet what unites these authors and what differentiates them from others is that they break with the tradition of looking for a quick solution to the status issue and put a great emphasis on the analysis of the conflict and its dynamics, and better understanding the needs and interests of both sides. Their suggestions are process rather than outcome oriented, focusing on specific aspects of the peace process and steps necessary to move forward.

This approach can be seen in a number of individual research papers produced starting from 2005 and beyond. In 2005, the International Crisis Group started producing a series of reports urging the international community and others involved in the peace process to focus on improvement of relations between the societies along with working on a political solution, thus mainstreaming the process-oriented approach to the resolution of the conflict. In 2008, a group of Azerbaijani and Armenian social scientists organized a panel on the Nagorno-Karabakh peace process during the annual conference of the Association of Studies of Nationalities at Columbia University. The panel resulted in a special issue of the International Negotiation journal on Nagorno-Karabakh focusing on the role of civil society and identity, as well as suggestions for the improvement of the peace process itself. In 2009, International Alert conducted a meeting of researchers and civil society representatives with the mediators and policy makers in Vienna for a discussion focused specifically on how to improve the peace process and how to normalize relations between the societies. The UK-based Conciliation Resources started facilitating a series of publications by Armenian and Azerbaijani authors in 2009 focusing on various aspects of the political process. The project became known as “Karabakh 2014.” Also in 2009, a conference assessing the Nagorno-Karabakh peace process was held at Tufts University’s Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. In April 2010 the Caucasus Edition, an online resource devoted exclusively to the analysis and resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, has been established featuring some well known, but mostly dozens of newly emerging Azerbaijani and Armenian writers.

As an indication of a clear shift in thinking about the conflict, only a slim minority among the articles published since 2005 and described in the previous paragraphs discuss the final outcome or political solution to the conflict. Instead, most fall into categories of analysis of the situation and suggestions to improve the peace process. The literature goes out of the boundaries of politics. A number of writers take on exploring identity, collective memory, and other anthropological or sociological topics. Critical approaches to historiography are also gradually emerging (by Gamaghelyan, Garagozov, and Oganesyan). In terms of suggestions for conflict resolution, the focus shifts to the suggestions for the process that could transform the relations between the societies and make sustainable co-existence of Azerbaijanis and Armenians possible. The need to accept each other’s grievances as a legitimate step toward eventual reconciliation is also discussed. Most stress the necessity of involving civil societies in the peace process.

The shift in literature from goal oriented to process oriented was followed by a similar shift in the political process. Until the mid 2000s, the main focus of negotiations, just as of literature, was the status of Nagorno-Karabakh. In the last few years the conversation over the negotiation table, including the most recent Madrid principles, leave the status to be decided at a later stage, while the immediate focus is on targeted but smaller steps and the gradual normalization of relations. Simultaneously, the governments dropped their previous staunch opposition to Track II work that is followed by a revival of cross-border initiatives, the number of which grew at least tenfold between 2006 and 2010.


The evolution of the political process is certainly not influenced by literature alone, and this article does not intend to discount the influence of geo-political, economic, and other factors. Moreover, and without doubt, the literature itself is often influenced by politics. However, because there is direct correlation between the trends in scholarship at any given time and these exact ideas landing on the political field, it is safe to say that the knowledge generated by literature informed the content (if not the context) of political developments at every stage.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the literature was almost exclusively developed by the supporters of one side or the other who favored a “win-lose” outcome. This period was followed by the onset of violence and war. In the early and mid-1990s, the conflict attracted the attention of political scientists who studied it from the realpolitik point of view and offered a number of “lose-lose” outcomes; they urged both sides to compromise and make painful concessions. These ideas largely informed the negotiating process, but failed to produce an acceptable solution, as they continuously dissatisfied both parties. In the late 1990s conflict resolution experts joined the debate and offered what they considered a number of “win-win” possibilities. Their proposals tried to find a political solution that would satisfy both parties. Some of the proposals have been presented to the Armenian and Azerbaijani presidents by the Minsk Group co-chairs during negotiations, but none of them proved viable.

In the last few years the conversation gradually transformed, and research expanded covering identity, memory, historiography, and other areas. Writers increasingly approached the resolution of the conflict less as an outcome and more as a process. Mediators have adopted some of these principles, the status issue was put on hold, and long-term steps toward normalizing relations took priority.

This latest and crucial trend in literature emerged with limited political or financial support and in spite of numerous obstacles. It emerged mainly thanks to individual efforts of a few concerned Azerbaijani and Armenian social scientists, and limited institutional support of a few UK-based NGOs, but still remains marginal. Because there has been a strong correlation between the scholarship on this conflict and politics, the mainstreaming and growth of this latest trend of literature can inform and improve the peace process and lead to a sustainable solution. Increased support for conflict-focused research in the fields of sociology, anthropology, political science, education, and critical historiography can produce the breadth of knowledge critical for the progress.

The conclusion is simple: Literature matters.

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