Analysis - Monday, November 15, 2010 0:06 - 0 Comments

Psychological/political dimensions of Nagorno-Karabakh conflict (Based on the “regression” theory of Vamik Volkan)


Conflict analysis is a detailed study of the dynamics of the conflict which gives chance to peacebuilders, humanitarian and development organizations to create a strategic plan to investigate, and stop active violence from occurring. Many analysts and practitioners do research in the local, national and international level, connecting all of these levels based on the remembered history and the development of events before and after the violence. It is important to build systematic linkage between researched areas and conflict catalysts. But at the same time this is unfortunate fact that mistakably these kinds of symptoms of the conflict are discovered and documented as root causes.

From psychological perspective, conflict is lack of moral satisfaction like trust, safety, security and physical satisfaction like basic human needs. Scarcity of all of the above creates psychological resistance and insurgency which is called conflict.  Since conflict is a psychological condition of individuals and large groups involved in clash, it requires serious attention and analytical research. Alas, this approach is missing point in different conflicts of modern history including Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.

Nagorno-Karabakh case

Sixteen years has passed since the war has been stopped in Nagorno-Karabakh. In every sense of a word-be it physical or psychological, conflict brought huge destructions to Armenia, Azerbaijan and “conflict zone” Nagorno-Karabakh. Political instability, destroyed economy, illegal militia groups, conflicting interests of neighboring countries and many other things welcomed war, accepted conflict, hosted trauma and planted hatred in South Caucasus. Outside parties like Russia, Turkey and Iran played a crucial role in development of this conflict as well. Analysts and practitioners had touched upon different issues including political, economical, and religious factors which triggered the conflict. Again the psychoanalysis of this conflict became one of the factors least researched and analyzed.

Armenia and Azerbaijan, both were part of USSR under fake “strong brotherhood” which kept them together without looking at minor incidents occurring from time to time for about six decades. The USSR rules and mentality of togetherness kept apart Armenians and Azerbaijanis from coming together and discussing their problems. Dependent on USSR politically they relied on Moscow for finding solutions to their problems which were always coded as a secret ‘threat to unity’&’ brotherhood’ and ignored.

If we look at the dynamics of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and its development process, we can see the psychological pattern is present in this conflict. Vamik Volkan[i]), the psychiatrist who is the author of number of theories explaining the large group behavior in conflict explains this situation based on his theory of “regression”. He explains the regression as “…mental mechanism developed for fighting with anxiety”. According to him, the regression could be explained in two different conditions: “ individual’s mental condition which may have been fixed from childhood in a regressed stale; and adult’s mental condition whose childhood fears and desires have been revived by recent events in their external environments”. If the nation will have both of these conditions, it will certainly lead to regression of a large group.  Vamik Volkan categorizes following when the large group regresses:

v  Group members lose their individuality

v  The group rallies blindly around the leader

v  Sharp “us” and “them” division between itself and “enemy”

v  The groups chosen trauma and chosen glories are reactivated, resulting in time collapse

v  Shared images depict and dehumanize enemy groups with symbols or protosymbols

When conflict erupted in late 1980’s and early 1990’s, Armenia and Azerbaijan were having hardest time of their history due to political instability and chaos in the region. The fact that leaders could not handle the situation, the regression expressed itself in a different way. Different groups and parties within Azerbaijan and Armenia and other outside parties manipulated with people’s emotions and previous fears, which created tension and fueled the conflict. As a result of weak governing and regressed society, hatred was channeled towards each other, created so called “us” and “them”, polarized them and swept away shared positive thought and feelings. During the stalemate process, both Armenia and Azerbaijan created different mechanisms for proving the liability of their thoughts and validity of their actions. Educational materials were published and distributed; information, stories and facts for proving the other side’s enmity were added to the curriculum. Media under the control of government translated the current conflict differently trying to use the narrative history. Communication between two nations by any means was “prohibited”.

As Pollock stated “for the vulnerable individual a specific time of the day, specific day of the week, a specific holiday can serve as a trigger or activator for the appearance of a symptom related to anniversary reactions”. When the large group regresses, conflicting parties have the same type of reactions towards those specific days, times, and anniversaries. The grassroots are kept under control by trauma-celebrating or commemorating the events occurred during the war. In Azerbaijan and Armenia, every year calendar is marked with events like the beginning of war, the occupancy of different cities, dates of battles, birth of national heroes and so on. It proves that groups are developing ‘ritualistic behavior’ remembering history and reminding it to future generations either as part of chosen trauma or chosen glory.  Anniversary reactions like the one I described above could “re-emerge the repressed conflict”. Re-emergence of the conflict also revived the image of enemy and created automatic reminder of the “event”.

“Politicized/Regressed” peace

Peace negotiations organized by OSCE for resolution of Nagorno-Karabakh conflict continue being unproductive. The process of building peace successfully is very challenging process due to its complexity and richness with psychological cases like emotions, values, identity, communication and add to that its context-specific idiosyncrasy  and political spectrum, it makes more intricate for practitioners to deal with.

The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict was influenced by domestic as well as regional and international politics. The political situation within both countries proved itself to be the major catalyst in Nagorno-Karabakh case. This is very important fact that, media made it possible for political leaders to manipulate over peoples psychology to gain the power.

In Azerbaijan, the president Ilham Aliyev used the statement of “either Karabakh or death” in his presidential campaign. This rallied the regressed nation around him with the hope that in the resent future, the problem will be solved, be it war or peace. Seven years has passed since the first election without any solution. Government controlled media channels faked the narrative history, revived the image of enemy through commemoration of remembered history and promoted hatred which energized the conflict. Aliyev’s administration is very active in negotiations and dialogue process with Armenia, however there is a huge gap of domestic preparedness to peace process. Instead of preparing the nation to future peace, his administration uses all kinds of possibilities to maintain the power by keeping the conflict unresolved.

Armenia had a different kind of internal problem. During the Nagorno-Karabakh negotiations in 1997, the president of Armenia Levon Ter-Petrosyan made a realistic assessment of situation and agreed to settle the NK conflict, but intransigent nationalism and ‘constitutional coup d’état’ of Armenia forced him from office.

As a result of internal political instability both Armenia and Azerbaijan failed to reach the agreement. Finally as Vamik Volkan mentions “it is important to remember that a regressed group can move out of regression under the guidance of a good leader”. As it is impossible to predict the position of grassroots level in this situation, two presidents should have the “political will” to make decisions about a settlement based on peaceful measures and transformative actions.


As a conclusion, it is important to mention that behind every peaceful action there is at least one theory of change. Theories of change will help us to be aware of the assumptions, verify the future activities and logically align objectives to identify opportunities for achieving greater results. Any theory created to achieve a social change should be translated into change of attitude and behavior. Only in that case, those theories of change will be considered to be effective.

In case of Azerbaijan and Armenia, two theories of change would be effective to make a change in people’s attitude and behavior which reflects the regression of decades:

v  Individual change through civil society initiative: No governmental guidance is needed. It totally depends on individuals who are ready to come to negotiations. Existence of organizations, training groups which would be ready to commit themselves in training youth and children to break the stereotypes and prejudices would be helpful in achieving individual change. Organizing dialogue groups outside conflict zones would be an outstanding change process for young adults to meet each other and learn to treat in individual level and learn to trust.

v  Collective change through civil society initiative: Anti-war campaigns, educating youth to resist to military service and military classes in secondary schools, development of human rights, democratization, students exchange programs and etc. Achieving democracy would be an important step due to the fact that people make personal decisions and decision makers make policy decisions based on what grassroots believe is right. Only in that case the existence of public media, TV and radio programs would be beneficial to take people out the regression state and move them towards peace.

[i] Dr. Volkan is a founder of the International Society of Political Psychology. More information about Dr. Volkan can be found at

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