The Narrowing of the Perception Gap: Ceasefire versus War
The recent breach of the Armenian-Azerbaijani line of contact and the tragic deaths of soldiers on both sides brought a wave of anger, discontent, worry and sense of urge for greater vigilance in Yerevan. Unlike in Stepanakert and Baku, in Yerevan the people are more removed from the idea and perception that the country is in a state of war. Here people are both physically and emotionally further away from the conflict zone. Here, there are mixed feelings – some believe that as victors Armenians have nothing to give to Azerbaijanis, others consider the option of territorial concessions as a valid ‘pay off’ for peace, others are ready to return all the adjacent territories for the independence of Karabakh. One way or another, there is more diverse discourse in Yerevan about the conflict than in Stepanakert and Baku. My recent visit to Stepanakert only reaffirmed this – even the Cambridge University political science students were blown away by the ‘surreal reality’ of Stepanakert’s fight for independence.
The largely non-concessional stance of Karabakhtsis is explained through the prism of security. For them, no guarantees are sufficient enough and the physical proximity, the memory of the war and lack of trust (reinforced by the current official Azerbaijani belligerent discourse) are primary drivers behind Stepanakert’s non-concessional position.
The exclusively maximalist position of Baku is explained through the prism of revanchism and political face-saving. Quantitatively outnumbering Armenians and their military equipment, Azerbaijani military loss (of the NK and the adjacent territories) was particularly painful, and hence the sense of ‘restoring the justice’ is particularly strong. The emotionality of the war’s negative outcome was powerfully manipulated by the political elite in Baku for their own domestic political dividends, at the expense of militarizing the society and dehumanizing ‘the enemy.’ To justify the ultimately unrestricted power and crush domestic opposition, Baku’s officials resorted to the idea that Azerbaijan is de facto in a state of war, diverging the public’s attention away from corruption, nepotism and misuse of the country’s oil wealth.
Although in Yerevan a similar scenario developed, meaning, that the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict served as a power legitimation tool, from the first president to the current one, official Yerevan was never as maximalist as Baku and never entirely and forcefully monopolized the political discourse in the country. Yerevan’s political discourse on the NK conflict, as mentioned earlier, was always diverse, largely as a result of the victorious outcome of the war but also because of the better maneuvering room for concessions, the potential economic, political and geo-political advantages of those concessions, and also because of the diversity of political actors and discourses. However, Baku’s recent, increasingly ‘loud’ and at times even bizarre official discourse (e.g. Aliyev’s recent branding of Armenians as fascists being an example) related to Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenians has pushed the latter off the edge. Increasingly Armenians in Armenia are also being forced to believe that the ‘no war, no peace’ condition of the ceasefire is actually irrelevant, and that the true reality of the conflict is that we are still officially at war. In addition to this narrowing perception of what constitutes the current reality of the conflict – the state of status quo or silent war – there is a widening perception of what is a concession. In Armenia, understanding the return of territories is a significant concession, given that today the discourse in Armenia is dominated by ‘liberated territories’ in reference to the buffer areas around NK captured by Armenian forces. Whereas in Azerbaijan the Armenian understanding of ‘concessions’ is virtually unacceptable, as Azerbaijanis view the NK-adjacent territories as the constituent part of their homeland and not subject of discussion.
Many analysts and media in Yerevan voiced this opinion following the recent Azerbaijani probe of Armenia’s defensive position in Tavush region (Armenia proper). Some stated that this is exactly what the official Baku wants – the international community and Armenia to believe that the military tensions on the border are only a step away from a full out war, and the reason why the breach this time was in Armenia proper was also intended to underline Baku’s interpretation of the conflict – that it is between Armenia and Azerbaijan, and not NK and Azerbaijan. Some Yerevan-based analysts noted that it was done by Baku to test and gauge Russia’s reaction, given that Armenia is a member of the CSTO agreement.
Another opinion was voiced that Azerbaijan is prepping for a full-out offensive in 2014, as that is the year when oil reserves will be almost entirely depleted (although natural gas is still in abundance), and political elite will begin to look for other mechanisms of power preservation. One of those mechanisms is believed to be the resumption of war, which will also coincide with the 20th anniversary of the ceasefire, and more likely no significant diplomatic achievement.
And finally, media extensively speculated as to why the clashes coincided with Hilary Clinton’s visit, largely concluding that Baku tried to ‘ring the alarm’ and remind the US official visiting the region that the conflict is alive and well and far from being frozen. This ‘alarm’ was also intended to show Washington at hand Baku’s frustration with the status quo, and the latter’s readiness to resort to other measures if diplomacy fails.
Essentially, understanding official Baku’s position of ‘all or nothing’ and its attempts to pull the region into a new war if diplomacy fails, instead of official Yerevan maneuvering diplomatically it decided to ‘bark’ back. Baghramyan street is viewing the conflict from a victor’s position – so what is viewed as a concession in Baku is out of question for Yerevan. Another perception gap. ‘Bring it on’ was essentially the message of Armenian power ministers and the president. With the presidential elections scheduled less than eight months from now, the authorities in Yerevan can’t afford to look ‘weak.’ Instead, NK will again be used as power-legitimating tool, especially given that Baku grows increasingly impatient about the conflict resolution at any cost.
Despite this grim picture, there are a number of reassuring outcomes from the recent escalation of hostilities. The primary one being that neither the immediate powerful neighbors (Turkey and Russia), nor the Minsk Group co-chairing countries (US, Franc and Russia) are interested in resumption of hostilities, in fact, it would go against their (primarily Turkey and Russia’s) interests. So this escalation, coinciding with Clinton’s visit will, hopefully, push a notch higher and even speed up the utilization of the diplomatic tools available both within the framework of the Minsk Group and the individual countries.
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