Analysis - Sunday, August 1, 2010 0:05 - 1 Comment

Towards Conflict Transformation Through the Transformation of Narratives (Preliminary considerations)


As observers more carefully look into the reasons for conflict in the Caucasus, the more they link them with issues such as collective memory, historical perceptions, interpretations, and identity particular to the parties in conflict. Perhaps one of the most vivid examples of this sort is the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh, a conflict that has been largely ignited due to the mutually exclusive historical interpretations held by these communities (De Waal, 2003). Conflicting parties have differing representations about the recent history of the Karabakh conflict, as well as almost opposite historical representations about the region, even starting with their understanding of ancient history (Shafiev, 2007). These opposite representations, which form what I call “collective representations” and “collective memory,” are based on respective textual sources.

If one considers narratives as tools for promoting collective remembering, it becomes clear that parties with adversely different texts at their disposal could not achieve mutual understanding and consent. One reason for this comes from the fact that both Armenian (Ar) and Azerbaijani (Az) versions of Karabakh history are full of “victimization” type narratives. As we know from social psychology studies, the recollections of real or invented “tragic” images of history may evoke certain emotions creating negative social attitudes (Jacoby, Lambert, Nesse, & Rogers, 2009). For example, Ar memories of the 1915 tragic events in the Ottoman Empire, as well as Az memories of the destruction of Khojaly — a small town in Nagorno-Karabakh — in 1992, undoubtedly would cause certain kinds of emotions that generate negative social attitudes between Armenians and Azerbaijanis. Otherwise, the conflict exists not only as a geopolitical reality, but also as a mental and social-psychological one. Obviously, these realities may interact with each other in certain ways, though function under different regularities. It is also obvious that resolution to the conflict and achievement of long-lasting peace in the region is impossible without significant mentality changes, and changes of social attitudes among the conflicting parties.

A question of application thus arises: How does one “unblock” the minds of the conflicting parties? In general, we can suggest that a preliminary answer would be to change the tools of collective remembering. In other words, we can achieve a transformation of conflict through the transformation of narratives. This is, however, an extremely difficult task, as both parties are sure that only their version of Karabakh history and any attempts to specify the facts contradicting their versions are received with hostility. Undoubtedly, the existence of conflict itself also negatively influences attitudes, forcing people to adhere to and defend their rigid interpretations, often contrary to logic and facts. At the present stage, when so much is at stake, mere reference to facts and logic alone could not produce the essential changes necessary for reconciliation. In these circumstances, I would suggest using a method of what could be called “gradual changes of narratives.” Imagine that there are two parties with almost completely opposite versions of the same events. In our case, these are Armenian (N Ar) and Azerbaijani (N Az) versions of Karabakh history.

The core of the method is to make certain changes to the original narratives that transform them into N Ar1 and N Az1, which are slightly closer to each other. Later, another cycle of changes transforms the previous narratives into N Ar2 and N Az2 that bring the narratives even closer together. Let me describe the method in a visual way:

The main goal of this method is to search for and find the kinds of narratives that would promote the lessening of confrontational attitudes in a way that could more or less be easily “bought” by the conflicting parties. The proposed method includes several procedures such as searching for and finding common points in Ar and Az versions of Karabakh history that would promote rapprochement between parties[i].

For example, if we look closely at the Ar and Az grand narratives we can easily identify the common point — Armenians and Azeris are both portrayed as victims at the hands of violent instigators. In the Ar version, Armenians are described as victims at the hands of Turks supported by Azeris, while in the Az version, Azeris are portrayed as victims at the hands of Armenians supported by Russians. As a starting point of narrative changes, we can reformulate these basic narratives in such a way that show how Armenians and Azerbaijanis were both victims of atrocities because of a process of political disintegration and collapse of the Ottoman and Russian empires, and then of the Soviet Union.

Given these narrative structures, we could then modify them into a more neutral narrative, which deemphasizes the culpability of either side. Along with this, we should also try to infuse these modifications with a “perspective of future.” Refocusing this narrative structure, we can eventually begin shifting narratives with the goal of ultimately creating a “prospective future,” which describes the potential benefits of mutual regional development if the conflict is resolved (let us call this type of common narrative N).

It is important in the process of narrative transformations and the search for the “right” narratives not to be mistaken in the construction of narrative changes. Sometimes it may be misleading to use only common sense when making changes to the narratives (Scott, 2009). We must therefore conduct more research to answer questions like: Can the theme of common suffering actually pull together Armenians and Azerbaijanis?  To what extent can such narratives lower negative attitudes? Before we deliver these narratives to the broader public, we need to examine thoroughly the effects of such texts on individuals’ emotions and attitudes. It is my hope that future research will shed more light on these issues.


De Waal, T. (2003). Black Garden: Armenia and Azerbaijan through peace and war. New York, NY: New York University Press.

Garagozov, R. (2006). Collective memory in ethnopolitical conflicts: The case of Nagorno- Karabakh. Central Asia and the Caucasus, 5(41), 145-155.

Garagozov, R. (2008). Collective memory: Patterns and manifestations, part 2.  Journal of Russian and East European Psychology, 46(2), 3-97.

Shafiev, F. (2007). Ethnic myths and perceptions as a hurdle to conflict settlement: The Armenian-Azerbaijani case. The Caucasus & Globalization, 1(2), 57-72.

Jacoby, L., Lambert, A., Nesse, L. & Rogers, C. (2009). How does collective memory create a sense of the collective? In P. Boyer & J. Wertsch (Eds.), Memory in Mind and Culture (pp. 194-222). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Scott, R. (2009). Historical narratives and post-conflict reconciliation in the Caucasus: A psychological experiment (unpublished manuscript).

[i]The idea and suggested procedures to look for common points in opposite narrative versions as a way to achieve communication between conflicting sides is not accidental and derived from my previous work on reading and comprehension of  art literature. For more details, see:  Karakozov, R. (1996). Sense production in reading fiction.  Journal of Russian and East European Psychology, 34(1), 64-77.

1 Comment

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Ayk Zakarian
Aug 12, 2010 5:23

Dear Rauf Garagozov,

I believe your article is touching upon one of the most important aspects of the conflict that has usually been neglected or ignored whenever there have been discussions on the prospects of peace in Nagorno-Karabakh. Your article makes perfect sense (at least to me), because it would be rather hard to imagine a settlement or a permanent “peace” in the region if the two communities who are asked to live side by side still have and hold on to such mutually exclusive accounts of history, and mutually degrading images of the “other”. In order to realize a permanent peace I think it is vital to deal with this issue. However, the most important thing that needs to be addressed is the method by which one would be able to convince governments on both sides to begin the process that you have described above. Governments, Nationalists, Extremists, and Political parties on both sides have and continue to instigate and propagate such mutually exclusive histories and accounts, because such acts have been politically rewarding thus far. The war torn populations of both sides have been very receptive of such messages and propaganda, and with the continuous breakdown of talks between both sides, such images and beliefs are being reinforced.

I truly believe that the settlement of this conflict will eventually depend on the populations rather than governments, because even if the governments succeed in signing a deal or an accord and declare that the conflict has been peacefully resolved, both populations will have a very hard time living side by side, especially after being subjected to years of propaganda and exaggerations of the other side’s “atrocities” and inhumanity and their own vulnerability.

With all this said, I think the basic premise on the need to promote dialogue, a more neutral narrative, etc… would be agreed upon by many observers/analysts who wish or want a peaceful resolution. The challenge however is devising a method by which governing authorities on both sides would agree to allowing such activities to take place. With the constant reference to a military solution, and the refusal to compromise, I believe this would be a very challenging task, and one that should take preference over the actual details of the narrative transformation. It would be a shame to be able to successfully put together a very useful, comprehensive and effective program, only later to realize that none of it would be applied.

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