12 Apr 2010
Karabakh Settlement: In Need of Public Diplomacy
More than 15 years of negotiations on the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict do not seem to produce tangible results. The mediators’ optimism for a soon-to-come breakthrough is not shared among Armenians and Azerbaijanis. They know it better: they are not ready to make concessions. And while everyone’s attention and endeavors are now directed towards the interstate political resolution of the conflict, no one cares about reconciling people first.
Armenian and Azerbaijani societies have been subjected to state propaganda, with nationalistic and war rhetoric encouraging hatred and animosity towards each other for decades. Thus, it is natural that any kind of concessions is not popular at all on either side of the border. The whole negotiation process is viewed as a zero-sum game rather than a road to peace.
With this regard, public diplomacy could be quite an effective way out of the situation.
People-to-people contacts, discussions among different sectors of the societies on the conflict and other concerns that the two nations share in common could boost tolerance, trust and understanding between Armenians and Azerbaijanis. In a long-term perspective this would let people get involved in peace building and even influence the decisions of their governments on the resolution process.
However, due to a high level of distrust and intolerance between the two nations, even rare public diplomacy initiatives are faced with skepticism and/or enmity among the people. Neither of the two governments seem to support and encourage people-to-people contacts of their citizens.
Yet, a state-supported public diplomacy initiative was taken about two years ago, when a group of Armenian and Azerbaijani intellectuals headed with their ambassadors to Russia paid visits (once in 2007, and then in 2009) to Karabakh, Yerevan and Baku, met with the presidents and held discussions on the topic.
This initiative was actually possible thanks to the personal friendship between Azerbaijan’s Ambassador to Russia Polad Bulbuloghli and Armenia’s then-Ambassador to Russia Armen Smbatyan: professional interest in music and art has built friendship between the ambassadors of two hostile countries.
Other public diplomacy initiatives, even though they do take place, are still not encouraged.
Ironically, public diplomacy has recorded considerable achievements in moving forward another reconciliation process, one between Armenia and Turkey. Public diplomacy was the key to the recent rapprochement process. And even though the official rapprochement process is now stalled, Armenian-Turkish public diplomacy continues to break stereotypes, challenge government actions and reconcile people.
In addition to the state-implemented “football diplomacy,” there have been numerous visits, exchanges and discussions between Armenian and Turkish intellectuals, journalists, artists, political scientists, businessmen, and so forth. These became possible on a large scale after the Armenian and Turkish governments became rather supportive of these initiatives and dialogues, or at least refrained from creating any obstacles for them.
As an example to the contrary, the International Crisis Group’s Europe program director Sabine Freizer, in her article,i gives an example of how Azerbaijan and Armenia could not agree on locations to play qualifying football matches for the European Cup. Eventually, the two matches were canceled, and the countries received no points. A typical lose-lose outcome, in contrast to Turkish-Armenian “football diplomacy.”
Turkish-Armenian relations have been at a stalemate for almost a hundred years, and it became possible to move forward only after the large-scale efforts on the public diplomacy front registered success. How long will it take for Armenians and Azerbaijanis to see the need for it, two countries that have been negotiating for 15 years but can’t agree on a venue for a football match?
The two processes are different. The stakes are different too, but when you put aside all those “justifications,” it becomes obvious that Armenia and Azerbaijan have made a “losing game” of this whole negotiation process by not letting their citizens communicate and be engaged in dialogue. Any political resolution of the Karabakh conflict is going to be a “lose-lose” game for both sides unless it is accepted by the people.
The Karabakh settlement is in urgent need of public diplomacy. It’s time to give it a chance.
i The reference link in case it does not open: