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Peace Talks behind the Closed Doors: Facilitating Progress or Ensuring Stalemate?

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After every high-level negotiation on the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict ambiguity about what was discussed or what was agreed upon ensues: officials on both sides reassure their populations that there is progress and that “we are stranding firm on our position”. I usually have two immediate reactions to these statements. First, I am very skeptical of the simultaneous use of “progress” and “standing firm on our position”: how can there be progress in peace talks between conflicting parties without any concessions made by either side? And, when some details are revealed to the public, it always seems like one side is making all the major concessions, which is not realistic.  I, therefore, perceive the situation as the lack of real progress or our leaders’ deliberate effort to mislead us. Second, I can’t help but feel that I, as an Azerbaijani citizen, have the right to know what really goes on behind those closed doors.

Some experts point out that secrecy is absolutely necessary to ensuring successful negotiations. First, secrecy is usually imperative to initiating negotiations, because such talks and their outcomes are nonbinding and parties can back out at any moment without jeopardizing their public standing. Negotiations that take place away from the public eyes and media scrutiny also allow leaders to abandon the counterproductive and rigid rhetoric that is meant for their constituents and engage in sincere talks. It is also a way to keep spoilers, or those who are opposed to peace process, in the dark and prevent them from manipulating and derailing the process. Furthermore, considering media’s propensity to sensationalize news, which can distort people’s perceptions about the peace process, keeping the talks secret serves to ensure efficiency.

Nevertheless, secrecy surrounding these talks has its own costs. First of all, because the talks are nonbinding and officials cannot be held accountable for what they propose or reject, they have the liberty of changing their stances and renegotiating continually. This drags out the negotiations and precludes any tangible solutions. Second, it allows leaders to hold on to their belligerent rhetoric when they face their constituents, since the constituents are not aware of any concessions that might have been made on their part. Third, since the public is not aware of the process, when and if there is an agreement, the public is caught off guard. Because the public is unprepared, the prospects of successfully implementing an agreement are therefore very bleak.

This is exactly the situation with the Nagorno-Karabakh peace talks. Fifteen years of negotiations have resulted in virtually no progress and the conflict is stalemated. Any concessions that leaked out of these secret talks in the past were swiftly denied by officials of either government. Meanwhile, the Azerbaijani leadership continues presenting war as a viable option to the public and the Armenian leadership reassures its populace that it is ready for such a war. Majority of the population in both countries, therefore, continues to believe that the resolution of the conflict is possible without making any real compromise on their part.

However, if there is a breakthrough it will be a result of substantial compromise from both parties. Whatever an agreement is reached on the paper behind the closed doors, however, will be impossible to implement if the Armenian and Azerbaijani people’s expectations are too high and do not reflect the realities of what a peaceful resolution can achieve. Therefore, gradually opening these talks to the Azerbaijani and Armenian public by inviting media and civil society representatives to the negotiation rooms would help close the gap between the people’s expectations and the reality. In the meantime, the leadership in both countries should move away from the belligerent rhetoric and facilitate people-to-people contacts between Armenians and Azerbaijanis in an effort to prepare them for potentially uncomfortable concessions.



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