18 Feb 2014
Confidence-building in the Karabakh conflict: what next?
In an earlier article published in the Caucasus Edition in November 2013, I argued that the spectrum of initiatives in Karabakh peace process needs to be broadened. In this article I would like to flash this out by exploring a number of concrete areas about different kinds of peacebuilding initiatives that could be undertaken. I explore seven clusters of ideas in the realms of security, economic cooperation, cross-border visits, symbolic initiatives, learning initiatives, initiatives directed at ‘single’ and ‘external’ communities and pan-regional initiatives.
Discussion of peacebuilding initiatives, or confidence building measures, typically faces initial hurdles in terms of where to start, and who to include. Azerbaijan consistently advocates against initiatives that would solidify and entrench the occupation of Azerbaijani lands. Generally, it is only when such initiatives promote an irredentist reading of the conflict or position the Armenians and Azeris of Karabakh as equal communities that Azerbaijani officials encourage them.
Armenians are much more open to confidence building measures, especially in Karabakh, where they are seen as a way to legitimize and promote the de facto state in NK, and on security in the Line of Contact (LOC) area. Initiatives and formats suggesting parity between the Armenian and Azerbaijani populations of Karabakh are, however, rejected.
In thinking about the future, three recommendations may be considered. A transformation in Armenian and Azerbaijani understandings of what confidence building is and the purpose it serves would be a breakthrough in itself. The conflict parties’ attitude towards confidence building is more hostile, instrumental and zero sum than it has ever been. Determined and sustained lobbying at the diplomatic level on the meaning and benefit of confidence building is required to address this.
Secondly, many ‘new’ initiatives or ideas are in fact not new, but have simply been discontinued – and need reinstating. The political environment for peacebuilding is less favourable than it was five years ago, and much less so than during the 1998-2001 era, the high point for Armenian-Azerbaijani confidence building measures.
Thirdly, tangible, even if limited, progress across several different initiatives is more important for meaningful long-term change than one-off high profile events or “success stories”. These can actually do more harm than good.
The situation along the Line of Contact (LOC) is one of the most serious threats and aggravators of situation. Recent years record some 30-40 deaths annually along the LOC, and news of ceasefire violations, deployments and skirmishes serve to keep alive a sense of threat in all societies concerned – as a renewed rash of ceasefire violations in January 2014, involving several deaths, has underlined. Nevertheless there are a number of ideas, none of them new, which could serve to reduce frontline tensions and the risks of unintended escalation. Previous rejection should not preclude renewed lobbying for such measures. Noteworthy here is a report prepared by international NGO Saferworld, which identifies in greater detail a number of possible initiatives to reduce tensions along the de jure Armenia-Azerbaijan border, which, if successful, could be replicated along the de facto boundary.
Misperception and misunderstood behaviour are particular dangers in the heavily militarised LOC context. To provide the necessary backchannels to contain misread behaviour, cross-LOC hotlines should be established connecting commanders along de facto and de jure Armenian-Azerbaijani borders; a hotline could also be established between Armenian and Azerbaijani Ministers of Defense. Community early warning systems are also a possibility to be explored.
Ambassador Kasprzyk and his small team of five observers have a very limited mandate to inspect and monitor the LOC. A more frequent, unannounced and better-staffed monitoring mission could instill a sense that the international community does care about ceasefire violations, and that armed forces are accountable. Over time a strengthened mandate could develop into a joint incident investigation mechanism working with forces on both sides, creating a genuine sense of accountability.
Furthermore, commissions on each side for missing persons have not met for several years; reinstating this format for information exchange, facilitation in identifying human remains when they are found in the LOC area and for communication during occasional incidents when soldiers and civilians cross the line should be a priority.
Initiatives with an economic logic aimed initially at resource-sharing (water) and activating trade networks and interactions have often been promoted as a kind of “functional” confidence building. There may be more scope to restart basic resource-sharing and preservation projects than interventions to activate Armenian-Azerbaijani trade, as the latter needs specific economic logic to be viable.
There are water streams in northern Karabakh flowing down the River Terter eastwards to the plains of western Azerbaijan, which create both potential points of tension, if these streams are blocked, and potential cooperation, as they flow downstream from Armenian- to Azerbaijani-controlled areas. There have been limited water sharing initiatives in the past (2000-1); these could be resumed.
There are other opportunities to foster cooperation on other functional issues such as controlling wild fires and vermin (rodents and locusts), and containing contagious diseases such as avian flu and foot and mouth disease. Along the de jure Armenian-Azerbaijani border the sides could also agree to return each other’s livestock when it strays across borders and frontlines. Such initiatives need political lobbying to secure green light approval for the relevant local government officials to cooperate freely.
Although it is often suggested that economic incentives could drive Armenian-Azerbaijani confidence building, this has been less evident in practice. First, such proposals often assume the unimpeded circulation of goods around markets free of corruption and oligarchic interests, which is the case in neither Armenia nor Azerbaijan. Closed borders have created powerful vested interests among particular economic elites and monopoly-holders. The disincentive for these powerful players to open up monopolies is strong, and the influence of small-traders who would benefit is small.
Second, symbolic and security issues are paramount in this conflict, and there’s little evidence to suggest that an economic rationale can trump these factors. One of Moscow’s early reactions to the conflict in the late 1980s was to throw money at it, to no avail. Benefits of peace-style arguments highlighting economic incentives have not been compelling for the parties in the past, although where such arguments support, rather than independently precede, political incentives, they should be encouraged.
Among civil society initiatives the NGO International Alert has supported the co-production of certain basic commodities through its “Business and Conflict” programme. This work has succeeded in forging cross-conflict economic partnerships to produce certain commodities, and where possible has also generated innovative formats where partners from across conflict divides present joint production together. This may be a more effective demonstration of economic incentives for peace than more theoretical studies.
Most confidence building measures are of course cross-border, but here I am using the term to specifically denote initiatives involving Armenians and Azerbaijanis travelling across their borders. Reciprocal visits were regular during the late 1990s and early 2000s, but since 2003 they have been largely discontinued. The exception, two “intelligentsia” group visits across the frontline organized by the Armenian and Azerbaijani ambassadors to Russia, Armen Smbatian and Polad Bulbuloglu, made the headlines but were not part of a sustained process or followed up. In the last few years, it is only rare individuals who cross the border. The rehabilitation of sustained cross-border visits would give a huge boost to peacebuilding, and could even be a break-through if handled sensitively. It needs determined lobbying by diplomats with Armenian and Azerbaijani governments, who in recent years have consistently resisted proposals from NGOs for this kind of initiative.
Cross-border visits are fraught with pitfalls. Visits should be conceived and presented as a series, reducing the “one-off syndrome” of heightened pressure/expectations surrounding the “intelligentsia” visits; any such initiative needs to be a process, not an event. Once committed to a series, organizers could start with a low-key visit, perhaps of medium to senior level policy-makers, or a group of technical experts, for closed-door exploratory meetings. At the other end of the spectrum is the idea of an exchange visit of journalists, who would conduct a working visit and interview high-level politicians for their media at home. Such exchanges took place in 1998-99, organised by Swiss organization CIMERA; any such group should feature neutrals (Georgian and Western journalists), as well as independent, not just government-controlled, media.
Participants in any public visits could meet together first in a neutral location and then travel as a collective to each location (so it is not just a group of, e.g., Armenians visiting Azerbaijan, it is a group of Armenians and Azeris who have engaged in a process travelling together). Each half of the delegation could act as an intermediary/buffer between the other half and their own society, and provide for their own societies a visible example of engagement.
Controversial formats should be avoided: for example inviting Karabakh Armenians to Baku without Armenians from Armenia, or inviting Karabakh Azeris to Karabakh without other Azeris being represented too. Whatever the professional group participating in such a visit, residual personal ties should be maximized – some senior journalists in Yerevan and Baku know each other well and could form the core of an exchange group. However, a pre-requisite to any such initiative is the toning down of rhetoric. This perception is especially prevalent on the Armenian side, where a number of high-level statements over recent times have generated a sense of risk associated with any travel to Azerbaijan that was not there in the 1990s.
Under this term I refer to initiatives involving the restoration of important symbolic sites, such as churches, mosques, cemeteries, and so on. There are interesting precedents, though not without controversy, for this kind of confidence building in the Armenian-Turkish context, for example, the restoration of the Aghtamar Church in eastern Turkey.
In contrast to the Turkish-Armenian case, the pre-war intermingling of Armenian and Azerbaijani populations, suggests that such work might need to be reciprocal to be seen as legitimate. Armenians are unlikely to agree to restoration of Azerbaijani heritage on territory they control without a corresponding restoration of Armenian heritage in Azerbaijan. This type of initiative is unfortunately over-shadowed by the alleged destruction sometime in the mid-2000s of a historically important Armenian cemetery in Azerbaijani exclave Nakhchivan. Some kind of Azerbaijani investigation or acknowledgement of these allegations, as the Georgian government has undertaken with regard to the destruction of the Abkhazian National Archive during the 1992-93 Georgian-Abkhaz war, would likely be a pre-requisite Armenian demand before cross-border work of this kind could be undertaken.
Certain iconic buildings, such as the Armenian Church of Saint Gregory the Illuminator in Fountain Square in Baku, and the Yukhari Govhar Agha mosque in Shusha are sometimes mentioned as possible candidates for some kind of restoration work. However, any such initiative might be better off starting small, for example, with ordinary cemetery conservation. Restoring Baku’s Armenian church before cross-border travel is possible would only underline the absence of Armenians in the city, while Karabakh Armenians insist that Karabakh’s mosques should be restored, if at all, as Persian and not Azerbaijani monuments – resulting in provocation, not confidence building.
The Armenian-Azerbaijani context is probably not ready for the restoration of high-profile symbolic sites; it is still too focused on their effacement, whether through physical destruction, neglect or deliberate mis-representation. If initiatives of this kind are to be undertaken, they should begin with less symbolically loaded sites and progress from there. One initiative that could be followed up on here is that of two Armenian and Azerbaijani villages which swapped their populations as the conflict was escalating, Kerkenj and Kyzyl-Shafag. They have maintained each other’s cemeteries and could visit their own cemeteries on the other side of the conflict. This idea could be proposed again as a low-profile pilot for other kinds of cross-border visit and restoration projects.
The combination of the passing of time, maturing of new generations and limited media and information environment suggests urgent needs to create new learning tools about the Karabakh conflict. These could develop what can be termed the “conflict literacy” of young Armenians and Azerbaijanis and challenge their becoming “literate” only in the one-sided narratives promoted in state-controlled media and curricula.
There is a large but unstructured constituency of young people hungry for critical thinking and tuned out from official propaganda: often referred to the ‘Facebook generation’, this constituency is wider than that. It is dispersed and much larger than any one initiative could reach. The creation of new, open access learning tools, conveying both a critical understanding of history and a peace-oriented message, can overcome logistical problems through wide dissemination on the internet.
One model is Conciliation Resources’ Dialogue Through Film: A Handbook, a multimedia online and hard copy resource using short films made by young Azeris and Armenians. This is just one example, but other similar work to provide open access, alternative education materials offering critical, multi-narrative history can go a long way to both answering real demand for knowledge and fragmenting monolithic victim identities.
Single and external community initiatives
By these terms I mean activities that do not involve dialogue across the divide, but work within each community (hence single community work), or work involving key external communities, namely diaspora communities.
Single community work
There is a powerful argument that the possibilities for progress in cross-conflict work without single community work to back it up are limited. Single community work needs to be approached with care. Two strategies may help. One is to identify useful work that is conflict-relevant and helps a particular community to develop and define positions around an issue that is a priority agenda item for that side, but not the other. An example of this would be a single-community project in Azerbaijan to elaborate a full concept for the status of Nagorny Karabakh within Azerbaijan – in other words, to define a concept for the self-government of the region that remains to this day a rhetorical flourish, rather than a specified body of rights and responsibilities. This would initiate a hitherto absent but necessary discussion within Azerbaijani society about what rights it is willing to share with Armenians – but would be unlikely to attract any interest on the other side. A second strategy is “parallel” single community work – activities mirroring each other but carried out independently. This allows some degree of comparison and cross-referencing, yet also modification and tailoring of activities to suit local circumstances. In the current period, one such activity that could be useful is a parallel reinvigoration of the Madrid Principles. These have been almost completely absent from public debate over the last two and a half years and need to be foregrounded again. New discussions can illuminate how changes over the last two years have influenced the context for the Madrid Principles to be implemented. A series of public discussions to reassess and re-introduce the Madrid Principles could also serve as platforms to challenge some of the more destructive trends of the last few years, namely the legitimation of hate-speech, militarization and occupation. However, it is important to learn from previous mistakes and ensure that the population of Nagorny Karabakh is included in these discussions.
External community work
It is sometimes suggested that there may be a strategic opportunity in engaging Armenian and Azerbaijani diaspora communities, especially in Russia, with peacebuilding work. As in other contexts, Armenian and Azerbaijani diasporas are characterized by a generally more conservative outlook, and may have other primary issues (e.g. genocide recognition, rather than conflict transformation, in the case of significant segments of the Armenian diaspora). Armenian and Azerbaijani diasporas in Russia seem to warrant specific mention, due to their proximity to the conflict region and the example they offer of peaceful interactions and even trade. It may be useful to engage these communities through cultural activities (films, exhibitions, etc) containing a peace message. However, a number of problems may accompany a more sustained engagement with these communities. As events in 2013 have demonstrated, more than ever Caucasians in Russia are to varying extents exposed to a hostile environment, one that is even dangerous in some contexts. The degree to which they are available for mobilization around Caucasus-specific issues is an uncertainty that any intervention would need to carefully negotiate. For these reasons, only exploratory work with a cultural (i.e. ostensibly ‘non-political’) focus is recommended as a way in to further mapping and network-identification work.
Pan-regional, South Caucasus-wide frameworks offer potentially useful opportunities to bring Armenians and Azerbaijanis together within a wider community of actors. There is a long history of such initiatives, which have proven valuable and important in asserting the relevance of a South Caucasus regional frame of reference, but they also feature pitfalls.
One pitfall is that pan-regional formats can sometimes dilute specific bilateral agendas at the heart of conflicts. The temptation to avoid ‘politics’ can be strong in confidence building but interventions should not lose sight of the fundamentally political nature of the issues at stake. A second pitfall can be that pan-regional formats are inclusive only up to a point. Pan-regional formats involving officials and Track-1 level participants are limited to the de jure states of the region, and by their nature reinforce a certain exclusion of de facto counterparts.
Two precedents merit specific mention. The first is the South Caucasus Parliamentary Initiative (SCPI), an assembly of Armenian, Azerbaijani and Georgian parliamentarians convened by UK-based NGO LINKS for several years in the late 2000s. This was an important attempt to institute the kind of inter-parliamentary cooperation characteristic of other parts of Europe in the much more challenging environment of the South Caucasus. One possibility that could be explored is whether there is appetite among Armenian, Azerbaijani and Georgian parliamentarians to revive this assembly. With Georgia recently having transformed itself into a parliamentary republic, perhaps there may be renewed interest from the Georgian side in playing a convening role here. However, the labour-intensive and expensive nature of this work should be underlined.
The second precedent is the ongoing annual peace festival that takes place in summer in the mainly Azerbaijani village of Teqali in southern Georgia, the closest human settlement to the intersection of Armenian, Azerbaijani and Georgian borders. At the opposite end of the spectrum from SCPI, this is a grass-roots “peace-building, freedom and cooperation zone”, involving activities such as a film festival, public debates (“hearings”) on key issues such as ceasefire violations, and dialogues between Armenian and Azerbaijani NGOs, youth groups, artists, film-makers and so on. Teqali is an example of autonomous grass-roots action by engaged citizens, and, if sustained, could provide a precedent of a South Caucasus-wide annual event combining peacebuilding themes with popular culture.