19 Feb 2023
From Liberal to Agonistic Peace in the South Caucasus
On 18 February 2023, the leaders of Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia shared the stage at the Munich Security Conference in the panel discussion, “Moving Mountains? Building Security in the South Caucasus.”
Commentary on the panel varied broadly. Some hailed the fact that the Caucasian leaders spoke on the same panel, considering it a historic moment and a meaningful step towards peace. Others critiqued the panel, claiming it as useless or even harmful. They cited the absence of constructive, direct communication between the Armenian and Azerbaijani leaders and their focus on eliciting third-party sympathies for their antagonistic cause(s), with Aliyev’s combative rhetoric, and Pashinyan’s non-cohesive speech getting special attention.
Peace — at least positive peace — is more than the absence of war. Thus, whether one regards the meeting as a positive development or as a risk, depends on the long-term goal and the vision for peace in the region. This goal is currently ill-defined. However, this has not always been the case. In the decades which preceded the Second Karabakh War, the vision for positive peace hinged on the premises of liberal peace; including the eventual democratization of the region, respect for minority rights, economic integration, and regionalization. In Azerbaijan, and among the regional powers — particularly Russia, Iran, and Turkey — there is a notable absence of the prospect for democratization in the foreseeable future. As such, the wait for liberal democratization could take decades, if not centuries. Positive peace, therefore, needs to be re-envisioned and adapted to the realities of a region with mixed forms of governance as we see today.
We propose an alternative conception, which we refer to as agonistic peace, in which the opponent is not considered an enemy to be destroyed but an adversary whose existence is perceived as legitimate” (Mouffe 2018). Agonistic peace assumes renunciation of earlier visions of achieving a “happily ever after” and accepts conflict while eschewing violence. Adopting agonistic peace as a vision would enable the parties to continue their rivalry, but replace enmity with adversarial positionality (Shinko 2008: 477). The wider region in which Armenia and Azerbaijan are located is no stranger to agonistic processes, with the conflict in Cyprus as perhaps the best-known example. The Cyprus conflict is hardly solved, and antagonism persists, yet parties have established rules of the game that have made violence unthinkable for several decades.
Should we accept agonistic, rather than liberal, peace as the vision, the Munich meeting could be looked upon as the start of something new. A “mountain moved,” with the abandonment of the concept of liberal democratization as a precondition for peace, and the new paradigm of peace as agonistic relations that rule out violence, normalized.
Shinko, Rosemary E. 2008. Agonistic peace: A postmodern reading. In Millennium 36, 3: 473-491.
Mouffe, Chantal. 2018. The affects of democracy. Критика и хуманизъм. 49: 61-70.