The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict continues to be one of the longest frozen conflicts in the entire Eurasian region. The violence started in 1988 and then erupted into an armed conflict in the early 1990s, which resulted in the cease-fire agreement signed in May 1994. An important feature of the cease-fire agreement (this also gives us more optimism regarding the topic to be explored in this article) has been the fact that no international force was designated by the cease-fire agreement to preserve the truce. In other words, for the last 16 years the Azerbaijani and Armenian armies have faced each other without any peace-keeping armed forces in between.

Certainly, the cease-fire has been violated occasionally and it took lives of many soldiers and officers on both sides. However, the violence between these two nations, although extremely high before, did not break out into an armed military conflict after 1994. Although the Bishkek Protocol signed on May 5, 1994 between Armenia, the unrecognized Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh, and Azerbaijan foresaw “measures that guarantee the security of Nagorno-Karabakh” (which implied peace-keeping operations), an agreement on who would be implementing  peace-keeping operations was not reached. Russia believed that she could play an important role, but Azerbaijan strongly disagreed.

While both nations employed major violence between 1990 and 1994, after the cease-fire agreement was reached the level of physical violence has seriously gone down, though rhetoric violence still continued for a long time after the war. After 1994, officially both nations in rhetoric as well as practice acquired non-violent, peaceful ways for solving the conflict. Certainly, the picture is not as rosy as described since both nations still continue to build their armories (Azerbaijan particularly was inspired by the influx of energy resource revenues) and use belligerent language whenever they have the chance. So, for instance, the “peaceful way” of the conflict resolution declared by the Azerbaijani presidents has always had a repeated clause, threatening that the country may resort to “other means and getting back lands by using force.”

However, the observation about the absence of peace-keeping forces makes us think about the concept of non-violent social change and its applicability to territorial or ethnic disputes between various nations. In other words, is it realistic to think about the concept of non-violent social change in the regional context?

What I would try to analyze in my article is how it was possible to achieve peace (or rather “neither peace nor war”) after 1994 and why Armenians and Azerbaijanis did not restore the large-scale violent conflict within last 16 years.

After analyzing that I would like to look at it from the perspective of non-violent social change. So, the basic question here would be: Is it possible to apply the principles and practices of non-violent change into the resolution of cross-border conflicts? In order to understand this, I will try to look into various theories and experiences of non-violent movements (Indian, Eastern European) and try to draw conclusions.

Why there is no war?

So, let us put this general question at the beginning (after 1994): “Why are there no military operations today between Azerbaijan and Armenia?” Perhaps the easiest answer would be that “it is not beneficial for both sides to fight now.” This is partly true because the major powers would disagree with any kind of military action that would risk big investments.

Moreover, the political regimes both in Armenia and Azerbaijan would lose lots of resources if they restart the war. It is especially unacceptable now when the economy of the region is rising.

However, another probably no less important reason would be the new culture of peace within the international community that denounces war. “What would the world say to that?” -- an expression that is heard frequently in response to calls for war. But the question here is the following: Do regimes and people denounce war because it is unacceptable or because they genuinely want peace and security?

The last question is important from the perspective of non-violence theory, as Gandhi believed that “just means are the most likely to lead to just ends.” This question also has a deeper, underlining meaning in the context of “imposed” peace: it seems like the international actors are more interested in peace than the nations and governments of Azerbaijan and Armenia, neither being ready or willing. In this case, any peace agreement to be signed will probably be shaky and will require additional efforts to enforce the accord.

Non-violence as a tool for social change

Non-violence movements started to emerge in the 20th century in Asia and then spread to other parts of the world as a tool for social change without employing violence or arms. The concept of non-violence rests in the religious, ethical, and philosophical belief that the most powerful struggle for change comes not from the notion of winning over your rival by force, but by being able to convince him through love and dialogue. Gandhi believed that “every one of us has a bit of truth, and therefore the genuine truth is only established by means of dialogue.” This approach was labeled as “philosophical non-violence.” Of course, this is not to say that all the movements around the world accepted this notion of non-violence. Another wing of the non-violence movement emerged: “tactical” or “pragmatic” non-violence. The advocates of this school believed that non-violence should be active.  They used non-violent resistance as a tool for building political power — in demonstrations, as an organizing technique and style, and as a political strategy to achieve specific goals.

Non-violent tactics have been quite successful around the world, including the former Soviet Union. Non-violent revolutions in Georgia and Ukraine have created a wide range of expectations both in Armenia and Azerbaijan. However, the highly disputable 2005 parliamentary elections in Azerbaijan and the allegedly similarly controversial presidential elections of 2008 in Armenia, and tough suppression of post-election non-violent movements by brutal police force (especially in Armenia where 10 persons were killed during a police crackdown on demonstrators), have blocked the prospects for non-violent political change of regimes both in Azerbaijan and Armenia. It would be noteworthy to mention that non-violent revolutions around the former Soviet Union (Georgia, Ukraine, Kyrgyzstan), in fact, aggravated the situation with rights and freedoms in Armenia and Azerbaijan as a result of heightened cautiousness by the regimes vis-à-vis popular movements. So, instead of having a domino effect as was expected by many commentators on Caucasian politics, so-called “velvet revolutions” enhanced authoritarianism since the regimes have seen the power of non-violent movements and tried to stop their advance.

If we analyze closely the background of attempts for political change both in Armenia and Azerbaijan after independence, the only free and fair elections would be seen at the very beginning of independent statehood. After that, almost all the elections were manipulated and international organizations questioned their legitimacy.

Similarity of Armenian and Azerbaijani politics

Narcissism of minor differences” is the term that could probably partly describe why Azerbaijanis and Armenians engaged in ethnic conflict in the 1990s. Freud believed that similar and close nations have more potential to fight since they constantly need to be aggressive towards each other to reconfirm constantly their individuality and isolation. Both Armenia and Azerbaijan are characterized by authoritarian regimes based on clans. Ironically, the regime in Azerbaijan until recently used to be dominated by the powerful groups from Nakhchivan and Armenia, while at the core of the Armenian regime were Karabakh clan representatives. The institute of electoral democracy in both countries has largely failed throughout the 1990s and 2000s as a result of manipulated elections. It would be fair to say that the only democratic (or free and fair) elections, where power shifted to a new elite without bloodshed, were those that took place immediately after independence of both countries was declared.

In 1992 Abulfaz Elchibey, the leader of the Azerbaijani Popular Front, was elected president in the first democratic elections. His presidency lasted about a year, then in 1993 Elchibey fled to Kalaki, his home village in Nakhchivan, allegedly in order to avoid facing rebellious troops of colonel Suret Huseynov and prevent bloodshed. As a result of the coup d’état, former KGB chairman Heydar Aliyev became president. Later there were several non-violent attempts to change power in Azerbaijan, but this has never happened. The real opportunity for political change ripened in 2003 when Heydar Aliyev died. However, the regime consolidated itself against the opposition and preserved power by force.

Armenia held its first democratic elections in October 1991 when Levon Ter-Petrosyan, a scholar and former dissident, was elected president. His re-election in 1996 was marred allegedly with electoral irregularities. In 1998, he resigned under strong pressure from his cabinet and opposition supposedly due to his accommodating stance on the issue of Nagorno-Karabakh. Ter-Petrosyan gave his consent to a solution that would have postponed determining Karabakh’s status for indefinite period of time as it was a stumbling block for the peace negotiation process. Armenia would agree on liberating regions around Nagorno-Karabakh in return for lifting the blockade imposed by both Turkish and Azerbaijani sides. However, this did not happen as Armenians thought it was a decision that did not favor them, but Azerbaijan.

Apparently, neither in Armenia after 1991 nor in Azerbaijan after 1992 has power ever been peacefully transferred from one group to another. Both nations have a very limited culture of power sharing and two violent crackdowns on the political opposition (2003 in Azerbaijan and 2008 in Armenia) are the evidence of lack of political will for even minor changes. Although the possibility of a “gradual, evolutionary change” was discussed at the beginning of the 2000s (at least in Azerbaijan) this discussion was shelved after the 2005 parliamentary elections in Azerbaijan.

Is non-violent change possible inside Azerbaijan and Armenia?

For almost twenty years, Azerbaijani and Armenian opposition movements used the non-violence tactics to achieve change in their respective countries. These tactics included mostly peaceful demonstrations, pickets, hunger strikes, and some other means.

However, in both countries non-violent methods did not produce substantial political changes. On the contrary, the situation with governance, rights, and freedoms seems to be deteriorating.

So, for the time being the answer to the question about the feasibility of non-violent change would be “no.” Can this change in the future? We don’t know. Perhaps, another question we could ask here is whether non-violent changes inside countries can stimulate such change regionally and across borders? This probably requires a deeper look into the processes of the region and it will be difficult to study this question in this article.

We can, however, try to seek answers to some questions that could illuminate the picture:

It looks like the potential of domestic non-violent movements and tactics could well be introduced in inter-state, interethnic relations if, for political parties and civil society organizations, this opens opportunities to enhance their roles and relative power internally. The strong recognition of civil society’s role in peace-making by third parties can make it possible for civil society groups to apply non-violence tactics.

One of the tools for this can be the involvement of political and civil organizations into the process of parallel negotiations between Armenia and Azerbaijan on the issues that governments cannot agree upon. According to some experts, this process has already started and will be supported by third-party actors. For now, the process is still immature, but if exercised it will send a strong message across societies that change is possible, thereby reducing the government’s leverages for preserving the status-quo.


Some of the questions mentioned above have already been addressed in this article. It seems like the biggest difficulty for the application of non-violent social change methods right now would be authoritarian practices in both countries. Gandhi’s approach of non-violent peaceful change is only possible if a country enjoys political and civil liberties, where people could march and go on strikes. With limited or almost no freedoms of assembly and association existing, it would be very difficult to apply non-violent methods.

Now, can peaceful change in the region be assessed from the same assumption? What are the reasons why peaceful change still doesn’t work in the region? Can this be described in line with democratic peace theory?

It seems like there will be more questions than answers in the future regarding the issue. The most relevant relationship to test in this situation should probably be the number of cases where non-violent peaceful changes inside countries have contributed towards peace among conflicting states.


Hardford, B. (2004). Two kinds of nonviolent resistance. Retrieved from