15 Jul 2013
Interview with Gevorg Ter Gabrielyan, Eurasia Partnership Foundation in Armenia
1. How does Eurasia Partnership Foundation Armenia’s work currently contribute to the conflict resolution field as well as peacebuilding initiatives in the region?
The main aim of Eurasia Partnership Foundation in Armenia is to become a hub for conflict transformation/peace-building methodologies. There are many NGOs which work on conflict related issues, however, the positional approaches are wide-spread, whereas transformative approaches are almost unknown or mistrusted in this society. It is crucially important to provide a space for the new generations and civil society, as well as the state structures, to consider the possibility of using transformative methodologies. We apply them to youth, to Armenia-Azerbaijan dialogue, and to Armenia-Turkey dialogue, and we try to engage state actors in considering and understanding them.
Positional approaches are the ones which are used by the non-democratic states in negotiating, and are based on compromise. They are also used by nationalists to different degrees, and their extreme version is to come up with a zero-sum game, where the victory of one side is the loss of another side. They de-humanize the conflicts.
Transformative approaches are the ones which use appreciative and caring approach; creativity and imagination; and try to bring a joint/common/shared vision on the conflict transformation ways. These are win-win approaches. In international relations still positional approaches are predominant. However, conflicts in South Africa and Northern Ireland, for instance, give also examples of successful transformative approaches. In the Caucasus transformative approaches are still embryonic and not supported by either the governments or the vocal parts of civil society. EPF is trying to change that trend.
It is quite easy to distinguish the positional approaches from the transformative ones. For instance, if a conflict ‘resolution’ project is about merely having a conference, it is likely that the positional approach will be predominant: the speakers from the conflict sides will come and speak about their respective positions (at this or that level of abstraction and diplomatic language) and leave, with no change, merely strengthening the existing divides, however bright and outspoken they are. Another highly visible feature is if the projects are not engaging those from the so-called ‘non-recognized’ entities (both current inhabitants as well as ousted ones: refugees and IDPs): if they are, it is likely that the project is transformative in nature, because it does not forget significant stakeholders. But most of so-called conflict resolution projects forget that tenet. Another example: if people study conflict resolution techniques in abstraction, with no chance to practice their learning engaging in dialogue with the side with whom they are in a conflict, it is very likely that their studies will result in them becoming even more entrenched in their positions (though if they do engage, it is not yet sufficient to change their minds as well).
Transformative approaches result in those engaged in them becoming ‘partial facilitators’. These are people who are representing a conflict side, but instead of advancing their side’s position, they are trying to facilitate a joint vision; they work on developing joint framework, joint approaches, they care to understand the other side and look for solutions, putting themselves ‘in the shoes of the other’.
2. How do you assess the situation with conflict resolution programs in Track II level in Azerbaijan and Armenia?
There are several programs going on, funded by a variety of donors. As I mentioned above, not all of them are based on transformative approaches. Most of them are of short duration, they constantly lack an opportunity for a strategic evolution because of uncertain future funding. The major NGOs which have strategies also often lack a medium-term funding perspective. There is also a need in developing resources which allow the implementers of different projects knowing about each other.
This is particularly important for newcomers to the field: they come and start doing things which either are being done by others already, or have been done in the past, with no knowledge on what has taken place before and what takes place now. If the entire past and present investment into peace projects is aiming at making a difference, it should become a) strategically longer term, b) mutually interconnected, c) known to the actors working in this field as well as d) to the general public.
The reasons this is not happening are numerous.
Donors like ‘newcomers’: there is a donor fatigue from working with one and the same NGO; also, donors like pitching competing NGOs against each other, hoping that higher returns will come from healthy competition between NGOs. However, sometimes this competition becomes far from being healthy. ‘Newcomers’ (and almost every NGO) are extremely competitive: they compete for funds.
NGOs do not cooperate with each other because of competition reasons as well as because they work in different methodologies, which seem incompatible (such as, the already mentioned above, positional versus transformative methodologies).
Finally, most of NGOs are reluctant to engage the large segments of society and to let know what their work is about, for a variety of reasons.
Some are not going public because they follow the request of their partners from the other side of the conflict: if it becomes known that they and their partners are engaged in peace projects, their partners may suffer in their societies from government clampdown and/or extremist attacks.
Others are worried that the anti-peace groups in their own society may attack them, if their activities become known.
The third group does not engage the society for mercantile reasons: they do not want to expand the pool of those interested in peace and thereby to create additional competitors.
The overall result of any of these causes or of their combinations is that the dialogue activism is not well-known. This increases the suspicion of the society, because it leaves an impression that NGOs engage in dialogue across the conflict only in order to absorb donor’s funds formally, rather than in order to achieve any success, or that they are cynical ‘traitors’ to the national cause. This, in turn, increases the legitimacy of anti-peace forces. This is a cycle which significantly affects the effectiveness of civil society conflict transformation work.
3. What do you think about the current level support for Track II programs from various stakeholders such as international organizations and community, governments and civil society?
The answer was touched upon above. The international community plays a role of the donor, but very often not strategically, i.e. too few funds are too thinly spread, funds are given to different actors for short-term activities, etc. When, however, they financially support an NGO, their grantee can count on their support also politically. This also depends on the grantee: if an NGO is skillful in making the international community interested in their work, they will be able to achieve that. I am talking here, obviously, about the Western international community. Russia has a much less constructive position, and transformative methodologies are unknown to it and not trusted by it at all.
The large society does not know much about these projects and does not trust NGOs in general and particularly peace NGOs. Peers are often competitive and/or do not understand themselves the essence of the peace work. The Armenian government is not supportive, but neutral: they watch and they are interested in learning about the projects, but they do not engage much. This is not only because the government is not democratic. A major reason is that the peace work, like tango, is danced by two: civil society has its partners across the conflict divides, even if in limited numbers. Governments, unfortunately, do not enjoy having serious communication with each other, currently.
4. Some argue that Track II diplomacy efforts are ineffective since their reach is limited and a small number of people impacted as a result. What can you say about the importance of Track II public diplomacy work in the Nagorno-Karabkah conflict in response to these criticisms?
All of the above demonstrates the importance of such work, if it is done correctly. In fact the number of those engaged in such projects is not very small; beneficiaries constitute quite a significant group. Over the last 15 years, probably several tens of thousands of people from both sides have engaged in such projects on this or that occasion and for brief or longer duration. The number of the leaders, i.e. those NGOs which are professionally engaged in such projects, is smaller. Because engaging in them requires certain professionalism, independently of which methodology is used, transformative or positional. It also requires certain risk taking. At the same time, as I mentioned above, the limited amount of leaders is the reason why donors try to expand the pool, engaging newer actors, but often they do it non-strategically.
Another danger is that positional approaches actually may brew additional nationalist defenders of their cause rather than peace specialists.
Often it is said that track 2 and civil society cannot turn the tide, and peace has to be concluded by the governments. I do not believe it possible for the governments to conclude lasting and sustainable peace, if they pursue positional approach. Therefore, in my opinion, civil society peace work is strategically important, if it tries to develop transformative approaches.
A traditional reply to the issue of importance of such work is the conflict prevention capacity of such dialogue and peace projects: they build ties among individuals across the divide, and if the situation deteriorates, these individuals, who may have acquired trust towards their counterparts, can together play a soothing role. This became obvious during the Georgia-Russia-South Ossetia war, when peace individuals from Georgia and South Ossetia sides contacted each other and countered the propaganda war, which may otherwise have much more dire consequences. The problem with this approach is that it is immeasurable: one cannot measure to what extent something which was bound to happen was prevented due to certain investment and actions. However, it would be good to do a few projects on the methods of measuring conflict prevention in South Caucasus and the role of civil society projects in it.
Building trust is a difficult goal, and I have seen two types of trust built:
(a) Real trust, when the sides across the conflict divide learn to trust and respect each other, but they do not come up with a final win-win solution to the entire conflict. However, trust that they mutually enjoy helps them to suggest new avenues for advancing the dialogue, and to determine the issues that can be currently addressed and are seen as advantageous to both sides.
(b) ‘Trust’ which is synonymous to ‘knowledge’: the sides may not like and respect each other sufficiently, however, from numerous interactions they learn the patterns of behavior of the other side, and can rely on their acquired knowledge. They trust their knowledge about their counterparts. This is crucially important for peace in international relations, and is studied thoroughly within the security dilemma and similar approaches. This type of knowledge-trust also has conflict mitigation potential, even if people build this via the positional approach.
The more dialogue projects are implemented, the more there will be people who build trust of either the a) type or of the b) type. Both results, in the longer run, are advantageous for both societies.
However, there is also a lot of work which needs to be done inside societies. While I consider in-person off-line dialogue a sine qua none for the transformative peace work, at the same time I realize that there are huge areas of work which have to be done inside societies, for which an immediate presence of the other side is not needed. Though the other side should come into picture from times to times in order to check the level of advance of both societies re this or that issue which is being discussed. The different levels of internal freedoms available in Armenia and Azerbaijan increase the gap between the two societies and make internal work less effective than it would be otherwise.
For Armenia, I recommend internal dialogues for the following reasons: a) we need to increase the amount of pluralism on the opinions about the conflict; b) we need to make sure that new generations of dialogue participants learn and understand all the aspects of the conflict; c) we need to discuss the limbo, the dead-end in which the Armenian society has found itself after ‘winning’ the hot stage of war and not being able to transform that victory into the fruits of development; d) we need to make sure that the general public at large are aware of our efforts, and can engage, participate, criticize and otherwise reflect on the need for peace; e) we should study the interrelationship between the conflict dynamic and the current difficult social, economic and political situation, that Armenia (and NK) found itself in, failing to make a development breakthrough in the 20 years of independence, remaining occupied by corruption and oligarchy, being ecologically ruined, and subject to the illness of catastrophic outmigration.
The Armenian side has one more peculiar issue to address internally: the logic of conflict brought it to the situation of being the side which ’wronged’, via ‘occupying’ the other side’s land and declaring a state which is not recognized by any other state. It proved unable, in the last 20 years, to make its position more seriously accepted by the international community. Even its ‘allies’ such as Russia, do not accept this position and merely use it to ‘divide and rule’. This creates a situation of a constant psychological pressure: on one hand, it is difficult to live in a permanent disagreement with the rest of the world. On the other hand, this situation maintains the fertile grounds for double speak, which existed in the Soviet Armenia.
Then, too, there was a lot of doublespeak: people mostly tended to become rich, but verbally they preached the socialist values. They were silent about their personal interests. Today, Armenians are trying, on one hand, to become full-fledged members of the international community, on the other hand, to maintain an array of deep relations with Karabakh, which are not on the international radar screen. Needless to say, they are also often away from the public scrutiny, since they are considered issues of national security and defense.
The results are: (a) this secrecy raises the suspicion that somebody is getting rich under its hide. (b) at the individual level, many people experience cognitive dissonance: it is difficult to convince every other person in the world that NK has a right to independence and that Armenians are not vicious ‘occupants’. (c) one easy way to deal with this is to become a nationalist, convinced that anyway their national interests are incompatible with those of the rest of the world; that the world is a zero-sum game, where every power is engaged only in maximizing its gains unilaterally and should be mistrusted, and therefore it is fine to constantly feel being under a siege and not having any real friends anywhere in the world.
This is also compounded by the fact that for the same reason of realpolitik zero-sum game picture (and ‘divide and rule’ principle), Armenians do not also seriously engage with even those groups which could be their supports (say, the Abkhaz, South Ossetians or Transdnistrians); and vice versa: these groups also do not engage much with NK. Because of difficult geopolitical situation, Armenia is very cautious in its reactions over the developments in, say, Abkhazia, because it does not want to jeopardize its relations with Georgia. The result is that every conflict is looked under its own logic, and states as well as others who maintain the positional approach do not try to find common patterns in different neighboring conflicts.
For instance, the recognition of Kosovo was presented by the large parts of the international community as a case which cannot be a precedent for any of the former Soviet Union conflicts. Similarly, the crash of Chechnya by Russia was presented as a solution which cannot be applied to other conflicts.
This keeping each conflict separate works to the interest of those who would like to keep the positional approach. The positional approach is in the interest of those who benefit from the fact that conflicts are unresolved, either using them for maintaining or expanding their power base, or using them for making money out of the unresolved conflicts.
However, the simple solidarity approach (if, say, Georgia, Russia, Azerbaijan unite against Armenia, Abkhazia, NK, South Ossetia and Chechnya) does not and will not work. It will result in even more polarization. Alliance-building always works in favor of the positional approach and zero-sum game. The states’ interests differ, and one-size-fits all does not work here. That is why, in realpolitik, the Armenia official position is the balancing or complementarity approach. That is why Georgia in earlier times supported to some extent the Chechen fighters, despite their role in the Abkhaz conflict, but afterwards it paid a price for that. That is why Russia crashed Chechnya but recognized Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
So what is the way out? Solidarity is needed in order for achieving any success in any undertaking. How can these conflicts be resolved without building solidarity? The answer is that solidarity should be built across the conflict divides, and region-wide and globally; it should unite all those who are in favor of peace; against the resumption of hostilities; and do not regard the best way for conflict resolution the zero-sum way. It should unite those who have a transformative mindset. The civil society peace projects, though imperfectly, work in that direction.
Those individuals or groups in the international arena who do support Armenia, often belong to the marginal and radically traditionalist type, e.g., Christian fundamentalists or racial purists. How long can this cognitive dissonance, growing isolation and natural unity with the least development-oriented ideologies continue, without becoming a case of national schizophrenia? How to transform it? That has to be discussed too.
I also suggest a methodological approach which includes similar discussions to take place in Nagorny Karabakh. There is a huge gap between perceptions of Armenia inhabitants, Karabakh inhabitants, and the Diaspora about all aspects of the conflict. Moreover, there is also a huge gap between the perceptions of the capital, Yerevan, and of the regions of Armenia. That is why EPF focuses on engaging people not only from Yerevan.
Engaging people from NK in direct dialogue with people from Azerbaijan is another priority. It seems this priority should have been shared by Azerbaijan: if they want to return NK to their jurisdiction, the main thing they should do is to engage the inhabitants of that area who actually separated from Azerbaijan in discussions and communication. This thinking, however, does not seem to be shared and realized by them currently to a significant extent. They, rather, consider the engagement of people from NK in dialogue as an attempt to further legitimize the status quo, whereby NK is a self-declared state. Thereby they regard transformative approaches through the realpolitik, positional lenses. Unfortunately, many civil society representatives prove that the Azerbaijani side is not entirely incorrect; participants sometimes use such ‘tripartite’ projects (engaging Armenians from Armenia, Armenians from NK and Azerbaijanis) to advance the NK’s positioning as an independent state, instead of looking for common, really mutually beneficial ways out of the dead-end.
The importance of civil society peace initiatives is determined also by the issues which are not being discussed. One such issue I mentioned above, about the feeling of being in a permanent siege by the rest of the world which does not recognize the fruits of the military conflict. That feeling is a perfect mechanism to brew more nationalism.
I, as an Armenian, want to understand the mixture of nationalism and peace tendency that exists in my own soul. I have often said that any solution to the conflict that will be shared by all the inhabitants of NK and achieved via a legitimate procedure is fine for me personally. At the same time, I study with awe and surprise the depth of nationalism of some of my compatriots, who agree to be exploited, to live in underdevelopment, but at the same time still not only count on keeping the entire territory currently under the military control of the Armenian side, but also on returning some territories from Turkey, in the vague future. I would understand if such statements were made by those who do not think, who are under the influence of propaganda. However, I see some quite bright people thinking along these lines. This means nationalism is not just a result of state propaganda, which will disappear tomorrow if the propaganda machine stops; it is ingrained in our souls, and something should be done about that. A more realistic approach would be to focus on the issues of bettering one’s own life here and now. However, recently I found a young civil society leader from a remote area of Armenia who plans to start a global campaign for the recognition of the Genocide, engaging people from 100 states. Moreover, his project is discussed seriously by the state officials of Armenia. His local community is in quite a dire situation. But he is not engaging in, say, cleaning his city, but in making hundred thousands of people from 100 countries join into an advocacy action for events which took place hundred years ago and are a remote issue in all the respects for the overwhelming majority of the inhabitants of these countries. I do not approve or disapprove this civil society leader; I just watch, observe, and try to understand if not the logic, then at least the type of psychology and society which makes the remote issue more urgent than the issues at hand. This is a typical mindset of a nationalist. It would be simplistic to call this person or any such people fanatical: they are fully rational people in their daily life, with intellectual capacities. This phenomenon, however classical for the nationalism studies, is almost not studied yet in Armenia. This is the kind of determination which, in fact, helped the Armenian side to be victorious during the ‘hot stage of war’. And if we want to have peace seriously, we should understand well what we are dealing with. I do not want this determination to be ruined. I want it to be positively and constructively transformed, on a par with the transformation of the similar—though unique—type of nationalism on the other side of the conflict.
Finally, one cannot overestimate the need in region-wide peace projects. The experience of such projects of the past as Caucasus Forum, or more recently, ‘Myths and conflict in South Caucasus’ (bot implemented by International Alert), as well as the recent EPF project on engaging youth from Georgia, Abkhazia, Azerbaijan, Armenia and Turkey all together, demonstrate the numerous advantages that such projects have as compared to the bilateral projects, if one wants to achieve the understanding, among the constituency, of the need in transformative rather than positional thinking. Bilateral projects are easier degenerating into positional talk, into zero-sum perspective. Their participants often sincere want to explain to the ‘other side’ their truth, to achieve a victory in the debate, to convince ‘the other side’ that only their side’s perception of things is the correct and legitimate one. They return from such meetings either upset that the other side remained unconvinced (and therefore their attitudes to the other side hardens even more), or happy that they were successful in not yielding their position, and therefore this was a case of their rhetorical toughness and victory (which again hardens their position towards the other side and dehumanizes it further).
Regional projects allow people to see that they are not unique in the context of other conflicts; they allow people acquiring a position of facilitator in another conflict, at the same time being in a conflict oneself, and thereby easier becoming a ‘partial facilitator’. Participants in such projects enlarge the palette of tools that they possess to be successful in conflict transformation.
Regional projects give a chance to their participants to see the plurality of the Caucasus and the beauty of that plurality; to abandon the disappointment from failures of dialogue and to see that they, despite their conflict is unresolved, could in fact help others in a neighboring conflict to move forward in their dialogue.
Regional projects give a chance of building the solidarity for transformation. Such regional projects are better than just study tours to other conflict divides (though these are important as well), in that people from the region know about each other’s conflicts and can relate to them more personally, than to faraway conflicts.
The thing is that it is not only Armenians who are in conflict with Azerbaijanis, and Georgians with the Abkhaz: there are also huge levels of mistrust between Armenians and Georgians, Azerbaijanis and the Abkhaz, etc. The entire region is fractured to an extent that experts do not accept that it is a region, or they agree that the only thing that unites the region is conflicts, its fractured nature, and mistrust. Having a regional approach gives a chance to peace-builders to tackle that issue.
Moreover, the EU advance into the region makes it possible to imagine, in the future, an umbrella system which may contribute to softening of the positions of all the sides and making peace possible. This also has to be studied, and projects should be undertaken to address these tendencies.
The peace work is only starting today in the Caucasus, despite about 15 years of its active existence: if it is done correctly, there are huge perspectives for its success. Unfortunately, the propaganda machines of states work for the contrary approach: instead of brewing self-aware, critical, reflective and positive action-oriented individuals, the propaganda, including schools and churches, are directed to growing easily manipulable, badly educated, nationalist youth who are incapable of connecting the dots between different ideas, and who, because of having an as if ‘enemy’ on the other side, allow their rulers to rule them and exploit ruthlessly, without providing them with any civic safety nets. This propaganda machine tries to make youth believe that their nations are ‘autochtonous’ since the times immemorial and never change (the parochialism approach to nationalism); that they are the most ‘significant’ nations in the world; that the blood ‘purity’ is what determines belonging to these nations; that anybody who deviates from certain rules of behavior, including in terms of their religious believes, are traitors; that traditions, including negative and unfair traditions such as the traditional roles of women and girls, are the most important things to be cherished in order to complete this picture and be victorious vis-à-vis the other side, etc. These positions are challenged by the globalizing world, by the increasing availability and accessibility of the internet, by the fact that travel and education abroad are not prohibited, and also by their inherent hypocrisy, since any person with embryonic critical faculties can notice that this picture is nonexistent even in the lifestyle of those who preach it.
However, those internal forces in the civil society who rebel against these positions are often characterized as traitors to the national cause.
Meanwhile, the propaganda machine works with its full capacity, trying to divide and polarize the entire world across the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict divide: those foreigners who visit Karabakh are declared persona non grata in Azerbaijan; and the Armenian side tries to lure more and more people to visit Karabakh, thereby increasing the amount of their ‘supporters’. This makes it even more important to have civil society peace projects: to at least keep a minority of citizens from both sides aware of all these tricks and capable to vocally fight against them. A minority is a powerful thing in the mountainous Caucasus: they can change the tide, or at least keep the alternative discourses alive. Minorities are the ones who won the hot stages of wars. They should be the ones who win the burningly cold stages of peace.
You can watch an interview with Gevorg Ter-Gabrielyan on a similar topic at http://civilnet.am/2013/08/28/wanted-a-peace-strategy-for-the-caucasus/