Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict: Searching for Peace


For more than fifteen years after the ceasefire was signed between the parties of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, the societies strive towards a peaceful resolution. Nevertheless, there is no complete confidence in the stability and irreversibility of the peace by peaceful means. The societies living in the condition of no-war-no-peace significantly differ from the ones living in peace or war and have to be carefully examined in order to make certain conclusions from the current peace process and understand whether it is possible to transform the situation of enduring uncertainty towards long-lasting peace. This distinction is widely manifested in the socio-psychological aspects of group identity strengthening selective perception, negative stereotypes, tunnel vision and overall dim prospects for peaceful resolution of conflict.

The conflict potential allows determining the transformation of a dormant conflict both in negative (possible escalation of conflict) and positive (conflict resolution by peaceful means) directions. Analysis of conflict potential requires identification of the causes and functions of conflict as well as prospects for peace.

Basic Human Needs – Identity and Security

There are different interpretations in the analysis of the root causes of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, such as historical injustice, territorial dispute, and Soviet-era wrongdoing. However, the analysis can be sustained with another solid proposition related to the failure of basic human needs of a certain group and its subsequent socio-economic deprivation.1

The Basic Human Needs (BHN) theory2 in conflict resolution was introduced by John Burton where he argued that when needs, such as identity and/or security, are denied a person or a group, they can either die, demonstrate other manifestations of denial, or rebel. The key causes of violent conflicts in the post-Cold War conflicts, such as the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, were substantially related to the deprivation of identity and security as a basic human need making them more complicated, less subject to concessions and negotiations.

Another theory supporting the BHN argument is Ted Robert Gurr’s theory of Relative Deprivation (RD)3 where he suggests that there can be an accepted discrepancy between expectations — resources the person (group) aspires to have — and opportunities — resources the person (group) is able to have and preserve. The higher the level of accepted discrepancy between expectations and opportunities, the greater the RD and the intensity and scope of that perception among the group members. Thus, it brings to a higher potential for collective violence and destructive conflict.

The collapse of the Soviet Union and the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh strengthened the ethnic element among the other social characteristics in the Armenian identity. Armenians’ ethnic belonging became a significant component of identity, in fact, becoming one of the crucial elements of group integration since other elements of group identity had gradually disappeared with the end of Soviet Union.

The problem of security is another crucial factor defining the potential of conflict. One of the main causes of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict was the perception that the need of security for the Armenian population of Nagorno-Karabakh was not satisfied. Currently, the problem of security is still the cornerstone of the peace process. The inability to meet the satisfaction of these needs by traditional means of negotiations and diplomatic efforts has made the peace process more intractable.

Social-psychological Dimension

The image of enemy and negative stereotypes between the parties are among the main negative factors of conflict potential. The lack of communication and contact between the conflicting sides on both local and regional levels makes the negative gap even greater. Instead of making attempts to come out from the tunnel vision and selective perception, the media continues to label the other as merely the enemy. Azerbaijanis and Armenians are predominantly represented as barbarians, aggressors, traitors, and so forth.


“Incidental” issues can be discerned as another factor capable for the escalation of conflict. Such factors cannot be underestimated, especially in the no-war-no-peace society as they can play the role of a trigger for the resumption of violence. The number of casualties across the conflict lines amounts to several dozen every year on each side.

There are other factors as well, such as the official statements of leaders, statements in media, and issues raised in the negotiation process. The preservation of fragile peace directly depends on the efforts of the parties at conflict to prevent incidents since they solemnly are responsible for maintaining the ceasefire agreement.

Third Parties

One of the most important factors determining conflict potential is third-party countries having certain interests in the region. These are the countries involved in the mediation process, namely the Minsk Group states Russia, US, and France. They also include neighboring countries – Turkey and Iran have both mentioned their interests in the conflict’s resolution and regional development.

Russia’s role in the preservation of peace is crucial. Nonetheless, it is not always necessarily perceived as positive regarding the final resolution of the conflict and establishment of long-lasting peace. Turkey’s negative role in pursuing a one-sided position (in favor of Azerbaijan) in the conflict resolution process does not make it a constructive mediator in the peace process. Iran’s interests in mediation and the consequent peace process is determined with the desire to exclude Western mediators from the region who would approach closely to their borders in case they broker peace. And, finally, the West – represented by the US and France in the Minsk Group – is interested in democratization and stability in the region, which means it is interested in the resolution of the conflict. However, the only negative aspect for conflict potential connected with the West’s role lies in the fact that it wants peace much more than conflict resolution. It needs the result of the peace process – the establishment of peace and stability.

Political Aspect (Internal Politics)

There are several political factors of conflict potential: the level of democratization, political will, public support and the negotiation process.

There are serious issues in terms of democratization processes in both Armenian and Azerbaijani societies. The leaders are not recognized by the wider public as legitimate, which means that any agreement reached between them regarding the resolution of the conflict will somehow be challenged by the societies. That is why the leaders do not exercise strong political will for mutual concessions and compromise. The current stage of negotiations between the Armenian and Azerbaijani presidents are seen as crucial since it seems there is a mutual agreement for taking things forward based on the Madrid principles. But the impact of such a deal within the societies is not obvious since it largely refers to the consequences of war rather than the roots of conflict.

Another issue is the politico-economic interest by some parties in power, which helps preserve owned authority in a no-­war-no-peace situation. The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict has become the most important element for manipulation in the political life of both societies. Up to now, internal political problems of the two states are very much connected with the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict

A one-sided approach in the negotiation process is another factor of unsuccessful attempts to resolve the conflict. The official negotiation process alone cannot bring the mutually acceptable solution to the conflict since the societies are polarized and do not trust each other. In this situation, non-official or public diplomacy could play an important role in finding ways to support the resolution of the conflict.

Non-official Diplomacy

Public diplomacy has had a rather great influence on various conflict resolution processes worldwide. This component of the peace process encompasses civil society and grassroots leaders. The involvement of NGO, business and community leaders in the peace process is extremely important to promote conflict transformation and overcome negative experience aimed at bringing just and positive peace. Public debates on widely diverse opinions and approaches toward the current no-war-no-peace situation are activities the NGO sector can initiate.

The business component of non-official diplomacy would seriously improve socio-economic conditions by opening the communications bridging Armenian and Azerbaijani economies. Even though the fear towards each other is still present in the minds of ordinary people, the need for peace, development, and well-being of future generations is even more alive and sensitive, which gives hope that specific measures of conflict transformation through economic initiatives and trust-building measures between previously embittered entities could be fruitful for the peace process.

Sustainability of the peace process is determined with the active involvement of the public sector. In turn, the institutionalization of peace is the main factor for positive peace meaning not only security but also welfare and prosperity for the people. The need for peace becomes a specific need particularly important in the conditions of a no-war-no-peace situation. It is the only long-term alternative to war and violence for the people living next to each other for centuries who strive for sustainable development and economic prosperity.

Cooperation and Peace Perspectives

Cooperation itself does not resolve conflicts but creates preconditions for their settlement and resolution in the long-term perspective. The higher the level of democratization and economic development of the societies, the greater the possibility of conflict resolution by peaceful means.

There have been various ideas for cooperation/integration, such as Common Caucasian Home, Caucasian Parliament with representatives from recognized and unrecognized states, Peace Zones, and so forth. However, these ideas are considered elusive since in order to initiate at least one of them there should be some kind of formalized peace agreement. Even the supporters of these ideas say that common principles for normalizing relations between the nations need to be elaborated first.

Free Economic Zone (FEZ) or Qualified Industrial Zone (QIZ) ideas seem to be more real even for those who deny their possibilities because of the influence of geopolitical factors and the states’ struggle to increase their own influence in the region. However, these ideas could be interpreted differently. The existence of QIZ, for instance, would make conflict resolution more feasible. Somehow the trade between Armenians and Azerbaijanis is happening even at this stage, so why not formalize it?

To sum up, it is important to understand that the containment-oriented conflict settlement strategies that were used in the Cold War era, like enforcement mechanisms of crisis management, cannot be applied in deep-rooted identity conflicts connected to the peoples’ self-identification. Today new, flexible and adaptive approaches of conflict resolution through transformation are required which would make possible tackling contemporary conflicts that are strengthened by complex needs and interests between confronting sides. From this point of view, it is also important to develop a transformational approach in the conflict resolution and peace process where the concepts of confidence and trust between the confronting sides are being prioritized.

1 For details see Ayunts, A. Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict in Its Current Stage: Functional Role and Possible Solutions, Unpublished Dissertation, Yerevan State University, Armenia, July 2004 (in Armenian)

2 Burton, J., Conflict: Human Needs Theory, Macmillan Press, London, 1990

3 Gurr, T.R., Why Men Rebel, Princeton University Press, New Jersey, 1970

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