When Obama and Medvedev replaced Bush and Putin in 2008, there were high hopes throughout the world that nationalism was on a retreat, that the new generation of leaders could see beyond the narrow notion of national interest, that international relations based on values other than the all-destructive realpolitik were possible.  There was hope.  Regarding the South Caucasus, there was hope among other things in positive developments in the Nagorno-Karabakh peace process.  The followed activation of the Minsk group process, Medvedev’s apparent personal interest in contributing to the resolution of the conflict, the new-found synergy between Russian and US approaches to Nagorno-Karabakh appeared to support these hopes.  And then… nothing really happened.  By 2012, Putin is back, Obama’s politics in the South Caucasus look not that different from Bush’s politics in the South Caucasus and the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is further from resolution than it ever was.

This conflict has long been described as ‘captive’ and its intractability often blamed on the competing interests of superpowers. Russia has been consistently described as the force that benefited from the status quo of the conflict, actively preventing its resolution.[i] In 2008-11, however, in the aftermath of the August 2008 war over South Ossetia, Russian president Medvedev became the biggest advocate for the settlement of the conflict.  Working in close coordination with the French and the US leaders, Medvedev personally convened nine trilateral meetings with the presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan pushing for the resolution and investing considerable political capital, with his efforts ending in fiasco in Kazan.  For a few years the conflict enjoyed a rare geo-political opening, yet no agreement was reached.  And this is not a surprise.

Contemporary ethnic conflicts are rarely resolved through high-level negotiations alone.  Yet, for almost 20 years now the so-called Nagorno-Karabakh peace process has been limited to just that - official negotiations - with all the other dynamics in the region bringing the sides closer to war than to peace.  The sides are engaged in an ever-escalating arm race;[ii] the education and media in Armenia, Azerbaijan and Nagorno-Karabakh are functioning as well-oiled propaganda machines dehumanizing the other, portraying the conflict as primordial, existential and insolvable, and raising generations of youth ready to kill.  The speeches of politicians serve the same purpose.  The two most outrageous yet typical cases include the widely referenced by Azerbaijani media quote of the former Armenian president Kocharyan about "ethnic incompatibility between Armenians and Azerbaijanis;"[iii] meanwhile the Armenian media quotes the current Azerbaijani president Aliyev as referring to the "Armenians of the world" as enemies of Azerbaijan.[iv]  Any political debate within either society about the conflict and compromises necessary to resolve the conflict are non-existent and voicing anything but a maximalist position is a taboo.

Despite all these obvious trends, the Armenian and Azerbaijani high level officials, with tacit support from mediators, have monopolized the peace process.  While people-to-people contacts have been on the rise in the last 3-4 years, they are largely limited to short-term and low-key projects.  Only NGOs with links to the government get endorsements that lend them long-term grants, ensuring that the cross-border work is low impact at best or confrontational at worst, effectively neutralizing any potential positive effect that the confidence building programs can have.   Any longer-term or strategic efforts involving independent parts of the civil society or academia are actively discouraged by either absence of donor support or outright intimidation.

Today the Nagorno-Karabakh peace process is getting close to entering its third decade, and the hope of any settlement is at an all-time low.  The negotiations are widely acknowledged to be bankrupt, the tensions between the sides are on the rise and there is no hope for any progress on the political level on the horizon. The OSCE Minsk process still exists, if only on paper, and is ineffective to the point that an OSCE diplomat did not mind publicly characterizing it as “inadequate” during a conference on Nagorno-Karabakh in Washington in late 2011.

Now that all the false hopes for a near-term political solution are gone and can no longer serve as a smokescreen for obscuring the negative dynamics between the Armenian and the Azerbaijani societies, it is time to realize that a long-term strategic process of re-building relations is necessary for this conflict to move toward a resolution.  It is also time to realize that relying on the governing regimes and their proxies to solve this conflict is not productive as they had many opportunities to resolve it yet choose to preserve the status quo.

During the last two decades, not least thanks to various western scholarship and fellowship programs, a new generation of true activists committed to ideals of freedom and democracy has been emerging.  Numbers of genuine peace activists have also been on a slow  rise.  Preserving an appearance of official negotiations is still necessary for preventing a new cycle of violence.  Yet for peace to have even a remote chance, the resources and the political support need to shift toward creating a strategic vision and advancing longer-term and multi-track process of conflict transformation relying on those who have the integrity, the commitment and the skills.