Human interactions are complex. Many factors affect how they will develop and where they will lead. Repression, war and other extreme form of violence affect those interactions in most unfavorable ways making them unpleasant and oftentimes even dangerous for people. The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict further hampered relationships that were already complex and uneasy between Armenians and Azerbaijanis and cut off any direct communication between people. Twenty years of conflict and 15 years of cease-fire taught people who care on both sides to find ways of restoring shattered communication with an attempt to affect larger change within their own societies. However, the road to peace is not less dangerous than the path to war. As in the case of war, there are battles won and battles lost in the peace process. At the same time, there is one big difference in peacemaking and war: in war, defeat for one side oftentimes means victory for the other, while in peacemaking defeat is total – both sides lose.

Unfortunately, the peacebuilding path in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict has been very thorny. One of the very recent thorny bushes on this path was Ramil Safarov’s release and pardon. Let the politicians, policy experts and experts in international law argue about the legality of that move. From the peacebuilder practitioner’s point of view, it was an equal defeat for both Armenians and Azerbaijanis. The negative impact that it had on the peacebuilding process on the track-two level was enormous. Many practitioners would argue that it almost reset the years of hard work and that the whole process went back to square one.  Such an unexpected escalation of tensions created an immediate need for a response and intervention and both sides recognized this need. At the same time, a big question of “How?” was lingering on the horizon. How to start the new process while avoiding re-generating the trauma? How to avoid even more and total marginalization in your own society? It would probably be accurate to say that these were only a few out of the many questions that practitioners were facing in the fall of 2012 in both societies.

But as the saying goes: where there is a will, there is a way. Early in January, I attended probably the first meeting of civil society activists, intellectuals and peace practitioners conveyed in Tbilisi. This was an open and somewhat safe forum to discuss how to restore what was lost and how to move forward. The fact that this meeting actually took place is a positive sign in and of itself. People continue to care and invest time and personal effort in confidence building measures, despite limited successes and significant challenges. While meeting was far from friendly and there was somewhat visible nervousness, professional and respectful environment allowed for constructive conversation to develop.

Every participant emphasized and supported a renewed commitment to cooperation and collaboration. However, the damage that was done to the peace process at this level was apparent. I would argue that the desire of the majority of participants to collaborate and work on the level of joint articles and publications one more time reinforces that academia and intellectual work is regarded a “safer” area for cooperation. Even though several ideas on more concrete and tangible projects that would involve on-the-ground work were put on the table for discussion, those hardly found any support among participants. While “interesting” and “important” , those projects seemed to be “outside” of the working interests of participants and the pendulum swung towards more analytical work. With no formal boundaries and with the help of modern technology, practitioners are able to create highly valuable analytical products that are open to exploring new and sometimes unconventional ways of conflict resolution. While analytical work is a very critical part of peacebuilding, its impact is still quite limited, especially given the political realities in Armenia and Azerbaijan. In both countries there is an extensive gap between track one and track two and analytical papers and reports that are produced by highly qualified scholars and analysts rarely, if ever, are reflected in foreign or domestic policy agendas.

Academic and analytical work done by experts on both sides is extremely important, especially when it is done jointly. In my opinion, however, it is the frame of a painting that stills needs to be painted. By concentrating only on this pillar of peacebuilding work, we run the risk of having only a nice, well-finished frame hanging on the wall, which would quickly become useless. While working on the frame, it is equally important to remember that we need to jointly paint the painting that will fill that frame one day. The frame is a product that can be created in the studio of a skilled carpenter, but only getting out to the meadow you would be able to recreate the realistic colors and patterns on the painting.

To be successful peacebuilding work in such protracted conflicts, as the Nagorno-Karabkh conflict, should be multi-vector. Simultaneous projects that involve media and education areas can help soften the enemy image and change the discourse in societies. People-to-people activities can help to restore shattered connections between former colleagues and neighbors, and joint analysis and recommendations produced by scholars and practitioners will help to frame this comprehensive process. While both Armenian and Azerbaijani societies remain nervous about larger scale confidence-building programs, such as reunions of former neighbors, joint meetings in Yerevan and Baku and Stepanakert, satellite TV bridges to allow discussions across the divide, and creative conversations in every village, we are far from painting the picture of a peaceful future that Armenian and Azerbaijani societies will recognize as their own.   Joint work of scholars on policy papers is only one step that needs to be combined with many other kinds of steps. It will take more time and more courage to begin to take those bolder steps.