The Great Dilemma


Democratization processes in Armenia and Azerbaijan are closely connected with the unresolved conflict of Nagorno-Karabakh. The two issues influence each other drastically. And the question is whether a solution to one of them will somehow bring us closer to the solution of the other. If yes, then which one is first to come: democracy or resolution?

The level of the Karabakh conflict’s impact on democratization processes in the two countries is high indeed. The conflict is first of all used as an effective manipulation tool similarly by the authorities and opposition in Armenia and Azerbaijan. It is a good leverage to play populism, “expose” state traitors for gaining political dividends and even oust governments and change power.

An example of how much the conflict can influence domestic politics is the change of power that took place in Armenia in 1998. The then-president of Armenia Levon Ter-Petrosyan was ousted of power because of his stance on the Karabakh issue. The oppositional forces didn’t approve of his adherence to the conflict’s step-by-step resolution plan proposed by the OSCE Minsk Group, and Ter-Petrosyan had to resign voluntarily and give the turn to those who were thinking that this way of resolution was against Armenian interests.

This experience could be repeated anytime whenever there is a chance for a peace deal on Karabakh. The situation might be the same in Azerbaijan as well where manipulations over the conflict are also effectively practiced.

The nationalistic rhetoric experienced in Armenia and Azerbaijan again has to do with democracy issues: nationalism has proven to be the best way of distracting people from democracy and human rights and maintaining the autocratic power.

There are also ways in which democracy drawbacks could influence the conflict resolution process. A resolution of such a sensitive conflict that requires hard concessions from both sides can’t be achieved unless there are strong democratic governments who have the support and trust of their respective nations. Apparently, neither Armenians nor Azerbaijanis will ever accept the decisions that were made by their illegitimate authorities and where their voices were not counted. Therefore, democratic reforms and legitimate elections can be an important factor to achieve the resolution to the conflict.

On the other side, no one can guarantee that democratic forces who might ever come to power in Armenia and Azerbaijan won’t be as much or even more nationalistic when it comes to the conflict.

Yet with a newly emerging trend in Armenian and Azerbaijani societies the dilemma of democracy vs. resolution is considerably changing patterns.

With both the resolution to the conflict and democratization, changes are taking place not at the state level but at the grassroots level, and with these changes the two processes are influencing each other positively.

There are civil society organizations and individuals that contribute to the conciliation between Armenian and Azerbaijani societies: the use of social media in human level contacts, the existence of blogs and other Track II diplomacy initiatives are great examples of conciliation endeavors made by groups and individuals that don’t see any policy changes from the part of their governments but understand the need of those changes for achieving ultimate peace in the region.

The same kind of “guerrilla” movements are initiated inside the two countries for bringing change in democracy, civil rights and human rights. Groups and individuals initiate public actions for their civil and political rights and try to make their voice heard by the government.

For example, in Armenia, a Facebook group that was initially opened as a discussion platform for the opponents of a law amendment that would allow a foreign language become the language of education in public schools, soon gathered more than 3,000 activists and started real, out-of-net actions against the law amendment. Under the pressure of this group, the government had to make some concessions and reduce the number of schools where the language of education would be a foreign language, not Armenian.

While the issues of democratization and resolution of the conflict continue interfering with each other at the state level, the grassroots movements come to solve the great dilemma. If they succeed, these movements in both directions will eventually herald the emergence of new, more democratic societies that will learn how to influence state politics and solve the conflicts with their neighbors.

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What are your thoughts on the subject?


Onnik Krikorian

2 Sep 2010

While I agree with the general premise that democratization and democratic societies make resolution more likely, I don't think that either society can wait that long. Even if you look at Georgia, more democratic than both Armenia and Azerbaijan, we can see that the democratization process can backslide. Moreover, even established democracies use the concept of external enemies and conflict to maintain power. And in the Caucasus, it is even more problematic. Again, the example of Georgia is perfect here given that there is no sign of resolution of its frozen (or not-so-frozen in the case of South Ossetia) conflicts. Moreover, despite some great achievements, Saakashvili has since resorted to old methods in certain areas, and one of those is in playing the national and external enemy card. Whoever is in power in Armenia is likely to do the same, and unfortunately, until the democratization process has affected a huge number of people, populism is always going to remain. I think it's also worth pointing out that it was because of an internal coup d'etat made up of Robert Kocharian, Vazgen Sargsyan and Serge Sargsyan which forced Ter-Petrossian to resign rather than public protest. It is unknown whether such a deal could have been signed were it not for that coup d'etat. Anyway, as we have seen, Ter-Petrossian and Kocharian were quite able to put down public protests lacking critical mass after rigged elections in 1996, 2003 and 2008. Would Karabakh be any different? But, is democracy necessary for peace? Yes, certainly. However, is peace necessary for democratization to occur? Unfortunately, I think so too. Catch-22. Especially as real democratization is going to take generations because it is as much to do with changing prevailing inherent societal attitudes as it is with governments. I also think we need new younger figures and political forces with democratic structures emerging separately from the old guard which have been in power, or held influence, at various times since independence was declared. It's why I think an internationally backed effort -- involving Russia, the US and Europe -- is the most likely solution. Either that or continued regional isolation for Armenia or a new war, the effect of which would be devastating for all. Still, best start that 1,000 mile journey towards democracy with a few steps just in case. However, in one country that's going to be hard enough. But to manage it in both? I won't be holding my breath although it's better it's tried, I guess, in case we otherwise find ourselves in danger of holding this very same conversation in another 16 years.