30 Jun 2012
What to Do While We Wait: Thoughts on Building Peace in a Frozen Conflict
As we approach the third decade of the Nagorno-Karabakh peace process, prospects for peace look dimmer than ever. The years of stalemate have done their work of creating more setbacks than progress and the term ‘frozen conflict’ fails to describe the current situation in many ways. This period of time has worked mostly against the prospects for peace understood in a broader term which includes not only the peace settlement between the presidents of Azerbaijan and Armenia but also the comprehensive approach to involving societies in the conflict resolution process including reconciliation. Instead, current Armenian-Azerbaijani relations are marked by opposing narratives, dehumanization of the ‘other’, and the loss of faith for the possibility of peace on both sides while there is growing conviction that ‘war’ is imminent. Media coverage of the conflict has seen little improvements while discourses in educational and other public spaces are dominated by simplified and selective histories, which prepare the younger generations for more adversarial relations with the ‘enemy’. Gunfire exchanges earlier this month resulted in the death of several soldiers and as usual, each side blamed the other for the casualties. Various factors such as the intensification of conflict or the effort to attract attention to the conflict prior to Secretary Clinton’s visit were discussed as possible reasons for the ceasefire line fire exchanges. Whatever the reasons, the regularity of death at the ceasefire line and ‘normalization’ of the phenomenon as part of the ‘war’ narrative paints a dark picture about the status quo. The prevalence of enemy images and normalization of the idea of war combined with the lack of political will for an agreement make it less likely for a breakthrough in the peace process or shift towards a more reconciliatory mode in the two countries.
The reasons for painting such a dark picture is not to show the futility of the conflict resolution efforts, which are underway. On the contrary, it is to argue that peacebuilding and conflict resolution during a stalemate of this conflict needs to be implemented creatively and strategically considering both the short-term and long-term goals in mind.
While the majority outside of the groups involved in conflict resolution in Armenia and Azerbaijan remain skeptical about the impact of people-to-people initiatives, they continue to be the lifeline for conflict resolution efforts and an important connecting point for civil societies and other groups in two countries. Not only do they build the important relationships and bridges connecting two societies, they also increase participation in the peace process and generate knowledge that can be used by the governments and international agencies. These existing collaborative relationships and knowledge generated in these domains will be instrumental for implementation of the peace agreement when it is signed. Their continuation and expansion therefore is important both in the short and long term. These initiatives need to expand outside of the urban English-speaking, well-educated elites and find creative ways of engaging people of different generations which are not part of civil society and activist circles.
Redefining the long-term peace approaches in a way that are relevant in the current stalemate is an important strategy for garnering support and participation within the Azerbaijani and Armenian societies. Given the hostility between societies, doing separate work within each society can be more practical and as crucial as cross-border initiatives. Learning about conflict and conflict resolution within their own and other contexts, engaging in discussions and debates about it and the future at various levels of society can both allow the discussions to go outside the dominant narrative and bring knowledge and clarity on the issues. Spaces for such discussions should be created at schools, universities, workshops and when possible through media.
Shifting Narratives of Violence and War
The stalemate and the internal politics in Armenia and Azerbaijan have contributed to the belligerent rhetoric, with the Azerbaijani side taking a harder stance in the narratives of state and political elite. This feeds into the creation of simplified narrative about the conflict and the possibility or to be more precise im-possibility of peace in the region. Adoption of this narrative by the public has diminished the values of peace and nonviolence while positioning another war as the inescapable future. Peace or engagement in conflict resolution in this narrative has the same meaning as compromise or betrayal. The relationships between two peoples are seen as incompatible. In other words, this simplified narrative has led to shifting from desire to achieve resolution through peaceful means to conviction that violence and war are the only way to ‘solve’ the problem. Much of the effort in the long-term conflict resolution efforts should be put to shifting this narrative to become more complex, wider and richer. The narrative that speaks about ‘self determination’ vs. ‘territorial integrity’ should expand to incorporate more complex elements, which exist both within the societies and in conflict. Without shaping that narrative, the conflict cannot be resolved and peace cannot be constructed. Finally, there is a need to revive the narrative of coexistence and revive the memory of Armenians and Azerbaijanis living together in peace. This can help humanize the other side and be more critical of the dominant state narrative.
The suggestion above is not meant to be a comprehensive peacebuilding strategy but rather some thoughts on approaches to consider as we enter another long period of stalemate. What we, peacebuilders in Nagorno Karabakh conflict must do while we wait (for the breakthrough) is to work hard and not lose hope, and to find partnerships and support in each other within and across the borders.