One of the most contentious issues concerning the Nagorno Karabakh conflict is the question: who is considered to be the population of Nagorno Karabakh?  In other words, who are the people that consider Karabakh their “home”?  How is that determined?  On Caucasus Edition, these questions have been raised on a couple occasions at least in previous articles[1] and I want to take this opportunity to ruminate further about these questions.

The official high-level peace negotiations process mediated by the OSCE Minsk group includes Armenia and Azerbaijan as the main “parties” at the negotiation table.  Armenia negotiates on behalf of itself, the Republic of Armenia, and also represents the de-facto Republic of Nagorno Karabakh or the NK-Armenian constituency during the negotiation process.  At the same token, Azerbaijan similarly represents the Republic of Azerbaijan and also represents the NK Azerbaijani constituency.

The OSCE Minsk group mediators and leaders at the negotiation table are postponing this question in order to deal with it at a later time, as it is a highly contentious issue.  This is a common strategy used in mediation.  The mediator will bring the parties together to have them come to an agreement on more “low hanging fruit” or issues which are easier to resolve as a way to build confidence and trust between the parties.  Once the parties have agreed on the less contentious issues, they move on to the more contentious ones at a later time when relations have, hopefully, been thawed and some progress has been made.

Considering the status quo of the relations between Armenians and Azerbaijanis, any progress in the peace process would be welcome.  However, while the OSCE process aims to push this most contentious issue for a later time, there is another crucial question -  can the official peace process really achieve a sustainable peace agreement between these societies if all of the stakeholders are not involved in the process?

To take a step back, conflict mapping or conflict analysis tools are important in helping to analyze who are the key stakeholders in the conflict.   There are numerous tools and methodologies that can be used.[2]  Most conflict analysis tools address the key question of who are the key stakeholders or key actors in the conflict.  I would advocate that the current official negotiation process is lacking the participation of 2 very important stakeholders – the NK Armenians and the NK Azerbaijanis.

Not including these parties in the peace process is counter-productive and will certainly impact the prospects of whether or not the OSCE Minsk process will successfully be able to mediate a peaceful settlement.  Having that said, the OSCE Minsk Group must abide by the international legal standards and norms.  Furthermore, in order to institute any changes in the process, the move needs to be approved by all participating countries of OSCE.  The likelihood of NK Armenians and NK Azerbaijanis being represented in the official peace process anytime in the near future is highly unlikely.

Yet we also know that the Armenians in the de-facto Republic of Nagorno Karabakh have been increasingly advocating for their participation in the peace process.  Should there be a peace agreement that is not agreeable for them, they could potentially be “spoilers” in the peace process.

Meanwhile with regards to the NK Azerbaijani community, we do not hear about their interests and needs in the peace process either.  These people have been displaced from their homes for over 15 years now and one can only assume they are desperate to go back and lead normal lives in peace.

Besides the importance of ensuring all stakeholders’ voices are included in the peace process, another important question needs to be considered:  how will it be determined as to who is considered to be from Nagorno Karabakh?  This question is key because should the status of Nagorno Karabakh be decided upon in the future through a referendum, then which people will be able to vote and be included as the population of Nagorno Karabakh?   What type of process will be implemented?  Who will oversee this process?

The OSCE Minsk Group should not be tasked with determining this issue nor should it be a decision made by a third party international actor because they will seek to ensure their own national interests are satisfied in the process.

How can we go about addressing these issues and concerns?  First and foremost, as the official process does not include the NK Armenians and NK Azerbaijanis, the way in which they can be incorporated into the process is by strengthening the multi-track diplomacy channels.  It is imperative that NK Azerbaijanis and NK Armenians are not categorically dismissed, as their voice in the peacebuilding process is crucial to a lasting and sustainable solution.  Actions can be taken initially through grassroots and civil society connections and this needs to be done as soon as possible.  These people were neighbors and lived side by side with each other before the war.  There are still connections and relationships at the individual level that people do remember.  For example, I have heard on numerous occasions Armenians speaking about Azerbaijani neighbors they had in NK and they only spoke positively about them.

Another missing element is to organize the NK Azerbaijani community.  Since the war, they have not become fully integrated within the communities they have been living in and it is important to reach out to them and identify key leaders within the community.

Organize key contacts and individuals from amongst the NK Azerbaijanis and NK Armenians and have them work together on relatively neutral issues such as environmental concerns or water irrigation issues in the region.  There are individuals from both of these societies who are considered to be leaders in their regions – whether they are journalists, lawyers, educators and teachers.  For example, environmental education and awareness can be used as a way to achieve the “low hanging fruit” types of agreement between the societies.  It is in the interest of both societies to ensure the sustainability of the environment in the Nagorno Karabakh region.  Civil society representatives would participate in separate trainings on both sides about local environmental needs and concerns.  Following the separate events, collaborative programs can be organized in third party countries that would bring together NK Armenians and Azerbaijanis.  The hope would be to establish a network of individuals from this event who care about the future of the environment and want to help maintain the sustainable development.

By working on “low hanging fruit” issues, trust and relationships can be established on both sides.  It will not be very easy, however, for individuals from NK region to completely dismiss their own emotions and feelings about the war and the history.  Issues about the conflict would inevitably arise during discussions and events such as the environmental example provided earlier.  That is where training in conflict resolution can also come into play to provide individuals with the skills and knowledge to be able to confront these issues in a constructive manner.

Meanwhile, civil society efforts would not aim to undermine the official high level peace process but rather to contribute to it.  Another important strategy would be to ensure collaboration between the officials in the peace process and the civil society and grassroots leaders at this level.

At this point in time, involving NK Azerbaijani community and de-facto republic of Nagorno Karabakh is out of the question.  However, after instituting the aforementioned confidence building measures and strengthening multi-track diplomacy efforts by building relationships between NK Azerbaijanis and NK Armenians, there can be greater potential for progress in the peace process.  Perhaps we may even see the representation of these peoples in the official peace process in the foreseeable future as well.

[1] See Alizada, A.  Negotiation without (due) Representation.  Caucasus Edition.  August 15, 2010. and Palandjian, T.  A Question for the Field of Conflict Resolution:  Who Decides?  Caucasus Edition.  March 15 2011.

[2] For example, Wehr (1979) Conflict Mapping Guide, Hocker-Wilmot Assessment Guide and Mitchell’s SPITCEROW framework.