15 Feb 2011
Youth in South Caucasus: Agents of Peace or Future Soldiers?
The year 2010 was a troublesome year for the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. With the public on both sides increasingly seeing war as the only way out of the stalemate, the South Caucasus is starting to feel like a time bomb waiting to explode. The youth in Armenia and Azerbaijan stand to inherit the conflict and possibly be the determinants of the direction the conflict will take. They have a potential to become catalysts for peace and reconciliation or continue the cycle of hatred, blame, and intolerance that prevails in the region. Whatever the direction, young people are the ones who will determine and implement it. Yet today, they sit on the sidelines without a voice and watch their governments and “elders” make decisions that will determine their future.
Youth make up a significant portion of the population, accounting for approximately 30% in Armenia (“In Armenia,” 2010)  and 35.6% in Azerbaijan (“State of Youth,” 2007, p. 1). Furthermore, one out of every three persons in these countries is under the age of 35. Having such a sizable population of youth constitutes both enormous potential as well as a challenge for the region in the context of social, economic, and political development as well as when considering implications for the existing conflicts.
The growing population of youth in the developing world has motivated researchers to study various factors surrounding youth participation in violence. While not one factor was found to be a single determinant of youth violence, some studies found that a combination of factors such as large youth cohorts, autocratic environments, economic stagnation, unemployment and others create fertile ground for the youth’s engagement in conflict and violence (Sommer, 2006, p. 6). Research shows that youth who are rebellious and ideological by nature when unemployed are more likely to engage in violent activity. Employed young people on the other hand are less likely to engage in violent conflict due to the risk and costs at stake (considering the cost of job and income loss, etc.) (Urdal, 2004, p. 4). Interestingly, education does not necessarily alleviate the risk of violent conflict as youth with higher levels of education also have high expectations for employment (Collier, 2000). Two other factors, strong collective identity (Huntington, 1996, p. 117) (e.g., ethnic identity) and lack of peaceful avenues to express frustrations and grievances, were also found to be preconditions for young people to act violently (Goldstone, 2001, p. 95).
This scenario concerning the youth is not foreign to the South Caucasus. Youth in Armenia and Azerbaijan are facing many challenges in all areas of life, among which are access to quality education, transitioning to the job market, and finding employment and opportunities in becoming active and engaged citizens in the society and community. Attitudinal surveys show that young people are not satisfied with life in their countries with 76.8% of Armenians (as cited in Navasardyan, 2010) and 66% of Azerbaijani youth saying they want to go abroad in search of better opportunities (as cited in Qarışqa, 2010). A high unemployment rate is a contributing factor with 51% of youth unemployed in Armenia (World Bank, 2007) and 69% of those under 35 unemployed in Azerbaijan (UNESCO, 2007, p. 15). Many among the unemployed youth have higher education, which points to the long-term unemployment problems stemming from flawed educational and labor policies. Youth unemployment alone does not warrant a new war, but the environment of economic stagnation and dissatisfaction among youth will decrease the cost of violent conflict for youth who will have less to lose. Cohorts of idle youth especially in the current environment of hostility are more likely to support war or at least resist it.
Two other factors mentioned in current youth and conflict research must also be considered in the Armenia-Azerbaijan context. First, in both countries strong ethnic identities exist in relation to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, and negative attitudes prevail as a result of the fruitless peace process, propaganda, and lack of communication between societies. Second, both countries are ruled by undemocratic regimes and lack free avenues for engagement of youth and expression of grievances. The latter continues to enforce the negative attitudes.
Many experts have noted the predominance of negative attitudes and an enemy image between Azerbaijani and Armenian people, not only as a factor that continuously fuels the conflict but also one that will become a roadblock once the peace settlement is reached. Youth opinions are not only easier to influence but they are also being targeted doubly in two countries. Youth are not only routinely exposed to propaganda pumped through media, but they are also recipients of information in schools and universities that further reinforces the enemy image through history classes and discourse on ethnic cleansing. A recent attitudinal study conducted by the Caucasus Resource and Research Center showed the level of intolerance that exists in the societies. One question revealed that 70% of Armenians and 97% of Azerbaijanis surveyed disapprove of friendships with the “other” (Sonya, 2009). Recent video interviews done by a project of the Imagine Center for Conflict Transformation showed that young people in Armenia and Azerbaijan have either no knowledge about each other’s culture and literature or consider it false and stolen (from their own). Perhaps the most disturbing fact is that hostile discourse in the two countries has created a belief among young people that the conflict can only be solved through resuming war as peaceful options are no longer viable.
In the environment where the enemy image and inevitability of war is reinforced, there are limited opportunities for internal dialogue within each society and scarce mechanisms for engagement in cross-border and solution-oriented initiatives. This has a two-fold impact: first, lack of dialogue about different ways to resolve the conflict prevents exposure to diverse opinions and reinforces the idea that war is the only way out of the conflict. Second, it prevents young people from engaging in finding peaceful solutions to the problem. Some who do face the stigma of a “traitor” befriending the enemy receive pressure from their parents, friends, universities, and jobs to stop. With low levels of social and political participation (for example, in Azerbaijan only 5% of youth are enrolled in civic or youth organizations), youth are not likely to have opportunities to shape their own opinions about the conflict and will blindly inherit the opinions of current politicians and opinion-makers (As cited by OSIAF, 2010).
An examination of factors linked to youth violence in the South Caucasus illustrates that preconditions exist for youth in Azerbaijan and Armenia to view war as the only “solution” to the conflict. The current economic environment and high unemployment rates among the youth show that young people do not, and in the near future will not, be living in economic prosperity that might serve as a motivation to shy away from disruptions a war may cause. If the current situation of hostilities and negative attitudes continues, the youth, who live in undemocratic environment, are not likely to engage in peace-oriented pursuits but will choose military intervention as a way out of current deadlock. At the very least, they will stay passive in the face of the status quo that is hindering progress and security in the region.
Despite the challenges facing the youth, it is important to note the enormous potential and resilience youth have to become the generation that could find a peaceful solution to the conflict. Studies done on youth all over the world show that early investments in youth in the areas of education, employment, life skills, and civil participation pay off by enabling them to grow and fulfill their full potentials, turning them into productive and active citizens (World Bank, 2006, p. 1). As recent events in Egypt have shown us, youth can become a powerful force for change. In the South Caucasus, young people have been among the few groups of citizens engaging in cross-border projects and dialogues, embracing technology and new media to contribute to change both on human rights and conflict-related issues. Even with the decreased number of public diplomacy projects in the last five years, young people including students, professionals, and NGO activists continued meeting and working across the conflict line and have formed a cross-border group of individuals committed to dialogue, communication, and a peaceful solution to the conflict. Smaller groups of youth have also become active in human rights and political life by staging demonstrations in Armenia, holding protests, and mobilizing with the use of social media, which lead to the arrests of bloggers in Azerbaijan.
The current situation affecting youth and youth demographics must be carefully considered by policy-makers, international development agencies, and local and international civil society organizations. The governments of Azerbaijan and Armenia have already recognized the importance of addressing youth issues by developing youth policies and, in the case of Azerbaijan, carefully monitoring and “managing” youth activism through controlled structures in universities. Projects organized by international and local organizations are beneficial, but their limited resources and outreach are not enough for significant and large-scale impact on youth. If the deliberate targeting of youth with messages of intolerance, hatred, and war is not stopped, Azerbaijan and Armenia might find themselves dealing with a powerful force, but one that is calling for violence, not peace.
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YerevanReporter. (2010, November 10). In Armenia, home to around 900 thousand young people. AllVoices. Retrieved from http://www.allvoices.com/contributed-news/7289947-in-armenia-home-to-around-900-thousand-young-people
 Deputy Minister of Sports and Youth Affairs Arsen Karamian said in a November 10, 2010 statement that there are 900,000 young people aged 18-30 years (percentage of approximately 30% was calculated by the author based on ratio of youth to total population of 2,966,802 (July 2010 est) by the CIA Factbook – see https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/am.html.