A New Narrative for the Karabakh Conflict

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There are hidden reservoirs of compromise and consensus between Armenians and Azerbaijanis that are being ignored and can be the basis for a peace agreement—if anyone cares to look for them.
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My book Black Garden: Armenia and Azerbaijan Through Peace and War, which came out in 2003, was the product of eight years’ acquaintance with the Nagorny Karabakh conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Beginning in 1995, the year after a ceasefire confirmed a painful Armenian military victory in a protracted war, I made many visits to Azerbaijan, Armenia, and the disputed territory in the middle, Karabakh. I became both fascinated and frustrated by the way the two sides presented entirely different versions of what had happened and why. Both could not be right, but both could be wrong.

I looked for a balanced account that depicted the conflict in the round. I wanted to know why in the last years of the USSR two Soviet republics engaged in what looked like a suicidal struggle over a small territory, how the dispute contributed to the end of the Soviet Union, and what had really happened as Armenians and Azerbaijanis eventually fought a full-scale war, at great cost. But I searched in vain, and eventually decided to write the book I wanted to read.

Ten years on, with the conflict still unresolved and still the subject of an increasingly desperate peace process, I have updated the book. A lot has changed in the intervening decade, but the underlying grim “no peace, no war” dynamic of the past nineteen years is basically the same. With black humor, I would tell people that my working title for the new edition was Even Blacker Garden.

Even when there is no active fighting, an unresolved conflict—the absence of peace—gnaws at the fiber of a society from within. Like one of the wraithlike dementors in J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books, a protracted conflict sucks light, happiness, and good memories from its environment. This is not just about the obvious aftereffects of war: the plight of the wounded, bereaved, and displaced, the closed borders. It is about the more intangible toxic effect of war on political discourse and the media, the way it renders a society incapable of looking at the future, while it dwells on the past. Both Armenia and Azerbaijan are being sapped by these ghosts.

The Region Responds

Black Garden received a lot of attention. As I had expected, it filled a gap in the English-language literature. What I had not anticipated was how closely it would be read in the region itself. Eventually, the book was translated into Russian, Armenian, and Azeri. It became a gateway to many invitations and discussions—and of course many arguments—across the Caucasus.

I received a mountain of letters. I had deliberately given space to alternative, rarely heard Armenian and Azerbaijani voices that did not subscribe to the conventional nationalist narratives on each side. Two touching reflections came from these suppressed voices, from two readers born in Baku, Azerbaijan’s capital, but living in exile. The authors were from mixed marriages—and thus had been able to empathize with both sides in the conflict. Indicative of both, one—I think it came from Australia—said more or less, “My whole world ended, and I could never understand why. Thank you for explaining to me that I didn’t go mad, it was the society around me.”

Many comments came down to the same question, “So what are you really? Pro-Armenian or pro-Azerbaijani?” I could mostly answer honestly, “I like plenty of individual Armenians or Azerbaijanis but don’t have any sympathy for the policies of either state.” Or, if a bit more exasperated, I could joke, “The experience hasn’t made me more pro-Armenian or pro-Azerbaijani, it’s made me more pro-Georgian.”

The volume of responses was hardly surprising, considering that I had trodden on some holy ground by questioning widespread assumptions of victimhood and justice that had taken root in both societies. In the book, I tried to demystify some bizarre conspiracy theories, such as the one that tried to exonerate Azerbaijanis of their role in perpetrating the pogroms against Armenians in the town of Sumgait in 1988 or Armenians of the massacre of Azerbaijanis outside the town of Khojaly four years later. I believe I showed these theories to be bogus, but of course many people invested in a cause start with the conclusions and then work to make the facts fit them—and sadly, they still do.

Societal Reflections

The reception of the book on each side was also revealing about the different ways Armenian and Azerbaijani societies work.

Armenians are textual people. What else can be said about a nation that has been printing books in the Armenian script for five hundred years? Armenians went through the book with a fine-tooth comb and criticized the use of this or that adjective or phrase. (Some of these same people seem to have hijacked my Wikipedia page.) In Yerevan, the capital, more than half of the first presentation I gave on the book was overtaken by a long argument over one episode in the town of Kafan in January 1988.

A frequent Armenian complaint is that the book has “artificial balance,” which I think means that I have given too much space to the arguments of the Azerbaijani side. It is true that, while there were already several Armenian English-language books on the conflict, when mine came out, there was almost no decent Azerbaijani account (there are some now). Some Armenian nationalists therefore thought I was doing the Azerbaijanis a favor.

That helps explain why, broadly speaking, the book received a (somewhat) warmer reception in Azerbaijan than in Armenia. Predominately Muslim Azerbaijanis have always felt a bit disadvantaged vis-à-vis their Christian neighbors, the Russians, Georgians, and Armenians—indeed, this could be said to be one ingredient in the conflict. So the initial reaction among many Azerbaijanis to the fact of me having written any book about their country was very positive—no matter what it actually said.

One or two passages in the book have been endlessly quoted in Azerbaijan, especially my interview with Serzh Sarkisian, then defense minister of Armenia and now president, in which he did not deny that Armenians had killed Azerbaijani civilians near the town of Khojaly. On every anniversary of the massacre, the interview is mentioned and quoted in Azerbaijan—generally out of context.

The More Things Change

The absolutist narratives that I encountered both researching the book and in responses to it continue to pervade these societies, even as much has changed outwardly.

Over the last decade, Azerbaijan has changed much more than the Armenian side due to the new Baku oil and gas boom. In 1995, when I first visited Azerbaijan, its GDP was a little more than $3 billion. Now it is more than $70 billion. That has materially benefited an awful lot of Azerbaijanis. It has also resulted in a massive increase in military spending. Azerbaijan self-consciously spends more on its defense budget than Armenia does on its entire state budget.

Moreover, it spends lavish amounts of money on press about the conflict, including, rather bizarrely, advertisements on the Khojaly killings on buses and metro trains in Washington, DC.

Unfortunately, I see this as a case of Azerbaijan spending more money to get nowhere. For example Baku is now even more aggressive in trying to restrict international contact with the separatist Armenians of Karabakh. It goes much further in a policy of isolation than, for example, the Republic of Cyprus, Moldova, and Georgia do with regard to their breakaway territories. Yet, for Baku to cut off contact with what it regards as a breakaway province looks like a counterproductive policy that has only confirmed the narrative of Karabakh Armenians that they are better off separate from Azerbaijan.

This also hampers those international scholars who want to keep studying the conflict. It may sound obvious, but I do not believe it is possible to understand or analyze the issue of Nagorny Karabakh without spending time in Armenian-controlled Karabakh and talking to people there. So I still visit Karabakh (I have been there around ten times). At the same time, I make a point of informing the Azerbaijani authorities of my intentions. And I believe senior Azerbaijani officials derive benefit when I share with them my observations about life in Karabakh—something they have no way of finding out for themselves.

In the opposite pole of the conflict, Karabakh itself, over the past ten years I have also noticed a hardening of attitudes among the native Armenians—undoubtedly in large part due to the siege mentality of being an isolated, unrecognized territory.

When I first visited Karabakh in 1996, it was still a place full of ruins, land mines, and people traumatized by a war that they had won, it seemed to them, by the skin of their teeth. The Karabakh Armenians were grateful for visitors, I got good access to all the senior officials, and people were ready to open up with their stories.

Since then, the ruins have been torn down, the place has been rebuilt, modest economic life has been restored. The unrecognized republic of Nagorny Karabakh functions outwardly, like any other quiet but moderately depressed region of the South Caucasus. But on more recent visits, leaving aside people I count as friends, the general reception has been much cooler. People are more self-reliant and more prickly, some even saying, “We have built our statehood now, we don’t need any outside recognition.” Someone bearing messages from the outside world—still worse, someone who has spent time in Azerbaijan—is less welcome.

Historical Memories

Of course, working on this conflict you inevitably become a student of trauma as much as an analyst of politics and events.

A generalized conclusion is that both sides still harbor a lot of unchanneled aggression. Azerbaijanis are outwardly much more aggressive. President Ilham Aliyev routinely uses public speeches not only to talk up the achievements of Azerbaijan but also to denigrate Armenia in all possible ways. A 2011 poll by the Caucasus Research and Resource Centers (CRRC) revealed that a statistically improbable 99 percent of Azerbaijanis disapproved of doing business with Armenians.

But there is something here that does not correspond with my real-life experience of talking to Azerbaijanis and suggests much of this is a posture rather than an inner conviction. After all, the 99 percent must include some of the high number of Azerbaijanis who actually do business with Armenians on the territory of Georgia in places like the Rustavi used-car market. Outside observers must take this aggression seriously—but also bear in mind that, in this as in other issues, Azerbaijanis are practiced at doublethink, saying one thing in public and another to their friends or at kitchen tables.

This duality, I believe, leaves Azerbaijan with many choices. The right or wrong circumstances or leader could bring Azerbaijan back to war with Armenia or toward a peace agreement.

The Armenians of Karabakh are still quite traumatized and still fairly aggressive. Armenians as a whole are somewhat less aggressive. In the corresponding CRRC poll in Armenia, 32 percent of Armenians said they would do business with Azerbaijanis. But much of this is what you might expect from the winning side in the conflict. I would describe many Armenians as passive-aggressive—they say they want friendly relations with Azerbaijan but without giving up a single inch of Azerbaijani land that they claim as their own in the process.

Each side also has a strong, sometimes overpowering narrative of victimhood. How else can one explain a decision as stupid as the one made by the Azerbaijani leaders last year when they pardoned the convicted murderer Ramil Safarov? His only claim to fame in life was killing a sleeping Armenian.

In Yerevan there was an interesting moment when I gave a lecture on the Karabakh conflict and referred to Azerbaijan as a “wounded nation.” To me that was self-evident. But the Armenians in the hall could not accept that, and there was an audible surge of complaining groans as I uttered the phrase. Some of the same Armenians who nodded enthusiastically when I said that the world must listen to the voices of Karabakh Armenians could not bear me to say the same about the (even more marginalized) displaced Karabakh Azerbaijanis.

Marketing Peace

My focus here has been to examine the narratives of the Nagorny Karabakh conflict, rather than analyze the details of the ongoing, if stuttering, peace process and diplomatic negotiations. That is also important of course, but for a diplomatic a solution to work, it needs to resonate with the societies involved, and that means each needs to be able to accept the legitimacy of the aspirations of the other.

Correspondingly, I am less disposed to support one or other solution to the puzzle of security and sovereignty that the Karabakh conflict presents. The beauty of any given diplomatic plan is less important than the will of the two sides to accept it.

Having said that, I do commend the French, Russian, and U.S. mediators of the Minsk Group of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe for having fashioned what looks like a workable framework plan. The Armenian and Azerbaijani presidents have not accepted it, but they have negotiated so closely on its details that there is a common consensus that this is the only game in town.

The framework peace plan, the first draft of which was filed as long ago as 2007, consists of the so-called Basic Principles. Its six points are inseparable. They set out a sequence of beneficial actions whereby Azerbaijanis recover the occupied territories around Karabakh currently under Armenian military control. The Armenians get a land corridor linking Armenia and Karabakh, and Karabakh is granted “interim status” before an eventual “legally binding expression of will” determines the final status of the small territory at the middle of the dispute—all of this guaranteed in the meantime by an international peacekeeping force.

The problem with this peace plan is not so much the product as the marketing of it. The two presidents, who have negotiated in private over a deal that moves the whole region forward, returns people to their homes, and unblocks communications, are doing almost nothing to sell it to their publics. Societies remain suspicious, cynical, insecure, preferring the status quo to the uncertain promise of a better future based on compromise.

It all comes down to trust: the inability of the two sides, burdened by suspicion and angry rhetoric, to work together for what should be a mutually beneficial goal. This is why if I fault the Minsk Group and international engagement in general on this conflict, it is not for the quality of the diplomacy, but for failing to be forceful enough and set out their own distinct agenda for peace.

These external actors could move the process forward by being more proactive in designing the international peacekeeping agreement that will underpin the settlement of the conflict.

And the outsiders must be more robust in setting out a currently unspoken “third narrative” that will underlie a peace agreement. If Armenian and Azerbaijani leaders cannot publicly make a case for the virtues of peace, compromise, and a mutually beneficial future for the region, outsiders with a stake in the peaceful outcome of the Karabakh conflict must be more vocal in doing it for them—in public speeches, in the media, and by supporting those brave individuals who break with the state consensus.

Black Garden sets out to provide a factual underpinning of a third narrative. The war over Nagorny Karabakh was a tragic conflict. There is much grief, trauma, and injustice still there to be overcome. But I believe there are also hidden reservoirs of compromise and consensus between Armenians and Azerbaijanis that are being ignored and can be the basis for a peace agreement—if anyone cares to look for them.

End of document

About the Russia and Eurasia Program

The Carnegie Russia and Eurasia Program has, since the end of the Cold War, led the field of Eurasian security, including strategic nuclear weapons and nonproliferation, development, economic and social issues, governance, and the rule of law.


Comments (10)

  • Alex Chaihorsky
    I think that the "Third narrative" exists only in the heads of the international experts that have no stake in the conflict other than being a subject of their research. There is a whole layer of intellectuals exist now who created a textual world of "balanced" excuses for a simple fact that the international community fails to state and demand the obvious: punish criminals on both sides, undo ALL occupation instances (and not just in Armenia-Azerbaijan, but first and foremost in Palestine, which unresolved occupation continues to undermine the international law and give excuses for any and all future agressors. The "realpolitic" may be how states and crowds work, but it should not be how law and conscience work. Those who succumb to the "realities of the world" and are reluctant, but eager to accept the beastly behavior because the alternative seem "unrealistic" are the silent killers of the civilization. It is these people, despite their personal adherence to peace that will, in the end, lead us to the military solutions.
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    • Ar Ka replies...
      1 Recommend
      Alex, in that case, what is your proposed Statute of Limitations? How far should one go back in time to "undo ALL occupation instances"?
  • César De Lucas Ivorra
    I believe these two countries have got the problem that are placed in a conflicto área, in the caucasus.In general its habitants don´t want the Antique power of Moscow but it´s necessary to improve the relations between that owned the last independent states related to USSR including Lituania, Letonia and Estonia.The main reason to understand better is easy, to stop the traffic guns to not produce a war in all the countries in the caucasus.The line is the next, a conflict is produced by terrorist and across many social relations a company sells some differents sorts of guns to earn money without any justification.
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  • Alex Chaihorsky
    Ar Ka: Its easy. I am talking about internationally recognized borders. In the case of Ar-Az conflict there is no ambiguity. In the case of Israeli - Palestinian there is some, which can be addressed later, after the bulk of the occupied territories (the ones where there is no ambiguity (mainly 1967 borders) are returned to their pre-occupation status.
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  • Robert
    2 Recommends
    Hmmm... risking being labeled as 'Armenian nationalist' I would nevertheless ask the Author - does he have a shade of doubt about what would happen to the Armenian majority of Karabakh had it have fallen under today's Azerbaijan government control? I.e. fast and furious annihilation and/or expulsion of Armenians (hint: Nakhichevan). I certainly do not.

    Another observation (here Thomas surprised me again) - is Armenian side supposed to believe the Author's gut feeling that Aliyev and his lieutenants regularly making open threats to trigger their war machine and investing heavily into the weaponry - deep in their heart are actually more peaceful? Would the Author make such bold predictions if it was his and his family's lives at stake? Somehow I am not convinced, and, yes, not surprised by Karabakh authorities refusing to to give back an inch of the security belt which is the only real thing separating the lives of their families from the war machine Baku is building.

    Let me also venture my version of the reason of the negotiations impasse. It's actually on the surface - and I cannot imagine the Author not seeing it. Karabakh - while having its peculiarities - is only one of many similar conflicts which were triggered by Soviet system falling apart. The ways to overcome such problems are well-known and put in practice to certain degree in many other similar conflicts (ex-Yugoslavia, Georgia, Cyprus) - that is confidence building measures, security guarantees, people diplomacy etc. The reason it's absolutely not working in Karabakh is that one of the sides of the conflict perceives itself of being so much stronger than the other, that it doesn't see a need for any compromise, thus is consistently torpedoing any similar initiatives (wow, even obvious ones such as snipers withdrawal is refused by Azeris!). Indeed, if Azerbaijan is so strong that it can afford huge military budget, sending satellites to space and buying politicians in Europe and USA in bulk, why bother giving anything back to Armenians? Of course, this only hardens Armenians position (how could it not?) - and resembles the situation back in 90-ies when Azeris inherited disproportionally larger deposits of Soviet weapon and their successive presidents were promising to the public to "wash their boots in Sevan lake" in a matter of weeks. How did it end everybody knows...
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  • Vahe A
    1 Recommend
    "[Armenians complained that the book is] “artificial balanced,” which I think means that I have given too much space to the arguments of the Azerbaijani side." - no, it doesn't mean that, Thomas (I was one of these voices - leaving the first review of the book on amazon.com). It means in your eagerness to appear neutral you sacrificed or stretched some basic facts - facts which are independent from either 'side'. You'd do a greater service to everybody involved by actually spelling out these facts, however inconvenient they are to some. And no wonder that Azeris gave generally more positive review to the book...

    "In Yerevan, the capital, more than half of the first presentation I gave on the book was overtaken by a long argument over one episode in the town of Kafan in January 1988." - to those not familiar with the conflict - the "episode" is pivotal to the entire conflict, and in the book it's (IMHO, falsely) alluded that the entire conflict was started there by Armenians killing Azeris. It's well worth spending time on - especially if the "facts" were not supported by any independent source. I only wonder if Thomas has changed his perspective after the "argument".
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  • Kevin A.
    Having spent no time there, I cannot comment on the Armenian view. However, having spent two years in Azerbaijan teaching English at a small village school, I came face-to-face with the Azeri psyche vis-a-vis the situation on a daily basis. In nearly all instances, Azeris are a peace-loving people, accepting of all faiths and nationalities; proud of their traditions, but open to new ideas. While this love and desire for peace generally remains when addressing Karabakh, what is absent in this particular circumstance is hope. Hope that peace can be achieved.

    This absence of hope is prevalent in folks as young as 15. Speaking to students of mine on the eve of the Khojaly Massacre anniversary, I asked them their thoughts and feelings about the tragic event and about Armenians. While they had all yet to be born, they spoke of the tragedy as if they had experienced it just the day before. Understandably, they were deeply hurt and angry. While few, if any, of the students expressed a real hatred toward Armenians, there was an obvious air of animosity. And when I asked if any had hope of peace in their lifetime, the most positive response they could muster was a skeptical shoulder shrug.

    This lack of hope is most certainly perpetuated by the Azeri leadership. Propaganda fills the schools, conditioning the next generation as gruesome photos of the war hang in the hallways and classrooms and children recite hate-tinged poetry on the anniversaries of tragedies. The television offers nightly reminders of the horrors. Soldiers are celebrated for killing Armenians. And it all comes from the top, as President Aliyev delivers his speeches and goes on his monthly Twitter binges denouncing Azerbaijan's neighbor.

    This is not to say that Armenia has done nothing to hold back the peace process. And it is certainly not to say that Azeris don't have the right to be angered over the fact that a part of their territory is being occupied and more than one-half million of their people have been displaced. But by keeping the Azerbaijani people focused solely on the past, the leadership blinds them to the potential promise of the future. By emphasizing a perceived hopelessness, they keep the population from actively pushing for a resolution to the conflict. Already, the next generation has been groomed to carry on this legacy. Perhaps this is exactly what President Aliyev wants. But that's another discussion for another day...
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  • John
    It is a new form of slavary"modern slavary". In the old days one had the choice of paying for a sevant and freeing. Today the rule of the game has changed and as long as the interest of counteries exist in the conflict there won't be any solution to the conflict be it Karabakh or Palestine or any other existing conflict...
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  • Trdat
    Is everyone forgetting the most important issue here, why is this argument based on a tit for tat between Armenia and Azerbaijan when the whole issue here is the persecution, systematic killings, Genocide and second class treatment of Armenians from there Turkic neighbors or rulers. Perhaps when Turkey returns parts of historic Armenia maybe then Armenia might return what is considered Azerbaijani territory under international law. Maybe when formal apologies for the massacres and pogroms of Armenians of 1905, 1921 and most importantly the Genocide of 1915 then we can re-conciliate. Azeri's are Tatar's and Tatar's are Turks hence why they speak a Turkic language and why Armenians in Armenians call them Turks... Small provocations on the Armenians side is not an excuse to shaft a part of the blame to the Armenians, such as Khojaly when Armenians have been systematically killed for at least a century from Turks. The sad reality is that Armenian hatred towards Turks is based on a 1000 years from the Ottoman era hence our ability to control to a passive aggressive, for Azeri's there loss of the Nagorno Karabagh war is the psyche that made there nation dont really know which is worse... PS, I'll be sending Thomas my news reels from the beginning of the war from Australia news, just so he remembers who started the war...
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  • Sam Khachaturian
    I do believe if one wants to know anything objective about NK conflict, then T.De Waal is the only source.
    As for the conflict itself. Regimes in both countries systematically use NK card as a way to maintain their dictatorship in Azerbaijan and one party brutal rule in Armenia. Azerbaijan clearly doesn't need NK, but the national pride doesn't let them lose it. As Georgia did in South Osetian and Abkhazian case, Azerbaijan shall do exactly the same, just screw it. I am quite confidant that the day when the peace agreement is signed, Russia loses its role in South Caucasus, and a very interesting entity: economic union of the three republics: Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan shall be established. Therefore the only player who doesn't want the problem's solution is Russia.
    Blaming Armenia or Azerbaijan is not serious, as they have nothing in their hands, but hatred sent by cargo from Russia.
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Source http://carnegieendowment.org/2013/06/19/new-narrative-for-karabakh-conflict/hgkp

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