It is a great honor to address this learned audience that includes so many friends and acquaintances from the whole region, an audience that could be recognized as the academic version of the Caucasus cartel.  I’m particularly delighted to sit next to Jim Collins and to be introduced by him.  Working with Jim Collins was a pleasure, a learning experience, and that’s how you develop respect for people who know how to do good.  I want to thank Tom and Jacob and everyone else who have organized this gathering.

Now, given the occasion, I think it may be worth sharing with you some general observations.  It was clear from the beginning that the three republics with which we started would be facing major challenges when they became independent.  Yet it does not appear that the spectrum and depth of the challenges and the interrelationship between these challenges were fully realized by those pursuing independence and those recognizing it.

Indeed, the very tricky but widely used term “transition” seemed to cover all these challenges, covering them so well that the term “transition,” having been invested with both descriptive and prescriptive powers, ended up as a misnomer.  And just as in the good old times of the Soviet period, for most of the states involved, terminology covered up more than it revealed.  The teleologically loaded term, in fact, covered up the complexities of the process of transitioning. It was difficult and possibly inconvenient to realize the number and types of revolutions that were needed to make that difficult – in some cases, seemingly impossible – transition possible.

Twenty years constitute a short period of time in a region where tragic events that might have occurred 50, 100, 1,000 years ago occupy more space in collective memories than the longer periods of coexistence, even if not friendship, between these peoples.

This is occurring at the same time when a new search engine that moves faster  – three times faster than the one we had-- looks decrepit and old and antiquarian within five minutes; a search engine that can offer you your whole history and many versions of it within seconds on your screen.  But for us in the region, we look at those events of the past as more determining.

The multiplicity of revolutions needed for the transition to be successful and the difficulties of imagining and implementing a strategic plan for these revolutions were complex enough.  More challenging than the adoption of legislation, constitutions and the institution of institutions to implement those legislative initiatives and the constitutions – more challenging than these was the slow change in the patterns of behavior and mentalities of those who were both the promoters of the new laws and constitutions and their executors.  Laws can be reshaped overnight; people cannot be.

At the start of their independence and to replace the lost ideology of communism the three republics had two choices: They could have opted for legitimacy of government based on the concept of civic statehood, on citizenship and constitutionally based relations between citizens and the state; or on ethnicity and nationalism.  We ended up with very mixed results.  Nationalism, at the end seems, to have become more dominant.  And the more governments moved toward authoritarianism and lost their legitimacy, the more they relied on nationalism to justify their power.

Other than citizenship, we had a very important couple of terms that became key words.  One of them was the term “conflict resolution” which came into life and generally fostered a good amount of grant-writing and grant-giving, and that’s the story of one term that tells the other story of a region trying to get out of a bankrupt and, by this time, a toothless empire.

Conflict resolution was a Western term with serious implications of its own.  Sometimes, I had the feeling that Western based conflict resolution people were saying, “you guys provide the conflict; we’ll provide the resolution.” We certainly provided those conflicts. There were plenty of mediators, of course, including in the West, who were certain to use them sometimes to pursue their own geopolitical and strategic interests, no matter that they resolved none of these conflicts.

Now, another term on which we can ponder, but I will not due to time restraints, is “civil society.” Once conflict resolution practically ran its course and the grant-giving potential, civil society came in to take over.

Going back to conflict resolution, and without going into details, I should say that I do not think it is a matter of who wants peace, which country opposes it and which country wants a continuation of the conflict.  Rather, it has been a question of whose peace it will be.  What if a a certain kind of peace [arrangement] threatens the interests of some and increases the influence of others?  It seems to me that, by and large, the conclusion after 20 years is that there are good peaces and there are bad peaces, just as, apparently, there are good wars and bad wars, rather than good countries and bad countries.

These conflicts have cost these republics and peoples much more than the large number of lost lives, lost limbs, lost opportunities and displaced peoples on all sides.  These conflicts have produced swollen military budgets, increased militarization of societies, and securitization of state policies that have distorted state spending, undermined the promise of independence and made progress and democratization much more difficult.  And I will not add human rights, which was discussed here this morning.

In this process, it is not just the locals that have ended up supporting elites that now have an interest in continuing the conflicts – elites, sometimes political, that acquire economic leverage, or economic elites that buy up or become political elites.  We are facing a very dynamic situation where the interests of major countries adjust to the dynamics of the local [elites] and vice versa.

Now, we have studied the many components of this set of challenges to the new states and [political] entities that emerged 20 years ago in the Caucasus.  It is not all that obvious that we realize that the challenge was not just to these republics, but it was [a challenge] to the bigger neighbors and [international players] as well to rethink radically their way of looking at that region.

By and large, the burden for the absence of that full transition or the aborted transition has been placed fully on the republics of the region.  Yet, for the transition to have had a chance to succeed, it was critical that the major powers, regional and international, themselves transition into a new mode of thinking.

In effect, while supporting a “New World Order,” the big players continued a mini-Cold War in this region and in others.  The West spoke as if Russia was now to be seen as a partner, but acted—mainly the US—as if the idea was to make Russia subservient; some in Washington insisted on destroying it, just as Germany had to be treated after World War I.

The new war thus defined certainly lacked the ideological ardor of the simpler and more comfortable justification for the global antagonism that had existed before:  the “communist and enslaved” versus “democratic and free.”  Yet it was almost as ferocious, because now it freely entailed the [Western] economic forces that could come into play in the name of national security, energy, and that could be deployed for the purpose of achieving strategic goals, or maybe formulate relations of strategic interest in a manner that needed to put energy interests at the forefront.

Instead of just Moscow, now Baku, Tbilisi and Yerevan started looking at Brussels and Washington as well for the solutions of their problems – indeed, for their salvation.  More often than not, they acted as if they were guests in the region--waiting to be served coffee in the form of proposals by the OSCE and others that could be rejected, instead of realizing that (1) Each was in the region to stay; (2) so were their neighbors; and, therefore, (3) it would be necessary to find ways to accommodate each other and each other’s interests.

It is true that conflicts continue and solutions often escape for reasons other than those that explain their origins and initial phase.  But, ultimately, these are the problems of the local states.  It is up to Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Georgia to find solutions to the problems of their region.

Governments continue to find solace in principles of international law and thus connect to the larger community for whom such conflicts are, at best, diversions, and at worst, excuses and means to project themselves into the region.

Given recent political and financial developments in Europe, the Middle East, and the U.S., we have to realize that we need to take greater charge of our policies as Caucasian states and take responsibility for concessions and compromises that are necessary and unavoidable.  The so-called international community will be absorbed in these problems for a long time to come with less and less resources, time and concentration invested in the region except, possibly, by the regional big powers that have an immediate interest in it.

There are some things we need to do to get out of this situation.  We need to change our rhetorical focus from war and extreme positions to the need and possibility of peace, and work for the legitimation of the position of compromises on all sides.  We need to change the course we have taken in the teaching of so many separate and opposing narratives of our own histories, particularly as that applies to the way we educate the next generation.

Twenty years is a short time, but we have already managed to write very different histories not only of the past, but also of the present – things that happened five, 10 years ago.  Indeed, a few years ago, we talked with my friend, the former foreign minister of Azerbaijan, Tofik Zulfugarov, about doing a project at the University of Michigan: Could he and I write one single narrative of what happened on events related to the Karabakh issue, and resolve the strategic forgetting each party to the conflict has effectuated in order to create and live with a narrative that is simple and beautiful, but which also constitutes a big lie.

We need to start thinking of ways to develop a sense of the region itself.  As far as the governments in the region are concerned, we currently have a geographic political area, but not a mental and intellectual framework that imagines the region.  While it is not likely that the independent status of these states will disappear, we have already seen an erosion of the degree of independence.  That erosion will continue without the development of a regional outlook.  The lessons of the first republics should teach us something.  And if that’s not enough, we should look at the 2,000-year history of that region and see how it has been governed in different periods of history to see that unless you decide you are a region and act as such, then you will be taken apiece, one by one.

I’ve done two experiments since leaving my position in Armenia that have some relevance to this discussion.  The first was when I traveled to Istanbul, Yerevan, Baku, Tehran, Tbilisi, and gave the same lecture on conflicts, focusing on the Karabakh conflict. The repetition was boring, so in each capital where I was, I was more critical of the policies of that particular government and kinder to the others. The interesting thing for me was the questions I was asked. There were all kinds of questions. 

But at the end, in each city, there was inevitably one question that came up when I insisted on my critique of the policies of the government of that particular country.  And that question was, “But sir, don’t you see what neighborhood we are living in?” Turks looking at the neighborhood said, just look at Iraq, Syria, Armenia, Georgia, Iran, etc.  And then the Iranians would say, look at those Azerbaijanis, Armenians, Turks, Arabs, etc.  And so with Azerbaijanis, Armenians and Georgians. You know, every one of them thought the neighborhood was bad, but they thought it was bad essentially because of the others.

The second experiment was in Istanbul, where I’d invited mid-level officials from Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia to meet.  And we had prepared, with a Turkish academic colleague, a series of questions on foreign policy; the only issue we left out was the Karabakh conflict. The positions of the three republics were about 90 percent overlapping in their policies on the rest of the issues – 90 percent, if not more.  And this fact has not been realized.  There has not been a single document on foreign policy issues signed by the three republics.

We need to rethink the one conflict that pits entities within the region against each other, and that’s the Karabakh conflict.  We have to get out of certain mentalities.  We have to drop the illusion that Azerbaijani policymakers have that by strangling Armenia’s economy with the help of Turkey through blockades, the Armenian side will have to make concessions that it cannot otherwise make.  And the Armenian side will have to drop the illusion that diaspora investments will be equivalent to investments in Azerbaijan in the hydrocarbon resource sector.  This course is best described as mutually assured destruction.

At the end, we have to also drop our reliance on abstracted principles of international law, such as self-determination, territorial integrity, principles the international community doesn’t seem to care much about and respects only sporadically and selectively.  We have to stop using terms like autonomy and independence as beginning points for negotiations.  We have to start imagining our own solutions and take responsibility for our own future in the region.