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Nagorny Karabakh: An Old, Forgotten but Decidedly Dangerous Conflict

12/04/2016 10:03

In the early hours of Saturday 2 April, a military escalation erupted on the Nagorny Karabakh line of contact, on a scale not seen since 1994. While the breakfast news reported on Palmyra, on who is planning to restore which monuments, the disturbing news broke about this old, yet now new conflict, that overnight saw dozens of people killed.

The world was reminded that there is a place called Karabakh, that a bloody war was fought there in the early 90s, and it is to this day a subject of hot dispute between Azerbaijan and Armenia - and yes, it is not so far from Syria and from that 'Islamic State'.

I cannot say this news came as a surprise, but it upset me greatly. For several years now, peacebuilders working in the region have been repeatedly warning of the high risk of a resumption of hostilities over Nagorny Karabakh, a conflict which until last Saturday was often misleadingly referred to as 'frozen' despite the fact that it had its own quite lively and somewhat aggressive dynamic.

All of the more serious analysis that started to emerge examined what triggered the escalation at this particular point in time, and whether it would evolve into a full blown and lengthy war or die down quickly. Many diagrams and charts were produced, outlining the various interests of the different parties, and their current or potential allies in the case of an all-out war. Of course, it is indeed important to anticipate the prospect of war and to assess the risks of major regional countries such as Turkey and Russia getting drawn into the conflict.

We live in a world where the intensity of the news cycle and volume of information out there is much greater than our ability to absorb it, let alone form our own opinion about what is going on. Overwhelmed, we consent to ingest the information served up through structured generalisations using information technology like fast food, made from a recipe of truth, lies, provocation, manipulation, political and financial interests and many other similar ingredients. But the most worrying thing about the picture created is the absence of the human factor.

In the days during the military escalation, I was constantly surprised that no-one was writing about people - as if they have no role in armed conflict! The human factor somehow does not fit into the boxes and diagrams used to present analysis. People have minds of their own and their experience differs from the theoretical analysis, the computerised graphics and colourful charts that show where it is all happening. We completely forget about those who are under fire or who feel they have no choice but to attack. As children and the elderly are dying from shells, people are being driven to unimaginable fear and anger by, for example, grizzly images being circulated from the frontline of corpses with their ears sliced off.
People began preparing mentally for a long drawn out war - fashioning makeshift bomb shelters.

Volunteers mobilised in large numbers, arriving in Karabakh and immediately heading for the front. Many who fought in the 90s took up arms again to show the younger volunteers how it is done. According to one university teacher, all the male students left for the front. For sure, like anyone, they do not want to die on a bright sunny April day. But they hope - putting their hope in God as much as in the world leaders, that they will use their influence to end the bloodshed.

I became attached to the conflict regions where I have happened to work through developing personal relationships with dozens of wonderful people from all sides. I have close and loyal Armenian and Azerbaijani friends, and I have met extraordinarily wise people living in Karabakh, in the ceasefire zone, as well as in settlements in Azerbaijan for displaced persons who fled the horrors of war years ago. I find it hard to imagine that any of these decent people would have become caught up in the frenzy of destructive thinking which war gives birth to.

The path to peace

A few years ago, as part of The European Partnership for the Peaceful Settlement of the Conflict over Nagorny Karabakh (EPNK), a project funded by the European Union, I was lucky to have the opportunity to facilitate a process of retrospective analysis by experts from Armenia, Azerbaijan and Nagorny Karabakh on 20 years of civil peacebuilding in that context.

It is beyond the scope of this short article to summarise all the results, but one interesting finding was that the very idea of peacebuilding emerged while the war was still raging during the early 90s, and was born out of the humanitarian actions of civic leaders from the opposing sides. For example, their actions related to exchange of prisoners, provision of emergency medical and other humanitarian aid on both sides of the frontline and to prisoners, the opening of humanitarian corridors, etc. Over time, the very act of providing for daily humanitarian needs instilled in these people an active social and civic position of valuing peace.

It was through such humanitarian initiatives that channels of communication were created and relations of trust formed between individuals from the different sides. This was effective in terms of creating new lines of communication between informal leaders from the divided societies, setting a significant precedent during wartime and creating the foundation for future public diplomacy.

Catching the public demand for peacebuilding, Alert pulled together a consortium of like-minded peacebuilding organisations - Conciliation Resources and LINKS - and with initial financial support from the UK Government started to work together on complementary structural and methodological approaches.

We relied on the social capital of these civic leaders and on local professionals, developing projects to increase mutual understanding. These were dialogue processes with conflict experts, academics, journalists and other professional groups; dialogues through films created by cross-divide groups; research on how conflicts in other parts of the world and disseminating their positive peacebuilding experience; and much more.

In recent years, since the official peace talks have ground to a halt, civil dialogue continued and became one of the main channels through which the sides were linked.

However, powerful nationalistic propaganda machines work against peacebuilding. Revanchist and military rhetoric has become widespread in recent years through the targeted introduction of enemy images into people's consciousness. For example, even the idea that it is genetically impossible for Armenians and Azerbaijanis to live side by side has been aired.

Members of the younger generation who have no experience of inter-ethnic interaction (since the societies became mono-ethnic as a result of the war in the early 90s) are particularly vulnerable to propaganda. Many of them see the other side as demonised, abstract, and not possessing the same human qualities as themselves. Thus it becomes easier to justify one's readiness to fight and hurt this "other".

When we confer undesirable qualities on our enemy, then it can be straightforward to want to fight them. But in turn, this phenomenon allows internal and external actors who have an interest in war to manipulate individuals, as well as wider society.

We should be mindful of the fact that, even after this escalation subsides, it will have long-term consequences in the societies directly affected by the conflict and the wider region, in terms of strengthening the radicalisation of public utterances, private thinking and behavioural norms. The societies in and around the conflict will have received the message loud and clear - that war could break out any day.

In the search for ways out of the situation and the development of mechanisms for peaceful regulation of the conflict, as well as holding talks at the political level, it will be no less important to hold parallel, civic dialogues, led by those people who have already travelled a long and often dangerous path of building trust between the sides, people from the conflict-affected societies who have put enormous efforts to prevent escalation of military action and to promote peace.

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