Boris Navasardyan (Yerevan Press Club (YPC): Fatigued from Dialogue

From enthusiasm to disillusion

Everybody, having been, one or another way, involved in the Armenian-Azerbaijani dialogue in the past couple of decades, hold their own history and perception of the successes and failures, their own evaluation of what was done right and lead to avail, and what, contrariwise, harmed the process. This is why I hasten to admit that my own impressions and practice, which underpin this analysis, are subjective. In certain phases the interactions on the levels of civil society, politicians, journalists and experts (Track-2) were excessively eventful, complicated and multi-faceted, so that the comprehension and the assessment of the process would not provoke significant controversy.

I suppose that for the Azerbaijani participants of these dialogue projects the most memorable were the attendances of Armenia and Nagorno Karabakh, which served as a basis for them for own understanding of the transformation of the conflict. For me personally, the dynamics of the entire process could be consolidated into the two-year-long period between 1999 and 2001, when I had the chance to visit Azerbaijan four times. I later paid another visit in 2011, which only reestablished the unhappy inference formed in the course of the previous 10 years, that the irenic potential of Track-2 in the existing political context was exhausted.

My impressions of the first post-soviet visit to Azerbaijan in November 1999, arranged in the framework of the longstanding joint project of two German foundations- Ebert and Naumann, were quite bright: the Armenian group of 8 people had the total freedom to move around without the evident convoy of the special services. (In fact, if it wasn’t for the terrorist attack in the Armenian parliament on October 27, the cast of our “assault group” would be much more presentable, including also the vice-chair of the National Assembly.) And even though the troubled situation in Armenia disengaged certain parliament members and high-ranking officials, who had primarily given willingness to participate, the shifted status of the visitors was almost unreflected on the high level of the hosts foreseen far in advance. The prime-minister, leaders of political parties, far unordinary staff members of the President Administration... And when during the sessions we expressed sorrow that the official Baku did not express condolences to Armenian people in connection with the recent tragedy, which could have, certainly, reformed the climate of the official negotiations, our words were perceived by Azerbaijani counterparts with understanding.

From that very same visit comes to mind the 40-minute-long live interview given to the leading Azerbaijani television channel, which came to be satisfactory not only for the Armenian colleagues, but also the local audience: when the following day our group went to the market in Baku, we were granted the respectful attitude of the merchants, who immediately knew who they are dealing with.

I am bringing up these scenes in order to display the dynamics of the decline in relations. Not more than a year later the TV interview I gave was recorded and, although broadcasted without distortions, increased apprehension could be felt in the conduct and the questions of the journalist. To test the reaction of the audience appeared unfeasible, since at the very moment of arriving at Baku airport it became clear that freedom in moving around and unrestrained communication with the local public should be forgotten about.

A year later, in September 2001, the interactions of the Azerbaijani media representatives covering the visit of the group of journalist from Armenia and Nagorno Karabakh were really serving one sole goal- to demonstrate how meaningless peace-building projects actually were and how the citizens of the Republic of Azerbaijan participating in those projects were deserters of national interests. But how we were escorted exceeded our worst expectations. “Armenian terrorists camouflaged as journalists have visited Baku and holidayed in the best resorts of Azerbaijan”- is what the headline of the article covering our joint seminar in the very modest “Ganjlik” lodging house looked like, positioned at the most observable part of the fairly solid newspaper. The same publication also bestowed “details on the terroristic occupation” of the rather famous journalists taking part in the visit.

The aforesaid, as I see it, covers a rather short period of time- the period lying in between the peak of success of those dialogue projects and the getting rid of illusions that civil diplomacy, in the settlement of the Karabakh conflict, can play a significantly independent role in the process of regulation. The unofficial initiatives proved to be in great dependence on the interests of the authorities. The nonexistence of perspectives in the dialogue on an official level in principle determined the marginalization of Track-2. This is not quite the place to investigate the political nuances and the context why this come about exactly in the years of 1999-2001, but at the very turn of the millennium civil initiatives were annexed with an apathetic-skeptical attitude in Armenia and an aggressive-repressive one in Azerbaijan.

Not the Finns and not the Swedes

In this regard, it is riveting to come to reason why up until the times certain progress was nevertheless existent in the Track-2 diplomacy between Armenia and Azerbaijan. I think that apart from the smoldering hopes for a chance for the regulation of the conflict there was great interest in resolving specific issues. In the period of national movements in late 1980s and the initial steps towards independence, the main summon for contact was getting rid of the communist empire. Particularly intense was the dialogue between the representatives of the Armenian National Movement and the Azerbaijani Popular Front through the intercession of the democratic forces of other Soviet republics, Baltic ones, in particular. The everyday activities of the editorial staff of the newspaper “Republic of Armenia”, established in 1990 by the post-communist parliament of the country, entailed daily telephone interviews between its journalists and eminent Azerbaijani politicians of the new wave, especially when in the neighboring republic events important for the coverage were taking place. With the collapse of the USSR the mutual interest was, indeed, exchanged with animosity between the new authorities. 

During the years of the war- 1992-1994, the cooperation between human right defenders on the issues of war prisoners, captives, the search for those gone missing and the retrieval of dead bodies gained considerable relevance. In this stage a great number of Armenian and Azerbaijani non-governmental organizations instituted active cooperation with the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Committee, other international humanitarian missions, as well as the state structures of the two countries. It comes to mind how the Armenian journalists meeting with the Minister of National Security of the Republic of Azerbaijan Namik Abbasov were astounded by his propositions connected with the exchange of information between human right defenders from Armenia and Nagorno Karabakh regarding captives. Quite certainly, the performance of the officials could hardly ever be labelled with sincerity and constructability, but their inescapable cooperation with international organizations and civil activists played a major role in the fate of many people.

Along with practical humanitarian work, in the first half of the 1990s the dialogue on peace between the Armenian and Azerbaijani human rights activists gained significant momentum. The prime event in this process was the Olof Palme’s award granted to Arzu Abdullayeva and Anahit Bayandur as respective chairwomen of the Azerbaijani and Armenian chapters of Helsinki Citizens' Assembly in 1992.The evidently “Scandinavian focus” of the activities of the Assembly was exhibited in the presentation to the civil society representatives of the conflicting parties of the model of Aland Swedish autonomy within Finland. Immediately after the war this model was considered by peacemakers as pertinent also for Nagorno Karabakh.

By the initiative of HCA, also official individuals were drawn to the “Aland process”, but this incited a scene that put a big question mark on the applicability of the Scandinavian experience in South Caucasus. In one of the meetings in 1995, the then minister of foreign affairs of NK Arkadi Ghukasyan spoke out that the model was excellent, but that Azeris were not Finns. To this the deputy minister of foreign affairs of the Republic of Azerbaijan of the time Tofik Zulfugarov responded as follows: “Sure, but neither are you Swedes, our Armenian comrades!” In addition to that, the process itself come to be a precedent which destructed the monopoly of the official sides involved in the deliberations of the future of NK and the Azerbaijani-Armenian relations.

In search of form and content

The agreement on the ceasefire signed in 1994 by the government officials of Armenia, Azerbaijan and NK flew the doors open for new possibilities which would allow international organizations, contributors and Western NGOs to actualize a vast array of diverse projects in accord with the Track-2 logic. At the beginning such events were perceived by the participants from this region as a mere continuation of war by way of public disputes. They were striving to prove the opponents of their rectitude and of the responsibility they have taken for the conflict, anticipating complete and unconditional capitulation.

Journalists organization of Armenia and Azerbaijan were one of the first to unearth pragmatic forms of cooperation. Understanding that, in spite of the inimical attitudes of the two societies towards one another, their interest in what is happening in the neighboring country is rather immense, they exploited frequent interaction to establish information exchange between mass media. “Internews” organized a series of thematic teleconferences (“TV bridges”), which, though still carried out in the mode of “ideological wrestling", gave the chance to the Armenian and Azerbaijani audiences to learn about the life of their neighbors from “real living people”.

Yerevan Press Club and its counterparts in Azerbaijan took advantage of the vigor demonstrated by their countries to extensively blend into the global community, progress determinedly towards the EU membership by fulfilling certain requirements. In this regard mutual interest proposed an exchange of skills in advocating freedom of speech. The second half of the 1990s became the period when the Armenian and Azerbaijani situations in the sphere came near like never before. In Armenia, the rights of journalists and the pluralism of media were better protected, however, in Azerbaijan, especially after the annulment of military censorship and due to international investments, legitimate medium entrepreneurship began to develop.

The discussions of purely journalistic topics not only lead to a refined comprehension of problems, but also taught the participants to show respect to the opinions of opponents. From then on it helped to foster better mutual understanding when addressing issues in connection with the conflict. The same can be related to the projects in other fields, which stimulated professional collaboration and intimate interpersonal connections in the restless arena of contrariety. Common solicitude over different social problems, ecological challenges, later also educational reforms helped see what really unites us.

The strengthening of connections in various thematic fields was largely maintained by the general interest of the international community towards South Caucasus as a unified region, emerged in the mid and late 90s. This was greatly preconditioned by the involvement of USA and EU, as well as of influential companies to infrastructural, more specifically, energy related projects.  Civil society organizations, more inclined towards regional layouts, only benefited from this. Tripartite projects (Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia) received their largest proliferation due to the “Synergy” (“Cooperation”) projects started up by “Eurasia” Foundation in 1997. Thanks to this initiative, dozens of NGOs built expertise in cooperating with partners from  other South Caucasus countries. Such kind of immensity in and of itself greatly contributed to the destruction of the “image of the enemy”, at least, for the immediate participants of those events.

Such multi-lateral frameworks allowed to also compare differing approaches to conflicts and their possible resolutions for the yet unrecognized Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Nagorno Karabakh. And one of the most advantageous project ideas was the observations of the perspectives for the development of the region as a whole, if the conflict did not hinder cooperation. Moreover, the Armenian side was officially set to give consideration to the corresponding possibilities even before the final resolution of the Karabakh conflict. However, Azerbaijan, anticipating that Armenia's interest in joining regional infrastructure projects will challenge it to make unilateral concessions, insisted on recognizing its territorial integrity as a prerequisite for cooperation. Mutually exclusive approaches gradually reduced the relevance of regional initiatives involving the countries of South Caucasus in both economic and all of the other spheres, including Track-2.

As far as the region is concerned, I will take my courage in both hands and question the efficiency of popular projects among Western organizations in the 1990s that united the Southern and Northern Caucasus. Neither the status of the subjects of this framework (participants from internationally recognized countries, from unrecognized entities and from the autonomies of the Russian Federation), nor positioning oneself in relation to problems (the strive to solve issues within the framework of national sovereignty in some states and the natural dependency on the center, like in the case of Russian autonomies) did not contribute to its efficiency. Besides, the absence of participants representing the all-Russian context in such events unsurprisingly emphasized the artificiality of the format. Nonetheless, their presence would have hardly added to the expediency of those initiatives, since it would have eroded regional identity and made it difficult to find common priorities. The Armenian-Azerbaijani dialogue lost, rather than benefited from the common Caucasian formats, for the specifics and the nuances of the Karabakh conflict, requiring focused attention, were treated extremely superficially, and the assembled assorted audience was seen as the addressee for appealing and reaffirming their correctness. Even though all the positive in interpersonal communication and the constant repetition of mutually acceptable slogans for all that’s good and against all that’s bad, indeed, strengthened the friendly relations between the participants of such projects, including Armenians and Azerbaijanis, it neither contributed to moving forward nor to passing on a good atmosphere to the broad circles of the publics of the conflicting parties.

In this sense, much more beneficial were the initiatives not directly imposed on Caucasus, encouraging the study and familiarization of the Armenian and Azerbaijani public with interethnic conflicts in other regions of the world. Films and a comparative expert analysis of the hindrances and the attempts to overcome them - both successful and failed - in the Balkans, Cyprus, Palestine, South Tyrol, Northern Ireland and other parts of the world helped to seek for and discuss models that could eventually work in NK case. And just like in the proposals of the co-chairs of the Minsk Group of the second half of the zeros, also in expert products (for instance, the brochure "The Karabakh conflict: understanding each other", published in 2005 on the initiative of the Yerevan Press Club serving as the fruit of the efforts of the group of active participants of dialogue initiatives from Armenia and Azerbaijan) reflected the enormous expertise in peacekeeping, passed through the filter of the peculiarities of the Karabakh conflict.

The entangled nature of the Turkish-Armenian and Armenian-Azerbaijani contradictions (particularly in Azerbaijan, the rejection of the topic of the Armenian genocide is far more aggressive than in Turkey itself, and Ankara, since the closure of its border with Armenia in 1993 determines, with varying persistence, the normalization of the relations with Yerevan with through unilateral concessions in the Karabakh issue) prompted innovative and promising projects covering the three countries. However, as the positions of the sides of the triangle become tougher, the format lost all of its affinity. And many of its immediate participants in Turkey and Azerbaijan were imprisoned, exiled, or forced to cease their activities related to Armenia.

The involvement of Turkey (the latter being in quite amicable relations with the Baku authorities) in the Armenian-Azerbaijani dialogue conditioned their approval of the contact between citizens of the RA with Armenians in 2001-2004. However, during the period of the intense football diplomacy between Yerevan and Ankara in 2008-2009, The Azerbaijani authorities, irritated by the prospect of the normalization of the Armenian-Turkish relations, dramatically changed their attitude towards the format.

Hostage to political realities

Quite frankly, the field for Armenian-Azerbaijani dialogic initiatives has been narrowing down for more than fifteen years now. If before the start of the zeros, certain activation in the direct cooperation between local organizations could be witnessed, in recent years, as in the first post-war years, the key role was handed over to players outside of the region to moderators of contact. The possibilities of paying visits to one another, whose programs in 1998-1999 also comprised meetings with the presidents (Heydar Aliyev and Robert Kocharyan), had to be forgotten. The most suitable forms of cooperation appeared to be the expert studies and media products, which, however, have long ceased to convey open peacekeeping messages and, at best, only adequately reflect the history of recent decades and modern realms. Thus, the very last attempt of the peacemaking project of Yerevan Press Club was the glossary (1) of hate speech prepared in 2010 with Azerbaijani colleagues, which comprises recommendations on how to avoid stereotypes irritating the audience on the other side of the conflict. And although in certain journalistic circles of both countries there was an interest in genuinely applying the results of the research in practice, the general tendency to tighten the confrontation of information was immeasurably stronger.

The causes hindering the participation of Azerbaijani organizations in joint projects with Armenian partners are very well known. To a certain extent, they are linked with the weakening of the influence of international organizations on the observance of the principles of democracy and human rights in general. After the swiftworsening of the relations between Russia and the West back in 2013, what is now called "world order” began to change, including the role and the active presence of the Council of Europe and the OSCE in our region. Besides, internal mechanisms of the protection of freedoms and diversity of opinions are far from working in all countries.

In Armenia, where the well-being of the civil society and the media has only improved due to the "velvet revolution" of 2018, the absence of the former interest in engaging in a dialogue with flawed neighbors - Azerbaijan and Turkey - is dictated by the lack of faith in the realism of mutual compromises and the widespread belief in the meaninglessness of conversation from the standpoint of values and principles. If in 2004, even against the background of the general resentment towards the deeds of Ramil Safarov, a group of leading Armenian NGOs resolutely condemned (2) the racist statements regarding the entire Azerbaijani people made by two politicians, now they would have hardly been paid any attention to. The voices of the critics speaking about the "unconstructive politics” of their authorities in the Karabakh issue have practically been completely silenced. And not really because of the fear of something, but because such criticism does not receive any proper response from the society and immediately discredits itself by the association with propaganda initiatives such as "Baku", and later "Tbilisi” types of "platforms of peace" (their dubious manipulative character is seen even in quite well-intentioned publications (3) about them).

A crisis with a regulation of interethnic conflicts and simply with a peaceful dialogue is inherent in the entire post-Soviet space. However, its depth is always different. As for me, the attitude of the non-governmental sector towards the possibility of securing the same kind of representatives of civil society, journalists living and working in unrecognized entities, is indicative in this sense. After all, without them it would be impossible to run serious talks about strengthening the measures of trust necessary for the peaceful overcoming of conflicts. At the Eastern Partnership Civil Society Forum (CSF), in particular, the issue of providing an opportunity for NGOs from Abkhazia, Nagorno-Karabakh, Transnistria and South Ossetia to participate in CSF events is raised almost annually. This is by no means about displaying flags or other symbols, but only about the participation of organizations from territories formally included in the Eastern Partnership region, the nearby neighbor of the European Union. However, every time this possibility is denied. Moldovan members of the forum, regardless of this, include NGOs from Transnistria in the list of the participants on their own initiative. To them this seems as natural as the free movement of people from Chisinau to Tiraspol, or the matches of the Transnistrian teams in the Moldovan football championship. Georgian colleagues do not really mind, but do not imagine mechanisms for selecting Abkhaz and South Ossetian organizations for the annual assembly of the Forum. And only for Azerbaijani representatives, the invitation of NGOs from Nagorno-Karabakh is categorically unacceptable if they do not recognize NK as part of the AR.

At the same time, especially before Moscow's recognition of the independence of Sukhumi and Tskhinvali, the following approach in Georgia was predominant: "we must become a state of which Abkhazia and South Ossetia would want to be a part of.” Up until 2008, the Georgian authorities would show interest in the activities of the offices of international organizations and agreed to their financing of non-governmental sector in these unrecognized republics. In Moldova, they would not go against such initiatives even now, but the restrictions are imposed by the authorities of Transnistria itself. And Azerbaijan is making more and more efforts to further isolate NK and its population, excluding all platforms for formal or informal dialogue.

Therefore, there is no rationale to talk about any prospects for activating theTrack-2 diplomacy between Armenians and Azerbaijanis. Moreover, the constant killings of civilians and military servicemen on the line of contact of the Karabakh conflict and on the border of the Republic of Armenia and the Azerbaijani Republic, as well as the aggravating propaganda war continue to alienate these nations from each other. For a breakthrough, either consistent efforts of the international community to implement the agreements from two years ago on strengthening control over the observance of the cease-fire regime, reducing the degree of militant rhetoric and concrete steps to strengthen trust-building measures, or a radical change in the political context are necessary.






30 January, 2014
Right after the New Year, the citizens of Armenia were shocked by the gas and electricity bills for December.

Featured Interviews

Joint Internet press conferences with leading experts from different countries on the topical issues of the modern times are organized within the framework of the project, entitled "Enhancing knowledge and understanding of ‘the other side’ by Armenians and Azerbaijani through Alternative and First-Hand Information". ... >>


Cooperation between the EU and EaP States 10 Years Later: What Lies Ahead?
The “enemy’s image” in Armenian and Azerbaijani societies
Russia and the South Caucasus: Agendas, Priorities and Realities-2019


Work by AGNIAN

All rights reserved. © 2018 Public Dialogues