Adil Akhundov( Institute for Peace and Democracy) The discourse of peace and war in azerbaijani and armenian societies

Since May 1994, Azerbaijan and Armenia have been living in a state of "neither peace, nor war". This condition could not but affect the mood in the societies.

From "the war to a victorious end" to "we have lost the battle, but not the war"

In the period of active confrontation (including the use of military force) from 1988 to 1994, the society preferred the slogan of "a war to its victorious end". Although even back then there were people and groups in both republics that came up with peaceful initiatives, they were hardly heard and were accused of betraying national interests. Interestingly, in this period even the leadership of the two republics came forward with peaceful initiatives (for example, the leadership of Armenia in 1992 or that of Azerbaijan in 1993). However, the ceasefire agreements concluded in those years were violated very quickly, and the fighting resumed.

Undoubtedly, in addition to the military and political aspects of the resumption of hostilities, the mood of societies awaiting an early victory pressurized the leaderships of the countries. Only in May 1994, when both armies were weakened and practically could not move forward, it was possible to conclude a more or less real agreement on a cease-fire (it must be admitted that this agreement is conditional in nature, since all these years it has been repeatedly violated), which was convenient to both parties at the time.

Over the past 24 years, the attitude of the societies to peace and war have somewhat changed, diverging from each other. Armenia that had taken control of Nagorno-Karabakh and had created a "buffer zone" around it with the 7 occupied territories, considered itself the winner and was ready to negotiate a peace treaty. I think that at that time the Armenian society cherished a prevalent opinion that Armenia should dictate the terms for peace to Azerbaijan as the winner. In Azerbaijan, on the contrary, they did not want to admit their defeat, which led to the growth of revanchist sentiments. Very often the slogan "we have lost the battle, but not the war" was used. Accordingly, the Azerbaijani society, tired of the war, was also ready for peace talks, but on equal terms, or after a short victorious campaign.

The slogan "war to a victorious end" ceased to be a topic of discussion in both societies and was used only by small nationalist groups.

Peace Discourse in the Shadow of War Discourse

It should be noted that for 30 years of conflict no real pacifist movement has ever emerged in either society as a force that can influence both societal sentiments and the political leadership. Various NGOs tried to carry out peace-making projects, people's diplomacy, joint seminars and conferences, youth camps, and so on, but this was often met with fierce resistance from the authorities, the information shared with the public was either scarce or distorted. Therefore, in the author's opinion, these attempts have not developed into the emergence of a real peace-making force that would promote peace discourse.

The authorities gave more support to the discourse of war in the society which gave certain dividends in both domestic and foreign policies. Inside the republics, they tried to consolidate the society vis-à-vis the image of the enemy and in the outside world an impression was created about:
a) the impossibility of making compromises,
b) one’s indispensability: "we cannot make compromises, because the entire society wants war, and only we can guarantee a truce".

Despite the paradox of the situation of "neither peace nor war", the societies ceaselessly maintain discussions and debates about the Karabakh settlement. It should be noted that such discussions are held at the international, regional and national levels.

The author of the article had chances to take part in various suchlike discussions. I constantly had the feeling that every speaker, regardless of who he represented, was under the influence of the so-called "internal censor", that is, the person voiced what the audience wanted to hear, or started from how his speech would be evaluated subsequently by the society.

Discussions on the Karabakh settlement most often boil down to a repetition of different variations of the thesis voiced by the Azerbaijani President that we support the peaceful resolution of the Karabakh issue, but if necessary, the Azerbaijani army will liberate the occupied lands by force. The more or less real, "furious" discussions on the Karabakh settlement are carried out by small marginalized groups of "pacifists" and nationalists. And such discussions are organized extremely rarely and are held in small rooms. Their results are not covered in the media and become known only to a very limited audience.

In my opinion, another topic of interest in the discussions on the Karabakh settlement in both societies (as a rule, their opposition and democratic parts) is the issue of the relations between the democratic reforms in the two countries and the resolution of the Karabakh issue. This discussion is based on the thesis that only authoritarian regimes do not want and cannot make real compromises, but in a democratic society, under a democratically elected government that is based on the will of the people, real changes in the negotiation process are possible. Naturally, the authorities accepted this thesis with hostility. Pro-revolutionary deputies began to accuse those who promoted this idea of betraying national interests. The counterargument presented itself by the fact that the bloodiest battles were fought under democratically elected presidents, and a ceasefire was maintained under the so-called authoritarian authorities.

In the author's opinion, this thesis has a right to exist, but it has some flaws. In both societies, democratic movements are rather weak and are more of a national-democratic nature, which allows the authorities to manipulate the sentiments in the society.

At the same time, it should be noted that practically all the discussions in Azerbaijan deal with only the first part of the Karabakh settlement, that is, the liberation of the occupied territories, whereas the society has a lot of questions about what will happen afterwards.

In my opinion, it is necessary to conduct discussions in the societies about:

- the fate of the Armenian population in Nagorno-Karabakh and its integration in the Azerbaijani society (and, in general, are both societies ready for such an integration?);

- the future of the internally displaced persons (Azerbaijani refugees from Karabakh) and their willingness to return to their homeland in the absence of any infrastructure and jobs;

-the benefits of establishing joint regional security;

- the future of the Armenian-Azerbaijani relations (in the political, economic, diplomatic, transport, cultural, tourism and other realms).

And if at first glance the topics of such discussions looks ridiculous, the answers to many of the above-mentioned questions would demonstrate to the other side the extent to which the society ready or not ready to accept the idea of peaceful coexistence... the latter looks more realistic today.

Who Is Interested in Whom?

Today, unfortunately, it should be noted that societies are not ready for a discussion about peaceful coexistence and, accordingly, are not in a position to demand the same from the authorities. First of all, this is due to incorrect information about each other, or rather, misinformation. The level of conflicting societies’ interest in information about each other is extremely high. Societies are very interested in receiving any information about the other party and are ready to absorb it, like a sponge. Unfortunately, this level of interest has become a tool for manipulations. In my opinion, it was the media that began to play a destructive role in informing the societies. Televisions, newspapers and online publications are searching for negative information about Azerbaijanis and Armenians around the world and are pouring it onto the heads of their fellow citizens. In sports, the result is not important, it is important that "our" athlete is at least a step higher than "theirs". The same thing happens with criminal information (although the criminal world has long been international), culture, history, social processes, urban planning, and so on. A special place is occupied by information from the front line where young children are dying, but in one case these are heroes and may their memory live forever,  and in the other case – it served them right. At the same time, we should realize that the media alone cannot be blamed for this. 

Journalists are also members of our societies and meet our needs. Any attempt to give relatively objective information immediately encounters rejection and accusation of betrayal of national interests. This process has been going on for many decades, which has led to a certain selection of people engaged in activities to inform the societies. There is a so-called "natural selection". At least, the "internal censor" begins to work, as I have already described above. In my opinion, it is necessary to undertake a deep socio-psychological restructuring of the society and its needs. It is necessary to abolish the notion of "the image of the enemy", but this requires at least a social mandate granted by the society itself, and in the ideal scenario it takes the political will of the authorities. Unfortunately, I do not know how to achieve this, what mechanisms and tools to use. Probably, it is necessary to study and implement the coexistence practices of Armenian and Azerbaijani societies outside their historical homelands. After all, outside their countries, they contact, cooperate, work together, cut corners, often make friends, sometimes even fall in love and create families, which, in its turn, is very painfully and negatively perceived in the homelands.

The fact that with the development of communication technologies such contacts are becoming more and more gives some hope. The young generation that gives preference to virtual communication (regardless of all its negative impact on communicative functions in real life) uses social networks to communicate quite widely. Already today social networks play a huge role in shaping the worldview of the societies, and they will play an even larger role in the future.

In the West, they seriously consider and even investigate the impact of social networks on such important political processes as the presidential elections in the United States, Brexit and the unsuccessful separation of Catalonia. If this influence has used in such well-structured societies, the extent to which it can be a positively effective or destructive tool in shaping the discourse of peace and war in such small societies as ours becomes obvious. Today the main processes in social networks are still spontaneous, but we cannot rule out that a process that is being managed has already started. In my opinion, among positive examples it is possible to cite the recent events in Armenia, which can be called a "Facebook-based revolution". And although these events are not directly related to the discourse of peace and war, but sooner or later political changes in Armenia will lead to changes in the discourse in both societies. Time will tell who will use the influence of the social networks to shape the public outlook of societies. One thing is clear that the political elites and active representatives of the societies should not leave these processes without attention and should try to influence them.


30 January, 2014
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