Civil Society in NKR


By Areg Bagdasarian

Ever since the cease-fire of 1994, Nagorno-Karabakh has found itself no longer at war, but also continuing on without a lasting political peace settlement. Since 1994, the co-chairs of the OSCE Minsk Group, Russia, the United States and France, have worked with the governments of Armenia, Azerbaijan and Nagorno-Karabakh to try to find a lasting peace solution that will lead to broader peace in the region and possible international recognition for NKR. But after nearly 14 years of negotiations between governments and international mediators, there is still no peace deal in sight. If official government channels have failed to produce a lasting peace, is there any hope that NGOs and civil society groups can at least bridge some of the divide and create greater understanding between the people of Armenia and Azerbaijan in ways that their governments have been unable to do? This analysis seeks to understand what civil society initiatives for NKR have been effective in the past, what civil society initiatives in the future can accomplish, and what role the EU can play in the future to mediate the NKR issue at a grassroots / civil society level.

In 1999, then president of Azerbaijan Heydar Aliyev stated "for as long as we have not signed a peace agreement with Armenia there is no need for cooperation between our NGOs and Armenians. When Kocharian and I resolve the issue, it will inevitably involve compromises with which many will disagree. Then let NGOs reconcile the two peoples."[] Aliyev's statement clearly relegates the role of civil society to something that's ineffective and dependent upon official government peace treaties or agreements. Aliyev underestimates the power of civil society initiatives. Aliyev also underestimates the degree to which civil society can influence the people, which in turn can influence the government. With neither Aliyev nor Kocharian in power today, we can analyze how true his words were then and how successful civil society initiatives have been vis-à-vis the NKR dispute.

Civil society initiatives for NKR span a wide range of functional areas. Some of the most notable have been in the areas of media cooperation, refugee/ internally displaced persons policy, and other broad based bi-and tri-lateral negotiations. In the refugee sphere, CRINGO, the Caucasian Refugee and IDP NGO network, has worked since 2004 to support local initiatives in maintaining cross border communication between the women of Azerbaijan and Armenia. The aim of CRINGO in this region has been trust building and has so far focused on Georgian Women IDPs from Abkhazia, Azeri women IDPs from NKR with the intention of adding Armenian women from NKR in the future.

In the media world, the Eurasia Foundation's South Caucus Cooperation Program (SCCP) supports cross border cooperation between the region's leading media outlets, advocacy organizations and university journalism department through a targeted grants competition. The organization recently awarded grants supporting trilateral partnerships between media organizations from Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia. The partnerships aim to strengthen linkages between the journalism departments of the universities as well as monitoring and assessing media coverage of law enforcement issues in South Caucuses countries. These trilateral partnerships also have the potential to engage people within NKR, between Armenia and NKR, and finally, between Azerbaijan and NKR.

For bilateral ties, some examples include the "Dialogue Through Film" project which began in 2006 involving 5 young journalists from Azerbaijan and 5 from NKR. In 2007 more journalists were added to the project which is now a collaboration of Conciliation Resources with Internews Armenia, Internews Azerbaijan, and the Stepanakert Press Club within the Consortium Initiative. The goal is for the films to be shown to both Azeri and Armenian Audiences, however that hasn't happened yet.

But some of the most prominent civil society / peace building Initiatives which have show the highest return on investment include the work of the HCA in Armenia, (Helsinki Citizens Assembly), the joint works of the Armenian and Azeri Press Clubs, and the works of the UK-based Consortium Initiative's members "International Alert" and "Conciliation Resources".

The HCA began to play a role in the Caucuses in December of 1991, on the Armenian - Azerbaijani border in the Kazakh-Idjevan region. It was here that representatives from Armenia, Azerbaijan and Russia, supported by Georgian activists, issued a joint appeal for peace ("Peace Caravan"). During March of the following year, the "Transcaucasus Dialogue" was formally authorized by the international HCA movement at the Second General Congress in Bratislava, Slovakia, and the already existing HCA committees in Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia and in the conflict zone of NKR officially began their activities. What's especially notable about the HCA in the Caucuses, is the fact that it was established before the breakout of major fighting in NKR. In other words, the HCA already had experience in mediation and conflict resolution between Armenians, Georgians and Azeris before fighting in NKR (however after the Baku massacres).

With a strong background in conflict resolution worldwide, and direct experience mediating issues in the Caucuses, the HCA achieved one of the most significant civil society achievements in the Caucuses during 1992-1993: HCA secured the release of 500 hostages and prisoners of war from the NKR conflict.[] This was a major achievement and demonstrated the power of what civil society can accomplish. It also demonstrated the flawed logic of the Heydar Aliyev's 1999 quote, and those adhering to the same mentality. Even in the face of war, with the government of Armenia and Azerbaijan ceasing to have diplomatic relations, a peace initiative was able to release political prisoners and bring hope to their families and the region at large. In recognition of this incredible feat, Anahit Bayandour (HCA Armenia) and Arzu Abdullayeva (HCA Azerbaijan) were awarded the "Olof Palme Peace Prize" in 1993. In 1998 Arzu Abdullayeva also received the "European Union and US Government's Award for Democracy and Civil Society". The HCA continues its work with local committees which been founded throughout Azerbaijan, Georgia and Armenia. Other than the national committee in Yerevan and the Vanadzor office, chapters of HCA Armenia are now active in Charentsavan, Idjevan and Kapan and will hopefully continue their historic work.

The Yerevan and Baku Press clubs also demonstrated the strength of their collaborative efforts. With the support of the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung both press clubs have worked to create deeper understanding between their respective nations with the publishing of the book "The Karabakh Conflict: To Understand Each Other" in 2006. The book seeks to answer questions such as, is it possible to reach a decrease in hostility through public opinion to the point that an agreement is reached between the countries? Who would reap the benefits in case the conflict is not resolved predictably in the near future? In what way could European integration potential affect Armenian and Azerbaijani relations? Whether the book truly answers these questions, or comes up with answers that everyone can agree to is not the most significant thing. What's more important is that the book proves that civil society actors as represented by Azeri and Armenian authors of the book do have the potential to engage in constructive dialogue. It also shows the constructive role that objective NGOs can play in bringing both sides together as evidenced by the financing and publishing of this historic book by Germany's Friedrich Ebert Stiftung.

Lastly, there is the UK-based Consortium Initiative. CI promotes civil society and is made up of different members each working on their own "strand" or subspecialty area - including Media and Public Awareness, Civil Society, Political Dialogue, and Conflict Sensitivity. One particular example of the success of CI has been in the "Media and Public Awareness Strand" lead by consortium member Conciliation Resources. Here, Conciliation Resources has helped create "Radio Diaries"[] - where journalists across the South Caucuses collect everyday stories about ordinary people's lives. These stories have been published on 20 radio stations throughout Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia. These radio programs give people a chance learn about ordinary citizens in other countries; a chance they may not otherwise have given the lingering divisions between people in the region. Radio Diaries breaks down stereotypes and is at the core of what good civil society should be.

The other notable member of the Consortium Initiative is International Alert. International Alert is a worldwide organization that promotes peace "in countries or regions that are experiencing armed conflict, facing the threat of it, or trying to deal with its aftermath."[] IA has been active in the Caucuses since 1993. The organization has been somewhat effective at the grassroots level - by working with communities affected by the fighting of NKR and facilitating meetings between Armenian and Azeri communities to engage in dialogue. Also of note, is International Alert's analysis of the NKR issue through the framework of regional cooperation. International Alert analyzed how regional development projects help or hinder previous conflicts in the region through the publishing of "Oil and the Search for Peace in the South Caucuses: The Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) oil pipeline" in 2004. The report tries to understand the effect of the British Petroleum financed project pipeline that will link various countries in the Caucuses but yet bypass Armenia. It also focuses on the Regional Development Initiative that will support economic development in Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Turkey but not Armenia. In short, the report highlights the importance of international actors in the region (BP) and how ignoring some countries in the Caucuses at the expense of others reinforces old conflicts such as NKR and has the potential to worsen security in the region. IA has proven that they understand the importance of the link between NKR and regional economic cooperation in the South Caucuses today and that to find a solution to NKR can sometimes be done by promoting greater regional cooperation in the area.

Both Conciliation Resources through the Radio Diaries project, and International Alert's work on the BTC pipeline's affect on the region further the understanding of civil society and prove that any civil society/grass roots initiative is worthwhile when it creates broader understanding between people and can create conditions for political compromise.

Throughout this analysis of past civil society initiatives, there has been some mention of the international and EU based NGO or other EU / international organizations that have helped create greater cooperation on NKR and in the Caucuses in general. The Friedrich Ebert Stiftung is but one example. The OSCE through its Minsk group is another. But even more recently new EU based groups have formed that aim to play a larger role in the conflict. For example, the first meeting of "Armenia-European Union" took place in Brussels in July of 2008 via the triplet of the Political and Security Committees of the Council of the European Union.[] The Armenian delegation was headed by Vigen Chitechyan and the EU delegation by K. Rogier. Both sides agreed to work to support Armenian authorities make further political and economic reforms in Armenia as well as conflict mediation on the NKR dispute, and the relationship between Armenia and Turkey. This is a relevant example of further dialogue between the EU and Armenia, and a commitment by more EU organizations to become involved in the NKR dispute.

But in the end, what incentives are there for the EU, Council of Europe and other governmental and non-governmental actors to care about NKR and support a peaceful resolution to that issue along with greater regional cooperation in the Caucuses? The answer is based fully on the pursuit of democratic principles. NKR has followed international law in its pursuit of self-determination and independence from Azeri rule. European and International organizations have worked tirelessly to promote the values of the democracy and free markets in their own member states, as well as in those states that they partner with who are on the borders of today's recently enlarged European Union - from Turkey further east to Armenia and Azerbaijan. With that in mind, NKR is a great example of a majority ethnic-Armenian enclave that has completed 3 presidential and 3 parliamentarian election cycles in the midst of their struggle for self-determination.[]

Since independence, NKR has had a democratically elected government lending further support to their desire for self-determination, as it is fully backed by functioning democratic systems and gives the region the respect it deserves as well as attracting the support of democracy supporting institutions such as the OSCE, EU, Council of Europe and various other NGOs. Even an independent Freedom House survey in 2003 assessed that while NKR is technically "unrecognized", the enclave is considered a "partly free" country, versus its former subjugator Azerbaijan, which is recognized as a country that is "not free". This is of paramount performance when one considers that NKR citizens lived as second class citizens under Azeri rule (in a supposedly classless Soviet Union) and have now become so progressive that they are on their way to being a "mostly free" society. But as NKR sits at the threshold of continuing forward with "the world's longest lasting and only self-monitored ceasefire", international organizations have a unique role to play. They can take further steps to promote civil society in NKR and to promote regional cooperation in the South Caucuses in general. They can complement government and OSCE lead negotiations, while at other times acting as a temporary substitute for government talks when those talks are stalled. If international organizations are truly committed to promoting democratic ideals, they will hopefully take a more active role in promoting those ideals in a place that under the most adverse of conditions, has shown its ability to act freely and democratically.

EU and international initiatives for dealing with NKR can and should also be aimed at improving political understanding between Armenia, Georgia, Azerbaijan and Turkey in the general areas of political and economic regional cooperation. Just as the International Alert report of 2004 highlighted, why was Armenia bypassed by the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline? The BTC pipeline could have been a great source of revenue for the Armenian people and also a way to establish trust and cooperation with its South Caucasian neighbors. But oil politics and the unresolved NKR dispute prevented Armenia's inclusion in this economically vital project. Even today in 2008, Armenia will be bypassed by the vital Kars-Akhalkalaki railroad. Again, regional alliances have played a role in the decision, but such decisions are not only bad for regional cooperation, but they worsen existing conflicts. If Armenia continues to be bypassed by such important economic links, what incentive does Armenia have to continue to promote civil society in the region at large or in NKR? What incentive is there to cooperate further with the Azeris in finding a mutually acceptable solution on NKR? The EU and international organizations can play a larger role here and should do so since greater regional cooperation is good for the future and good for helping to resolve old conflicts.

In conclusion, civil society groups in the Caucuses have proven that they can compliment and sometimes act as a temporary substitute for stalled political talks through official government channels. Civil society initiatives must involve people from all parts of the Caucuses. Also no matter what progress is made at the official level over the NKR issue, civil society must continue to keep a dialogue going so that ordinary people can continue to find common ground even if their governments cannot. Finally, the EU and other international organization have a very large role to play and can act objectively to bring different political factions together in the South Caucuses. Without EU and international support for civil society and high-level government initiatives, the region will have difficulty breaking out of a stalemate and finding a solution to the NKR question once and for all.

Conciliation Resources - Bridging Divides: Civil Society Peace Building Initiatives - 2005

Helsinki Citizens' Assembly of Vanadzor - main website

The Consortium Initiative - webpage

International Alert.org website

Panorama - website

Nagorno Karabakh: Historical Background, Current Challenges and the Possible Role of the International Community - ICHD / Poghosyan



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