Wednesday, December 22, 2010
By Ruken Bariş The relationship between Armenia and Azerbaijan gives the impression of a stalemate to any observer. In both countries territorial claims are interwoven with national identity definitions. Bad memories are deliberately kept alive, especially by governments, through antagonistic propaganda with the help of the media. The result is hostile public perceptions about ‘the other’- and justification of ‘pride’-based national policies, which contradict with the economic logic and cultural inheritance of the region. The root of this bleak picture is the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute. This, for the time being, is a frozen conflict but it retains all the potential for igniting an armed confrontation between Azerbaijan and Armenia, which might easily escalate into war.

Is the situation completely hopeless? Is there anything that can be done, for example, by civil society actors?

There is actually a new element in the equation which might initiate a new dynamic: the changing position of Turkey. Moreover, there are plenty of things that can be done by civil society organisations provided that their goal is defined not as finding ‘the’ solution for the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute. Instead, the goal should be changing the picture from that of gradual escalation towards conflict into a picture of gradual de-escalation. This can be accomplished by ‘normalising’ the public perceptions. This means that civil society actors should avoid direct engagement with the dispute issue and instead use all their muscle to ‘attack’ the factor that makes a re-evaluation of the dispute from other perspectives impossible, that is, the rhetoric in the media. More explicitly, civil society organisations (CSOs) should aim at changing the antagonistic media rhetoric in these countries, which permanently reinforce the idea of no compromise and disseminate hatred.

In fact, the stalemate between Armenia and Azerbaijan is based on a relational logic: the mutual position of antagonists is conditioned by the actions and inactions of third parties. All possible one-to-one relations between Azeri and Armenian governments are essentially conditioned by the quite often rigid positions of third parties: Turkey and Russia.

For a long time the positions of Turkey and Russia in Southern Caucasus appeared to be fixed: Turkey was the unconditional supporter of Azerbaijan, and Russia was the protector of Armenia.4 With these back-ups, neither Armenia nor Azerbaijan would think of changing their positions vis-à-vis the other. However, during the last years three significant shifts have taken place in this picture: Turkey’s foreign policy is substantially redefined; the relations between Russia and Turkey began to improve rapidly because of increasing trade; and finally, Western powers appeared to be ready, at least for now, to leave the territory in Southern Caucasus to Russia and Turkey. As is shown below these three shifts, now, create a window of opportunity for CSO contributions to peace in the region.

Until 2006, Turkey had fixed policies towards all her Eastern and Southern neighbours: a policy of indifference and suspicion. This policy was at odds with the economic logic and cultural inheritance of the region, but appeared reasonable due to the notorious path dependency in Turkey’s foreign relations, which were essentially dictated by the military-bureaucratic elite. Fortunately, due to profound economic and political changes in Turkey, which can be summarised as increasing civilian control over foreign policy and rapid economic growth, the incompatibility of the policy of indifference towards Eastern and Southern neighbours with Turkey’s interests has become obvious.

The rise of Anatolian capital in Turkey, the elevation of Turkey to membership of the G-20 group of countries, an astonishing increase in foreign direct investment and as a result, the conversion of Turkey into a major import and export market made it increasingly clear to the Turkish government (and all Caucasus countries) that maintaining the frozen political landscape prevents the realisation of significant economic potential in the region. To this, one should also add the influence of energy pipelines which have begun to connect the Caucasus region to Western markets. Thus, there is a resulting sensitivity among major international players towards reaching security and peace in the Southern Caucasus that are obviously threatened by frozen conflicts.5

Consequently, Turkey has radically redefined its foreign policy towards all her neighbours and launched a new overall strategy: ‘zero problem with all neighbours’.6 The rationale of this policy appears to be twofold: first, Turkey, with its new economic strength must become an active and more neutral player in the region, and second, this would be possible by initiating dialogue, not about the most problematic issues, but about possible procedures and protocols that might increase mutual trust and confidence.

Thus, especially vis-à-vis Armenia and Azerbaijan; Turkey has quit a position of unconditional support to Azerbaijan and a policy of no-relations with Armenia, instead, initiating a policy of seeking ‘normalisation’ with Armenia while giving assurances to Azerbaijan. In this endeavour, Turkey opted for deferring the engagement with critical issues in order to bypass the stalemate and instead decided to emphasise the mutual gains of Southern Caucasus countries from a friendlier landscape.

Here it is crucial to mention that the setbacks in so-called football diplomacy between the Turkish and Armenian presidents should not lead one to the conclusion that this new policy has failed. On the contrary, these failures should be regarded as temporary. Since Turkey’s real aim appears to encourage and mobilise local actors (industrialists, merchants, farmers, artists, students), who stand to gain immediately from the normalisation of the relations, in order to convert the antagonistic rhetoric prevailing in Armenia, Turkey and Azerbaijan into a discourse of collective prosperity. In fact, this is a strategy of signalling that there is now a space for engaging in hitherto impossible civil society level interactions by using Turkey’s increasingly cosmopolitan environment as neutral ground in order to reduce tensions and normalise the presence of ‘the other’ in the public spheres in all three countries.

From a relational perspective, the change in the position of an important third party (Turkey) and approval of this by the other important third party (Russia) creates an opportunity for normalising the relations between Armenia and Azerbaijan which might gradually enable the re-evaluation of the disputed issues. Indeed, since Turkey has adopted this subtle policy, there has been an increase in the receptiveness within Armenian, Azeri and Turkish societies towards civil society based interactions.

Thus, there is an opportunity and responsibility for CSOs involved in the Caucasus region: making the best use of this new climate in the region so as to promote peace at the grass roots level.

From this perspective, there are two connected opportunities for conflict-resolution and media related CSO initiatives in South Caucasus: First, it is possible to accelerate the implications of the changing relational position of macro-level actors (countries) at micro-level (among individuals) by benefiting from the new economic power, strategic importance and conciliatory attitude of Turkey. Second, it is possible to normalise the presence of ‘the other’ in public sphere across antagonist countries by increasing the multifaceted interactions at the civil society level and by initiating multipartite projects.

In this regard, Turkey as a ‘project-based’ element and Turkish activists as ‘conciliatory agents’ are in a unique position.

In short, Turkey’s new position can be instrumentalised for launching grass-roots conflict resolution initiatives between Armenia and Azerbaijan. The priority should be given to media projects which would aim at changing the public discourses in all three countries which are, to a large extent, the product of national level media outlets: the prevalent tone should be transformed from a self-centric and antagonistic discourse7 into a multi-centric and conciliatory one. This, however, once again should be done by focusing on what is common across these three countries rather than by engaging with what makes them appear different. In other words, instead of focusing on the way in which media frames loaded problematic issues, civil society actors should encourage and initiate exchange programmes, joint educational, cultural projects and workshops which would connect towns, villages and localities across borders.

Ruken Bariş is a freelance journalist and Media Programme Coordinator at Free Press Unlimited based in The Netherlands.


1. Mina Muradova, “Stalemate in the Karabakh Peace Talks,” The Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst, August 18, 2010,

2. Tabib Huseynov, “A moment of truth in the Nagorno-Karabakh talks?” International Crisis Group – Caucasus Edition, April 12, 2010,

3. Svante E. Cornell, “The Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict – Report No. 46,” Department of East European Studies at Uppsala University, 1999,

4. Carol Migdalovitz, “CRS Issue Brief – 92109: Armenia-Azerbaijan Conflict,” Congressional Research Service, December 3, 1996,

5. Richard Sokolsky and Ian Lesser, “Threats To Western Energy Supplies: Scenarios And Implications,” in Persian Gulf Security: Improving Allied Military Contributions, ed. Richard Sokolsky, Stuart E. Johnson, F. Stephen Larrabee, Ian O. Lesser, John E. Peters, David A. Shlapak, Timothy Liston, (California: RAND Corporation), 7-28,

6. “Davutoglu and the Policy of ‘Zero Problems with Neighbours,’” European Stability Initiative,

7. “Nagorno-Karabakh: Risking War,” International Crisis Group, Europe Report N°187, November 14, 2007,

This article was published in the Near East Quarterly december 21st 2010