In Nagorny Karabakh, young people seek their own path towards peace

Following the collapse of the USSR, the armed conflict of 1991-1994 over Nagorny Karabakh saw Armenia and Azerbaijan embroiled in a ruthless and bloody war. To this day, the fragile peace in the region is supported solely by a ceasefire agreement known as the Bishkek Protocol. The conflict saw a mass exodus of Azerbaijanis from Armenia and Armenians from Azerbaijan. Nagorny Karabakh, which in Soviet times had been home to 145 000 Armenians, 40 000 Azerbaijanis, plus small Kurdish, Russian and Greek minorities, became virtually mono-ethnic.

Over the last few years, the line of contact separating the sides has become something of a military proving ground and has seen regular military and civilian deaths. In April 2016, for four days the area turned into a real battlefield and communities realised that the outbreak of all-out war was now simply a matter of time. On both sides, continuing political rhetoric of revenge feeds this sense of doom and despair.

Tensions are so high that, exhausted with being in a constant state of anticipation, local communities can be heard calling for a rapid resolution of the conflict. The paradox, however, is that some are calling for a 'resolution' by military means. I have even heard calls to 'speed up negotiations through launching military action'.

War, however, does not resolve conflicts - it merely fuels them for many more years so they end up taking on a life of their own. Indeed, it is a distinctive human trait that, along with our material and spiritual riches, we quite easily pass on our conflicts to the next generation.

There is widespread frustration at the lack of tangible outcomes from the peace process headed by the OSCE Minsk Group. With each year that passes, the prospects of a peaceful resolution to the conflict appear to be moving further and further away. Calls for recourse to military action are presented as coming from the people, for the good of the people, and the happiness of future generations.

As part of its peacebuilding work on the Nagorny Karabakh conflict within the EU-funded EPNK consortium, International Alert recently convened a group of young researchers from Armenia, Azerbaijan and Nagorny Karabakh who were mostly new to peacebuilding work. Participants brainstormed alternatives to mainstream views and attempted to come up with ways out of the vicious cycle wherein military rhetoric is reinforced by increased spending on weaponry.

For these young people, war is not something of the past. This was especially true of those from Nagorny Karabakh. Since the four days of fighting in April 2016, this young generation now perceives itself as having lived through war. With all the photos and videos of torture and killings circulating online, even those who did not actually fight had the sense of having been part of the war.

In times of sabre-rattling military rhetoric, attempts to talk about peace can be perceived as weakness, or even treason. Participants stressed how hard they find the atmosphere of aggressive propaganda and how they had essentially become outsiders in their own country. They discussed practical ideas and strategies that would allow them to retain their patriotism and sense of belonging, while at the same time defending their belief in non-violent conflict resolution.

When a conflict has old roots and its energy prevents people from living peaceful lives, young people feel a need to seek their own path. They feel called upon to ask new questions and find their own answers. Should they simply follow in their parents' footsteps, dragging the past with them unchanged - or indeed magnifying past conflict further?

These young people understood that peace cannot be built by just one side - the process should involve both sides in parallel. "I am here to find a peacebuilding partner," one participant said. They are eager to find like-minded people, both within their own society, and across the conflict divide. They want to find ways of building trust in order to create an alternative to war. Many participants stressed that they "do not want their parents' generation's decisions to rule over their lives, or those of their future children".

I often wonder whether anyone ever takes the trouble to ask what the people really think and want. Sometimes we assume that experts know all that there is to know about the people and about current social trends. This, however, is not really true, as the recent geopolitical surprises of Brexit and the election of Donald Trump have clearly shown. We are all our own experts. No one knows better than us what is good or bad for us. Top-down communication is not the most efficient tool.

At International Alert we have been talking with our long-standing partners in the region about finding a methodology which can offer individuals the possibility to reflect deeply on how life might have turned out for them, had there been no war. A process of reflection on the cost of conflict a person's life can encourage him or her to decide on a vision of that life without war. Levels of anxiety in the conflict zone are high, and people have a lot that they want to express. Given a safe space to express emotion and to develop trust, they are willing to speak out.

Appealing to people's identity and approaching them as individuals helps them experience the valuable sense of being heard, and understand that their opinions have value. Through this methodology, we raise a variety of questions. What is the 'ordinary' person's place in an endless stream of contradictory information? How does one form an opinion of one's neighbour when there has been no communication for over twenty years? What role does each of us play in these conflicts? What could each of us do to bring prospects of peace a little closer?

Peace begins inside every one of us - as, indeed, does conflict. All of us have many conflicts within us - many different 'I's doing battle with each other. A journalist reporting on the conflict, for instance, would like to go about their task in a professional manner, but their affiliation to their side, their nation, gets in the way; therefore, they put out material that is propagandist. All conflicts are filled with our differing 'I's - all of them affect public opinion. At the same time, it is important to remember that absolute impartiality does not exist. Then again, simply acknowledging one's own position allows for more more space to be objective, thereby significantly raising the degree of impartiality.

Our young participants - motivated to play an active role in defining their own future - are now ready to face the public with sensitively formulated questions on people's view of the cost of conflict in their lives. The wide spectrum of answers they will gather will be analysed by our experts and the conclusions will be made public on different media platforms.

These young researchers are driven to find answers to the key questions in their lives. In their hands, we think this interactive method will broaden prospects for a peaceful vision within the Nagorny Karabakh conflict. Instead of seeking this vision outside themselves, people will seek it from within, which, in turn, should help to promote the active participation of ordinary people at every level of society, and especially in conflict transformation.

Credit: Jonathan Banks/International Alert