Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Nagorno Karabakh: the hate speech factor

(Originally published in Osservario Balcani e Caucaso - http://www.balcanicaucaso.org/eng/Regions-and-countries/Nagorno-Karabakh/Nagorno-Karabakh-the-hate-speech-factor-169907)

In the Nagorno Karabakh conflict, words play a crucial role. Security and confidence building initiatives should include the foundation of a brand new glossary
Wars root where the soil is fertile. The escalation in Nagorno-Karabakh which led to clashes from April 2 to the ceasefire of April 5 is bred not only by a rearmament campaign, but also by a persistent and systematic campaign of hate speech, lasting from the late ‘80s till now.

The importance of words

Words are essential, as they might be the requisite to make a war acceptable, the violation of rights possible.
Some key words are hate catalysts: they serve as permanent reminder of a people’s grievances and of the enemy's inhumanity. These words must be constantly repeated, only in this way the historical, administrative, political, and military issues stop been tackled pragmatically, and become a matter of principles, values, identities. The key words and the facts they refer to become un-paraphrasable, non-negotiable, and not even alternatively thinkable.
An excellent study of which are these words in Armenian-Azerbaijani hate speech was conducted by the Yerevan Press Club with the "Yeni Nesil" Journalists' Union of Azerbaijan within the framework of the project "Armenia-Azerbaijan Media Bias Reduction" of Eurasia Partnership Foundation (EPF), supported by the UK Conflict Prevention Pool. What emerges is a mutual hate glossary divided by clichés, stereotypes, and the dissemination of false or distorted information. The study could certainly have been enriched with an additional a chapter adding the tweets from #Karabakhnow or - ironically - #NKpeace in the last two weeks.

From facts to slogans

Historical heritage, genocide, aggression, occupation, propaganda: these are some of the terms mentioned by the study and well known to whoever is involved in Armenian-Azerbaijani relations. All these words were originated by concrete or perceived facts, but they have as well evolved with the deterioration of relations between the two peoples, and they themselves have contributed to the worsening of relations, being used and misused.
The historic heritage and possession of Karabakh represent the eternal apple of discord. Every monument, every toponym, every narration, be it local or from external sources, that allegedly certifies an historical Armenian or Azerbaijani possession enjoys maximum visibility. So if Askeran is an Azeri word, it means that the Askeran fortress and the surrounding territory cannot be but Azerbaijan. Conversely if the Tigranakert ruins attest that it was founded in the first century BC by the Armenian King Tigran the Great, but now is in Nakhchivan (Azerbaijan's territory separated from the country by Armenia), Armenia has the right to territorial claims on Nakhchivan, because what used to be Armenia cannot be but Armenian. It’s the rule of the first-comer: the oldest evidence of a people settled on a territory - even of millennia, indeed, preferably - determines who is authorized to live there now.

Genocide, aggression, occupation are mostly amenable to the 1988-1994 war. From ethnic clashes to terrible episodes of the war, the word “genocide” is used to convey the heaviest of the charges: the attempted annihilation of an entire community. This is as true for the Khojali massacre of 1992 perpetrated against Azerbaijani civilians, one of the darkest pages of the conflict, an episode which deserves to be investigated by an impartial committee. And it’s also true for the first ethnic clashes that compelled Armenians to flee from Sumgait. For Armenian national identity, the concept of genocide holds a core position. In today’s bellicose rhetoric Azerbaijanis represent, mutatis mutandis, the continuity of the 1915 Ottoman Turks whose sole purpose was and is to remove from the face of the earth the existence of the Armenian nation.
Aggression is the one of the Azerbaijanis against the peaceful population of Karabakh calling for reunification with Armenia, against its own Armenian citizens, who will never accept to live under a state that has discriminated and exterminated them. Or, vice-versa, it’s the Armenian terrorist aggression backed by the then occupants, who tried to cause the collapse of Azerbaijan and still undermine its territorial integrity, causing endless suffering to the displaced. A new accusation can now be added to the mutual accusations of aggression, the recent early April clashes, erupted among mutual blames of cease-fire violations.
And the same goes for occupation, for each and every single meter of land contended between the two.
Last but not least the chapter of national and international communication: the Armenian vs the Azerbaijani “propaganda machine” which fabricates falsities, according to mutual accusations. Baku is annoyed by the role of Armenian diaspora, the visibility it guarantees to the Armenian causes and its relationships (perceived as preferential) with mediators to the conflict, e.g. France and Russia. For its part Armenia, is irritated by the caviar diplomacy and by the diplomatic and visibility growth of Azerbaijan, connected to its resources and to the country's self-promotion efforts.

The public opinion abetment

Public opinions are definitely playing a role in this race to radicalization. They are communication users who become agents of messages. In accepting the belligerent rhetoric and in espousing the aggressive or distorting contents, they contribute to the deterioration of the quality of the debate.
Not only those who deliberately disseminate false information, or who use the usual warhorses for visibility or political advantage are responsible for the rise in hate speech, but also those who spread hatred as common sense because it confirms their own prejudices and generalizations. And who try to silence dissonant voices stigmatizing them as traitors.
This leads to grotesque situations: in 2012 Armenia did not participate to Eurovision in Azerbaijan because of an Armenian victim... killed by an Armenian! The first breaking news was that the nineteen year old soldier military Albert Adibekyan was killed during exchange of fire. This version was disproved and it was confirmed that he had died at the hands of a fellow soldier. But notoriously denials have never the same communicative impact of breaking news. The indignation machine had been set in motion, and it proved to be unstoppable, as it is often the case.
The "share" click feeds the groundswell of misinformation and turns the settlement of an already complex issue, with domestic security and international policy implications, from difficult to unsolvable.
Once at this stage of polarization, people-to-people, confidence building initiatives cannot be relegated to programs or projects limited to NGOs, but they should be included in a comprehensive trans-border conflict-related security sector reform as key, cross-cutting factors.

Saturday, April 9, 2016

Pull the pieces around Karabakh: who's in and who's out

After the clashes that seemed to pull to pieces ages of negotiations over Karabakh, it's time to pull the pieces together, as long as kalashnikov are silent. Or not loud-speaking. On the 5th of April Chief of Staff of Armenia and Chief of staff of Azerbaijan met in Moscow and - from what can be empirically deduced - decided to resume the cease-fire. Commentators - and Russian Prime Minister D. Medvedev - actually talked about a truce. But if it is the case, details of a possible new temporary no-combat adjustment have not been made public. The 1994 cease-fire was based essentially on the good will of the parties to implement it, and this could be enough to revive it in the shape it had worked in the past. And it can be broken with the same easiness witnessed last week.

In what still looks like a precarious situation, the ball rolls in the play field of diplomacy.
The "Devil's triangle" of Armenia-Azerbaijan-Karabakh (de facto, self proclaimed authorities) did not establish diplomatic ties. So of course any diplomatic effort passes through the direct participation of the international community.

Who is "the international community" dealing with the Karabakh unsolved conflict? And who's in and who's out?
The Minsk group, composed by Russia, United States and France is in. It survived the storm, and it is still named as the only appropriate facilitator and mediator of the conflict. It might not have gained an excellent reputation, but it scored well compared to alternative paths. In a phase of growing tensions it should be recalled that the Council of Europe, through its Parliamentary Assembly (PACE), made a couple of false steps, so to speak, inflaming tempers with its (draft) Resolutions. And the last thing needed now is an international organization that exacerbates expectations and confrontations. 

So, if the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the Minsk group is an emanation of is still in, as well, the Council of Europe PACE should be kept out.

A deafening silence echoes from the corridors of Russian led international organizations. And when it's not a silence, it's worse: it's a mess.
The Eurasian Economic Union made itself ridiculous. Not only the members states did not voice a sound support to the fellow member state, Armenia - as it is usually the case in Unions where a member is threatened by a large scale conflict-  but their reactions were largely uncoordinated, as it there were not a Union at all.  Kazakh President Nazarbaev asked to move the planned meeting from Yerevan to Moscow, due to the ongoing clashes. Belorussian diplomacy supported Azerbaijani stances.
The Organization for the Treaty of Collective Security, beside a first declaration in support of Armenia, did not play any visible role in the crisis.
The CIS summit of the 8th of April, in Moscow, where Armenian and Azerbaijani Ministers of Foreign Affairs met in person, issued a statement recalling the principles negotiated within the Minsk format. Full stop.

This as far as it concerns International Organization the belligerent(s) is/are members of.
As for individual players, Iran made itself available to be in. Iran played a role of mediator at the very dawn of the conflict, more than two decades ago. But it must be proved by facts whether an entry point is still available.
Russia is doing better as a lonely wolf than as pack leader. Key institutional figures travelled the region, and it's clear that Russia feels in full shape to maximize its position in the Karabakh theater. 

By the way, Foreign Minister Lavrov, interviewed while touring the region, made a statement which is at the same time a pearl of sarcastic callousness, and an adamant truth: "There was the idea about withdrawing snipers from the Line of Contact. It is very risky when people are looking at each other through gun sights". 

A simple, good point to keep in mind. 
Stop selling guns could be a way to avoid such a scenario. But this option is out of the to-do list, apparently.

Sunday, April 3, 2016

The Karabakh crisis in few points

While the fire is burning and the situation on the ground is still unclear, there are few points which are worthy to be recalled. The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict (1988-1994) claimed more than 25 000 lives and caused a high number of refugees and displaced persons. The number increased with years, as the condition of refugee is inherited by children of refugees/displaced. Most of the displaced are Azeris, who had to flee breakaway Karabakh and the so-called security belt, the regions which surrounded Soviet Nagorno-Karabakh and which were won by the Armenian-Karabakh army. Armenian refugees were Azerbaijani citizens who left Azerbaijan. Since 1991 the two republics are independent sovereign states. They do not have diplomatic relations and their state-borders are closed. Karabakh is an unrecognized self-proclaimed Republic.

Since 1994 a cease-fire is in force. There are no interposed forces, no de-militarized zone and virtually it's exclusively up to military personnel in the field to ensure that confrontations would not erupt.
The post-conflict solution efforts have been channeled into a protracted negotiation, mediated and facilitated by an ad-hoc group, the Minsk Group, originally to be the first step towards a more articulated process, a Minsk conference. The conference never took place and the negotiations, regardless of the numerous forms of solutions proposed, proved so far unsuccessful.  In the two decades of its existence the Minsk Group has been often criticized, recently especially by Azerbaijan for its composition (US, France, Russia, thus perceived to be too pro-Armenian), for its poor success record. Despite evident frustrations, both Armenia and Azerbaijan did not opt for other typologies of conflict resolution (e.g. international courts) in the effort to avoid a resumption of hostilities.

The negotiations seem stuck because of the total incompatibility of positions, that make virtually impossible to find a common ground. What for Armenia is a breakaway conflict based on the right to self-determination of Karabakhi, for Azerbaijan is an Armenian occupation violating its territorial integrity. For Armenia Karabakh shouldn't be deprived of pieces of territory it won in the battlefield, for Azerbaijan international law and UN Resolutions fully recognize its right to territorial integrity, and this just needs to be enforced. None of the two parties, plus the self-proclaimed government of Karabakh, has openly expressed the will to come to a compromise. And the same goes with the respective public opinions, generally speaking.
Quite the opposite, whoever wishes to compromise is easily stigmatized as a traitor.

High expectations of a peaceful resolution came with the so-called Madrid Principles (2009: return of the territories surrounding Karabakh to Azerbaijani control; an interim status providing guarantees for security and self-governance; a corridor linking Armenia to Karabakh; future determination of the final legal status of Karabakh through a legally binding expression of will; the right of all internally displaced persons and refugees to return to their former places of residence; international security guarantees that would include a peacekeeping operation). Not only the Madrid principles were never enhanced, but since 2012 the cease-fire, which had been pretty effective for some time, was almost systematically violated. 

Observers are warning of a possible escalation ever since.

Just a reminder of what we know.
There's still a lot we don't know, and something we can assume.
The first assumption is that the 2016 cease-fire violations paved the way to (if not caused) the ongoing large scale confrontation, albeit there is not a clear common narration about how it actually erupted, with parties blaming each-other.
The second assumption is that the military operation of Armenia seems largely aimed at preserve the status quo, while the Azerbaijani one is clearly directed to alter it. This mirror the diplomatic positions of the two, where Armenia is interested in preserving what Karabakh gained. Compared to previous serious cease-fire violation, this time Azerbaijan looks determined to move the line of contact forward into Karabakhi controlled territory, although it unclear at the present stage exactly where. On the 2nd of April Talish (north) seemed to be the spotlight of action. But fights are reported also in Fisuli (south, bordering Iran which has been unintentionally targeted), and around Martakert. In contrast with some previous cease-fire violations, no incidents have been reported along the Armenia-Azerbaijan state border. Therefore an additional assumption can be that at this stage there's a certain degree of cautiousness in engaging in a full scale inter-states war.

The forth and last assumption is that if what's going on is not the result of a spiralled up incident and it's a pre-planned military operation to change the present control over a part of the territory, it is most likely not to have been orchestrated with other players. While first players - Azerbaijan, Karabakh and Armenia - are fully engaged, secondary players and third players are keeping an extremely low profile. From official information, with an ongoing war, Sargsyan has not been called by any counterpart, while Aliev was called by President Erdogan, who expressed support. But no mention to the Turkey-Azerbaijan 2010 Strategic Partnership Agreement (Article 2 of the agreement states that if one of the parties is subjected to an armed attack or an aggressionby by a third State, or a group of states, the parties will mutually aid by all means). 
If Turkey is the "second player" for Azerbaijan, Russia is for Armenia, which is member of the Organization for the Collective Security Treaty. So far all direct exchanges between Armenia and Russia were held at the level of ministries (Foreign Affairs, Defence). Third players, like neighbours states or international organizations are somehow holding at bay, probably hoping for a fast de-escalation. Georgia -domestically- reacted today, convening a meeting of senior government, parliament and security officials to discuss the situation. International organizations are issuing statements calling for the resumption of negotiation and the respect of the cease-fire. Behind-closed-doors pressures are not available for an assessment.

Among assumptions, one assessment: these days of war will make even more difficult to find a solution for Karabakh

This is short, waiting for events to develop. And hoping for a de-escaltion.