Dr. Laurence BROERS: "There won’t be Armenian-Azerbaijani Dayton*" (with video)

27.05.2020 (Caucasian JournalCaucasian Journal talks with Dr. Laurence BROERS, well-known expert on conflicts in the South Caucasus with over 20 years’ experience, both as a researcher and a practitioner of peacebuilding initiatives in the region. 
Dr.  Broers is the Caucasus programme director at London-based NGO Conciliation Resources. He is Associate Fellow at Royal Institute of International Affairs (Chatham House), author or editor of several books, including Armenia and Azerbaijan: Anatomy of a Rivalry, and co-editor-in-chief of Caucasus Survey.

Alexander KAFFKA, editor-in-chief of Caucasian Journal:  Dear Dr. Broers, welcome to Caucasian Journal. We’ve wanted to talk with you since a long while, and today we have this lucky possibility thanks to an important development – the release of a new documentary about the Karabakh conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan (to watch video, scroll down to page bottom). You have agreed to introduce this film for our readers. Allow my first question – how do you visualize the target viewers group of the documentary?

Laurence BROERS: On 12 May we released online a documentary film called Parts of a Circle: History of the Karabakh Conflict. The film chronicles the disputed history of more than 30 years of this conflict, in an Armenian-Azerbaijani co-production. It is a locally led project, in which the scripts were written, interviewees selected and films produced by local teams of Armenian and Azerbaijani journalists. The project actually began in 2011 but for a number of reasons it has taken until now to be ready for the public release. The film we have recently released is actually a shorter version, at 76 minutes, of a longer 3-hour trilogy. The short film is in English, and it is intended for an international audience that is not necessarily familiar with the Karabakh conflict. The longer trilogy has considerably more detail and is intended more for a local and a specialist audience.

AK: I am a believer in the utmost importance of spreading the competent knowledge to the general public, and reaching out to the widest audiences – and this is the underlying concept of Caucasian Journal, by the way. This is why we want to give maximum promotion to your film (to watch video, scroll down to page bottom). Please can you tell us more about it?

LB: The basic idea was to create a film series that would juxtapose two narratives held by each side in a conflict together in one film, in the way that, for example, the Japanese film Rashomon depicts the same incident but from separate, contradictory perspectives. The viewer is thus exposed to the subjectivity of different perspectives, made aware of their own preconceptions, preferences and biases, and invited to triangulate their own understanding of contested or controversial events. The films draw on rare archival footage and numerous newly recorded interviews with a really wide range of people who were eyewitnesses to or direct participants in the Karabakh conflict and the peace process.

There has been a fair amount of criticism that Parts of a Circle is not neutral or impartial, and I’d like to address that. It is important to understand that Parts of a Circle does not claim to offer a neutral or impartial overview on the Karabakh conflict. These films are instead what might be thought of as ‘bipartial’: they juxtapose two opposed narratives. This is explicit in Films 1 and 2 of the trilogy, which deal with the events of 1988-94, as the films are structured in alternating Armenian-directed and Azerbaijani-segments of 15 minutes. The premise of the project was to juxtapose contradicting narratives, and to open up space for dialogue between them. Viewers who are looking for a ‘third eye perspective’ from outside on the Karabakh conflict will be disappointed. Rather, the main point of the project is that it is a meeting point, and, if you will, a dialogue among local narratives.

If preparing populations for peace is to be taken seriously, there are few alternatives to increased encounters with adversarial narratives and perceptions of conflict.

This has an important implication, which is that no side presents its narrative on its own terms in these films. This means that no one in the Parts of a Circle teams is fully satisfied with the end result. That result, rather, emerged as the minimum that the teams could live with. In that sense the films are a bit like a peace agreement, as something that no one is completely happy with but they can live with it. But it also means there are key aspects and moments in how each side presents its narrative that the teams understand will irritate the other. Given the intensity of the information war over the last 20 years this is not surprising. Yet, we believe that if preparing populations for peace is to be taken seriously, there are few alternatives to increased encounters with adversarial narratives and perceptions of conflict.

AK: The documentary film is in English. Do the authors plan to make it available in our region’s languages as well?

LB: The original trilogy exists in Armenian, Azerbaijani, English and Russian. We hope to make the short-form film available in Russian as well.

AK: Let me ask you about your own professional opinion on the Karabakh conflict. Many people know about its roots, but wish to learn more about its future prospects. Is the cautious optimism, which occurred some time ago in connection with the steps of Armenia’s new leadership, over now?

LB: Yes, I would say that any optimism that there might have been in the wake of the announcement that the foreign ministers had agreed on the necessity of preparing their populations for peace has dissipated. It is positive that 2019 was one of the lowest years on record, if not the lowest, in terms of casualties along the Line of Contact, and some minimal humanitarian cooperation has been agreed to. But overall, the idea of ‘preparing populations for peace’ has not been filled with meaningful content, as political authorities have been more concerned with consolidating their domestic power. If in 2019 the atmosphere was calmer, in 2020 there has been a shift back towards symbolic battlegrounds.

Any optimism that there might have been in the wake of the announcement that the foreign ministers had agreed on the necessity of preparing their populations for peace has dissipated.

Armenian and Azerbaijani leaders shared a public podium for the first time in a very long time in Munich in February, but President Aliyev and Prime Minister Pashinyan chose to speak to their domestic audiences with familiar historical claim and counter-claim, and left their international audience baffled. There have been some steps since then which indicate continued commitments to harder lines. In recent days the de facto authorities held the inauguration of their new leader, Arayik Harutyunyan, in Shusha rather than the capital Stepanakert. This was met with anger and dismay in Azerbaijan, as Shusha is a formerly Azerbaijani-populated city and a key location in the Azerbaijani claim to Nagorny Karabakh. Earlier in the month Azerbaijan declared the establishment of a ‘Western Azerbaijani government-in-exile’, which is to say a government for Azerbaijani refugees from Armenia, which is parsed in some contemporary Azerbaijani geopolitical narratives as ‘Western Azerbaijan’.

I would say that there is a conceptual crisis in the peace process.

We therefore have a situation where public discourse on the conflict is dominated by these symbolic moves, rather than a discourse about peace alternatives. This reflects the fact that there is uncertainty about where the peace process stands vis-à-vis the Madrid Principles, the proposal that has formed the basis of talks since the mid-2000s. Although they define the content of conflict resolution, the Madrid Principles have few public advocates, yet viable alternatives are not put forward. Thus, I would say that there is a conceptual crisis in the peace process. What is, or can be, the content of conflict resolution under today’s conditions of renewed polarization, in addition to regional and global uncertainty associated with a wide range of factors from Covid-19, to democratic decline and the new multipolarity.

AK:  What can you say about the efficiency of mediation and, generally, the international involvement? What steps are needed, in your view, from the international organizations and global community (if it still exists)?

LB: The Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict shares with a number of other long-term rivalries a high degree of diffusion across a wide cast of international actors, from regional powers Turkey and Iran, the mediating nations of the Minsk Group (France, Russia and the United States), to other international actors aligned with one or other party, whether these are sovereign states such as Pakistan, or diasporic communities leveraging influence and resources within their ‘host-states’. The geopolitics of the conflict is consequently often overwhelming, and also offers a route to a simplified understanding of the conflict. It’s often easier to interpret an obscure conflict through the presumed moves and rivalries of more familiar geopolitical actors than to really get to grips with messier local realities.

In such a highly polarized environment, almost any positive or creative idea is doomed to being criticized and weaponized.

Yet the fact remains that this conflict is an exception in Eurasia. It doesn’t easily fit into the wider geopolitical script of Russian-Western confrontation in Eurasia. As I argued in my book Anatomy of a Rivalry, what needs explaining is the ways in which the parties have not been able to make their claims resonate with great power agendas. The parties remain focused on strategies leveraging international pressure on their adversary, but the reality is that international mediators have acted more or less collegially in the pursuit of a common goal: prevention of another major Armenian-Azerbaijani war. What has been lacking is a more positive peace agenda, but without more demonstrable commitment from the parties to such an agenda I do not think it is surprising that international mediators limit their efforts to mitigation. In such a highly polarized environment, almost any positive or creative idea is doomed to being criticized and weaponized. And there have been other, more urgent conflicts across the world distracting international attention. In short, the change has to come from within – there won’t be an Armenian-Azerbaijani Dayton*). International involvement can only support locally led change, not force it.

AK:  How would you place the Karabakh conflict within the Pandora’s box of contradictions between the Armenians, the Azerbaijanis, the Turks, dating back to the 1915’s Armenian Genocide, which have been kept tight under pressure in the Soviet times?

LB: That question is a veritable minefield. There are two quite different sets of issues – Armenian-Turkish issues and Armenian-Azerbaijani issues; they have different actors, temporalities and spatial expressions. But there is of course a tendency for these issues to converge and mutually reinforce one another. This has happened and continues to happen in a number of ways. The possibility of memorializing the genocide in Soviet Armenia reinforced the possibility of mobilizing and protesting on the issue of Karabakh. The self-determination of Nagorny Karabakh as an entity separate from Azerbaijan subsequently provided a second key moment of unity across disparate Armenian communities after genocide recognition. And the possibility of another genocide, of Armenians in Nagorny Karabakh, features prominently in Armenian understandings of dynamics and objectives in that conflict theatre.

Meanwhile, the closeness of Turkey and Azerbaijan has resulted in perceptions of Turkish-Armenian rapprochement as a threat to Azerbaijan’s interests. Thus, the football diplomacy initiative to normalize Turkish-Armenian relations in 2009-2010 failed in part because Azerbaijan perceived this as threatening to its interests and mobilized to oppose this outcome. The thinking was that Turkish-Armenian normalization, which would undermine the present Azerbaijani strategy of isolating Armenia, could not legitimately be pursued without concessions from Armenia on Nagorny Karabakh. This, although analytically Turkish-Armenian and Armenian-Azerbaijani issues can be separated, in practice these two conflict systems negatively impact and reinforce each other.

This complex thread of relationships was actually explored in an earlier documentary film project supported by Conciliation Resources, Memories Without Borders.

AK:  The film makes the point that younger generation of Armenians and Azerbaijanis have no opportunity to communicate and get to know each other. I think this is in fact the central problem. What is to be done, in your view?

LB: In an ideal world, it seems to me there are two key elements that are needed. The first is increased contact and engagement with educational resources about the conflict that encourage critical thinking. For the generation that was born during or after the Karabakh conflict, those events are learned about via school textbooks and public representations of the conflict. In today’s environment these sources tend to emphasize one-sided perspectives and often remain silent on certain events and dynamics. More materials that present a range of perspectives are needed, and which encourage critical reflection on the core issues of the conflict and the impacts of its non-resolution. When the information about the conflict is dominated by propaganda, this can turn young people off and generate indifference to the conflict and its possible resolution or transformation. The other element of course is more contact across the divide. This is extremely challenging in an environment where travel across borders is not possible. Even ambitious youth dialogue programming can only reach a tiny proportion of people. Nevertheless, we’ve seen consistently that what seem like insurmountable barriers and differences can be overcome when individuals meet one another, and realise that their hopes, aspirations and fears are similar.

AK:  If we take a view at the larger regional picture, we won’t see much communication between young people of the three South Caucasian countries either. They have more chances to befriend at events in Brussels or New York, than within the region. This brings us to a larger theme of regional integration in South Caucasus. Do you think this theme is completely passé and has no future?

LB: Whether the South Caucasus is a region has been a seminal question throughout the post-Soviet period, and I believe it will continue to be so, even if no clear answer will be forthcoming for many years. Right now, the South Caucasus offers a prominent case study for something that is in some ways the inverse of regional integration: what Anna Ohanyan calls ‘regional fracture’. Regional fracture describes regional systems that might show integration in some dimensions, but which are fundamentally fragmented in others. Different policy domains – governance, markets, security – may be vectored in multiple and competing directions, making fractured regions both vulnerable to external intervention but resistant to deep and durable hegemony by any one would-be hegemon.

Whether the South Caucasus is a region has been a seminal question throughout the post-Soviet period, and I believe it will continue to be so.

The South Caucasus is a classic example of these trends. A big part of the issue is that there is no indigenous political tradition of regionalism. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, there were only imperial geographies of the region and the extremely bloody and contested independence period of 1918-21 to go back to. As a recent special issue of the journal I edit, Caucasus Survey, highlighted, an experiment in Transcaucasian federation in April-May 1918 collapsed after less than five weeks. The USSR imposed its own conflict transformation model and a kind of forced regional unity, which ended in a violent dissolution in the early 1990s. The outcomes of those conflicts have since combined with the South Caucasus location as a kind of marchland between larger powers to embed regional fracture, sustained and deepened by the continuing threat of violence, contradictory security alignments and the securitization of cross-divide contacts.

One could thus argue that a regionalist tradition has yet to be recognized as a legitimate one locally. There has been a strong preference instead for ‘special relationships’ instead, whether this is Russia for Armenia, Turkey for Azerbaijan or the Euro-Atlantic space for Georgia. The trilateral axis between Azerbaijan, Georgia and Turkey is the main exception to this, yet this does not seem capable of generating a wider normative consensus on which to build a regional tradition.

AK:  Historical evidence proves it that in the foundation of a lasting peace lays a long-term economic interdependence. European Union, after all, emerged from the European Coal and Steel Community, and has rather quickly put an end to the centuries-old traditional fears and hostilities between European nations. Should such themes be present in the South Caucasian agenda and public discourse, in some form?

LB: I don’t think that a regional tradition will have much appeal locally for the foreseeable future. It is supremely challenging to envision today a regional framework that could both settle the normative ruptures amongst the constituent parts of the South Caucasus and generate consensus among influential outside powers. Regional fracture is consequently certainly set to continue, but it is still necessary to have a debate on the costs that this imposes. Events in any case will impose this debate, as we have seen in the questioning of bandwaggoning with external powers in the aftermath of resumptions of local conflict in South Ossetia and Nagorny Karabakh in 2008 and 2016 respectively. The Covid-19 pandemic has also reminded everyone of the regional spaces they inhabit, whether these are institutionalized as regions or not. But how that reaches up into a higher order debate on the utility of regionalism is less obvious. The European Union project was not based only on economic inter-dependence but two common and inter-related projects both in democratic governance and reconciliation. The South Caucasus is currently quite distant from being in a comparable position.

AK:  If you would like to outline the activities of your non-governmental organization and plans for your next project in South Caucasus, or add any other comments, the floor is yours.

LB: We have plans to release the full trilogy on which the Parts of a Circle: History of the Karabakh Conflict film is based in June. This will allow viewers to see the project in its entirety. I hope that this will settle some of the concerns about moments not included in the short-form summary film, as there is a lot more detail in the complete trilogy. We are currently supporting some of our partners in the South Caucasus in their efforts to contribute to community responses to Covid-19. In the future we hope to continue working on dialogue directed at both conflict resolution and the transformation of conflict, and to work seeking to document the violent past and its legacies.

AK:  I wish to thank you for making this excellent and important interview, and hope to see you before long again. And we encourage our readers to view the new documentary. Readers may add comments and impressions right here, using the form in the bottom.
*) "Dayton": The General Framework Agreement for Peace in Bosnia and Herzegovina, also known as the Dayton Agreement or the Dayton Accords, is the peace agreement reached at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base near Dayton, Ohio (USA) on 1 November 1995

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