Building Peace in the South Caucasus
To this American previously unfamiliar with the South Caucasus, the first feeling upon arrival in Azerbaijan is a sense of growth and industry. Brightly-lit buildings line the road from the airport to Baku. Arresting new developments like the trio of “flame tower” skyscrapers seem designed to impress visitors and locals alike with a sense of prosperity and stability.
One week later, reflecting on a whirlwind tour that also included visits to Tbilisi and Yerevan, the Baku landscape seems to be a fitting physical reflection of the general contemporary Azerbaijani self-perception: that the country will continue expand its dominance in the South Caucasus and importance in the larger world, fueled by the oil wealth flowing from Caspian Basin.
This feeling of pride and inevitability emerged in many interactions with Azerbaijanis from across the political and societal spectrum. Meeting with representatives from Azerbaijani government, political opposition, and civil society of course yields a predictable range of opinions on a host of issues. Persistent corruption across many sectors of Azerbaijan society, ongoing challenges to democratization in a modernizing society, wealth distribution and the penetration of wealth beyond elites and beyond cities, media independence, and the rights and responsibilities of opposition political parties are all burning questions central to the country’s development towards its stated goal of a stable and legitimate democracy.
But it is worth noting that all of these issues and more are being discussed, evidence of a new and welcome self-reflection in Azerbaijan. Some observers paint a relatively improving picture of the situation, pointing to economic growth as mostly a boon to Azeri society. U.S. Ambassador to Baku Matthew Bryza is quick to point out that even if the current poverty rate is double the official figure of 9.1%, Azerbaijan has still managed to reduce that figure from a staggering 49% since 2003. This is an impressive improvement, to be sure, and to some it signals a step in the right direction for broader inclusion of the poorer provinces in the civil discourse. Nagorno-Karabakh remains a consuming issue, perhaps the more so as a result of the Azerbaijanis’ growing wealth and self-confidence.
Meanwhile, Armenia suffers from a diminishing population and economic stagnation. This stark contrast feeds a narrative of the inevitability of Azeri preeminence in the region and eventual recapture of the disputed territory. There is widespread agreement among Azerbaijanis on their country’s historical and moral claims to Nagorno-Karabakh, and with time the divisions continue to widen between ethnic Azerbaijanis and Armenians who once lived peacefully as neighbors. Many Armenian children in Nagorno-Karabakh have likely never met an Azerbaijani person. The converse is true of the children of displaced Azerbaijanis from the region, and contentious media reporting from both sides only hinders efforts at confidence-building.
Despite hardening perceptions among the population and halting progress under the OSCE Minsk Process, led by France, Russia, and the United States, people still hope for an eventual rapprochement and peaceful resolution of this so-called “frozen conflict.” Efforts on the grassroots level in Azerbaijan to build public trust in the Minsk Process and to foster relationships between Azerbaijanis and Armenians are ongoing. Activities organized primarily by the Azerbaijani displaced community itself through non-governmental organizations such as the Azerbaijan Committee of Helsinki Citizens Assembly (ANC-HCA) and the Centre for Effective Initiatives (CEI) support peace-building and intercultural dialogue as part of their efforts to strengthen Azeri civil society.
Efforts like these have the potential to help prepare the public for the complex business of rapprochement by rebuilding familiarity and trust in the other side, but their capacity is limited. NGOs must be government-sanctioned to operate in Azerbaijan, and indeed they often receive small amounts of government support. A more robust presence of the right kinds of NGOs could help build the capacity of civil society to work not only towards their national democratic aspirations, but also towards peace between the two countries. As has been seen elsewhere, fostering dialogue on the community level that cuts beneath the strata of internationally-brokered negotiation can play a key role in laying the foundations for peace.
Andrew Fishbein is a Program Officer with the Congressional Affairs program of the German Marshall Fund in Washington, DC.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.