New Structures, Old Foundations. State Capacities for Peace

Accord. An International Review of Peace Initiatives. Issue 17. London: Conciliation Resources, 2005.

New structures, old foundationsNew structures, old foundationsstate capacities for peace

Hratch Tchilingirian

Both Armenia and Azerbaijan are characterized by
a number of deficiencies in terms of their
democratic transitions. Yet it would be a mistake
to attribute them to the Karabakh conflict and its
consequences. Other post-Soviet states lacking
secessionist conflicts do not exhibit superior
democratic credentials, as the examples of Belarus or
Turkmenistan demonstrate. Rather, the absence of
desired levels of democratic development in Armenia,
Azerbaijan and other states in the region is due to a
combination of regime-induced and inherited systemic
problems. Consideration of these problems is relevant
because, as case studies have shown, states well
endowed with popular mandates and substantive
democracy are more likely to provide longer-term
solutions to armed conflicts.

Dilemmas of charismatic leadership

After a decade of peace talks since the ceasefire of May
1994, the statements of the presidents of Azerbaijan
and Armenia are telling. Speaking in September 2005
President Ilham Aliyev made it very clear: “We are
creating a strong military potential, and the enemy
must know that Azerbaijan is capable of liberating its
lands at any moment”, adding that Baku is doubling its
military budget in 2006 to about US$600 million. His
Armenian counterpart, Robert Kocharian, former
president and a native of Karabakh, put it more bluntly:
“Nagorno-Karabakh has never been part of Azerbaijan
and never will be. This is the bottom line. Beyond [that]
one can think of some solutions and invent new
statuses”. To the disappointment of most mediators and
outside observers, these statements are not utterances
merely for domestic audiences, but a reflection of
where the political leaders stand.

Such deterministic views on the part of political leaders
have had a great impact on public perceptions. Indeed,
the over-dependence on and centrality of individual
leaders – rather than institutions and wider society – in
resolving the conflict is a major part of the problem.
For instance, in 2002 Heydar Aliyev claimed: “If I cannot
resolve the Karabakh problem then no one in the world
will resolve it”. Similarly, many think Karabakh-natives
Kocharian or Serzh Sarkisian, Armenia’s Defence
Minister, are the only people who can ‘sell’ an
agreement to Armenians. Since the end of the Soviet
Union, virtually all the countries emerging as
independent states are run by various kinds of
‘charismatic authority’. As the German Sociologist Max
Weber defined it, charisma is “a character specifically
foreign to everyday routine structures” of governing,
based on “the validity and practice of personal
qualities” rather than set rules. This implies a lack of
strong state institutions, low and slow levels of
democratic development, a crude political environment
and related structural capacity problems. Indeed,
charismatic authority in these newly emerged republics
has put the independence of the various branches of
government into question: neither the legislative nor
the judiciary branches are independent from the
influences of the executive.

In terms of conflict resolution, the question is whether
a charismatically led state with critical structural
weaknesses – such as Azerbaijan, Armenia or Georgia –
is in a position to resolve conflicts within its borders and
offer the necessary guarantees of rights to its former
autonomous regions. Leadership and governance
problems and the lack of structural capacity are
compounded by the absence of convincing plans
for resolution of the conflict. The lack of a ‘sellable’
proposal as to how Azerbaijan intends to reintegrate
the Armenians of Karabakh into the Republic of
Azerbaijan has pushed Karabakh Armenians further
away from such a ‘reunion’. Since the ceasefire in 1994,
Baku has not provided credible guarantees or tolerant
democracy even within Azerbaijan. If a government is
not willing to tolerate political opposition inside the
country, its capacity to deal constructively with the
‘enemy’ outside is clearly in question. Other than the
promise to grant ‘high autonomy’ to Karabakh,
Azerbaijan has not elaborated on the specifics of what
it is willing to offer, nor is there any public discussion of
what autonomy would mean for the granting state and
how would it benefit the receiving society. This lack of
public discourse on the promised autonomy and its
benefits – coupled with continued bellicose statements
by senior government officials in Baku – gives little
reason for the Karabakh Armenians to trust Azerbaijani
intentions. Instead, the lack of seriousness with which
proposals for self-government are treated has
contributed to Karabakh’s growing integration with
Armenia in recent years.

The ‘Karabakh factor’ in Armenian politics

Armenia also suffers from ‘charismatic authority’, the
ramifications of which have played out differently. The
‘Karabakh card’ has been variously used and exploited
by opposition parties in Armenia to denounce the
ruling regimes. The most well known case is the forced
resignation of Levon Ter-Petrossian, who was accused
of defeatist policies on Karabakh by a large spectrum of
political parties and former allies. In recent years,
President Kocharian’s credentials as Karabakh ‘war hero’
have not allowed him to escape criticism that under his
presidency the conflict between Karabakh and
Azerbaijan has been transformed into a bilateral conflict
between Armenia and Azerbaijan, with Karabakh
sidelined in the negotiations process. As expressed by
opposition party leader Stepan Demirchian, the fear is
that Armenia might thus be forced to make territorial
concessions to Azerbaijan (for example, by ceding parts
of Armenia’s southernmost Meghri region). The
argument is that Armenia’s sovereign territory should
not be subject to negotiations, a position held by both
opposition parties and those in the ruling coalition.
However, the lines between differences over
methodologies of conflict resolution and outright
criticism of the sitting regime are often blurred. Because
opposition parties generally lack broad political bases,
their political activity tends to focus solely on criticism
of the ruling authorities. Yet their criticisms of the
government have been ineffective and do not offer
viable alternative political or economic policies for
Armenia or for the resolution of the Karabakh conflict.
Their scattered public support is less in recognition
of their policies or ideology than an expression of
dissatisfaction with the Kocharian government. As in
Azerbaijan, there is no margin in the political arena for
positions associated with compromise. No party in
Armenia would want to appear to be ‘giving up’
Karabakh; when ‘moderates’ refer to ‘territorial
concessions’ similar to the ‘land for peace’ approach in
Israel, it is the return of occupied Azerbaijani territories
outside Karabakh, not Karabakh itself, that is implied.
The Armenian diaspora, although expressing growing
dissatisfaction with Kocharian’s government over
corruption, protection of legal rights and a host of
socio-economic problems, has on the whole been
supportive of Karabakh’s bid for separation from
Azerbaijan, especially through large financial assistance
programs. Armenia and Karabakh have also benefited
immensely from the lobbying efforts of diaspora
communities in the US, Europe and Russia. However,
it is important to note that lobbying efforts are
conducted in coordination with Yerevan and
Stepanakert, and that the diaspora as such does not
represent a different agenda or “vision” for Karabakh.
Just as with Armenian-Turkish relations, it is very
unlikely that the diaspora would interfere with the
Armenian government’s or Karabakh Armenians’
policies vis-à-vis Azerbaijan. While certain groups in
the diaspora might disagree with the terms of an
eventual peace agreement, by and large Armenian-
Azerbaijani relations and the resolution of the conflict
are considered as matters best decided by the societies
affected by it.

Exclusionary politics

The personalization of politics and government has
also contributed to extreme forms of ‘othering’: that is,
the demonization and exclusion of the ‘other group’,
whether Armenians in Azerbaijan or Azerbaijanis in
Armenia and Karabakh. This has been an overlooked
aspect of the conflicts in the Caucasus. The conflicts in
this region are primarily rooted in problems of
restructuring of minority-majority relations and not
necessarily the ‘historical’ animosities often presented
in the media. The ‘othering’ discourse makes the
relationship of the minority (Karabakh Armenians)
with the majority (Azerbaijanis) even more tenuous.
President Kocharian, for instance, said in January 2003:
“The Armenian pogroms in Sumgait and Baku,
and the attempts at mass military deportation
of Armenians from Karabakh in 1991-92
indicate the impossibility for Armenians to live
in Azerbaijan in general. We are talking about
some sort of ethnic incompatibility…”
His Azerbaijani counterpart at the time, Heydar Aliyev,
was just as undiplomatic when he claimed in 2001 that,
“Armenian aggressors do not differ in any way from
Hitler’s armies, from German fascism”.

Such a discourse overshadows centuries of neighbourly
relations among diverse peoples in this region.
Especially in recent years, the positive aspects of
relations between ethnic groups have rarely been
discussed in the societies of the South Caucasus. Only
when outsiders or journalists ask do individuals tend to
recount examples or experiences of good relationships
with the ‘other’.

Beyond the structural weaknesses of the metropolitan
states and the lack of convincing offers for reintegration
of the former autonomies, the ideological and social
discourse of ‘othering’ presents the most formidable
problem to conflict resolution. If a lasting peace is
ultimately a process of reconciliation between societies,
it is imperilled by the persistent demonization of the
‘other’ prevalent in the South Caucasus. For the
Azerbaijanis, the ‘othering’ discourse is rooted in the
sense of military defeat, loss of territory, socioeconomic
conditions and, most importantly, the plight
of the nearly 800,000 refugees and internally displaced
persons (IDPs). The frustration and the enormous
problems the refugees and IDPs face in their daily lives
present powerful emotional and political bases of
‘othering’. The Armenian discourse of ‘othering’ is
primarily rooted in a sense of national victimhood and
irredentism rooted in the memory and fear of genocide,
both in history and modern times. Further, Armenians
popularly equate Azerbaijanis with ‘Turks’, thus
transferring the historical animosity towards Turkey
to Azerbaijanis.

The issue is not whether the ‘othering’ discourse is
justified or whether there are legitimate reasons for
such a discourse, but its sociological implications for
conflict resolution. Crucially, the strict us-them divide,
as well as the process of projecting individual acts or
particular events on entire populations, makes the
peaceful resolution of the conflict increasingly
unlikely. Instead the extreme ‘othering’ discourse has
led to more militancy in societies that under such
circumstances are far from engaging in a process of

New structures, old foundations

Resolving decades-long conflicts has proven to be
complex and difficult for far more developed states
and fully-fledged democracies such as Israel and
Cyprus, let alone developing states such as Armenia
and Azerbaijan. The state restructuring process and
the modernization of state and government from the
remnants of the former system is still ongoing in the
South Caucasus. One generalization that could be
made is that statehood – or the determination of type
of statehood – is still evolving. More than a decade
after independence, the question whether to have a
presidential or parliamentary model of statehood is still
actively debated in Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia.
The constitutions of the three republics are still being
amended and reshaped. The make up, sphere of
competencies and ethics of the civil service are still
under discussion. These questions are also prevalent in
Karabakh (and the region’s other de facto states), but
with one important difference: due to international
non-recognition and a dire need for essential resources,
the question in Stepanakert is about the level and
intensity of integration with Armenia.

The radical restructuring of former power relations
between the autonomous regions and the
metropolitan states, and the de facto ‘new order’ that
exists in Karabakh comprise the first phase of the
reorganization of the state in the South Caucasus.
However, while externally the new order has not been
internationally legitimated, the most essential feature of
the independence of the former Soviet autonomies is
the comprehensive redrawing of political, social,
economic and national boundaries. For the elite and
society of Karabakh, this is the most significant
achievement of independence. As far as they are
concerned, Karabakh Armenians are no longer a
minority in a titular state, but the majority in a
restructured state. They are no longer dependent on
decisions made in distant centres of power, but decide
upon their own course of action.

Given this context, compromises and accommodations
agreed upon by the parties require basic structural
capacities that a granting and receiving entity must
have. The question is whether a still-evolving state
possesses such stable structures. It is important to
distinguish the internal and external bases of structural
weaknesses. Internally, the starting point of state
rebuilding is the dilapidated infrastructure inherited
from Soviet times: South Caucasian states are engaged
in a process of building new structures on old
foundations. For the de facto states, structural
weaknesses are largely due to external factors, the
most critical of which are the lack of formal
international support, foreign investment, aid for
rebuilding infrastructure, communications with the
outside world (especially in information and
technology) and substantial assistance for
development of civil society. The denial of such
international assistance and engagement,
notwithstanding the work of NGOs, is meant to punish
secessionism and somehow force a negotiated end to
the conflict. But this has had other consequences:
deepening isolation and a reinforcement of suspicions
that the international community is not impartial and
favours the position of the metropolitan states.

Minorities in autonomous republics were not regarded
primarily as citizens of the majority’s state, but defined
by the majority as the ‘other’: the Armenians were
‘non-Azeris’, ‘settlers’ or ‘latecomers’ in the majority’s
state. With independence, minorities now see
themselves as having eliminated the ‘social control’ of
the majority, the heavy burden of being the ‘other’. If
Cyprus and Palestine/Israel are any indication, the
resolution of the conflicts in the South Caucasus will
take a very long time. Mediation and efforts to find
solutions should not only look for political will and a
sellable agreement, but an understanding of leadership
and structural capacity, democratic development and
inter- and intra-society discourses.

(Issue Table of Content).


Hratch Tchilingirian
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