Settlement of Karabakh conflict ruled out as long as ‘mutual concessions’ perceived as loss – expert

14:32 • 16.11.16

In an interview with, Philip Gamaghelyan, the co-founder and director of programs at the Imagine Center for Conflict Transformations and adjunct professor at the School of International Service at the American University of Washington DC, commented upon the repeated calls for “mutual concessions” over Nagorno-Karabakh and the general attitude toward the concessions in the Armenian and Azerbaijani societies.

According to him, a breakthrough in the conflict settlement talks cannot be achieved as long as the mutual concessions are equated to a loss in the perception of both countries.

Mr. Gamaghelyan, despite the widely discussed “peace negotiations” and the conflict settlement projects that seemed to be under way, the war in April became inevitable. What do you think caused that? Was there no other option for resolving the conflict?

2008-2011 was the period most conducive for the resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. [Dmitry] Medvedev and [Barack] Obama, then the newly elected presidents of Russia and the United States, made some genuine efforts toward advancing a settlement. It was a rare period, not seen since 2000, when the favorable geopolitical environment provided an opening for the Armenians and the Azerbaijanis to decide on their own future. Doing that, of course, would require a meaningful cooperation and mutual concessions. And, undoubtedly, those concessions were to be painful for both sides. Moreover, in the absence of external factors, I would say these concessions could be considered unacceptable. But we are small states, and the influence of external factors on small states is always significant. The failure of the Armenian and the Azerbaijani sides to find a common ground when there was an opening, turned us into playing cards at the hands of others contributing to a gradual weakening of our sovereignty. This and other painful consequences of our inability to resolve the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict are now clearly visible.

I would think that your “Dialogue ” projects were implemented and continue being implemented before and after April? What do you think are the relations between the two societies before and after the confrontation? What are their wishes?

I cannot make a judgement about the relations between the two societies based on the impressions I got from only a few groups. The societies are never homogeneous, and there may be profound disagreements within them. As for the groups I have worked with since April 2016: some people are disappointed in “the other side”, and the level of mistrust is once again very high; they think that a war is inevitable. Others are disappointed in their own governments that over decades proved unable or unwilling to find a solution to this and other problems, putting their societies, and especially young men, at risk. The others find that this is not the time to be disappointed or despaired, as the future cannot be surrendered to nationalists and to perpetual warfare, and they believe that it is necessary to work even more persistently towards solutions. Among my Armenian and Azerbaijani colleagues, this latter view is prevalent.


You had mentioned in the past that during such meetings there are also political proposals voiced among others. What remarkable political proposals were made, in your view, in regard to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict settlement talks and that would be practical in terms of paving way for a success?


The meetings that we organize are not aimed at finding a political solution. The problem is that the Armenian and the Azerbaijani governments have monopolized the work toward the political settlement. They make it very clear that they have no desire to listen to the civil society or academia, despite the international experience showing that any successful peace process relies heavily on civil society and academia for paving the way for a sustainable solution. With this ineffective government monopoly persisting, the focus of our work is on the transformation of the conflict and not on political solution or settlement. Now, how are these two different?


The concept of a political solution, I would think, is obvious. It implies a signed political document that details the commitments taken upon themselves by the governments and that clearly outlines the implementation steps and its control mechanisms. Conflict transformation – and our organization is called Imagine Center for Conflict Transformation – starts by admitting that no sustainable political solution is possible in the atmosphere of deteriorated relations, fear, and deep distrust. Hence, we work toward a step-by-step transformation of relations.


We work in such political discourse creating spheres as are media, history and social science education, conflict analysis etc. In their everyday work, these spheres are responsible for the reproduction of the enemy images and the myth of “innate hatred” between the Armenians and the Azerbaijanis; they persuade us in the hopelessness of the situation and the inevitability of the perpetual war. If we look from the lens of conflict transformation, there are numerous possible political proposals.


These proposals relate to the development of freedom of press and to other processes of democratization; to the modernization and liberalization of history and social science education; to the development of an inclusive society committed to protection of minority rights; to the end of calls for violence, etc. For instance, as long as the minorities in Armenia and Azerbaijan do not feel as equal citizens, or as the refugees displaced from their homes more than 20 years ago are still not able to return, it is hard to imagine the Armenian and the Azerbaijani societies with their history of mutual violence coexisting in one territory. Yet any peaceful solution to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict implies, in one form or another, such coexistence. Summing up, we need a comprehensive strategy for building political, legal, social and discourse foundations on which a political agreement can stand. And yes, enough experience has been accumulated in the realm of the international civil society and academia in designing and implementing conflict transformation agendas. 

A few years ago you noted that the NK peace process was conducted with the mid-20th century methods, with no modern methods employed. What is your opinion of the negotiating process after the April war? Talking of the Armenian side, what is its conduct in the negotiating process? Can it adequately represent our interests at the negotiating table?

Back in the mid-20th century the wars were understood to be a mere intra-states affair. The solutions, respectively, were seen to be either a comprehensive defeat and colonization of one by the other or an official negotiating process. The Nagorno-Karabakh peace process today follows these same two scenarios: either one has to crash and subdue the other or the top officials have to resolve the problem between themselves.

It has been at least 50 years, however, since we understood that wars seldom break out or end at one official’s whim. Fortunately, we do not live in the era of monarchs. Conflict today is seen as a much more complex phenomenon. I have mentioned already that beside the political dimension, it also involves discursive, legal, historiographic or interpretative (rather than historical) dimensions, the economic one and many others. Yet in the NK conflict context we are focused only on political and doing seldom if any work in these other dimensions. There is no foundation being laid for a transformation of relations and an eventual solution.

In regard to the post-April negotiation process: there is no negotiation process. There has not been any meaningful negotiation process since the Kazan Summit. Instead, we have a working group focused on averting, or at least delaying, the large-scale war. Neither the Armenian nor the Azerbaijani side has since 2001 made any step to find common ground and both preferred to meaningful negotiations their imitation.

As to whether the Armenian government is capable of presenting our interests at the negotiating table: if our interest is to retain the status quo in Nagorno-Karabakh irrespective of the cost, even if the cost is the possible loss of Armenia’s sovereignty, the answer is yes. If, however, our interests are the sustainable peace, security, independence and prosperity for Artsakh’s and Armenia’s populations, then the answer is a resounding no. The common today in Armenia jokes about the “vanishing of the foreign ministry”, or, in other words, the lack a discernable and pro-active foreign policy strategy since 2010, are the reflection of this inadequacy.

Let us talk about the format of negotiations through the mediation of the OSCE Minsk Group. Do you think it is adequate? And are the mediators on the right track to avert confrontation?

The OSCE Minsk Group was a rather successful mediating structure during its first 10-15 years. The United States, Russia, and France (the latter also represented the EU) were the countries whose support could guarantee (and fund) the successful implementation of any possible agreement. In these years the co-chair countries cooperated in the international arena, and when they had disagreements - these did not apply to their positions in regard to the Nagorno-Karabakh settlement. Moreover, as I mentioned above, in 2008-2011 the US, France and, first of all Russia, invested political capital at the presidential level to advance the settlement. The Presidents Sargsyan and Aliyev did not recognize or use this opportunity. Since 2012, both the US and France (and by extension the EU) have shown very little interest in a pro-active engagement. Today Nagorno-Karabakh slipped so low on their agendas that the meetings on the topic attract barely a dozen of experts and policy makers in Washington or Brussels. Further, the relations between Russia and the West have grown hostile to a degree that it is hard to imagine a comprehensive cooperation between the co-chairs. The role of the US in the South Caucasus is likely to diminish even further, following Donald Trump’s election, while Russia’s role will continue growing. The latter looks poised, once again, to assume the role of a regional hegemon. The OSCE Minsk Group still plays an important role, averting the large-scale war. However, with each passing year it is playing this role less and less effectively. As to a real and comprehensive peace process: it is in an obvious need in new and creative formats.

In the Nagorno-Karabakh peace process, “mutual concessions” are equated with a loss or defeat. The Madrid and Kazan principles have been looked upon unfavorably since the April war. The status of Nagorno-Karabakh and the return of territories is a subject of most heated debates. Where are these debates leading to? Given the current developments, what should we expect from the future?

True, today both the Armenian and the Azerbaijani societies perceive concessions as a loss. The mutuality is lost, making the settlement unattainable. We have no vision nor (let’s not be afraid of this word) a dream of an alternative future – independent, prosperous and sustainably secure, in a neighborhood of Caucasus states living in harmony. For centuries the Europeans destroyed each other in wars, all while having no dream and perceiving concessions as a loss. Eventually, the vision of the European Union enabled them to see in mutual concessions not as a loss but an investment into mutual confidence, into the foundation on which they build a common future.


Hripsime Hovhannisyan


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