Alternative and Counter Narratives in the Nagorno Karabakh Conflict

16.7 km south of Lachin © Onnik James Krikorian 2000

No sooner than I’m back from Yerevan, where I presented my work on alternative and counter narratives in the context of the Nagorno Karabakh conflict and Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) in general, than yet another exchange of fire has left innocent civilians dead on the Line of Contact (LoC) separating Karabakh forces, which include a significant number of conscripts from Armenia, and the Azerbaijani military.

As usual, emotions were high on both sides following the violence and also as usual, nationalist and extremist voices attempted to drown out any voices of reason who instead called for progress in negotiations to end a conflict that has gone on for way too long. Thousands of lives have been lost since a 1994 ceasefire agreement that has been anything but.

Nevertheless, those voices of reason did exist and were more open than before. This is particularly relevant given that most of those voices are from a generation that has had little or no contact with the other side throughout their entire lives and also because anything that departs from the official line in both Armenia and Azerbaijan is considered tantamount to treason. 

The situation also reminded me of the importance of alternative and counter narratives, the subject of my presentations at the Local Roots of Global Peace conference organized by the Eurasia Partnership Foundation and Stonehill College given that most reactions to skirmishes on the frontline are often knee jerk or nationalist in nature. Even worse, many on both sides continue to dehumanize the other and end up inadvertently dehumanizing themselves in the process.

Freud once argued that the smaller the difference between two people the larger it was bound to loom in their imagination. He called this effect the narcissism of minor difference. Its corollary must be that enemies need each other to remind themselves of who they really are. A Croat, thus, is someone who is not a Serb. A Serb is someone who is not a Croat. Without hatred of the other, there would be no clearly defined national self to worship and adore.

– Michael Ignatieff, Blood and Belonging

Yet, in neighboring Georgia, few ethnic Armenians and Azeris are adversely influenced by the nationalist rhetoric that has defined identity in both countries. Instead, recognizing more in common with each other than any differences, they tend to form more intercommunal relations with each other than they do with Georgians and and also remind us of how things used to be before the conflict broke out.

Such alternative narratives, or what Thomas de Waal calls a third narrative of peace, are vital given that few in either Armenia or Azerbaijan can remember when coexistence was the norm. Moreover, there appears to be an urgent need to counter the nationalist narratives currently in play in both societies that seeks to block out this more positive historical memory.

Move outside the conflict zone and these hidden signs of compatibility come out into the open. In the territory of Georgia, Armenian and Azeri villagers live side by side. There is trade and even inter-marriage. Armenians and Azerbaijanis often prefer to do business with each other than with Georgians.

We hear far too little of what I call this “third narrative” of the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict, a narrative of peace. It spins the idea that the two peoples are capable of getting along fine, have lived together in the past and, if politicians are able to overcome differences on the Karabakh conflict, can live together in the future. International mediators are too timid to speak this narrative or feel that it is not their business. The media in both countries suppresses it.

– Thomas de Waal, Caucasus Conflict Voices

As we’ve discovered in the area of Countering Violent Extremism (CVE), however, countering an extremist narrative is not necessarily productive. It has its place, of course, and must happen, but it always means that those predisposed to the idea of peace are constantly pursuing the nationalist narrative rather than leading the conversation instead.  

Both alternative and counter narratives are therefore necessary and it is the former which arguably has more resonance among the masses.

My two presentations, one on ethnic Armenian and Azeri coexistence in Georgia, and the second on alternative and counter narratives in general, including in the area of CVE, are embedded below. Incidentally, the first starts with a photograph of Azerbaijani POWs and civilian hostages that I took while on assignment in Nagorno Karabakh for The Independent newspaper in 1994.

Back then, when people could actually remember that the conflict was often between neighbors, one memory stands out most clearly – that of ethnic Armenian and Azerbaijani kids playing together in the same area where the latter were being held hostage along with their mother. Quite simply, it was impossible to tell them apart and it’s this reality that people should strive to return to.

Until then, children have been among the latest victims of a conflict that holds back not only the development of Armenia and Azerbaijan, but also the entire region. And just as there’s the need for counter narratives in CVE, there’s also the same need in this conflict. Interestingly, the psychology and narratives behind violent extremist rhetoric are not dissimilar to those driving nationalists here.

Leave a comment