Nagorno-Karabakh’s deep divide

EurasiaNet Organization
July 16 2004

A EurasiaNet Photo Essay by Daniel Gerstle: 7/16/04

Nagorno-Karabakh is arguably the most intractable of all the
conflicts that accompanied the collapse of the Soviet Union. [For
background see the EurasiaNet Insight archive]. International efforts
to broker a lasting peace have focused mainly on pressing the
governments of Armenia and Azerbaijan to find a political compromise.
But another serious obstacle, one that hasn’t received much
attention, is connected with public attitudes; the lack of contact
among Armenians and Azeris. Feelings of mutual hostility have reached
a point where many on both sides believe the chances are slim that a
future settlement leads to the reintegration. The images in this
photo essay attempt to explore the popular mood in Karabakh.

The Karabakh War, which lasted from 1988-1994, left over 25,000
people dead and caused the displacement of hundreds of thousands of
Azeris and Armenians. Since the declaration of a ceasefire, there has
been virtually no inter-ethnic communication on the local level. Most
teenagers on both sides of the frontline cannot recall ever having a
conversation with a member of the opposite ethnic community. In the
words of journalist Thomas de Wall — author of Black Garden: Armenia
and Azerbaijan Through Peace and War, a history of the Karabakh
conflict – Armenians and Azeris have become “hermetically sealed off”
from each other.

Recent visits with families, veterans, and soldiers on both sides
confirmed the existence of a deep public divide. People in the region
have nearly identical views about the conflict, except that the
“bad-guy” role is played by those of the opposing ethnicity. [For
background see the EurasiaNet Insight archive].

Pensioners tend to comment most on existing economic hardships,
recalling that living standards were much better during the Soviet
era. Meanwhile, those who fought in the conflict often recount war
stories – some involving survival against overwhelming odds. The
strongest opinions are, not so surprisingly, expressed by young boys
and soldiers who have few memories from before the conflict. They are
the primary consumers of more extreme views shared in political media
and teahouse conversations – that their ethnic group narrowly survived
what is perceived as an attempted genocide. They also believe that
only enforced separation from the other group can protect their
families from an on-going threat.

It is clear that for any eventual peace deal to work, far-reaching
and enduring programs to restore mutual trust between Armenians and
Azeris will be needed.

Editor’s Note: Daniel J Gerstle is a Summer Research Fellow covering
the Caucasus and Central Asia for the Harriman Institute and the
Center for International Conflict Resolution at Columbia University.