How can we move on from this impasse? It is often claimed that while elites are ready for compromise, societies are not. This is misleading: one of the key shortcomings of the Karabakh peace process has been the underestimation of the role of societies in conflict and the role played by elites in ensuring that societies are not ready for compromise. In the current context, the establishment of mutual contacts between the two societies (those of the NKR and Azerbaijan) is especially important for the confidence-building needed for progress in the peace process.
Mediators have all but ignored this highly significant aspect of the task they face. It is, however, gratifying to observe a more serious approach to this issue in the societies themselves. Murad Petrosian, Karabakh politician and editor of the newspaper What is to be done? has observed:
“ If the construction of peace begins…without fundamental changes in public consciousness, then this edifice – even if replete with a roof – sooner or later will share the fate of the Palestinian peace. … The key to real peace for Armenians lies not in the ruling elite of Azerbaijan but in Azerbaijani public consciousness; likewise for Azerbaijanis, the key lies in the public consciousness of Armenians.”
Outwardly it appears that Azerbaijani society is not ready for conciliation, but this reflects the position of the Azerbaijani political establishment rather than public opinion. A few years ago I was part of a group of Karabakh Armenian journalists visiting Baku and we encountered more constructive views among Azerbaijanis. The atmosphere surrounding our visit was very tense, as the newspaper headlines from the day of our arrival attest: “Armenian terrorists in Baku”. We nonetheless asked if it could be arranged for us to meet some ordinary citizens, and after long deliberations our security escort agreed that we could venture out into a crowded street in central Baku and talk with the first passers-by we encountered. Nine out of the ten we spoke to received us cordially, speaking calmly about the conflict and their problems. Only one of the ten threatened us with vengeance.
The media can play an enormous role in objectively portraying the Karabakh conflict and peace process, and in rejecting ‘enemy’ stereotypes. However, while governments have it within their power to influence public opinion and to prepare the ground for inevitable compromises, they fear that a developing civil society and media could empower ‘underground’ (i.e. real) public opinion vis-à-vis the political establishment. Thus elites maintain a propaganda war, most graphically illustrated by media approaches in Azerbaijan. Leading media, especially television, are government-controlled (as they are in Armenia) and project the ruling elite’s views masquerading as public opinion. In Armenia and Karabakh the media have until recently resisted the propaganda war, although certain symptoms have appeared suggesting that the Armenian media have taken up the challenge. This was evident in the reactions of some Armenian media to the brutal murder of an Armenian officer by an Azerbaijani counterpart in Budapest, Hungary, in 2004, leading some to claim the ‘genetic incompatibility’ of the two peoples. Nothing has changed in the Karabakh media, yet the authorities reproach journalists for their ‘pacifist’ leanings at a time when Azerbaijani journalists are banging the war drum.