Following Clashes on the Armenia-Azerbaijan Border, the ‘Tekali Process’ Continues
Recent clashes on the Line of Contact (LOC) separating Armenian and Azerbaijani forces have again raised concerns over the fragility of the 1994 ceasefire agreement. That should have put fighting over the disputed territory of Karabakh on hold, but with a final peace deal still elusive, thousands have been killed in cross-border skirmishes in the eighteen years since. At least three Armenian and five Azerbaijani soldiers died in the latest major skirmishes on the LOC, which reportedly included incursions into Armenia proper, while both sides blamed the other for the violence.
Coming as it did as U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited the South Caucasus at the beginning of June, some analysts and observers contend that it was a deliberate attempt to remind the international community that the Karabakh conflict most definitely was not ‘frozen.’ Alarm that a new war might break out also rattled neighboring Georgia as the number of Russian air sorties increased and Moscow announced it would double its military presence in Armenia even if others such as Richard Giragosian said they were not expecting a new premeditated offensive.
Indeed, Giragosian, who is the director of the Yerevan-based Regional Studies Center (RSC), told journalists that Azerbaijan had formulated a new military strategy to reach operational combat readiness by 2014, the 20th anniversary of the 1994 ceasefire, and not before. Nevertheless, the International Crisis Group (ICG) remains concerned that the possibility of incidents on the LOC spiraling out of control could lead to an ‘accidental war’ breaking out instead. RFE/RL puts the number of dead since June as at least 11, while the Economist reported last year that over 3,000 have died since the 1994 ceasefire.
“An arms race, escalating front-line clashes, vitriolic war rhetoric and a virtual breakdown in peace talks are increasing the chance Armenia and Azerbaijan will go back to war over Nagorno Karabakh,” noted the ICG in its report, Preventing War, published in February last year. “Increased military capabilities on both sides would make a new armed conflict in the South Caucasus far more deadly than the 1992-1994 one that ended with a shaky truce. Regional Alliances could pull in Russia, Turkey and Iran..”
The Armenian military also discounted the possibility of a new war breaking out by design, or at least in the immediate future. “As a result of evaluating the situation, we have arrived at the conclusion that the likelihood of the resumption of hostilities is low today,” Defense Minister Seyran Ohanyan told reporters as quoted by RFE/RL and other sources. “Having said that,” he added, and as the military vowed to respond to each incident by killing a larger number of Azerbaijani soldiers, “the armed forces and their leadership exist just for that and are prepared for that.”
The ‘Tekali Process’
Despite the bleak prospects for peace, however, some Armenian and Azerbaijani civil society organizations and activists reacted to the latest border violence differently than in previous years by convening a public hearing held less than two weeks later in Tekali, a small ethnic Azeri village in Georgia situated close to the border with Armenia and Azerbaijan. Planned as a regional peace keeping center in the South Caucasus, the public hearings are the brainchild of actor and director turned peace activist Georgi Vanyan.
No stranger to controversy, Vanyan is often branded a traitor, either privately by some NGOs or publicly by nationalist forces in Armenia. This was most evident in April this year when plans to screen non-politicized films from Azerbaijan were disrupted in Vanadzor and Gyumri by small groups of nationalists. Those organizing the protests were the same that have also disrupted International Women’s Day events in Yerevan as well as a recent diversity march. The group is also believed to be linked to the recent firebombing of a gay-friendly alternative bar in Yerevan.
International human rights groups decried the actions against Vanyan, which included physical assault and an attack on the Vanadzor Helsinki Citizens Assembly, as well as the involvement in Gyumri of its notorious mayor, Vartan Ghukasyan. “The history of conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan means that a film from Azerbaijan is controversial for some, but that doesn’t justify not screening the films, far less any threat or use of violence,” said Giorgi Gogia, senior South Caucasus researcher at Human Rights Watch.
“I think that real art serves the kindness, humanity and reconciliation of people, and an idea came to my mind. Why not repeat the initiative of Vanyan in Azerbaijan?” said Zardusht Alizadeh, an Azerbaijani analyst and political commentator, as well as a speaker at events held by his Armenian counterpart, in response to the reaction. Ironically, a film by Azerbaijani film director Murad Ibragimbekov was scheduled to be shown as part of the Golden Apricot Film Festival in Yerevan on July 9, raising further and more complicated questions about the coordinated campaign against Vanyan.
In Tekali, Vanyan also operates outside of the narrow boundaries set on most NGOs either by themselves or by official structures, and has to date held four public hearings in the village which have been well attended by Armenians, Azerbaijanis and Georgians. In the first event after the June clashes, and quite unlike other peace building activities which target participants almost solely from the capitals of the three countries, this also included residents of regions in Armenia and Azerbaijan directly affected by the ongoing conflict over Karabakh.
“Armenians and Azerbaijanis are human beings first of all and have a basic desire for peace. What we need to do is to initiate some kind of open discussion. Instead of organizing seminars, we talk to people in the markets, or in cultural centers,” Vanyan told this journalist in an interview in 2009. “Communication is not betrayal. It is a natural human need,” he was quoted as saying by one newspaper the same year in response to those questioning and obstructing his activities in Armenia. International organizations also stress the urgent need for more people-to-people contacts.
In Tekali, dozens of people, including Armenians from Noyemberyan, a regional center close to the location of the recent clashes, as well as Azerbaijanis from Gazakh and Ganja participated in the discussion led by three speakers each from both countries. The event was organized by the recently founded Tekali Association of Georgia, Azerbaijan’s Center of Regional Cooperation and Community Development, and Vanyan’s Caucasus Center for Peacekeeping Initiatives of Armenia. The question posed was should civil society intervene on the matter of cross-border clashes?
“Let’s try to clarify what’s going on,” said Luiza Poghosyan who considered the front line skirmishes to be tantamount to an act of ‘terrorism’ against the populations of both countries. “Personally, I see no logical sense in the fire exchanges on the front. Human losses do not bring any tactical success to any of the parties.”
“Has civil society done anything effective yet?” asked Azerbaijan Academy of Science Department head Ali Abbasov rhetorically. “The answer is no. They are distanced from the negotiations, but civil society can and must say its piece,” he said.
“We have been living [with] the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict for 24 years already. That conflict has inflicted many wounds on our peoples and erected many barriers and psychological obstacles between them. Who benefits from ceasefire violations?” added Mahram Toyaşoğlu from a regional Azerbaijani NGO in Gazakh.
Speaking to Ararat Magazine following the public discussion, Vanyan was pleased with the results of the meeting. “The speakers touched on the problem of a mechanism through which each could participate in the prevention of incidents on the Line of Contact,” he said. “It was also noted that the Tekali format is suitable to make the first steps such as establishing contact on both sides of the conflict as well as to consider further actions. It was decided that a Monitoring and Rapid Reaction Group on the Line of Contact should be established.”
“In the opinion of the participants,” wrote Azerbaijani journalist and analyst Ilgar Velizade in a blog post days later, “society has, to this day, taken no steps to end hostilities, and remains far removed from what goes on at the border. […] Armenian and Azerbaijani civil society organizations now need to cooperate with one another in order to resolve the situation. […] the meeting in Tekali demonstrated once more the Armenian and Azerbaijani public desire for peace to be established in the conflict zone as quickly as possible [...]. As we say, hope never dies. ”
Whether that intent is as widespread, as Velizade says or as much as Vanyan hopes, remains to be seen, but the first meeting to establish the Monitoring and Rapid Reaction Group was held in Tekali on July 21. Present were representatives from the NGOs and the International Crisis Group. So too were Bernard O’Sullivan and Stephen Young from the Brussels-based Nonviolent Peaceforce, an organization already working in Georgia, Mindanao/Philippines, South Sudan, and elsewhere. O’Sullivan spoke to Ararat Magazine following the public discussion.
“The Tekali Process first of all attracts our interest because clearly people have a need for civil society to act amongst and protect themselves,” he said. “However, we work on the principle of acceptance. We only go to conflict zones where we’re accepted and obviously this includes civil society, but critically it also means the political leadership, i.e. the governments, of all sides. What will come out of the Tekali Process? I see there is very good will here. The Tekali group said it’s not in their interest to get involved in military or political outcomes, but it is for civilians across ethnic groups to protect themselves in a non-violent way. That’s why we’re very interested.”