Those who follow the South Caucasus are familiar with missed opportunities and have become accustomed to disappointment. One promising effort after another towards regional normalization involving Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Turkey has come and gone without conclusive results. Notable initiatives such as the Key West Accords in 2001, the Turkey-Armenia Protocols of 2009, and the “Basic Principles” of 2011 all promised dramatic progress but failed for one reason or another.
The fraught realities of the region complicate these efforts. Yet, one thing is clear: conflict, hatred, and mistrust do not serve the interests and well-being of the region or its people. Incremental momentum toward long-term peace through shared commitment, patience, and mutual respect by all parties is necessary.
A series of positive statements from Ankara, Baku, and Yerevan pointing to a shared desire for normalization have recently raised hopes that the opportunity to achieve reconciliation in the region may once again be within reach. As former representatives of our respective countries in Armenia and Azerbaijan, we welcome these efforts. Past failures remind us of the need to be cautious but there may be reason for optimism now, particularly since this time, the leaders of Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Turkey all seem to be signaling their readiness for progress.
Top-down messaging is critical for progress and official circles and diplomats naturally strive for summit talks and agreements among leaders. Any positive development coming from the perches of power in key capitals should be welcomed. But at the same time, watching passively as top-down efforts unfold is risky and could potentially lead to renewed disappointment. High-level talks invariably set the stage for progress but are often not enough on their own. Especially in circumstances where an evolutionary process of healing is needed, lasting solutions can only be achieved with the support of grassroots efforts.
People to People Ties Change Minds
As work continues through official channels, opportunities to systematically set up people-to-people organizations, events, and activities are necessary to change the dynamics of this difficult region. Only when there is progress in breaking down the hatred and suspicions of its people will there be hope for sustainable progress toward normalization and eventual reconciliation. This will require everyone, from the leadership of the countries concerned, down to civic and private sector leaders, to do their part. And while the peoples of the region are key, diasporas will also have a critical role to play in promoting positive change.
We have some suggestions for how to conduct civil engagement in an inclusive manner. Enacting these proposals will take time, and some may fall short, but renewed efforts are necessary to enact lasting change.
First, informal regional cooperation on shared interests in non-controversial areas, such as health, makes sense for all concerned. The Covid-19 pandemic could provide an opportunity to make a joint effort to share supplies in vaccines, masks, testing capabilities, and related safety protocols to bring the people of the region together around a cooperative and mutually beneficial effort. Health NGOs, private companies, universities, and eventually national organizations could link up in a regional effort to fight Covid-19 and serve as a template for cooperation in other areas.
Second, informal regional private sector networks and partnerships could be created to promote win-win solutions in areas such as developing green energy. This could take the form of a regional network of interlinked and complementary small and medium-sized businesses that can be part of the supply chain for green energy-related products could be envisaged. This could be designed around a jointly developed strategy and framework involving energy distribution networks, with the possibility of benefitting from future incentives at the governmental level. Such an effort could turn the South Caucasus into a testbed for wind, solar, and hydropower for the mutual benefit of every country in the region.
Third, tourism is another area where a similar approach could be envisaged given the historic nature of the region that would lend itself extremely well to multi-country tours.
Fourth, other possibilities include track two discussions, sporting events, concerts, student-level engagements (such as Model United Nations activities), exchange programs (such as a regional International Leadership Visitor Program), and entrepreneur cooperation (perhaps a regional crowdfunding platform). There have been national crowd-funding platforms in Armenia and elsewhere that could be replicated to promote and fund projects throughout the region.
Finally, adding informal people-to-people groups, events, and activities, on a sub-regional basis, to existing fora such as the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, NATO, and United Nations bodies could be considered. The key here is creating opportunities on a sub-regional basis, bringing together people from the South Caucasus and, where appropriate, from beyond.
The commencement of direct flights between Turkey and Armenia is a welcome step toward reconciliation. This direct contact will facilitate positive people-to-people ties which will, in turn, be instrumental in breaking down mental barriers and in healing traumas that have for so long bedeviled the mindset in the region.
Conflict means loss and suffering for all sides, and the war in 2020 was no exception. This experience was a stark reminder of the fact that, unless root causes are addressed, no conflict is truly frozen. As far as the South Caucasus is concerned, this will require sincere introspection by all, as well as full respect for the principles of international law and the peaceful settlement of disputes that constitute the foundation of a predictable, rules-based global order.
It is time to seize the opportunity that has presented itself. The designation of envoys from Armenia and Turkey to work on the normalization of ties between the two countries is promising, as are the prospects of enhanced regional cooperation schemes and the opportunities that new trade routes may offer. Mutually reinforcing steps, including opening borders, would be the perfect way to give these talks a boost. The world is watching, and so are we, in the hope that this time, the vicious cycle of failure can finally be broken, and we can witness the dawn of a peaceful and prosperous future for the South Caucasus and its people.
Alper Coşkun was the Turkish ambassador in Baku, Azerbaijan between 2012-2016.
John Heffern was the U.S. ambassador to Yerevan, Armenia between 2011-2014.