By Laurence BROERS
Conciliation Resources,Caucasus Programme Projects Manager
‘Missed opportunities’, and their opposite, ‘windows of opportunity’ are a mediator’s mantra. In different contexts, especially when peace talks have failed or violence has resumed, one hears about ‘missed opportunities’. The South Caucasus has seen many missed opportunities, whether these date from the ‘last chance opportunities’ in the early 1990s to prevent the South Caucasus wars, to ‘near miss opportunities’ when agreement was allegedly close, to a more general sense that opportunities to engage in cross-conflict initiatives were never seriously taken up. At the same time we are often told that because of electoral cycles or some big player’s input, we have a ‘window of opportunity’.
But why are these opportunities ‘missed’? What is it about these opportunities making them invisible at the moment when they were still ‘available’ opportunities? I will try very briefly to reflect on these questions with reference to the Karabakh conflict.
To understand why an opportunity has been missed, one needs to understand the decision-making process of the person who has, supposedly, “missed” it. At one level, this would lead us into the minds and the decision-making processes of leading politicians. Key politicians engaged in the Karabakh peace process over the last 17 years have not, on the whole, been legitimated by broad democratic mandates. Even if they would most probably have won elections democratically, to varying extents they have not risked this option. They therefore have limited room for maneuvre on the most emotive and probably only consensus issue in Armenian and Azerbaijani societies: Karabakh.
The resulting vulnerability does not sit well with the disruptive potential of the Karabakh conflict. In the 1990s Karabakh repeatedly demonstrated its capacity to decide elite turnover in Armenia and Azerbaijan. It is therefore unsurprising that the prism through which elites regard the conflict and peace process is risk. This reflects the fact that while the status quo does carry significant long-term risk, in the short to medium-term the status quo is predictable and more or less manageable. ‘Windows of opportunity’ are dangerous because they threaten this comfort zone of manageable risk. For Armenian and Azerbaijani leaderships the key underlying dilemma is that converting “windows of opportunity” by engaging in controversial, unpredictable and risky moves on Karabakh only becomes attractive when the risk of not doing so is greater.
Viewed through the paradigm of risk, then, ‘missed opportunities’ are in fact “opportunities not risked”. This calculus will only change when there have been game-changing developments elsewhere in the conflict context, and because of these developments (for example, decisive military superiority or the emergence of broad-based peace movements making compromise possible), the risk of inaction becomes greater than the risk of action.
What about public opinion? Why is there apparently no mass consciousness of opportunities needing to be taken, or sense of urgency around resolution of the conflict? There are many layers to a full answer to this question, which should include difficulties in ascertaining what public opinion really is, as well as assumptions about the likely and necessary degree of public participation in a peace process. I will focus on just one layer, however, which is the popular myth in Armenian and Azerbaijani societies that ‘time is on our side’.
On one side, Armenians look to what they see as a parade of new sovereignties across the world, from Kosovo, to Abkhazia and South Ossetia, to South Sudan. The world in their view is moving on from a rigid preference for territorial integrity to acknowledgement that new states can, and should be allowed, to emerge under specific circumstances. There is also a simple empirical reality: the longer a certain entity and identity exists, the more real and natural it seems. On the other side, Azerbaijanis also have reasons to believe that time is on their side, although the psychology is different. Rather than seeing stasis as being in their interests, Azeris look to their country’s currently very high levels of growth and assume that it is just a matter of time before Azerbaijan can buy the necessary military hardware to compensate for strategic disadvantages on the ground. The assumption is that as Armenia suffers economically from regional isolation it will, over time, be increasingly less able to compete with Azerbaijan.
Like their presidents the status quo hurts public opinion, especially in Azerbaijan, but not enough to motivate serious investment in the psychology of “peace for our time” in the present, over the psychology of “peace on our terms” in the future. But the latter approach also carries risks. Unpopular though this is as an observation for Armenian readers, there is significant risk in the growing sense of ownership over the territories surrounding the former. The more time goes by, the more the psychological bond with the concept of “42,000 square kilometers” grows, yet sovereignty over them has never been part of Armenian claims since the inception of the Karabakh conflict. Azerbaijani confidence that wealth converted into military capacity will tip the balance is also risky. There is no simple equation between military investment and battlefield outcomes, as Georgia’s experience shows. Armed conflict is also inevitably a high-risk strategy easily capable of sweeping away governments that fail to achieve success on the battlefield. Azerbaijan’s own experience in the early 1990s provides ample examples of this trend. For as long as central government, and the resources it controls, is the glittering prize of Azerbaijani politics, it is difficult to imagine why power-holders would risk this prize for an uncertain outcome in Karabakh.
What emerges, then, is a situation where risk-averse elites prefer to manage a less volatile status quo, and societies are lulled into believing that the risks implied in taking opportunities are not worth it, or at least, not worth taking now. Is there an alternative to the cyclical reiteration of “windows of opportunity” and “missed opportunities”? One possible alternative is to replace the highs and lows implicit in the “windows of opportunities” approach with a gradualist, incremental approach towards restoring confidence that assumes a constant rather than cyclical time-frame. The aim of this approach is to alter the parameters for understanding where and when an opportunity exists. What needs to change is the perception that where there is an opportunity for the peace process, there is a risk for elites. This equation needs to change so that opportunities for the process peace are also seen as opportunities for elites – the elusive ‘win-win’ scenario. But for this to happen, elites need to bring their societies along with them.