Religious diplomacy in the Nagorno Karabakh conflict?
The war fought between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the disputed territory of Nagorno Karabakh in the early 1990s claimed approximately 25,000 lives and forced a million to flee their homes. An additional 3,000 are also believed to have been killed in cross-border skirmishes since the 1994 ceasefire put the conflict on hold. Earlier this year, however, the International Crisis Group warned of the dangers of an ‘accidental war’ breaking out given an increase in the number of clashes.
Although often described in the international media as a dispute between Christian Armenia and Moslem Azerbaijan, the conflict between the two neighboring South Caucasus republics has rarely, if ever, otherwise taken on or been defined in a religious context. Even so, in the past year and a half, there appears to be renewed interest in engaging Armenia and Azerbaijan’s religious leaders in the peace process even if only symbolically.
In an unexpected move in April 2010, for example, the Armenian Catholicos, Garegin II, paid an official visit to Baku, the Azerbaijani capital, to attend a meeting of religious leaders. The Catholicos was the first to do so for decades and certainly since ethnic tensions increased in the late 1980s. Meeting with the Azerbaijani president, Ilham Aliyev, both the Catholicos and Sheikh-ul-Islam Allahshukur Pashazade also urged the need to find a peaceful solution to the Nagorno Karabakh conflict.
Last week, and even though there are otherwise no direct links between Baku and Yerevan, Pashazade, flew to Armenia to attend another religious meeting. The Sheik also made another joint plea alongside the Armenian Catholicos and their Russian counterpart emphasizing the need for a negotiated settlement to end the long-running conflict as RFE/RL reports.
The top religious leaders of Armenia, Azerbaijan and Russia have called for a withdrawal of snipers from Karabakh frontlines as a means to stop bloodshed amid more reported casualties in the conflict zone.
Russia’s Patriarch Kirill read out the statement that he made jointly with Catholicos Karekin II, the supreme head of the Armenian Apostolic Church, and Azerbaijan’s top Shia Muslim leader Sheikh-ul-Islam Allahshukur Pashazade at the end of a trilateral meeting in Yerevan held as part of a summit of top clerics from post-Soviet countries.
Armenia, as well as international mediators, have repeatedly called for a bilateral withdrawal of snipers to reduce deadly ceasefire violations reported along the Armenian-Azerbaijani “line of contact” on a regular basis and blamed by both sides on each other.
[The Armenian President] also attended the Monday proceedings of the religious summit in Yerevan, calling for a Karabakh conflict settlement to be achieved “through contacts, negotiations and cooperation, rather than through the escalation of tensions and threats.”
Sarkisian also warned against giving the conflict an ethnic dimension and pitting the different predominant religions in the two states, that is Christianity and Islam, against each other.
The religious leaders of Armenia, Azerbaijan and Russia already issued a joint declaration in April 2010 when the Armenian pontiff paid a landmark visit to Baku to attend a summit of religious leaders from around the world. Then, they, too, voiced support for the long-running efforts to resolve the Karabakh conflict and condemned “acts of vandalism” committed in the conflict zone.
Such calls, of course, have been made in the past and have usually come to nothing, but the withdrawal of snipers would represent some progress in at least implementing confidence building measures on the line of contact as Caspian Intelligence explains.
One of the signal failures of the Nagorno-Karabakh peace process has been an inability to persuade the belligerents to withdraw snipers from the front line.
This relatively small step – which would leave untouched the vast numbers of infantry, heavy machine guns, mortars and artillery along the Line of Contact (LoC) – would cost little and would indicate at least some commitment to the peace process. But neither side has been willing to pull back snipers and, if anything, have boosted the capabilities of their sharpshooters.
Now, amid another spike in casualties along the Line of Contact, local religious leaders have weighed in on tactical matters. Russia’s Patriarch, the head of Armenia’s Apostolic Church, and Azerbaijan’s leading cleric have made a joint statement calling for snipers to be withdrawn, and expressing support for a peaceful resolution of the conflict.
Their willingness to issue a joint statement suggests interfaith dialogue and religious pacifism are alive and well in the Caucasus, but – as a similar plea in April last year indicates – this has no effect on entrenched military and political positions.
Does this matter? In one sense, no. Plenty of soldiers have died along the LoC from machinegun fire, mortars and artillery; withdrawing snipers would not bring stability.
But in another sense, it matters a great deal. If the trust deficit between the two sides is such that they cannot agree to a minor tactical inconvenience, for fear that the other side will gain an edge, it suggests they will never have the confidence to compromise. An argument about small arms is, in a bleak way, a microcosm of the conflict.
Some international observers were surprised that Pashazade visited Yerevan, especially as a recent visit by Azerbaijan’s Minister of Interior for a CIS Summit provoked outrage from some war veterans in Baku. Nevertheless, the move could mark an attempt to involve the two religious leaders, especially as there are also new attempts to promote more Track II Diplomacy between the two sides.
In September, for example, I participated in a meeting attended by religious community and media representatives from Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia in Vienna. The meeting, The Role and Responsibility of Religious Communities and Civil Society for Conflict Resolution in the South Caucasus, was followed by two workshops and organized by the Austrian Foreign Ministry with the involvement of the OSCE and Council of Europe.
The following month the Austrian Foreign Minister announced plans to mediate in a meeting between the Armenian, Azerbaijani and Georgian religious leaders to be held in Vienna.
Of course, given the intensity of emotions between the two sides, there will be many who urge caution in believing such meetings can herald in a new more positive phase in the negotiating process, but with meetings between Armenian and Azerbaijani civil society activists and journalists in third countries such as Georgia often frowned upon or even discouraged, they at least represent an important precedent in opening up communication.
A letter from the Catholicos to Sheik Pashazade expresses the same hope.
Our previous meetings mediated by Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and All Russia, peaceful messages to our peoples and governments were important steps towards the maintenance of peace and atmosphere of confidence. Our meeting in Yerevan and discussion of the resolution of the Nagorno Karabakh conflict, our joint statement will certainly cause positive reaction, strengthen tolerance and mutual understanding.
In response, Pashazade has reportedly suggested that the two religious leaders next meet on the Nagorno Karabakh line of contact. The news comes as the U.S., Russian and French Co-Chairs of the OSCE Minsk Group charged with the task of mediating the Nagorno Karabakh crossed into Azerbaijan from Armenia on foot, another rare occurrence.
They also stressed the need for more people-people contact and exchanges. Even so, the military expenditures of both Armenia and especially Azerbaijan are set to rise in 2012.
Onnik Krikorian is a journalist and photographer who has covered the Nagorno Karabakh conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan since 1994. He is also the Caucasus editor for Global Voices Online.