Vol. 3, No. 10 (May 15, 2010)

Psychological dimensions of the Armenia-Azerbaijan Nagorno-Karabakh conflict

Rauf Garagozov, Dr.
Research Fellow
Center for Strategic Studies
Baku, Azerbaijan

Once, when talking about the Karabakh conflict, a philosopher acquaintance of mine noticed that “periodically representatives of Azerbaijan and Armenia meet.  That means, they can interact and there is something to talk about.”  At the time, his assertion seemed logical and did not prompt any questions.  However, subsequently, my doubts about that began to increase, not about whether they can interact but whether such interaction is productive.  Are the two sides in fact prepared for dialogue, not simply to present their respective positions to but listen to one another.  Reports about these negotiations in the media over more than 15 years do not inspire optimism on that point.

Clearly, bargaining involving many actors is going on and therefore the conflicting sides cannot come to an agreement even on what would seem to be generally accepted fundamental principles of international law.  If these principles are not defined or remain subject to discussion as in our case, then negotiations are accompanied with enormous difficulties.  In this sense, international mediators in the form of the OSCE Minsk Group, which have taken upon themselves the mission of resolving the conflict, really have encountered a difficult task, one that involves the squaring of a circle and thus a process which has not only a legal or political dimension but no less important a psychological one.

Unfortunately, experts who are entirely involved with a discussion of the legal or political aspects of the conflict in the best of circumstances mention the existence of the psychological “component” of the conflict which they, as a rule, see as representing the presence of negative stereotypes, hostile attitudes, negative opinions and feelings which enflame the attitudes of each side toward the other.  But in our view, the psychological dimension of the conflict requires greater attention especially if one considers several recent attempts to “enliven” the negotiating process.  Indeed, it is possible that the consideration of the problem from a psychological perspective will help make our vision of the conflict more all-embracing and open new and hitherto unnoticed perspectives for its resolution.

In this essay, I would like to specially focus on the influence of collective memory on the process of resolving the Karabakh conflict, all the more so because I have analyzed in other works the important role collective images about the past played in touching off the conflict (Garagozov 2008).  Here, I will start from two postulates which have been confirmed by the investigations of social psychologists (Lambert 2009).  The first of these holds that collective ideas about historical events can generate definite emotional states which in their turn are capable of influencing current social approaches.  For example, Armenian collective memory, which is focused on the theme of “the Armenian genocide,” can give birth to a specific type of emotional state which can be designated as “ethnic fears” (Lake 2000).  At one time, these emotional stages conditioned the appearance of confrontational attitudes among the Armenian population, which in the final analysis contributed to the outbreak of the Karabakh conflict (Garagozov 2006). 

The second of these postulates holds that not only collective memory about the historical past influences current social positions, but that under definite conditions, current social conditions can influence the view people have of the past and the way that they assess it.  For example, the process of Turkish-Armenian rapprochement, initiated by the Zurich agreements of October 2009, if they develop successfully, can potentially influence the reassessment of the Armenian events of 1915-1918 in the Ottoman Empire (see Garagozov 2009).    

Taking this as a starting point, it becomes clear that memory about the events connected with the Karabakh conflict is capable of giving rise to various emotional states among the conflicting sides.  Some one million Azerbaijanis who as the result of the conflict were expelled from their lands, deprived of their homes and property, and certain of them even of their relatives, it is obvious, experience entirely different emotions than those who seized their lands and stole their property.  Put in simpler terms, Azerbaijanis experience anger and this is completely logical.  When what people believe is just is violated, they feel anger.

As for the Armenian side, it is obvious that one can observe somewhat different feelings.  On the one hand, these include an unconcealed feeling of satisfaction as revealed in statements of Armenian propagandists such as “we, for the first time in our history, have defeated the Turks.”  But on the other, one can see continuing feelings of concern because the Armenians at the same time recognize that they have generated anger among Azerbaijanis and other nearby peoples toward themselves by their actions (Garagozov 2010).  One cannot fail to be concerned if one is surrounded by neighbors who are angry at you.  This sense is undoubtedly reinforced by continuing discussion of “the Armenian genocide.”  As a result, these various modes of feelings lead to varied social attitudes.  Anger leads to a growth of aggressiveness and fear to heightened worries, a vicious circle which observers and investigators of the region have often noted (Scott 2009).

How can this understanding provide with guidance toward new paths of resolving the conflict?  From what has been said arise several results which have a direct relationship to the development of a common schema of the resolution of the conflict.  Above all, the necessity of achieving a common political agreement which resolves the conflict in principle is obvious.  For example, quite often one can hear from international mediators about the need for establishing direct dialogue between Azerbaijanis and Armenians and about how important it is to achieve mutual trust between the sides.  In these calls, there is nothing bad.  The sides should meet, exchange opinions, and discuss problems.  

But it is important to recognize the limited nature of such contacts.  It is impossible to achieve full discussion and dialogue when the sides have the feeling and attitudes described above.  In order to have a full dialogue begin, a number of conditions, which would make such a dialogue possible, must be fulfilled.  With that goal in mind, a package of agreements should be developed which are intended, on the one hand, to achieve the restoration among the Azerbaijanis of their violated sense of justice, and on the other, to provide a guarantee of the security of the Armenian population, which takes into account their fears and concerns.  The role of the mediators consists in the achievement of this condition.

After that has been achieved, the next stage of the process can begin, one that will move beyond the conflict and include within itself measures for the restoration of trust and the laying down of conditions for dialogue between the sides.  Simultaneously, the process of Turkish-Armenian rapprochement will experience new impulses for development.  And as a result, the changing political circumstances and the shift of social attitudes can really make possible the reassessment of many tragic pages of the history of the interrelationship of the Armenians and the Turks.  All that is a requirement for lasting peace in the region. 
In the light of this schema, several recent initiatives connected with the Turkish-Armenian rapprochement and with the recognition of “the Armenian genocide” appear premature.  From this it follows that the Zurich accord on the opening of borders between Turkey and Armenia regardless of what happens in the Karabakh conflict and the support by parliaments of several countries of the Armenian version of the events of 1915 hardly will make possible the achievement of genuine dialogue among the interested sides and the establishment of peace in the region.

Turkey closed the border with Armenia in 1993 after Armenia occupied Azerbaijani territories.  The opening of that border now when Armenia has not liberated the territories it seized will regardless of the intention of the sides represent support for aggression.  And parliamentary resolutions about “the Armenian genocide” will exacerbate rather than reduce the negative feelings Armenians have toward their neighbors and lead the Azerbaijanis to demand recognition of “the Azerbaijani genocide” or “the Turkish genocide,” a development that will only make future talks more difficult.

One must recognize that the histories of all these peoples of the region are full of extremely tragic events, and if one likes, it is possible to ‘recall’ many episodes from the past and treat them as “genocide.”  Here, each people and even each ethnic group has its own truth, one that it sees as equally or more valid than the others.  This is something many investigators who have studied the history of the region know but unfortunately, politicians who are responsible for taking decisions often do not recognize.  Therefore, it is unwise to support the truth of only one side just because that truth is more widely known than the truth of the other, and it is self-deceiving to think that one can find some universal truth that all will accept.
Summing up, we can say: In this case, it would be just and wise to refrain from a settling of “historical scores” and to move to a new level of interrelations between peoples and governments of the region.  Not the past but a projected future must become the decisive argument in the construction of relations between Armenians and Azerbaijanis just as between Armenians and Turks.  This, it seems to me, must become an imperative in the taking of political decisions.

As is widely recognized, squaring a circle is beyond our capacity, however much we would like to believe otherwise.  But with imagination it is possible to project a desired future for which should be found new instruments capable of untying the Karabakh knot.  This is a difficult task, but with the assistance of all forces interested in the security of the region, one can try to continue the search in this direction with some hope. 


Garagozov, Rauf (2010) “The Khojaly Tragedy as a Collective Trauma and Factor of Collective Memory”, Azerbaijan in the World, Vol. III, No. 5, 1 March, available at http://ada.edu.az/biweekly/issues/vol3no5/20100303094519955.html (accessed 10 May 2010).

Garagozov, Rauf (2009) “Turkish-Armenian Rapprochement and the Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict: The Role of Collective Memory and Identity”, Azerbaijan in the World, Vol. II, No. 10, 15 May, available at http://ada.edu.az/biweekly/issues/vol2no10/20090526031416435.html (accessed 11 May 2010).

Garagozov, Rauf (2008) “Characteristics of Collective Memory, Ethnic Conflicts, Historiography, and the ‘Politics of Memory’: Characteristics of Historical Accounts and ‘Forms’ of Collective Memory”, Journal of Russian and East European Psychology, Vol. 46, No. 2, March/April, pp. 58-95. 

Garagozov, Rauf (2006) “Collective Memory in Ethnopolitical Conflicts: The Case of Nagorno-Karabakh”, Central Asia and the Caucasus, 5 (41), pp.145-155.

Lake, D.A. and D. Rothchild (2000) “Containing Fear: The Origins and Management of Ethnic Conflict”, in M. E. Brown, O. R. Cote, S. M. Lynn-Jones and S. E. Miller, eds. Nationalism and Ethnic Conflict, Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, pp.97-131.

Lambert, Alan (2009) “How Does Collective Memory Create a Sense of the Collective?” In Boyer, P. and J. Wertsch, eds. Memory in Mind and Culture, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp.194-222.

Scott, Radnitz (2009) “Historical Narratives and Post-Conflict Reconciliation in the Caucasus: A Psychological Experiment”, Unpublished manuscript.