As restive crowds sweep away long-standing authoritarian regimes throughout the Middle East, the world is witnessing the manifestation of power of the “voiceless” and disenfranchised.
The wave of revolutions clearly portrays how impotent security forces can become in the face of the adamant will of millions, no matter how brutal and merciless they are. Looking at what non-violent protests are able to achieve, I couldn’t stop myself thinking of all the suffering and injustice inflicted on people as a result of the war between Azerbaijan and Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh and how a non-violent, masterfully orchestrated march of thousands of civilians could actually bring an end to the deadlock in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.
The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is a story of ethnic hatred, the seeds of which were planted long before the disintegration of the Soviet Union. This decades-enduring hatred was reignited and politically coordinated by national elites towards the end of the 1980s. With growing ethnic tensions in Azerbaijan and Armenia, ethnic Azerbaijanis had to leave Armenia due to dire conditions in the winter of 1988. Over 200,000 refugees had to be sheltered in different regions of Azerbaijan. Ethnic Armenians shared a similar destiny; they were forced to leave their homes in Azerbaijani territories. Some of them fled to Armenia and many others to Russia. It was a harbinger of the brutal conflict that was to follow and of the hostility that to this day continues to take lives along the Armenian-Azerbaijani border despite a 17-year cease-fire.
Over 100,000 Karabakh Armenians still live on and cultivate their lands, while one in eight Azerbaijanis became internally displaced persons (IDPs). This accounts for around 1 million people who lost their homes and belongings. Many Azerbaijani towns in Nagorno-Karabakh and in the surrounding seven districts have now become ghost towns. Agdam, which was once home to tens of thousands of ethnic Azerbaijanis, is a concrete example of the complete destruction of a human civilization in our modern times. The Armenian political elite justify it as the right to self-determination of Karabakh Armenians, and many others in the international community applaud what has been done. Despite the conflicting narratives in the destructive armed conflict, there is one simple reality that needs to be acknowledged: the right of return -- their right to return to their homeland. There is no entity that can forcibly deny it.
Since 1992, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s (OSCE) Minsk Group, co-chaired by France, the US and Russia, has been trying to mediate between Azerbaijan and Armenia to end the conflict. The return to their homeland of IDPs has been one of the main issues at the negotiating table. Hundreds of meetings between the conflicting parties have failed to produce any meaningful progress. Now there is ongoing talk in the peace process about the possibility of resuming the armed conflict. Azerbaijan did strengthen its military might to be able to overrun Armenian forces in the event of renewed armed clashes, but a second war would be far more devastating than the first because it was not fought with S-300 missiles or other more advanced weapons. Several experts in the international community are trying to tackle the question as to how they can prevent tensions similar to those in South Ossetia in 2008. However, the subject of discussion should not be how to maintain the status quo but how to end the conflict and bring about the long-awaited justice.
Local people must take initiative
The local people who have suffered and lost their homes and property need to take the initiative to end their destiny of being hostage to fruitless negotiations and political brinkmanship. The non-violent “march of return” of thousands of Azerbaijanis can bring the long-desired peace to the region. It is time to have their voices heard. They do exist, and every single IDP has every right to claim his/her home back. I know many find it dangerous and think that it may cost the loss of uncountable civilian lives. There is a lot of talk about land mines and the deep trenches built by the occupying Armenian forces, but no force can stop thousands of protesters marching toward the areas they once left behind. This kind of action may take several months of preparations and thorough organization, but if the will of thousands is combined with strong international media coverage, a lot could be achieved for the mutual benefit of Azerbaijanis and Armenians.
The world is changing and there is no place for unjust practices and the denial of basic human rights. Arms, rocket launchers and artillery all sound upsetting and alarming, but let’s not forget about the power of the “powerless” and “voiceless.” Azerbaijan’s frustration with the peace process must be understood. In the Arab Spring, the world witnessed and continues to witness what crowds with rightful demands can achieve, no matter how chaotic their organization may be. In the early stages of the protests in Syria, Egypt and Tunisia, security forces -- neither police nor military -- fired on the protesters. As the determination and fearlessness of the crowd grew, there was nothing to stand in its way. In a similar way, a civilian march has the potential to achieve a break in the deadlock in Nagorno-Karabakh. It would not be an easy task to forcibly stop it from advancing. It is not with the power of four UN Security Council resolutions or the potential of the OSCE negotiations that will return displaced people to their homes. It is their rightful actions that can bring a long-term solution to the conflict. It would not be an easy task to forcibly stop a peaceful civilian march from advancing.
People want peace and their occupied homes back, and this can be reached through peaceful means. International experts, politicians, diplomats and others may try to propagate their own versions of “justice” and try to seem as if they are negotiating or mediating while maintaining a status quo of no war, no peace. This will be of little help to an ordinary Azerbaijani IDP who has yet to see his or her home or true justice served. Their right of return is undeniable, unstoppable and cannot be delayed whether they are from Nagorno-Karabakh or other occupied territories. Unfortunately, in the cloud of conflicting narratives and propaganda, the bare consequence of conflict are often forgotten.
*Efgan Niftiyev is an international relations analyst and a graduate fellow at George Washington University.