This month, May 2014, marks exactly twenty years since the formal ceasefire declaration in the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh. Yet for Armenians and Azerbaijanis who were divided by the conflict, the past twenty years have been marked by political animosity, one-sided media coverage, regular ceasefire violations and needless soldier deaths. For most people, twenty years have passed without a single opportunity to meet someone from the other side, let alone make friends with them. The effects of this are particularly pronounced on the generation born during and after the war, who have no memories of peaceful coexistence and no idea what life is like on the other side of the border. Civil society organisations, including several women’s NGOs, have done their best to bridge this gap, offering young people a stake in a shared future, in spite of their divided present.
In recent weeks, the situation for these organisations has been marked by growing political tensions in the region. Events in Ukraine, particularly the fate of the Crimean peninsula, have highlighted the disparities between the official Armenian and Azerbaijani perspectives on the conflict, while awakening common fears of yet another Russian military intervention in the Caucasus. With Armenia set to join the Eurasian Customs Union, and Azerbaijan facing increasing isolation within Europe owing to its mounting human rights violations, it seems that the lines are becoming more firmly entrenched. Last month, when an Azerbaijani journalist was arrested accused of spying for Armenia, many feared that this marked the beginning of the end for organisations involved in cross-border activities.
And yet, women’s organisations in Armenia and Azerbaijan have been undaunted by these circumstances. Or so it seemed some weeks ago, when I joined a group of over two dozen women from both countries at a three-day meeting in Tbilisi, Georgia – part of an ongoing initiative to strengthen young women’s role in conflict resolution and peacebuilding in Armenia and Azerbaijan, carried out within the framework of the European Partnership for the Peaceful Settlement of the Conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh (EPNK). Not for the first time, I marvelled at the dedication of the participants, but this time around I had a deeper appreciation for their determination and courage. These women, most of them in their mid-20s, had travelled hundreds of miles by bus and by train to get here. While some participants were eager to renew old contacts and greeted each other like the best of friends, others had never met a member of the ‘enemy’ nation before, and now faced a difficult psychological journey.
Over the course of three days, participants talked about their experiences and brainstormed joint initiatives for peacebuilding and promotion of women’s rights, including the Women, Peace and Security agenda. Yet, in devising strategies for breaking down barriers between the two societies, they were also breaking down their own personal fears and prejudices. While some confessed to me how nervous they were to be meeting either Armenians or Azerbaijanis for the first time, by the end of the weekend they are able to say to one another with real feeling that “you have torn apart all my stereotypes”. In various, interactive seminars, they discussed common problems of nationalism, misogyny, surveillance, and other risks for young female activists, discovering above all a shared fear of social ostracism. It was striking how many of these women, all at the beginning of their careers, worry about what would happen if their employers, colleagues, or professors were to find out about their involvement in peacebuilding. Some even feel that they cannot even tell their close friends and relatives about the purpose of their visit to Tbilisi.
This in turn places the NGOs in a difficult situation. On the one hand, they cannot promote the positive results of their work because they need to protect the identities and reputations of participants. On the other hand, they are also required to secure the support of a variety of actors – from local politicians to foreign ambassadors to international organisations – in order to stave off potential persecution. In other words, they must act as transparently as possible without advertising their activities to the wider public. From the outside, their work may look like a drop in the ocean, or at risk of government cooption. From the inside, it spans a complex network of actors and institutions, and is indicative of the tremendous potential for peace in the Caucasus region. In comparison with ten years ago, the organisers said, it was hard to believe just how much had been achieved in cooperation with one another.
Has all that been put at risk by recent political developments and the shrinking space for independent civil society? The situation is fragile, but there is still a lot that can be done to preserve and build on the good relations between women’s organisations. The support of local actors – politicians, civil society, public officials, embassies, the EU and OSCE field representatives – is important for enhancing the legitimacy of women’s organisations. Yet work is also needed to help strengthen the regional platform for women’s rights advocates – giving voice to women from Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Nagorno-Karabakh – and to ensure that the South Caucasus is integrated into the transnational women’s movement and seen on a par with other regional blocs such as the Middle East or North Africa. Advocating for National Action Plans and other local mechanisms for women’s participation is one thing, but freeing the flow of information and ensuring a positive response from the international community is quite another.
About the author: Sinéad Walsh is a PhD student at Trinity College Dublin. To date she has conducted 8 months of fieldwork in the South Caucasus under the dissertation title “Global discourse, local change? Developing a women’s peace agenda in Armenia and Azerbaijan.” Her work is financed by the Irish Research Council through a Government of Ireland Postgraduate Research Scholarship.