By Shakeh Badalyan and Valentina Gevorgyan, members of the Young Atlanticist NATO Working Group.
During the last twenty years two neighbouring countries, Azerbaijan and Armenia, in the South Caucasus are in the state of a frozen conflict because of the territory of the Nagorno Karabakh. It should be noted that this conflict also stipulates the geopolitical situation in the region and defines the foreign policy of the mentioned countries. This conflict resulted not only in ceasing the cooperation between Azerbaijan and Armenia but also in the closing of the Armenian-Turkish border, a factor that consequently limits the economic development of Armenia and strengthens its political and economic dependence on Russia. Today Armenia is the only country in the South Caucasus where Russian military forces are based; Armenia is also the only participant of the collective security agreement including countries as Russia, Belorussia, Middle Asia countries and Kazakhstan. Azerbaijan defined its foreign policy towards the West after signing the so called "Contract of the Century" in 1994. The current situation moves these two countries further away from each other and doesn't promote the creation of relevant conditions for integration processes. It should also be mentioned that both Azerbaijan and Armenia are participating in NATO's Partnership for Peace (PfP) program.
The Nagorno Karabakh conflict has reserved a lot of attention from the international community. Multiple meditative approaches were enacted to encourage a peaceful settlement to the conflict. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Minsk Group was established to facilitate the dialogue between the two countries, an institution co-chaired by the United States, Russia and France. Working closely with the state representatives has been crucial in reaching an understanding of the parties. The procedures included both formal and informal meetings, and talks with participation of the leaders of Armenia and Azerbaijan.
NATO is an important partner for Armenia and Azerbaijan. Although it must be mentioned that partnerships differ in terms of how each of the countries cooperates with the Alliance. Both countries are members of the PfP program, which provides a unique opportunity for states to choose their plan on cooperation according to the priorities that the countries pursue with their foreign policies. PfP is considered to be an initiative that was created based on much specific flexibility designed for the newly-established states on the post-Soviet territory facing multiple difficulties on the way of their development.
Turkey is an important member of the Atlantic Alliance, whereas Azerbaijan is most commonly referred to as a Turkish brother nation. This factor requires Azerbaijan to see NATO as one of the most important partners, and indicates the so-called regional division in the cooperation of NATO towards different states on the post-Soviet territory.
Russia is an obvious cooperative and confident mechanism for Armenia, taking into account the aged-long history of friendly ties, not mentioning the geopolitical implications. However, at the same time, Armenia has very much oriented itself towards the west, towards the new opportunities that it may present in terms of deeper cooperation in the framework of the PfP, as well as NATO's Individual Partnership Action Plan (IPAP), and the country's determination to become a part of the international peace by sending the troops to different NATO peacekeeping missions throughout the world.
South Caucasus was and remains to be not only a region where the powerful states 'play' politics because of the higher stakes in there, but also because the peace in the South Caucasus is likewise important for the peace in the whole region. An inherent conflict anywhere can be considered to be a threat to a conflict everywhere. Recent military actions in the South Caucasus have made significant changes in the political atmosphere of the whole region. The South Caucasus is an area of key importance for the whole Black Sea. In particular following the Georgia-Russia conflict Turkey assumed a new role and proposed the formation of a regional cooperation to stabilize the Caucasus region. Thus the Caucasia Cooperation and Stability Platform has to include all regional countries such as Armenia, Azerbaijan, Russia, Georgia and Turkey. So, the situation represents a difficulty while besides the Russian-Georgian complicated relationship there is also a tangled relationship between Armenia and Azerbaijan as well as Armenia and Turkey. Turkey has no diplomatic ties with Armenia and the Turkish-Armenian border has been closed for years.
Multiple mediation efforts represent among others the steps aimed at peaceful resolution to the conflict. Fortunately enough, the leaders of the major international security organizations have largely applied this understanding on practice. NATO is open for engaging in cooperation with states of the region, and proves to be willing in providing a larger framework for the deepening of the bilateral ties.
In 2004 NATO made a decision to increase its involvement in the South Caucasus and established a procedure to delegate important positions to the region, namely that of a Special Representative and Liaison Officers. One of the main tasks of the positions is to act on a state-level by providing advice on the NATO policies in a given region, as well as carry out the work with the leaders of countries with the aim of improving bilateral cooperation.
NATO is interested in the formation of Azerbaijani and Armenian public opinion by widening the relations with NGOs, the media, scientists and other public representatives. The goal is to find a way to overcome old stereotypes in Azerbaijan and Armenia. However where Azerbaijani politicians argue the possibility of a future joining of NATO, this issue is not on the agenda in Armenia for now.
Unfortunately citizens in both countries have largely lost their rightful role in public decision making. The dramatic growth and power of special interest groups has both constrained leaders and squeezed ordinary citizens out of the decision-making process. As a result, many citizens feel alienated, and decision makers have lost touch with their constituents' true concerns.
The negative perceptions of the public can be considered to be a factor preventing the possibility of a dialogue and understanding. Strengthening public opinion is critical for the successful integration of values the existence of which is crucial for the mutual security and stability of the states.
During recent years particularly with the support of the NATO Public Diplomacy Division (PDD) many awareness programs have been implemented in Armenia as well as in Azerbaijan. The main aim of such projects is to include especially young leaders from both countries. Active involvement of youth in the Region's development process is of vital importance. NATO's enlargement and transformation has brought the region to the frontier of change. As a matter of fact, young people are the most dynamic part of the society, that are usually not limited within historical, traditional, ethnical and other restrictions. It means that young people are more flexible for creating dialogues with young representatives of the other countries. For this very reason the main role of youth in conflict transformation process is to become a psychological bridge between conflicting parties for setting preliminary dialogues and begin to learn each other, in other words, they should become the first movers and architects of understanding each other's problem. This is also true that the mindsets of the youth are still subject for transformation and certain stereotypes (such as "image of enemy", etc.) can be easily changed through intercultural and social communication. It is important to note that since the youth are the future in case of their starting conflict transformation they will take this message forward and other younger generation will have much easier issues to resolve.
The introduction of a multi-vector foreign policy is a requirement for the countries nowadays aiming themselves at becoming a part of greater international community. This aspect was respectfully achieved by Armenia that is willing to have its share of responsibilities on the international arena. The Nagorno Karabakh conflict is unresolved until today. It has experienced multiple types of meditative approaches in order to be peacefully resolved. It has been number one foreign policy issue for both Azerbaijan and Armenia. A number of powerful states are willing to observe the eventual peace on the post-soviet territory according to their activities and approaches enacted. Armenia has increasingly oriented its foreign policy by taking a regional stance with the introduction of possibilities that the new regional order presents regarding the prospects and further development.
The types of policies established by NATO towards its partner states have allowed the major European security organization to expand to the South Caucasus with the specifically designed programs benefiting both sides involved in cooperation.