Publicism: Armenia, the Caucasus, Europe

Zero-sum or Positive-sum? Games and Reality Construction in the Caucasus Conflicts

A speech delivered at the Berlin Round-Table on Diplomacy in 2009, made in a publication on another holistic view on the Caucasus conflicts, 

Note: The current web version may have minor differences from the published version. The former is more authentic, the latter may be edited a bit further.


Zero-sum or Positive-sum? Games and Reality Construction in the Caucasus Conflicts


Gevorg Ter-Gabrielyan


Theorizing About the Caucasus Conflicts


Any known single theoretical framework is insufficient and incapable of explaining such complex social phenomena as the Caucasus conflicts. However, there is a need to develop and apply theories in order to at least attempt to understand and explain the developments of the past twenty years in the Caucasus. Without theories we find ourselves in a situation where the multitude of facts does not allow us to create any conclusions or predictions. However, a single theory is insufficient and no theory is unconstructive. What is a proper solution to analyzing the conflicts? Can several theories be applied?


Applying several theories simultaneously to one and the same fragment of reality may result in methodological eclecticism. Such theorizing may be interpreted merely as a tool for strengthening one’s argument, advancing one’s hidden goals, or using ‘as if’ theorizing as a means for participating in the conflicts as a supporter of a single side. Moreover, the Caucasus conflicts are notorious for this effect; those who think, write, or theorize about the conflicts are often categorized as supporters of a single side.


However the idea above also implies a theoretical framework. Inadvertently I ended up within the confines of theories that claim that there is an absence of ‘objective truth’ in the conflicts. Some of the theories, such as Marxism and critical theory, claim that any statement reflects the interests, in Marxist terms the ‘class’ interests, of those who express it, regardless if it is a self-conscious or ‘unconscious’ position. Other frameworks, such as social constructivism[1], assert that these statements, which reflect people’s conscious or unconscious interests, actually do form the reality and shape it accordingly.


Be that as it may, I have found it practical to utilize more than one theoretical framework to analyze parts of the Caucasus conflicts. Scientific explaining also means predicting. An explanation’s ambition is to declare that there is a certain regularity uncovered, which has worked in the past and will work in the future. Unfortunately, so far only very few regularities have been found empirically in social sciences that are backed by sound theory. One famous example is the law formulated by Kant, which dictates that democracies are far less likely to have conflicts with each other as compared to democracies with non-democracies.


One theoretical framework that could be applied to the Caucasus conflicts is a mixture of theories known as game theory, decision-making theory, or rational choice theory. This group should be amalgamated with Realpolitik or neo-realism in international relations in order for it to be applicable to the Caucasus conflicts. Realpolitik’s main tenets are that states are the main actors in international relations, they behave in a situation of anarchy, and they maximize power. Balance of power sometimes has the effect of preventing war. Neo-realism claims that states are the main actors, however they behave according to their mutual perceptions about each other rather than according to the ‘real’ power they have, because they cannot be absolutely certain about the power of other states. These theories alone are however not enough to explain the conflicts in the Caucasus, because this situation concerns both states as well as specific non-state actors, such as non-recognized states. Thus Realpolitik theories must be combined with decision-making, game, or rational choice theories. Realpolitik is not a complete theory, because it rigidly declares that states are the only type of actor that is important. Decision-making or rational choice theory does not make such a rigid claim – it is irrelevant who or what is the actor. One behaves according to one's interests and one's decision is interdependent with the decision of the opposing actor.


The prisoner's dilemma has often been used as a metaphor in political theory. Game theories are highly relevant to the situation in the Caucasus and the prisoner's dilemma can be used well to describe a variety of the conflicts. Unfortunately, game theory has been absent in the literature as a means to analyze these conflicts.


Today’s Armenian-Turkish 'game' bears a resemblance to the prisoner’s dilemma. The two parties lack proper communication and their decisions are interdependent – if Turkey adopts the protocols and Armenia does not, Turkey loses, and vice versa. Some claim that if one side adopts the protocols and the other does not, the side that adopted the protocols will actually win, because it shows its good will. However, this idea is somewhat far-fetched. The situation is a simple stalemate: both sides have to adopt, but neither can do so before the other does, thus it is most likely that neither will adopt the protocols.


There is another crucially important element in the two theories of rational choice and Realpolitik that makes them applicable to the Caucasus conflicts. Both theories take place in an environment where there is insufficient coercive power to impose a third party’s will on the players. There is no Hobbesian Leviathan either in the Caucasus or abroad that could literally force a solution to the conflicts.[2]


Some international powers have a strong influence in the Caucasus, namely the US, Russia, and the EU. Great international powers played a more decisive role in the Balkan conflicts, by redesigning their map, influencing their wars, and meddling in the conflicts. However in the Caucasus, neither the US nor Europe intervened. Russia played a role and continues to intervene, but as another player rather than as an overarching rule-setter. Or, Russia behaves as a cruel “policeman” rather than as an impartial “judge.”


In international politics, international organizations are the distant analogue of governing bodies. However in the Caucasus such organizations are less powerful than states and non-recognized states in terms of their capacity for immediate action. Their right to legitimate coercion is restricted by international treaties and there is a lack of desire, mandate, and capacity to use force. Occasionally such organizations can mandate a violent action, and occasionally great powers can also act violently, justified or not justified, without a mandate from an international organization. However, international organizations have been reluctant to intervene decisively in the Caucasus. Russia intervened in Summer 2008, but its actions were not sufficient to bring about a ‘new Caucasus order,’ thus its intervention remained limited to that of a selfish actor and, if anything, only added to the anarchy.


International relations worldwide are still more similar to anarchy than to the situation inside a stable state, although one may also find pockets of anarchy within a state. This situation is fully applicable to the Caucasus. Anarchy, the absence of an overarching rule, order, and legitimate enforcement are key aspects of the environment for rational choice games. Rational games occur in situations where brute force is the main enforcer and they are about decision-making – regardless of whether these decisions are cooperative, fair, or rational. These decisions are not influenced by an overarching rule of law, and even if they are, this rule of law is incorporated into a rationality and interest calculation of a single actor or of all actors.


For example, if in the prisoner's dilemma both players confess, they receive a reward that is calculable in advance (depending on the distribution of rewards and punishments). However, if there were a law and order that provided the prisoners with a fair trial regardless of their confession, this trial might theoretically disregard the confession.


A few words need to be said about the word ‘rational.’ Originating in its modern formulation from the theorizing of Max Weber, rationality, when this concept is used in rational choice theory, concerns making several assumptions: that actors are united and integral or at least they act as such; that their rationality is not absolute, but rather relative to their perceptions, knowledge, and understanding of the situations (gains and losses); that they are self-interested; and that if other factors are equal, the actors will attempt to maximize their gains. In this assumption, even altruism is expressed as self-interest. A father who sacrifices his life for his son does not perform a purely altruistic action, because he is raised with the assumption that one’s children are more valuable than oneself. Or perhaps he sacrifices himself instinctively and following one’s instincts is sometimes rational. Or the above two statements are combined in the following manner – the father sacrifices his life, because he considers himself only to be a unit in the life of the clan or ethnicity and the young generation must survive for the sake of the clan or ethnicity.


As we can see here, the tenet about one integral actor is under duress – the father does not think as a self-interested individual, but rather as a part of a larger unit. However he behaves individually, thus his thoughts are not enough to declare that he is irrational, because that cannot be known for certain. In fact, this example is barely applicable to rational choice theory, because another condition in rational choice theory is that the results of the game should be known within a reasonable and realistic lifespan and easily discernible or identifiable. In the case of the father’s contribution to the clan, this condition is absent – therefore we cannot know if his action did indeed contribute to the clan's well-being. However within the father’s assumptional framework there may not be a need for such proof. Perhaps he believes in the likelihood of the final result, which is likely based on his own experience, values, and myths, with which he was indoctrinated within his own culture and lifetime. A similar argument can be applied to the behavior of a terrorist or ‘ethnic warrior’ (an important actor category in the Caucasus wars).


Caucasus Games and Their Sums


Continuing with the analogy of anarchy, which is a war of everybody against everybody, one can  modify this definition slightly to say that in the Caucasus there is a game of every possible unit against every possible unit. The units do not have to be individuals or states – they also include non-recognized states, guerillas, businesses, organizations, governments, citizens, clans, mafias, families, etc. For example, a ‘state’ can play against a family and a citizen can play against a guerrilla movement.


Certainly not everything that happens in the Caucasus can be explained by means of rational theory, even if viewed in an enlarged sense as proposed above. For instance, a mother sending her son to war and blessing him to kill as many enemies as possible (in Abkhazia in 1993, the enemies include earlier compatriots, fellow citizens, neighbors, friends, and colleagues) is irrational, given the very same reasons that I have provided above explaining the sacrifice of a father. However, if we take into account the peer and social pressures (demands of the society), her behavior may seem more rational.


Such theorizing helps to explain some events, such as the early victories of ethnic and guerrilla groups against larger entities. These larger entities cannot be completely understood as states, as they were so young. If one is playing a rational game and an opposing party is not, the first player is more likely to win in terms of maximizing gains. If one understands that the game being played is rational and the opposing party has not yet understood this, the answer is the same. Thus, those who were fighting the larger entities understood slightly earlier that they are playing this game in a state of anarchy. There is no overarching mediating power, they are in a situation where in order to win one must maximize gains, and they have to be integrated, i.e. play more or less as a united actor. Along with other reasons, this is why they won.


But is it at all valid to say that ‘the game being played is rational’? Would it not be more sophisticated to say that ‘when somebody plays a rational game, it becomes a rational game’? It is also known that in iterated situations, games have a tendency to become more rational over time – those who did not behave according to the imposed rules lost in the first rounds and thereby learn to play according to the rules when given a chance for more rounds. There is an Armenian joke about a man who was walking carelessly and fell into a deep hole. He tried to get out and did not succeed. After continued failed attempts to escape from his situation, he sat down to regain his breath and thought “I am gonna try once more. If I succeed in getting out, great, if not, I’ll just go home.”


In war one usually perceives oneself having a rigid choice – to fight or likely to be killed. One can also try to run away, but the costs can be high. The rational choice is often not between fighting or going home. It is only in an Armenian joke that one can go home if one is in a hole. In reality, one must obviously get out of the hole first.


Thus, we are left again with social constructivist theories – a rational choice game becomes such if people think that it is a rational choice game. Theoretically one can turn around and go home from a conflict situation. However in the given circumstances this may not be rational. Leon Trotsky once used the great slogan, “no peace, no war, and the army goes home.” However, the situation became socially constructed into continuing the First World War.


Constructing Conflict Realities in the Caucasus: From 19th Century Wars and Relocations to the Chechen Conflict


To understand the Caucasus conflicts, the First World War or perhaps the Russian-Caucasus war of the 19th century are fairly good starting points. It was then that the unethical concept of total war introduced the idea that all means are acceptable to destroy the enemy. This resulted in the genocide and relocations found in modern conflicts. For this reason, many Caucasus nations happened to be in Turkey, the Armenians supported the Russian army in its war against the Ottomans, and the Armenian Genocide took place. During the 20th century both the Soviet Union and Ataturk’s Turkey attempted to turn the situation into a fait accompli, however they were mostly unsuccessful. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Caucasus ethnicities rebelled, in Turkey the Kurdish movement erupted and evolved, and now we see a further reawakening of ethnicities within Turkey.


It can be quite informative to examine Turkey in this respect. According to Turkey's constitution, certain nationalities were prohibited from any role in public life, in particular Muslim nationalities. For example, they were prohibited from having schools in any language other than Turkish. However, over the last several years many nationalities have awoken and, except the Kurds, expressed a non-violent desire to revive their cultures. Again, except for the Kurds, these nationalities are not making any territorial claims, because they are satisfied with life within Turkey's borders and, except for those who experienced genocide and ethnic cleansing, they consider themselves guests who came to the Ottoman Empire after escaping from the Russian Caucasus. However, aware of what has happened in the Caucasus over the last twenty years, Turkey requires very wise policies to keep these nationalist movements in check, accompanied by democratization and liberalization. Turkey is a further enigma in the study of political science. It is commonly assumed that an inclination towards the West is more democratic than the Islamic movement, however in Turkey, Ataturk’s heritage (alliance with the West) was associated with brutality, the crushing of internal freedoms, and coup d’etats, whereas the current mild Islamic party in power holds broad national support, is more democratic, and is trying to put an end to the cycle of coup d’etats. In a way, the wearing of a headscarf is a symbol of democracy in Turkey. Perhaps the Iranian revolution took place for a similar reason; the Shah’s government disregarded the nation’s desires. Thus, the Iranian revolution was also based on popular will. If the government of Iran continues to adhere to the popular will and if their institutional structure allows for flexible accommodation of these changes, then Iran may survive without large-scale upheavals. However, in the case of the Soviet Union this was impossible and it is going to be difficult in the case of Iran as well. Perhaps this process of changing the rules of the game will be better managed in Turkey.


As can be seen in all of these cases, popular rule is less advanced than previous ruling. On the surface, the populace wants to return to more traditional values. This should be examined in broad terms in order to understand the tendencies in the Caucasus. This is similar to what occurred with the Chechens after the first Chechen war. The war began, because Chechnya was becoming an increasingly independent political entity – it was even recognized by two or three states, just as today Abkhazia and South Ossetia are recognized by Nicaragua and two other states. The result of the first Russian-Chechen war, a ruthless and disastrous conflict, was the conclusion of the Khasavvyurt ceasefire with Chechnya by Russian General Lebed. While General Lebed pursued the idea of changing the rules of the game (a war of all against all in the Caucasus), his successors had other aims concerning Chechnya.


Former Russian President and current Prime Minister Vladimir Putin built the new type of post-Yeltsin Russia, which had to be governed in a centralized manner with oligarchs fully subdued to the power and security nomenclature – he had no interest in losing more territory of the Russian Federation. Thus, Russia isolated Chechnya during the ceasefire period. Chechnya was thereby unable to develop fully functional governing systems. Islamic Sharia rule was adopted and kidnapping became one of the major trades. Left with almost no international assistance, war-torn Chechnya was degenerating into a black hole of anarchy. The September 11, 2001 terrorist attack greatly helped Putin’s approach. In this game of war of all against all, labeling one’s enemies as terrorists is a widespread public relations tactic. Several terrorist actions occurred within Russia's borders, although it is unknown if were they masterminded by joint networks of Chechens with Russian security forces or if they were purely Chechen actions, which is less likely.


After September 11th the Western world became more susceptible to the Russian claim that terrorists, rather than freedom fighters, are causing problems in Chechnya. Then Chechen commander Basaev began his march into Dagestan, which was a perfect pretext for Russia to start the second Chechen war. Thus, the ceasefire was used by both sides only to reorganize for another war. After several years of ruthless fighting, Chechnya today has no claim to independence. However, today's Chechnya, as well as other major parts of the North Caucasus, are still quite lawless areas and the tendencies of Islamization and Wahhabism are growing. Demographic studies show, as is usual with Muslim areas, a fast growth of the population. There are rampant corruption and dysfunctional state organs. General instability grows.


In terms of our aim to explain the Caucasus as a meeting point of two approaches, zero-sum games and reality construction, two major lessons can be drawn from the story of Chechnya. The first lesson is that if ten years ago there were four non-recognized states in the Caucasus, now there are three. Additionally, one of these is not as well-accepted as non-recognized (Nagorno-Karabakh), whereas the other two are even recognized by Russia and a few other states (Abkhazia and South Ossetia). Chechnya’s bid for independence was ruined. The Chechen independence fighters were declared to be terrorists; as such, they became in many instances terrorists. Terror became a legitimate way of waging war. This was a major success for Russia's  ruthless Realpolitik. The romantic overtones of a small people’s heroic fight for independence ceased and were erased from mainstream Western discourse – the West essentially stopped criticizing Russia for its actions in the North Caucasus. The same public relations model was applied to other non-recognized territories, e.g. the claims that they breed terrorists, they are illegal areas where trafficking flourishes, they are narcotics corridors, etc., i.e. they are black holes on the map that must be removed. Similar to Chechen rulers, the rulers of these territories, at least at the rhetorical level, are often declared to be criminals. This remains however merely war rhetoric, because what can be considered a crime versus a non-crime in the fight of all against all, is not known.


The second lesson was that Putin used the Chechen war and particularly the terrorist attack on the Beslan school as a pretext to change the system of governance in all of Russia and to change the map of the North Caucasus; since then local governors and presidents of federal republics were appointed by Putin rather than elected. As for the North Caucasus, a Southern Federal District was created, which is much bigger than the North Caucasus, with the capital in Rostov[3]. Thus, many elements of sovereignty were taken away from the federal entities, but in particular from the North Caucasus republics.


Georgia and its Modern Conflicts


Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili’s rise to power was immediately followed by a successful raid on Adjara; Adjara's ruler Aslan Abashidze, who had developed criminal ties with Russia and was feeling independent, was forced to run away. Adjara was conquered by the Georgian central government and any elements of separatism there, which did not have an identity component but were rather the result of economic interest of the chieftain Abashidze, were crushed forever. While many people who live in Adjara are Muslims, this entity did not have any popular movement for secession such as in Abkhazia or Karabakh. This successful campaign made Saakashvili think that a similar sweeping operation was possible in South Ossetia. The situation was however different here. On the one hand South Ossetians lived intermixed with Georgians; since the  first conflict, thanks particularly to the Ergneti market, they developed close ties with their short-term adversaries. On the other hand the conflict that took place in the early 1990s had brought about a situation where secession was formally declared by South Ossetia. It was even supported by the very structure of the negotiation unit, the Joint Coordination Committee (JCC) under the auspices of OSCE, comprised of four sides, Georgia, Russia, South Ossetia, and North Ossetia.


This inclusion of a non-recognized entity and a federal republic, a part of another state, into the negotiation mechanism was highly unusual for international practice and particularly for OSCE, which is very state-centric. The composition of the negotiation unit demonstrated that Russia played a significant role in the entire conflict; three out of the four sides in this conflict were allies, although on the surface the idea was that two states and their two entities are negotiating their conflicting issues. South Ossetia was a very different situation than Adjara in that it had created non-recognized state structures, it was included as a negotiating party in this quadripartite system; also because of its proximity to Russia, the existence of its ethnic kin across the separation line, as well as other factors. Saakashvili successfully destroyed the Ergneti market on the territory of Georgia proper. This was a major black market for fuel exchange throughout the Caucasus, but also a vehicle for cooperation between Georgians and South Ossetians. It was destroyed under the pretext of fighting crime, corruption, and illegality. Russia used a similar claim in its fight against Chechnya and Saakashvili himself used a similar claim successfully against Adjara. However, the military attack on South Ossetia proper in the summer of 2004 was unsuccessful. The overall result was a further deepening of the divide between South Ossetia and Georgia, further escalation of support by Russia to South Ossetia, and the further drive of Georgia towards NATO and the West.


While making a bid to join NATO, Saakashvili simultaneously continued to change the shape and structure of the conflicts. For South Ossetia, he supported the creation of another government, that of Dmitry Sanakoev, which while within Georgian territory, contested the legitimacy of the South Ossetian separatist government. From the social construction perspective of this conflict, did any of these governments represent the will of the people they claimed to rule and if yes, which government was more legitimate?


Instead of answering this question, one can analyze Saakashvili's next actions. A similar government already existed in the context of Georgian-Abkhaz conflict. It comprised those Georgians who left Abkhazia during the 1993 war as displaced people and were working in Abkhazia before the war in any of the state structures. These included not only members of parliament and the ministers of the Soviet-era autonomous republic of Abkhazia, but also employees of the fire department or the emergency medical hospital. In the era of former Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze, this entity, known in Georgia as the ‘Legitimate Abkhaz Government’ and internationally as the ‘Government-in-Exile’, was in charge of the affairs of displaced people and enjoyed several privileges. For instance, the head of its parliament was simultaneously an official deputy head of the Georgian parliament and his position was secured, i.e. he did not face the danger of removal from office due to new elections for the Georgian parliament. Saakashvili changed this, removed the position, and forced the government-in-exile to relocate to the territory of Abkhazia, specifically to the Kodori highlands, which were not occupied by the Abkhaz, because they were difficult to access by both sides. He declared the creation of the new geopolitical entity of ‘Upper Abkhazia’.


Two governments of South Ossetia and two governments of Abkhazia thereby came into being, although the second ones, created by Saakashvili, were much weaker than the governments actually in charge of the territories, and were understandably labeled as ‘puppets’ by the secessionists.


Abkhazia's degree of sovereignty after the war with Georgia was in some ways similar to that of South Ossetia and in some ways even stronger. In the period of 1992 to 2004, South Ossetians claimed independence and accused the first Georgian independent government of Zviad Gamsakhurdia of attempting to commit genocide. At the level of day-to-day life, South Ossetians were partially integrated in one political economy with Georgians. Moreover, the Georgian populated villages deep inside the territory of South Ossetia were kept intact. In Abkhazia the remaining Georgians lived mainly in the Gali region, immediately adjacent to the ceasefire line. They were forced to move back and forth, and they were subject to coercion by the Abkhaz authorities. For instance, in 1998 at the time of the deterioration of the conflict situation, several tens of thousands of the Gali inhabitants were forced to leave. Afterward they were again allowed to return. These inhabitants were not well integrated into Abkhazia. Meanwhile, the Abkhaz, Russians, and Armenians who lived further Northwest in Abkhazia had hardly any interactions with Georgia after the war.


Just as in the case of South Ossetia, the negotiations system included Abkhazia, which was again a diplomatic victory for the non-recognized state as well as probably for Russia, which was instrumental in setting up these systems after the wars of the 1990s. Unlike the situation with South Ossetia, the UN served as the main mediator between Georgia and Abkhazia. Again it was unusual to have an interstate organization officially negotiating between a state and its breakaway region. On the one hand, this placed serious pressure on Abkhazia to abandon its bid for independence and on the other hand, this offered some form of recognition of Abkhazia's status. The UN group charged with negotiations was first called the ‘Friends of Georgia,’ however this title was fiercely contested by both Abkhazia and Russia; as a result the group was renamed the ‘Friends of the Secretary General,’ a sarcastic and empty title with the main goal of neutralizing the controversy. However, the Group of Friends could e.g. hold a meeting in the UN headquarters without participation of the Abkhaz, because they are not a UN member state; the result of this was that the Friends either did not have a side to negotiate with or Russia became that side whether on purpose or by default.


Similarly, in the official parlance of the OSCE, the Karabakh conflict was referred to as ‘the conflict being dealt with by the OSCE Minsk group,’ because if it were labeled the ‘Karabakh conflict’ or ‘the conflict between Karabakh and Azerbaijan,’ Azerbaijan would surely have complained and if it were labeled the ‘Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict,’ Armenia would surely have complained.  


With the status of an autonomous republic during the Soviet period, which was a higher level of autonomy in the Soviet system as compared to the status of autonomous regions (which included Nagorno-Karabakh and South Ossetia), Abkhazia enjoyed some elements of sovereignty even in the eyes of Georgia. For instance, during the Shevardnadze government Georgian politicians agreed to meet with Abkhaz politicians for informal dialogue meetings, arguing that as an autonomous republic inside of Georgia, Abkhazia would have a parliament;  thus, the status of an Abkhaz parliamentarian is not as illegitimate and as illegal as e.g. the status of an Abkhaz president. This was to some degree an informal acceptance of Abhazia's legitimacy.


The Karabakh Conflict


In order to complete the analysis of how the rational game is intertwined with the construction of reality, the case of Karabakh should also be examined. In the early years of the conflict, Armenia and Azerbaijan agreed to an official mediation by the OSCE. Perhaps both parties agreed to this, because the UN comprised many Muslim states. Armenia declared that it was not a side in the conflict and was only supporting its kin’s struggle, but as a recognized state it accepted being a negotiating party. At this point the issue of the Karabakhi authorities’ participation in negotiations became difficult. Azerbaijan was fiercely against any Karabakhi participation, arguing that both Karabakhi Armenians and Karabakhi Azerbaijanis should be included in the respective delegations of Armenia and Azerbaijan[4]. For Azerbaijan the key was to present the conflict as an interstate war, as this would provide an opportunity to argue that Armenia occupied the territory of Azerbaijan. These diplomatic battles began in 1992 and continued even during open war. The diplomacy began even before the Armenian forces freed a major part of the territory of Karabakh proper from the Azerbaijani army and even occupied substantial parts of Azerbaijan bordering Nagorno-Karabakh.


The Armenian government during the first presidency had no united policy concerning Karabakh. On the one hand, Karabakh declared independence and on the other hand, Armenia did not recognize it. Although Armenia accepted the OSCE format, Armenia belatedly tried to include Karabakh as a negotiating side. This approach was partially successful. Karabakhi Armenians had their own army as well as established institutions, endowments, and other characteristics of statehood, albeit unrecognized, and perhaps due to this, the Karabakhi Armenian representatives sometimes had higher status during negotiations than the Karabakhi Azerbaijanis. For instance, Karabakhi Azerbaijanis would sit behind the first row at the negotiating table, while the Karabakhi Armenians would sit around the table in the first row.


Moreover, when the ceasefire agreement was finally negotiated and implemented in 1994, the Karabakhi Armenian military commander in chief signed the agreement alongside Armenia and Azerbaijan. This appeared to be a diplomatic victory and a final confirmation of the fact that Karabakh is a side in the negotiations. However, soon afterward with Karabakhi President Kocharyan as prime minister in Armenia and then president of Armenia proper, he personally as well as in unison with the international community removed from the agenda the issue of the representation of the Karabakhi authorities at the negotiations. This was the proper strategy if Armenia was planning to declare unification with Karabakh. However, because Armenia never took this course of action, this slightly lowered and limited its capacity to maneuver diplomatically. Nevertheless, the Minsk Co-Chairmen usually visit Karabakh during their trips to the region. Their trips usually comprise three stops: Yerevan, Baku and Stepanakert; thus, the shuttling process does include Karabakhi Armenian authorities as a side in the conflict.


In general, ‘recognition’ as a post-Second World War concept, has become a key to explaining the Caucasus situation. Recognition was haphazardly applied to all post-Soviet states, thus, for example, the intrastate conflict of Karabakh became an interstate conflict. Recognition is what the non-recognized states hope for, at least on the surface. The entire discourse of recognition was rejuvenated by the story of Kosovo. However, insofar as the perception is zero-sum, recognition is just another tool in the palette of propaganda wars and zero-sum game building; whether or not Abkhazia and South Ossetia are recognized, the proof that they are states lies with the degree and extent of sovereignty that Russia provides to them. It is highly unlikely that this sovereignty will be significant. Similarly, Armenia seems to have missed the opportunity to make Karabakh a recognized entity, thus it is going to remain an entity with an unknown status for years to come.


When Russia significantly increased its cooperation after 2004 with Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and Transdniestria (another self-declared statelet, breakaway region of Moldova) and sponsored their attempt to create a union of non-recognized states, Karabakh did not join, nor was it invited. At the same time, Karabakh continued to hold elections and legitimize its status as a state, even if not recognized, accompanied by independent observers from various parliaments, mainly from the Russian Duma. There was also a small but symbolically important presence of election observers from the US and UK (mostly academics and NGOs).


Until 2000 civil society contact between Armenians and Azerbaijanis took place on quite a large scale. However, since 2000 the Azerbaijani government began to actively discourage visits of Armenians to Azerbaijan and vice versa for workshops and conferences. Special public groups would pressure, intimidate, and even threaten Azerbaijanis who traveled to Armenia, especially those who visited Karabakh, condemning them as ‘traitors’. The reason for this was that Azerbaijan continued to escalate the zero-sum game around the NK conflict. It probably decided that the longer the status quo continues, the deeper the idea that Karabakh does not belong to Azerbaijan becomes indoctrinated and entrenched in global discourse. The anti-Armenian propaganda in Azerbaijan internally affected the media, history books, and every possible discourse. In Armenia there was much anti-Azerbaijani propaganda as well, however this was less uncompromising, since Armenia saw itself as the victor of the war and Azerbaijan did not. For instance, one can easily find articles in Armenian media that simply use the word ‘Azerbaijanis’ with no further description. However, in the Azerbaijani media the expression ‘Armenian aggressors’ has become so widespread that the use of this cliché is not even counted as an indication of media bias in the media studies.


Similar to Georgia, Azerbaijan established its own structures of the Karabakh government in exile and created a public organization that claims to represent those who were ousted from Armenia proper as a precursor to a future Azerbaijani geopolitical entity in Armenia, the ‘Giokcha-Zangezur Republic’. This war of names requires significant effort from both sides; after occupying the territories outside of Karabakh's borders, Armenia renamed them with Armenian names – Kelbajar became Karvatjar, Lachin became Berddzor, etc. However, these new names are generally ignored and the old names are still used. Azerbaijan renamed Stepanakert to Khankendi, bringing back its pre-Soviet name, and continues to fight against every case when Stepanakert is used instead of Khankendi. An issue of National Geographic that used the name Khankendi was condemned in Armenia. A tour guide book of Lonely Planet that identified Karabakh as a separate entity alongside Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan was condemned by Baku.


A similar war of names is taking place between Georgia and Abkhazia as well as Georgia and South Ossetia. Georgians officially refer to South Ossetia as the ‘Tshkhinvali region.’ The capital of Abkhazia is ‘Sukhumi’ for Georgians and ‘Sukkum’ for the Abkhaz. Strangely, Russians use the Georgian version.


One of the most abused words is ‘genocide’. In their propaganda of the Karabakh war, Armenian nationalists used the fact of the Armenian Genocide in the Ottoman Empire to unite the Armenian cause against Turks and against Azerbaijanis. The Sumgait pogroms at an early stage of conflict in 1988 were used to accuse Azerbaijan of preparing a genocide against Armenians. The phrase ‘ethnic cleansing’ was coined by a journalist in the context of the Yugoslav wars and became widely used in the Caucasus context.


In the early years of conflict the Armenians tended to merge Azerbaijan and Turkey into one adversary due to their shared ‘Turkicness’; the fact that Turkey did not open its borders with Armenia and thus became a de facto ally of Azerbaijan in this war did not help the situation. This was perceived as a clear act of war against Armenia. The slogan ‘one nation-two states’ did not help either. The ideas of ‘Pan-Turkism’ from the beginning of the 20th century were quoted and circulated to help explain the Turkey-Azerbaijan alliance. Fortunately, Turkish policieswere not unequivocally confrontational all the way through. For instance, while not establishing diplomatic relations with Armenia, Turkey however created a generally easy visa access system that allows Armenians to enter Turkey. ‘Pan-Turkism’ is quite out of fashion today and is absent even from the Armenian nationalist discourse. On the other hand, Azerbaijanis labeled Armenians as the aggressors and invoked the Armenian nationalist concept of ‘Armenia from sea to sea’ as a proof of the aggressive inclination of Armenia. The events in Khojalu, an area in Karabakh where several hundreds of Azerbaijani civilians were killed during the war, were labeled by Azerbaijan as genocide.


Building Democracy as a Solution to the Zero-sum Game


As has been shown in this paper, the parties involved in the Caucasus conflicts are usually playing a zero-sum game. In order for them to do this successfully they are forced to construct an enemy image of the adversary. This enemy image becomes a mirror image; they adopt the worst insinuations or repeat the worst actions of the other side. In many cases the insinuations are farfetched and unjustified. The application of international law or any other overarching power is absent and/or inapplicable, which was demonstrated most clearly by the August 2008 Russian-Georgian war.  The greatest losses will be reached if one side is playing a zero-sum game while the opposing side is not. The result of such a situation is that sides start mimicking each others’ arguments and formulations in order to become similar to each other. The rhetoric of accusations and enemy image building sometimes transfers into reality, e.g. the Russian claim that the Chechen movement was a terrorist movement rather than a bid for independence created the reality of terrorism that followed these claimes.


Sometimes the social construction of reality wins and sometimes it does not. For instance, it was proven that there was no genocide of the South Ossetians during the Georgian attack in August 2008. However, the South Ossetians and Russians do not feel ashamed – they claim that they were unfairly attacked and thus they felt as if it was a genocide.


Most of the time neither side wins – Sukhum or Sukhumi, is still an open question. In the peace documents, NGOs write Sukhum/i and Stepanakert/Khankendi. However, the competition between spellings continues as long as the zero-sum game is a possibility.


To move from a zero-sum game to a more cooperative game, such as the prisoner’s dilemma, would already represent a serious step forward. However, in order to achieve this, all sides have to ensure that some of the circumstances are in place. For instance, they should not have any perceived choice to revert to the zero-sum game in the foreseeable future. This could happen if e.g. the war option was simply declared impossible henceforth. The other condition is that the parties involved should feel strong enough to afford a possible perceived loss, e.g. if Turkey and Armenia do not simultaneously attempt ratification of the protocols, each side should still try to ratify the protocols independent of its adversary. Another condition is that all sides should cease to be perceived as a united actor each, and moreover the parties should cease building alliances with the intention to polarize all actors, including international actors. For instance, if Russia indeed would support the outright independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, rather than merely swallow them and if Georgia relaxed its bid to join NATO, we would have a more complex,  multipolar, or multilateral situation, which would be more beneficial and disaster-proof as compared to further polarization and the current zero-sum game. Similarly, Turkey’s decision to attempt a rapprochement with Armenia was probably one of the most courageous steps of the new Turkish government, which is due significantly to the increasing democratization in Turkey. It also demonstrated that despite the memory of the genocide, the Armenian nation is not a united uniform entity. Armenia also includes a pragmatic population, both inside the country as well as among the Diaspora, who distinguish the issue of recognizing the genocide  from the need to have positive neighborly relations with Turkey.


Thus, if the Caucasus truly wants to move away from socially constructing the zero-sum game, it must build democracy. A more democratized entity has a greater plurality of internal discourse, a stronger feeling of security, and a lowered intention to continue a zero-sum game. However, as Immanuel Kant wrote centuries ago, interdependence makes democracy in one entity dependent on its level in the other entity. The solution to the Caucasus conflicts lies in building democracy in the entire region simultaneously and interdependently, based on one united strategy.


[1]               In this essay, social constructivism is used as a generic term and it encompasses the cases of reality construction by society, politicians (political constructivism), and diplomats (diplomatic construction of reality). Some of its instruments are propaganda, national mythology building (‘imagining communities’, as Benedict Anderson would say), building enemy image, and mirroring the adversary.

[2]               Conceptually, there is a huge difference between the policeman in the prisoners’ dilemma (who coerces the prisoners into a set of unfair options) versus a rule of law. See below.

[3]               Recently President Medvedev issued a decree creating a new, smaller unit: North Caucasus region, thus starting to change Putin’s North Caucasus policies.

[4]               Even this idea is controversial, because Karabakhi Armenians, the inhabitants of Karabakh, are officially citizens of Azerbaijan who have unilaterally revoked their citizenship.



22:26 September 17, 2014