The personalisation of politics and government has also contributed to extreme forms of ‘othering’: that is, the demonisation and exclusion of the ‘other group’, whether Armenians in Azerbaijan or Azerbaijanis in Armenia and Karabakh. This has been an overlooked aspect of the conflicts in the Caucasus. The conflicts in this region are primarily rooted in problems of restructuring of minority-majority relations and not necessarily the ‘historical’ animosities often presented in the media. The ‘othering’ discourse makes the relationship of the minority (Karabakh Armenians) with the majority (Azerbaijanis) even more tenuous. President Kocharian, for instance, said in January 2003:
“The Armenian pogroms in Sumgait and Baku, and the attempts at mass military deportation of Armenians from Karabakh in 1991-92 indicate the impossibility for Armenians to live in Azerbaijan in general. We are talking about some sort of ethnic incompatibility…”
His Azerbaijani counterpart at the time, Heydar Aliyev, was just as undiplomatic when he claimed in 2001 that, “Armenian aggressors do not differ in any way from Hitler’s armies, from German fascism”.
Such a discourse overshadows centuries of neighbourly relations among diverse peoples in this region. Especially in recent years, the positive aspects of relations between ethnic groups have rarely been discussed in the societies of the South Caucasus. Only when outsiders or journalists ask do individuals tend to recount examples or experiences of good relationships with the ‘other’.
Beyond the structural weaknesses of the metropolitan states and the lack of convincing offers for reintegration of the former autonomies, the ideological and social discourse of ‘othering’ presents the most formidable problem to conflict resolution. If a lasting peace is ultimately a process of reconciliation between societies, it is imperilled by the persistent demonisation of the ‘other’ prevalent in the South Caucasus. For the Azerbaijanis, the ‘othering’ discourse is rooted in the sense of military defeat, loss of territory, socio-economic conditions and, most importantly, the plight of the nearly 800,000 refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs). The frustration and the enormous problems the refugees and IDPs face in their daily lives present powerful emotional and political bases of ‘othering’. The Armenian discourse of ‘othering’ is primarily rooted in a sense of national victimhood and irredentism rooted in the memory and fear of genocide, both in history and modern times. Further, Armenians popularly equate Azerbaijanis with ‘Turks’, thus transferring the historical animosity towards Turkey to Azerbaijanis.
The issue is not whether the ‘othering’ discourse is justified or whether there are legitimate reasons for such a discourse, but its sociological implications for conflict resolution. Crucially, the strict us-them divide, as well as the process of projecting individual acts or particular events on entire populations, makes the peaceful resolution of the conflict increasingly unlikely. Instead the extreme ‘othering’ discourse has led to more militancy in societies that under such circumstances are far from engaging in a process of reconciliation.