Prospects for Innovative Security Approaches in the South Caucasus

Gulnara Shahinian argues that Armenia’s recent National Security Strategy set it on a path to engage with 21st century human security challenges in constant tension with the South Caucasus’ simmering Soviet-legacy territorial conflicts.

More than two years have passed since the ‘Velvet Revolution’ of April-May 2018 in Armenia. Many successful reforms have been introduced in critical spheres of human development and the tangible impact of these promising trends is seen by people in their daily lives. Two years is not a long time for change, especially if one considers the social and political legacy that the new government inherited, in both home and external affairs, and the tough opposition to these reforms from former officials.

Armenia’s National Security Strategy 2020

Despite that opposition, a new National Security Strategy (NSS) was adopted on 10 July, the fruits of a year-long multidisciplinary commission that was composed of experts, state officials, and civil society. A 50-page document delineates the nation’s priorities, addressing today’s security challenges not only in the region but within our own country. Equality between women and men, equal access to opportunities,security/protection, the role of individuals in building the country, non-violence, and peaceful coexistence – these are just some fundamental concepts found in the NSS. It’s a security document for the modern generation, stemming from the nexus between human rights and security.

The decision to create a new strategy had strong justification. First, the last NSS had been developed in 2007 and since then many changes had taken place, both in the region and in Armenia. Second, the new document presents a modern security concept, in line with the human rights-based thinking of the ‘Velvet Revolution’, embracing the relationship between the individual and the state and promoting peace and security in the region. The document also contains a revision mechanism, through which the document will be revised at least once in five years, with all relevant government agencies submitting progress reports to the Security Council on an annual basis.

Old conflicts and new approaches

The new outbreak of violence in July 2020 in the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh has confirmed the urgent need to reassess security approaches in the South Caucasus, widen the security paradigm, and bring people in as security actors through introducing a human rights-centered approach to security and modern, creative solutions to conflicts. 

Through the years, there have been numerous proposals presented to the international community on establishing women’s advisory groups to play a role in peacebuilding and bring fresh approaches and new vision to official negotiations. A major shift in the approach to ensuring security for women has moved the community away from a ‘women-as-victims approach’ to one of comprehensive security for women that recognizes and responds to their diverse roles as participants and victims during the conflict. Central to this approach is reforming the security sector in a manner that recognizes ‘security’ as not just the absence of military activities but enhanced access to complex rights. It is clear that protracted conflicts like those in the Caucasus urgently need the new and inclusive vision that women’s participation can bring.

In the past, security was understood as the responsibility of the state, securing citizens from potential external threats, strengthening the armed forces and borders, and thus spending a huge part of the budget on militarisation at the expense of education, health, social protection, environment, employment, etc. In the context of Armenia’s enduring conflict with Azerbaijan, this approach resulted in the extensive militarisation and accumulation of power in the hands of the group of individuals who used military threats to justify and pursue their internal agenda: limiting freedom of speech, building a hate-filled nationalist agenda and inciting hostility towards civil society actors involved in peacebuilding activities and cross-border cooperation, while undermining local involvement.

Having planned to build democracies, post-Soviet Armenia and Azerbaijan instead evolved towards autocracy. The meaning of peace for their people, its benefits, its impacts on the daily lives of individuals, have never been subject to discussion in their societies. Peacebuilding and cooperation across borders have been perceived as a betrayal of national interests. The important space for civil society actors in peacebuilding shrank through the years, currently leaving them with zero opportunities. National interests have been disconnected from peace and turned into power contests, making sustainable peace impossible and undermining the role of local actors. The behaviour of these states has been reminiscent of Soviet attitudes. Given the geopolitical environment in which they are operating, the risk is considerable.  

Other forms of insecurity, related to environmental degradation, poverty, unemployment and economic pressures, have been masked. Complex preventative and confidence-building measures have been limited over the years and are mostly funded by international donors. 

The role of the state in providing security and its relation with other societal actors should be carefully examined to achieve the important balance of shared responsibilities between state and citizens It is important in addressing human security to focus on the security of people affected by current situations and policies, as well as their capacity to contribute to positive change and their potential role in partnering with the state to build societies that are free of old patterns of inequality.

Revolutionary security concepts

Democratic processes in Georgia, which had its own ‘Rose Revolution’ in 2003, and the Armenian ‘Velvet revolution’ have demonstrated new possibilities and new visions. The demand has been formed to critically reassess security, enlarging the concept by bringing in the critical potential of human security, which provides an important shift of paradigm. It is the security of the individuals afflicted by these conditions, and not the perceived security of a minority controlling state resources, which needs to be the optimal result of these measures. Both countries are taking important steps in this direction: reviewing budgets to a more balanced approach towards education, health, social protection; reorganizing the security sector, providing stronger roles to civil society; and investing in programs to develop the potential of the population. 

Armenia’s ‘Velvet Revolution’, with its important conceptual changes, introduced a new language of security and diplomacy, in which security is human-centered and based on a holistic assessment of the protection needs of the people of Armenia.

Georgia had already chosen the democratic development and European integration route, and introduced a similar, human security approach into its National Security Concept (2011). The ‘Velvet Revolution’ gave a new positive impulse to relations between the two countries and there have been several meetings and document-signings between high officials. This gives real hope that these two countries can develop a good joint platform for peace and common security that will be open to other states in the Caucasus.

Given this summer’s flare-up in fighting around Nagorno-Karabakh and the frosty relations between Georgia and Russia, that hope may seem utopian, but sometimes in politics, in response to concerted popular demand, even seemingly utopian ideas become reality.


Gulnara Shahinian is founding Chair of Democracy Today, an NGO that works to promote democracy and gender sensitivity in Armenian society. She is a member of the Group of Experts on Action Against Trafficking in Human Beings and was United Nations Special Rapporteur on Contemporary Forms of Slavery from 2006 to 2014.


The views and opinions expressed in posts on the Rethinking Security blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the position of the network and its broader membership.


Image Credit: Pikist – Poppies bloom on the Armenia-Turkey border.

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