War & peace
5 min read

After the first war, before the next

Once more border clashes between Armenia and Azerbaijan are occurring. Lika Zakaryan reflects on what happened since the last war ended.

Lika Zakaryan is a writer and photographer based in the Republic of Artsakh (Karabakh).

A child protestor holds a placard at a demonstration
Artsakh citizens protest against the blockade and its effects.
VoA, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

More than two years ago the war between Armenia and Azerbaijan for Nagorno-Karabakh/Artsakh ended, but many fundamental issues remain. Who will provide security and services for the region’s residents - Armenians? How is humanitarian aid managed and by whom?. And, nobody knows if the so-called “ceasefire” will hold.  

Azerbaijan won the war, with the Armenian side losing significant territory in and around Nagorno-Karabakh. Over one-third of the population became refugees, losing their homes and everything they managed to create during all their lives. Now Azerbaijan controls those territories, but they mainly remain not inhabited. Those territories that remained under the control of Armenians, are still populated only with Armenians, and Azerbaijanis have to approached them. In order to prevent any armed conflict in the region (in fact, to protect Armenians from Azerbaijanis) 4,000 Russian soldiers-peacekeepers and emergency services staff keep an uneasy peace.  

They were already in Artsakh within hours of the peace agreement’s signing. Artsakh is part of Nagorno-Karabakh, an Armenian enclave within Azerbaijan. Since then, peacekeepers have done a lot: escorting villagers to visit graves, mediating disputes, tending crops, and fixing water pipes. They set up checkpoints along the only road connecting Artsakh to Armenia, to ensure a safe corridor for Armenians living in Artsakh.   

Before the war, there were 150 000 Armenians living in Artsakh. After the war, the numbers decreased to 120 000. Some people didn’t come back from Armenia, where they found a shelter, after losing their homes. Some moved to Armenia or Russia because they didn’t want to live in uncertainty. And, unfortunately, wars take lives, and some people lost their lives during that period. But mostly the people of Artsakh remained resilient and wanted to live in their homes or create new ones, even not knowing for how long they will last.  

It is said in Artsakh and Armenia, that every human being now living in Artsakh is a hero. They say that because it’s not easy to sleep every night not knowing if you are going to wake up in the morning tothe sounds of bombs, or if you are going to wake up at all. Because since the end of the war Azerbaijan has done so much to traumatize people physically and mentally. 

According to the peace agreement Armenians and Azerbaijanis should remain in the positions they were in at that moment. In other words, after the signing and the cease-fire, they have no right to move forward and occupy new territory. However, after just one month, Azerbaijan entered and captured two Armenian villages, taking more than 60 Armenians as prisoners of war. After that, during those two years, similar military operations were repeated numerous times by Azerbaijan. Again, people were afraid of the sounds of war, they heard and saw military drones, and felts those feelings again. 

It was also a manifestation of psychological violence that the Facebook page of the Artsakh National Assembly was hacked, with a flag of Azerbaijan posted as the main picture. The accompanying text read:  

“We call on the Armenians living in Karabakh to leave the occupied territories of Azerbaijan within 168 hours, otherwise all Armenian citizens will be killed.” 

People had no idea if they should believe that threat or not. Maybe this was just another provocation, but could it really happen? Did they need to evacuate everyone. Or not believe it and stay in their houses? No matter how hard people try to stay strong, no one closed their eyes that night, thinking that it was possible that Azerbaijanis will enter the cities and villages and commit a genocide against the peaceful residents.  

Many violations happened during these last two years. And then since December 12, 2022, Azerbaijan has blockaded the only road connecting Artsakh to Armenia depriving residents of a basic right - a right of freedom of movement. It’s the only road people can travel in and out on, the only road through which the 120 000 people get food, medical and other supplies. It's the only road that connects Artsakh with the outside world. Blockading this road caused a humanitarian disaster. Lack of food, medicine, work, and cash. Nobody can pass along that road. 

The blockade was not enough, and Azerbaijan decided to shut off gas and electricity supplies to Artsakh again during the coldest months of winter. People simply do not have the opportunity to warm up. In a sub-zero temperature, people were deprived of the opportunity to turn on a small heater for hours. The little children, unable to stand the cold, fell ill and ended up in the hospital. 

The healthcare system in Artsakh is still a little weak. There are hospitals, but people who are in critical condition, between life and death, are mostly transferred to Yerevan, the capital of Armenia, in order to receive proper treatment there. However, due to the blockade, some people could not be evacuated, and died. 

Also, a food rationing system was introduced in Artsakh, where people can get food only with a coupon. According to the system, every person gets one kilogram of rice, one kilogram of pasta, one kilogram of sugar and one kilogram of buckwheat in a month. With those coupons, people come to the stores and buy their share. 

Food is so scarce that locals have begun to notice that street animals are starving to death because they can't find food in the dumps. The reason is that people have nothing to throw away. 

Many families have been divided because one or another family member mistakenly stayed on the other side of the blockade. Many people went to Yerevan to see a doctor and due to the road’s blockade cannot return home. The same impact was felt for those going in the opposite direction. In total, 1,100 people remained in Armenia and did not manage to return to Artsakh. 

Artsakh children are deprived of the right to education. Schools and kindergartens are closed for months because there is no way to heat them. Also, they cannot feed children in kindergartens due to the lack of food, and children in schools cannot take food to school, because there is almost no food at home. And sitting for six or seven hours without food is very difficult for children. 

Azerbaijanis also regularly cut telephone and Internet wires, and people are deprived of the only opportunity to even connect with the world virtually. 

People are trying to overcome all these difficulties, but no one knows when these provocations and torments will end. When they will finally be able to live decently. And the world hasn't even heard of that small area in the far South Caucasus and the resilient people of Artsakh, who are so loyal to their roots and homeland.

10 min read

‘Let your yeah be yeah’: when style supplants substance

The frustrating language of politics.

Roger is a Baptist minister, author and Senior Research Fellow at Spurgeon’s College in London. 

Rishi Sunak
Campaign slogans.
Newzeepk, X.

You know what it’s like. A catchy piece of music is going round and round in your head. You can’t stop it. You don’t know where it came from. And, if you did originally like it, you find yourself quickly going off it.  

Some call it ‘sticky music’, while others have labelled the phenomenon as ‘stuck song syndrome’. I prefer the more evocative ‘earworm’ as it ably expresses the experience of something both invasive and undesirable. 

On this occasion the tune was accompanied by its refrain, ‘Let your yeah be yeah, and your no be no, now’. Round and round and round it went. It’s not a song I know well, and I couldn’t even remember who sang it.  

Thankfully a quick google identified it as a top 10 single from 1971 by the Jamaican reggae trio, The Pioneers. Unfortunately, discovering that did not make it go away. 

It was not rocket science to understand what was going on inside my head. It was the first week after Prime Minister Rishi Sunak had called the election and the campaigning had begun in earnest.  

Now it’s not that my instant reaction was to do a ‘Brenda from Bristol’. Brenda, you will remember, became an internet sensation in 2017 for her memorable outburst when Teresa May called a snap election. She exclaimed, ‘You must be joking, not another one!’ No, I’m to be found more at the aficionado end of the political spectrum. 

Still, I have been finding myself increasingly exasperated over recent years. I don’t think my irritation is just about getting older and becoming more grumpy. But I do find myself frustrated by what politicians do with language and the words they choose to use. I’m annoyed by the strategies they adopt as they justify themselves and the rhetorical devices they surreptitiously employ to bolster an argument. 

Inside I find a deep longing for people to say what they mean and mean what they say. Is it too much to ask? Of course, there’s the root in my psyche, ‘let your yeah be yeah, and your no be no, now’. 

It’s not that this is some kind of naïve desire for politics to become what it never can be - some kind of genteel, educated, middle-class debating society.  

The very nature of democracy has passionate argument at its very heart. We don’t wrangle over what we agree on and hold in common. Democracy obliges our leaders to be in a mindset of perpetual persuasion towards us. 

No, for me, the nub of the problem is when emotive words are chosen to make a point that the substance of an argument can’t. Or, when rhetorical sleight of hand is deployed on an unsuspecting audience, much like the misdirection of a magician in creating the illusion of magic. 

Style supplants content and soundbites replace substance that has depth and an evidential basis. 

This is nothing new. It has been a part of our public life in the West since the classical era of Aristotle, Plato and Cicero. It was the English rhetorician Ralph Lever who, in the sixteenth century, attempted to translate the key concepts of Aristotelian logic into English in his The Arte of Reason, rightly termed, Witcraft. That is, ‘witcraft’ – the art, skill or craft of the mind, NOT ‘witchcraft’: though some might see that as an apt descriptor of the dark arts that classical rhetoric can enable. 

Aristotle, however, was clear in his understanding that the function of rhetorical skills was not to persuade in and of themselves, but rather to make available the means of persuasion. The substance of an argument was always to be more important than the manner in which it was communicated. 

It is hardly a revelation that the world of contemporary comms has been birthed in a brave new world of technology. As the American media theorist and cultural critic Neil Postman pointed out, the advent of TV introduced entertainment as the defining principle of communication and what it takes to hold our attention. 

Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business was Postman’s 1985 era-defining commentary of how things have changed. Gone are the 2-hour long political ‘stump’ speeches and hour-long church sermons. Style supplants content and soundbites replace substance that has depth and an evidential basis. 

The speed of the internet, the ubiquity of social media and the omniscience of the algorithms have only served to distil and intensify the phenomena that Postman was concerned about. That recent history has witnessed the success that has accompanied the media experience and understanding of Boris Johnson and Donald Trump, only serves to underline the prescience of Postman’s observations.  

The ability to cut through the surrounding cacophony, engage an audience and then hold their attention long enough to communicate something of value is challenging to the nth degree. This has merely served to ramp up the intensity, exaggeration and immediacy of political speech. To impact us it must evoke an emotional response. In this anxiety and fear are the most effective drivers. 

Former Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson was quite clear in his assessment that ‘a week is a long time in politics’. We might now consider a day, or even an hour, to be the operative chronological measure. The news cycle can turn very quickly indeed. 

Yet the underlying dynamics of communication remain. Rhetoric remains supreme. Political machines have become the masters of ‘spin’ and of the art of gaming the opportunities, language and positioning presented by contemporary media. 

As voters we should always be highly sensitive to what’s being communicated when a speaker talks about ‘us and them’, ‘ours and theirs’, ‘we and they’.

All this is in a context in which it is estimated that those in middle age have consumed an average of 30-40,000 hours of TV and some 250,000 advertisements. Britain is a media savvy society. Yet for all of this sophistication in media consumption, I remain fearful of how aware my fellow citizens are of the techniques that inform contemporary political messaging. 

The former Speaker of the House of Representatives in the United States, Newt Gingrich, provides a helpful case study. Back in 1994 he produced a notorious memo to Republican candidates for Congress entitled ‘Language: A Key Mechanism of Control’.  

Following extensive testing in focus groups and scrutiny by PR specialists he highlighted around 200 words for Republicans to memorise and use. There were positive words to associate with their own programme and negative ones to use against their opponents.  

The positive words he advocated included: 

opportunity… control… truth… moral… courage… reform… prosperity… children… family… we/us/our… liberty… principle(d)… success… empower(ment)… peace… rights… choice/choose… fair…  

By contrast, when addressing their opponents: 

decay… failure … collapse(ing)… crisis… urgent(cy)… destructive… sick… pathetic… lie… they/them… betray… consequences… hypocrisy… threaten… waste… corruption… incompetent… taxes… disgrace… cynicism… machine… 

Careful choice of words can then be layered with other strategies to construct a highly sophisticated political message.  

At a most basic level come the ever popular ‘guilt by association’ and its twin sibling ‘virtue by connexion’. Are migrants portrayed as ‘sponging off the benefits system’ or ‘filling recruitment shortfalls in the NHS, social care and industry’? Is British culture under threat of being overwhelmed or enriched by cultural diversity? 

Integral to this use of language are the various methods of ‘virtue signalling’ to a particular audience and the infamous ‘dog-whistle’ subjects and phrases to call them to heel. Tropes and labelling also play their part. On labelling, the nineteenth century statesman John Morley powerfully denigrated the practice by suggesting that it saved ‘talkative people the trouble of thinking’.   

As voters we should always be highly sensitive to what’s being communicated when a speaker talks about ‘us and them’, ‘ours and theirs’, ‘we and they’. By implication who is ‘in’ and who is ‘out’? We should be aware too when more general arguments are made that leave us, as listeners, to fill in the blanks. This hidden rhetorical manoeuvre gets us ‘onside’ by leading us to intuitively believe that the speaker agrees with us. Along the way they haven’t defined what ‘responsible government’, or ‘critical priorities’ or ‘British values’ actually are. Instead, they have left for us to supply our own definition, ensuring our agreement and support. 

To these can be added the ever more common practice of ‘gaslighting’, where information or events are manipulated to get people to doubt their own judgment, perception and sense of reality. And then there’s my favourite that the Urban Dictionary defines as a ‘Schrodinger’s douchebag’. Especially popular among populist politicians, this is where an outrageous statement is made and the speaker waits for the audience to respond. Only retrospectively do they declare whether they meant what they said or were only ‘just joking’. 

It's perhaps no surprise that Rhetorical Political Analysis is actually a thing. Academics study it and political journalists use it to sniff out any hint of obfuscation. Depressingly, in the media, this frequently descends into an unholy game of ‘bait and trap’. Politicians, for their part, then become much more guarded as they seek to side-step a ‘gotcha’ move, whether merited or not. 

… the truth will set you free’, he said. Free from the ducking and diving around our half-truths and fabrications.

So where does that leave the aspiration of ‘Let your yeah be yeah, and your no be no, now’? It may be surprising to some that The Pioneers’ song about a troubled love affair is directly quoting Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. But Jesus’ focus is not about romance here. 

What he is talking about is truthfulness, authenticity and integrity. Say what you mean and mean what you say. For Jesus, truth and truthfulness was at the very centre of his own identity. Indeed, in Christian theology Jesus is the ‘word made flesh’, the ‘exact representation’ of who God is and what he is like. Jesus then advocates what he embodies: an alignment and integration of who we are, with what we say and what we do. 

This has to be the foundation for authenticity and integrity. These are the very principles that are so highly prized in the political arena, and yet so quickly abandoned in the maelstrom of the conflicting demands of public life.  

Jesus advocated living a truthful life, not least because of its liberating outcomes, ‘… the truth will set you free’, he said. Free from the ducking and diving around our half-truths and fabrications. Free from the fear of being found out or the implications of the ever-deepening holes to be dug. Free to be ourselves and have all the bits of our lives fit together as one. 

This has to be the principle to live by, the standard to benchmark, the way of life to aspire to. It’s no coincidence that integrity and honesty are two of the seven Nolan principles that inform the UK government’s Committee on Standards in Public Life

But the fact is we know the world to be a complicated place. We are not always the people we long to be. In the church’s liturgy the prayer of confession calls out our challenges. We miss the mark ‘through negligence, through weakness, [and] through our own deliberate fault.’ 

The reality is that, while we aspire to be the best that we can be, we also need to be alive to alternative realities. Our political processes can throw up flawed actors, bad actors and nefarious actors. They present very differently, yet we must always read through what is being communicated to access what is being said. 

Life is complicated. There are many different ways to legitimately tackle the issues that we face as a country. Always there are trade-offs. Frequently the future turns out to be different to what has been predicted. Ultimately there are too many variables. 

The 2024 General Election has proven to be refreshingly different. Neither Rishi Sunak nor Keir Starmer are as natural or charismatic in front of a camera as some of their predecessors.  

It rained on the Prime Minister when he announced the election without an umbrella and the day after took him to the Belfast shipyard where the Titanic was built. Such gaffes are reassuringly human. Labour’s tragically cack-handed approach to Diane Abbott and whether she could stand for election as MP for Hackney North & Stoke Newington where she faithfully served for 37 years is in a similar vein. 

Yet, through it all it is worth noting Laura Kuenssberg’s comments for the BBC. 

Both leaders inspire unusual loyalty among their teams. They are often praised by those who work with them as being warmer than they appear on camera: staffers describe them as decent family men, who take their jobs incredibly seriously and work incredibly hard. 

I find this remarkably encouraging. In the meantime, that song keeps going round in my head. 

‘Let your yeah be yeah, and your no be no, now’.  

Please make it stop.