Georgia has long been an obvious choice for hosting most Track II initiatives that bring Armenians and Azerbaijanis together on neutral ground. Despite this, however, it rarely gets the credit it deserves for doing so. Bordering both Armenia and Azerbaijan, not only is it perfectly situated geographically, keeping travel and accommodation costs lower, but it also keeps such initiatives in the region.
Moreover, by holding Track II meetings in Georgia and allowing a wider pool of participants to attend, they can also potentially encourage a more regional way of thinking. After all, key to successfully resolving the long-running conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan might arguably prove to be through the integration of the region’s economic, political, and cultural potential as a whole.
Overlooking Georgia in any regional trade and infrastructure projects could also well prove to be their undoing, contributing to further separation and division in much the same way that Azerbaijan’s policy of excluding Armenia once did. Moreover, Georgia is the main location where informal Armenia-Azerbaijan trade takes place even today. That is likely to remain the case for the foreseeable future.
Georgia also has its own contribution to make in other ways too. As the only country in the region where ethnic Armenians and Azerbaijanis, the two largest minorities in the country, co-exist and even co-inhabit the same villages and urban centres in places, the nationalist narrative of ‘ethnic incompatibility’ can be instantly discredited and disproven.
Despite all this, however, Georgia has still not been appreciated as more than just a location for Track II initiatives. While there are some exceptions, such as the late Armenian peace activist Georgi Vanyan’s Tekali Process, few Armenia-Azerbaijan initiatives held here bother to embrace not only its neutrality, but also its diversity.
In August, however, there was a different experience – the LINKS Europe "South Caucasus Youth Peace Summer School" was held some 80 km outside of Tbilisi. The idea was one of many recommendations in a report, The South Caucasus from war to peace: 30 measures between now and 2030, 30 young people – ten each from Armenian, Azerbaijan, and Georgia – were brought together for 10 days of discussion, dialogue, and cooperation.
Importantly, it was also held quite publicly rather than under a veil of secrecy as many such projects often are. Indeed, what is the use of bringing the three together is there if nobody gets to hear about it? For Armenia and Azerbaijan, especially now, such initiatives are sorely needed after decades of living in isolation. Yes, security is an issue, but the situation is not the same as in the years preceding 2020.
Back then, it was questionable whether there was a genuine desire to peacefully resolve the Karabakh conflict from the top. Today it’s quite likely that Track II will come to support or compliment what is agreed at the Track I level.
True, this doesn’t mean that it will be easy, but visible Track II initiatives while high-level discussions between the leaders and other senior officials continue, are more important than ever. For almost three decades, international mediators had anyway spoke incessantly of the need to prepare both populations for peace.
Moreover, as a new refrain focuses on the need to ‘normalise’ relations between Armenia and Azerbaijan, it should be remembered that normalisation isn’t just about the establishment of diplomatic relations. It should also be about relations between people themselves until a time when such meetings are the rule rather than the exception. Georgia again offers that possibility.
Activities such as the summer school can do the same, and without shying away from some serious topics if and when they are raised. The first South Caucasus Regional Dialogue Forum, which was integrated into the summer school programme, allowed for that too. This was probably the first time many of the participants were provided with the opportunity to ask questions, and make suggestions, to Armenian and Azerbaijani political scientists and analysts.
What also stood out was that among the Georgian participants were those citizens from the ethnic Armenian and Azerbaijani minorities, a long-overlooked consideration in most Track II events held here. Just as refreshingly, among the Armenians participants were also two from Karabakh at a time when their involvement in any dialogue grows more urgent by the day.
Even a walking tour of Tbilisi’s Old Town was a breath of fresh air. Though this might seem superfluous to many, rather than talk hypothetically about the prospect of Armenians and Azerbaijanis living side by side together in peace again, participants were given an opportunity to experience it. They visited, for example, ethnic Azerbaijani and Armenian clerics at the Juma Mosque and St. Gevorg Church.
Though, as one Armenian participant said, such examples do not resolve the political issues at the heart of the conflict, they do at least again demonstrate how the narrative of ‘ethnic incompatibility’ used by nationalists to keep the sides apart are intended only to perpetuate hatred in lieu of discussing and finding a political and negotiated solution to the problem.
For many of the Armenian and Azerbaijani participants participating in the summer school, it was the first time they had ever met anyone from the other side. Certainly, this was the case for one of the Karabakh Armenians present. He is already now part of one breakout group from the summer school tasked with drawing up and elaborating recommendations for staging the next edition in 2024.