Opinion: breaking bread in the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict

"It is also too early to talk about 'culinary diplomacy' in the Karabakh conflict, sometimes also referred to as 'gastrodiplomacy,' though countless state banquets demonstrate that is by no means a new concept," writes Onnik James Krikorian in this op-ed for commonspace.eu. "Instead, 'gastronationalism' has often defined the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict - especially over national dishes common to both such as dolma - in much the same way that Lebanese and Israelis have engaged in a perpetual 'hummus war'." He adds that "amid the petty squabbling over food there are also positive examples" of how cuisine has bridged divides across the South Caucasus.

In September 1992, as winter approached, critical shortages of wheat threatened to plunge Armenia into a major humanitarian crisis. The railroad from Russia through Georgia’s breakaway region of Abkhazia had been closed because of that separatist conflict and Yerevan had no other option but to approach neighbouring Turkey for assistance. Despite its support for Azerbaijan in the Karabakh conflict, Ankara agreed – though only after first consulting with Baku. 

“Ter-Petrosyan called me one day,” Hikmet Cetin, the Turkish Foreign Minister at the time, said in a 2015 documentary made by an Armenian documentary film studio. “He said they were in trouble. Winter was approaching. The European Union had promised […] wheat but due to bureaucratic obstacles and bad weather conditions it was rather hard to get that to Armenia in time. He was wondering if it would be possible to buy some wheat from Turkey […].”

Cetin discussed the issue with then President Suleyman Demirel who instructed him to talk to his counterpart, Abulfaz Elchibey. “No-one should be deprived of God-given bread. It’s a humanitarian issue,” the then-Azerbaijani president responded even though the conflict with Armenia over Karabakh had already descended into a full-scale war. Grain shipments, as well as processed commodities from warehouses in Turkey transported by the United States, were dispatched.

It might not have given new meaning to the term ‘breaking bread,’ and not least because the Armenia-Turkey border was closed soon after Armenian forces captured and occupied the Azerbaijani region of Kelbajar in spring the following year. But it did, however, highlight the importance of food in conflict situations, something that the current impasse on the Lachin Corridor also demonstrates today. Although there have been no cases of starvation given that Karabakh is largely agricultural, has its own reserves, rationing was introduced, and Russian peacekeepers had been bringing in supplies until 15 June this year anyway, food security has nonetheless shown itself to be of vital importance.

Gastrodiplomacy and gastronationalism

It is also too early to talk about “culinary diplomacy” in the Karabakh conflict, sometimes also referred to as “gastrodiplomacy,” though countless state banquets demonstrate that is by no means a new concept. Instead, “gastronationalism” has often defined the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict - especially over national dishes common to both such as dolma - in much the same way that Lebanese and Israelis have engaged in a perpetual “hummus war”.

But amid the petty squabbling over food there are also positive examples. In 2015, for example, an Israeli hummus bar offered a 50% discount for Arabs and Jews dining together. And there have been similar attempts to do the same for Armenians, Azerbaijanis, and Turks albeit through international organisations. Indeed, as the dust settles following the 2020 Karabakh War, with Yerevan and Baku edging closer to peace, more efforts in this area should be forthcoming.

There are also other precedents. In 2015, for example, an Armenian and Turkish cook worked together at a “Conflict Cafe” in London.

“In Armenia and Turkey it’s a very divided region, so you can’t get across physically into the two communities even though they sit side by side,” International Alert’s Charlotte Onslow told the Evening Standard in 2015, noting that it particularly highlighted some of the cultural and culinary similarities between the sides. “We are always looking for entry points that are indirect and not entirely political.”

In the mid-2010s, the Caucasus Business and Development Network also took women from Armenia’s second largest city of Gyumri to Kars in Turkey where they observed similar cooking practices and lifestyles. The women in Kars also visited Gyumri for the same reason. 

“The region, climate and geography formed the cuisine of both peoples, which explains the similarity,” the Armenian co-organiser, Armine Avetisyan, said in a Q&A session following a film presentation on the project, Haven’t We Shared Much Salt and Bread Together, at a Food Symposium on cuisine and conflict at Tuft University’s Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy in 2018. Both Avetisyan and her Turkish counterpart, Ihsan Karayazi, spoke of the need to ‘scale up’ such initiatives to create ‘greater cultural change.’

Confidence building markets, South Caucasian food festivals

Indeed, in the proposals to end the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict in 1997, the establishment of weekly or even daily markets in Karabakh to build confidence, relations, and trust were included. Similar markets also existed on the Armenia-Georgia border close to the ethnic Azerbaijani village of Sadakhlo and between ethnic Georgians and Ossetians in Ergneti, a Georgian village on the Administrative Boundary Line between the sides. 

This continues to be the case in markets in Tbilisi, and especially at one large trading centre outside the capital, where relations between the Armenian and Azerbaijan traders largely remained intact both during and after the 2020 War. “[…] there is no conflict between Azerbaijanis and Armenians who work in the Lilo market,” one ethnic Armenian trader selling Turkish clothes - as many do in Armenia itself - told visiting researchers for a paper on the post-2020 situation in Georgia.

But more international donor attention needs to be paid to such initiatives as was the case less than a decade ago. In 2015, for example, International Alert brought together food producers from Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia together for a festival to showcase their wares. This included tea-growers, beekeepers, vintners, and cheesemakers and while ostensibly commercial in nature, there were also obvious conflict resolution undertones. 

One participant, Artush Mkrtchiani, even showcased a “Caucasian Cheese” created by regional cheesemakers. Though it might be too early to do the same again today, if a peace deal between Armenia and Azerbaijan looks likely then such initiatives will be increasingly necessary. But rather than focus solely on Armenia and Azerbaijan proper, and as proposed in 1997, they could have a particularly important role to play in bringing Azerbaijanis and Karabakh Armenians together as the deadline of 2025 for the Russian peacekeeping mission rapidly approaches.

source: Onnik James Krikorian is a journalist, photojournalist, and consultant from the U.K. who has covered the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict since 1994.
photo: foodperestroika.com
The views expressed in opinion pieces and commentaries do not necessarily reflect the position of commonspace.eu or its partners

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