Framing of relations between Armenia and Azerbaijan in public discourse needs to be transformed sooner rather than later, argues Onnik James Krikorian in this op-ed for commonspace.eu. "It won’t be quick, and it won’t be easy", he warns. "Some civil society organisations have attempted to do this in the past but their reach remains negligible, especially among mainstream society. The mainstream mass media will be important here while tangible and visible confidence building measures will be necessary where it matters – on the ground and involving every day folk. Hopefully that can finally occur next year if an agreement is signed. But it should become a new reality even if it isn’t yet."
It remains a distant but vivid memory – visiting Armenia for the first time in 1994 only to immediately depart from Yerevan for Stepanakert by military helicopter. During that visit to Karabakh, after hearing that Azerbaijani Prisoners of War (PoWs) were being held on a secure wing of the old maternity hospital, we decided to check on their condition. But as myself and two other journalists were escorted into the guarded ward by a humanitarian aid worker, we were instead confronted by a somewhat confusing sight – children playing together.
But then, the group of children was suddenly separated. Half were instructed to leave the ward while the other half ran off to join their mother. It turned out that those that left were Karabakh Armenians allowed in to play with the Azerbaijani children who were being held captive. The PoWs were mainly bedridden in separate rooms. It was a different time back then, of course, when inter-communal memories still existed though other prisoners and hostages experienced far worse and even the unthinkable, but the scene encapsulated some humanity if only for a moment.
Fast forward to this summer and a random visit to a restaurant in the majority-ethnic Azerbaijani town of Marneuli in Georgia. Azerbaijani could be heard spoken at every table but one. There, two middle-aged women sat with two children aged 9 and 7-years-old speaking Armenian. That shouldn’t come a surprise. The municipality is home to just over 107,000 people – 83.8 percent ethnic Azerbaijani with 8.6 and 7 per cent respectively comprising ethnic Georgians and Armenians.
There are even co-inhabited ethnic Armenian-Azerbaijani villages and last month a festival was held at one to celebrate multicultural diversity. That village, Khojorni, is just 10 kilometres from the main road that most travelling from Armenia to Georgia take en-route to Tbilisi. In nearby Sadakhlo, even an Armenian woman from Noyemberyan serves customers at a roadside cafe in what is an ethnic Azerbaijani village. Able to converse in both languages, she married an ethnic Azerbaijani in the early 1990s after meeting him at the old cross-border market and moved to join him.
And last week, an ethnic Armenian puppeteer from Shahumyani, an ethnic Armenian village in the same municipality, performed his play, Asiya, in a nearby ethnic Azerbaijani village. Celebrating coexistence in a multicultural environment, the play is performed in Armenian, Azerbaijani, or Georgian, depending on the audience.
Though not diminishing the severity of the Karabakh conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan, nor the importance of the need to heal wounds freshly reopened by the past three years, few outside Georgia get to hear about this reality. In contrast, many unfortunately know that on a visit to Moscow in 2003 then Armenian President Robert Kocharyan spoke of “ethnic incompatibility” between the two groups despite the absurdity of such claims.
Yes, the situation is specific to Georgia, but the fact that ethnic Armenians and Azerbaijanis can and do coexist or even co-inhabit the same locations, just as they did in Armenia and Azerbaijan prior to the first Karabakh war, demonstrates how this is arguably a political and not an ethnic or religious conflict. The situation has instead worsened in an information space full of existential threat narratives with little to counter them or offer by way of an alternative.
Instead, nationalist narratives can be found in both Armenian and Azerbaijani school books, in popular culture, the media, and are amplified exponentially on social media that has become a new battleground for armchair warriors, usually abroad.
Political will from the top will thus be necessary to address this, but there have been precedents. Perhaps most famously, this was demonstrated at the European Games held in Baku in 2015 when Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev awarded a silver media to a Ukrainian athlete of ethnic Armenian descent. The crowd jeered and whistled until Aliyev raised his hand to stop them. The crowd did just that and instead broke into applause.
But as momentum towards peace increases, this must be the norm and not the exception. Perhaps now, there are possibly signs that this could happen. Though recorded in late November, Euronews recently aired an interview with the Azerbaijani leader in which he ended by saying that if Armenians and Azerbaijanis can live together in third countries such as Russia, Ukraine, and Georgia then they can do the same in Armenia and Azerbaijan.
That might sound unlikely to many, but it is nonetheless inevitable. No nations remain enemies forever. Indeed, last week, Armenian National Assembly Speaker Alen Simonyan also highlighted that. “I don’t rule out that Armenians will […] live in Azerbaijan,” he told media. “[and] Azerbaijanis will come [and] live in Armenia.”
It won’t be quick, and it won’t be easy, but it will be better if the framing of relations between the two countries is transformed sooner rather than later. Some civil society organisations have attempted to do this in the past but their reach remains negligible, especially among mainstream society. The mainstream mass media will be important here while tangible and visible confidence-building measures will be necessary where it matters – on the ground and involving everyday folk. Hopefully that can finally occur next year if an agreement is signed.
But it should become a new reality even if it isn’t yet.