contributor perspectives

May 7, 2017 | 13:02 GMT

6 mins read

Unlikely Neighbors

Board of Contributors
Onnik James Krikorian
Board of Contributors
Unlikely Neighbors
(ONNIK JAMES KRIKORIAN)
Contributor Perspectives offer insight, analysis and commentary from Stratfor’s Board of Contributors and guest contributors who are distinguished leaders in their fields of expertise.

It's been a year since clashes between Armenian and Azerbaijani forces left around 200 dead in what has now become known as the "Four-Day War." Despite the carnage, and still locked in a bitter dispute over the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, peace between the warring sides is as elusive as ever.

Armenia and Azerbaijan fought a bitter war in the early 1990s that left over 25,000 dead and forced a million more to flee their homes. Backed by the military from Armenia proper, the ethnic Armenian majority in the then-autonomous oblast situated within the borders of Soviet Azerbaijan emerged victorious. By the time a May 1994 cease-fire put the fighting on hold, Armenian forces gained control not only of Nagorno-Karabakh, but also of most of the seven regions of Azerbaijan surrounding it. With over 3,000 additional lives lost since, Nagorno-Karabakh is anything but a "frozen conflict."

Armenia and Azerbaijan fought a bitter war in the early 1990s that left over 25,000 dead and forced a million more to flee their homes. Backed by the military from Armenia proper, the ethnic Armenian majority in the then-autonomous oblast situated within the borders of Soviet Azerbaijan emerged victorious.

Of as much concern is that new generations of Armenians and Azerbaijanis have been brought up isolated from each other. Armenians cannot visit Azerbaijan, and Azerbaijanis cannot visit Armenia. The effect of this arrangement on the psychology of both nations has been devastating. In a 2011 household survey held in Armenia and Azerbaijan by The Caucasus Research Resource Centres (CRRC), for example, 70 percent of Armenian respondents said they did not approve of friendship with Azerbaijanis. In Azerbaijan, a staggering 97 percent said they did not approve of friendship with Armenians.

But while many claim that this is only natural as long as the conflict remains unresolved, the example of neighboring Georgia proves otherwise. In the same survey, only 16 and 17 percent of Georgians said they disapproved of friendship with Abkhazians and Ossetians, respectively, while 18 percent were against friendship with Russians.

The narratives of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, and how local media outlets in both countries perpetuate them, arguably play an important role in forming the image of the enemy in the minds of most citizens. "Without more accurate and unbiased information… free of negative rhetoric and stereotypes, Armenians and Azerbaijanis will continue to see themselves as enemies without any common ground," a CRRC report on Armenian and Azerbaijani media coverage published in 2008 concluded.

Indeed, perhaps the most dominant narrative of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict has been that of "ethnic incompatibility" between the two groups. This was most notably articulated by former Armenian President Robert Kocharian on a visit to Moscow in 2003. His comment was strongly condemned by the Council of Europe. Speaking in 2012, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev likewise declared that "Armenians of the world" were his country's main enemy. In such a hostile environment, it's no wonder that many Armenians and Azerbaijanis are resigned to never living together in peace again.

But an alternative narrative can easily be found in nearby Georgia in the form of co-inhabited villages such as Tsopi. Situated in the Marneuli district of Kvemo Kartli, a region bordering Armenia that boasts the largest number of ethnic Azeris in the country, villages are impoverished but offer a much-needed glimmer of hope.

Situated in the Marneuli district of Kvemo Kartli, a region bordering Armenia that boasts the largest number of ethnic Azeris in the country, villages are impoverished but offer a much-needed glimmer of hope.

An elderly ethnic Armenian woman herds pigs in Tsopi. Because ethnic Armenians and Azeris usually speak each other's language in co-inhabited villages and towns, it is impossible to tell them apart. As Christians, however, Armenians raise pigs among their livestock while Azeris do not.

(ONNIK JAMES KRIKORIAN)

"Move outside the conflict zone and hidden signs of compatibility come out into the open," Thomas de Waal, author of Black Garden: Armenia and Azerbaijan Through Peace and War, said of my work in such villages. "We hear far too little of what I call this third narrative of the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict, a narrative of peace."

Though both ethnic Armenian and Azeri students attend the same school, they receive their education in different classrooms and in their mother tongues.

An ethnic Armenian pupil sits in a dilapidated classroom in Tsopi, Georgia. Despite promises from the Georgian government, the school is in disrepair. Holes in the floor and ceiling widen with each passing year. Though both ethnic Armenian and Azeri students attend the same school, they receive their education in different classrooms and in their mother tongues.

(ONNIK JAMES KRIKORIAN)

Tsopi, for instance, is populated by over 200 ethnic Armenian and Azeri families, and residents say the latter form the majority at around 80 percent. The two groups not only live side by side in peace, but also speak each other's language. In fact, Georgian is seldom spoken in the village; children only learn it at school.

Because the kindergarten in Tsopi closed, most do not understand Georgian until they attend school and instead speak Armenian and Azerbaijani.

Though classes are segregated along ethnic lines, ethnic Armenian and Azeri students play together or help one another with homework. Because the kindergarten in Tsopi closed, most do not understand Georgian until they attend school and instead speak Armenian and Azerbaijani.

(ONNIK JAMES KRIKORIAN)

"We live among Armenians very well," an ethnic Azeri mother once told me at the birthday party of her six-year-old son. The children of her ethnic Armenian neighbors were present as well. "Of course we celebrate birthdays together," she continued, confused that anyone would even raise the issue of intercommunal relations.

While many Armenians and Azerbaijanis engage in bitter debates about what food or music belongs to each nation, the children simply enjoy them.

Ethnic Armenian and Azeri children gather for a six-year-old's birthday in Tsopi. On the table rest different types of food such as dolma, meat wrapped in grape leaves or stuffed into other vegetables. While many Armenians and Azerbaijanis engage in bitter debates about what food or music belongs to each nation, the children simply enjoy them. "Dolma yeyənindi, Sarı Gəlin oxuyanındı," wrote Azerbaijan writer Ağarəhim (Dolma belongs to those that eat it. Sari Gelin (a song) to those that sing it.)

(ONNIK JAMES KRIKORIAN)

Her view was echoed by Metaksya Ovsepyan, an ethnic Armenian teacher at Tsopi's school. Fluent in Azerbaijani, Ovsepyan is also responsible for teaching ethnic Azeri first-graders the Georgian language. The Armenian and Azerbaijani governments supply the school with textbooks, but any nationalist narratives in them are ignored.

In a rare example of cooperation, albeit coincidentally, textbooks are supplied by the Armenian and Azerbaijani governments. Though nationalist rhetoric can sometimes to be found in such books, the ethnic Armenian and Azeri residents of Tsopi instead choose to ignore it.

Metaksya Ovsepyan, an ethnic Armenian teacher, instructs ethnic Azeri first-graders in the Georgian language. In a rare example of cooperation, albeit coincidentally, textbooks are supplied by the Armenian and Azerbaijani governments. Though nationalist rhetoric can sometimes to be found in such books, the ethnic Armenian and Azeri residents of Tsopi instead choose to ignore it.

(ONNIK JAMES KRIKORIAN)

"I don't care if someone is Azerbaijani, Turkish, Russian or Georgian," she says. "I couldn't live without Azerbaijanis and they couldn't live without us, Armenians. There are no problems between us and I have many friends in Azerbaijan. I would like to visit them, but I can't because of my (Armenian) surname."

Despite being Armenian, the woman's daughter, Metaksya, works as a teacher at Tsopi's school and is fluent in Azerbaijani.

An elderly ethnic Azeri man and his best friend, an ethnic Armenian woman, have known each other for decades. Despite being Armenian, the woman's daughter, Metaksya, works as a teacher at Tsopi's school and is fluent in Azerbaijani.

(ONNIK JAMES KRIKORIAN)

But not everything is perfect in Tsopi.

Socio-economic conditions there, as in many other villages, are dire and the school is in disrepair. Despite tens of millions of international donor dollars spent on attempts to bridge the divide between Armenians and Azerbaijanis, this living, breathing example of coexistence hasn't seen a single cent.

Though huge amounts of international aid are spent to promote the peaceful resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, this example of living together in peace has been forgotten.

Villages like Tsopi are a rare example of ethnic Armenian-Azeri co-inhabitation, but poverty there is high. What should be a positive narrative of coexistence is instead one not uncommon to many villages in Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan. Though huge amounts of international aid are spent to promote the peaceful resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, this example of living together in peace has been forgotten.

(ONNIK JAMES KRIKORIAN)

"In this village we need work," says one ethnic Azeri, Afandi Sharifov. "People should be able to take care of their families so that they do not leave. There is a lack of water (for irrigation) and you've seen the how terrible the roads are. There is no gas and wood is expensive. Things would be better if some organization could help us."

The local quarry stopped working when the Soviet Union imploded 26 years ago and unemployment is high. For the men who remain, an average day consists of gathering to play cards or backgammon.

Ethnic Azeri men stand outside a mostly vacant former market in the center of Tsopi. The local quarry stopped working when the Soviet Union imploded 26 years ago and unemployment is high. For the men who remain, an average day consists of gathering to play cards or backgammon. Because water for irrigation is lacking, they say they cannot farm the surrounding land.

(ONNIK JAMES KRIKORIAN)

The situation is the same in neighboring Khojorni, where the demographics are reversed. Ethnic Armenians form 80 percent of the population while ethnic Azeris make up the rest. A handful of partly Greek residents also live in Tsopi and Khojorni, but their numbers are few.

The future, however, is not certain for newly married couples from Tsopi and Khojorni. In all likelihood, they will either move to other villages, towns and cities in Georgia or the husbands will seek work in Armenia, Azerbaijan, Turkey or Russia.

Preparations are underway for an ethnic Azeri wedding in Tsopi. While most of the guests are ethnic Azeris from the village and Azerbaijan, ethnic Armenians are also among the guests. The future, however, is not certain for newly married couples from Tsopi and Khojorni. In all likelihood, they will either move to other villages, towns and cities in Georgia or the husbands will seek work in Armenia, Azerbaijan, Turkey or Russia.

(ONNIK JAMES KRIKORIAN)

"Why should we be enemies at the whim of some politician?" Nazkhanim, an elderly ethnic Azeri woman, told me on a previous visit to Khojorni. "You cannot separate a nail from your finger without bleeding and causing yourself severe pain. We cannot do without the other. This is how we were and how we will always be."

Revisiting Nazkhanim a week or so ago, Nargiz, another elderly ethnic Azeri, added her own thoughts on the question of Armenian-Azeri coexistence. "We lived as brother and sister and we continue to do so now. Thanks to God, we are good. We are living as one person."

Onnik James Krikorian is a freelance journalist, photojournalist and media consultant from the United Kingdom who has been based in the South Caucasus since 1998. He is on Twitter at @onewmphoto.

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