Billed as the ‘most inspiring festival in Georgia,’ I was at first skeptical when I heard about One Caucasus, a four-day musical event held every August that can be best described as a Woodstock for the South Caucasus. Don’t get me wrong. The idea of bringing Armenians, Azerbaijanis, and Georgians together in a neutral location is, of course, to be commended. Armenia and Azerbaijan, after all, have been at war with each other for nearly three decades now, and the likelihood of a peaceful resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict diminishes with each passing year. Citizens of both countries rarely get the opportunity to meet.
In April last year, for example, alarm bells rang in Washington D.C., Moscow, and the capitals of the European Union when the 1994 ceasefire agreement broke down and escalated from albeit regular frontline clashes to a full-scale four-day war. That didn’t resolve the conflict, of course, but it did demonstrate how much the term ‘frozen conflict’ is overused. In fact, it’s mistaken.
One former U.S. official who has worked with Palestinians and Israelis once told me that even that conflict was easier to manage than this one –– despite Armenians and Azerbaijanis having so much in common in comparison. Enmity has transformed itself into petty disputes over everything from music to dance, with both accusing the other of cultural appropriation. Freud, after all, had referred to what he termed the 'narcissism of minor differences' in his 1930 opus, Civilization and Its Discontents. In Blood and Belonging, Michael Ignattief applied the term to ethno-nationalism in the former Yugoslavia.
“[…] the smaller the difference between two peoples the larger it was bound to loom in their imagination,” he wrote. “A Croat, thus, is someone who is not a Serb. A Serb is someone who is not a Croat. Without hatred of the other, there would be no clearly defined national self to worship and adore.”
Quoting Ignattief, Thomas de Waal, author of Black Garden: Armenia and Azerbaijan through Peace and War, used the term in the context of Nagorno-Karabakh. Could the organizers of One Caucasus overcome this psychological handicap? Would it be possible to host both traditional and contemporary musicians from all three countries in the same location without arguments over whose music was being played and whose national dishes were being consumed? Even Armenians and Georgians have their own squabbles over who adopted Christianity first, and who exactly invented their unique alphabets anyway?
But despite this often myopic view of the world, Armenians, Azerbaijanis and Georgians can coexist and, when they do meet, generally find few barriers to obstruct communication and cooperation. True, Georgians often choose to remain aloof from their neighbors while Armenians and Azerbaijanis naturally congregate together, and as it happened, despite the stereotypes, this wasn’t an issue at One Caucasus. While Armenians dance to Azerbaijani music and vice versa, Georgians pretty much dance to anything. Add alcohol into the mix and the three nations are more likely to toast to peace than find reasons to brawl.
Ironically, One Caucasus isn’t meant to engage in peace-building. Instead, explained Festival Director Witek Hebanowski in an interview I conducted for Meydan TV last year, it’s intended to serve as a space for young people from the three countries to meet. It’s for them to choose what to do when that happens. The proof of the pudding is in the eating, and in past years Armenian and Azerbaijani musicians have chosen to perform together without the international donor community, which is concerned about the stability of a geopolitically vital region through which oil and gas passes, providing financial incentives to do so.
In a region where economic uncertainty hangs like a shadow over the future of most young citizens, nearly 240 people volunteered to construct the festival site and conduct workshops in nearby poverty-stricken villages. Children in the area, from all ethnic groups, are not used to having visitors from the capital cities, let alone visitors from abroad. Some volunteer applicants came from as far away as Poland and Nigeria, though the majority of applicants, nearly 100, came from Azerbaijan. One headliner was even an Honored Artist of Azerbaijan, a surprise given the hostility between his government and the government in Armenia.
One Caucasus also incorporates a participatory budget for the region of Georgia in which it was held. National governments, and local administrations, are hardly renowned for their efficiency or transparency in the region, but here the Marneuli District Municipality allocated part of its budget for local residents to decide on how and where the money should be spent. Last year, for example, it put aside 1.7 million GEL (about $690,000) for the participatory budget. In a country where the minimum average salary is just $137 per month, that is a significant amount.
That’s not to say everything is perfect at One Caucasus. Located in a godforsaken village nearly two hours from Tbilisi, it is a chore to travel from the capital, let alone Baku and Yerevan. Many don’t bother with the trip at all. There’s also the issue of the less-than-perfect organization operating on a shoe-string budget. But the One Caucasus festival — now in its fourth year — is off to a good start. It promotes a different vision of a region otherwise riven by ethno-nationalist conflict and religious differences.
There is one more thing the festival needs to change: the tagline. One Caucasus isn’t the most inspiring festival in Georgia. It’s arguably the most inspirational in the entire region.