The late Armenian activist showed us the way to peace in the South Caucasus.
This opinion piece by Restart Initiative chair and co-founder Emin Milli was first published by Al Jazeera on November 8, 2021
Amid talk about a forthcoming meeting between Armenia’s Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan and Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev, there is increasing hope in the South Caucasus that perhaps the two countries will make some progress on peace. One of the main proponents of such a summit, however, did not live long enough to see it take place.
On October 15, we lost Azerbaijani-born Armenian peace activist Georgi Vanyan, who dedicated his life to reconciliation between the two nations. One of his last two wishes, which he expressed in an interview with me, was to see a direct engagement between the two leaders, without mediation or supervision.
Last year, the frozen conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan in the Nagorno Karabakh region escalated into a full-out war which killed thousands and displaced countless families on both sides. Following the 44-day conflict, a ceasefire without a settlement was concluded which brought back the state of no-war, no-peace between the two nations.
Vanyan knew that the only way forward towards peace was direct Armenian-Azerbaijani engagement. After all, for three decades he had worked on bringing together Armenian and Azerbaijani communities and seen its effect. He knew that when ordinary Armenians and Azerbaijanis meet, the bankruptcy of the military-patriotic machine and the folly of division are exposed.
Following last year’s ceasefire, Vanyan and I wrote for Al Jazeera that sustainable peace cannot be achieved only through high-level politics; it also necessitates “reconciliation between communities”.
Today, as most Azerbaijanis and Armenians form their perceptions of each other solely based on hateful rhetoric propagated by political elites and the media, his legacy must be remembered and upheld.
Vanyan took up the cause of reconciliation in the early 1990s, when amid the collapse of the Soviet Union, the conflict over the province of Karabakh between Armenia and Azerbaijan escalated. Legally belonging to Baku, but with a large population of Armenians, the region went through a six-year war that ended with Armenia’s occupation of most of its territory, the mass displacement of people on both sides and the closure of borders.
When the wall went up between our nations, Vanyan picked up the hammer. He focused on bringing Armenians and Azerbaijanis together, on challenging the idea that what happened in Karabakh was an ethnic conflict and not a political one.
In 2002, Vanyan founded the Caucasus Center of Peace-Making Initiatives and began active grassroots work. When in 2003 Armenian President Robert Kocharyan declared Armenians and Azeris “ethnically incompatible”, he decided to prove him wrong.
In the following years, Vanyan organised a marathon of events celebrating Azerbaijani culture around his country, inviting Azerbaijani philosophers, writers and journalists to meet Armenians. When his events managed to gather large crowds, his opponents found ways to disrupt or close them down.
Feeling the pressure of censorship and growing threats, Vanyan decided to take his work to neighbouring Georgia, where in 2011 he started a new initiative in an ethnically Azerbaijani village close to the Georgian border with Armenia and Azerbaijan. It was called the Tekali peace process: a space dedicated to debate, discussions, cultural exchanges and even free trade between Armenians, Azerbaijanis and Georgians.
I met Vanyan two years later in Berlin, where he gave me an interview. I was impressed by his passion and work and we became friends.
His grassroots approach was radically different to the jet-set international peacemakers that stayed in five-star hotels. For Vanyan, ordinary Armenians and Azerbaijanis represented the truth and held the keys to conflict resolution. Meeting together in respect and compassion, they offered an alternative to the official narrative of eternal hate, showing Armenians and Azerbaijanis what was possible. There was no protocol or ceremony and everyone was welcome. Many more people travelled to Tekali from Armenia and Azerbaijan than was initially expected.
Tragically, the popularity of the project also brought its downfall. The organisation was put under pressure to stop activities after the home of its local coordinator was raided and it eventually closed its doors.
Vanyan paid dearly for his work. After he organised an Azerbaijani film festival in Yerevan, supported by Western embassies, he was attacked and physically assaulted. Those around him were placed under surveillance and warned to distance themselves from him. His associates were threatened with dismissal from their workplaces or even with their children being harmed.
Vanyan’s family were forced to leave him. With little choice before him, he moved to a remote village in self-exile, only able to avoid destitution by working as a taxi driver.
That did not stop the Armenian government from claiming he was in the pay of the enemy, systematically discrediting him as an agent of Azerbaijan’s secret service. He was a traitor to the nation because he exposed the Karabakh conflict as political in nature and insisted on direct engagement with Azerbaijan.
Indeed, the lack of resolution suited vested interests: leaders in Azerbaijan and Armenia derived popular legitimacy as protectors of their nations. Maintaining external enemies had its benefits: domestic discontent could always be muffled by chest-thumping patriotism and public anger was always best handled by channelling it across the border.
Vanyan died in poverty, having lost everything – friends, family and wealth – to his lifelong cause. I was the last of his associates to see him alive.
In late September, we met in Tbilisi for an interview about the situation between Azerbaijan and Armenia. This is when he revealed his final wishes. The first one was for Pashinyan and Aliyev to meet. The second one was for the Tekali peace process to be rebuilt. His first wish is close to coming true, the second one – we, his remaining friends and supporters, will do our best to fulfil.
The challenge before us is to protect Vanyan’s legacy, as it faces systematic suppression, and keep his grassroots peace-building cause alive. Indeed, true peace between Armenia and Azerbaijan can only be achieved through reconciliation efforts that bring together ordinary people on both sides and help them overcome artificial barriers and political manipulation.