After decades of conflict, sustainable peace between Armenia and Azerbaijan can only be achieved through civil society-led reconciliation.
This opinion piece by Georgi Vanyan and Restart Initiative Chair Emin Milli was first published by Al Jazeera on February 11, 2021.
On January 30, the trilateral working group comprised of Russia, Azerbaijan and Armenia, which was formed in the wake of last year’s devastating 44-day conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh to oversee the re-establishment of transport links between the warring nations, held its first meeting in Moscow.
The meeting, co-chaired by the deputy prime ministers of each country, was undoubtedly an important step towards resolving the decades-old dispute between Azerbaijan and Armenia. But such diplomatic efforts and technical arrangements, however important, cannot deliver a durable peace settlement on their own. Sustainable peace is achieved not through meetings held in far-away capitals, but reconciliation between communities.
As an Armenian and an Azerbaijani, we know that mistrust remains rife between our two nations. No political agreement on its own can convince two peoples divided by 30 years of conflict to trust each other and make peace. Armenian and Azerbaijani civil societies, however, can forge footholds upon which real peace can stand by launching initiatives that would bring the two communities together and allow them to understand each other.
Wars, whether they end in victory or defeat, fuel nationalism and this presents yet another obstacle to reconciliation. In Armenia, there are protestors in the streets of the capital calling for a new war to settle the score. In Azerbaijan, meanwhile, the victory against Armenia is being celebrated with military parades. For now, neither nation seems willing to leave the conflict behind and focus on building neighbourly relations.
While the post-war surge in nationalist sentiment will eventually subside, we cannot expect Armenians and Azerbaijanis to simply forget their prejudices about each other over time.
The two communities have had no real interaction since the end of the first Nagorno-Karabakh war in 1994. As they had no shared experiences in more than 20 years, each nation constructed an unrealistic, almost inhuman image of the “enemy” in their collective minds. Their perception of recent history has also split, with both seeing themselves as the victim and the other as the aggressor.
If what we strive for is lasting peace, this cannot be allowed to continue.
Bringing together two communities that see nothing but an enemy in each other may be difficult, but it is not impossible.
While we do not have shared experiences from the last few decades, we do have a long history of peaceful coexistence that came before that. Ethnic Armenians and Azerbaijanis peacefully lived side by side, in the same streets, villages and towns in Karabakh for millennia.
Sure, our youths do not remember those days, but their parents do. It was not the people who started the conflict – it was the opposing militaries and political leaders. Both Armenians and Azerbaijanis had their lives destroyed by this conflict, and they both have so much to gain from making peace.
Perhaps too much has happened since the 1990s for people to simply forget and return to the way things were before the start of this dispute. But they can try to forgive. And they can certainly strive to move on.
To do so, civil society should take steps to reconnect older Armenians and Azerbaijanis who once lived together in peace. If old friends and neighbours come together to remember their shared past and rebuild broken relationships, they can show their children that peaceful coexistence is possible.
Old friends can have video calls and, once the pandemic is over, face-to-face meetings. They can visit their old neighbourhoods together.
Armenians and Azerbaijanis of all ages can also come together to celebrate Novruz – a Zoroastrian festival that regularly brought Christian and Muslim peoples of the region together in pre-war times. Or civil society can organise joint art festivals, concerts or other social events to present the two communities with opportunities to interact with each other.
What we should not do, however, is to attempt to convince the two communities to agree on a single version of history, for this is impossible. Instead, we should all recognise there is no “right” version of history.
The deportation of Azerbaijanis from Armenia, the Khojaly massacre, the Sumgait and Baku pogroms – both nations will forever remember some of these tragedies while choosing to ignore or forget others.
We cannot, and should not aspire to, convince either community that their perception of their nation’s recent history is flawed. But we can create opportunities for both Azerbaijanis and Armenians to recognise that there can be different, but equally legitimate, interpretations of historical events.
As British historian EH Carr opined, “interpretation plays a necessary part in establishing the facts of history, and because no existing interpretation is wholly objective, one interpretation is as good as another”.
If each community can accept that its version of history, and understanding of it, is different to the other, they can finally stop focusing on proving themselves right, and instead start working on building a common future.
We can start our reconciliation efforts with a meeting in Tekali – a Georgian village near the intersection of the country’s borders with Armenia and Azerbaijan. Rebuilding the links that existed between members of our communities before everything was prised apart by war must be prioritised as our political leaders continue their efforts to secure a peace deal acceptable to both sides. This is the only way we can achieve sustainable peace.