Tbilisi, capital of Georgia and arguably the cultural heart of the South Caucasus. It’s always a delight to visit and not least because it is perhaps the only place in the region where Armenians, Azerbaijanis and Georgians can meet without centuries of mutual hostility and post-Soviet conflict driving a wedge between people with more in common than not. For Armenians and Azeris this is especially true given the still frozen conflict over Nagorno Karabakh.
Situated within neighboring Azerbaijan, but inhabited mainly by ethnic Armenians, Karabakh was one of the first of many simmering conflicts which accompanied and perhaps even ushered in the collapse of the former Soviet Union. Over 25,000 were killed, a million people on both sides were forced to flee their homes, and Azerbaijan lost 16 percent of it territory by the time a 1994 ceasefire agreement was signed. Regional analysts and the international community, however, fear that the war might one day resume.
Various attempts to broker a final peace agreement have since faltered with nationalists and political forces on both sides of the ceasefire line maintaining that the two ethnic groups can never live side by side together again. Subjective perceptions and interpretations of history have only added to the stalemate leading to the sad reality that neither side is willing to compromise. Ironically, however, such entrenched positions often appear absurd given the peaceful coexistence of Armenians and Azeris in Georgia.
Alexi and Margarita Petrosyan are just one example of that reality. The war and perpetual negative portrayal of the “enemy” by the local media in Armenia and Azerbaijan has definitely passed them by as they sit in the tea house they own in the old part of Tbilisi. Two others – a 14-year-old boy and another in his late teens — sit in conversation with them as they drink Azeri tea. The language is Armenian, but sometimes changes to Azerbaijani. The two customers are actually Azeris from Baku.
A little later, twenty meters away, my ethnic Armenian taxi driver makes an unscheduled stop by a mosque and Turkish Baths to pick up some home-made wine from a friend living close by. An ethnic Azeri standing on a balcony opposite greets him in Armenian. The driver responds in Azeri before explaining that the whole area is full of Armenians, Azeris and Georgians who not only speak each other’s language, but also consider themselves to be friends.
And no truer is that than in Tsopi, a small village in a mainly ethnic-Azeri region of Georgia situated just two kilometers from the Georgian border with Armenia. There, ethnic Armenians and Azeris live side by side, even sending their children to the same school, preferring to look to the future rather than dwell on a past usually portrayed as one of mutual violence rather than longer periods of peaceful coexistence. Both are a reality, of course, but reflection on the bad often takes precedent over the good.
Indeed, as others point out, Armenians and Azeris are quite able to coexist together outside of the conflict zone and actually have more in common with each other in terms of culture, tradition and language than many other nations living in the same region. Over the coming days and weeks this blog will highlight such examples using new media and social networking tools and stories, photos, and video as a continuation of a brief cross-border exercise undertaken in September. Follow us on Twitter @caucasusproject.
Photos: Tbilisi, Georgia © Onnik Krikorian on Nokia N82 phone