Building peace in the South Caucasus through mutual respect for cultural heritage

Map of the region Bastien Varoutsikos

Recent months have seen increasing deadly skirmishes between military forces along the Nagorno-Karabakh/Azerbaijan border in the South Caucasus.

These tensions are rooted in the region’s 20-year-old armed conflict involving the states of Armenia, Azerbaijan and Nagorno-Karabakh, which has resulted in more than a million people displaced between 1988 and 1994.

Yet despite these recent incidents and past traumatic personal experiences, lasting peaceful interactions have emerged across ethnic and national boundaries, some of them centered on the preservation of cultural heritage.

Indeed, while there have been many incidents of cultural destruction during the conflict, several communities – some of which I have studied myself – have made efforts to respect, protect and preserve heritage sites associated with their supposed ethnic and national “enemies.”

Break up of the Soviet Union led to conflict

In the past, Armenians and Azeris have had considerable periods of co-existence and cooperation. The two groups had a significant rate of intermarriage during the Soviet period and shared cities, buildings and sometimes apartments. The two populations still interact daily, for example, in the Kvemo-Kartli region in Southern Georgia and in Tabriz, Iran.

In the late 1980s, however, as the Soviet Union slowly collapsed, tensions arose in Nagorno-Karabakh, an enclave located in the highlands of the South Caucasus.

Assigned by the Soviet authorities to the Azerbaijani Soviet Socialist Republic, a country with an important Muslim majority, the region was mostly populated by ethnic Armenians who are in majority orthodox Christians.

When South Caucasian countries announced their independence, conflicts between ethnic Armenians and Azerbaijanis increased as the Nagorno-Karabakh sought to join the new Armenian republic. The situation triggered a six-year-long armed conflict between Azerbaijan and Nagorno-Karabakh, backed by Armenia.

Between 1988 and 1994, the conflict resulted in 30,000 to 35,000 fatalities, and the displacement of more than a million people, leading to two-way exoduses of entire villages between Armenia and Azerbaijan.

Armenians fled to the newly independent Armenian state and Azeris residing in Armenia and Karabakh moved to Azerbaijan. The conflict ended with a 1994 cease-fire agreement, the Bishkek protocol signed under the aegis of an international council of nations known as the Minsk group. However, further negotiations have failed to create a permanent peaceful resolution.

Remains of an abandoned tank from the 1988-1994 war near Charektar village, close to the northern border of Nagorno-Karabakh. Bastien Varoutsikos

Tensions flaring again

Nagorno-Karabakh thus maintains a de facto autonomous status, although internationally still recognized as part of Azerbaijan.

Over the past two years, the cease fired has been breaded weekly resulting in the death of almost a hundred people. 2014 was the deadliest year since 1994. And 2015 has not started well. For the month of January alone, Armenian news reported 11 fatalities on its side, while Azerbaijan recorded 14 dead. The continuing skirmishes have triggered fears of a return to wholesale conflict.

Several proposals have been made to improve the deteriorating situation. One solution focuses on the development of symbolic, cultural initiatives that would promote an atmosphere conducive to negotiation.

Antagonism has long marked the relationship between Armenians, on the one hand, and Turkey and Azerbaijan on the other. This has led to numerous destructions on both sides of cultural symbols such as churches, mosques, Christian and Muslim cemeteries, museums, and libraries of old manuscripts.

Evidence suggests, for example, that the Azerbaijani army destroyed the cemetery of Djulfa, in Nakhitchevan (part of Azerbaijan.)

This medieval site included several thousand khachkars – sculpted stone crosses historically connected to Armenian traditions. Khachkars are strongly connected to Armenian identity and craftsmanship and are, as of 2010, listed as UNESCO’s intangible World Heritage.

Satellite picture showing the damages (circled in red) sustained by the Julfa cemetery in the autonomous republic of Nakhchivan, a collection of historical khachkars (sculpted stone crosses historically connected to Armenian traditions) dating back to 12th century. Image © 2009 DigitalGlobe, Inc and AAAS

Even preservation efforts have, at times, been counterproductive.

The Karabakh government has, for example, restored mosques as Persian rather than Azerbaijani mosques, thus denying the ethnic attribution of the construction. In Baku, Azerbaijan, the Armenian church Saint Gregory was restored, only to be later used as the Presidential library.

And yet, beyond the resentment fueled by nationalist ideologies, individuals from across the region have found ways to establish trustful relationships with their neighbors.

A tale of two villages

During the early development of the Nagorno-Karabakh war, increasing threats towards Armenians living in Azerbaijan and toward Azeris residing in Armenia and Karabakh led to a massive population movement. Up to 28,000 people engaged in swaps between villages.

One of these exchanges was documented in an ethnographic study by Arsen Hakobyan.

The story unfolded as follows. In the late 1980s, Armenian village elders from a village in Azerbaijan gathered and discussed possibilities to re-settle their community in Armenia. A group was organized to visit several Azeri villages in Armenian territory. After due consideration a contract was signed between what had been the Azeri village of Kyzyl-Shafag in northern Armenia and what had been the Armenian village of Kerkendj in Azerbaijan.

As the exchange started, some Armenians and Azeris remained in their original villages long enough to teach the newcomers about their environment and subsistence economy. As the Armenians arrived in Kyzyl-Shafag, for example, Azeris had already planted potatoes and taught the new owners (who had previously mostly been involved in viticulture) how to cultivate these tubers, and how to breed cattle.

Rafik Martirosyan, one of the elder involved in the organization of the village exchange. Hakobyan 2006 in Hakobyan, 2011, Anthropology of ethnic conflicts in the context of everyday life, Acta Ethnographica Hungarica, 56 (2), pp. 429–447

Councils from the two villages not only agreed to exchange houses and skills, they also trusted each other to protect their cemeteries and culturally significant constructions. These had been left behind as a central stipulation of the exchange contract.

Today in the Armenian cemetery in Kerkendji, Azerbaijan, the gates, fences, tombs, and even the trees, are still being cared for. And, as no Armenians can access the location, Azeri villagers send pictures of the cemetery to them on their phones. This contact between the two groups is integrated in their communities and goes beyond the act of preserving buildings.

Azerbaijani cemetery in Kyzyl-Shafag (now Dzyunashogh), northern Armenia. Hakobyan 2006 in Hakobyan, 2011, Anthropology of ethnic conflicts in the context of everyday life, Acta Ethnographica Hungarica, 56 (2), pp. 429–447

Meanwhile in the once Azeri village of Kyzyl-Shafag there was a rock on a hill, revered by both Armenians and Azeris. Next to this rock was the Azeri mullah’s house. Several years after the exchange, the Armenian newcomers decided to build a chapel (vank) near the sacred stone. The construction was then consecrated in 1997 with a feast involving Azerbaijani musicians.

Even the next generation is involved in this contract. In the now Armenian village of Kyzyl-Shafag, young people can still watch a 20-year-old video tape of their parents’ village of Kerkendj. Since they cannot access the village anymore, this tape connects them to the genesis of their community.

These agreements are not systematic but they do exist throughout the entire region.

Preservation of memories can help resolve conflicts

I had the opportunity to spend two summers (2008-9) in Kalavan, a village in Armenia that still retains much of its Azeri heritage – such as the mullah’s house and the Muslim cemetery. As in Kyzyl-Shafag, there is a sacred stone which today is used for Christian rituals but was once revered by the Azeri population. Some of the Kalavan residents are still in touch with their Azerbaijani counterparts to exchange news about their respective communities.

Another village, Yeghegis, in Armenia, has preserved murals in its historical buildings, places of worship and cemeteries, irrespective of their ethnic, religious, or cultural affiliations.

As several post-Soviet countries currently undergo significant unrest and secessionist threats, tension in the South Caucasus may significantly increase. Moreover, despite modest progress in the peace-making process in March, the Armenian and Azerbaijani states foster these tensions by, among other things, building a mono-ethnic, mono-cultural national history.

The above examples of cooperation contradict the current ideology that coexistence is impossible.

Reanimating the peace-building process should thus include careful consideration of these tenuous yet significant interactions, and emphasize the preservation of unbiased memory as an instrument for conflict resolution.