Armenian and Azerbaijani youth hope for peace and positive change in the region

By Sasun Khachatrian and Lamiya Adilgizi

During the last two weeks the most influential and brightest of Azerbaijani and Armenian youth came together in neighboring country Georgia, considered a neutral zone between Azerbaijan and Armenia, to discuss the decades-long conflict in the disputed area of Nagorno-Karabakh.

Brought together in the tourist city of Bakuriani by the Azerbaijani-Armenian Dialogue Program, both Azerbaijani and Armenian youth made an effort together to tear down the negative stereotypes in both societies by engaging in innovative dialogue activities and promoting different but cooperative views of the conflict and solutions for its resolution.

The Azerbaijani-Armenian Dialogue Program, initiated by an Armenian and Azerbaijani conflict resolution professionals and supported by the Imagine Center for Conflict Transformation since 2007, is also facilitated by a US conflict transformation trainer experienced in running workshops and outdoor activities that create understanding and trust between youth from cultures in conflict.

The most unusual and particularly interesting part of the program was bringing participants from both sides into historical discussions of Nagorno-Karabakh, so that both sides might easily talk about their own stories and narrations. This was, in fact, aimed at establishing a comprehensive environment for the sharing of historical facts. During this session, it became clear that sometimes realities unknown and unacceptable to one party are actually true and irrevocable to the other party.

The most captivating part of the dialogue was the personal stories told by participants who had either directly or indirectly experienced the atrocity of the Nagorno-Karabakh war. This particular session resulted in young people coming to realize the similarity of their feelings, pain, injuries and troubles.

In having a chance to express their fears, concerns, needs and hopes, both publicly and in person, participants in this program challenged themselves to be much more objective and simultaneously constructive. Learning to be able to understand and respect the other side’s truths despite feeling misunderstood and criticized was one of the most appreciated and successful aspects of the dialogue.

The dialogue program was “very open and constructive” says Sergey Movsisyan, 28, a representative of the Helsinki Citizens’ Assembly Vanadzor Office. “Through discussions it was very clear what the official government point of view is and what is the point of view of ordinary citizens both in Armenia and Azerbaijan,” says Movsisyan. He considers the current stage of the conflict and society’s prospects for conflict resolution very important and urges both governments to closely work with NGOs and members of their communities.

Maryam Jabarova, 21, an Azerbaijani participant studying at Khazar University in Baku, says that she wanted to communicate with Armenian youth, as she needed to view the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict both from the Azerbaijani and from the Armenian perspective, and for now she feels satisfied, as she has got a comprehensive picture of the conflict after being able to personally compare both side’s facts. “The most important thing is that I learned to listen and understand the other side … even if there were facts I could not agree with at all,” she says, reiterating that “understanding is not agreeing.”

Nermin Nebiyeva, 24, a journalist and blogger from Azerbaijan who is an internally displaced person (IDP) from Zengilan, one of the occupied territories of Azerbaijan, considers this program important especially because of personal stories she has been witnessing since the program. “As a person who lost her relatives [and] home where I first opened my eyes … [who had] a childhood in damp, dark and endless refugee camps, I needed to face the people that I considered sinners and culprits of what I had to live through all these years.” Nebiyeva felt she needed this meeting in order to overcome the mountain of hatred inside herself, as she says she finds hatred much more natural than love. “Hatred is much more real and because of that it destroys the person. That’s why I needed to get involved in this program, just for myself. Living with hatred that ties you to the past and does not let you go forward is very hard and feels like jumping into deep water with a stone tied to your feet,” she says with tears in her eyes.

Nebiyeva continues saying that in the beginning she was afraid of coming to the program thinking that emotions and feelings would overshadow the realities, causing the dialogue to fail; however she was faced with something different. “It was the opposite. Armenians and Azerbaijanis shared rooms and sat around the same table, giving me the belief that we could live together as we have lived for centuries. I understood that the war is between the states and not the people. No power can give back the loss that both sides have experienced.” When asked if she left a difficult past behind her, Nebiyeva responded with a deep sigh, “The past never leaves you, it is always in your dreams.”

Youth opinion on the legal status of Nagorno-Karabakh is different but interesting

During the 10 days of the workshop and individual discussions, the Azerbaijani and Armenian youths discussed the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict from both sides’ perspectives, which resulted in the emergence of some very interesting insights.

Sona Dilanyan, 18, a student of Middle Eastern studies at Yerevan State University, cares more about the lives of people living in Nagorno-Karabakh rather than territory itself. “If the Azerbaijani government could provide all the necessary conditions for quality of life, it would make no difference for me whether Nagorno-Karabakh is part of Armenia or Azerbaijan” says Dilanyan. She believes that if the Armenian population of Nagorno-Karabakh were not treated with hatred, she would be fine with Nagorno-Karabakh remaining within Azerbaijan, although she does believe that Azerbaijani government needs to reconsider its current policy.

Veronika Aghajanyan, 23, a graduate student from the Budapest-based Central European University, sees the only possible solution to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict as recognizing the independence of Nagorno-Karabakh based on the will of its people through a referendum.

Being totally against the independence of Nagorno-Karabakh apart from the Republic of Azerbaijan (as Aghajanyan puts it) Nebiyeva thinks that the last stage of the settlement of the conflict needs to be put to a referendum. However, Nebiyeva is concerned about the ongoing artificial boost in Armenian population in Nagorno-Karabakh. “My fear is of an orchestrated flow of Armenians and other people from different nationalities living in different parts of the world to Nagorno-Karabakh and its seven adjacent territories. The increasing Armenian population will place under threat the Azerbaijani citizens of Nagorno-Karabakh, decreased substantially after the war and dispersed and accommodated across Azerbaijan as IDPs. This would be especially so during a referendum which will make the Armenian population gain majority of votes over Azerbaijani population,” Nebiyeva says.

Given the question about the legal status of Nagorno-Karabakh, Movsisyan said that in the event of an “ideally high status under which Armenians are legally protected I can consider it possible to see Nagorno-Karabakh within Azerbaijan.” When it comes to current Azerbaijani domestic politics, meaning human rights violations and unequal treatment of the civilians, Movsisyan said he preferred not to talk about this topic.

Sasun Khachatryan, 31, a journalism and media management student at the Tbilisi-based Georgian Institute of Public Affairs, in recognizing Nagorno-Karabakh as a de facto republic, rather than as a part of the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan, calls on Azerbaijan to understand the status quo and make concessions in terms of the settlement of the conflict. “Azerbaijani society should realize that it has lost the war and should yield something in return for any compromise in regards to the settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. This is reality. Otherwise being unwilling to make concessions and demanding only things beneficial for only Azerbaijan is pretty much unrealistic and will hardly ever come true,” says Khachatryan.

In the early 1990s, Nagorno-Karabakh (predominantly populated by ethnic Armenians) and seven adjacent regions (without any Armenian populations), which were an integral part of Azerbaijan, became occupied by neighboring country Armenia. Sixteen years of mediation by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Minsk Group has yielded no results and the possibility of military confrontation has been increasing more than ever. The point at which both sides become stuck is that Azerbaijan wants to recover its territorial integrity, which is currently under the control of Armenia, although Armenia demands Nagorno-Karabakh to be independent from Azerbaijan. The region has already become a showcase of border skirmishes, leaving dozens of dead each year from both from Azerbaijan and Armenia.

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