Gulnar Mammadova from Azerbaijan and Gohar Mamikonyan from Armenia grew up experiencing all the hardships of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, and have barely imagined ever becoming friends with somebody from their neighboring country.
Mamikonyan’s family had to move from Azerbaijan to Armenia during the conflict in 1988. Mammadova’s cousin died in the 1988-1994 war between the two countries.
In 2012 Mammadova and Mamikonyan went to Aland, a group of islands that were once a theme for dispute between Sweden and Finland, and are now a part of the latter. Mammadova and Mamikonyan joined the Aland Islands Peace Institute through the European Volunteering Service Program, and after sharing an office for a while, became friends.
“With Gohar, we became very good friends gradually and we still keep it. In the beginning I remember our hot debates on the conflict but later we tried to avoid the topic of the conflict and focus on things we have in common: positive, as well as negative parts of our societies, and our personal interests and hobbies: music, books, sports,” Mammadova said.
Mamikonyan said the two didn’t become friends in one day: “It took time and energy to know each other better and to trust more. The most important component of our friendship is the openness to one another, and readiness to listen and understand. I shook her hand and I touched her heart. In the end we understood that peace is all about opening your heart. We found the inner peace and comfort in our friendship that we looked for a long time. We are friends and not for one day.”
When Mammadova and Mamikonyan went back to Baku and Yerevan, they told of their friendship to family and friends, and both say there was no opposition to their decision at home. However, both acknowledge that there is a lot of hatred towards each other in Azerbaijan and Armenia.
Hatred on both sides
Throughout the last two post-conflict decades both Azerbaijan and Armenia have remained hostile towards each other and encouraged hatred propaganda. A February 2012
explains how textbooks in both countries also foster hate speech.
However, Mammadova, Mamikonyan and various analysts are saying that both countries have a lot in common, including problems, and by forgetting hatred and focusing on mutual interests the two countries can prosper.
Senior Atlantic Council fellow on Caucasus issues Dr. Sabine Freizer says it’s difficult to say which of the two has more propaganda, but “it is clear that both question the very historical existence of the other in the region which is pretty much tantamount to saying “the other has no right to live here.”
On one hand “Azerbaijan’s leadership, education system and media is very prolific in its denigration of Armenians,” she said, adding that, on the other hand, “while there is less day-to-day hate propaganda in Armenia vis-a-vis Azerbaijanis, most probably because they so far won the war over Nagorno-Karabakh, Armenians in general tend to equate Azerbaijanis with Turks… Their hatred for Turks due to the 1915 genocide is thus transferred to the Azerbaijanis.”
Armenian journalist Gayane Abrahamian who follows hate speech issues in both countries’ media, says “hate speech much more comes from Azerbaijan,” but also mentions that “In Armenia there was huge wave of hate speech last year after Ramil Safarov’s release.” She adds that during the past two decides there hasn’t been “any sense of peace reporting from both sides, the rhetoric usually is aggressive, stirring up mistrust and hatred.”
Aygun Muradxanli, reporter for one of the most popular opposition newspapers in Azerbaijan Yeni Musavat says there are reasons why there is more hatred in Azerbaijan: “Azerbaijan’s land was occupied. How otherwise should a country under occupation feel about the occupier?”
Azerbaijani blogger Arzu Geybullayeva voices concern that “New generations are raised based on the hatred propaganda (and this goes for both countries)”.
“A prejudice against each other exists among the young generation born in the end of 1980s and later,” agrees Mamikonyan. “Closed borders and no peace – no war situation has increased their ignorance and intolerance to each other. The image of enemy and fear of war has been highly manipulated in both countries by the government and public media.”
Mammadova is concerned that most of the hate is fueled by non-independent media. “But fortunately there are people on both sides that are not biased and spread a lot of positive messages,” said Mammadova.
According to Abrahamian the issue of Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is an important “tool” in the election season, and becomes a “PR, for playing on people’s feelings, so hate speech, “patriotic” speeches are becoming very usual.”
Muradxanli, in her turn, is concerned that “hate speech is unlikely to stop unless the conflict is adjusted.”
Another problem, said Sarah Stephan, Project Coordinator at Aland Islands Peace Institute who is involved in projects with Azerbaijan and Armenia, is that “Young Azerbaijanis and Armenians rarely have occasion to meet and discover how much they actually have in common. And that created a massive canyon between these countries.”
Despite hate speech some preserved sanity
Just like Mamikonyan and Mammadova, there are people on both sides of the conflict who were able to overcome hatred.
Muradxanli told a story of her Azerbaijani friends who used to be friends with Armenians in Baku before the conflict, have moved elsewhere in the Caucasus, and years later started businesses with old Armenian friends.
Stephan said that besides hate, she has often seen that Azerbaijanis and Armenians were simply concerned “where their countries are going and how their future will look like.”
“There is a generation that has experienced the war, is scarred and traumatized, has experiences great losses but keeps also dear memories of their Armenian friends and neighbors.”
What could be done to prevent hate speech?
Freezer says high-level officials should stop using hate speech; media should “stop using derogatory language; and most importantly for the future there is a need to revise school textbooks. For centuries Armenians and Azerbaijanis lived mainly in harmony, this should be emphasized in the school books.”
Abrahamian encourages governments on both sides to be sincere with their people and adds that media “should realize the importance of its impact, which is great both positive and negative.”
“Focus on track two initiatives – more people to people diplomacy attempts and actual work – dialogue on all levels of the community- civil societies, politicians, NGOs, youth, journalists, lawyers, a more mixed group of all of the above,” says Geybullayeva, who also works on similar initiatives at Imagine Center for Conflict Transformation.
When dealing with such projects Geybullayeva invites NGOs to think of the region’s future rather than turning them into a cash cow: “I believe it’s not place to make money – any kind of work that is done on this level- track two initiatives – needs to have a follow up and a multi-stage project planning behind it. Meaning, it shouldn’t just be a conference, or a training on the conflict. Not only these meetings should provide the two sides with understanding of the different views but also bring participants of these programs back to follow up meetings. There must be a multiplier effect. Ten people having gone through a dialogue program or some kind of reconciliation program is not enough, we need many more to share the experience.”
Former US Ambassador to Azerbaijan Richard Kazlaurich says while leaders must start, the society must also “know that seeing the other as normal human beings is not traitorous behavior. The goal of hatred is to prevent both countries from becoming normal — and to justify in the case of Azerbaijan lack of democracy and human rights.”
To prevent hatred propaganda from spreading Stephan suggests making personal encounters possible: “Not at a negotiating table, but as peers, young people with common concerns. And albeit all propaganda this is what many young people want. Go out and discover the world, meet other Europeans and escape the narrow discourses at home. And when they meet a neighbor from Armenia and Azerbaijan it is easier to be open and engage than when at home.”
Aland Islands, where Mammadova and Mamikonyan met, have once been a reason for dispute between Sweden and Finland. The two countries, however, were able to overcome differences and settle for mutual agreement.
Freizer reminds of the former Yugoslavia: “Specially, in Bosnia-Herzegovina but also in other parts, women, youth, environmentalists, teachers and others have tried to overcome the hatreds of war, but it’s a huge challenge. It takes decades of intensive work”.
A Lot In Common
There is hope for Armenia and Azerbaijan.
Mammadova and Mamikonyan say discovering that they have a lot in common, including similar problems, helped them form their friendship.
Freezer speaks of similar experience: “When for example you bring together a group of women from Nagorno-Karabakh with another group of Karabakh Azerbaijani you often find that they share similar problems over finances, health, lack of access to courts to defend their rights or local government to effect decision making, etc… Talking through these and sharing lessons on how to deal with problems, the other quickly stops being the enemy”.
Mamikonyan and Mammadova, who used to discuss those common problems during coffee break on Aland, after returning to Yerevan and Baku Skype each other at Finnish Coffee Time. They talk about their friendship and their countries and manage to stay close friends.
“I love my small country and the people and it does not necessarily mean I hate my neighbor country with whom we are in conflict”, Mamikonyan said.