How often do you come across an Armenian and Azerbaijani speaking in one another’s languages, and moreover easily switching from Armenian to Azerbaijani and back again? How long ago was it that you managed to see Armenians and Azerbaijanis hugging and kissing, calling one another brothers with sincere joy? I think that such scenes are part of the distant past for some, and for many, are already an unimaginable fantasy.
In April of this year, the world tensely followed the most recent, unprecedented escalation of violence in the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict. Various experts stated their disappointment in the initiatives for resolving the conflict, which international intermediaries have been trying to implement over the course of almost a quarter century and in the hopelessness of further diplomatic negotiations. The main media outlets of Armenia and Azerbaijan actively ‘poured oil on the fire’, supporting an information environment in which
assumptions don’t leave space for hope of a peaceful coexistence between these two peoples.
However, if we break through the boundaries of the physical and mental zones of conflict, then we can find an ‘island’ of that peace which existed between Armenians and Azerbaijanis before the Karabakh issuesflared up. The village of Tsopi, in the Marneuli municipality of Georgia, is one such ‘island of peace’ – a reflection of the collective past and, one wants to believe, a manifestation of the near future of Azerbaijanis and Armenians. From October to November of this year, as part of my ethnographic research, I made several trips to this village for the purpose of performing preliminary research on the customs, traditions and way of life of its residents.
Tsopi is near the Georgian-Armenian border. From the major border town of Sadakhlo, you can get there within 10-15 minutes by car along a bumpy road. Marshrutkas from the municipal center are rare and always full, and so I frequently ended up having to take a taxi. Local drivers, whether from Marneuli or Sadakhlo, were surprised at the interest of an outsider in visiting Tsopi, though they would mention straight away its main point of interest – the peaceful coexistence of Armenians and Azerbaijanis.
It would seem that, much like myself, they were struck by the good, neighborly relations that have taken form in this village, which you don’t always see in multi-ethnic villages and what’s more, between ‘sworn enemies’, as Armenians and Azerbaijanis often portray one another in their respective mass media.
According to the most recent population census, around 600 people live in Tsopi, of whom 73% are Azerbaijanis and the rest are practically all Armenians. The vicissitudes of both ancient and modern history led to the internationalization of this village. Local residents of the older generation remember with pride the large-scale mining of marble and limestone in Tsopi, which was held in high regard throughout the Soviet Union and attracted numerous specialists from all corners of the country and even countries of the socialist bloc.
In those days, the residents of Tsopi felt they were living, as they themselves say now, at the ‘center of the world’, since in addition to Armenians, Azerbaijanis and Greeks, who are considered the indigenous population, one could meet representatives of still another ten nationalities here, including Georgians, Russians, Kazakhs, and even Poles and Germans.
There are an impressive number of monuments of ancient history in Tsopi’s surroundings. In the village itself, one can encounter the ruins of two antique churches and numerous burial sites. And representative of either the Georgian government or the Georgian Orthodox Church recently restored yet another church on one of the nearby hills, which dates back to the fifth century, according to some assertions. At the same time, and by all appearances also with the goal of marking the presence of the Georgian government in its multi-national southern borderlands, a cross was installed right on the remains of the walls of an ancient fortress, which was erected on the rocky peak of a hill that rises up above the village. They say that the ruins of other churches can also be found in the surrounding mountainous forests.
If you ask local residents about these ancient constructions, you’ll note that the opinions of Azerbaijanis, Armenians and Greeks differ – either they’re Albanian, or Armenian, or Greek. But they try not to get into quarrels about these topics, especially since these ancient artifacts don’t have any relation to every-day concerns, and Georgians have already declared this the legacy of Iberia. On the whole, residents of the village don’t approve of and avoid getting caught-up in ill-fated debates concerning national questions, and moreover concerning who Nagorno-Karabakh belongs to.
In discussions with guests of Tsopi, its residents straight-away rush to announce that both Azerbaijanis and Armenians live in the village, and they live in peace and understanding. One gets the feeling that the residents of the village themselves understand that what was once a commonplace situation for the region has today become a unique manifestation, and want to share this fact with visitors.
The collective memory of a peaceful past in many ways helps these people to prevent the political conflict from making inroads on their world, which they have so carefully preserved. The older generation tells nostalgically about how cosmopolitan and tolerant society was when the quarry was in operation. This may sound like it’s in the spirit of Soviet ideology, but people of various nationalities really were united by working together on large-scale projects.
Beyond the bounds of work, people also actively rubbed shoulders in the public sphere of life. There was a school, two kindergartens, a cultural center, a bath, supermarket, bakery, post office and other establishments where residents of the village constantly met and built close social relations between them.
The local population communicated freely in Azerbaijani, Armenian and Russian, and friendship and love freely overcame all ethnic and national borders, uniting the people ever more deeply. Nevertheless, this did not lead to the significant intermarrying of Armenians and Azerbaijanis.
The economic collapse and closure of the quarry in the ‘90s led to an outflow of the population, the non-native population in particular, and then, more importantly, to a significant reconstruction of the existing patterns of life. Of the social institutions, today only the school is actually working, and its Russian-language sector was closed, but the Azerbaijani and Armenian ones continue to exist. At present, the school is the sole major source of employment in the village. However, the school building itself is in a sorry physical state, and it urgently needs a serious, thorough overhaul. There are also a couple of shops and auto repair shops working in the village.
The most active part of the local population goes for work to the nearest large residential centers, to Tbilisi and abroad, but the primary mass
of the population is engaged in agriculture and animal husbandry. In this way, the social space for daily contact between Armenians and Azerbaijanis was reduced by the deindustrialization of the economy and the fall in standard of living in the village. Nevertheless, friendly, interpersonal relations between them were maintained and enabled peaceful coexistence during the time of the Karabakh war and all the following periods of escalation of the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh, including recent events in April.
From an early age, Azerbaijani and Armenian families impress children with tolerance toward members of neighboring ethnic groups. Their children spend time together at school, in their games on the street, they come over to one another’s houses. Both Armenians and Azerbaijanis are present at village weddings, and they rejoice together, embrace and kiss. They also share one another’s sorrow at funerals. Seeing such relations between the older generations, the children’s mentality develops in a corresponding manner, as do relations between them. Nevertheless, there is already significantly less public space for them to interact than there was during their parents’ time. Moreover, the ‘information age’ is also playing a certain, negative role – the Armenian and Azerbaijani mass media are penetrating deeper and deeper into the community, bringing their conflict-laden discourse with them, and interactions between peers are steadily moving off the street and into the online sphere. What’s more, after finishing school, many leave the village in search of work and education. All this leads to the fact that each new generation is less able to speak in one another’s language.
But despite this tendency, peace is preserved in Tsopi. The village’s residents are focused not on the questions of the Karabakh conflict, but on resolving their pressing, daily problems – work and searching for it, housekeeping, farming, and raising children. People turn to one another for help regardless of their nationality. And on the whole, nationality often doesn’t have a significant meaning for them. While in the company of Azerbaijanis and Armenians, I heard on multiple occasions that they don’t want to divide themselves along national lines; quite the opposite, many even refer to themselves as ‘one nation’. Such phrases give hope that the life of this small village in Georgia might become an example of the peace that sooner or later will arise again between the Armenian and Azerbaijani peoples.