I’m going to start telling this story with a restroom line. Sometime before Covid, a packed bar was abuzz with people meeting old and making new friends. One of them, an Azeri student I will call Shahin, was quite inebriated when he met Gevorg in a line outside the bar’s restroom. The two started talking, exchanged jokes, and I’m pretty sure one ended up letting the other go ahead in line. Afterward, they drank to brotherhood and agreed to continue their budding friendship in an NGO session they were both attending the next day. Somehow, while conversing in English they’d forgotten to ask about each other’s nationality.
The next day, with the Georgian chacha leaving their system and having unrestricted access to the restroom, Shahin and Gevorg smiled awkwardly at one another as each gave a presentation in his native language. Later, they would express their incredulousness to their friends, that the jolly fellow they met at the bar would turn out to be an Azeri ( or Armenian, respectively).
History is by no means taught just to contemplate our present and predict our future, Victor Schnirelmann reasoned in 2003 - “History as a school discipline is far more aimed at inculcating pupils’ attitudes to the present day than by presenting them with objective and reliable information about the past.”
Other scholars agree - in 2000, UNICEF published a study on the role of education in conflicts. The authors found that the education system a given ethnic group uses to promote their agenda turns into a dangerous political weapon and what students learn in the classroom becomes part of their perception and everyday life.
This is what happened to Gevorg and Shahin. In the end, what started in the bathroom line would not materialize into friendship because these two people have been divided by the Nagorno Karabakh conflict and taught from an early age that they should regard each other with caution.
I decided to discuss this with Armenian and Azeri youth. I was curious to find out what they remembered about each other from their school days and whether the bathroom line story was an exception.
“We were never told that we needed to go and kill someone, that’s absurd, But I was taught at school that we need to be careful and protect ourselves because there is a frozen conflict.” Attorney Aartem S told me in an interview (Last name is redacted for confidentiality) . He said he knows quite a few Azeris but struggles to talk to them about the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.
A girl I was studying with in Germany said: you see, as we are in Germany we can be friends but as soon as we return and are standing on different sides of the border we will be enemies.
This lack of trust, shared by both parties, is the result of a long indoctrination. The publication: Myths and Conflicts in the South Caucasus: historical narratives - is entirely dedicated to the topic. A group of researchers of the South Caucasus studied history textbooks and concluded that "stated objectives for history teaching in schools in many post-Soviet countries are characterised by an eclectic mix of “patriotic education” and the “development of critical thinking."
The study also revealed that the system favors the former over the latter. For example, while teaching about the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, both parties emphasize their own “heroism”, “territorial integrity” or “restoring historical truth”, however no one talks about the differences between the old and current interpretation of the events.
I can sense this influence at work while talking to my respondents. Alibashir A(last name omitted for confidentiality), an Azeri diplomat, initially tells me that it is important to take into consideration the current geopolitical situation, however, he promptly adds that the conflict should only be resolved by “liberating our motherland”. In this historical motherland, there is room for Armenians too, however only with Azeri citizenship.
"We all have some friends or relatives who ran away from there, who were affected.” Says Artem S. “There are stories of murder and rape they told us.”
Appealing to tragedy is an important part of historical indoctrination - reading a history textbook, you would think that the current Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is the only logical outcome of a century-long opposition and that mutual hatred is not a relatively recent phenomenon. The authors do not shy away from using such emotion-laden phrases as “genocide”, “ethinic cleansing” , “tragedy,”” unprecidented event in history” perpetrated by vandals,” “invaders” “dangerous enemies” and, subsequently:
We cannot forgive them.
Generalizing this hostility is facilitated by rewriting events in history textbooks: a new narrative is created which paints the nation in question as having lived in the area of Nagorno-Karabakh since “time immemorial,” and enjoying statehood which the invading enemy routinely tried to undermine. Azerbaijan and Armenia weave narratives that support their current positions too: Armenia maintains the narrative about defending itself from a non-christian enemy, Azerbaijan - freeing its land from strangers.
These attitudes have now been adjusted to the 2020 conflict. Alibashir A described in glowing terms the military operations conducted on Azeri soil, while Artem S stressed that Armenia is merely defending itself and does not have a strong supporter, such as Turkey, even.
Artem and Alibashir actually know each other. In fact they have even met a few times at conferences aimed at the resolution of the conflict and interacted on social media. They explain that Armenians and Azerbaijanis who meet on such international trips will often delete each other on social networking sites upon their return - this way they’ll avoid negativity. My respondents post unequivocally propagandic, biased material, which the other would find rather unpleasant.
I asked both of them what they thought the future holds and what they would like to tell their peers.
“Armenian youth wants to resolve this conflict in a peaceful manner but the Armenian leadership says nationalistic expressions and through these actions, they escalate the situation.” Alibashir reasoned and called Armenian peers to acknowledge Nagorno Karabakh for what it is - it is possible for Armenians there to live peacefully under Azerbaijani sovereignty.
Artem had a say about his neigbor's government as well:
"We could build a great future we are missing due to the war rethoric of Azerbaijan's current government." He told me and urged his Azeri peers to "do everything you can, personally, to end the war in peace."
Then,once again, he stressed the historical roots: “Go out, travel and see in any museum, what Armenian history is.”
Nearing the end of our discussion, we revisited the importance of history, and my respondents too, I suppose, reassumed their initial attitudes - these people know but do not trust one another. They each think the other believes in the fairy tales their governments are telling.
Which fairy tale is more true? We should probably hear what the international community has to say. Once again I will quote from the UNIFEF study:
"The control of a government by an ethnic group often leads to “the construction of a version of history … which heightens the role of that group at the expense of the others."
The girl Artem met in Germany may well be right - there are different truths on the different sides of the border. And so far, they haven't been getting along.