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Karabakh: The View From Georgia

This article was originally published on Open Democracy.

By Onnik James Krikorian 

Renewed hostilities in Nagorno-Karabakh have put Georgia’s Armenian and Azeri communities in a delicate situation. But despite tensions, they are finding new ways to coexist during conflict.

Last week’s clashes on the Line of Contact (LoC) separating Armenian and Azerbaijani troops in and around Nagorno Karabakh stirred up nationalism and animosity not only in Armenia and Azerbaijan, but also in neighbouring Georgia. The worst clashes in nearly 22 years, alarm bells were ringing in the capital Tbilisi—not least because of Georgia’s significant Armenian and Azeri minorities.

According to Georgia’s 2002 census, 284,761 ethnic Azeris and 248,929 ethnic Armenians live in Georgia, making up roughly 6.5 percent and 5.7 percent of the country’s overall population, respectively. South of Tbilisi, in Kvemo Kartli, there are at least three villages co-inhabited by members of the two minority groups. Most of the road traffic from Armenia into Georgia passes through this region, which is home to the largest concentration of ethnic Azeris in the country.

Meanwhile, the conflict in Karabakh is far from frozen. In the two decades since the 1994 cease-fire between Georgia’s southern neighbors, as many as 3,000 people are believed to have died in skirmishes on the LoC as well as the Armenia-Azerbaijan border. Propaganda and misinformation continue to play an important role in pitting the populations of both countries—and their diasporas—against each other, something that was set to escalate as the new round of fighting broke out.

Information War

On April 4, Armenian officials gleefully made (so far unproven) claims that Islamic State operatives were fighting on the front lines for Azerbaijan, while the Azerbaijani and Turkish press alleged that 400 fighters for the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) had slipped across the Armenian border with Turkey to bolster the ranks of the Armenia-backed separatist army in Nagorno Karabakh.

A few days later, the claims subsided, with an “ISIS presence” turning into “ISIS-like tactics.” Meanwhile, a video circulated on Facebook showing a group of men with PKK flags attacking Azerbaijani protesters in Paris instead. Even so, the damage had been done. Social media amplified the nationalist narrative still further—with predictable consequences.

Young people in Armenia and Azerbaijan alike declared that they would volunteer to fight their “historic foe,” and unity rallies in Yerevan and Baku provided welcome relief to governments more accustomed to people assembling to call for their resignation.

Limiting the Damage

“Since the beginning of this conflict, both sides have presented each other in their own media as enemies,” says Zaur Khalilov, the ethnic Azeri Executive Director of Georgia's Civic Education Foundation. “This directly affects the communities here because they are watching Armenian and Azerbaijan television or listening to the radio from these countries.”

Indeed, a 2010 report published by the Caucasus Research Resource Centres (CRRC) noted that "without more accurate and unbiased information free from negative rhetoric and stereotypes, Armenians and Azerbaijanis will continue to see each themselves as enemies without common ground. [...] This is a role the media has and continues to play with regards to the conflict over Nagorno Karabakh."

“It is imperative that the Georgian government does more to prevent tensions increasing”

“We have to elaborate on the issue of these two communities in Georgia, analyse their situation, and work towards improving the situation that has brought us to micro-level community conflict,” Khalilov concludes. “It is imperative that the Georgian government does more to prevent tensions increasing.”

And such concerns are real. Four days after fighting erupted on the LoC, for example, some Georgian and Azerbaijani media carried reports that Azer Suleymanov, a minister president from Georgia’s United National Movement (UNM), the party of former president Mikheil Saakashvilli, would reassemble his battalion of 150 men, which was formed during the August 2008 war with Russia, to fight on the side of Azerbaijan in Nagorno-Karabakh.

Nationalists in the mainly ethnic Armenian-populated region of Samtskhe-Javakheti also voiced the same intent to gather volunteers, but to fight on the side of Armenia. The region, with ethnic Armenians constituting the largest ethnic group at 55 percent, is still considered to be poorly integrated into Georgia. Many ethnic Armenians do not speak Georgian fluently and some analysts and politicians also consider the region susceptible to separatism, allegedly encouraged by Russia.

Some Georgian media, however, chose not to report on this mobilization. Indeed, says Arsen Kharatyan, the director of the Armenian Aliq Media radio station in Georgia, they were right not to. “We didn’t want to see tensions heightened even further,” Kharatyan tells me.

Coexistence

Kharatyan describes the relationship between the ethnic Armenian and Azeri communities in Georgia as being similar to a “gentleman’s agreement” not to allow the conflict to affect them. However, he adds, in nearly 22 years since the cease-fire, both Armenia and Azerbaijan are now more engaged with their respective ethnic communities so their influence is stronger.

The Georgian media, he notes, has been mostly neutral in covering the escalation.

But with reports of minor clashes occurring between small groups of ethnic Armenians and Azeris in Tbilisi, two Georgian Dream MPs, one ethnic Armenian and one ethnic Azeri, issued a joint statement urging their constituents to “abstain from actions and propagation which can damage the centuries-old tradition of peaceful coexistence of these two ethnic groups on Georgian territory.”

That is a reality that Camilla Mammedova knows only too well. Mammedova is the ethnic Azeri Media Director of the Georgian and Azerbaijani-language Radio Marneuli, a local media outlet in Kvemo Kartli.

“My school [in Georgia] was attended by both Armenians and Azeris,” Mammedova tells me, “and once, in the school yard, a close friend of mine with an Armenian surname hugged me tightly and told me that she was so glad I was also half Georgian. At that moment, I understood that this meant there was a problem somewhere deep down.”

Mammedova also says that while ethnic Armenians do live among a much larger ethnic Azeri population in and around Marneuli, including co-inhabiting the same villages, most ethnic Azeris appeared to support the resumption of hostilities. Kharatyan also says there were unconfirmed reports of cars with Armenian number plates being pelted by stones.

“This is about interpersonal relations”

"The problem is that young people in both communities are living in the information space of Azerbaijan and Armenia,” explains Arnold Stepanyan, the ethnic Armenian Chairman of the MultiNational Georgia NGO. “There’s also Russian and Turkish media, and the narratives ethnic Armenians and Azeris are consuming are creating the image of being enemies to each other.”

Nevertheless, Stepanyan stresses, it is unlikely that Armenia and Azerbaijan are purposely targeting their ethnic kin in Georgia given the importance of the country as a transit route for both. However, according to Stepanyan, the authorities in Tbilisi must voice their concerns with their counterparts in Baku and Yerevan. While the problems are low level for now, they could escalate.

“Under the previous government, the Russian-language Georgian PIK TV was the most watched by ethnic minorities here,” says Giorgi Bobghiashvili from the European Centre for Minority Issues. “But since it was closed they’re now left with propaganda from Russian TV or that from Armenia and Azerbaijan. The younger generation is being pushed towards the nationalism of their ethnic kin.”

“This is about interpersonal relations,” Bobghiashvili concludes, “while the younger generation has been indirectly radicalised by the information flow, the [Georgian] government only tries to deal with this problem after it happens.”

Civil Society

By way of their own response, the Thinking Citizen platform—a series of informal meetings and public discussions organised and led by a group of grassroots Azerbaijani and ethnic Azeri activists held twice a week in Tbilisi—devoted three hours to discuss the escalation in Karabakh last Thursday. Around 50 people, including Armenians, Azerbaijanis, and Georgians, were present.

The majority, however, were ethnic Azeris from Georgia, as well as Azerbaijani journalists and civil society activists from Azerbaijan. Mikheil Mirziashvili, director of the Regional Centre for Strategic Studies in Tbilisi, was one of two Georgian speakers addressing the issue of what impact the escalation has had on Georgia.

“What I wanted to underline is that the unresolved conflict over Nagorno Karabakh is a serious threat to Georgia and that this threat is not taken seriously here on both a political and societal level,” Mirziashvili says. “It is in the interest of all ethnic groups in Georgia to be sensitive and careful. Ethnic Georgians, Armenians, and Azeris should realise this is a threat to their country.”

Emilia Alaverdova, head of the International Department at Tbilisi State University and a senior research fellow at the Institute of Russian Studies, reiterated the same: “Georgia should be a mediator in this conflict and not allow our younger citizens to provoke each other or to go and fight here or in other territories.”

Azerbaijani civil society activist Emin Aslan, one of the main coordinators for the Thinking Citizen platform, said the outcome of the meeting was positive. “These types of platforms are essential to this process,” Aslan says, “and there should be more of them because if people keep their emotions inside, one day they will explode and there will be some very negative results. Then everyone will simply ask, what happened? Why did it happen?”

As one student from Azerbaijan studying in Tbilisi remarked: “I think both the ethnic communities of Georgia should not allow this terrible conflict to spread. Otherwise, the situation is not only dangerous for Georgia, but also for the entire region.”

With the possibility that Russia might support Armenia in any further resumption of hostilities, and with Turkey linked culturally and historically to Azerbaijan, concerns over Georgia’s Armenian and Azeri minorities were heightened given Tbilisi’s own problems with Moscow.

Of course, Georgia has its own interests to balance. Azerbaijan is the country’s largest foreign investor, having invested $542 million in the country in 2015 with SOCAR Energy Georgia, a subsidiary of the State Oil Company of Azerbaijan. Armenia-backed forces in Nagorno Karabakh have on previous occasions threatened to target the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline if fighting ever resumed.

For now, though, the escalation has died down. But the experience highlights greater problems if it were to occur again. For Georgia, countering the information flow from Armenia and Azerbaijan and improving the level of Georgian language proficiency among the country’s ethnic Armenian and Azeri communities should be a priority. Despite some progress since the 2003 Rose Revolution, the fact that this remains to be done demonstrates how full integration into Georgian society is still lacking.

*****

*****

Onnik James Krikorian is a journalist and photographer from the UK who has covered the Nagorno Karabakh conflict since first visiting for The Independent in 1994.

[Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons]

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