Translation: Blanca G. Bertolaza
The persistence of the insurgent guerrilla in Chechnya is just the most abrupt exponent of what is still happening in the rest of the Caucasus. Even along the Georgian and Armenian borders, two countries that belong to the Council of Europe, gun shots and the capturing of prisoners cause dozens of victims every year. Almost two decades after the cease fire of their respective conflicts, the latent violence has not been appeased. On the contrary, their armies have rearmed and, according to the latest surveys, rejection among different ethnic groups is growing, based on religious or territorial rivalries and stirred up by mutual accusations by governments whose democratic legitimacy is sometimes questioned.
In the Caucasus, historically a land of conflicts due to its role as natural border between Asia and Europe, the usual course of action is for the dozens of ethnic groups that live there not to coexist, but instead to remain mostly segregated, even when they share the same territory. That involves obvious risks in a region as impoverished and lacking in democratic tradition as this one. In Armenia’s case, the war against Azerbaijan for the control of the Nagorno-Karabakh region ended with a cease fire in 1994, but definitive peace has not yet been achieved, and there are sporadic shootouts along the border.
Between November 19th and 26th two Armenian Karabakh soldiers were shot and killed by snipers, and seven Azeri soldiers were killed in retaliation. According to reports by the High Karabakh security forces, this week the cease fire was violated 270 times. Last fall, the exhibitions of military might, in the form of parades on one side and the other, have led many to think about the possibility of a new war.
The governments of Armenia and Azerbaijan keep the tension along the borders high, but there is also a home front, among the civil population.
The data provided by Ashot Parsyán, director of the Erevan Hispanic Center, is chilling. According to the official surveys he handles, only 28% of Armenians approve of friendly relations with Azerbaijanis, but this figure falls down to barely 1% in the neighboring country. That is to say that virtually the whole of the Azerbaijani population flatly rejects any relationship with Armenia.
“They hate us deeply”, admits Ashot, whose personal experience is a good example of the social violence of this conflict. Despite his Armenian ethnic origin, he was born in Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, back when both countries were soviet republics, part of the USSR. Azerbaijanis, mostly Muslim, and Armenians, of ancient Christian beliefs, lived in peace during the 80s, but with the disintegration of the Soviet regime came also the territorial disputes and
the ethnic grudges. Ashot’s family first had to stop speaking Armenian in public and finally had to flee Azerbaijan, fearing for their lives.
In fact, that conflict ended with 15,000 people dead and more than a million displaced. However, Ashot does not fell like a refugee. On the contrary, to him it was like returning home, and remembers his younger sister’s happiness two decades ago, when she got off the plane and yelled out that she could finally speak in her mother tongue again. That does not stop him from regretting the current escalating tension as his country does not manage to overcome extreme poverty and the highest younger generations can aspire to is emigration.
Armenia’s Permanent Representation to the UN has denounced several times that Azerbaijan “for years has been developing and carrying out a big-scale propaganda campaign to instill racial hate and intolerance towards Armenians”. That is why more than 70% of Azerbaijani citizens are against the task of the Minsk Group in charge of the peace negotiations between the two countries. Not even Russia, who looks after the oil interests in the area, manages to smooth the way.
This alleged propagation of ethnic hate, a technique used by the political power to manipulate the population, might seem common in a country such as Azerbaijan, where accusations of fraud pile up each time elections are held. Different human rights organizations, especially Amnesty International, have been denouncing the disproportionate repression of the recent protests, inspired by the Arab Spring, against the authoritarianism and alleged corruption of the Azerbaijani regime. However, this popular opposition is harder to explain in Armenia, a country that seems to be free from such anti-democratic suspicions.
“Intolerance and ethnic hate exist in Armenia too”, according to veteran Armenian journalist Onnik Krikorian. To illustrate his statement he recalls something that happened recently in Erevan, where no venue was able to house a film festival about Azerbaijan, due to the threats they received. Ashot believes that it is not just a question of religion, but that it also has to do with territorial issues, much like in Israel.
Armenia, which was the first country in the world to adopt Christianity as its official religion, keeps closed its borders not just with Azerbaijan but also with Turkey. The only Muslim-majority country with which it keeps them open is Iran, and very reluctantly. On January 23rd the French Senate passed the law reform that penalizes the denial of the Armenian genocide by Turkish authorities in 1915, which caused such a huge exodus that right now 9 million people of Armenian origin live abroad and only 3 million live in that country. From now on, denying the Armenian genocide in France has the same penalty as denying the Jewish holocaust. Turkey has threatened France with taking it to the Human Rights Court over this decision, straining diplomatic relations.
century later, Turkey’s refusal to admit the fact that that collective tragedy constituted genocide keeps wounds open and borders closed. Herminia is part of the new Armenian Diaspora, emigrating to flee poverty. She came to Spain almost a decade ago with her husband and her son, and not only does she manage to hang on here in spite of the crisis, but she has also brought over her mother and her brother. However, Herminia recalls that massacre as if she had experienced it first-hand. The details are exposed at the Erevan Genocide Museum,where each day fresh flowers are placed around the eternal flame that honors the victims, overlooking Mount Ararat, Armenia’s national symbol, which, however, has been located in Turkish territory for a long time. Herminia is able to not think about her pressing work and family troubles for a while to look from one Diaspora to the other and emotionally state: “it was organized genocide”.
That is what their Georgian neighbors think, but of Russia in their case, which they see as the continuation of the Soviet regime. Since the brief war that took place in August 2008 between Georgia and Russia, the Russian Army occupies the separatist regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, whose secession already provoked and armed conflict in 1995 in which almost 10,000 people died. Nowadays 150,000 people are affected by the clashes and there are 90,000 refugees who live on international aid, according to the European Commission’s Humanitarian Office. They are the tangible result of the intolerance and ethnic cleansing on both sides of the borders in this region.
Amnesty International includes in its 2011 report references to the fact that the civil population still suffers “harassment and insecurity” in areas of Abkhazia, where there were even “reports about shootouts, homicides and arson fires”. And regarding the war refugees, many organizations have spoken out about the illegality of the forced evictions that government authorities have been imposing in Tiflis. And about the recently built settlements for the displaced, “access to water, drainage and other basic services is insufficient”, Amnesty insists.
The other consequences: closed and heavily-armed borders, skirmishes, reports of human rights violations, an impoverishment that is obvious in the very streets of the capital, Tiflis, and an intense national exaltation propaganda against “enemies” from Russia and other ethnic groups by the Georgian government. President Mikhail Saakashvili has been getting reelected since 2004 in spite of opposition protests alleging electoral fraud. The repression of the last protests, in last May, ended with two people dead and dozens injured.
However, by the summer the disturbances had quieted down and a striking permanent display was inaugurated in the Georgian National Museum, dedicated to the “soviet occupation”. Upon entering the building, the security guard proudly informs the still scarce tourists who visit Tiflis that this exhibition has just been inaugurated on the fourth floor. It does not show up on the museum signs yet. As one enters the first room, there is a life-size image of a train wagon riddled with bullet holes fired from a machine gun that is lying right there. Next to this scene, pictures of corpses and long lists of the victims of the first attacks of the Red Army, in 1921, take up entire walls. The calm of the room is shattered by a thundering video projected on a large screen. It shows images of refugees, dead and wounded people, and bombings during the last war, in 2008, along with statements from former Russian President Vladimir Putin. The whole creates a dramatic but also unsettling effect. That same museum highlights the country’s deep religious roots.
Georgia was the second country in the world to adopt Christianity, after Armenia, and both have their own Church, which vindicates its remote origins with strict rituals celebrated daily in the ancient monasteries spread across the country. A national institution, a symbol that plays a big role in the cohesion of the country under ethnic trademarks. Just like their unique
alphabet, which has completely replaced the Cyrillic alphabet imported by the Russians, which cannot be found anymore on any public buildings.
But Abkhaz and Ossetia are not Georgia’s only territorial problems. Its westernmost region, of Turkish majority, is still under Turkish protectorate. On the eastern end, Azerbaijanis call for autonomy and identify mostly with Azerbaijan, while there is a majority of Armenian population in its southernmost region that also threatens with separatist movements. In Southern Caucasus, the temporary halt of armed conflicts, far from stimulating coexistence, has consolidated segregation among the different ethnic groups. Shootouts along the borders are only the symptom.