A Village Where Armenians and Azeris Share Problems Other than Conflict
By Ani Paitjan
“Does a village like this really exist?” asks my friend.
We were sitting in one of Yerevan’s cafes when I told her that I will spend my weekend in Georgia and will visit a village where Armenians and Azeris have lived together for decades.
For 30 years, the media inform us about violations of the cease fire, death of soldiers and sabre-rattling on sides parts of the Armenia-Azerbaijan border and line of contact. With this situation, it is almost unthinkable that those two ethnicities might live in the same place and visit each other as good neighbors. Then, what do those ‘forever foes’ do to coexist in serenity?
Growing up together
Tsopi is located just a few kilometers (24 minutes by car) from the Armenian border and it is hard to get to the village if you have no car.
The nearest town from the village is Marneuli, where 83 percent of the population are ethnic Azeris. The bus terminus is Sadakhlo, a border crossing town between Armenia and Georgia.
Not a single bus drives to Tsopi and we have to negotiate and pay($5) to the bus driver to take us there.
It is late fall and Tsopi seems like a sleepy place, as if the village was getting ready for the harsh winter ahead. At first glance, it seems to me that the road of the hamlet is completely dilapidated, then I understand that there is absolutely no road…
A tall and thin old man looks intrigued by us. His name is Osman and he was born and raised in Tsopi. I am accompanied with an Azeri friend. The old man is surprised to find me with him. “ How did you reach the village without biting each other’s heads off?” he jokes with a smile on his face. Osman has three children and all of them speak perfect Azerbaijani and Armenian.
“My grandchildren also speak fluent Armenian,” he adds proudly.
Armenian and Azeri children grow up together and go together to the same and only school in the village. However, they are in separate classes, each learning in their own language. They meet and play during the break in the playground.
Language is a barrier to finding work locally and most of the inhabitants of Tsopi do not speak Georgian. In Soviet times, Russian was the lingua franca in the region, but since Georgia’s independence in 1991, Georgian has been the official language. Many residents conclude the only way to earn a proper living is to go to cities in Armenia, Azerbaijan or Russia.
It’s only recently that the current generation of pupils has a teacher of Georgian descent. Before that, no one was sent to remote villages to teach the state language.
Decades long coexistence
From afar, a figure is approaching. Artur, a resident of the village warmly welcomes us and switches from speaking Armenian to Azerbaijani in less than a minute. He takes time to check in on Osman’s children. “All is good, apres Artur jan [‘Thank you dear Artur’ in Armenian],” replies Osman.
According to the November 2014 census in Georgia, ethnic minorities make up 13.2% of the population. Azeris and Armenians are the two largest minority groups. Azeris account for 6.3% while the Armenian minority accounts for 4.5% of the total population.
Artur tells us that their village expanded during Soviet times, in the 1950’s, although it existed before. “ Back in time, they built buildings for the residents and workers. Here we had various factories. Surrounding village workers were coming to Tsopi to work in our factories. It was a multicultural village where Greeks, Russians, Georgians, Armenians and Azeris were living together,” says Artur.
Now only Armenians and Azeris remain in the village, besides one Greek old lady. Tsopi has approximately 450 residents, of which 75% are Azeris.
Edgar, another Tsopian, who works as an electrician in Marleuni, decides to walk along with us. “We’ve been living together forever. Our schoolmates and friends were Azeris, we invite them to drink coffee or to eat with us and they do the same, as good neighbors,” he explains.
After climbing a small hill, we reach the top where we find a pile of rocks. It is an old Georgian ruined church from the 5th century. Villagers have no proper church neither mosque. “It’s fine, our faith is in our heart,” says Edgar.
Shadow of the conflict
Although tensions linger between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh, the two groups coexist peacefully in this remote Georgian setting.
However, we had to ask the burning question: No conflict ever took place or is taking place between them? Osman and Artur categorically answer, “no, no, never.” Artur adds that what happens between Armenia and Azerbaijan has nothing to do with them.
But sometimes, the shadow of the conflict hangs around the village. This was the case during the April War that took place in Spring 2016 between Armenia and Azerbaijan.
“We just did not talk together about that. Not in public, not with the Azeris. Off course we were discussing what was happening in private, with family members and we know they were doing the same, but we live in the same village, we do our best to avoid inside conflict,” explains Artur while walking through the village.
We meet with Mustapha and his wife Pari. In their living room, the TV is switched on and we can hear the voice of a dynamic Azeri song using Tar, Oud and Kamanche instruments.
Trees with round and bright orange persimmons decorate their yard. Pari peeled the persimmons and hanged them on her terrace. Autumn is the best season to dry them and winter to eat them.
In his youth, Mustapha was a trader, buying and selling stuff here and there. Now he is a retired man. He regrets the conflict between the two ethnic groups: “I used to go to Armenia to buy stuff and sell them here because it was cheaper,” he tells us. The old man uncovers the past, “I was the tamada [toastmaster in Caucasian countries] of an Armenian wedding once.
Mustapha thinks that the reason why they stay far from tensions is because they are not in their land: “We are in Georgia, not in Armenia or Azerbaijan, so we get along well. When the April war started, a small fight happened in another village and they were immediately put in jail. We don’t want that here,” adds Mustapha.
Warm relations have their limits
Then, Edgar invites us for a cup of coffee in his house. Syuzanna, his wife, is cleaning fruits, while Edgar’s sister-in-law, named Syuzanna too, is preparing traditional Turkish coffee.
Edgar’s wife is from another village in Georgia, while the other Syuzanna grew up in a village in Armenia, where Azeri was just a dim word to designate the enemy.
For the sister-in-law Syuzanna, it was a shock to see Azeris for the first time. “I come from Armenia, I’ve never seen any Azeri in my entire life. We associate them with war, death of 18 year old boys, widows and orphans…”, she says.
Edgar’s wife is nodding her head. “But here, there is mutual respect and assistance. When we need help, our Azeri neighbors come and give us a hand,” she adds.
But those warm relations have limits. Even if Armenians and Azeris of the village grew up and spent most of their lives together, mixed marriage is not accepted.
“That cannot happen. This would be a misfortune for both sides. We are Armenians, we have to keep our identity, our culture and our religion. The Azeris also think like this,” cuts Artur.
“Marriage and subsequently family ties are far more personal than a simple friendship – marriages yield children, and children are the future of every nation. Changes in the traditional conception of a national identity based on ethnicity is perceived as a threat to the survival of the nation in its present form,” reads the Caucasus Research Resource Center’s report.
The truth of Malayka tatik
Back at the table where coffees are being drunk and half of the cookies being eaten.
A new guest enters the living room. Malayka, a 72 years old lady, with red cheeks and a black veil on her head, greets us with a smile and sits next to Eteri, an old Armenian lady, Edgar’s neighbor.
Malayka is Azeri and lives alone in the house next to Edgar’s. Her husband died years ago and her daughter left the family home to get married. Both Syuzanna’s children adore her and call her “Malayka tatik” [‘Granny Malayka’ in Armenian]. She comes to Edgar’s house almost everyday, takes care of them, cooks them scrumptious food and helps with the household chores.
“She’s like a member of the family,” says Syuzanna, Edgar’s wife.
Malayka tatik is surprised to see us in Edgar’s house and she is wondering why we are so interested in this topic. “So what? How about Tbilisi? Don’t different nationalities live there together? What’s so amazing here that you travelled all those kilometers to meet us?”
The questions left a silence in the room. Next to her, Eteri nods.
After all, she is right. Armenians and Azeris have been living together for centuries and this was a natural phenomenon.
For Malayka, the inter-ethnic coexistence of their village doesn’t raise her interest. She suddenly switches topics and says pessimistically to Edgar: “Presidents are changing, but nothing is changing in the country. We still have no gas…”
Syuzanna’s children are sitting quietly next to the only source of heat of the house, the wood heater in the living room. Life in Georgia imposes other priorities instead of the Karabakh conflict.
I came to Tsopi to find a specific answer to my question, but while talking with the villagers, I now understand that ethnic tension is not even in the top ten of their dilemmas.
Poverty, unemployment, access to education, water, gas, electricity are. And it strikes everyone, Armenians and Azeris without distinction of ethnicity…