In the second half of the 1980s, with the beginning of the Armenian-Azerbaijani military escalation in Nagorno-Karabakh, Azerbaijani residents of Kyzyl-Shafag, a village in northern Armenia, and Armenian residents of Kerkenj, a village in central Azerbaijan, met through their own initiative to negotiate a peaceful exchange of their villages.
On the one hand, that decision was a painful result of the ethno-political tension created by nationalists on both sides who sought to exile representatives of the “enemy ethnos” from their countries. On the other hand, however, without any support or interference from any political authorities, the wine growers of Kerkenj and the mountain people of Kyzyl-Shafag demonstrated great responsibility in enabling both parties to overcome the crisis in a peaceful, dignified way, thus setting a powerful example for civic interethnic cooperation in the midst of political conflict.
Agreements between Armenians and Azerbaijanis to exchange houses and property and take care of family graves have remained valid despite all the horrors of the Karabakh conflict. This is just one important aspect of an impressive but largely suppressed story of the past twenty years that the Caucasus can tell.
Almost two decades after the village exchange occurred, young sociologists and anthropologists from Armenia and Azerbaijan joined as a part of a working group, supported by the Heinrich Boell Foundation’s South Caucasus Regional Scholarship Program. They sought to document this story in as much detail as possible, taking into consideration viewpoints of both sides.
Perhaps when pitching the idea for the project, our fellows did not realize that they themselves were creating a new example of interethnic cooperation at the time of political crisis. Though on a different level and in another context, with far fewer personal consequences, what the authors say about Kerkenj and Kyzyl-Shafag residents in the preface applies to themselves as well:
“The project … conducted during the … conflict demanded that all of the participants demonstrated a high level of courage, team spirit, ability to withstand provocations, controlled emotions, and most importantly, see the other party also as victims of the situation, the same as themselves, not as enemies with whom no dialogue was possible… This first and foremost required peaceful contact between representatives of both sides.”
Over the past twenty years the unresolved Nagorno-Karabakh conflict has further widened the gap between Armenian and Azerbaijani societies. What used to be quite ordinary for the “heroes of the story” told in this book – that is, essentially peaceful coexistence with Armenian or Azerbaijani neighbours respectively – is not only a tale of the remote past for representatives of the younger generation on both sides, but also something that is frequently claimed to be politically and culturally impossible, and thus undesired.
Cooperating beyond hermetically sealed state borders requires courage in itself. Mutual understanding within the joint project calls for much patience, flexibility, and willingness to compromise. The authors of this book live and operate in societies that have completely opposite narratives of anything related to the Karabakh conflict, which also impacts the views promoted in academic environments. Even the smallest details of wording in each publication present a potential cause for conflict.
We are glad that our fellows have gone the distance and completed this challenging journey, thereby demonstrating their professional and personal maturity. We hope that this example will inspire other young scholars in the South Caucasus who will be able to study history and contemporary society out of the bounds of political and ethnic categories and regardless of state borders.
Table of contents
FROM THE PUBLISHER 7
CHAPTER 1. DANGER AT THE DOOR 13
CHAPTER 2. CIVIL SELF-DEFENSE 23
CHAPTER 3. THE IDEA OF A VILLAGE EXCHANGE 44
CHAPTER 4. CIVIL AGREEMENT BETWEEN THE COMMUNES 63
CHAPTER 5. THE EXCHANGE 74
CHAPTER 6. LEADERS AND ORCHESTRATORS OF THE EXCHANGE 92
CHAPTER 7. THE EXCHANGE: CO-RESIDENCE 110
CHAPTER 8. LIVING IN A NEW PLACE 126
CHAPTER 9. MOTHERLAND, MOTHERLAND! 158