4 Nov 2019
Communities of Practices: Prospects for the Armenian-Azerbaijani Everyday Engagement across the Conflict Divide
The article develops an alternative approach for supporting local inter-community peace processes within the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict setting, based on Etienne Wenger’s concept of community of practice. The recent developments in the Nagorno-Karabakh peace process potentially open up possibilities of (re)-establishments of people-to-people contacts across the conflict divide. The article conceptualizes the initial organization of the prospective inter-community engagement and discusses the ways for practical support of inter-community engagement focusing on improving the everyday life conditions of local grassroots people. Showing its potential, but also addressing the limitations and challenges, the paper theoretically localizes the concept of communities of practice within the field of peace-related activities in a way that peace initiatives applying the concept would not repeat the typical vices of the contemporary peacebuilding. The empirical sections contain ethnographic analyses of communal practices and narratives in Armenian-Azerbaijani mixed rural settlements in the Marneuli district of Georgia and in some borderland villages in Armenia and Azerbaijan. Finally, relying on the theoretical developments and results of the ethnographic researches, the article presents ideas for initial substantive projects involving Armenian and Azerbaijani communities directly affected by the conflict that would enable a sustainable environment addressing the needs identified by grassroots people themselves while taking into account their local understandings of peace and conflict.
The recent developments in the Nagorno-Karabakh peace process that followed the change of the political power in Armenia in April 2018 characterize the background setting for our article. We do not intend to speculate about further developments in the official or semi-official peace processes and create scenarios for conflict resolution, leaving that thinking exercise to policy analysts. We acknowledge that the publicly available information and media accounts about the ongoing peace process are highly politicized. Nevertheless, we should not deny the possibilities of (re-)establishment of people-to-people contacts in both directions across the Armenian-Azerbaijani border and between the Karabakh communities. Even if this potential will not be realized in the near future, it is important to conceptualize the initial organization of the prospective inter-community engagement that would be based on local perceptions of peace and meet the needs of grassroots populations. The possible arrangement of inter-community interaction should not be merely a part of so-called “confidence-building measures” that often promote the satisfaction of interests of ruling elites in the region and involve foreign states and organizations. Therefore, the following statement made by Miroslav Lajčák during his visit to Armenia on March 13, 2019 ought to be more than just political rhetoric: “For peace to take hold, it needs to be accepted and owned by the people. And it requires that our efforts extend beyond politicians” (OSCE 2019).
Keeping this appeal in mind, we make a modest effort to develop an approach for practical support of inter-community engagement across the conflict divide focusing on improving everyday life conditions of local grassroots people. The novelty of this paper is that it draws upon the concept of community of practice (CoP) and attempts to localize it theoretically within the field of peace-concerned activities. The concept importantly implies that members of a community of practice understand the need to produce shared meanings as part of their joint enterprise and act in accordance with common goals agreed through the construction of shared meanings. We believe that peace-supporting initiatives applying the CoP concept in their engagement with grassroots people would create a larger room for transformative power of community narratives and practices. This article, therefore, develops an approach that would help divided societies to improve conditions of their everyday lives and promote local practices of peace and routine interaction across the conflict divides.
The empirical sections of this article contain ethnographic analyses of communal practices and narratives in Armenian-Azerbaijani villages in the Marneuli district of Georgia as well as in some borderland settlements of Armenia and Azerbaijan. In Georgia, the field research was conducted in 2016-2018; the respondents include residents of three rural settlements: Khorjoni, Tsopi, and Shulaveri. In Azerbaijan, the field research was conducted in July 2019, in the Gazakh district that borders with Armenia. Locals of Gazakh city, Aghkoynek, Garapapaq, Ceferli, and Bala Ceferli villages were interviewed. In Armenia, the field research was conducted in the borderland villages of Berd municipality of the Tavush region, also in July 2019. Locals of Norashen, Mosvses, and Verin Karmiraghbyur were interviewed. All the conversations with local people were held in a non-formal reflective format.
In the conclusion, relying on the theoretical developments and results of the ethnographic researches, we discuss possible substantive projects involving Armenian and Azerbaijani communities directly affected by the conflict that would enable a sustainable environment addressing the needs identified by grassroots people themselves and taking into account their context-specific understandings of peace and conflict. In this way, the article continues developing a wider conceptual framework of the communitarian peace proposed in a recent issue of Caucasus Edition: Journal of Conflict Transformation that critically assessed and highlighted some gaps in the current peacebuilding initiatives across the South Caucasus (Romashov, et al. 2018).
Presenting the concept of community of practice
One of the most challenging problems of contemporary peacebuilding is the overall design of the field that forces local organizations to compete constantly for financial resources from foreign donors that are essential for their operation and existence, and therefore adapt to the agenda of their funders rather than to the needs of local people. Over time, NGOs have become specialized in attracting funds from international donors more willingly than in implementing efficient projects that would support local peace (Dilanyan, Beraia and Hilal 2018). As a result, they enjoy better access to financial resources compared to the “ordinary” people, and eventually this imbalance enhances hierarchies and power relations inside local communities (Romashov, et al. 2018). Many regional peacebuilding NGOs have been inefficient in achieving their publicly declared objectives, facing financial as well as practical problems. Moreover, what has been considered a local organization is not usually that. NGOs are often located in capital or major cities and lack basic infrastructure to operate in regions that usually are not reached by peacebuilding initiatives (Dilanyan, Beraia and Hilal 2018). In the end, peacebuilding NGOs influence a small segment of the population and consequently public participation in peace initiatives is insignificant (Mikhelidze and Pirozzi 2008). In the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict setting, NGOs have carried out some projects on public awareness, community development, empowerment, conflict resolution, and youth work, but it is questionable whether these activities have created substantial dynamics in the overall peace process and more specifically, have resulted in effective outcomes for local communities. In these circumstances, we are looking for alternative approaches to engage with communities, providing for the agency of local people in peacebuilding projects and supporting local communal peace processes, based on the concept of community of practice (CoP).
Etienne Wenger, the main developer of the CoP concept, defines community of practice as “a group of people who share a concern, a set of problems, or a passion about a topic, and who deepen their knowledge and expertise in this area by interaction on an on-going basis” (Wenger, McDermott and Snyder 2002, 4). The activity of creating, maintaining, and participating in community, in other words, the practice, involves the making of meaning (Wenger 1998). In Wenger’s conceptualization, individuals come together on a voluntary basis and are willing to collaborate for a joint enterprise, simultaneously and continuously producing meanings. The CoP concept was originally developed within the framework of learning theory and emphasizes the social dimension of learning: learning through interaction, negotiated meanings, and relationships building. It offers new possibilities for negotiating the self and, therefore, is transformative in nature (Wenger 2011). We maintain that engaging members of assumingly conflicting communities into such a learning process can encourage and develop critical thinking as well as (re-)produce their identities with regard to the “positive” other. Wenger (1998, 72) distinguishes three “dimensions of the relation by which practice is the source of coherence of a community”: mutual engagement, joint enterprise, and shared repertoire.
Mutual engagement and joint enterprise
People become members of a community, i.e., pursue shared identification with the community, through mutual engagement and everyday interaction. Even geographical distance cannot hinder the formation of a community if its members are connected through shared meanings (Anyidoho 2010). According to Wenger (1998, 74), inclusion is a key to engage in a community’s practice and engagement is what defines belonging. The members of the community do not need to be homogeneous in order to form a community. On the contrary, diversity is what makes engagement in practice possible and productive. When mutual engagement is sustained, it connects participants and creates deep interpersonal relationships (Wenger 1998, 75). Wenger does not idealize the notion of community and notes that peace, happiness, and harmony are not necessarily the features of communities of practice. Conversely, there can be plenty of disagreements, tensions, and conflicts among members of the community (Wenger 1998, 76-77).
The members of a community of practice define the joint enterprise in the process of pursuing it (Wenger 1998, 77). In this sense, it is not fixed, but repeatedly adjusted based on mutual needs and interests. It does not imply agreement in everything, but it is communally negotiated. People’s agreements and disagreements are interconnected because of their mutual engagement and shared interests, and they need to find their way while living with their differences (Wenger 1998, 77-78). The idea of the joint enterprise emphasizes the agency of participants of communities of practice, as it is based on a participant’s needs and demands that shape the practice. Wenger (1998, 79-80) believes—although the communities of practice develop in a larger historical, social, cultural, and institutional context—that external forces have no direct power over the production of practice, because the community itself negotiates its enterprise.
The members, being engaged in a joint enterprise, develop relations of mutual accountability: they themselves define what is important or not, what to pay attention to and what to ignore, what to justify and what to take for granted. Thus, the mutual accountability is essential to make sense of events and seek new meanings (Wenger 1998, 81). In peacebuilding terms, this would signify a way to empower members of communities, enabling them to voice and then act on their own views, and eventually transform the opinions and actions of members of the conflicting sides (Sotieva, Inal-Ipa, et al. 2018). Wenger (1998, 85) avoids romanticizing communities of practices, asserting that they are not “in any essential way an emancipatory force” as possibilities always exist for both resistance to oppression and the reproduction of its conditions. Nevertheless, he still argues that, “As a locus of engagement in action, interpersonal relations, shared knowledge and negotiations of enterprises, such communities hold the key to real transformation—the kind that have real effects on people’s lives” (1998, 85).
Shared repertoire and the role of narrative
According to Wenger (1998, 83), “the repertoire of a community of practice includes routines, words, tools, ways of doing things, stories, gestures, symbols, genres, actions, or concepts that the community has produced or adopted in the course of its existence, and which have become part of its practice.” The shared repertoire has two main characteristics: “it reflects history of mutual engagement” and “it remains inherently ambiguous” (Wenger 1998, 83). Wenger (1998, 83) maintains, “Histories of interpretation create shared points of reference, but they do not impose meaning.” All interpretations can be renegotiated based on the direction toward which the joint enterprise is moving. This makes the mutual engagement more dynamic and flexible (Wenger 1998, 83-84).
Since meaning is often constituted as a story, Anyidoho (2010, 326) particularly emphasizes the community narrative as the most essential part of the shared repertoire:
[Community narratives are] located in and shared through social interaction and performance. More than that, a community needs a shared narrative in order to sustain itself. A communal narrative can be a neutralizing force against disruption and destructive conflict.
She adds that community narratives can help “to communicate, for instance, the origins of the group, its original goals, its processes and procedures” (Anyidoho 2010, 326). Thus, a community narrative represents a store of resources from which new and old members of any joint enterprise pursued by the community can draw on to inform their personal stories of the endeavor (Anyidoho 2010). We view community narratives as continuously refilled overflowing receptacles that are never the same but contain elements of previous infusions. The old and new members of the community draw on resources from these receptacles to find meanings for their (inter)actions and produce new or refresh old meanings when necessary. Thus, the shared narrative enables people to sustain their communities in the course of constantly changing circumstances of their intersecting lives. The role of jointly constructed narratives is to help people living side by side to reach situated agreements in the contexts with a potential for radical polarization of relationships, and thus neutralize possible disruption.
Application of the CoP concept in peace-supporting initiatives and its challenges
The concept of community of practice (CoP) has been widely used within organizational frameworks though not without certain limitations , but it has been applied in education, professional associations, development projects, information technologies, and many other fields. The CoP concept has been mostly focused on people and the social structures that enable them to learn from and with each other and opened up additional prospects for various ways of learning, such as peer-to-peer, learning partnership, and horizontal versus vertical knowledge transmission. Although the CoP concept found its application in different fields and provided a fresh insight on learning, it has been also widely criticized for a number of reasons. Firstly, the critics argue that the conceptualization is not epistemologically grounded; it is largely descriptive without a deep theoretical insight (Allix 2000). Wenger’s problematic claim is that learning is something that just happens because of the independent nature of experience and practice. This claim questions the possibility to design learning. However, as Allix (2000) notes, in the educational field specific and designed learning is required, for example, in order to improve abilities of people suffering from learning difficulties of dyslexics. What such critics importantly identify is that Wenger’s concept is falling into a trap of agency-structure divide as he focuses mostly on structures that emerge from practice and does not address a generative structure that conditions practice. Therefore, while applying the CoP concept, we should be aware of the mutual constitution of practice and structure. After all, the concept of practice emerged as a corrective to the dichotomization between cultural and economic determinisms and voluntarisms and as a way of accounting for the situated activities of individuals and groups “that are both constrained and enabled by existing structures, but which allow the person to exercise agency in the emerging situation” (Levinson and Sutton 2001, 3, 17).
A common line of related critique of the concept of communities of practice is that it only superficially addresses wider issues of power and conflict. Fox (2000, 857) argues that Wenger does not consider the issues of power and more specifically unequal relations of power; instead he offers a “social constructionist account which sees learning as the negotiation of meaning and the process of identity formation within communities of practice, viewed as emergent social structures in which conflict may play a part both benevolently and malevolently.” Mørk et al. (2010), also highlighting this serious deficiency, stresses that practice performs power effects within and across communities, creates asymmetries in power, and thus becomes rather political. Hazel Johnson (2007) raises an issue of participation in communities of practice as a political process that can reinforce hegemonies embedded in the design of the related spaces and practices and/or subvert the existing fragile balances of power. As a response to this critique, Wenger (2010) reviewed some of the aspects of the CoP concept and discussed power issues in a more nuanced way. He emphasized the link between the power and identity and argued that “identification with a community makes one accountable to its regime of competence and thus vulnerable to its power plays” (Wenger 2010, 189). The efficacy of power exercised from outside of the community of practice on their members, such as by state, can be undermined by the high degree of their identification with the community and its practices. The more that someone identifies with a community, the less they are affected by influence of exterior power. Wenger (2010, 190) claims, “Even the threat of violence depends to some extent on identification. For instance, once identification with the fear of death is removed, exercise of power through violence becomes very problematic.” Wenger’s recent inputs into his theory further support the idea of empowerment of communities through mutual learning (or rather through mutual accountability to the community regime of competence), discussed in the previous section of this article.
We believe that such aspect of community coherence should be considered by the contemporary peacebuilding projects that have claimed local leadership and ownership to be in their central focus but simultaneously should not be misinterpreted by an assumption of the existence of holistic nature of a community, where everyone shares the same values. Communities still consist of people with various stories, backgrounds, and affiliations with conflicts that are actually disregarded in peacebuilding projects. Moreover, when differences are being observed within the community, a peacebuilding project tends to artificially eliminate (or at least neglect) them in order to achieve conformity. However, according to Wenger, the mutual engagement implies communication that allows varied interpretations of the joint enterprise but identification with a community naturally creates a regime of mutual accountability. Thus, there is nothing deficient in substance of a project when mutual engagement implies disagreements, tensions, and conflicts among the community members. Communal practices connect participants to each other in ways that are diverse and complex, but to avoid disruptions they are subordinated to the regime of mutual accountability. In the end, communal relations reflect the full complexity of doing things together. Hence, the homogeneity is neither the requirement for nor the result of a community of practice.
The application of Wenger’s theory to peace supporting initiatives in the context of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict faces at least three significant challenges. First, Wenger’s theory has been mostly developed for organizations and implied a daily informal and task-related interaction among members of the community that have no real borders between them. Thus, applying it in the context of separated societies, such as Armenia and Azerbaijan, would require some reconsiderations and adjustments. There is a recognizable need for a third party that would convey messages and facilitate interaction between communities across the conflict divide. These facilitators should assume the roles of observers (in place of classical mediators) who listen and transmit the information in its full diversity, instead of dictating or suggesting any solutions for the sake of achieving a homogeneity. However, in case of the NGOs’ involvement at both local and international levels, there is a risk of turning the process into a practice of promoting own organizational objectives and interests at grassroots people’s expense, eventually silencing local populations’ voices rather than empowering them (Romashov, et al. 2018). On the contrary, it should be at utmost importance to keep the focus of such initiatives on the interests of grassroots people and their needs. Thus, in order to achieve substantive results, the facilitators should be knowledgeable about the local context and be guided by willingness to address these needs and interests as local people themselves express them. This approach would help ensure the genuine “impartiality” of the third party and demonstrate its real commitment to the “humanitarian mission,” which in the end should imply the third party’s role as a convener of communities of practice rather than provider of external knowledge (Wenger 2011).
Second, as mentioned above, communities of practice are far from being harmonious societies and power relations are inevitably exercised within the groups. In his later work, Wenger (2010, 189) himself stresses, “there is nothing that says that communities of practice are egalitarian, at least not in any simple way.” Most likely, inequalities will never be eliminated within communities but the room to tackle them can be enlarged if various needs and aspirations of each community member are taken into account. The emphasis on the individual here does not suggest the neo-liberal approach to increase individual “competitiveness” to survive in the capitalist market environment that actually aims to further erode the sense of community. Within the context of communities of practice, the individual pragmatic goals are not to be achieved and needs satisfied at the expense of the communal wellbeing. Even if an individual achieved a better social and economic position compared to other members of the community due to the opportunities and/or deficiencies existing in the perceived exterior environment, they will be still considered “one among us” unless damage to the community is caused. A complex approach to deal with the hierarchies and inequalities requires a constant day-to-day interaction for understanding diverse existing and evolving needs and priorities inside the groups as well as the ways to address them collectively. However, the community members still may be involved in a conflict over defining meanings and priorities of needs and elements that constitute the communal wellbeing, but the everyday negotiations eventually aim to create a shared understanding and bring certain coherence to community practices. To facilitate this process of interaction in a situation, in which local people have been divided for three decades of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, it would require an involvement of a knowledgeable and reliable third party who does not provide prescriptions on how to make life better but genuinely supports the initiatives emerged within the mutual engagement. The difficult task of the third party would be then to observe balance of power relations within the emerging communities of practice without undermining local understandings of such balance by an externally drafted agenda with blueprints for liberal democratic society that brings along additional inequalities inherent into this system.
Third, the issues of antagonistic identifications in the Nagorno-Karabakh context should be taken into account, as (ethnic) groups identify themselves in opposition to each other. The perceived long history of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict has affected people so deeply that it has become a part of their identity and a “normal” part of their lives, without which it is hard to imagine (co-)existence anymore. This normalization has led to the dehumanization of the people from the other side (Sotieva, Inal-Ipa, et al. 2018). However, this is exactly the space where an approach based on the CoP concept could contribute with its transformative power that might help people create their own stories and imaginations about co-existence drawing on the dimensions of practice as the property of a community. In this process, individual opinion and agency can be seen as something of value, if the positioning of individuals within their imagined social environments, or communities, is encountered by considering their multiple identities. This perspective should by no means signify that the conflict will be solved through such approaches but rather that people might become able to find a common ground within the existing framework of the conflict.
The common ground for co-existence is hard to find without respecting the other and the wide spectrum of intra-community differences. In this regard, an agonistic perspective in peace studies would argue for deconstruction of friend/enemy dichotomy and replace it with the opposition between adversaries. This approach implies that confronting parties still stand on opposite sides when it comes to the conflicting issues, yet primarily the relationship is built on acceptance of the other side’s existence and respect of its position as well. Incidentally, Shinko (2008) notes that the relational aspect of respect and recognition granted to the position of opponent are what differentiate adversaries from enemies. If practice is the source of coherence of a community, we view respect as the source for sensing this relational coherence and preventing potential polarization of communal everyday relationships. In the following section, by studying the example of Armenian-Azerbaijani rural communities in Georgia, we demonstrate the role of this particularly articulated sense of respect towards the differences of the other. The empirical analysis also draws attention to our main assumption that the communities of practice can be seen beyond a group oriented on concrete task or project but engaged with a wide range of everyday doings. Therefore, we find it correct to speak about communities of multiple routine practices that are relatively unified by a struggle for communal wellbeing.
Communities of everyday practices: Armenian-Azerbaijani villages in Georgia
The aforementioned article in a recent publication of Caucasus Edition already discussed the simultaneously unique and mundane cases of Armenian-Azerbaijani co-living in rural settlements of the Marneuli district of Georgia (Romashov, et al. 2018). This section details the analysis of this case by employing the conceptual framework of community of practices and identifying practices of everyday peace performed in these hamlets and presents a very particular “learning model” for prospective engagement across the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict divides. We do acknowledge the specificity of every context in which an individual and community exist and by no means argue for copying and pasting the practices of everyday peace from the “realities” created in the Armenian-Azerbaijani communities in Georgia to the so-far virtually non-existent setting of interaction between the borderland people from Armenia and Azerbaijan and among the Karabakh communities. Furthermore, we do not look for “best practices” (as a managerial approach to peacebuilding would do). The notion of what is “best” varies with context, and the characterization of practice is contingent upon what meaning is assigned to it by community members from their own perspectives affected by the situation they live in on a daily basis. In any case, if or hopefully when the engagement will occur, it should be up to the local people to decide what are the best ways for them to make decisions and communicate according to the situation on the ground.
We would not like to induce a misreading of the section as if we are essentializing ethnic identities. We certainly do not argue that people in Armenia and Azerbaijan who call themselves Armenians and Azerbaijanis would act in the same way as those people in Georgia who also identify themselves as Armenians and Azerbaijanis. The present section of our article is merely an ethnographic interpretation of everyday peace variously practiced in a few Armenian-Azerbaijani mixed villages in southern Georgia. Still, we do believe that their knowledge of how to live side by side without direct (physical) violence should be shared not only within the region but also globally. At the same time, experiences of other local peace processes, say for instance, inter-communal relationships between Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots, can be no less useful for Armenians and Azerbaijanis living on the opposite sides of the conflict divide. Nevertheless, we are convinced that the presented experiences of Armenian-Azerbaijani communities in Georgia are particularly relevant for the issue, as these people have been certainly much more affected by the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict itself, which remains a critical circumstance they have to deal with to maintain their co-living, than the communities in Cyprus or elsewhere.
In our analysis of Armenian-Azerbaijani rural communities, we follow the adjusted Wenger’s conceptualization of three dimensions of practice as the source of coherence of a community: mutual engagement, joint enterprise, and shared repertoire. In addition, we mark that the CoP concept implies complexity of enterprise and allows for its broader definition that, in short, denote seeking to enhance wellbeing (Wenger 1998, 78) (Anyidoho 2010). Thus, we stem from the following premise: the villagers jointly pursue an endeavor to enhance personal and communal wellbeing through mutual engagement in corresponding (inter)actions whose meanings are articulated in jointly constructed narratives that is sourced in the accumulated repertoire of a community including past and present discourses, symbols, rituals, and artifacts.
Never-ending joint enterprise
The ethnographic research conducted in the region in 2016-2018 has accounted different local interpretations of historical processes that led to the situation when people now identifying themselves as Armenians and Azerbaijanis live side by side on the territory now called the Marneuli district of Georgia. In one way or another, the narratives produced by groups about their own histories of appearance on this territory are about improving conditions for life, whether it was the question of physical survival from atrocities on territories in the geographic vicinity or “merely” desire of material wealth that brought people to this region. Alternative indigenous narratives do not necessarily argue for nomadic origins of local people but still often associate the past with survival strategies in harsh geopolitical conditions. Yet, the prevailing narrative (re)produced by one group about the history of its neighboring group differs from (if not to say, opposes) the prevailing historical narrative (re)produced by the other. In this article, we discuss only the period that is envisaged by the immediate experiences of those interviewed people who resided at the time when the research material was collected without analyzing the narratives about the remote past, which is not covered by the lifetime of the respondents and their close relatives and acquaintances. Thus, we focus only on the period from the Soviet time until the present.
A considerable part of research participants from the elder generation notices that the sense of community inclusive for both Armenians and Azerbaijanis during the Soviet era was stronger than in the contemporary period. They explicate this feeling by the fact that the villagers spent substantially more time together at school, work, and leisure activities. Particularly, the large Soviet agricultural and industrial enterprises established in the area providing jobs for local people had created a sense of “collectivism,” which united many people in their workplaces and beyond. In addition to numerous kolkhozes (collective farms), there were such large industries as a marble and limestone quarry in Tsopi or a wool-spinning mill in Shulaveri that attracted specialists from other Soviet republics. The inflow of people from different parts of the USSR, distribution of locally produced goods and commodities across the Soviet Union, widespread usage of Russian language, and the subsequent “internationalization” of everyday life of local residents led to the occurrence of discourses that emphasized the particular importance of their hamlets. For instance, the residents of Tsopi used to call their village “the center of the world” and still proudly stress that the stones extracted from the quarry were used for decorating metro stations in Moscow and Leningrad. Even though the rapid industrialization had a negative impact on environment and some cultural sites in the area, the local residents reminisce with nostalgia the developed transport infrastructure, utilities, educational facilities, recreational zones, and other everyday services. These dense socio-spatial ecologies created during the Soviet period and intensified with strong traditions of hospitality and sharing of space in local rural settings produced a vivid everydayness deeply memorized by the people lived that time.
During the Soviet period, the communal and individual (relative) welfare of the hamlets has been primarily secured by the state support and the advancement of local industries and kolkhozes. The disintegration of the Soviet Union has created a new social, political, and economic situation in which the state- and organization-sponsored shared spaces for jointly practiced everydayness were largely destroyed. The local people had to rely on their own individual and communal resources for maintaining the rapidly declining wellbeing of households and villages. While the breach along ethnic differences widened leading to the radical ruptures between Armenians and Azerbaijanis living in Armenia and Azerbaijan, the long-established ties of friendship and neighborliness between Armenians and Azerbaijanis co-living in the rural areas of southern Georgia were maintained, allowing them to jointly struggle for subsistence in difficult times of their diverse communities. Remarkably, according to the assertions of residents in Tsopi and Shulaveri, Armenians and Azerbaijanis together organized local defenses of the villages from possible raids by Georgian militarized nationalist groups in the early 1990s.
The rapid de-industrialization of the region forced the local people to rearrange their activities of earning income. The state-owned enterprises that used to be the main driving force for regional development and the main source of earnings were closed down. A significant number of local residents became peasants and/or started trading at the rapidly expanding markets in Sadakhlo, a village on Georgia’s border with Armenia, Marneuli, the district capital, and along the main roads connecting Tbilisi with Armenia and Azerbaijan. Another considerable portion of the local population went to work abroad, mostly to Russia. There are some accounts telling how the old neighborly connections between local Armenians and Azerbaijanis in different ways have helped them to run their businesses both in Georgia and Russia. The villagers continue relying on their longstanding friendly and neighborly ties across ethnic boundaries when it comes to helping each other in their ordinary needs, such as fixing a broken car or roof, borrowing products, tools, or money, preparing and holding weddings and funerals, getting an injection or medical advice from a neighbor who is a professional nurse, and so forth. Furthermore, the local residents arrange joint actions for solving the problems shared by the majority of community members. Together, they try to reach out to authorities and large businesses for resources to reconstruct schools, build roads, or improve water supplies.
To put it briefly, these Armenian-Azerbaijani rural communities live a difficult life, similar to many villages in Georgia and other countries, albeit with their own distinctions. From this perspective, their long-term joint enterprise is an endeavor to enhance personal and communal wellbeing through individual and collective struggles with everyday challenges transcending ethnic and religious boundaries. The mutual help and joint activities founded on established neighborly relations are important sources for this lasting struggle that represent one of the dimensions of practice bringing coherence to these communities.
This representation of communal co-living between Armenian and Azerbaijani groups is not to say that the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict in its broader historical perspective has not affected their lives and interaction. Many respondents noted the heightened anxiety of the spillover of violence across the border in the early stages of the conflict’s violent developments, and there were actual signs for this possibility. In 1988, the Azerbaijanis were forced to leave Bagratashen (known among local Azerbaijanis as Lambalu, which was the official name until 1960), the closest village located on the Armenian side of the border. This sizeable Azerbaijani-Armenian village played an important role for the Georgian borderland settlements. The local people enjoyed friendly and family relationships with Bagratashen residents across the river of Debed, which is now a securitized border river. Many children from smaller borderland hamlets in Georgia went to school in this village as it provided a full-cycle education and was renowned for its high quality teaching. When Azerbaijani inhabitants of Bagratashen involuntarily left the village and began to settle in other places, including the Marneuli district of Georgia, this previously multicultural border village began representing a possible dramatic scenario for the residents of its neighboring ethnically diverse villages located in Georgia. This projection was intensified by some local testimonies about failed attempts undertaken by alien groups who crossed the Somkhet range to force Azerbaijanis to leave Khojorni, a village with a prevailing Armenian population, and that created a gloomy atmosphere in the village and considerably deteriorated the trusting relationship between the local residents. The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict has greatly contributed to the augmentation of distrust and fears among the local Armenians and Azerbaijanis toward one another. The distrust and fears are particularly evident when the increasing unevenness in the proportion of Armenian and Azerbaijani populations in the respective mixed villages is discussed or when the attitude towards the appearance of “new faces” in the villages is observed and analyzed.
Perhaps the most important (and obvious) observation of ethnographic research in this area is that the local Armenians and Azerbaijanis recognize (and accept) each other’s differences, while at the same time publicly deny or put aside their significance when interacting with each other and foreigners, including journalists and researchers. Even though the households of Armenians and Azerbaijanis are relatively spread throughout the villages, the residents still can point to the historical and contemporary Armenian and Azerbaijani parts of hamlets. The destruction and privatization of Soviet-time public services together with the ethnic solidarity, amplified following the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict developments, have contributed to further division of spaces of everyday interaction. In customary circumstances, the ethnic solidarity dictates preferences of local residents when it comes to private services, i.e., an Armenian or Azerbaijani usually goes to a grocery shop or chooses a transportation service that is run by an Armenian or Azerbaijani entrepreneur, respectively.
However, this does not mean that the residents would not ever use (or be denied to use) services operated by a representative of the other group. On the contrary, as the observations in marshrutkas (private minibuses connecting the villages with Marneuli) show, the other is usually treated particularly amiably by both the owner-drivers of marshrutkas and passengers. The shop owners sell products with “deferred payment” regardless of the ethnic background of a buyer but solely relying on their personal acquaintances with him or her, although this arrangement is said to be disadvantageous for the businesses’ cash flow. The dominating (in number) group occupies the center (usually the most centrally located large square) of the hamlet (here referring to Khojorni and Tsopi) where the male representatives of the group gather to discuss topical developments of the day, play board games, and have tea and other drinks. The “smaller” other group has its “own” less significant place in the village for such gatherings. However, again, if the other happens to walk next to this get-together, the dominating group sensationally welcomes him and often invites him to join their activities. The cemeteries expectedly represent the most radical separation of communal space. They are located respectively near Armenian or Azerbaijani “historical parts” of the hamlets, and funerals are mainly the only reason for the other to enter this space. At the same time, both neighboring groups recognize each other’s cemeteries as the most respected places.
The Armenians and Azerbaijanis are well aware about the neighbors’ important religious celebrations and traditions and do not try to prevent each other from practicing them. The joy of the most festive religious celebrations such as Novruz and Easter usually is disseminated within the entire community through sharing traditional food with the neighbors. Religious differences are locally represented as the main obstacle for intermarriages between Armenians and Azerbaijanis, which are a very rare occurrence in the region. Some old religious sites (such as churches dating back to the 5th century) of the villages became the field of contestation about their initial belonging either to the Christians (primarily Armenians) or Albanians (considered by Azerbaijanis their predecessors). However, this dispute evokes a special attitude to these sites of both Armenians and Azerbaijanis who equally treat them as sacred. The contemporary articulation of the religious difference seems to have set the most impenetrable limits of the inter-group relationships, but these boundaries are bypassed within many other shared spaces of communication, and language mitigates possible further polarization of differences and prevents radical ruptures.
Maintaining mutual accountability through language
Language does distinguish Armenians and Azerbaijanis, but it simultaneously unites them for a pragmatic reason to understand and engage with each other. Therefore, they seek to learn each other’s languages. One local Azerbaijani male explained,
There [in a village] were many Azerbaijanis and Armenians. These main national groups learned either Azerbaijani or Armenian languages. For example, we communicate with each other—say, you’re Georgian, and I’m Azerbaijani. In your place, I would have tried to learn a word [from your language] so that we could understand each other. […] If we’re friends or something… For example, you visit me, and I go to you. If we cannot communicate, how would we talk? Gradually, we’ll learn each other’s language, [and this is a process of] communication. You want to tell me something, and I want to tell you. Step by step, we start to understand each other in our way.
The “our way” of the local people to understand each other in practice implies, among other things, speaking any language that would facilitate the best communication in a concrete situation. Depending on the context and language skills of discussion participants, the main language can be Armenian, Azerbaijani, Russian, and, rarely, Georgian. Russian has been taught as a foreign language practically in all local schools, and some schools had so-called “Russian sectors” in addition to the Armenian and Azerbaijani sections. Today, a few “sectors” teaching in Russian operate in the area, but they still enjoy the popularity among local Armenians and Azerbaijanis. At the same time, the state policy to promote the Georgian language among ethnic minorities has already changed the preferences of many local families who now send their children to study in Georgian schools, and this increases the possibility that the Georgian language will consequently substitute Russian in its position of the leading “foreign” language of inter-ethnic communication in the area.
The “our way” of communication is the main constituent of a shared repertoire of local communities, as through linguistic means the community narratives are jointly created and filled with pre-agreed discourses and meanings. The community narratives are also targeted at new members to help them “get used to” or, more precisely, to become accountable to the community regime. The community narratives primarily reflect history of mutual engagement. The emphasized elements of narratives (i.e., discourses) should be seen as those that are considered by the community members the most important and meaningful statements from the past to be maintained in the present and future in order to sustain the community itself. These statements typically emphasize the identity of the local community that may be referred to in the local narratives as “the culture of our village” distinguished for the absence of “national issues” and the presence of “brotherly” attitudes among Armenians and Azerbaijanis.
The community identity also relies on such discourses that signify perceived universal values as “God is one” and “we are all humans.” However, the most important value upon which the communal relationship rests is “respect.” The respect is principally associated with such modalities as obligation to protect a representative of the neighboring group from abuses that can be done by members of the own ethnic group and, in general, with responsibility to take care of the neighbor. The exaggerated feeling of respect and related explicitly articulated rituals of taking care and welcoming directed at the neighboring group emphasize a special attitude toward each other among local Armenians and Azerbaijanis, which stems from the mutual recognition of both differences and potential for tensions constituted by them.
Bygone mutual engagement as a basis for (re)building bridges over the conflict divide
As local people’s interests and demands are in the focus of our approach, in this section we present some of them identified by a short field study in a few Armenian and Azerbaijani borderland villages conducted in July 2019. These particular Armenian and Azerbaijani borderlands do not necessarily have histories of direct interaction between each other but they still were a part of a wider territory of everyday engagement of Armenians and Azerbaijanis prior to the Karabakh war. Through informal interaction and casual conversations with the rural population, we tried to understand what were their views on peace, how people saw their living conditions could be improved (or not) thanks to prospective cross-border cooperation, and what were (if any) their experiences of such cooperation in the past. We asked about the issues they are currently struggling with in their everyday lives and the ways to address them. We also attempted to find out what the opinions are of the affected local population about officially stated ideas of preparing populations for peace. In this section, we analyze the results of the field study, pinpointing similarities in perceptions of peace and needs on both sides of the conflict divide. The findings outline a favorable setting for prospective joint projects involving Armenian and Azerbaijani borderland communities and applying the CoP concept so that it would not focus only on the projects as such but go beyond its task-oriented design and support practices of the local people on a daily basis.
Geographically, the Azerbaijani regions of Gazakh and Tovuz have been important transportation corridors in the South Caucasus, and this position brings along a lot of potential for developing everyday dialogue and collaboration between local Armenians and Azerbaijanis in a variety of ways. For example, the Tovuz railway station in Azerbaijan before the Karabakh war served as an important communication hub between Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Armenia. The major trade flows were organized through Tovuz, which harbored a large market where people from surrounding Armenian and Azerbaijani villages would buy various goods for their households. In the Soviet times, the Berd municipality of the Armenian SSR was also connected to Azerbaijan as well as to other Armenian towns through Azerbaijan. Thus, to get from Berd to Yerevan, cars passed through the border village of Aygepar, adjacent to Berd Airport, entered the territory of Soviet Azerbaijan and crossed the cities of Tovuz, Aghstafa, and Gazakh, re-entered the territory of Soviet Armenia into Ijevan, and continued to Yerevan and other towns (ANI Armenian Research Center 2015).
Despite the current disconnection between the borderlands of Armenia and Azerbaijan, the local people still reminisce about a long history of intercultural interaction. Those respondents, who have experienced direct interaction with either Armenians or Azerbaijanis before the war, keep largely positive memories of the times when the two ethnic communities shared a common space for trade and were involved in various engagements. Family and friendly relationships between Armenians and Azerbaijanis occupy a significant place in the memory of local people. Particularly, the older generation that had immediate experience of interaction with the other side before the war deeply revered the friendly relationship. The way the stories about mixed marriages, kirve relations, and friendships are told leaves an impression of something rather cherished than lost and forgotten.
At the same time, this relationship is not idealized. The Us/Them dichotomy was present also before the radical rupture, and that did not prevent establishing friendly relationships and commercial ties beneficial for local villagers. The opinions about the future expressed by interviewees signify that if one day the cooperation ties resume, there will still be a prevailing understanding that the other side of the border is “different,” and there is no evidence that a clear distinction between “Us” and “Them” will and can be demolished. However, as it was in the Soviet times, this should not be an obstacle for establishing neighborly relationships, which could be advantageous for both sides. Even though these relationships have not been practiced for many years now, they potentially represent a basis for building a bridge over the conflict divide. However, the pressing challenge to this development is that the young generation does not possess experience of immediate interaction with the other side and hardly imagines how the mutual engagement can be (re)established.
According to the interviewees, the main obstacles for mutual engagement at the current stage are lack of trust, senses of threat and insecurity, overcoming offenses of the past—especially when it comes to the victims of war—and the feeling of constantly being on alert to defend. Since the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh directly affected the lives of people in the borderland regions of Armenia and Azerbaijan, the locals were left with deep scars and distrust, which challenges future co-existence. The trauma (or rather post-traumatic disorder) resulting from the conflict, though concurring with a strong desire of peace, testifies to the emotional unpreparedness for the immediate and direct engagement across the border (and conflict divides). Moreover, since Nagorno-Karabakh has been both the main issue of contestation and the central field of warfare, the losses and traumatized past of people living on the border between Armenia and Azerbaijan, also immediately affected by the military combats, are almost muted by the Karabakh-centered national discourses of war. Not to conclude whether or not such a situation is conducive for conflict transformation, it certainly contributes to the feeling of the local populations that their anxieties are not properly addressed by the state and the larger populations of their countries. Nevertheless, it is important that people on both sides of the border acknowledge that they have similar concerns, fears, and aspirations. An important precondition for the mutual engagement frequently underlined by the interviewed Armenians and Azerbaijanis is the safety of lives of borderland villagers—that means lasting protection from shootings. They also admit that mutual engagement is a process that can happen only in a long-term perspective.
To some extent, the concerns and fears of the borderland rural communities could be diminished if transportation links across the border are reestablished. For instance, the opening of the Ijevan-Gazakh railway and highways for transportation of passengers and goods would potentially create a space for everyday dialogue and engagement. Due to the isolation, a tangible result of the conflict, the absence of proper transportation between villages and towns as well as poor road conditions are seen by the villagers as huge obstacles for the wellbeing of the region. Thus, the opportunity to travel freely between the two countries and use short ways of travel to other countries and central locations in their own countries might have a life changing impact on the wellbeing of the region, and thus represent an aim in itself. For example, the villages within the Berd municipality are geographically isolated both from the administrative center of the region as well as from Yerevan. The interviewed inhabitants of these villages admit that the proximity to Tovuz was extremely advantageous and they believe that if the connecting road is restored, the living conditions of the local villagers could considerably improve. The interviewees, however, acknowledged that because of the lack of trust and feeling of insecurity, they see the process of reestablishing cross-border cooperation as a long-term possibility, rather than a quickly realized initiative. According to one of the Armenian interviewees, as the potential opening of the road would shorten the distance between neighboring locations, the inhabitants of the villages would certainly be attracted by the opportunity for cross-border cooperation. The road would create the possibility for daily interaction, the reestablishment of inter-personal contacts, and the gradual resumption of trade and communication ties.
Despite some small-scale projects in the fields of agriculture, tourism, and trade, the economic situation in the borderland villages remains challenging: high unemployment forces many inhabitants, especially the youth, to leave their villages and find work in large cities or abroad. The local agricultural activities are aimed at satisfying local needs rather than trade. A lack of necessary equipment is another obstacle to developing agriculture. Farmers do not want to invest in developing their production because there is no market to sell their products (mainly due to the long distances and poor transportation links between villages and central cities). In these conditions, local farmers do not possess enough resources to increase production, and that creates a shortage of products inside the region and a dependence on expensive imports.
Soviet-era farming brought high profits to the border regions, due primarily to the developed transportation infrastructure that included railways and highways connecting Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Russia. Village inhabitants found that mutual trade with neighboring villages across the (then practically non-existent) border was very beneficial. They could sell and buy goods in the bazaars of nearby towns and in surrounding villages. Because of the different landscapes (mountainous on the Armenian side and flat on the Azerbaijani side), the farmers often had mutually beneficial joint arrangements for animal farming. For example, in the summer, when there was more grass on the Armenian side, the Azerbaijanis would take their cattle to graze in the Armenian mountains, while the Armenians would take their cattle to the Azerbaijani pastures in the winter, when there was no grass in the Armenian highlands, or simply bought hay from the Azerbaijanis. Also, the Azerbaijani plains were favorable for the cultivation of fruits, vegetables, and gourds. The Armenians did not cultivate certain types of plants on their lands (such as watermelons and, in some villages, even tomatoes), because they considered it rational to buy them directly from Azerbaijan (according to local assessments, these Azerbaijani agricultural products were “cheap and tasty”). We can logically assume that, along with the opening of the border, (re)establishing bazaars for the cross-border trade of local agricultural products would benefit the borderland regions, and in the end, contribute to the overall development of the two countries.
Indeed, the borderland communities consider peace as a basis for the neighborly relationship, but they demonstrate little trust in peace mediated by third parties. The lack of dialogue between the rural communities and authorities at both municipal and state levels, especially in the case of Azerbaijan, creates mistrust towards outsiders. According to one of the Azerbaijani interviewees, third parties have to stand aside from the conflict, and then reconciliation will be unavoidable: “We will be forced to reconcile.” An Armenian interviewee stressed that for someone living on the border, the conflict is never pleasant, and so ways would be found to solve issues. According to the interviewee, those who live far away from the border do not realize the value of peace, and so they are more intolerant than those who are struggling with the conflict on a daily basis. At the same time, the Azerbaijani interviewees were not ready to formulate how exactly the local people themselves can initiate reconciliation processes. Most of the Armenian interviewees expressed opinions that the conflict resolution is still beyond the influence of “ordinary” people, and it is up to governments to find a solution. On both sides, reliable governments are defined as those that take into account the interests of people who are suffering as a result of the conflict. An Armenian respondent who mentioned the cross-border trade as a way out was also convinced that for that to happen, “a right type of discourse from the top is needed on both sides.”
Sketches for the first steps towards the Armenian-Azerbaijani cross-border engagement
In order to engage the communities in a dialogue, there should be a mutual interest and a clear positive outcome for participants from such engagement. Projects supporting engagement across the conflict divide should be implemented in the fields where communities share common interests and concerns and aim primarily at improving everyday life conditions of people and reducing poverty. One such field could be agriculture in bordering regions of Armenia and Azerbaijan, where people from both sides face similar issues related to security, lack of infrastructure, climate conditions, crop and yield problems, and so forth. Addressing those issues through joint initiatives would improve not only the everyday life of people but also contribute to creating a favorable atmosphere for sustainable peace. In fact, international peacebuilding initiatives have not been actively involved in the field of agriculture thus far.
The potential of agriculture as a means to support sustainable peace should not be underestimated. The work in conflict-affected areas is currently one of the main tasks of the UN FAO’s (Food and Agriculture Organization) agenda for 2030. It aims at mitigating “the negative impacts of conflicts on people’s lives and livelihoods (including men, women, youth and older persons),” among other ways, “by advancing sustainable development, including reducing poverty, addressing inequality, promoting sustainable agricultural livelihoods and natural resource management, and contributing to economic growth in countries and regions (potentially) affected by conflict(s), doing so in a conflict-sensitive manner” (FAO 2018, 10-11). Currently, the FAO has similar priority areas in Armenia and Azerbaijan, such as animal health and plant protection; improved crop, fisheries, and livestock production; sustainable use of natural resources; and disaster risk reduction and management (FAO 2016) (FAO n.d.). There are projects implemented under these priorities in both Armenia and Azerbaijan, including the bordering regions. Some of the initiatives could potentially transform into joint peace supporting projects with positive outcomes for borderland populations. However, for this to happen, peacebuilding and development aid initiatives should be converged for the efficient joint work in places affected by conflicts, and that requires negotiations at the level of international organizations and donors.
The results of these negotiations should be funding for projects with tangible outcomes that do not aim merely at “capacity-building” (read as “teaching”) of the local population to apply externally created “models of best practices” but at the improvement of material wellbeing of local populations right from the beginning of the projects. A tangibly effective project would imply a creation of spaces in which local people could engage in joint enterprises intended to improve their wellbeing in a locally defined way. The “models of best practices” need to be created exactly through this process of mutual engagement. That, however, does not mean ruling out the importance of external expertise, but rather entails that the intervention should not subvert local knowledge of doing things. A joint enterprise should be initiated based on improving everyday life conditions and addressing the needs of people living in the bordering areas, primarily as they see it, and if locally requested, the external competence can come for help. An ethnography-like approach to identifying individual and communal needs and aspirations could allow registering the diversity of interpretations of the communal wellbeing (and peace) across borderland villages. A CoP project should be designed in accordance with the outcomes of such an inquiry. However, since needs and aspirations are not fixed and constantly evolving, the regular direct discussions with and among participants on the project goals should be ensured. The role of a knowledgeable third party is essential in registering similarities in the needs of villagers on both sides of the border that in turn would make certain the likeness and parallel development of CoP projects in Armenian and Azerbaijani borderlands.
In the absence of direct interactions across the border (and conflict divide), a sharing and communication platform for the continuous discussion among the project participants can be organized online and/or on territories of third countries. With CoP projects in the agricultural field, there could be joint platforms for farmers from Armenian and Azerbaijani borderlands on which they could share and compare the results of project implementation at different stages. It would be certainly challenging to induce meaningful interactions in the context of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, but “this is precisely the work of ‘community maintenance’—to actively encourage opportunities for the exchange of ideas under whatever circumstances” (Anyidoho 2010, 325-326). Furthermore, communal narratives created within and beyond the projects could provide a powerful alternative to ethno-centric discourses in a wider context of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. The narrative mediation conducted by a competent third party could facilitate this process.
The outlined framework for inter-group engagement across the Armenian-Azerbaijani border based on E. Wenger’s concept of community of practice may represent a promising approach, since it relies on horizontal rather than vertical social structures for integrating knowledge and practice across spaces and actors. In a long-term perspective, the implementation of this approach may help to transform antagonized identifications of various groups. Agriculture seems to be a promising field for the application of the CoP concept. However, further research is needed to explore the application of this approach in this and other areas, in which local citizens share common interests and concerns, in order to support everyday practices of peace in the Armenian-Azerbaijani borderlands that would eventually have a positive spillover effect for larger groups of both conflict-affected societies.
At the same time, one should not be blind to the complex power dynamics within the borderland communities and in their relationships with authorities that have a significant influence on the implementation of peace initiatives in the area. Trustful relations should be maintained not only across the border but also, and primarily, within the local communities themselves. Even though community of practice does not (and should not) represent a harmonious social environment, it potentially provides a space for enhancing trust among its members whose co-existence and cooperation is ensured by the shared repertoire and adherence to the regime of mutual accountability. Similarly, the emergence and maintenance of community of practice does not automatically lead to the emancipation of its individual members from the power of an oppressive system with its overwhelming discourses and practices of domination, but it does provide a platform for empowering its members against the exterior. Community of practice in one way or another (re-)produces hierarchies but, in relation to the exterior, it has its leaders delegated to conduct negotiations with outsiders. Back to our case of borderland rural communities, these delegates can be same traditional authorities, such as village elders, but in the context of community of practices, they may become more empowered in the negotiations with municipal authorities, governments, and international interveners.
Therefore, it is reasonable that in the CoP projects sponsored by converged international peacebuilding and development actors, the communities are strengthened within themselves first before engaging them into the consequential process of interaction across the border (conflict divide). The communities should explicitly state their preparedness (and the statement should be heard) for the latter stage that ultimately implies establishing a network of the communities of practices “trespassing” borders and conflict divides. A CoP project would not be effective if the demand for it was created artificially and without the unequivocally indicated willingness of the local population for being involved in this process, as it happened with some international development projects that applied the concept. These ethical concerns should be carefully addressed with utterly equitable approaches, if only it is possible in the contemporary peacebuilding and development interventionism that is just slowly entering the period of radical reformation.
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 For limitations of these activities, see e.g. (Sotieva 2014) (Mikhelidze and Pirozzi 2008).
 See (J. Roberts 2006), (Kerno Jr. 2008).
 For more discussions on this tension and its relation to the CoP concept, see (Mutch 2003).
 For some explanations on how the dramatic experiences of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict dominate over the positive experiences of co-existence of the groups, see (Broers 2005) and (de Waal 2005).
 This approach in peace and conflict research draws primarily on Mouffe’s perspective on agonism and her concept of agonistic pluralism. For a detailed overview of this perspective, see (Mouffe 2013).
 On the trading community formed in this area, see (Dabaghyan and Gabrielyan 2011).
 Kirve is a highly respected position of a man, particularly in Turkic cultures, who helps a boy being circumcised, and can be compared to a godfather in Christian traditions.
 See the concept of “popular peace” proposed by David Roberts (2011).
 On this approach, see (Winslade and Monk 2008).
 E.g., see (Johnson and Khalidi 2005)
*The authors would like to thank Nuriyya Guliyeva for valuable contributions to the conceptual part of this article.
**The featured photo portrays the Tsopi village, Marneuli. The photo is taken by Vadim Romashov.