Intercultural Dialogue Means Talking With People of Other Cultures
After writing this last post, I recalled running across a striking set of data put together from the Caucasus Research Resource Centers. Entitled Will You Be My Friend? Gauging Perceptions of Interethnic Friendship in the South Caucasus, the study sought to establish how open countries of the Caucasus are to friendships with citizens of other countries. While people were asked to rate if they approve or disapprove of being friends with people of X country, the most interesting pieces of data come from considerations of fellow South Caucasus ethnicities. Specifically regarding Azerbaijan, Sonya at the CRRC has this to say:
Azerbaijan is by far the most disapproving of friendship with other ethnicities. Most Azerbaijanis disapprove of interethnic friendship with the exception of 82% approving of friendship with Turks, and 52% favoring friendship with Russians. While unsurprising within the context of protracted strife between Armenia and Azerbaijan, a staggering 97% of Azerbaijanis disapprove of friendship with Armenians.
Compared to Georgians and Armenians, this data suggests that Azerbaijanis are much more inward-focused. And that percentage of Azerbaijanis disapproving of friendships with Armenians is incredible. Staggering is exactly the word I would use to describe it. (Also note that, going the other way, 70% of Armenians disapprove of friendships with Azerbaijanis; a lower number, but still very high.)
But this also gives us an opportunity to look at the conditions within and outside of Azerbaijan. One of the most common sentiments I hear from my Azeri friends and acquaintances is that once Armenians and Azerbaijanis are outside of their respective countries, say, in the US or Russia or even in the northerly neighbor, Georgia, the animosity between Azeris and Armenians dissipates. And I’ve talked with numerous people who say that they used to have Armenian neighbors during the Soviet period either here in Azerbaijan or in other republics of the Soviet Union, lamenting that they haven’t seen or heard from these people since that time.
I think there are probably a couple of things that don’t really square here in the data described by the CRRC. First, I’m assuming that the sample for each country was taken within that country, itself. I can’t speak for Armenia or Georgia, but even our new US Ambassador has noted that negative propaganda here in Azerbaijan regarding neighbors immediately west is prevalent and strong. Escaping this environment probably relieves some of the pressure to maintain that negative attitude. The people here probably fear some sort of reprisal for expressing any interest in the other side, as well as being enveloped in the propaganda.
Second, and probably more importantly, is to realize that Azerbaijan is a country that many people want to escape from, in general. I can’t go a day without someone asking me when I’m going to take them to America. Many people talk about the possibility of living in Russia or Ukraine or European countries. Or studying abroad for high school, university, or Master’s studies. I think if you surveyed this group of people, people who “got out” or ones who are looking to do so, you would likely find much different responses to the questions querying approval or disapproval of interethnic friendships. The results of the CRRC survey may not change dramatically, but it seems to me that a large portion of the population open to idea of friendships with other ethnicities is probably no longer in the country, off pursuing those friendships.
With those two caveats applied, however, that still doesn’t change how open Azerbaijanis are to foreigners. As one of those pesky foreigners, myself, I can attest to that general suspicion that hangs in the air as people notice my presence. While Azerbaijanis are certainly hospitable and generous to guests, that is a much different quality than the openness described above.