Narine Aghabalyan is the Minister for Culture and Youth Affairs of the self-proclaimed Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh. A conversation about the meaning of culture, the perspectives for the youth and remains of the conflict with Azerbaijan.
Are you the only woman in the government?
Does this influence your work?
I don’t think so. There were also female ministers before me. It is only for two years now that I am the only woman in the government. Sometimes it feels a bit strange to sit in the government meeting and to be surrounded by only men (smiles). But in general I feel comfortable as the only female representative of the government.
How did you become involved in politics?
I was working as a journalist for 20 years before I became a minister. I was also a political activists working with different NGOs. In 2009 President Sahakyan asked me if I was interested in the position and I thought that I could have a stronger influence than as a journalist. That’s why I accepted the offer.
So the Ministry for Culture and Youth Affairs was your first political post?
Yes. But actually I was offered similar positions a few times before but only this time I accepted.
Why this time?
The positions I was offered before did not seem suitable for me. The field of culture and youth affairs matched my interest and expectation.
Why is this post so interesting to you?
When I was a journalist, I also had my own studio for multimedia productions in the field of culture. When the conflict broke out in 1988, the rest of the world only knew Karabakh in terms of war. There was no knowledge about the cultural meaning. With these multimedia productions I was trying to change the perception of Karabakh in the international community. Karabakh is an important region for our cultural heritage and civilization that has been sustained throughout centuries. So, for me this image about Karabakh was more important than the conflict.
You are almost at the end of your first term as a minister. Are you satisfied with your achievements?
Of course, I haven’t been able to realize all of my ideas. But I think I have managed to achieve a lot in this position. I wanted to establish a working system where things can be done, so that when my successor will take office, he or she can continue this work. Because of the conflict there is a lot to be done and in 2008/09 we started to develop some future strategies.
Would you like to remain minister for culture and youth affairs during the next term?
I don’t necessarily have to be a minister to continue my work. I will always find a way to do what I want to do.
What was your biggest aim during this term?
There are a lot of issues that demand my attention. But the two main areas that I wanted to address were the cultural interior and the foreign policy. For example for the interior policy my aim was to remind the people in Karabakh of their cultural heritage. And similarly, from a foreign policy perspective my intention was to make foreign countries and foreigners aware of Karabakh and our cultural treasures. That way I was trying to establish some links between the citizens here and the international society – culture as something that connects people. And this is particularly important for people, who live in villages and on the countryside because they don’t always have access to such platforms. That’s why my work was focused on these places rather than on bigger cities. Culture and cultural identity begins with the villages.
What does culture mean for you?
It is a very complex meaning. Culture is part of civilization as well as the human psychology, the way of thinking. It is not only based on creativity and art but also the way of living. This together makes culture. You can reflect yourself through culture. Culture is a language that can be understood by everyone.
How do you promote Karabakh’s culture in the rest of the world?
One of my approaches is to organize different cultural festivals in Karabakh and invite foreign artists. That way both sides get in contact with the other culture. For example, this year there will be the fourth anniversary of a music festival for children. Participants come from more than ten countries. There are also other festivals for poetry or a symposium for painters and sculptors. We also had a few concerts abroad with musicians and singers from Nagorno-Karabakh. Particularly Armenians from the diaspora are interested in these events and they support us. We invited Montserrat Caballé and she became something like a cultural ambassador for Nagorno-Karabakh. In fact, there are many famous artists, who want to visit Karabakh. But once they plan this visit, the Azeri lobby becomes active and tries to prevent them from coming here.
We would now like to turn to the topic of youth affairs. What are the main projects for young people in Karabakh? And is culture a way to increase the perspectives for the youth?
We don’t do so many projects for the youth ourselves because there are several NGOs that organize such events and we support them financially. We want to give them the freedom to design the content of the projects themselves. What we are trying to do now is to give graduates a possibility to work in their field of study, so that they have the chance to find a job here and do not have to go abroad. In addition, we offer a few programs based on non-formal education. For example, in May we will have a seminar for graduates in tourism to teach them skills, so that they can work as tourist guides. We are currently planning a large project connected with the topic of eco-tourism.
How does the conflict influence the education and the life of young people? Is it possible to offer them everything that is available in other countries as well?
The conflict has a strong effect on the young people, especially in terms of education. So, you cannot compare them with young people in other countries. One reason is the fact that Karabakh is not a recognized state. This makes it difficult to receive international grants and to go abroad for students. Another reason is the language problem. Most of the young people just know some Russian and maybe a little bit of English or French. So, it is difficult to receive an international education. This problem existed already during Soviet times, when the main language of communication was Russian. Since the end of the Soviet Union we have been trying to change this system and to make it easier for young people to learn foreign languages. We are now inviting professors from different countries to teach in foreign languages. But most of the time we cannot get the funding and the home country of those professors is not okay with the visit. We now had a case, where a professor from Europe wanted to come to Karabakh to teach here and applied for funding from his government but the government denied. They told him that he could only go to Armenia but not to Karabakh. Unfortunately, our economic situation does not allow us to only depend on our own funds. That’s why students from Karabakh usually have to use their Armenian passport to apply for scholarships.
Does Karabakh have a problem with brain drain? Are a lot of young educated people leaving their home?
Of course, there are young people, who leave Karabakh. But actually, most of them return after one or two years because they realize it is not so easy to make a living in a foreign country. There are some, who are offered good positions in their field abroad and they decide to stay there because in Karabakh they might not find a job in their field of study.
Is the ministry also involved in any peace-building activities for young people?
Before I became a minister there were a lot of regional peace projects involving young people from Azerbaijan and Nagorno-Karabakh. However, the Azeri participants often had problems when they returned to Azerbaijan and were questioned by their own government. I have myself participated in such programs. At the moment we don’t have any direct exchanges with Azeris but there are peace-building projects in Karabakh for the young people here. For instance, last year we organized a project called “peace for Karabakh”, which aimed to approach the topic of peace through art. But unfortunately, the Azeris don’t seem ready for peace. For example, a few years ago the Azeri writer Akram Aylisli gave a different opinion on how to deal with the Armenians and there were crowds, who burnt his books. They don’t allow any other opinions about the Armenians except that they are aggressors.
Since the end of the war Karabakh has been ethnically and culturally very homogeneous. Do you think there is a chance for more multiculturalism in the future?
Before the conflict started, Greeks, Russians and Azeris used to live side by side. Now there are maybe two or three villages left that are purely Russian or Greek. But only a few Azeris stayed here. The Russian and Greek communities have their own culture and religion and of course, they are not obliged to adopt our values and traditions. With the Azeris it’s a bit more problematic because their identity is very different. But anyway, not all our projects and initiatives are based on Armenian culture. For example, now we started a project that deals with Bach’s music.
So does that mean in case of future peace it will still be very difficult for Armenians and Azeris to live together?
I don’t see that peace is possible in the near future and that the Azeris will return to Karabakh; maybe in a few decades. In a way the war gave answer to many questions. For example, in the 1960s only one Azeri, who was a shepherd, used to live in the village that I come from, the village of stars. In the 70s and 80s more and more Azeris arrived in the village. This was part of the Soviet settlement policy. When the conflict started, the Karabakh Armenians wanted to become part of Armenia as it had been before the 1920s. But the Azeris tried to stop this process and attacked us. We didn’t have any arms to defend us. In the beginning we were defending ourselves with hunting guns. We were simply trying to defend ourselves. Later we were forced to moved to Stepanakert where we were living in a basement until 1992 because the Azeris were attacking us with bombs. Our apartment was completely destroyed. The freedom fighters, who were defending our villages, were building their own weapons. You can see them in the museum in Stepanakert. Later they also received weapons from the Soviet Army.
She turns her laptop to us and starts to show us different videos about the demonstrations in 1988, the bombing of Stepanakert and the bravery of the freedom fighters highlighted with dramatic music.
Azeris also claim that Karabakh is their motherland. Do you think culture is easily instrumentalized to justify aggression?
We are not using culture to prove that Armenians have always lived here. That is not our goal. But it is true that culture can easily be politicized, even if not intentional. Azerbaijan is also using culture to justify their political claims and we have to respond to that. We have reached a stage in the conflict where culture has been dragged into the political contest. But we are trying to preserve everything that belongs to the culture of Nagorno-Karabakh, not only Armenian churches but also mosques, for example. In Shushi there are three mosques that have been preserved.
Is that also one of the reasons why the Ministry of Culture and Youth Affairs is the only that is located in Shushi and not in Stepanakert?
Sushi was the center of the Armenian civilization during the 19th and 20th century until the Tartars attacked the city. It was known as the center of culture and civilization in the whole region. This building, in which we are now, was built more than 100 years ago and used to be a school. Shushi was burnt three times, in 1905, 1920 and 1991. The idea to move the ministry to Sushi was to reintroduce the city as the cultural center and to remind the people of the meaning of this city. It should not only be remembered as a place of war. We want to erase those memories.
She reaches into her drawer and gives us small piece of wrapped kitchen paper. Inside of it there are a few tiny fossils in the shape of five-sided stars (lat.: Pentagrinus). They are from her village.