Things are becoming increasingly difficult for activists in Baku; many NGO accounts have been blocked and critics who dare to speak out have been arrested. Despite the dangers, Ali Abasov and his son, Faraj, continue to press for reconciliation with Armenia – each in their own way.
At first glance, the book, The Karabakh Conflict. Variants of Settlement: Concepts and Reality, lying casually on the table in front of Ali Abasov, looks like any other. The cover displays the blurred picture of two greying men in the Home Office. And yet it is a scientific wonder, which unfolds over 184 pages: “The first and the last book”, explains Abasov, “that an Armenian and an Azerbaijani have written together, about the solution to the conflict”.
Since the war over Nagorno Karabakh broke out, over 20 years ago, the borders between Armenia and Azerbaijan have remained closed, with each side continuing to portray the other as the enemy, using racially charged stereotypes. 65 year old Abasov explains calmly, over tea and biscuits, how, despite the tensions, he and Haroutiun Khachatrian nevertheless managed to bring the book into being. 15 years earlier, he had travelled to the USA, where he met his future co-author. In the months that followed, Abasov, a professor of philosophy, and Khachatrian, a biologist, began to research and write. When disagreements arose, they simply wrote their differing opinions alongside each other. By 2002, the first edition of their work had appeared, translated into Armenian, Azerbaijani, Russian and English, with Abasov travelling to Yerevan for the publication.
Abasov proudly shows off the souvenir magnets he brought back from the Armenian capital, which now adorn his fridge, the regalia of cosmopolitanism. Abasov has dedicated himself to the pursuit of peace for decades. As a member of Armenian-Azerbaijani travel groups, he has travelled far and wide to countries including Holland, Israel, Tibet and the USA. In Georgia, he has given numerous seminars for Armenian and Azerbaijani youths.
It works. Even between Armenians and Azerbaijanis.
Those born shortly before or after the war are often more militant than their parents’ generation, on both sides. Whilst older Armenians and Azerbaijanis can draw on the memories of a time of more peaceful coexistence, their younger counterparts have often never met a person from the other side. Abasov and his son, Faraj, who has now joined us, are a living example of this difference between generations.
“I used to be very aggressive with regard to Nagorno-Karabakh – at 20, you think the whole world belongs to you,” Faraj explains. Only later did he become more circumspect. Currently, he is also working on peace projects, though he takes a different approach. What his father strived to achieve through science and culture, Faraj seeks to accomplish by means of the economy. Entrepreneurs and service providers, offering a variety of different skills, are brought together to implement joint projects. The trick: “To begin with, the identity of each participant remains secret from the other. Only after several years of successfully working well together, all is revealed. And it works – even between Armenians and Azerbaijanis. Economic cooperation helps to overcome prejudice.”
Faraj is finally able to give his version of the conflict – and is immediately interrupted by his father. “He’s an extremist, don’t listen to him,” he interjects. Ali Abasov proceeds to further explain his alternative, in Russian, whilst his son simultaneously and unswervingly speaks in German. In many ways, Faraj is his father’s opposite. As the head of a marketing firm, with approximately 20 members of staff, he earns much more than his father does. Whilst his career has continued to soar, in 2005 Ali Abasov was demoted for speaking out against the Government and lost his post as Director at the Institute of Philosophy and Law. In addition to this, corruption charges have also been unsuccessfully brought against him on two occasions. The younger Abasov studied in the West and belongs to Azerbaijanis new set of social climbers, whilst his father remains a member of the academic elite from the Soviet era.
The Abasovs thus also represent Azerbaijan’s contradictions; not everyone has profited from the wealth to be found in oil here, as is frequently alleged. Indeed, the country’s economic situation has improved greatly in recent years (in 2001 every second person lived in poverty, whilst by 2011 that figure was reduced to just 7% of the population).
It is difficult to live in a city as expensive as Baku however, with the 500 Manat (approximately 500 euros) that Ali Abasov earns each month as a professor. Such is the case even for the cheaper districts in the city – it is only with financial support from his son that he can afford his apartment on the water front.
And whilst Faraj can also quite comfortably realize his projects without outside support, his father repeatedly comes up against external opposition. His co-author, Khachatrian, is seriously ill. It is therefore unlikely that any further editions of their book will appear. Civil society in Azerbaijan is also in an unhealthy state; in 2014 a number of NGOs were shut down or, at the very least, had their accounts frozen, and several human rights activists and journalists were arrested. Even if the funds for Abasov’s latest film project were forthcoming, it is unclear who he could still work with.
He remains, however, undeterred. “Why should I keep silent?” he observes of the political situation. “In my opinion, everything is out in the open. All of the power is in one hand.” Taking away his status will have little effect. He doesn’t care about prestige; he pays little attention to the view of the Caspian Sea out of his window, the leather trimmings and the large balcony outside the front his home. A portrait of Abasov underlines the point, hovering over the sofa, showing him smiling as nonchalantly as in real life.
As we are leaving the apartment, Ali Abasov lovingly shoos two jostling kittens outside. He hangs back and remains by his refrigerator, whilst Faraj gets into an expensive chauffeured car. Just a few metres away, in the centre of Baku, sits another smiling portrait. It is Heydar Aliyev, the late dictator of Azerbaijain. After his death in 2003, his son Ilham Aliyev came to power. He too has a son.
This contribution first appeared in a slightly altered form at boell.de. Translation by Jayne Goss.