Can an Armenian and Azerbaijani be friends? A new social media scandal suggests that for many in both countries, the answer is no.
The controversy began on November 4, when an Azerbaijani man, Tehran Bayramov, posted a public selfie on Facebook with an Armenian woman, Asya Khachatryan, along with some loving emojis, 😍😍. In another photo in the post, their two passports – one Armenian, one Azerbaijani – rested on a table next to one another.
Nationalists on both sides of the border responded predictably. “Be careful,” one Azerbaijani user responded to Bayramov’s post. “May be it is a trick. They want to kidnapp [sic] you.”
One Armenian user commented under Khachatryan’s post, when she published the same photo: “Everything is fine just watch out so he doesn’t cut your head while you are asleep,” a reference to the infamous case of an Azerbaijani soldier who murdered an Armenian counterpart during a NATO training event in Budapest.
The case was widely covered in Armenian media, as well. Artsakh Public TV, in the Armenian-controlled territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, claimed that Bayramov has been seen wearing a uniform of Azerbaijani internal security forces.
The de facto government of Nagorno-Karabakh was forced to answer questions about whether Khachatryan should be allowed into the territory. “We are not against friendships and we always say that for the resolution of this conflict first of all people should make peace with each other, [and] for that they need to communicate,” Davit Babayan, a spokesman for the de facto Karabakh leader, told Artsakh Public TV. He added, though, that “on the other side of the border the attitude is not very peaceful and therefore people need take into consideration today’s reality.”
Khachatryan was already somewhat notorious among Armenians. Her experience of being harassed by police in Karabakh, allegedly because she has blue-dyed hair, also made national news.
“I have always said that there is no difference for me if someone is Azerbaijani or a Turk,” she told the news website Armday after the most recent episode. “People should understand that war is in the war zone and it has nothing to do with the culture. It’s not in the cities and it doesn’t concern the peaceful citizens.”
It's not uncommon for elite Armenians and Azerbaijanis to meet outside the country, particularly in Tbilisi, the site of regular NGO conferences and training activities; Khachatryan said that was how she came to meet Bayramov. But the public outcry demonstrated how, for the large majority of people on both sides of the border, the other nation remains an abstract enemy, with whom it is impossible to imagine a normal friendship.
Others, though, came to Khachatryan’s defense. “Cheers to Asya, she is right,” wrote Lara Aharonian, a member of the board of trustees of the Civil Contract party of Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, in a Facebook post. “I also have very good friends from Azerbaijan whom I love very much and I hope that we will live peacefully one day and will communicate freely without anybody's propaganda of hatred.”
Hayk Barseghyan, a well-known blogger and the son of prominent activist Levon Barseghian, also stood up for Khachatryan. “Everyone has the right to be friends with those with whom he wants,” he said on an online TV program. “I want to have normal relations with Azerbaijanis, go to Azerbaijan, communicate with them, and I want the Azerbaijanis to come here, too. I want our nations to be friends, not enemies.”
One unique take was offered by Levon Sardaryan, head of an Armenian media rights group. He recalled, in a Facebook post, a journalism training event in Georgia with Azerbaijani colleagues: “We became very close with them, shared drinks and talked all night. I thought everything will end well, until one of them said, ‘If we didn’t have conflict with each other we could just banish these Georgians from the Caucasus and share the land with each other.’”
Ani Mejlumyan is a reporter based in Yerevan.