Tbilisi’s Old Town has long been an area where ethnic Armenians, Azeris, Jews, Kurds, and Georgians intermingle.
There’s the Azeri teahouse run by ethnic Armenians on one street, and, on another, one run by ethnic Azeris, where an ethnic Armenian waitress serves customers.
A mosque frequented mainly by ethnic Azeri Muslims sits atop a hill just a few minutes away from an Armenian church where Sayat Nova, the 18th century troubadour who wrote songs and poetry mainly in Azeri, is buried.
A statue to Sergei Paradjanov, the surrealist ethnic Armenian filmmaker whose last film was shot in Azerbaijan, stands just meters away from a shisha café, staffed by ethnic Armenians from the Middle East and often frequented by customers from Azerbaijan.
Home to sizable ethnic Azeri and Armenian populations, Georgia is well-accustomed to such coexistence. But, nonetheless, that doesn’t mean that awkward situations cannot occur.
Recently, for example, an Armenian flag appeared flying outside a privately owned, neighborhood bathhouse that adjoins a park featuring a bust of Heydar Aliyev, the late Azerbaijani president.
The flag was still flying until the eve of Azerbaijan’s May 10 Flower Day celebration, an event to mark the birthday of the late president. On the day itself, the flag reportedly disappeared. A day later, it reappeared.
The juxtaposition, needless to say, is unusual. Aliyev, in office from 1993 until 2003, was Azerbaijan’s president when the war with Armenia and Karabakhi separatists over the breakaway region of Nagorno Karabakh ended with a cease-fire in 1994.
Precise reasons for the flag’s appearance, disappearance, and reappearance could not be confirmed. The management of the bathhouse that displays the flags was not available for comment. “They just chose some international flags from somewhere,” an employee commented, with a shrug.
The Armenian flag appears alongside those of the United States, Israel, European Union, and Georgia, at the end closest to the Heydar Aliyev Park.
The Azerbaijani embassy to Tbilisi and the Georgian office of the State Oil Company of the Azerbaijani Republic, which maintains the Heydar Aliyev Park, did not respond to requests for comment about the flag’s appearance.
Reaction to the above photograph, posted on Facebook, was mixed, with activists weary of the cult of personality surrounding Aliyev sharing the image, while others alleged Photoshop manipulation.
But sources familiar with the circumstances claim that the Azerbaijani ambassador to Tbilisi personally visited the owners of the baths to request that the Armenian flag be taken down.
An Azerbaijani TV crew also apparently visited the Heydar Aliyev Park to film the bust and the offending flag, but allegedly was denied permission to do so.
When the flag reappeared, the Azerbaijani ambassador, reportedly furious, made another visit to the bathhouse, the sources claimed.
The bathhouse employee, who did not give his name, denied that the facility’s Armenian flag had caused any controversy.
But given increasing tensions between Armenia and Azerbaijan, they might yet find that the potential for controversy is far from over.
-- Elizabeth Owen, EurasiaNet.org’s Caucasus/Turkey news editor, added reporting to this post.