By Astghik Bedevian
A public school in Yerevan began on Monday a four-day series of events designed to promote Armenian-Azerbaijani reconciliation by enabling its students and teachers to hold discussions with visiting public figures from Azerbaijan.
The Days of Azerbaijan at the Mkhitar Sebastatsi Educational Complex will also feature presentations by the visiting Azerbaijanis and their Armenian partners as well as an arts exhibition and the screening of a documentary film on the conflict between the two South Caucasus nations. The events are sponsored by the British Embassy in Armenia and the Armenian Center for Peace Initiatives, a non-governmental organization.
The Azerbaijani delegation that arrived in Yerevan on the occasion includes three human rights campaigners, a journalist, a writer and an NGO activist.
“This is just an attempt to give our students and teachers a better idea of our neighbors and to discuss our outstanding problems in the process,” Ashot Bleyan, the Mkhitar Sebastatsi director, told RFE/RL. He expressed hope that such initiatives will make Armenian society “more tolerant.”
A former education minister and prominent critic of the current Armenian government, Bleyan has long been championing Armenian-Azerbaijani dialogue. He went as far as to pay a high-profile visit to Baku in 1992 at the height of the war in Nagorno-Karabakh. The trip was condemned as high treason by Armenian nationalist groups who continue to accuse Bleyan of favoring Karabakh’s “sellout.”
Seymur Bayjan, an Azerbaijani writer who will lecture Mkhitar Sebastatsi students on his country’s contemporary literature on Tuesday, complained that despite occasional contacts between small groups of Armenians and Azerbaijanis the two nations as a whole are still not prepared for peace. “A single cannon shell can reverse all these peace initiatives,” he told RFE/RL.
The Armenian Foreign Ministry, meanwhile, welcomed the Mkhitar Sebastatsi initiative, saying that it will have a positive impact on the long-running Karabakh peace talks. “We believe that this initiative is vivid proof of our commitment to peace and dialogue,” said the ministry spokesman, Vladimir Karapetian. “Such events … should have a continuation in all the countries included in the program.”
It was an apparent reference to the fact the holding of similar Armenian-Azerbaijani contacts in Baku has been practically impossible in recent years due to a government policy that considers the very presence of Armenian citizens on Azerbaijani soil an affront to Azerbaijan’s honor and territorial integrity.