Schoolchildren in Armenia and Azerbaijan are too young to remember the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, which created so much hostility between their countries. But their school textbooks feed them an unbalanced view of history that some experts believe will only harden attitudes for the future, says an article published on the website of the Institute for War and Peace Reporting (iwpr.net).
The article notes that the two nations developed separately over the past two decades and each established its own narrative of events not just around the Karabakh conflict but going back decades, even centuries. This is reflected in the very different content of school history books in Azerbaijan and Armenia, which colours the way children view both the other side and their own past.
Ashkhen, an Armenian in the 12th grade – the final year of school – says she has studied the causes of the Karabakh conflict and the way it unfolded, as well as the names of Armenian war heroes. She has concluded that peace with the Azerbaijanis will not come any time soon. "They have to give up their claims to our lands," she said. "Only when several generations have passed will it be possible for Azeris and Armenians to stop being enemies."
In their most recent attempt to forge an agreement, Armenian president Serzh Sargsyan met his Azerbaijani counterpart Ilham Aliyev in the Russian town of Sochi last month. One of the points they agreed on in a joint statement issued together with Russian president Dmitry Medvedev was that intellectuals needed to start engaging in dialogue in an attempt to bridge the gap between their two countries, IWPR writes. Many young Armenians, however, say they want nothing to do with their contemporaries in Azerbaijan. Anna, 21, has plenty of internet contacts in various countries, but avoids interacting with Azeris. "An Azeri schoolboy once wrote to me and started accusing me of various things, denying the existence of a genocide [against Armenians in Turkey in 1915-16], and calling Armenians 'occupiers'. I was naïve enough to say that he had studied poorly at school, and suggested he read what it says in the textbook."
The boy replied by quoting chunks of Azeri school books that supported his argument, such as one passage from a year-ten history text describing Armenians as "our eternal enemies," says the article.
Tofig Veliyev, head of the Slavic history department at Baku State University, is the author of this textbook, and insists he had to use negative language in order to tell the truth. "Those phrases give an accurate picture of the Armenians," Veliyev said. "I would be falsifying history unless I described them like that." Similar language is found in the year 11 history book, which covers the Karabakh war period, and describes the Armenian forces as "fascists" who perpetrated various crimes.
Hasan Naghizade, a year 11 student in Baku, said it was right for history to be presented in this way. "The author is Azerbaijani. Of course he's going to incite animosity. That's the way it should be," he said. "They definitely don't want to prepare us for peace. We don't need peace. The Armenians have committed a lot of bloody acts against us. Peace would be disrespectful to those who died in the war."
Azerbaijan's education ministry approved the current set of history books in 2000. Faig Shahbazli, head of the ministry's publications department, says the books were commissioned from historians and then checked for content. One stipulation was that the texts should not contain discriminatory language. "Textbooks should promote democracy and tolerance, not hatred," Shahbazli said. But he added that words like "terrorist", "bandit", "fascist" and "enemy" did not breach that principle.
"Those words reflect facts. They do not provoke intolerance of Armenians. They don't suggest the Armenian nation committed crimes; they merely indicate the nationality of those who did," he said, adding that children were capable of distinguishing between individual wrongdoing and a nation as a whole.
In Armenia, adolescents learn about the war of liberation for Karabakh in year nine. The conflict is framed within the context of a long history from ancient Armenian statehood through to the "perestroika" period of the late 1980s. "The spread of liberation movements in the Soviet Union was a direct result of the politics of perestroika," the book says. "The Artsakh Armenians were the first to rise up in defence of their national dignity. They would not accept that their historical lands had been forcibly united with Azerbaijan." This textbook is careful to avoid criticism of the Azeri nation as a whole, reserving it for the government in Baku.
It is not just recent history that leaves Armenians and Azerbaijanis with entrenched opposing views, says the article. Another major difference concerns the mass killings of Armenians in Ottoman Turkey during the First World War. Ruben Sahakyan, the historian who wrote the section on the killings, said he tried to avoid provoking emotional reactions. "You must present only the facts, so that children can analyse them for themselves," he said. "If you introduce emotional factors, you lose objectivity."
Meanwhile, Veliyev says the reason Azeri children did not learn about the Armenian genocide is because it did not take place. "It never happened. Why should we teach our children an invented history?" he asked.
Another set of historical issues about which Azerbaijani and Armenian teachers offer differing accounts is the period following the Russian Revolution and attempts to create nation-states in the South Caucasus. In outlining the events of 1918, when Armenians and Azerbaijani forces battled for control of Baku, textbooks from Yerevan confine themselves to describing the short-lived independent Armenian state that was later subsumed within the Soviet Union. Azerbaijanis, meanwhile, read accounts of massacres committed by Armenians in Baku.
Sahakyan dismissed such accounts as inventions. "The Azerbaijanis have set themselves the task of making Baku an Azeri city, so in order to explain why Armenians were numerically superior there, they have invented mass killings that did not actually happen," he said.
Armenian Academy of Sciences member Vladimir Barkhudaryan argues that the reason why Armenian textbooks pay little attention to certain events is that they are not judged important.