"You can choose your friends, but not your neighbors." It appears that many agree with this sentiment: Armenia can’t live in isolation from its neighbors and needs to work on improving relations with them. While the overarching desire is for peace and stability, it is essential to acknowledge that to many dialogue participants, stability does not necessarily equate to warm and friendly relations with neighboring countries, especially when one regularly threatens to wipe you off the map entirely. As one of the teachers, Liana, puts it, “Yes, it is possible to be neutral with them, but I can’t tell them, ‘Let’s drink coffee together, dear.’” Like other dialogue participants, she finds it hard to see prospects of friendly relations due to the weight of past and current historical events. “The collective memory, my emotions, the pain – they can’t be forgotten,” she says.
The frequent changes to the borders, the recurring wars, the reality of not having had an independent state for multiple centuries, and present security threats seem to consolidate the existing concerns further and undermine the possibility of long-term good relations with its neighbors. Notably, when discussing relations with neighboring states, most dialogue participants automatically think of Azerbaijan and Turkey before Georgia and Iran. Moreover, an interesting phenomenon can be observed; without explicitly mentioning ‘Azerbaijan’ or ‘Turkey,’ participants know which country they’re referring to.
Although relations with its neighbors largely shape Armenia’s past and present, there seems to be a sense of isolation, where historical events are almost cut from international and regional contexts. For example, Margarita, a student from Yerevan, observed that most people in Armenia don’t quite know what’s going on in other countries, attributing it to the fact that “95% of the population are ethnic Armenians.” “Sometimes I think to myself, ‘how great it would be if Armenia were an island. But geographically, that’s impossible, so perhaps we’ve created that isolation in our heads instead,’” she says, noting that it would be helpful if there were comprehensive coverage of regional history as part of the state curricula. “I would like to study regional history, to see what parallels there are in the region, and how they came to exist so that we can understand how it can serve our interests,” she says. The importance of regional thinking is further emphasized by the fact that issues with one neighboring country can also become a problem for another neighbor. “For example, if the Armenian-Azerbaijani border is not demarcated, that is also Iran's problem because the borders are changing in the region,” says Haykanush, one of the teachers.
Armenian history and World history are taught as separate subjects in schools. The curricula and the textbooks teachers use are not coordinated to increase student understanding of a particular moment in time or a specific period, both locally and globally. So, students often explore local history independently of global, or even just regional, history, which can lead to a very partial understanding of the factors that affect what happens locally. This leads to students analyzing what they’re studying only based on their local knowledge, which leads to a distorted view of history and then a similar analysis of events in the present.
This article is based on dialogue between history teachers and students within the scope of the “Intergenerational Dialogue” project led by Paradigma Educational Foundation in partnership with the Friedrich Naumann Foundation. The real names of dialogue participants have been changed to protect their privacy.