Best of enemies rewrite history of hate

Armenians, Russians, Azeris agreeing on the past? Phil Reeves in Georgia observes ancient hostilities set aside for a schoolbook
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The Independent Online
THE DAMAGE caused by history's meddling hand is barely visible in Qazbegi, high in the Caucasus mountains. The 17,000ft snow-crested volcano which rears above the town has been dormant since before the fall of Troy.

Wolves, bears, and wild goats patrol the surrounding forests, moving among the glaciers and jagged brown peaks of north-east Georgia, as they have done for centuries. Yet, in this timeless place, history is the topic at hand. Halfway up a hillside, in a stark government chalet, a highly unusual meeting is taking place.

Gathered around a table are representatives of Armenia, Georgia, Azerbaijan and Russia - fractious neighbours who have weathered centuries of war, conquest, counter-conquest and local feuds as empires swept in and out in an effort to control the strategic territory between the Caspian and the Black Seas.

The meeting has the look of a mini-summit. National flags in miniature and green plastic bottles of mineral water adorn the table-top. But today, the talk is not of border disputes, or landmines and battles or even of newly independent nations wriggling free from Moscow's weakening grasp.

These officials have made a four-hour journey up a winding, deeply pot- holed road which connects Georgia with nearby Russia to discuss a small, yet intensely sensitive issue: the creation of a history textbook for the children of the Caucasus. They have broadly accepted, these academics and education officials, that a book should be written that will help their teenage schoolchildren understand not only their own national history, but that of the next-door neighbours.

Sound simple? Not here. Geopolitics, religion, rivalry and myth are as thoroughly rooted in the soil as the Caucasus mountains themselves. What would seem ancient history, a half-remembered trifle, to a westerner is unsettled business in these parts. In particular, Moscow is still regarded warily after 70 years of imperial rule that produced Stalin (a Georgian), the KGB and widescale suppression of national aspirations and human rights.

Thus, rules are required. The project is overseen by the Council of Europe, which is leading a drive to reform history teaching across the former Soviet Union as part of its general efforts to encourage democracy and free thinking. The participants have received "guidelines" stipulating that the book will "not be written in a triumphalist, polemical or even vindictive" style. It should be "neutral and realistic", and "free of ideological and political stereotypes." Military issues - the region's countless wars - should be "dealt with", but not with undue emphasis.

A cursory glance at the first two decades of this century reveals the delicate path ahead. How should the book deal with the Bolshevik Revolution, and the subsequent acquisition and control of the Caucasus by the USSR? Or the war between Georgia and Armenia in 1919, or - always the defining issue for the Armenians - the 1915 massacre of their people by the Turks, friends of the Azeris?

And yet - though much wrangling seems inevitable - the signs are far from hopeless. The driving force behind the project, known as the Tbilisi Initiative, is Alison Cardwell, a dogged and defiantly optimistic British official. She hopes to see the book in print by 2001. If all goes to plan, it will include sections on the history of each of the four countries written - crucially - by a small group of their own resident historians. Each country will be responsible for telling its story as it would like its neighbours' children to see it. This is far from an ideal recipe for thrilling history. But Ms Cardwell dismisses suggestions that it will produce propaganda. "I don't believe that will happen. I really think they will try their hardest to do what they have been asked to do."

Even a whitewash will be better than nothing. The Soviet Union created a vacuum, leaving millions ignorant of any but the Communist version of history. Its mendacious textbook, A History of the USSR, contained almost nothing about the Caucasian peoples or other non-Slavs on the fringe of the Soviet empire.

The hurdles are high and plentiful. At this week's meeting, the Armenians were clearly wary. And the Russians were struggling to grasp the concept of "multi-perspectivity" - the idea that there is more than one legitimate view of history, and that these may validly contradict one another. But the first day of the three-day meeting in Qazbegi, one of several stages towards publication, ended peaceably.

But in this divided region, merely getting people round a table is a considerable accomplishment. Two of the participants, Christian Armenia and Muslim Azerbaijan, are locked in an unresolved conflict over the enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh, after a war in which 20,000 died. Relations between the two new nations could scarcely be worse and remain one of several reasons for the region's instability (along with Chechnya, two assassination attempts against Georgian leader Eduard Shevardnadze and the unsettled conflict in Abkhazia).

At bottom, last week's gathering high in the Georgian mountains, was about conflict resolution. "We have got to have a textbook at the end of the day," said Ms Cardwell. "But getting countries to work together is what matters most."