Nagorno-Karabakh From A Change Management Perspective: A View From Student Activist Chilanay Safarli

Chilanay Safarli
Chilanay Safarli

Change management is difficult to sell, and even more difficult to manage, and yet it is an essential skill for leaders and managers alike. After all, no business can stay competitive without change. This year with the COVID-19 pandemic, Armenian aggression against Azerbaijan, and other continuously changing realities, we are all learning how challenging change can be. To talk about change management, learning and people development in organizations, and her home country’s 30-year-old conflict that may have a chance to change, we sat down with Chilanay Safarli, a doctoral candidate in the Human and Organizational Learning program at George Washington University.

Chilanay Safarli

Tell us about yourself. What brought you to the US and to GWU?

I was born and raised in Nakhcivan, Azerbaijan. After graduating with a degree in Translation (English-Azerbaijani) from the Azerbaijan University of Languages, I did an internship at the Human Resources Development department of Milli Majlis – the legislative branch of Azerbaijan’s government. There I became interested in learning and development of people in organizations, as well as leadership development. After winning a scholarship from the Azerbaijan Ministry of Education, I am currently pursuing a Ph.D. degree in the Human and Organizational Learning (HOL) program at the George Washington University Graduate School of Education and Human Development (GSEHD). At the same time, as a part of my curricular practical training (CPT), I have worked at the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority (MWAA) in Washington, DC in several roles. 

What do your classmates, co-workers and friends ask you about? Do you encounter any stereotypes about Azerbaijan? 

Given that Washington DC is the capital of the United States and a cosmopolitan city, people are usually genuinely interested in my background, in Azerbaijan’s history, culture and food. What I noticed was that they were surprised to hear that many different ethnic and religious communities live in Azerbaijan side by side – Lezgin, Talysh, Russian, Kurdish, Jewish, as well as many other minorities. Azerbaijanis pride themselves in religious tolerance as well. For example, in Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, there are mosques, Orthodox churches, and synagogues all within a half mile of each other.

Please tell us about your research at GWU.

My dissertation is titled “Women’s leadership identity development in the public sector in Azerbaijan.” I became interested in this topic based on both my personal experience and the lack of scholarly literature on women’s leadership identity development in Azerbaijan. Although Azerbaijan was the first country in the Muslim world to give women voting rights in 1918. Yet there is evidence that women’s participation in economic and public life strengthens economic growth and equitable governance, contributing to an equitable and sustainable economy. Thus, it is important to ensure that there is a gender balance in leadership positions in order to serve the public of Azerbaijan, consisting of an almost equal percentage of men (49.9%) and women (50.1%).

At GWU you are working towards becoming “a change agent, a leader, facilitator of adult learning, and designer of learning environments.” How have you used these skills?  

As a Change Management Specialist, HR Analyst, and HR Project Manager at Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, I have been responsible for organizational development and change, learning and development programs in the organization, development of communication of the change process, and training of employees to ensure that the new human capital system that was introduced to the company as part of the change process will be used the way it was intended.

At the same time, I have been active on the GWU campus. To ensure that my colleagues, professors, friends, and classmates know more about Azerbaijan, I co-founded the GW Azerbaijani Student Association. We put together many memorable events celebrating Azerbaijani culture. Most recently, Armenia increased attacks against Azerbaijan, the GWU Azerbaijani Student Association has been taking action. We have participated in the peaceful protests in front of the Embassy of Armenia to the United States and have been writing letters to and calling senators and congressmen in my area to inform them about Azerbaijan and the current situation. With so much fake news out there disseminated by the pro-Armenian media, we feel it is important to get our voice, our side of the story heard.

I have heard you explain the Armenian and Azerbaijani conflict in corporate terms – could you repeat it for us? Can it be broken down into a simple organizational change example?

Imagine two corporate communities from two companies share a building, and at some point company A rents one of the rooms from company B with some employees of company B in that room, for an extended time, and then decides not to pay rent, and eventually claims that that specific room belongs to company A. When arbitration starts, company A uses force to throw out all Company B employees, and moreover kicks out Company B’s employees from all other surrounding rooms at gunpoint. Company B complains to the landlord and landlord agrees that company A is wrong, issues statements condemning its actions, so does law enforcement and the city council, but nobody is really enforcing the law. So, without any help, company B decides to develop and become a large company and use its influence and use force  to retake those rooms. Of course, these things never happen in the corporate world, and if they do, just like in residential real estate everything is done through civil or district courts, which issue eviction orders. Unfortunately, in international relations, there is no enforcement mechanism to enforce that law. There are four binding UN Security Council resolutions 822, 853, 874 and 884, which demand immediate and unconditional withdrawal of Armenian troops from occupied territories of Azerbaijan, but for the last 27 years, nobody has exerted pressure on Armenia or enforced these resolutions.


Any kind of change is inherently challenging. How has the expulsion of Azerbaijanis from Nagorno-Karabakh in the 90s changed the region?

After the expulsion of Azerbaijanis from Nagorno-Karabakh and 7 adjacent regions, Azerbaijan became a country with the largest internally displaced persons (İDPs) population per capita in the world. In total, one million Azerbaijani refugees from Armenia and internally displaced persons (IDPs) from occupied territories still deal with the trauma of expulsion, ethnic cleansing and massacres. On an individual level, it has affected every one of them, but also as a community in exile Azerbaijanis have a hard time adapting to new circumstances even three decades after being expelled. The expulsion of Azerbaijanis from occupied territories changed the dynamics of the conflict. Armenia has engaged in changing the demographic balance by resettling Ethnic Armenians from the Middle East into occupied territories – a violation of international law. Finally, Azerbaijan has always taken pride in its ethnic and religious diversity. After the expulsion of Azerbaijanis from occupied territories, both Armenia and these occupied territories have been mono-ethnic, and while no person of Azerbaijani ethnicity lives in Armenia or Nagorno-Karabakh, more than 30,000 people of Armenian ethnicity live in Azerbaijan. Since this is one of the major changes in the region after the occupation of those territories, I am hoping that with the resolution of this conflict IDPs/refugees of various ethnicities will be able to return to their homes, and restore the multi-ethnic flavor of the Caucasus. 

What do you say to your international friends when asked about the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict?

I try to ensure that my arguments are based on historical and sociocultural realities. Because I am saddened by all the biased news and rhetoric out there in social media, which misrepresent and manipulate facts and further escalate the situation, I encourage everybody to fact-check, do their research by using reliable international sources, and develop an understanding of the conflict before making a judgement about it.