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Caucasus: Armenian & Georgian Blogosphere Assessed

Following last weekend's BarCamp in Tbilisi, one of the event's main organizers, Giga Paitchadze, briefly considers its success and provides a small glimpse into the Georgian blogosphere. Also known as DvOrsky [GE], the blogger claims to be the oldest in the country. Global Voices Online interviewed Paitchadze after the Caucasus BarCamp.

Caucasus BarCamp

Giga Paitchadze (center on right), Caucasus BarCamp, Tbilisi, Georgia

GV: How would you describe the blogging scene in Georgia?

GP: About 5 percent of all internet users in Georgia have blogs. With Internet penetration now at about 10 percent of the whole population, then that means about 10-15,000 bloggers. However, this figure would include both active and inactive bloggers, i.e. with one post only.

The main language is of course Georgian, and the second is Russian because many bloggers use LiveJournal and have a large audience there in terms of friends, people making comments, readers and visitors.

As there are no catalogues or any services where Georgian blogs are classified and where some statistics are available, I'll say that the most widely covered topics are politics, music, sport and other outdoor or lifestyle activities, tech news, IT and everything else.

Also there are many bloggers who just write about everyday life.

GV: How many people attended the BarCamp?

GP: About 150 people attended BarCamp Caucasus. Actually, we expected more than 200 since we had only 150 participants registered on our site and had also invited a lot of organizations, journalists and other bloggers. Unfortunately, however, the political and social situation on June 7th — the first session of the newly elected parliament and the oppositional rally against election results — was more in the focus of people.

Perhaps The PR campaign for our BarCamp needed more effort, but for next time we will learn from the lesson this time.

GV: How do you consider the BarCamp went? What were its successes?

GP: The success of every BarCamp is that people have the possibility to meet in real life, in an unofficial atmosphere, to share experiences, to make new contacts, and to create a network which can provide many other possibilities such as to start something like a new project etc.

In that sense, I think that BarCamp Caucasus achieved this goal. And I am positive about this since I have also read some reports and blog posts by those attending the BarCamp – for example, the meeting and some discussion held between Armenian and Azerbaijani participants. This is a small but important success.

On the other hand, not so many Georgians attended the event, but I think with some time and development of the Internet here, Georgian society will pay more attention to events like the BarCamp Caucasus.

GV: Although there was still very little interaction between Armenian, Azerbaijani and Georgian bloggers and new media professionals, do you think that BarCamps and blogs, and social networks could be useful tools in bringing the three countries closer together?

GP: I absolutely agree that events like BarCamps or similar can do a great job in cross-border cooperation and cultural dialogue. Finding similar and joint interests or working on joint projects can be more important than talking about our differences.

Indeed, Georgia is considered by many international organizations and bodies to be neutral ground in the South Caucasus and the only location where Armenian, Azerbaijani and Georgian participants can meet up in sufficient numbers for conferences and other events. This is especially the case given that its two South Caucasus neighbors remain locked in a protracted conflict over Nagorno Karabakh.

Caucasus BarCamp

Caucasus BarCamp

Registration, Caucasus BarCamp, Tbilisi, Georgia

Editor of Internews Armenia's E-Channel [AM/EN], Gegham Vardanyan, tells Global Voices Online why he attended the Caucasus BarCamp.

GV: Why did you decide to come to BarCamp Caucasus?

GVardanyan: I came to meet my friend, bloggers from other countries and to discover what new processes and technologies are being used around the world. For example, Web 2.0 technologies are very interesting and I will try to do something with them in Armenia.

GV: Your presentation was on blogs and the role of the Internet during the recent post-election state of emergency in Armenia. Do you think that blogs and new Internet technologies are now important for countries such as Armenia to consider?

GVardanyan: Yes, this should be developed. Bloggers and site owners are now thinking about backups and how they can be used as backups during such situations [as the state of emergency] in order to protect their content and to continue their work. I think that if such a situation was to occur again in the future – although I hope that it doesn’t – they will be more organized and be able to present even more information to their readers.

Caucasus BarCamp

Caucasus BarCamp

Gegham Vardanyan (center), Caucasus BarCamp, Tbilisi, Republic of Georgia

However, regardless of the role the Internet played, one Armenian participant was unhappy with Vardanian's presentation on blogs and new media during the recent presidential election in Armenia. The blogger in question considered the presentation more negative than positive for Armenia's image abroad.

Speaking in Yerevan this week, Media Diversity Institute Director and Global Voices Online Author Artur Papayan briefly addresses such concerns and also elaborates on the role of the Internet during the disputed vote and post-election unrest.

GV: How active is the local blogosphere in Armenia?

AP: There’s no way to accurately count the number as there are so many platforms as well as standalone blogs. Adding to the problem is that Google’s blog search doesn't really understand Armenian language posts and is very poor at detecting the Russian ones. However, the amount of active, i.e. at least one post per month, Armenian blogs on LiveJournal is more then 800 and my RSS reader has more than 60 Armenian language blogs with about the same number in English. Even so, I’d estimate the number of known blogs by Armenians at around 3,000 — including video blogs.

GV: How would you say the number of blogs was affected by the recent presidential election in Armenia and especially in the post-election state of emergency situation?

AP: The number of Armenian language blogs tripled and although there were very few new ones in other languages, several English language blogs became more active to a phenomenal extent. There were also at least 80 new Russian-language registrations in LiveJournal which was something like a 10 percent increase. Many of those blogs were “zombies” or anonymous blogs which were effectively set up for propaganda purposes, perhaps even with the support of the authorities, and made it onto my infamous ‘blacklist.’

However, there is again no sure way of measuring so all these figures should just be taken as my personal estimate and treated with some caution.

GV: It's been said that the Russian-language Armenian blogosphere mainly opposed the return of the first and former president to the political scene in time for the election. Blogs in other languages were more supportive. Do you agree with that assessment?

AP: Well, there was a poll carried out among LiveJournal users and other candidates such as Vazgen Manukyan and Vahan Hovhannisyan came out on top, followed by Levon Ter-Petrossian [first president] and Serzh Sargsyan [the new president]. However, it should be understood that LiveJournal works very much as a large single forum and its members influence each other greatly so it became not “cool” to support Sargsyan. Even so, Levon Ter-Petrossian supporters were few, but they were active.

Others who were very anti-Levon, neutral or pro-Serzh instead became pro-Vazgen or Pro-Vahan and started to see these two candidates as a counterbalance to Levon Ter-Petrossian. Hence the phrase “ anti-Levon” is not quite right. Instead I’d say many Russian-language bloggers became pro-alternative-candidates. That's what LiveJournal looked like, but after the violent clashes on 1 March most of those blogs [on LiveJournal] consolidated and became mostly anti-Levon.

GV: How would you assess the success of the Internet and blogs during the pre-election period and especially in the period following the disputed vote?

AP: During the pre-election period it was quite disappointing. Bloggers were very active, but they were not creative. Instead, they simply followed the same agenda set by the highly polarized mass media in Armenia. I don't think blogs made any difference in public discussions or substantially contributed to anything, but the post-election period was an entirely different story.

GV: Can it be considered a success?

AP: Yes, because blogs were the only alternative to the mass media, especially as independent and pro-opposition online media sites were blocked or censored. Blogs registered phenomenal numbers in terms of readers. My blog, for example, had about 2,500-3,500 page views per day and the blog of A1 Plus (a pro-opposition TV station taken off the air in 2002] had over 60,000. In terms of video blogging, the A1plus and E-channel YouTube channels also registered a huge number of viewers. E-Channel, for example, had over 30,000 viewers per day and I’m sure A1 Plus had triple that amount.

GV: Given that YouTube was blocked in Armenia for some part of the time, were most viewers from outside Armenia?

AP: More than 50 percent of A1 Plus YouTube viewers were from Armenia. Then came Russia and the U.S. However, for my own it was about 50 percent from U.S. followed by Russia, France, Germany and Spain and then Armenia. This could have been because A1 Plus were using titles and keywords in Armenian whereas I was using English, however. Actually, this was the strategy I advised A1 Plus to follow.

GV: So do you think that because of the situation with the broadcast media where all the TV stations are in some way linked to or controlled by the government that video blogging has more potential for success than traditional text blogging?

AP: Yes. Think video blogs and radio podcasts which will dominate the scene as soon as the situation with Internet connectivity improves and when 3G mobile services become available.

GV: There was some criticism of the presentation made on the election and post-election situation as it pertained to blogs which was made at the Caucasus BarCamp in Tbilisi. How would you respond to such criticism?

AP: While I greatly appreciate the sense of patriotism that such critics have, the reality is above all and we should understand that via blogs or not, the world is anyway watching.

GV: Of course, many of these blogs were also responsible for spreading a lot of misinformation.

AP: That is indeed so. However, when it comes to Gegham Vardanyan or myself, we tried really hard under great pressure to remain as objective as we could. Basically, I think that criticism is valid if there were mistakes and incorrect facts, but not if it concerns the general concept of the presentation itself.

GV: Is there anything you’d like to add about the future of blogging in Armenia?

AP: Yes. With increasing attention on the role blogs can play after the recent presidential election and state of emergency situation, I'm concerned about the future of blogging because everyone has started to realize that it has great potential. While such a situation should be welcomed it also means there is the danger that there will soon be attempts to influence that potential and to control it.

This could be from both the authorities and the international donor community which means that there is also the possibility that such control could destroy any real potential unless handled correctly and in consultation or genuine cooperation with those already working in this area.

Onnik Krikorian will be making a presentation on the role of blogs and the Internet on the democratic process as part of a panel, The Wired Electorate in Emerging Democracies, at the Global Voices Online Citizen Media Summit in Budapest, Hungary, on 27-28 June 2008.

An interview with Emin Huseynzade on the Azerbaijani blogosphere is here. Other Global Voices posts on blogging in Armenia during and after the 2008 presidential election are here and here.

Photos © Onnik Krikorian / Oneworld Multimedia 2008

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