This post is part of our special coverage Caucasus Conflict Voices.
As part of the BBC Superpower Season, the BBC's Azeri service approached Global Voices Online's Caucasus editor to participate in its own reflection on the power of the Internet. Locked into a bitter stalemate over the disputed territory of Nagorno Karabakh, BBC Azeri were specifically interested in how new and social media could bring the two warring sides together.
What follows is part one of the series, originally published yesterday in Azerbaijani, translated or using the original texts in English. Two more parts will follow today and tomorrow.
The BBC Superpower season is in March. In these programs we discussed the power of Internet and the way it affects the lives of people.
The Internet has brought big changes to the lives of people starting from personal relations to business contacts. New media has opened up a new way not only for journalists. It has also inspired an audience and civil society towards free thought and social activism.
The wide use of social media has changed cultural and political values throughout the world. People are willing to communicate, participate and share their thoughts.
This new online project prepared by the Azeri service of the BBC within this Internet season is called Facebook diary.
Every day the participants of this project will follow social media sites like Facebook and Twitter and share their observations with readers of this site.
The first part of our Facebook diary is called Social media and conflict resolution.
As an observation, the main purpose of using Facebook is about the opportunities offered to users of social media as well as using it as a think-tank platform.
What opportunity does social media offer to peace activists from Armenia and Azerbaijan? Can new media tools change the current situation? What are the negative effects of social media in the light of nationalists using new media for an attack on the “enemy”?
Answers to these questions will be given by diarists writing on “Social media and conflict resolution” – Arzu Qeybullayeva from Azerbaijan and Onnik Krikorian from Armenia.
Focusing on the positive
Browsing through status updates on Facebook, I come across one by an Azeri friend of mine, who posted a link as his status. I was also inspired as the caption of it read “Organizer of this event is my friend, mets ashkhatavor (great worker) Georgi Vanyan!”
This is just one of numerous examples on Facebook. one of the most popular social networks used by millions today. Also part of a new phenomenon, new social media such as Facebook has become a platform for Azerbaijanis and Armenians to share their similarities and differences, talk about politics, culture, life, and art etc.
The use of Facebook, Twitter, and blogs in the Caucasus, and especially in Armenia and Azerbaijan, have all in their own ways opened up new opportunities for youth living in the two countries.
I joined Facebook in 2005, back in the day when it was only available for students living and studying in the UK, Europe and the US. If I was told back then that in few years I would be holding trainings on new social media such as Facebook, I would probably have dismissed that idea as, and also found it, somewhat ridiculous.
However, fast forward five years, and I cannot conceal my excitement every time I talk about this to an audience of Azerbaijani, Armenian and Georgian youth, sharing the positive experiences I have had and citing an incredible amount of positive feedback on my work on building cross-country dialogue.
As a result, I have met many Armenian talented young minds and also taken part in what was a spontaneous and unexpected trip to an ethnically Azeri-populated village in Georgia with a journalist from Yerevan, Onnik Krikorian. We then shared our experience on the Internet via Facebook, personal blogs, and of course, Twitter.
The amount of positive feedback we received was incredible, demonstrating that things can change in a positive way, and that not only can both Azerbaijanis and Armenians work together, but they can also co- exist together.
Onnik Krikorian is the Caucasus regional editor of Global Voices Online as well as a freelance journalist and photojournalist based in Yerevan, Armenia.
The Human Touch: Online personal communication between Armenians and Azerbaijanis
The Internet has changed lives the world over, especially when it comes to news and access to information, but the situation is not quite the same in the South Caucasus. Albeit slowly changing, going online had been the preserve for the fortunate few and until recently mainly via dial-up. Even so, costs still remain prohibitive for many, especially in the less well-developed regions of the three countries making up the South Caucasus.
Plagued by political instability and ethnic conflict, especially between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the disputed territory of Nagorno Karabakh, those that did have access to the Internet were also more likely to use it to continue the war online rather than strive for peace. Yet, if the Internet was once used by both sides to spread negative propaganda and sometimes misinformation about the other, there is now the possibility to achieve the opposite.
Telephone lines may be monitored or blocked, but those Armenians and Azerbaijanis wanting to communicate with each other can now do so on a daily basis via email, blogs, and micro-blogging sites such as Twitter. They can also speak to each other thanks to Skype. Previously influenced by a usually less than objective and often nationalistic local media, Facebook in particular allows both to glimpse into the lives of each other free from negative stereotypes.
True, nationalists on both sides continue to use the same tools for the opposite purpose, but their previous monopoly on disseminating partisan propaganda is now being broken, especially as Internet penetration increases in both countries.
Over the coming days, Arzu Geybullayeva and I will be looking into both the positive and negative use of the Internet in the context of Armenian and Azerbaijani relations. Since we first made contact online a year and a half ago, it has become increasingly obvious that online tools offer an unprecedented opportunity to break the information blockade and restore open communication between the two sides.
However, to start the ball rolling, there's probably no better place to look than everyone's favourite Facebook as well as the newest (online) kid on the block, Twitter. Although those opposed to peace may have set up countless hate groups on Facebook, they have failed to counter huge progress in personal relations and communication via personal user pages. The same is true for Twitter, where alternative voices have drowned out the propagandists.
Both have also managed to remind others of one reality forgotten by many since the ceasefire agreement between the two warring countries was signed in 1994. That is, Armenians and Azerbaijanis have more in common than some would care to admit.
This weekend, for example, marked the beginning of Novruz, a festival celebrated in Azerbaijan, Iran, and Turkey, among others, marking the beginning of spring. Not only did many Azerbaijanis on Facebook update their status lines or post photos marking the holiday, but so too did some Armenians, especially those who recognize the Persian influence on both cultures.
One of those was Liana Aghajanian, an Iranian-Armenian now living in the U.S.
“[…] being Armenian doesn’t symbolize an all inclusive club where only one set of traditions are observed and one language spoken. We are an amazingly diverse group of ancient people, who have, through the years, influenced and been influenced by a set of beautifully rich and magnetizing cultures, and denying this would be doing a disservice. […] I guess what I’m trying to say is that simply speaking, diversity is good. Embrace it. […]”
After her post, a brief conversation followed with an Azerbaijani on Twitter, noting the similarities between Novruz and Trndez, an Armenian holiday likely with the same origin, but radically changed to fit into the church calendar after Armenia adopted Christianity in 301AD. This reality is a perfect counter to comments from former Armenian president Robert Kocharian in the 2000s saying that Armenians and Azerbaijanis were “ethnically incompatible.”
A year ago, such open communication was unheard of, but now there are many such examples of civil, polite and friendly discussions taking place as comments on blog posts, as tweets, and on the Facebook pages of like-minded individuals. Indeed, that will be the message Arzu and I share with the audience during our co-presentation next month at a social media conference in Tbilisi, Georgia.
Just don't expect such a reality to be conveyed by the local media in either country. For now, it’s only to be found online. Of course, the negative still exists as well, but more on that as our observations continue.
The original text in Azerbaijani is available on the BBC Azeri web site. Many thanks to Konul Khalilova for permission to post a version in English. The main collaboration between the BBC and Global Voices Online for the Superpower Season is here.
This post is part of our special coverage Caucasus Conflict Voices.
You can also listen to an audio interview conducted between Yerevan and Baku over Skype between myself and Arzu Geybullayeva on the potential for new/social media to cross the ceasefire line and assist in Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict transformation at:
It’s well worth a listen, even if I do say so myself. :)
So just because Armenians and Azerbaijanis share some obscure customs (which they jointly inherited from the Iranians) means that Kocharyan’s remarks that the two peoples are “ethnically incompatible” are false? What sort of fantasy world are Armenians living in now?
All one has to do is to tune into the Azerbaijani television channels and websites and see the hate-filled propaganda they are inculcating the newer generation with. The sorry excuse that passes for Azerbaijani “scholarship” churns out dozens of books and pamphlets each year documenting how “genocides” (a plural!) were committed by Armenians in individual villages (!) in Karabakh and laying claim over dozens of historical Armenian churches and monasteries and palaces and rechristening them as “Caucasian Albanian” monuments or temples. How many times do we have here Aliyev threaten to start a new war all so the Azeris can have revenge for their wounded pride?
The same sort of thinking existed right before the USSR collapsed: people were amazed at how the Azeris could strike at Armenians in places like Sumgait, Baku and Kirovabad after living next to them for over 70 years under the Soviet “friendship” policies. But it should not come as any surprise to anyone, since everyone is forced to play nice thanks to Russia. There was a seeming friendship among all the peoples in the former Yugoslavia but once the strongman Tito died, the ethnic tensions came boiling to the top and there was no way to stop a new war from breaking out – what do you think will probably happen once NATO pulls out of the region?
If people really want to bring the Armenians and Azeris “together”, perhaps some can tell the latter to cease and desist from the saber-rattling and the intense racism that is found in their country. Highlighting a few superficial similarities between the two and emphasizing them as the true bonds that can unite the two together is not only fantastically delusional but also downright dishonest and misleading. Turks are also ready to be chums with Armenians – just as long as those Armenians serve as their cooks and waiters and don’t raise those nasty issues regarding justice for the genocide and the physical destruction of their homeland.
I can’t understand why some Armenians choose to be so gullible and so truly ignorant of their past, as if it has not offered us enough lessons on the downfall of our people over the centuries.
Yervand, actually there is much more than just “superficial similarities.” In fact, the similarities are very strong indeed.
It’s probably why, for example, ethnic Armenians and Azerbaijanis co-inhabit some villages and towns in Georgia.
And why they also naturally come together in Russia as this IWPR article notes.
Meanwhile, it’s interesting to note that Arzu lives in Baku and I am in Yerevan. Meanwhile, you’re in the U.S.
However, I agree with you about the saber-rattling in the Azerbaijani media, something that I have pointed out in many posts.
That said, I do not believe the Azerbaijani media represents Azeris as I also do not believe the Armenian media represents Armenians.
And, it has to be said, there is quite a lot of “intense racism” among some Armenians. Thankfully that is not as prevalent in the media as in Azerbaijan, but…
It is there too. And yes, Armenians massacred Azeris and Azeris have massacred Armenians. However, if anything this is because of nationalism on both sides.
And that’s the problem and something that more and more Armenians and Azerbaijanis are beginning to realize. Not enough, but it’s there.
Oh, and to note Liana Aghajanian’s point:
Same is true for Azerbaijan as well.
Indeed, there are quite a few overlaps in terms of culture, cuising and language influences for both Armenians and Azeris, especially Persian and Turkic.
In Georgia especially, it’s so refreshing to see Armenians and Azerbaijanis come together so easily without problems — including even during the war.
Basically, the similarities drew them together, and continue to do so.
It was a refreshing experience to see Armenians and Azeris drink tea at the Armenian-run Azeri tea house in Tbilisi, for example.
Or hear ethnic Armenians speak Azerbaijani and ethnic Azeris speak Armenian in Tbilisi, Marneuli and a few villages in the area which both co-exist in.
Tsopi is but one example:
And just one last point, Yervand, it’s precisely because of the subjective nationalist position the media takes in the region that means new/social media allows others to make their voices heard.
Yes, until recently, most of the online voices were nationalist and bigoted in both Armenia, Azerbaijan and the Diaspora, but that’s now thankfully changing…
And thanks to new and social media, and especially Facebook. :)
Onnik, you’re elevating and confusing this interaction for something it really is not: a rapprochement among two peoples who were once enemies but have now come to terms with their past and are willing to get along. Just to take the example of Russia, in the face of adversity, the peoples from the Caucasus will band together for the sake of convenience against the skinheads or for financial stability but once the danger subsides for a moment, the acrimonious relationship will certainly return.
I lived in Yerevan for 16 years of my life and have returned to Armenia several times, and still clearly remember the events leading up the USSR’s break up and what a sham the “friendship of the peoples” slogan really was. Armenians would send their dance group to Baku and the Azeris would clap and say “oh, look splendid they dance”; the Azeris would send their dance group to Yerevan and the Armenians would applaud and say “oh, national differences are of no consequence to us in this day and age”; and when both peoples traveled to Tbilisi, the Georgians would say “hurray” for the friendship of the peoples. At the market in Yerevan, the Armenians would always buy from the Azeri farmers because they sold their goods at a lower price. And then Sumgait happened, and then Kirovabad, and then Baku and so on and so on until we realized that this phony friendship we had had was fictitious and was a result of Russia’s attempts to keep the lid on nationalism.
You cannot possibly compare the Armenian media with the propaganda that is spewed out in Azerbaijan. While commentators in Armenia may present themselves as slightly less than neutral, they don’t have to resort to drawing racist caricatures of Armenians and showering them 24/7 to the entire populace. What do you think the post-Soviet Azeri generation thinks about Armenians after he is bombarded by the state-run news and political analysts that tell him that Armenians raped, pillaged, destroyed, and are still occupying “20%” of their territory? I have met so many of them in my travels that I have lost track of the number of arguments I have had with them as they rehash the nonsense that all Armenians migrated to the Caucasus in the 19th c. and that the khachkars in Karabakh belong to their cultural forefathers.
Gurgen Margaryan paid with his life for all the hatred the Azerbaijani government inculcated to its citizens and the khachkars and tombstones in Nakhichevan were a result of the Azerbaijanis’ inability to reconcile with the fact that the Armenians existed on their current territory centuries earlier. Did the Azerbaijani government or average Azeris apologize for this? Quite the contrary, they either ignored it or justified it and told their new generation to look up to “heroes” like Ramil Safarov for inspiration on how to be a good citizen.
Yes, nationalism has been the bugbear of the Caucasus for over a century now but it’s irresponsible and historically misleading to claim that both sides somehow share equal guilt by inserting a level of equivocalness by saying, “yes, tragically both sides committed massacres in the past but let’s not dwell on it for too long”. Armenians have a more than a legitimate case for redress and justice, not just with Turkey, but with Azerbaijan as well, and all this supposed dialogue that is taking place knows that it is a sham – the Turks, the Azeris, the Abkhaz, the Georgians, with perhaps the exception of the gullible Armenians who are unfortunately far too willing to give everyone another chance, only to be screwed over by them in the end.
A few Armenians and Azerbaijanis speaking each others’ languages does not speak a single thing about the restitution of cultural harmony: if and when Azerbaijan will restart hostilities, each people is going to look toward their own countries, and people who were once neighbors and friends are going to be more than willing to burn all their bridges and turn on them. It may come off as a harsh indictment of the relations of the people in the Caucasus but history for us Armenians has taught us that complacency and overly-optimistic thinking have been two of our worst enemies.
Yervand, there is a difference between the position taken by the Azerbaijani government and its people, although yes, the level of hatred and animosity is much stronger there, and in many ways reminds of that from nationalists in the Armenian Diaspora re. Turks and Turkey. Whether you agree with such a notion or not, it relates to the psychology of being a “victim.”
In terms of Armenians and Azerbaijanis, it is not “a few,” it is quite a lot actually, and especially in Georgia and Russia. Now, should it be more? Yes, it should, but you’re missing the point, I think. Is the negative propaganda on both sides an obstacle to peace? Yes, it is, which is why many consider the media in Armenia and Azerbaijan has failed to do its job.
If anything it has reinforced divisions and negative stereotypes as well as a subjective view of history and the chronology of events leading up to the Karabakh conflict. Azerbaijanis don’t speak about the anti-Armenian pogroms leading up to Black January, for example, while Armenians don’t speak about the massacre of Azerbaijanis and vice-versa.
Meanwhile, when one incident such as Gurgen Margaryan occurs, propagandists paint the whole nation with the same image yet not when many more ethnic Azeris or Armenians actually live in peace side-by-side with each other. And Armenians certainly don’t use the same logic when it comes to the dozens and dozens of Armenians murdered by Russian nationalists in Moscow.
So, the point of what Arzu and I still rings true. In order to resolve this conflict there needs to be a counter to the often nationalist and propagandist media in both countries. And on that, I personally consider that it has been nationalists on all sides that have resulted in ethnic conflict and not the “complacency and overly-optimistic thinking” you talk of.
Still, we can agree to disagree, and in any case hope that there will not be a new war in 5 years if the situation does not change and genuine initiatives in the area of conflict management, transformation, and eventual resolution do not occur before it’s too late.