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.