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 the final part three of the series, originally published yesterday in Azerbaijani, translated or using the original texts in English. It followed the first two parts already republished in English on Global Voices Online here and here.
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.
United we stand
When two youth activists Emin Milli and Adnan Hajizada were arrested last summer, I realized something unique. While Emin and Adnan were from Azerbaijan, there was a wide support network that formed around them, including from Armenia. Even before the news of their arrest was covered by mainstream media, many blogs in both Armenia and Azerbaijan were already writing constant updates regarding the incident and updating their Twitter and Facebook statuses. It was an incredible feeling to see total strangers ask questions, post updates and provide moral support not only from across the border, but via social networks.
I was fortunate enough to see the passion — and sorrow — in the eyes of Armenian youth when talking about this incident during a training. They shared our frustration and disappointment, and it was sincere.
And this is how we are: ‘us’ Azerbaijanis and ‘them’ Armenians, but in essence we all are the same. We listen to similar pop or indie music, watch the same videos, share the same experience of studying abroad, and hopes for a better future.
I remember talking to my first Armenian friend whom I met during my exchange year in the US. We liked the same music, bands, and read similar books. My next encounter was several years later in grad school, where yet again we had so many similarities.
Years later, I even had the opportunity to work with an Armenian journalist, Onnik, and once again, we shared one very important value in common – breaking stereotypes through use of new social media such as blogs, Facebook and Twitter.
Onnik Krikorian is the Caucasus regional editor of Global Voices Online as well as a freelance journalist and photojournalist based in Yerevan, Armenia.
A friend from Baku visiting Tbilisi rang me last night. It was a shock and not least because I'm usually used to speaking to her over Skype. It was a reality not lost on her too. “One day,” she said, “I hope to be able to ring you from my own home.” In fact, it was strange. Yes, it was her voice, but it was also somehow different speaking to her, like most people do, on a phone.
Skype is a wonderful tool which has opened up many possibilities, but it's a way to circumvent restrictions on communication rather than to finally remove them once and for all. The same is true with Facebook, blogs and Twitter. True, without them, I wouldn't be in touch with so many people in Azerbaijan, but it’s also not quite the same as that personal touch.
Of course, that too is happening when it can, but today I also heard another story from an Armenian friend in Yerevan. She's also in touch with people in Azerbaijan, meets with them when the opportunity arises, and even has a boyfriend in Baku. However, word travels, and recently some questions were asked in semi-official circles here.
Not by the government, but by those with enough prejudice and intolerance to disrupt her life if they really wanted to. Not surprisingly, she's worried, although she shouldn't have to be.
There is no law that prohibits citizens of Armenia from being in touch with those in Azerbaijan, and technically war was never declared between the two countries anyway. Regardless, in most democracies, much of society understands that it is governments that go to war and not people, who are sometimes merely cannon fodder and often simply a means to an end.
In a sense, this is why there has been so much negative propaganda perpetuated through official channels as well as by the local media. Political forces on all sides of the divide in both countries can easily manipulate people this way. It's also why social media has changed the ball game. Of course, it's also not without risks.
Indeed, matters such as online privacy and personal security need to be taken far more seriously by many people who have not only managed to use sites such as Facebook to their fullest, but have also become somewhat complacent. Let anyone on your Facebook page and you're effectively laying open not only yourself, but also many others, to prying eyes.
It’s why I’m incredibly careful with my own, although I have over 600 people there, but something else struck me while looking for ideas for today’s final entry. Not only are some Armenians and Azerbaijanis openly interacting there, but some are also doing the same on the pages of others from the “opposing side.”
Without any hostility or “flame wars,” I have to say, there really wasn't much to report at all. Instead, it was almost as if the whole region was at peace with itself.
Of course it's not, and the reality is far from the ideal of my own personal “Virtual Caucasus.” Moreover, we all know the risks, but have chosen to brush them aside. If positive change is to occur and if a genuine environment for peaceful coexistence is to emerge, it has to start first with people. And that is what I truly believe social media can help achieve.
Indeed, seemingly the impossible has already happened, and as a result of these new tools more so than the media, much of civil society, and certainly not the government.
In fact, even this series for BBC Azeri is the result of social media and also why I'm now sitting in Yerevan looking forward to meeting up with many friends from Azerbaijan, Georgia and elsewhere next month in Tbilisi. Suddenly, the Caucasus has become so much richer and diverse as a result. More importantly, there is hope.
It's what Arzu and I, as well as other friends and colleagues in Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia, have been striving to achieve all year. It's also why I think a fitting end to this series should be link to it. So, if you'd like to see the potential of new and social media in overcoming negative stereotypes and bringing people together, why not check out the following?
Incidentally, although most of the material is in English, some of it is also in Azerbaijani, again thanks to social media. While we might talk about one small set of tools, there are many others too, some of which allow collaborative translation. Indeed, volunteers translated parts of this material into many other languages, as did my sevgili in Baku.
Oh, didn't I mention? We met first through Facebook.
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.