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Armenia-Azerbaijan: Backseat musical musings… and ethnic conflict

This post is part of our special coverage Caucasus Conflict Voices.

With the broadcast media heavily controlled in both Armenia and Azerbaijan there are few avenues left for independent journalists to use to disseminate alternative information and reports. This is especially true when it comes to the still unresolved conflict over the disputed territory of Nagorno Karabakh.

However, as Internet penetration increases in the region, and as costs come down and connection speeds slowly improve, the one obvious medium is online. Indeed, with organizations such as Conciliation Resources and Internews uploading video reports to YouTube and Vimeo, it is no surprise to discover others doing the same.

The latest example of this comes from the Eurasia Partnership Foundation as part of its Unbiased Media Coverage of Armenia-Azerbaijan Relations project with an innovative approach to raising awareness of the negative stereotypes in play on both sides of the 1994 ceasefire line.

Shared 211 times on Facebook and viewed over 2,600 times in just a few days at time of writing, that might not sound a lot for many countries, but it is quite successful in the context of Armenia and Azerbaijan, especially with the prevailing mood one of ignoring such issues.

Пассажир from eurasiaam on Vimeo.

Unfortunately, the video is only available in Armenian and Azerbaijani with Russian subtitles so Global Voices asked bloggers from both countries to comment instead. In the first, ethnic Armenian blogger Ianyan introduces the concept behind the short film.

While most of us don’t expect political and cultural discussion when we pull over a taxi cab to get to where we need to go, a handful of Armenians and Azeris got just that thanks to a innovative social experiment called “The Passenger.”

A documentary created by Armenian journalist Christina Vardanyan and Azeri journalist Framana Nabieva, the film follows two taxi drivers – one in Yerevan and one in Baku who discreetly play music from their neighboring country, much to the general dismay of the passengers on both sides.

[…]

The discussion then shifts to the question of relations with the other side: is peace ever possible? Armenian participants’ responses are not unexpected, however a few are noteworthy. A younger passenger expresses hope in relations by saying that the only way to break the cycle of bigotry and hate begins with parents raising children to see everyone on the other side as equal. At least two passengers say that the negative feelings are mutual. One man says the most important thing is that we’re all human.

The Armenian Unzipped liked the project too, although noted that the responses from unsuspecting passengers in Yerevan and Baku were not unexpected.

I can’t say that opinions expressed from both sides were surprising. They were mainly based on cliches and due to the lack of direct communication between Azeris and Armenians following Karabakh war. That’s the reason why social networks, blogs or offline meetings are so important, although they could be used for inciting hatred too.

The blog also considered that there were too few responses from the Azerbaijani side, something that another Armenian blog, Global Chaos, also noted. Nevertheless, it also appreciated the initiative.

This is brilliant: a great illustration of the fact that attitudes and thoughts are very similar, if not the same, on both sides. […]

[…]

What struck me most was the painfully obvious awareness on both sides that the attitudes and stereotypes are primarily due to socialization, official government propaganda (yes, I won't shy away from using that term here), and the effects of the media. […] Most of the younger “participants” pointed out that they have never interacted with representatives from the other side…

And that's the core of the problem – the lack of knowledge of and about “the other”. Crossing the physical and official state boundaries might be impossible for most people at the moment; and yet, modern information and communication technology can help create the virtual space where stereotypes and prejudices can be overcome, and where dialogue might – just might – be possible.

Reaction on Facebook was also similar, with most comments applauding the film. Even so, some admitted that the general negative view each side holds of the other was disappointing. One of those was Marine Ejuryan, an Armenian student with experience of cross-border peace-building initiatives.

The same sentiment was expressed by the Azerbaijani Flying Carpets and Broken Pipelines which set the responses in the context of situation in both countries.

My first impressions: it made me feel sad, because watching it, whether you want it or not, the reality hits you. While, many young people from both sides are engaged in joint projects, conversations, meetings and initiatives- working together to break the walls of long- lasting mistrust- still, many if not majority on both sides, think of the other as “an enemy”.

The movie also shows, how little the two sides know of each other, something that's been generated as a result of long and thus as a result deeply embedded stereotypes.

In another guest post on my own blog, Reader in Azerbaijan, agrees.

Both societies have become mostly driven by stereotypes, clichés and opinionated attitudes towards those neither have met or communicated with. This is the “accomplishment” of the traditional media which has done nothing but spread misinformation, ignite hatred and instill bias.

[…]

That said, there is also another reality not shown by this video. Another smaller reality behind the scenes. With alternative voices and social media bypassing biased traditional media to overcome stereotypes, a new generation is starting to emerge.

Tolerant and open, and willing to engage in open communication and dialogue, these are people who have been lucky and smart enough to realize that they all share common values and culture.

They are people who do not confine their minds to a dubious history, state borders and ethnicity. Indeed, we are so diverse and this diversity can enrich us. We are so similar and this similarity can connect us. Even though our languages differ.

Nevertheless, the video succeeded in encouraging discussion and debate and almost everyone agreed that it was an experiment which should be expanded upon. Global Voices will continue to monitor developments in the use of new and social media in the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict. A special coverage page is available here.

This post is part of our special coverage Caucasus Conflict Voices.

Global Voices would like to thank Mika Artyan, Liana Aghajanian, Yelena Osipova, Arzu Geybullayeva and Aygun Janmammadova for taking the time to post their responses to the Eurasia Partnership Foundation video specially for this entry.

13 comments

  • It would have been great to know what bloggers based in Armenia had to say about the video, because while Armenian Diaspora based bloggers like Unzipped and Ianyan are highly respected and popular bloggers, they don’t necessarily reflect the opinions prevailing in the Armenian society.

    Onnik, too bad you didn’t ask me – I could have translated some extracts about the responses we got in Armenian blogs.

    I specifically didn’t post anything on this video, because I’m trying to get the responses translated into English and subtitle the video.

  • Artur, until last week Marine Ejuryan was based in Armenia. Mika Artyan and Yelena Osipova are also Armenian citizens although one is studying abroad and the other lives there.

    Anyway, I also sent out an alert re. compiling this post on Friday and Saturday on Twitter so others following could have contacted me re. inclusion.

    On the other hand, as you’re a Global Voices author feel free to round up reaction in Armenia. To be honest, didn’t see any shared on Facebook so saw no locally-based blogger reaction materialize.

    Did take a look at the main blogs including yours, Kornelij, Blansh’s and even Pigh’s, though, and anyway contacted those bloggers who have covered regional cooperation objectively in the past.

    Still, maybe post some links here in the comments section of those blogs which did remark on it for now as nothing appeared on my Facebook feed or Twitter (including yours).

    However, by all means round something up, especially as it’s more likely to be seen by others, and as it will be translated into Russian, by people in Azerbaijan, for example.

    Talking of translation, I do wish people would start using DotSub for videos and creating communities of volunteers. This worked incredibly well for my interview with Parvana Persiani.

    http://dotsub.com/view/4fe42f66-8f9b-42f3-85de-69e92c748374

    Nine other languages, in fact…

  • reader

    thanks for this round-up. great initiative by EPF. hope there will be more cooperation between Armenians and Azeris.

    @Observer. after seeing your comment i visited your blog and find some interesting posts. but unfortunately, nothing on this video.

    cheers from Azerbaijan.

  • […] Unzipped and Ianyan are highly respected and popular bloggers, they don’t necessarily reflect the opinions prevailing in the Armenian society.

    Oh, but on this, not one blogger approached for this entry says their view is representative of society in Armenia and Azerbaijan. In fact, it laments the fact that they’re not.

    So that is more than made clear (and again, nothing else was shared on Facebook and Twitter if it existed).

    Moreover, those prevailing attitudes are represented in the video which is posted and described so that non-Armenian, non-Azerbaijani and non-Russian readers can get a sense of that unfortunate reality.

    At the same time, what all the bloggers quoted represent, aside from their significance, is a track record of commenting on Armenia-Azerbaijan reconciliation and having a valuable and objective approach to this.

    In fact, they represent something incredibly vital for this region and both countries — an alternative opinion, well reasoned and explained, free from the negative stereotypes and bias spread by most of the traditional media.

    And that, unfortunately, is the prevailing mindset in Armenia and Azerbaijan, as shown by the video and as mentioned and acknowledged by the bloggers in question.

    And that is also what the Eurasia Partnership Foundation is seeking to do, and something that these bloggers did, even noting the unfortunate reality on the ground despite their own hopes and personal opinions on the matter.

    Once again I would like to thank all those involved for thinking differently and setting an environment more conducive to actual discussion and debate on a conflict that has gone on for two decades.

    When that happens, perhaps, there might yet be a chance for its peaceful resolution. Like I said, though, feel free to post any links you’ve managed to find. Didn’t see anything shared on Facebook or Twitter and I’m following many local bloggers.

  • Anyway, doesn’t seem as though there was any blogger reaction. Just three posts, two of which are just posting the video so not possible to include in this roundup.

    http://kamurj.blogspot.com/2010/09/blog-post_07.html
    http://bekaisa.livejournal.com/493063.html

    However, Observer did just send me a link to his own post along with the two above so am quoting it below. Didn’t appear on my Facebook or Twitter hence why now.

    Clearly, the film had an objective of bringing in the “moderate” voices and not perpetuate nationalist feelings. Nevertheless, some of anti-Armenian and anti-Azerbaijani stuff came through the comments of the random passengers, who spoke to the taxi driver’s in Yerevan and Baku, while listening to the music of the enemy and being shot by a hidden camera. This is not necissarily bad, because it made the film more real and true to life.

    Interestingly, my cognition automatically neglected what the Armenians in the film had to say about Azeris, but two things an Azeri girl and an Azeri guy said, stuck in my mind.

    “The people who create such music cannot be bad,” the Azeri girl said.

    “Armenia is a treacherous and cowardly country,” the Azeri guy said.

    What an amazing range of opinions!

    http://ditord.blogspot.com/2010/09/passenger-armenian-azerbaijani-cross.html

    There is still no sign of any other blogger reaction to the video, but if any does appear please post some links. Wish there was more, though…

    • Thanks for posting that, Onnik.

    • I guess most Armenian bloggers choose to ignore the issue. I can recall at least 3 recent sociological surveys, which indicate, that the resolution of Karabakh issue is not seen as a priority by the Armenian society, to which bloggers are merely a reflection.

      This is one of the reasons why more active work is necessary especially in Armenia, to encourage people to think more about the issue.

      • Yes, for sure, although I was somehow pleasantly surprised how relatively popular this video became compared to others on Karabakh and/or Armenian-Azerbaijani relations by Eurasia Foundation and Internews/Conciliation Resources.

        The material from the latter’s Dialogue through Film is really good, but didn’t strike a chord with many. Having ordinary citizens in the back of a taxi cab did, however — or at least to some extent.

        Was shared a lot on Facebook which was really good although yes, in the scheme of things, interest is remains really very small. On the other hand, that’s also something to hopefully change. Let’s see…

      • All that said, however, it’s more than that, I think. Bloggers are small in number compared to, say, Facebook users and I know many, many moderate voices who will use that medium to discuss such things. Some simply don’t have the time or inclination to set up blogs.

        In fact, it’s interesting to note that while we can count 6 blog posts (8 if you include just posting the video), there are now 222 shares on Facebook with 260 Likes and 277 comments so there is actually interest there (although small, but more than from what still remains a largely polarized blogosphere).

        In fact, I’d argue that as elsewhere blogs have lost much of their importance and are not the only game in town as they once were. Facebook has become a primary way of discovering, digesting and discussing news and information for many people, something which The Economist recently picked up on.

        Blogs are a confection of several things that do not necessarily have to go together: easy-to-use publishing tools, reverse-chronological ordering, a breezy writing style and the ability to comment. But for maintaining an online journal or sharing links and photos with friends, services such as Facebook and Twitter (which broadcasts short messages) are quicker and simpler.

        http://www.economist.com/node/16432794?story_id=16432794

        Certainly, most of the Armenian-Azerbaijan communication I’m seeing is actually happening through other tools and mediums, and especially Facebook. Incidentally, the point about actual outreach is also important, as The Economist also highlighted re. my own work in this area:

        Onnik Krikorian […] couldn’t go to Azerbaijan and had difficulty establishing any online contact with the country until he went to a conference in Tbilisi in 2008 and met four Azeri bloggers. They gave him their cards, and he found them on Facebook. […] Mr Krikorian has since found Facebook to be an ideal platform to build ties. Those first four contacts made it easier for other Azeris to link up with him.

        But the internet is not magic; it is a tool. Anyone who wants to use it to bring nations closer together has to show initiative, and be ready to travel physically as well as virtually. As with the telegraph before it—also hailed as a tool of peace—the internet does nothing on its own.

        http://www.economist.com/node/16943885?story_id=16943885

        Of course, the situation is always changing, and I’m sure it will some more by the time we understand what’s happening at present. It’s why I’ve advocated for a holistic approach that also is adaptable and can be evolved. And I’m still an advocate of blogs, but they are less important than they were.

        However, if before blogs could be perceived as the preserve of a semi-elite computer-literate minority, perhaps social networking sites, with similar capabilities as blogs albeit in a sometimes closed environment, is better suited to actual dialogue, discussion and confidence-building.

        True, Facebook groups can be hell-holes full of nationalist rhetoric or more usually in the case of Armenia-Azerbaijan inaction and silence. However, there is much going on via personal Facebook pages as well as through private message threads with multiple recipients.

        Personally I think both mediums are necessary, along with any others that will undoubtedly emerge over the next few years.

  • We would be thrilled to have you, or any other Global Voices bloggers, use dotSUB to help the world better understand the videos you are using in your reports.

    Feel free to contact us directly with any questions.

    We love your reporting.

    Michael Smolens, Founder
    dotSUB – michael@dotsub.com

    • Michael,

      Thanks for the comment. Yes, I like the idea of DotSub and do push it as an alternative for video sharing sites. Love the subtitling interface and the general idea. Thanks to David Sasaki for highlighting its existence.

      Cheers,
      Onnik

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