Armenia: The British Ambassador's Facebook Diplomacy

While the British Ambassador to Azerbaijan recently made use of Twitter to answer questions in real time, his counterpart in Armenia, Charles Lonsdale, chose Facebook for a two-hour Q&A session to mark the completion of his term in the country. Indeed, today's online event represented an interesting case study in the potential for local political interaction online.

However, despite alarming rates of poverty, corruption and emigration, as well as significant concerns over media freedom and human rights protection, the first question asked by an ethnic Armenian outside of the former Soviet republic showed that priorities can be very different for those living or born abroad.

Because of this, perhaps, Ianyan blogger and Global Voices author Liana Aghajanian, although also based outside of Armenia, asked a question related to the often different priorities that many citizens do have inside the country.

Citing the example of the London-Armenian community, the British Ambassador responded by saying he believed that it would be wrong to consider the Diaspora a ‘homogenous bloc that has only one agenda’ although there are ‘issues such as relations with Turkey, where there are different priorities and approaches.’

That's not to say that the foreign policy agenda isn't also a priority for some in Armenia though, with one person from a think-tank set up by a former Armenian Foreign Minister attempting to link Scottish Independence with a long-running territorial dispute with Azerbaijan.

Nevertheless, as many surveys show that foreign policy is not the main priority for most citizens, Liana Aghajanian again raised some of those issues instead.

Another question, one of three from the same person, and the only ones submitted during the two-hour period as opposed to before it, again brought the subject back to Nagorno Karabakh.

Dear Mr. Ambassador. There is the perception in Armenian expert circles that Britain has a one-sided position on the Karabakh issue taking into account economic (mainly oil) interests in Azerbaijan. Is it that view justified? Can the UK take a neutral position on this issue and to develop political and economic relations with Armenia.

In all, 13 questions were asked by 7 people, illustrating the problem with social media in Armenia. Although the Armenian government claims Internet penetration stands at 47.1 percent, few believe such figures especially when recent household surveys by the Caucasus Resource Research Centers (CRRC) put it at around half that.

The results of other CRRC surveys also indicate that 67 percent of Armenians have never used the Internet at all, with only 14 percent accessing it on a daily basis. Meanwhile, according to SocialBakers, although use is increasing, Armenia still has only 242,300 Facebook users out of a population officially put at 3,262,200.

Political engagement online also remains low as opposition attempts to stage a MENA-style uprising earlier this year showed. The point was not lost on the Ambassador himself in an answer to another question from Liana Aghajanian regarding the local media landscape:

“Internet access is increasing and will change the picture over time but it's still not an option for majority of people here,” the Ambassador wrote.

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