As popular uprisings spread through the Middle East and North Africa in 2011, the Arab Spring also tried to take root in the South Caucasus. However, while opposition forces in the region sought to capitalize on the protests, especially hoping to benefit from international media interest in ‘Facebook Revolutions,’ they failed to achieve similar results.
In Armenia, for example, the low use of social media in political activism was particularly evident. With the number of Facebook users standing at just 123,000 at the time, few signed up for the ‘Armenian Revolution of Reform’ although, as testimony to the importance of traditional grassroots political activity, around 10,000 people did turn out to protest.
At the same time, in neighboring Azerbaijan, where the use of social media is arguably more evolved than in Armenia despite a slightly lower Facebook penetration rate, thousands signed up for protest actions planned for March. Yet, despite that declared intention to attend, barely more than a hundred youth actually took to the streets and found themselves easily dispersed or detained by police.
Ironically, Facebook and Twitter were better used to report on those detentions in the Azerbaijani capital, and the same was true the following day when another protest action was staged by a traditional opposition party.
There was also criticism of the protests from some bloggers, although demonstrations still continued the following month. By May, however, attention had already turned to Eurovision. With the annual musical competition, launched in Europe in the 1950s, no stranger to controversy in the Caucasus, the event was to become even more interesting when Azerbaijan unexpectedly won.
And, as bloggers turned their attention towards staging the competition in Baku later this year, some activists naturally used the opportunity to raise other more sensitive issues. One of those was the continued incarceration of journalist and prisoner of conscience Eynulla Fatullayev, with Amnesty International especially making renewed calls for his release.
The UK's veteran Channel 4 anchorman, Jon Snow, led the campaign launched on Twitter, and two days later the journalist was pardoned and released. However, some online media observers such as Global Voices co-founder Ethan Zuckerman questioned whether the micro-blogging site had played as significant a role as it first might have seemed.
Indeed, despite Fatullayev's release, the year was also marked by the arrest of other activists in Azerbaijan such as Bakhtiyar Hajiyev and Jabbar Savalan, allegedly on trumped-up politically motivated charges, although the latter was pardoned just before the end of December.
Meanwhile, in neighboring Georgia, Facebook resulted in the dismissal of a policeman identified through the social media site after the dispersal of striking veterans from the South Ossetia and Abkhazia conflicts. Even so, social media was perhaps better known for ridiculing opposition protesters in May or discussing the visit to Tbilisi by Sharon Stone and the appearance of a Georgian road sign in a Beyoncé video.
But, with more than 700,000 Facebook users in the country, that's not to say there wasn't any political engagement online with the Georgian government particularly active in this area. In fact, with parliamentary elections scheduled for Armenia and Georgia this year and presidential elections in all three countries in 2013, the use of social media will likely become more important as citizens become more engaged.
In Armenia, for example, Facebook has been used to petition the capital's municipality to end the killing of stray dogs and to call for the dismissal of a controversial regional governor. Moreover, while these were genuine grassroots initiatives, there also continues to be substantial funding from the US Government and other international donors, although it remains to be seen to what extent such projects will succeed.
The first test of that will likely be the May parliamentary elections in Armenia, with Georgia following in the Autumn or possibly earlier, so stay up-to-date with the latest developments on Twitter at @gvcaucasus.
Շնորհավոր Նոր Տարի. Yeni İliniz Mübarək. გილოცავთ ახალ წელს. С Новым Годом. Happy New Year.