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Armenia: Nationalist Threats Against Local Activist

Just weeks after one example of censorship in Armenia comes another, but while Hovhannes Ishkhanyan spoke out against hazing and human rights abuses in the military, this time the target is local activist Georgi Vanyan. One of the few to openly call for peace and regional integration in the conflict-riven South Caucasus, Vanyan has been targeted before.

In 2007, for example, a small group of nationalist bloggers momentarily disrupted an event aimed at overcoming the image of the enemy among pupils at a local school, and in 2010 death threats were made against Vanyan alongside pressure applied on venue owners to prevent the screening of Azerbaijani films in Yerevan, the Armenian capital.

Plans to do the same this week appear to have met a similar fate.

@unzippedblog: After previous unsuccessful attempt, #Azerbaijan films festival planned in #Armenia second town #Gyumri 12 April

@unzippedblog: Let's hope we will not witness similar hysteria as was last time with attempt re #Azerbaijan films festival in #Armenia

A Facebook event ostensibly organized to protest the festival instead became a space through which to personally attack and vilify the activist as well as to promote hate-speech. Despite reporting the page to Facebook, however, it was not removed. Death threats have also reportedly been made against Vanyan by telephone.

@unzippedblog: …and he we are. Already anti- #Azerbaijan film festival FB page set up full of hatred & with open calls at life of organiser #Armenia

Yet, even with much of the local media also involved in the campaign against Vanyan, a demonstration held yesterday to prevent the festival from going ahead failed to attract a significant crowd. The media also reported that 50 people blockaded the premises of the Asparez Journalists Club where the event was due to be held.

However, as Unzipped implies, it wasn't the size that mattered.

@unzippedblog: At last, disgraced mayor of #Gyumri found his place, heading nationalist parade against #Azerbaijan film festival #bizarre #Armenia

@unzippedblog: Organiser of #Azerbaijan film fest. in #Armenia says “terror campaign” against him,blames police inaction,cancels fest. as safety at stake

A video report from Radio Free Europe's Yerevan Bureau shows the Mayor leading the demonstration against Vanyan. The signs taped on protestor's backs read “No Azerbaijani Film Festival.”

In an attempt to defuse tensions, Vanyan met with critics although video posted on YouTube seems to indicate there was little opportunity for discussion:

The nationalist E-media site also uploaded a video of Vanyan being assaulted outside the festival venue, gleefully posting a screen grab on its Facebook page:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=HcPaS90LkWM

Publicly announcing the latest cancellation on his own page, Vanyan also specifically accused Gyumri's controversial and notorious Mayor of organizing the campaign against him.

[…]

Основываясь на видеоматериалах и репортажах армянских СМИ, освещающих митинг протеста против проведения Фестиваля азербайджанских фильмов, и принимая во внимание свидетельства очевидцев, заявляем, что за создание искусственной напряженности вокруг фестиваля, за возможные провокации и проявления насилия в отношении организаторов и участников фестиваля, намеченного на 12 апреля, ответственность несет лично мэр города Гюмри Вардан Гукасян, под руководством которого осуществляется кампания пропаганды террора.

[…]

After examining the video materials and footage by the Armenian media which covered the meeting protesting against the Azerbaijani film festival, and considering eye witness accounts, we state that Vardan Ghukasyan, the mayor of Gyumri, under whose auspices propaganda of terror is implemented, is personally responsible for the artificially created tension around the festival as well as possible provocations and violence against the organizers and participants of the festival scheduled for April 12.

Armenia and Azerbaijan remain locked in a bitter stalemate over the disputed territory of Nagorno Karabakh and tensions remain high since a ceasefire agreement was signed in 1994. Over 25,000 people died and a million forced to flee their homes in the fighting that took place and the International Crisis Group early last year warned of the danger of a new ‘accidental war.’

Some Facebook users, including both Armenians and Azerbaijanis, considered the latest cancellation in that context.

International mediators as well as organizations involved in cross-border peacebuilding initiatives believe Track II diplomacy and cultural projects are sorely needed to bring the two sides closer together, but as this week demonstrated, as has even food in the past, the task is an uphill struggle.

In 2010, Unzipped commented on Vanyan's initiative in a post the blogger shared again recently:

I strongly believe that art, and culture, do not recognise borders. Even if countries are at the state of war. Art, and films, are the best way for ordinary people to get to know each other better, to break the ice, even or especially in case of closed borders. There is also internet, of course, and meetings outside the national borders.

I have no problem if there are people who protest the idea or the fact of the festival. It’s their right. But do it in a (at least remotely) civilised way, without engaging the lowest possible denominator of nationalist/racist crap, personal attacks and threats to individuals. There is a fine line when freedom of speech gets transformed into something that should be considered within the frames of legal/criminal code. Many have already crossed that line.

Despite the threats and censorship in Gyumri, however, Vanyan later reported on Facebook [ru] that the films were eventually screened from DVD in a restaurant outside the city limits. He also plans to show the films in Armenia's third largest city of Vanadzor on 17 April.

Georgi Vanyan at one of his cross-border peace building events © Onnik Krikorian 2011

Georgi Vanyan at one of his cross-border peace building events © Onnik Krikorian 2011

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