Twitter Diplomacy

A week before Azerbaijani youth activists and video bloggers Adnan Hajizade and Emin Milli were arrested in July in Baku, an Armenian hundreds of kilometers away in Yerevan posted a YouTube video on his Facebook page.

The video, by Hajizade, introduced subscribers of the young Azerbaijani activist’s online video channel to the now-vacant Armenian church in Azerbaijan’s capital. The message was simple. It was a virtual hand of friendship extended across a closed border and a 15-year-old cease-fire line.

For Armenian Facebook users, this was their first exposure to an image of the “enemy” at odds with that usually portrayed in local media. With a peaceful resolution to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict seemingly as elusive as ever, Armenians and Azerbaijanis are unable to visit each other’s country or communicate through traditional means such as telephone or mail. Media in both countries frequently self-censor or fall back on government propaganda when it comes to reporting on the other nation.
The resulting stereotypes are not easily dislodged, even among those critical of their governments. In a comment on her compatriot’s Facebook page, one Armenian opposition activist expressed doubt that there are others in Azerbaijan as tolerant and progressive as Hajizade. A civil society organizer suspected Baku had simply invented a dissident youth movement to score points with the Council of Europe.

But when Hajizade and Milli were detained for their other activities, other Armenians discovered a whole network of young Azerbaijanis who leaped to the bloggers’ defense on Facebook, Twitter, and other online platforms. Their skillful use of social media attracted international press attention to the case.

And, via Facebook, Azerbaijani activists learned that many of their Armenian counterparts supported the campaign for Hajizade and Milli’s release – not because the arrests made the Baku government look bad, but out of genuine concern.

In Azerbaijan and Armenia, many journalists have effectively become combatants in an information war of attrition. Media bias in the two countries creates a “negative context” in the public mind that “hinders dialogue and mutual understanding,” the Caucasus Resource Research Center stated last year in a report for the Eurasia Partnership Foundation. “Without more accurate and unbiased information ... free of negative rhetoric and stereotypes, Armenians and Azerbaijanis will continue to see themselves as enemies without any common ground.”

In blogs and on social platforms, however, youth in both countries are tentatively reaching out and breaching the information blockade. Those who until recently contacted one another only in secret are now communicating more openly, attracting others into their ranks.

“These new tools can be used to foment violence or to foster peace,” Ivan Sigal, executive director of the blog aggregation site Global Voices Online and a former researcher on citizen media at the U.S. Institute of Peace, wrote in a 2009 paper on digital media in conflict-prone societies. “[I]t is possible to build communication systems that encourage dialogue and nonviolent political solutions.”

In the past year, civil society groups that regularly convene third-country meetings between Armenians and Azerbaijanis have started taking note of what is happening online. (This author, for example, was approached by two such organizations for Azerbaijani contacts in online activist circles.) The open nature of the Internet makes it an increasingly vital tool for identifying new participants in civil society activities.

But two high-level diplomatic sources told me such groups have not done enough to expand their networks in Armenia and Azerbaijan. And critics in the social-media sphere say traditional civil society groups remain as closed as ever, focused on maintaining a “monopoly on problems,” as Slovene attorney and activist Primoz Sporar put it in a 2008 essay for the Trust for Civil Society in Central and Eastern Europe.

In the South Caucasus, “a significant amount of civil society work ... reinforces status quo policies where governments profit from war and exacerbate cultural differences to their advantage,” says Micael Bogar, a former Peace Corps volunteer in the region, now a projects manager at American University’s Center for Social Media. “New media tools, with their powerful and cheap ability to communicate across borders, threaten [their] wasteful practices,” she adds, and thus go largely unexplored by more traditional groups.

Bogar cites the cross-border Hajizade/Mills campaign and a U.S. project to bring Armenian and Azerbaijani teenagers together online as success stories. But access to the new tools remains an issue. Internet penetration and connection speeds are still low in the region, particularly in Armenia.

“While there is an elite element within civil society with access, but no interest, there is an even larger pool of citizens within the South Caucasus who may have the desire to work towards peace but lack any real long-term ability to use these tools towards that end,” Bogar says.

The International Research and Exchanges Board, a U.S. nonprofit, has identified the inability of local journalists to easily check facts as a major obstacle to media development in Armenia and Azerbaijan. A Caucasus Resource Research Center study recommends that the Millennium Challenges Account – a U.S. aid agency active in Armenia and Georgia, among other countries – consider funding development of high-speed Internet and the spread of Web 2.0 and mobile Internet technologies to open opportunities for civil society initiatives.

But even existing tools and information infrastructure offer willing journalists and activists accessible, low-cost ways to pierce the information wall – using Skype or other online chat programs to communicate directly with one another, for example, rather than relying on government or media boilerplate.

Interaction on Facebook, Twitter, and other social sites sets examples of Armenians and Azerbaijanis making and maintaining normal, open contact, and allows participants in conferences and other initiatives to get in touch before physically meeting and stay connected long after their brief real-world encounters, something that rarely happens now. Established blogs such as Armenian-American journalist Liana Aghajanyan’s Ianyan and Baku-based regional analyst Arzu Geybullayeva’s Flying Carpets and Broken Pipelines foster further cross-cultural communication.

True, such small-scale outreach represents a drop in the ocean of Azerbaijani-Armenian hostility now. But as Internet penetration increases, bringing costs down and connection speeds up, alternative routes for delivering information will grow – offering more chances for alternative voices to find purchase, narrowing the space for partisan disinformation in the mainstream media, and creating fertile ground for genuine dialogue and an exchange of reliable, factual information.

Onnik Krikorian is a freelance photojournalist and writer in Yerevan. He is also the Caucasus region editor for Global Voices Online and writes from Armenia for the Frontline Club. Funding for this project, “Overcoming Negative Stereotypes in the South Caucasus,” was provided by the Czech Foreign Ministry as part of the Czech Republic's Transition Promotion Program and by the British Embassy in Yerevan.



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