photo
SHARE | PRINT | TEXT SIZE: | RSS

Social Media in Armenia-Azerbaijan Peacebuilding

By Onnik Krikorian
An ethnic Azeri girl in a mosque [© Onnik Krikorian]

When Adnan Hajizade and Emin Milli, two youth activists in Azerbaijan, were detained on politically motivated charges in July 2009, supporters naturally used social networking sites such as Facebook to campaign for their release. Spreading networks wide in order to disseminate information and updates, there were obviously risks involved, especially as activists could be monitored if privacy was compromised.

For them, however, that didn't matter. The important thing was that Facebook was crucial in the campaign to release the two men. And, as international awareness of their plight increased before their unexpected conditional release in November last year, they were probably right. Despite the inherent risks, there is no doubt that connecting people is something that Facebook excels at.

Indeed, significant progress had already been registered in another area, that of online communication and dialogue between Armenians and Azerbaijanis, months before the activists' arrest. Moreover, it was again Facebook, rather than blogs or other traditional means, which was pivotal in this respect. As a result, the online environment which exists today was unimaginable two and a half years ago.

Armenia and Azerbaijan fought a war over the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh in the early 1990s. Over 25,000 were killed and a million forced to flee their homes until a 1994 cease-fire agreement put the conflict on hold. Even so, frontline skirmishes claim the lives of dozens of conscripts each year. Traditional forms of contact have also been cut off, and it is impossible for citizens from either country to visit the other.

True, meetings between civil society activists take place in third countries, but both societies generally frown upon such events, and potential participants are sometimes reluctant to take part. A recent survey by the Caucasus Resource Research Centers (CRRC), for example, found that 70 percent of Armenians opposed friendship with Azerbaijanis, while 97 percent of Azerbaijanis felt the same way about Armenians.

Therefore, such meetings are often shrouded in secrecy, even if this limits their effectiveness in wider society. Meanwhile, even when contacts are made outside of the conflict zone, people lose touch when they return home. But, in a brave new world of Facebook and Twitter, such a situation can now be addressed, or at least to a certain extent.

However, even if civil society organizations should have been the first to introduce the use of such tools into their own peacebuilding activities, it was instead left up to individuals. Through my own personal project and work as Caucasus regional editor for Global Voices, a citizen media site established at the Berkman Center for Internet & Society, adding contacts in Azerbaijan allowed them to look into the lives of some Armenians and vice versa.

Away from the propaganda, ethnic Armenians and Azeris such as these in Tsopi, Georgia, can coexist. In Armenia and Azerbaijan, however, neither side has the opportunity to meet face-to-face. Could social media therefore provide a solution? [© Onnik Krikorian]

And while propaganda on both sides sought to convince respective populations that the other thinks only of revenge, the reality was quite different. For example, it probably comes as no surprise that many Armenians found online are not too dissimilar from their counterparts in Azerbaijan, with most rarely posting about the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, preferring to instead share links and commentary about music and films.

True, this isn't always the case, with nationalists from both sides also online. However, as Facebook is primarily "social," spreading hateful propaganda can result in users having their accounts suspended. Nevertheless, if one of the key attributes of Facebook is that it is a social networking site, some critics argue that rather than extend connections, it simply replicates those to be found in the real world. Such concerns are valid, of course, but they overlook the fact that Facebook is a tool with strengths and weaknesses determined by how it is used. It should also be evaluated in the context of fairly ethnically homogenous countries such as Armenia and Azerbaijan with no other means to communicate. Even "liking" a personal photograph or openly wishing someone a happy birthday can be revolutionary in this context.

Simply put, after a period of virtual trust building and overcoming stereotypes, a space for dialogue can finally be created. Even on a small scale, such interactions directly challenge the very basis on which isolation from each other is justified. Skype can also be considered invaluable here too, and sooner or later, networking not only spreads, but also becomes "acceptable."

Even so, such connections can eventually begin to taper off, and herein lies the problem. Although Facebook has broken down barriers between some Armenians and Azerbaijanis, those involved tend to be incredibly similar. They are perhaps already libertarian and cosmopolitan, and simply needed the tools to circumvent restrictions in place. Of course, this is still a huge success, but such people remain a minority. So, while some users on both sides now have access to information and opinions they never had before, we need to constantly monitor, assess and evolve the use of new tools in order to spread the net wider. At the time of writing, for example, there are 111,480 Facebook users in Armenia and 304,380 in Azerbaijan, while mutual connections number only a few hundred at best.

This isn't to negate the importance of Facebook, of course, as it has proven itself an indispensable tool which has achieved more open communication between Armenians and Azerbaijanis than any other medium to date. However, there is also the need to strategize its use, especially as others will eventually attempt to obstruct progress in this area. Privacy issues will therefore become key.

Onnik Krikorian is a freelance journalist and photographer of Armenian and English descent now based in Yerevan, Armenia. He has covered the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh since 1994 and is also the Caucasus regional editor for Global Voices (globalvoicesonline.org), a major international site that monitors, amplifies and curates citizen media.

TOP