Journalist and blogger Arzu Geybullayeva in the Azeri village of Karajala in the Republic of Georgia, 2009 (photo by the author)

Journalist and blogger Arzu Geybullayeva in the Azeri village of Karajala in the Republic of Georgia, 2009 (photo by the author)

Communication Is Possible: Armenian & Azeri Dialogue with the Aid of Social Media

by | June 24th, 2010 | 1 comments
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It was a simple tweet, a short text message sent out on the popular micro-blogging site, Twitter, but potentially very damaging indeed. “Media report: Police & NatSec detains Baku resident for chatting with Armenians in Internet forums,” it read. There was no link to the story, however, but that didn’t stop others from spreading it further. In fact, the story was not what it seemed. Yes, two Azerbaijanis had quarreled online about Armenians, but it was only when they met and started fighting that police intervened.

The tweet that triggered the author’s curiosity about his Azeri counterparts. / via the author

The tweet that triggered the author’s curiosity about his Azeri counterparts. / via the author

Nevertheless, true or not, the story did highlight the negative stereotypes in play as a result of the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the mainly Armenian-populated breakaway territory of Nagorno-Karabakh. Two Azerbaijani media outlets played up the Armenian angle more than was necessary while some Armenians believed the tweet because it met their perceptions of the ‘enemy.’ Meanwhile, the person who sent it out seemed only to reinforce his own fear of open communicating with Armenians.

Yet, what was missed was a perhaps more encouraging story. An Azeri had actually openly chastised others for their derogatory and bitter verbal attacks on Armenians. What was also unreported was that there were others ready to do the same. Indeed, not only are both groups making contact, but they’re doing so online. Borders might be closed, but blogs and social networking sites such as Facebook have crossed the cease-fire line.

Now, not only can a new generation of young Armenians and Azeris look into the lives of each other, but they can also see that they aren’t too dissimilar after all. Seemingly, the impossible has happened, but the steps taken to get there were surprisingly simple. However, before going into that, it’s probably best to start at the beginning, with my first-ever contact with Azeris over 15 years ago in Stepanakert, Karabakh.

Armenia and Azerbaijan had already signed the 1994 cease-fire agreement a few months before and a humanitarian aid flight was scheduled to take much-needed assistance to Karabakh. Journalists were allowed on board and The Independent agreed to send me with it in order to document the tentative peace. As soon as we landed in Yerevan, we were piled into an Armenian military helicopter and flown to Stepanakert.

The war had claimed 25,000 lives and forced over a million to flee their homes. When the main delegation visited patients in Stepanakert’s hospital, two other journalists and myself discovered that one floor accommodated Azeri prisoners of war and civilian hostages. Taking the opportunity to break ranks to visit them, what we discovered was amazing.

Armenian children were not only allowed on the same floor, but they were also playing with the Azeri children held along with their mothers to be exchanged for Armenians held by the other side. Not only was it impossible to tell the children apart, but they were playing without prejudice or hate, and as if the war had never happened.

Nearly 16 years later, however, not only is a lasting peace as elusive as ever, but new generations on both sides are unable to remember the time when they lived side by side together.  Perhaps it was for this reason that I traveled to Georgia in June 2008 to meet with Azeri bloggers at a regional new media event. Ominously, the groups of participants from both countries kept their distance for the most part.

I didn’t, however, and quickly moved in to take photographs of the Azeri participants as they posed with their national flag. Then, after they requested that I photograph them with their own cameras, one finally asked who I was and where I was from. “I’m half-Armenian and live in Yerevan,” I responded before an uncomfortable silence broke up the conversation. “Never mind,” he awkwardly said and that was that, or so it seemed.

Later on in the day, many gave me their business cards and asked if I’d send them the photographs I had taken.

I agreed and after returning to Yerevan kept in touch via Facebook and Internet chat. Encouraged by the experience, when the first English-language blogs from Azerbaijan appeared towards the end of the year, I again made contact. It was then that I became friends with one of the country’s most prolific bloggers, regional analyst Arzu Geybullayeva. Her blog, Flying Carpets and Broken Pipelines, was refreshingly open and honest.

After communicating with Geybullayeva on Facebook, it wasn’t long before other Azeris also made contact. Nearly all were connected to the OL! Azerbaijani Youth Movement and the Alumni Network (AN) made up of students who had studied abroad.

Unlike other groups in the region, what typifies OL! and AN Is their non-politicized and non-confrontational nature. Rather than support a particular political force or push a nationalist agenda, the group concentrates instead on key concepts such as tolerance, democracy, non-violence and individualism. Most resemble Western youth in their appearance and way of thinking while also being exemplary in their use of new and social media.

In fact, perhaps the most significant catalyst of all emerged in July 2009 when video bloggers Adnan Hajizade and Emin Milli, co-founders of OL! And AN respectively, were detained and eventually imprisoned by a court in Baku for their online activity. The case made international headlines, not least because of their importance to the progressive youth movement in Azerbaijan.

“Everything began back in 2005, when Emin Milli and many others returned from their studies abroad,” Geybullayeva explains. “They initiated what can be considered the transfer of knowledge to those who were younger or simply didn’t have the chance to experience the ‘West,’ if I can put it that way.”

As a result, and thanks to our initial contact, Geybullayeva and I later worked together in Georgia and also co-presented on the use of new and social media tools for youth from all three South Caucasus countries. Energetic, down to earth and inspiring, it is hard not to warm to her calm and pleasant demeanor. Moreover, what also becomes apparent is her genuine desire for peace in the region and dedication to issues such as human rights and democracy.

It was no surprise, therefore, that meeting with Armenians had been second nature for her. “The first time I met someone from Armenia was in 1999, during an exchange program in the U.S.,” Geybullayeva says. “It was great. We had a fantastic time together. So, let’s look forward and think of ways to overcome the old stereotypes.”

And try we did, along with other young Azerbaijani journalists and bloggers.

Azeri participants at the Tbilisi Barcamp in 2008. / photo by the author

Azeri participants at the Tbilisi Barcamp in 2008. / photo by the author

Of course, with Internet penetration low throughout the region, nothing is going to change overnight. According to the statistics for 2009 from the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), Internet penetration stood at just 6.4 percent in Armenia and 18 percent in Azerbaijan. Most users can also be considered part of a small middle class in both countries, but that looks set to change dramatically over the coming years, especially with a growth in mobile Internet.

Regardless, our first collaboration was to change perceptions each side had of the other. Working in Georgia, ethnic Armenians and Azeris not only coexist peacefully in some parts of Tbilisi as well as many towns and villages, but there are also some cases of intermarriage. Moreover, the journey from Yerevan to Tbilisi passes through the largest ethnic Azeri-populated region in the country without any problems at all.

The project was a success and more Armenians and Azeris made contact online. True, they represent a minority in their respective countries, but it is nonetheless a significant step forward in terms of conflict transformation and not least because many believe that actual resolution will only be possible when negative perceptions and stereotypes, perpetuated by nationalists and often amplified by the local media, change.

“Communication is possible, living together is possible, and breaking down existing barriers is possible,” Geybullayeva recently wrote on her blog. “This is a message I would give to all non- believers in peace and reconciliation.”

I couldn’t have put it better myself.

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Onnik Krikorian and Arzu Geybullayeva co-presented and took part in a discussion on conflict transformation at the Social Media for Social Change conference in Tbilisi, Georgia, on April 9-10, 2010. Their project on overcoming negative stereotypes in the South Caucasus is available online at http://www.oneworld.am/diversity.

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