1 Jun 2011
A “Facebook Peace” for Nagorno-Karabakh
The first decade of the 21st century saw the “colored revolutions” pass by Armenia and Azerbaijan. In 2005, post-election demonstrations were suppressed before they got off the ground in Baku. In 2008, a potential revolution in Armenia was lethally put down following the presidential elections. Will the events in the Arab world, the much-lauded “Facebook Revolutions,” make their way to Yerevan or Baku? If so, what might be the effect on the conflict, and conflict resolution efforts, in Nagorno-Karabakh? Could the power of Facebook and other social media outlets trigger upheaval in the South Caucasus and create the first “Facebook Peace” in Nagorno-Karabakh?
Armenia, Azerbaijan and the Arab Spring
Arguably, thinking that peace may stem from political unrest is unlikely, even counter-intuitive. However, as many political analysts speculate on the extent to which the Arab Spring will spread, it is worth considering the possibilities in Baku and Yerevan. To date, there have been rumblings in both capitals. The Armenian opposition, riding the Arab wave, held a protest on March 1, the three-year anniversary of the post-presidential election violence, and March 17. In both cases the government estimated that roughly 10,000 people were present (while the opposition puts the March 1 rally at 50,000) (Grigoryan, 2011). On both occasions, opposition leader Levon Ter-Petrosyan leveled a 13-point ultimatum at the government. Two similarly sized rallies were held in April. These demonstrations led to victories for the opposition including the release of political prisoners, a reexamination of the 2008 post-election violence and the reopening of Liberty Square (the popular and symbolic heart of the city/opposition movement). Despite these concessions and an increased dialogue, early presidential and parliamentary elections remain a dispute (RFE/RL, 2011).
In Baku, which historically has tolerated little-to-no opposition, small groups of young people have begun taking to the streets demanding political concessions. The first rallies were held on March 11. The event attracted dozens of young people from varying districts of Baku (RFE/RL, 2011). While the numbers seem small, it is a tremendous first step for Azerbaijani youth activists and opposition leaders. The actions so concerned the government that opposition youth activist Baxtiyar Haciyev was jailed on what are largely believed to be politically motivated charges (RFE/RL, 2011).
Considering the implications for the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict one can imagine varying, if somewhat unlikely, outcomes. The first, and sadly the most obvious, would be a further escalation of bellicose war rhetoric and possible violence. Ter-Petrosyan offered a chilling glimpse of this policy when he said that “the authorities can’t endlessly exploit the Karabakh issue and subordinate the resolution of Armenia’s internal problems to it” (RFE/RL, 2011). In this regard, it is imaginable that leaders would “refocus” the populations’ attention on the immediacy of security in Karabakh to divert attention from their domestic shortcomings. This has the added propaganda value of painting protesters and opposition leaders as unpatriotic. Such tactics are well documented in history and are not confined to undemocratic regimes. A similar technique is credited with Margaret Thatcher’s electoral success during the Falkland war.
A second scenario, however unlikely, is that a perceived or real threat of deep domestic instability could lead one side to make drastic concessions on Karabakh in order to focus on domestic issues. Historically, there is precedence. Russia withdrew from the First World War, and subsequently surrendered territory, in order to focus resources on its own internal upheaval. While there are obvious disparities between the rise of Bolshevism during World War I, and the ethnic conflict in Karabakh, the possibility exists. It is also important to realize that a total capitulation by one side does not mean sudden peace. Such a move would alienate populations’ and political leaders. The possibility of disillusioned groups ignoring calls from the center and continuing the fight would be as destabilizing as a full-scale resumption of fighting. Additionally, one must remember that the Soviet Union’s attempt to gain territory and influence lost during the First World War ushered in the infamous Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact.
Thinking about a third scenario, which admittedly seems equally unlikely, we can look to the possibility of a “Facebook Peace.” In a previous Caucasus Edition essay, Jale Sultanli (2011) argued that depending on the path of political developments youth will become agents of peace or inheritors and perpetuators of violence in Armenia and Azerbaijan. Could Facebook be the means that gives young people a platform for demanding a settlement in Karabakh? Political commentators are saying that this is exactly the process unfolding in the Middle East. Such a trend begs the question: Could the same happen in Armenia and Azerbaijan? Is a Facebook Peace possible for Karabakh? Will the next generation, slated to spend their youth in sniper sights on opposing sides of the line of contact, use social media to bridge the gap their political leaders cannot?
A Facebook Peace?
Sadly, the majority of the sites concerning Nagorno-Karabakh are dedicated to hardening historical narratives, spreading propaganda, and solidifying hate. Whereas Facebook may be a convenient way to promote rallies and join opposition forces, it does not appear to be a constructive platform for group dialogue on contentious and emotional issues, at least in the Karabakh case.
These assertions are based on the results of Facebook searches on May 15, 2011 using the phrases “Karabakh,” “Armenia Azerbaijan,” and “Karabakh Peace.” The following charts show the ten most popular Facebook pages based on the number of “likes:”
|FACEBOOK Page Title||Sympathy||# of “Likes”|
|Nagorni Karabakh is the Territory of Azerbaijan||AZ||9,480|
|Recognize the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic||ARM||8,823|
|I bet I can find 100.000 people who believe Karabakh belongs to Azerbaijan||AZ||6,091|
|Do Not Recognize the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic||AZ||6,558|
|Karabakh – The Original Azerbaijan Region!||AZ||4,914|
|Karabakh is Azerbaijan||AZ||3,015|
|Petition Against “Winds of change in Nagorno Karabakh” on Euronews||AZ||1,923|
|KaRabakh iS ours||ARM||1,531|
Fittingly there appears to be parity between the two largest groups of opposing sides. After that there is a larger number, of sites and likes, which are pro-Azeri. This is likely explained by the position of Azerbaijan vis-à-vis Nagorno-Karabakh. In any case, the total number of “likes” is not particularly illuminating. In fact, compared with conflicts elsewhere the numbers are rather small. The page “Third Palestinian Intifada,” a page dedicated to the Palestinian cause against Israel, has over 338,000 likes. Again, this might not be an accurate comparison as the conflict, in its current state, has dragged on longer and is globally more widely followed than Karabakh. However, the presence of this site does show the potential of Facebook to attract followers to one side of a conflict.
In relative terms the amount of support for these pages is revealed when compared to pages dedicated to conflict resolution and peace:
|FACEBOOK Page Title||# of “Likes”|
|Peaceful Solution in Nagorno Karabakh||459|
|Peace between ARMENIA and AZERBAIJAN||56|
|Peace for Armenia and Azerbaijan||58|
|Kavkaz Pride and Peace: Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan||36|
|Peace between Azerbaijan and Armenia||24|
|Nagorno Karabakh conflict resolution||19|
The most popular page, with 469 “likes,” has fewer “likes” than the 18th most popular page dedicated to conflict perpetuation. Simply put, when it comes to conflict dialogue Facebook is more commonly used to publicly promote nationalist propaganda than peace and reconciliation.
Is Facebook a Forum for Conflict Dialogue?
The above data feeds into a larger argument about the overall utility of Facebook as a political tool. Aside from the above statistics, there are three key characteristics of Facebook which may make it unsuited to act as a forum for peaceful group interaction: Lack of space for serious and thoughtful commentary, the presence of third-party participants, and the ability for anonymity.
For the millions of politically non-motivated Facebook users the brevity of “status updates” or wall posts allow them to express a simple emotion, announce a location, or congratulate a friend on his birthday. For users entering the “political” world, the same function allows them to take part in the dialogue on a subject of which they may have limited interest or knowledge. On Facebook, any user can post their favorite political argument, or viral rant, and add a one-line endorsement (or often a sophomoric collection of acronyms). This allows young “revolutionaries” at universities in Europe and the US to fight for a “cause” that they have only heard of, but little understand. In these cases the message boards of Facebook are filled with unconstructive, ignorant, and often extremely violent content which can unfairly be attributed to a community’s official position.
A similar, and equally dangerous, trend is the bandwagon effect, or participation of third-party participants. Azerbaijanis in Istanbul and Armenians in Glendale can affect the dialogue without worrying about the direct repercussions. Like Diaspora communities, politically active Facebook participants use either the Armenian or Azerbaijani side as a proxy for their own political objectives. Examples include Turkish nationals joining pro-Azeri pages to discredit Turkish-Armenian rapprochement. Conversely, anti-Islamic actors from Europe and the US, venting their frustration towards Muslims globally, can use pro-Armenian pages. Such a trend can be observed in the popularity of the site “Third Palestinian Intifada.” At the time when the New York Times printed an article about the site, it had roughly 240,000 members. Forty-eight hours later the number of followers had increased to 338,000. It is clear that a great deal of the support for the site is based on its newfound global popularity and not on a sudden rise of anti-Israeli or pro-Palestinian feelings among Facebook users. However, such participation can put the issues out of context and complicate the political situation.
Finally, the relative anonymity of Facebook, a value to community organizers in the Middle East, allows users to spread inflammatory rhetoric without responsibility or recourse. The page, “Genocide of Azerbaijan…F… YOU ARMENIA” (123 members) illustrates this point, and the above two. This name alone is the worst Facebook has to offer. However, it is still present and viewable to the casual Facebook user. Secondly, the page proclaims to have “no administrator left.” Conveniently, someone was able to set up this hate-filled page and then abandon their affiliation, while the content remained and flourished. Finally, there are the wall contributions from Azeris and Armenians alike. One post from a young Armenian, seemingly from outside the region, questions the existence of the “Azerbaijani Genocide,” but claims that if it in fact did happen she was “glad.” Sadly, the young people that contribute to these pages so flippantly are contributing to a wider dialogue.
The Silver Lining
Accepting a friend request from your “enemy” or liking a page dedicated to conflict resolution is an act of courage for a young Azerbaijani or Armenian. It is also an act no one can blame them for avoiding. One can imagine the social stigma (and possible violence) a young person may face for publicly supporting “the other side.” Therefore, admittedly, the use of likes and membership are a limiting measurement in gauging Facebook’s role in the Karabakh conflict. Consequently, this paper has largely focused on the “measurable” downside of Facebook as a platform for group discussion. However, there is the private side of Facebook which opens the possibility for constructive people-to-people connections.
Recently, an NGO hosted a youth conference in Tbilisi involving members of the three South Caucasus countries. The conference was similar to many others that bring small groups of Azerbaijanis and Armenians together in “neutral” Georgia. I do not know whether these young people returned home and immediately “friended” all of their new acquaintances (as is the usual protocol). However, Facebook will still provide them with a medium to communicate. Should they fail to exchange e-mail addresses (for fear of publicly doing so), Facebook provides them with a message option. And, whether publicly “friends” or not, they can still follow each other’s lives, view some photos, and see that their daily routines (school, friends, football, and family) are really not that different. While this may not have the immediate or dramatic effect on society we have witnessed in the Middle East, it is still an important foundation.
Internet freedom is integral to free speech, and thus a building block for democracy. Similarly, to traditional forms of speech, Facebook comes with a nasty downside. The shortcomings of Facebook are microcosms of the Internet at large. However, Facebook’s growing popularity and new sense of “legitimacy” following its role in the Arab Spring are cause for reflection. As governments and activists support Internet freedom (as they most undoubtedly should) there needs to be respect for the negative, particularly in conflict situations, as well as the positive attributes.
Speaking recently about opposition activity in Baku, US Ambassador Matthew Bryza (RFE/RL, 2011) issued the following statement:
“As regards [to] the general issue of Internet activism, I can tell you that President [Barack] Obama [and] Secretary [of State Hillary] Clinton see the Internet as a key player in the future of democratic debate and discourse, and the rapid growth of Facebook and other social-media sites in Azerbaijan is providing citizens with a new opportunity to discuss the issues facing this society. We want to see a fully open Internet space, without restrictions.”
The conflict and ongoing negotiations in Karabakh are major issues facing Azerbaijan and Armenia. Therefore, it is important for those of us interested in a peaceful and constructive conclusion to the Karabakh conflict to think about both the opportunity and threats posed by Facebook and other social media outlets.
Grigoryan, M. (2011, March 1). Armenia: Yerevan opposition protest draws large crowd. Eurasianet.org. Retrieved from http://www.eurasianet.org/node/62983
Preston, J. (2011, March 27). Ethical quandary for social sites. The New York Times.
Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (2011, May 20). Armenian officials rule out early elections. Retrieved from http://www.rferl.org/content/armenian_official_rules_out_early_elections/24181550.html
Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (2011, May 18). Azerbaijani Facebook campaigner jailed for two years. Retrieved from http://www.rferl.org/content/azerbaijan_facebook_activist_jailed_for_two_years/24179100.html
Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (2011, March 19). U.S.: Armenia, Azerbaijan ‘must pull out snipers’. Retrieved from http://www.rferl.org/content/us_urges_armenia_azerbaijan_to_withdraw_snipers/2343653.html
Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (2011, March 12). Police disperse second day of antigovernment protests in Baku. Retrieved from http://www.rferl.org/content/second_day_of_protests_in_baku/2336082.html
Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (2011, February 19). Armenian opposition leader insists on early polls, warns of ‘Egypt like’ unrest. Retrieved from http://www.rferl.org/content/second_day_of_protests_in_baku/2336082.html
Sultanli, J. (2011). Youth in South Caucasus: Agents of peace of future soldiers? Caucasus Edition, Journal of Conflict Transformation. Retrieved from http://caucasusedition.net/analysis/youth-in-south-caucasus-agents-of-peace-or-future-soldiers
 These assertions are based on the results of Facebook searches on May 15, 2011 using the phrases “Karabakh,” “Armenia Azerbaijan,” and “Karabakh Peace.” For each search the top 100 matches were examined. A list of all pages that related to the conflict (as opposed to the Karabakh Football Club, for example), which had more than 50 “likes” or “members” was compiled. Many of the sites that appeared in one search appeared in one of the two others. In all, 65 pages that related to the conflict were identified. Of the 65, six are related to peace, and 59 are dedicated to solidifying nationalist positions.
Before commenting on the results, a note on methodology and of warning is necessary. First, this is not a scientific study and is not presented as such. Currently, there is no formal procedure for qualitatively and/or quantitatively measuring Facebook content. To add to the challenges, Facebook is a fluid medium, where content constantly changes. For searches the common English spelling of “Nagorno-Karabakh” was used. Therefore, spelling variations like “Karabagh” and “Qarabagh,” and pages in Armenian, Azeri, Russian, and Turkish, are not included. Also, there was no search of “Artsakh.” However, quick searches using these terms were conducted and the results are largely similar to those of the English variation. Therefore, the search results, while not scientific, offer a legitimate sample of material regarding the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict on Facebook.
 As of March 27. This site was featured in a New York Times article titled “Ethical Quandary for Social Sites.” The article reports that the Israeli government officially requested that it be removed from Facebook. In response, Facebook administrators reviewed the content and deemed that it did not violate company policy by directly promoting violence, and would therefore not be removed. As of March 27 when the article was printed, the site had “over 240,000” followers. On March 28, this author found the site to have had almost 100,000 more.
 You’ll note that the “at least 50 likes” rule was exempted to build a larger list.
 Dependent on the level of security established on individual Facebook accounts.