Caucasus Edition




April 30, 2010

When it comes to relations between Armenia and Azerbaijan, optimism is a rare commodity after 16 years of stalled diplomacy in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.

Even a positive ripple, like the call this week from the two countries’ religious leaders for a peaceful resolution to the conflict, was swamped by the tide of gloom following Armenia’s earlier move to suspend ratification of its rapprochement with Turkey, which, under pressure from Baku, belatedly linked the deal to Karabakh.

As this depressingly familiar drama plays out, it’s tempting to grab at any glimmer of progress in Armenian/Azerbaijani relations – especially when it comes lit with the glow of social media, about which there is as much optimism as there is pessimism in Caucasian politics. It’s generally wise to have some grains of salt at the ready.

Still, it’s difficult not to be encouraged by the recent wavelets of cross-border communication and even cooperation among independent-minded, techno-literate, and mostly young Azeris and Armenians, on display lately at twin events held this month in Tbilisi.

The Social Media for Social Change conference, hosted by PH International, a U.S. organization doing community- and schools-based development work in the Caucasus, focused on using the new online tools to foster civic engagement and multicultural communication in the region. The concurrent Social Innovation Camp Caucasus was essentially a social-entrepreneurship drill: about 40 bloggers, journalists, activists, developers, and designers – mostly twentysomethings from Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan – were split into multinational teams and given two days to build digital startups to address specific social issues. (TOL was one of several co-sponsors of the camp.)

Both events were structured to bring people together across the frozen cease-fire line, albeit sometimes implicitly. A Social Innovation Camp “is not about making peace, it’s about making projects,” Dan McQuillan, the British co-creator of the SICamp concept, said during the event’s closing ceremony. But he also noted that, particularly in the Caucasus, such events can have an important community-building component. Azeris worked to bring Armenian peers’ ideas to fruition, and vice versa.

The social-media conference prominently featured the teenage participants in DOTCOM, a PH International project backed by the U.S. State Department in which American, Armenian, and Azerbaijani students were trained together in new-media skills, notably blogging and video. British-Armenian journalist (and TOL contributorOnnik Krikorian, co-presenting at the event with political analyst and blogger Arzu Geybullaeva, openly marveled that he could be sharing a stage with an Azeri, let alone forge a working relationship with one, facilitated by Facebook and Skype.

They and other speakers talked about grass-roots conflict-resolution efforts sprouting up outside the stalled diplomatic process, and the growth of youth activism throughout the Caucasus, crystallized by the media-savvy campaign to free jailed Azeri bloggers Emin Milli and Adnan Hajizade. A tweet may not be worth a thousand words, but one cited by Krikorian from an Armenian expressing solidarity with Azeri activists shows those 140 characters can matter.

“I see huge potential,” said Philip Gamaghelyan  of the Imagine Center for Conflict Transformation, who also spoke at the conference. The center has just launched Caucasus Edition, an online forum for writing and discussion about Karabakh.

“So far it has been very controlled, very polarizing, very nationalist, very anti the other – this pretty much was the mainstream media [in Armenia and Azerbaijan]. Everything more moderate was marginalized or almost nonexistent. So the Internet really is opening a new possibility now to bring alternative voices out. …  There should be a way of translating all this into political action, into change.”

Even in a setting where simply showing up might imply a predisposition for change, it was clear how fraught and laborious achieving it will be.  Geybullaeva wrote in her blog that after she spoke critically about Baku’s heavy-handed response to activism, she was berated by a group of young Azeri attendees for airing the country’s dirty laundry. And Karabakh remained the elephant in the room – rarely brought up, and then usually in the context of explaining why it’s best left alone for now.

It’s easy to see why. Even at forums like these, many participants might share their countrymen’s polarized view of that conflict. Unlike many of their countrymen, though, they’ve met, talked to, and worked side by side with members of the other tribe. They’ve learned they can use new digital tools to leap the communication barrier between their countries. They’ve learned they share many problems – cowed media, environmental degradation, dysfunctional institutions – and that there might be regional, cooperative responses. That’s a big step.

Ultimately, conflict transformation in the south Caucasus rests on confronting Karabakh. As long as nationalism and stereotyping dominate the discourse in their nations, officials in Baku and Yerevan can keep playing a zero-sum game, rejecting compromise and retreating into absolutist rhetoric.

That stance might get harder to maintain as thousands of young, educated Armenians and Azeris become steeped in new ways to talk to and think about one another. At the SI Camp project presentations, an Azeri journalism student, standing near his Armenian group leader, grabbed the microphone and made an impromptu comment about the need for the different nationalities to come together and face common problems. It was almost enough to make one optimistic.

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