In the 16 years since a 1994 ceasefire agreement put the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the disputed mainly-Armenian populated territory of Nagorno Karabakh on hold, peace remains as elusive as ever. The war fought in the early 1990s left over 25,000 dead and forced a million to flee their homes, leaving ethnic Armenian forces, backed by Armenia proper, in control of over 16 percent of what the international community considers sovereign Azerbaijani territory.
The situation, perhaps, is typical for many frozen conflicts, but what makes this dispute even more complicated is the almost constant rhetoric of hatred from both sides. Nearly two decades after the troubles broke out, new generations of Armenians and Azerbaijanis are unable to remember the time when both lived side by side together in peace. Armenia's last president, Robert Kocharian, for example, declared that the two were 'ethnically incompatible' while his Azerbaijani counterpart, still incumbent Ilham Aliyev, regularly threatens a new war.
Regional analysts fear that such threats are not merely empty words. Fueled by massive oil revenue, the Azerbaijani military is rapidly re-arming itself and the August 2008 war between Russia and Georgia over South Ossetia was enough of a wake-up call for the international community to once again direct attention towards unresolved conflicts in the Caucasus.
In such a situation, perhaps, the possibility for reconciliation looks bleak, especially when the local media on both sides regularly perpetuates negative stereotypes of the other, often publishing little more than propaganda and in some cases even misinformation. “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,” read a recent report on the local media from the Caucasus Resource Research Center.
Yet, in the past 18 months, unprecedented development in cross-border communication can be found on the popular social networking site, Facebook, where a new breed of young activists in both Armenia and Azerbaijan are now able to virtually cross the ceasefire line.
Although not intended at the time, the first tentative steps towards this happened through Global Voices, a citizen media site co-founded by Harvard University researcher Ethan Zuckerman and former CNN Tokyo and Beijing Bureau Chief Rebecca MacKinnon. As Caucasus editor for the site, my own initial physical contact with Azerbaijani bloggers soon led to meeting many more online. Through a combination of email, chat programs, social networks and blogs, relationships were built online, setting the scene for future cooperation.
But the real breakthrough happened in July 2009 when two video blogging youth activists, Adnan Hajizade and Emin Mili, were detained and later imprisoned in Azerbaijan. Global Voices became the main online resource to continuously follow the case, and as some Armenians began to take notice, they also began to make contact with their counterparts on the other side. Indeed, if it was once unthinkable for such open communication to occur, it soon become something almost routine.
It was also then that I also began my own voluntary personal project, Overcoming Negative Stereotypes in the South Caucasus, in cooperation with bloggers and journalists from Georgia and Azerbaijan—and the idea was simple. Although the notion that Armenians and Azerbaijanis are unable to live together is commonplace, that is very far from the truth outside the conflict zone. In neighboring Georgia, for example, ethnic Armenians and Azeris coexist in the same villages and towns. They speak each other's language and sometimes inter-marry.
Yet, the media in Armenia and Azerbaijan never reports on such stories, preferring to emphasize differences rather than similarities, and this is where blogs and social networking sites have stepped in. With Internet penetration still low throughout the region, the audience might still remain small, but they have started to fill a gap long left vacant. Indeed, even the very idea of a collaborative story on an ethnic Azeri village wedding in Georgia with an Armenian and Azerbaijani name side by side working together was once unthinkable.
By this time civil society organizations had also started to notice this work, with some desperate for contacts of young people on both sides to include in their own programs. Having largely failed to identify suitable participants through traditional means, especially in a climate usually more against cooperation than for, NGOs were now eager to involve those already communicating online. Since then, their numbers have significantly increased and Facebook has become a crucial medium for participants to remain in contact once they return home.
That's not to say that such tools are without their risks or faults either, of course. At a recent conference, Blogs and Bullets: Evaluating the Impact of New Media on Conflict, at the U.S. Institute of Peace, there was perhaps more criticism of how Facebook sometimes polarizes connections on national, social and political grounds. Even so, in the context of Armenia-Azerbaijan relations it has become an incredibly valuable resource—for now, at least. While once the Internet was used to perpetuate conflict, it is now also being used to promote peace.
As a result, and building on its coverage of citizen media during the 2008 Russia-Georgia war, Global Voices has since established its own special coverage page, Caucasus Conflict Voices, summarizing some of the new conversations taking place between Armenian and Azerbaijani bloggers. True, they might still be a minority, with the use of such tools still in its infancy, but until recently such communication never existed at all. It now remains to be seen whether these developments continue or if those opposed to peace also utilize them to drown out such voices.
EXPLORE: Onnik's South Caucasus blog
Photo © Global Voices
This blog was originally posted on the World Bank's Conflict and Development Blog