South Caucasus is an ethnic melting pot, with a rich cultural heritage on the one hand, and a long history of ethnical, religious and territorial conflicts on the other.
The resolution of the USSR has been followed by the intense quest for economic and political independence of the new republics – Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan, but also by re-emergence and often brutal escalation of older conflicts between the three countries and their internal entities. Many of them, such as the one over the unrecognised territory of Nagorno-Karabakh are referred to as “frozen conflicts”.
As Bowers (2011, in: Simon & Lester) points out, the development of democracy can be measured by “the diversity of voices and opinions mediated by journalists to the public sphere”. By looking at the two countries conflicted over the Nagorno-Karabakh region – Armenia and Azerbaijan, it becomes clear that the situation of the media remains complicated – full of ideologically-motivated propaganda and far from transparent. What is even more important – both sides don’t seem to be ready for peaceful resolution of a current diplomatic hostility. The development of the new media, especially social network, can serve as an alternative platform for cross-border communication.
Galtung (cited by Carpentier et al., 2006) describes the discourses concerning self and the enemy during the conflict as based on few dichotomies, for instance innocent/guilty or civilized/barbaric. They are usually legitimized by the authorities and reinforced by the mainstream local media. In cases like conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh, where the relatively recent history of armed conflicts and ongoing cross-border clashes is still very much alive in both nation’s memories, it seems rather evident, how those ideological models of war have dominated social and cultural sphere of the post-conflict reality.
There is a rather obvious discrepancy between the two states media’s negative propaganda and a growing number of participative, moderate voices. The new media often serve as a tool in reinforcing nationalist sentiments among the public. There are many examples of situations where social media have constituted a platform for nationalist movements, strengthening hostility between Azeris and Armenians. The best-known example comes from Yerevan, where Azeri Film Festival, scheduled for November 2010, had to be cancelled after a widespread backlash, protests and threats from nationalists, who, to the great extent, organised their actions through social media channels such as Facebook.
[…] The planned festival should be one small step in challenging people on both sides to think differently, however difficult that is
Former British Ambassador to the Republic of Armenia (2008-2012) Source: Global Voices
Among the socially engaged individuals promoting reconciliation, the work of Onnik Krikorian – a British journalist, photographer and a former regional editor of Global Voices, seems to be the most prominent example of an initiative challenging negative stereotypes. His cross-border media project „Conflict Voices” aimed to provide an objective and participatory reporting in order to facilitate peaceful communication between Armenians and Azeris. The series of posts, podcasts and photo documentaries from parts of Georgia cohabited by Azeris and Armenians, such as „Coexistence in the South Caucasus” directly challenges the ideologically-motivated notion of „ethnic incompatibility” of the two nations.
Another example of voices contributing to the dialogue, are photoblogs, such as For Love of the Caucasus – where the author mixes the old and the new – historical photographs with images of modern architecture and contemporary life in the republics.
Even lifestyle and leisure blogs of young Armenian and Azerbeijani diaspora (Unzipped) or independent online magazines (http://www.ianyanmag.com/) can be considered as channels giving an important, “undemonising” insight to lifestyles of younger generation of conflicted countries. As Krikorian points out, young Azeris and Armenians rarely post about Nagorno-Karabakh and prefer to discuss on not so dissimilar issues like music or film.
No matter how elusive and unstable the post-conflict situation in the two countries may be, the idea of portraying cultural and social similarities to promote a dialogue despite the undoubtedly conflicted and brutal past seems quite reasonable, especially when we consider how the media and politicians argue against the peaceful coexistence by emphasising differences.
However, the question which still remains open is: how can we define the role of the new media in the reconciliation process. Is the notion of citizen diplomacy (a dialogue beyond and despite the political and physical boundaries) possible in such an unstable political situation? Promoting unprejudiced dialogue and spreading reactionary hatred are the main outcomes of the double-edged sword that the use of social media seem to be in the context of the Armenian-Azerbaijani relations.
Bowers, A. (2011) Protests and public relations: A new era for non-institutional sources? In.: Transnational Protests and the Media, [Ed.] Cottle, S. & Lester, L. Peter Lang Publishing, p. 113-128
Carpentier, N., Pruulman-Vengerfeldt, P., Nordenstreng, K., Hartmann, M. and Cammaerts, B. (Eds.) (2006): Researching Media, Democracy and Participation. Tartu: Tartu University Press.