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.
thank you for your post. it touches a very important issue. I think that all our technology cannot do any good if peoples’ minds are full of hatred. People need to have a disposition to forgive and reconcile with their opponents in the first place. The photoblog can be a great tool to create a productive dialogue and to stress the similarities between people. Conflict transformation can only take place when “both parties [are] enabled to gain an understanding of the other’s standpoint and believe that the creation of a productive dialogue is possible” (Baú 2014:6).
In your example people talk about music or film. I think that is a good starting point to avoid conflict. But on the other hand, I am wondering if a next step could be talking about the problem. Wouldn’t it be releasing to actually talk about Nagorno-Karabakh, but to talk about it with new awareness, a broader view and understanding? What do you think?
Baú, Valentina (2014): Building peace through social change communication: participatory video in conflict-affected communities, in: Community development Journal.
thank you for your comment! I agree with you that stimulating dialogue through culture and social media can open new possibilities and trigger changes in attitudes between conflicted nations.
Those measures may seem unsufficient, because the are organised despite the media’s and governments’ propaganda and rarely directly adress the nature of the conflict.
However, as Bau points out, „by reversing the audience-producer dichotomy, people can look at their lives and that of those around them from another perspective and regain control of their situation” (Bau, 2014). That is why I believe that projects like Onnik Kirkorian’s photoblog and reportages from the conflicted communities can constitute the important step towards peaceful coexistance of Azeris and Armenians, because their direct objective is raising awareness, facing the historical differences instead of existing despite the conflict. Considering how recently the last armed conflict has been settled, it will take many years – probably even generations to openly discuss the issue.
It seems the South Caucasus main assets – its geopoliticaly strategic location and natural resources have been the region’s biggest curse so far. The three republics, besides dealing with their own conflicted past, have to build international relations and stable democratic regimes, which, considering current strong external influences, won’t be easy.
Having that in mind, I think your question about Armenians and Azaris readiness and willingness to deal with the past remains open. At this point, with current economic and political instability, the longterm peaceful reconciliation strategy seems unlikely.
Bau, V. (2014) Telling the stories of war through the screen. Participatory video approachesand practice for peace in conflict-affected context. Conflict & Communication Online. Vol.13, No. 1
Interesting post! I think that a key feature of participatory media is that it brings new voices into the public sphere, which can counter narratives of the mainstream media/broadcast media. Shirty (2008) also stresses the potential of “everybody” to become a producer and not just consumer of media. That is a valuable way in which the capabilities of the people are empowered, as they can now share their own stories or counter mainstream representations. This is, indeed, important for democracy and is not just mediated, as you state, through journalists anymore due to the Web and its participatory character.
Shirky, C. (2008). Here comes everybody: The power of organizing without organizations. Penguin.
Cammaerts, B. (Eds.) (2006): Researching Media, Democracy and Participation. Tartu: Tartu University Press.
Thank you Christopher for your comment. You put emphasis on a very important aspect which is a gradual change in people’s perception of their role in the public debate. In relatively young and politically unsettled countries like Armenia and Azerbaijan, participatory media can not only give people a chance to search for new ways of self-expression but to find new, productive sollutions to contribute to the evolution of a public discourse about reconcilation and post conflict reality.
It is also important that people have a platform to report on crucial issues, often hidden from the public eye by the official regime propaganda (Search for Common Ground, 2009). Therefore, exchanging information on more individual level seems to be crucial in this context. Since transparency and accountability of mainstream regional media tends to be one of the burning issues in both conflicted countries, your argument that an alternative media platform provided the new empowering voice. Supported by local blogoshpere and cross-border participatory initiatives like those mentionned in my article, this „third narrative” has a potential to overpower traditional journalism and to play a pivotal role in „fostering diversity [and] intercultural dialogue” (Carpentier & Doudaki, 2013).
Carpentier, N. & Doudaki, V. (2013) Community media for reconciliation: A Cypriot case study. Communication, Culture and Critique. 7; 415-434
Search for Common Ground (2009) Communication for Peacebuilding: Practices, Chances and Challenges. Report commissioned by the United States Institute for Peace
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