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What's in a name? Everything, apparently...

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The South Caucasus is a fractured region divided by ethnic fault lines and devastated by three frozen conflicts. With most people in the region looking to the past rather than the future, writing on the three republics which make up the region can therefore be very problematic indeed, and especially with an Armenian name. Forget the fact that I’m a British citizen and half-Armenian anyway; there is almost no notion of citizenship in the region. Those forming the majority ethnic groups in each of the three South Caucasus republics don’t quite think in such ways. 

True, citizenship legally forms the basis for their respective constitutions, but the reality is that ethnicity defines the reality on the ground. The situation might arguably be relatively better in Georgia, where ethnic Georgians form 83 percent of the population, but in the predominantly mono-ethnic republics of Azerbaijan and especially Armenia the situation is particularly frustrating and depressing. The recent detention of two video bloggers in the former demonstrated this perfectly.
Adnan Hajizade and Emin Milli, two prominent youth activists, were detained on 8 July after they were attacked in a downtown Baku restaurant. Their assailants went free while the authorities used the incident to lock them away in two month pre-trial detention. As a journalist based in the region and as the Caucasus editor for Global Voices Online, the incident obviously attracted my attention. In fact, with the Azerbaijani blogosphere increasingly establishing itself as the most dynamic in the region there was no way it could be ignored.
The case was made even more relevant with the detention of a youth activist in Armenia just days earlier. Like Hajizade and Milli, he too was accused of hooliganism and punished with two months pre-trial detention. True, the nature of youth movements in Armenia and Azerbaijan is very different with groups in the latter defined by their more progressive and non-politicized nature whereas in the former they are usually the youth wings of political parties, but the similarities between the two cases are striking. 


Despite the similarities, however, and the obvious need to consider the way authoritarian governments in the region intimidate and silence youth activists, the situation is complicated by the fact that Armenia and Azerbaijan are still technically at war over the disputed territory of Nagorno Karabakh. In such an environment the local media in both countries either censors itself or perpetuates negative stereotypes of the “enemy.” So, if quoting the two tweets would be logical in the larger world outside the region, that’s not the case here.

What I wasn’t expecting, however, was to a receive a message from an acquaintance in Baku not only requesting that I remove them from a post for Global Voices Online, but also attempted to belittle the entry which others appreciated in order  to achieve that purpose.

[…] the post seems so ugly, maybe you'd simplify it, make it more readable and attractive? It is unintelligible. And I have a personal request […], can you remove that Armenia reference from the beginning, please?

Reluctantly, and somewhat stupidly, I agreed. However, the matter didn’t stop there. A second message from someone in Azerbaijan followed. 

I have read your posts and I know of your take on this position. No matter how discouraging it is going to sounds, I'm going to ask you not to post any links to your articles. If the authorities are tracking facebook activity then they will look for tools to derail our cause; one of which could be them referencing that “Armenians” are behind the attempts to destabilize… […] I hope you will understand.

Of course, I do understand, but the absurdity of the situation is striking. Nothing will ever change if such attitudes and fears are the prevalent ones. Moreover, even if the authorities and pro-government media in Azerbaijan will do anything to discredit pro-democracy activists, the fact is that I am still a British citizen albeit with a weird Armenian name.  The situation became even more ridiculous and disappointing when an Azeri friend I was hoping to meet in Tbilisi cancelled out of fear that the authorities in Baku would find out and use it against her.

True, the pro-government media already had a field day when they discovered that Olesya Vartanyan, another journalist with an Armenian name, had contributed to a report on Hajizade and Milli’s detention for the New York Times. For those attempting to shift attention away from the illegality of their detention and suspect court hearings held behind closed doors, it didn’t matter that Vartanyan is not only a Georgian citizen, but also apparently only a quarter Armenian anyway.  Of course, with or without Vartanyan, they would have found something else to exploit... and they did.

Indeed, when almost every single notable democracy, human rights and media organization or watchdog backed Hajizade and Milli, the authorities alleged some kind of international conspiracy against Azerbaijan. The obedient and unprofessional Azeri media bought into the argument even if it was actually the illegality of the case and the skilled use of social networks and new media which saw their detention make headlines worldwide while that of activists in Armenia was unfortunately ignored. Frontline’s Matthew Collin saw it that way, anyway.

[…] after allegedly being involved in a fight in a restaurant in the capital, Baku, […] their friends believe they were targeted for their use of online media like Facebook, YouTube and Twitter to build support for pro-democracy youth groups in this oil-rich but politically intolerant country. […] their case has become an international issue partly due to their own networking skills and the mainstream media's post-Iran obsession with online culture, but also thanks to the tireless work of other bloggers […]. link
Of course, the situation is also similar in Armenia when it comes to talk of democracy, human rights and conflict resolution in Armenia, with the government and its supporters resorting to accusing activists of being part of some external attempt to destabilize the country instead of recognizing and addressing the genuine grievances and concerns of the majority. Yet, despite the intolerance and animosity in both countries when it comes to the other, there were some signs of hope when a few progressive Armenians openly supported Hajizade and Milli. 
Encouragingly, and despite protests from some Azeris, those responsible for the online video petition set up to campaign for Hajizade and Milli’s release, two from Armenians (who did everything but exploit the case for nationalist purposes) were included. Indeed, and somewhat ironically, those opposed to any reconciliation between Armenia and Azerbaijan actually prefer  to ignore or deny the existence of such people in either country because it threatens their own attempts to keep the two sides apart. 
And when one Azerbaijani started off a moving essay dedicated to the two activists on the OL! blog by quoting lyrics from a song by Armenian-American rock band System of a Down, a prominent member of the Armenian opposition Hima! youth movement sat up and took notice.
A few days later, an Azerbaijani student tweeted a response to my Frontline Club post which contained the earlier tweets I had been asked to remove from my Global Voices Online post. The message was not only pleasantly surprisingly, but also somewhat refreshing and encouraging.
True, there's a long way to go in order to break the negative stereotypes of the “enemy” on both sides, as well as the inherent desire to avoid all contact and to wallow in the malaise of largely mono-ethnic societies, but the potential of social networks, blogs and other online tools to circumvent and break down entrenched divides was notable. On Facebook alone, Armenians and Azeris could see the human side of the other despite the propaganda, misinformation and communications blockade between the two countries. 
Some even formed online relationships thanks to conversations and comments which appeared from friends in both countries on my own Facebook page.
Nationalists in both countries will fume, but is there anything wrong or subversive in this, and especially when Armenia and Azerbaijan are meant to be seeking a peaceful solution to the conflict over Nagorno Karabakh? In any normal country the answer would be no. There is nothing wrong at all with promoting peaceful coexistence and mutual understanding. Which is why, of course, those opposed to such concepts and who benefit from the current environment of mutual hatred feel threatened by these new online tools and anyone who uses them.
Moreover, these tools are already showing that they can achieve what international organizations and the local media have failed to do for a decade when used by the right people for genuine purposes. True, they are still tools and can also be used to achieve the opposite, but even if governments in the region seek to prevent their use, they are fighting a losing battle. Is that a revolution? Yes, it is, but not in the way that the regimes in Armenia and Azerbaijan fear the most. 
In fact, it’s called development and is something that should be encouraged rather than suppressed. However, the region doesn’t quite work like that and just as there are those in Azerbaijan who will seek to look for Armenian conspiracies in almost everything, there are those in Armenia who also act in the same way. Indeed, ,the language used by civil society and the mass media in Armenia when it comes to Azerbaijan currently risks becoming a near exact mirror of that heard there.
What’s in a name? 
Apparently a lot, but even then there's no pleasing people.
Because of my own links with friends in Azerbaijan, some nationalists in Armenia are reportedly spreading rumors that foreign diplomatic missions are secretly funding me to change negative stereotypes in place here. It’s nothing new, of course, and I’m used to it. Last year, for example, a petition was even set up to call for my deportation as a foreign agent.  Most recently, one nationalist blogger even labeled me as a “fifth column” because of my refusal to resort to pumping out knee-jerk nationalist propaganda and misinformation as the rest of the local media does.
However, as regional analyst and blogger Arzu Geybullayeva said at the end of an audio interview conducted last week for Global Voices Online, it's time for a different approach. 
I would very much like to have more debate among bloggers in Armenia and Azerbaijan, especially young ones, to share experiences and talk about our day to day lives, basically. It’s just made so difference and I think […] we really need some kind of initiative for debate because I would really, really like to see borders opened and conflict resolved and […] be friends with Armenians. Reminiscing, my mum says that when she went to school she had Armenian friends, Russian friends, it was all a mix and I would very much like myself or my children as they grow up to be able to say the same kind of thing to their children and to their friends.  link
True, it’s risky, but what isn’t in this region? There is either democracy, stability, tolerance and peace in the region or there is repression, regression, continuing ethnic hatred that only serves authoritarian governments in place, and even war. This is now the choice that everyone has to make. As a British citizen resident in the region, I’ve already made mine and my name doesn’t even enter into it. If anyone has a problem with that please take your complaint to the British Embassy in Yerevan or Baku. Oh, and get a life... 


Nareg Seferian | July 26, 2009 3:43 PM | Reply

Another good post, Onnik. It is indeed refreshing to witness some cases of Armenians and Azerbaijanis seeing eye-to-eye, and, certainly, who can deny the intellectual or humanistic in, say, denouncing injustice or sympathising with lives lost in natural calamities? Or even unnatural ones. I know I felt bad for Azerbaijani families when that crazed gunman went through the Oil Academy a few months ago, and I am sure more than one Azerbaijani could understand how families were torn apart in Armenia when that plane from Iran crashed last week.

However, there is a place where the line gets drawn, in my opinion. Nagorno-Karabakh, past and potential future ethnic conflict is a matter of national security, very much a political issue and, as such, it requires a political model, a political approach to resolve it. Armenians and Azerbaijanis can share a meal, do business, do anything really, but this social interaction cannot extend into the political sphere when it comes to resolving such a dispute, I would say.

Can it create common ground so that our societies will get over it, ultimately? I hope so. But I don't believe a bottom-up approach will ever work. The leadership has to sit down and decide that things are okay and then, slowly but surely, the peoples will get used to each other and will certainly come up with a modus vivendi.

Onnik Krikorian | July 26, 2009 4:17 PM | Reply

Nareg, I disagree. In fact, I strongly disagree. The fact is that governments and political figures have used conflict to come to power or to maintain it. Hatred and animosity is perpetuated not through objective reporting or information, but by propaganda, misinformation and negative stereotyping by the mass media.

Now, look at England and Ireland. Historical grievances that stretch back as far if not further as Armenians and Azerbaijanis as well as a territorial dispute. Yet, the English and Irish get on fine and the battle is between the nationalist minority and not the majority of people.

However, here in this region it is those nationalists that effectively brainwash the population and intimidate or threaten anyone who suggests another approach. This is the problem of the South Caucasus, especially when it is the governments that perpetuate ethnic rivalry for their own benefit.

Until that changes there will neither be democracy or any notable change in the region. Of course, we can agree to differ, but this is how I look at it, and as a British citizen find the petty ethnic rivalries somewhat backwards and provincial, just as political debate and societies are here anyway.

Those looking to the future with an open mind however, instead of looking at the past with an often distorted and subjective view force fed through schools and the mass media, offer the hope that governments have so far failed to deliver on. Of course, I understand that I am in the minority with that view.

Oh well...

Karen Jallatyan | July 26, 2009 7:25 PM | Reply

I agree, dear Onnik, with your observations about the republics of Caucasus. Yet, I am rather skeptical in the paths for progress that you are suggesting - such as grassroots pressuring of governments to heed to the majority's demands - given the fact that the region is surrounded with three not less provincial, undemocratic and backward governments: I mean Russia, Turkey and Iran. And surely, these governments are using and will use their influence on the region to promote their interests and would rather see puppet governments in the Caucasus. They are using the conflict in Karabagh, Osetia and Abkhazia for their own interests. It seems that a peaceful and developing Caucasus is not in non of their interests. Do you think it will be possible to overcome or at least circumvent their influence?

Nareg Seferian | July 27, 2009 5:06 AM | Reply

Surely the examples of the English and the Irish, the Germans and the French - just about everyone in Western and Northern Europe - are remarkable and worthy of emulation. But they are such recent events, having only been initiated after the Second World War. I believe that the strong thumb of the United States in establishing NATO and what became the European Union in the face of the Soviet threat gave those efforts the greatest push. Plus, having a good economy, a population that is relatively well-off, helps a great deal.

I hope to see this region in that same state sometime, but the variables are just so many and so uncontrollable. The Europeans "getting over" their past differences are the exception in the world, not the rule, and, in fact, stereotypes and new differences, such as with recent immigrants, tend to crop up, and some issues remain, such as the Basques, or the troubles in the Balkans.

I hope to see this region "get over" its past as well and, you are right, the attitude of the leadership is tremendously important for that. But that's just it; it is the leadership which suddenly has to render itself mature and far-sighted, and maybe such a leadership will stem from a younger, more aware generation, but the tradition of grassroots influence on governments doesn't get very far around here, I find.

I do look forward myself, though, to the day when the societies of the region maintain their extremist nationalists in a minority. Can't argue against that.

Onnik Krikorian | July 27, 2009 7:23 AM | Reply

Nareg, do not forget the opposition too. These stereotypes and ethnic divisions are also played up a lot by them too. It remains to be seen whether they will exploit a possible Karabakh peace if such an agreement is as close as some say. However, the signs do not look good.

Onnik Krikorian | August 18, 2009 12:22 AM | Reply

As an indication of how ridiculous the situation in Azerbaijan can get, news just in reports that yet another scandal connected to Eurovision has emerged. Quite frankly, and despite infantile antics from both sides in the past, this is just plain stupid and one supposes that Azerbaijan should now face suspension from the competition unless it sorts its act out. Is Baku interested in peaceful relations with Armenia or not?

Forty-three people in Azerbaijan who voted for a song by neighbouring Armenia in the Eurovision Song Contest have been questioned by the police. One man told the BBC he was accused of being unpatriotic and a "potential security threat", after he sent a text backing Armenia's song, Jan Jan.


The BBC's South Caucasus correspondent, Tom Esslemont, says it is unclear why the Azeri authorities have chosen to call people in for questioning three months after this year's Eurovision song contest.

Civil rights campaigners say freedom of expression is increasingly suppressed in Azerbaijan under the presidency of Ilham Aliyev.

Through this latest row, some have even accused his government of attempting to provoke tensions with Armenia, 15 years after the war over Nagorno-Karabakh left the two countries scarred and bitterly divided, our correspondent says. link

What do you think?