In a situation where Armenia and Azerbaijan are meant to be negotiating to end the conflict over the disputed territory of Nagorno Karabakh, civil society should be very active. However, it doesn't appear as though it is, and not least because few people actually believe that a breakthrough is possible, especially when cross-border activities are far simpler to conduct in the area of Armenia-Turkey relations. Indeed, and to be quite frank, it is difficult to consider that much is going on at all. Meanwhile, the situation isn't helped by the fact that few Azerbaijani civil society activists visit Armenia, and even fewer Armenians visit Azerbaijan. In short, an environment conducive to peace or conflict resolution doesn't seem to exist.
Last year, for example, at a Conciliation Resources round-table on Nagorno Karabakh held in Yerevan, the Armenian capital, two Azerbaijanis were meant to attend in order to deliver papers written on the conflict. However, because the Ministry of Foreign Affairs had reportedly cancelled an informal and unwritten agreement not to mark their passports with an exit stamp upon departure from Armenia, they didn't. Having such an exit stamp in a passport can create unnecessary problems entering into Azerbaijan, and especially if you're a local activist. Rather than welcome exchanges between civil society activists, it would appear that the authorities in Yerevan, and particularly in Baku, seem more interested in preventing them instead.
It should also be pointed out that while it is possible to telephone Azerbaijan from Armenia, even if it is likely to be monitored, it is impossible to ring Armenia from Azerbaijan.
However, as I mentioned to the British Ambassador at the time, rather than have no Azerbaijani view point represented as a result, online tools could have offered a solution. In particular, and as the event was held in a luxury downtown hotel in Yerevan with a fast Internet connection, I suggested Skype, a free application for audio and video communication which I've been using for over two years to communicate with friends and associates in Azerbaijan. It would have been perfect for such a situation and very easy to incorporate at very short notice. Indeed, as Armenians rarely if ever hear the opinion of Azerbaijanis, and the same is true vice-versa, it's also something I've tried to set as a precedent using Skype for online interviews uploaded as audio podcasts in my own work.
So, when the British Ambassador in Armenia told me earlier this month that one of the projects the Foreign and Commonwealth Office's Conflict Pool was funding was a series of video conferences between Armenian and Azerbaijani youth at the Civil Society Institute in Yerevan, it was naturally of interest. Even more so, perhaps, because unlike many other similar initiatives, the project would not only involve Armenians in Armenia and Azerbaijanis in Azerbaijan, but also ethnic Armenian youth in the disputed territory of Nagorno Karabakh. Even if there are a few projects involving Armenians and Azerbaijanis, even those in third countries such as Georgia rarely involve anyone from Karabakh.
Obviously, as the root cause of the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan is actually the disputed territory itself, this seems an obvious oversight, although it has to be said that for many NGOs the sensitivities and emotions involved are too great. Incidentally, the same could be said for the lack of involvement of Azerbaijanis from Nagorno Karabakh as well, although it is the opinion of the territory's mainly Armenian population that is the main issue at the heart of the conflict. Regardless, the rare participation of all three groups in this case was very positive indeed. Of more interest to me, however, was what tools would they be using for the online cross-border meetup?
Not surprisingly, it was Skype. It's not the only tool that could have been used, of course, but it is the most obvious and widely accessible.
Anyway, after two days of training with representatives of PeaceJam, an international foundation which aims to "create future young leaders committed to positive change through the inspiration of Nobel Peace Laureates," the video conference was held, albeit with some minor technical problems such as one group having an older, non-compatible version of Skype which couldn't handle a three-way video chat. However, the issue was quickly resolved when the group in Baku upgraded to Skype 5.0, but the main point remained. Even free tools can revolutionize cross-border communication in conflict situations. Even now, considerable amounts of money are instead being spent for occasional meetings in person in neighboring Georgia.
That's important too, of course, but what happens when such meeting can't occur, or when participants return to their home countries and are unable to communicate until the next such meeting one, two, or even many more years later? Even for individuals, tools such as Skype and Facebook offer a solution.
Incidentally, talking of the use of new and social media in this area, one of the trainers was Larenda Twigg, PhD candidate at the University of Bradford's Department of Peace Studies focusing on indigenous movements and ICTs, and PeaceJam's U.K. Student Coordinator. Interestingly, I didn't have to introduce myself when I approached her at the end. She had already identified me as the Caucasus Editor of Global Voices and said that she had been following my own work in the area of cross-border communication, cooperation ... between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Always nice when that happens and an interesting chat re. the use of online tools, and some of the risks and obstacles which need to be overcome, followed.
One specific issue we spoke about was the need to take a holistic approach in using these new tools while also analyzing their effectiveness and ways in which projects can be improved. This project could greatly benefit from a social networking component, for example, especially for outreach. Indeed, perhaps this was the biggest disappointment about the exercise. Although I don't know if other events I admittedly wasn't present at had more participants, this one wasn't well attended. Indeed, were it not for the British Ambassador telling me about it, I wouldn't have known. There was nothing on Facebook, for example, and all outreach seemed to be only via an announcement made on their own site which I assume few access.
Obviously, in order for such a project to succeed and have a greater impact, more people need to be targeted and involved, especially those out of the immediate and sometimes narrow orbit of NGOs in both Armenia and Azerbaijan who arguably make up the majority of the population. However, as the project is ongoing, if anyone in Armenia, Azerbaijan and Nagorno Karabakh is reading this, you can still contact the relevant coordinators in either Yerevan (Monica Hovhannisyan at firstname.lastname@example.org), Baku (Avaz Hasanov at email@example.com), or Stepanakert (Irina Grigoryan at firstname.lastname@example.org) to get involved. There's also more information about the project online here.
For more coverage of the use of new and social media in conflict resolution and transformation in the South Caucasus, see our special coverage on Global Voices. Photos © Onnik Krikorian 2010