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Can the Nagorno Karabakh conflict be resolved on Facebook?

14 November 2011 6 Comments

Facebook has long been a valuable tool for cross-border communication between Armenians and Azerbaijanis, especially as very few options other than meeting up in third countries such as Georgia exist. Locked into a bitter dispute over the mainly Armenian populated territory of Nagorno Karabakh, recent attempts to broker the basic principles for a final peace to end the war that raged fiercest in the early 1990s have faltered, with skirmishes and incidents on the front line separating the sides causing alarm, especially in recent years.

Earlier this year the International Crisis Group warned of the danger of an ‘accidental war,’ while my own work, recently again presented two weeks ago, which set the the precedent and also the example for others to follow in facilitating open communication between young Armenians and Azerbaijanis via new and social media, might at least offer some hope in offering alternative narratives on Nagorno Karabakh. Nevertheless, despite this success, online tools such as Facebook have failed to reach most online users in both countries and continue to also be used by nationalists in order to perpetuate rather than resolve conflict.

This was most evident a few weeks ago when a Facebook Question was sent to me asking who Nagorno Karabakh belonged to. The possible answers that Facebook users could choose from were limited to just two — Armenia or Azerbaijan. Obviously, the question had only one intention — to see which side could attract the most numbers to justify their position even if it changed nothing on the ground. There were no other options — not even a ‘Don’t know’ or ‘Don’t Care,’ positions that the prevailing mindset in both countries demands all citizens display knee jerk reactions to.

 

 

However, and perhaps in response to the somewhat loaded Facebook question, another user of the social networking site, Geysar Gurbanov, posed another. Rather than seek to strengthen the hardline positions on both sides, the Azerbaijani blogger and researcher asked another more relevant one: What is the most effective solution for Nagorno-Karabakh conflict? which even solicited some interesting responses from other users ranging from thoughts on the need to replace the governing regimes to creating a regional federation, one of the possible answers.

The question, or rather the answers on offer, were not perfect, perhaps, but there were some interesting options on offer and certainly it represents the first mature and constructive use of Facebook Questions as it pertains to the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict I’ve seen since the service was introduced. Gurbanov has also recently posted an entry on his blog in order to get more people to participate and to also set the background to the question. Some Armenians might disagree with the framing of the conflict in his post, but it is again another example of a more mature use of new and social media.

 

Nevertheless, even so, the exercise also illustrates some of the problems with using Facebook in conflict resolution. Aside from the fact that neither the Armenian or Azerbaijani governments would abide by the results, more users are interested in participating in the first question which seeks only to polarize positions on the conflict. Secondly, Gurbanov’s question demonstrates the reality of what Global Voices co-founder and MIT Center for Civic Media Director Ethan Zuckerman calls ‘imaginary cosmopolitanism.’ That is, those connected on social media tend to make connections with like minded people and the situation is even more the case given low Facebook use in Armenia and Azerbaijan.

There are currently just 219,660 users in Armenia (7.4 percent penetration) and 526,180 (6.34 percent) in Azerbaijan according to Social Bakers while only 1,153 people from both sides have taken part in the poll as of 14th November 2011. Over 52,000 people answered the more mutually nationalist-inclined question of “Garabagh (Qarabağ) is Azerbaijan land or Armenian?’

Nevertheless, despite that, I applaud Gurbanov’s initiative in so much that he has tried to be more constructive in attempts to use Facebook to initiate discussion on resolving the conflict. Even if the most popular answer at time of writing is for Azerbaijan to launch a new war to take back Karabakh and the seven (formerly Azerbaijani-populated ) regions surrounding it currently under Armenian control we can see that some users have other options to choose from. The second most popular answer, for example, supports mutual concessions in the interest of peace. A distant third supports regional integration and the establishment of a political union in the South Caucasus.

More significantly, perhaps, it at least demonstrates that while there are those who seek a military solution to the conflict or a continuation of the situation of ‘no peace, no war,’ the two options favored by the majorities in Azerbaijan and Armenia respectively according to recent town hall meetings in the region, there are at least some moderate voices on both sides. However, in answer to the question posed by this post, “Can the Nagorno Karabakh conflict be resolved on Facebook?” the answer is clearly no, especially as the vast majority of Armenians and Azerbaijanis do not use the site according to Caucasus Resource Research Centers (CRRC) data on Internet use in the region.

Even so, I’m sure Gurbanov is under no illusion that on its own it can be, and his question more demonstrates that online social networking and new tools can at least result in some kind of contemplation and discussion albeit among much smaller groups in both societies. Certainly it can contribute to the process, and the use of such tools does have a place, although arguably in combination with other more traditional grassroots campaigns. Geysar Gurbanov’s Facebook Question is here.

Onnik Krikorian is a journalist and photojournalist from the United Kingdom based in Yerevan, Armenia, who has covered the Nagorno Karabakh conflict since first visiting the territory in 1994. He is also the Caucasus Editor for Global Voices Online and assisted Thomas de Waal in the research for Black Garden: Armenia and Azerbaijan Through Peace and War.

From June 2008 he has pioneered the use of new and social media in Armenia-Azerbaijan cross-border communication and in December 2009 launched Caucasus Conflict Voices, an unfunded voluntary grassroots online project, the first of its kind. He regularly writes, presents and trains internationally on the use of social media in conflict resolution in the South Caucasus.

Cross-posted on the Peace and Collaborative Development Network.

6 Comments »

  • admin said:

    Incidentally, another interesting ‘feature’ of Facebook Questions is that it is possible to see who chooses what answers. Although this does arguably pose some privacy and security issues it does at least also offer an interesting insight into how people, including those in our personal social graphs, think. Therefore, this might also prove to be a useful tool for selecting individuals for conflict resolution and peace building initiatives albeit with some caveats to be discussed in a later post.

  • Armenia-Azerbaijan: Facebook Diplomacy · Global Voices said:

    […] asks a Facebook Question and explains why. In a separate post, Global Voices' Caucasus Editor comments on the initiative and what it means for using social media in conflict resolution. […]

  • admin said:

    Meanwhile, a comment has been left on Geysar’s Facebook page re. this post:

    http://www.facebook.com/geysargurbanov/posts/275785225796803?notif_t=mentions_comment

    In it, there is mention that while the question re. who Karabakh belongs to was posed by an Azerbaijani page and sent to me by an Armenian, it is not just one side that does so.

    Examples given from the Armenian side are at:

    http://www.facebook.com/?sk=question&id=108324605945566&post_id=110787319032628&qa_ref=qd

    http://www.facebook.com/?sk=question&id=108324605945566&post_id=110787319032628&qa_ref=qd

    http://www.facebook.com/?sk=question&id=301359256543131&post_id=304759192869804&qa_ref=qd

    It’s why, btw, when I received the first question posted from Azerbaijan, but ‘re-asked’ to create some kind of polarized competition by an Armenian, and then saw Geysar’s question I updated my Facebook status thus:

    “Tired of the questions doing the round on Facebook asking who Karabakh ‘belongs’ to (and which are probably designed to perpetuate conflict rather than resolve it). Glad someone is instead asking a more sensible question…”

    Like I said, great move and very welcomed. A nice precedent and example of a mature use of social media both sides could learn from.

  • Armenia & the South Caucasus | » Can the Nagorno Karabakh conflict be resolved on Facebook? said:

    […] The full post can be read on Caucasus Conflict Voices. […]

  • Cimi said:

    The Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs from Colombia spoke at the Global Perspectives lecture series at Azerbaijan Diplomatic Academy about a month back. A local student asked how Colombia(as have tried Russia, USA & France) can help Azerbaijan resolve the NK conflict and Minister said more or less, sometimes you must do it for yourselves. Colombia has a history of brokering peaceful settlements for others(Honduran coup 2009), and she sees the value of looking past angst and animosity towards mutual prosperity for the region and its inhabitants(spatterings with Venezuela along the border 2000s).
    Having lived in Baku for three months now, I am a regular invite to the infamous territory question on facebook, as are all of my closest international friends. Surprised and at the same time not surprised by the fire that continues to burn between some of Arm and Aze, we found the words of the Colombian Minister quite relevant to the situation–that perhaps both sides perpetuating angst through division-creating questions can perhaps learn from in hopes of regenerating regional harmony, or at the very least sustainable stablization.

  • Joshua Hill said:

    The article was very interesting to me as this is a question that I have been thinking on for about a year now. I have been looking and thinking on how social media might be able to play some sort of a role in the resolution of Nagorno-Karabakh, or if it would be more of a deterrence. I myself have been invited to many groups and questions on the topic and have largely tried to avoid them for some of the same negative reasons that the article talks about. It is great to know that others are also looking at and working on this through the social media lens.

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