The Russia-brokered truce stopped on November 10th the war in Nagorno-Karabakh, fought by missiles and keyboards, on the front and through massive propaganda, by both Armenia and Azerbaijan. The violent rhetoric has followed the entire conflict, based on the demonization of the enemy and the military recapture of the territories, theatre of 30 years of death and enmity. The independent Azerbaijani journalist, Arzu Geybullayeva, wrote about the conflict through the critical eyes of who has been researching about injustice, gender inequalities and corruption within the country for 11 years. She has worked with the Italian think-tank OBC Transeuropa for nine years, with CNN International and has written for Al Jazeera, Global Voices and the independent Armenian newspaper Agos.
She refuses the way this war has been fought, also by the politics and national media outlets. As well as other journalists and intellectuals, both Armenians and Azerbaijani, she believes that dialogue is the only concrete peaceful solution to the war and that such violent rhetoric has to change. By doing so, she has been strongly criticised, threatened and she has been victim of online harassment. We interviewed her, asking about her work as an independent journalist reporting the war and her opinions on how the possibility of a real peace agreement would have been tangible if the two countries had really considered a peaceful dialogue.
What has been important for you in the coverage of the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh?
I was hired by CNN International, to research and write articles over the war. I worked with the US and EU office, and I collaborated with the Armenian contributor Aren Melikyan. Getting inside the news as much as possible was the main intent, cooperating with other international outlets too. It has been very different from the coverage seen from most of the Armenian and Azerbaijani media. Both adopted deeply violent rhetoric, and in my understanding that cannot be called journalism, not in the way I see it. I started writing personal reflections, and I was asked by my reference at the OBC Transeuropa to write about what this war meant to me. We, a generation of war, were looking back trying to explain where people like myself were coming from and how do we interpret this war, what we think of Karabakh.
How did the domestic media cover the conflict and what was people’s reaction?
The whole euphoria about the conflict… I still ask myself, how can we be fighting a war in the 21st century, when there’s diplomacy, and a solution can be achieved peacefully? Something even more frustrating was how the civil society in Azerbaijan reacted. I’m so disappointed by how they rallied behind the war rhetoric. Joining other media outlets for interviews, mostly for an international audience and writing in English, perhaps helped me covering the war. Contrarily, I don’t think I could’ve mentally survived just watching how the domestic media was covering the conflict.
It happened in the past already, but this time was harder because I was also targeted by people who I consider friends and many of my colleagues were following the official line. There was a lot of criticism about where I stand as a journalist. I couldn’t handle it and I had to de-activate all my social media because of that. Even checking my accounts after weeks, taking screenshots and documenting them as part of broader research on online harassment in Azerbaijan, was still hard. Unfortunately, I think that’s not just me, there’s a whole group of people in Azerbaijan and Armenia who signed a no war statement, same with leftist activists, and even at the platform Caucasus Talks have been targeted for their different view of the conflict.
Can you give us an example?
When I reported some news regarding the presence of Syrian fighters in Nagorno-Karabakh, although it was proven by evidence and reports of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, I was accused of being lying, that I was sharing fake news.
I was even asked how I could consider myself a journalist… when I was just doing my job.
In my reasonings, I always aim to put aside differences, the anger we have for each other, but people just answered how I could ever talk about moving on when Armenians killed the Azerbaijani people. Although no one was denying all those deaths. I believe we can’t keep living with this kind of anger, living in the past, we need to move forward, we need to build a better future so that generations after us don’t have to face this and I failed. I couldn’t get this point across when I said that I’m happy for the people internally displaced of Azerbaijan who are now able to come back home, but I cannot celebrate the return of territories because I’m aware that so many lives were sacrificed for this. And I was criticised for that.
What about your proposition of dialogue?
Right now, it’s really hard to talk about dialogue, there’s just too much damage. It’s been very painful for the people who work on conflict transformation programmes these years, who really thought that they were contributing to something that could eventually turn into a peaceful coexistence. I’ve spent 4 or 5 years working in dialogue programmes and we still have amazing projects on the table, bringing Azerbaijani and Armenians together. We believed that living side by side was the answer, addressing them to what they have in common, focusing on the history of the region and the developing of their relationship.
No one dares to talk about it and on both sides, the interpretations over the Nagorno-Karabakh are profoundly different and divisive. We just rely on history texts written by others and on the recounts of it. We had the idea of creating two “teams”, which had to come up with around ten significant dates for them. Then a dialogue followed, addressing the reasoning on why and how that date was important for them, with the final purpose of explaining to each other their own perspective. It was not about them accepting anything, it was about understanding the context, the mentality of a person raised through the propaganda machine, Armenians and Azerbaijani people.
What should change to ensure a real dialogue of peace?
For these initiatives to be effective, the effort must be unanimous, including diplomatic support, for the whole structure of the dialogue to change and lead to peace. But I consider it very hard, at this time. The whole geographical context has changed during the war and for this reason, the whole dialogue programme has to take place in the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, not in a third place. At the same time, the whole rhetoric has to change, together with people’s perception of the other, starting with education and social programmes. Even the Presidents’ speeches, both Pashinyan and Aliyev, were led just by enmity. There’s plenty of people interested in this process, but it takes time and above all the intention to carry it on.
How strong were Azerbaijani national political interests in engaging in the conflict?
My answer to the interests going into war lies on the fact that the economy in Azerbaijan has been in crisis for about two years and the Government has not been able to manage the social and economic well-being of its citizens. It was unable to cope adequately with the crisis caused by covid-19, leaving people in lockdown for most of the summer. The economic crisis worsened by the pandemic, the flawed elections in January and the escalation of violence in July simply led to people’s exasperation.
The death of the general Polad Hashimov was the first “important” since the 1994 conflict and he was described as an honest man. The government used the episode to trigger a war that it already knew it would win, which it was already militarily prepared for. It was a way to ensure its popularity, and it succeeded. If we now return to the elections, Aliyev would win, without even rigging the elections.
Who really won this war after all?
There’s much conversation around who’s the winner or the loser of this war. I think it’s clear who won the conflict. The Azerbaijani Government is the clear winner. But at the same time, Russia has now peacekeeping forces in the territory, and it never had a military presence in the area. Turkey too, I believe did pretty well for itself, as a supporter of Azerbaijan during the war, and Israel is satisfied with the outcome.
However, I do not think that we have resolved anything in Nagorno-Karabakh. What was signed on November 10 was just another ceasefire, it’s not a peace agreement and we still don’t even know what will be the next steps of the Government, if the Azerbaijani will actually return in Nagorno-Karabakh if Armenians will stay there or not. What’s going to happen to the Armenians who left the territories? And how they will leave?
How do you consider the solution found to this conflict?
On one side, there’s the unsolved question of the State. Aliyev declared that there will be no independent State of Nagorno-Karabakh as long as he’s alive, but before the ceasefire, he talked about the autonomy of the region. Without a real peace agreement, we just stopped fighting. But at what cost? We lost at least 5 thousand men on our side.
On the other side, yes, Azerbaijan took back the occupied territories, including the city of Shusha, but in the long term, the conflict has still not been resolved. I would approach this with caution because, in absence of any visible plan, I don’t see this as a victory for any side. That is a temporary victory for a number of actors playing, it feels like a victory to the Azerbaijani people. The return of the territories is particularly important for the International Displaced People, but because of the complexity of the conflict and the human and political factors playing here, I wonder how the situation will be handled in the next five years when the peacekeeping forces will be gone.
Did the Armenian media outlets have the same violent rhetoric as the Azerbaijani one during the conflict?
The Armenian side used very similar rhetoric as the Azerbaijani one, following one national line. But I’ve been interviewed by an Armenian journalist, a former colleague from Agos, Armenian independent newspaper, for which I’ve worked, and we shared a similar perspective on the conflict. In both countries, independent journalists keep writing, but propaganda equally does. I chose to follow the way of professionalism, the same did some other colleagues, in Armenia too.
How difficult is it for an independent journalist to report the news in Azerbaijan?
A lot of independent platforms covering the conflict were massively ashamed because people didn’t like how they covered the war. So, in terms of information control, and the surveillance technology used on the opposition outlet, it’s very hard for an independent journalist. Internet has been shut down during the conflict and the government’s information control has been massive.
But on the other side, it’s also relevant to say that some of those independent platforms became pro-government during the war, using the same type of language and reporting. The only independent news agency in the country began using the same language of the ministry… that’s it. Independent journalists are unmotivated to keep updating their websites, and that’s another victory of the Government. But because of the whole situation, I think it makes even more important – to independent journalists – to keep doing their work, even if it has a cost, even from a different outlet, to make their opinion heard.
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