And so, the mutual visits of Armenian and Azerbaijani journalists to each other’s respective countries have taken place. It seemed impossible just a month ago, but now it is a fact of objective reality. Three Armenian journalists, including me, visited Baku, Quba and Gandzak (Gyanja) on November 17-21. In the same period of time, three Azerbaijani journalists paid visits to Yerevan, Dilijan, Shushi and Stepanakert.
Regardless of the results of this initiative, which are unclear yet, it is unique for several reasons:
- This is the first time that a journalist representing Artsakh visited Azerbaijan, and it was none other than Edgar Elbakyan, a known expert on Azerbaijan;
- This is the first time journalists from leading online media outlets of Azerbaijan visited Artsakh and saw for themselves what goes on there;
- The initiative was fully organized by the parties to Karabakh conflict and the visit to Artsakh was organized by the Foreign Ministry of Artsakh without mediation and support of the Armenian MFA. Moreover, the Azeri journalists guarded by local security services and they were accompanied by an Artsakhi scientist. The Foreign Ministry of Artsakh contacted Azerbaijani authorities directly through OSCE and discussed the details of the visit;
- Apart from the Personal Representative of the OSCE Chairperson-in-Office, no international organization, embassy or mediator took part in the negotiations or organization of the visits, which means that none of them can get PR for the initiative, contrary to previous cases;
- No meetings with officials were scheduled either in Armenia, Azerbaijan or Artsakh;
- The “mirror” initiative focused on meetings between journalists and representatives of NGOs, which were informal and were not filmed.
Although these facts are enough to illustrate the exclusiveness of the initiative, it should be noted that provided it is successful, Armenian and Azeri journalists will have another opportunity to make mutual visits. The issue is how the parties, including the OSCE Minsk Group co-chairs, define “successful”.
Now, let’s talk the visit itself.
It began with the meeting with Personal Representative of OSCE Chairperson-in-Office Andrzej Kasprzyk and his team in Tbilisi on November 17. Afterwards, we took a direct flight to Baku, where we arrived after midnight. Meanwhile, our Azeri colleagues crossed the Armenian border in the afternoon and had already seen Dilijan and Yerevan.
Our security was ensured at the highest level by 12 members of Special State Protection Service of Azerbaijan. In crowded areas, their number reached several dozen. I cannot say if there was real danger for the life and wellbeing of the three of us, but it felt strange to be surrounded by broad-shouldered men everywhere we went. It attracted attention from the locals too.
We got an impression that every person we met and talked to over those 4 days was selected and prepared for the initiative. On the Azerbaijani side, the visit was organized by the president’s staff, not the Foreign Ministry, so that might be the reason our interlocutors showed such affability and readiness to communicate. Many of them underlined we were the first Armenians they met. I will tell about these meetings in the next column. First, I want to focus on the questions which interested me the most and which motivated me to travel to Baku.
First of all, I did not hesitate for a second before taking up the offer, although I was not aware of the details of the initiative. I believe that any professional journalist would do the same. See the real state of affairs, get information from the original source, talk to different people and figure out what is going on – all that is invaluable to any reporter.
Out of the myriad of questions on my mind, on the way to Baku I found two of them the most important:
1) Is Azerbaijan preparing for war or peace?
2) What does the Azeri society ready to concede for the sake of peaceful resolution of Karabakh conflict?
I did not get the answer for the first question. My impression was that ordinary people of Azerbaijan, the same as Armenians, do not want another war and hope a peaceful solution will be found sooner or later. The government’s propaganda has convinced them that the economic state of Armenia and Artsakh is gradually worsening and Armenians will crawl to beg Azerbaijan for assistance in just a few years.
In Baku and other large cities especially, life is quite active and people don’t want to sacrifice stable income and property for a military victory, particularly given that it is not guaranteed. On the other hand, military rhetoric is much stronger in Azerbaijan than in Armenia and the society lives in expectation of hostilities. Unfortunately, we didn’t manage to speak with passerby in the streets, although the meetings we had showed us that the hatred and aggressiveness towards Armenians is not at a critical level despite the efforts of Ilham Aliyev’s government.
As for the possible readiness to make concessions, I can offer no good news. The idea of a de jure independent Artsakh makes people in Azerbaijan mad, be that journalists, ordinary members of the society or officials. Without an objective picture of life in Artsakh, Baku is guided by strange myths and legends, which I will touch on later as well. When we asked our interlocutors what concessions and compromise they see as possible, they mentioned “the highest level of self-governance” for Artsakh within Azerbaijan and the right to have its own police and security forces, promised large investments and social programs and even offered asphalting of roads and capital construction. They did not even realize that all that has been done in Artsakh for a long time and all that is nothing compared to the threat of physical annihilation that hangs above the heads of Artsakh’s Armenians like the sword of Damocles. These absurd ideas got so far that my colleague from Artsakh Public TV, asked if Azerbaijan would agree to become a part of Germany if it promised to invest in Azerbaijani economy and build factories.
In conclusion of this column, I would like to address the pessimists who doubt the reasonability of these visits. We, the journalists, are not government officials or politicians, or public figures. Our job is to ask questions and inform the society. It is wrong to deprive journalists of the right to obtain reliable information, opinions and comments and to report facts. Where truth is absent, the ground is fertile for falsehood, myths, and manipulation. I believe other Armenian journalists too should be able to travel to Azerbaijan. I also believe that Azeri journalists should visit Armenia and especially Artsakh. I understand that their reports might not always be objective and truthful. However, that is also an indicator of how different we are and how much more diverse our society is in terms of opinions.
You can be certain that every such visit helps consolidate the conviction that Artsakh cannot be part of Azerbaijan. At the very least, the three Azerbaijani journalists who visited Armenia and Artsakh already know it deep down in their hearts.
Davit Alaverdyan is Editor-in-Chief at Mediamax and Associate Professor at the Department of Journalism, Yerevan State University (YSU).