The information war surrounding the Nagorno-Karabakh peace process appears to be intensifying. Electronic sniping between Armenians and Azerbaijanis is spreading into new areas, including social networks, wikis and blogs. Some commentators believe that Azerbaijan is gaining the upper hand.
For years, Armenia arguably dominated the electronic fight, relying on a host of multilingual websites featuring Armenia-angled news about the disputed territory. In addition, members of the country's active Diaspora recently launched an Armenian-language global search engine, Hanguyc. Meanwhile, Russian online news services often supported Armenian arguments -- a reflection of the long-term special relationship between Russia and Armenia. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
But Azerbaijan has made major advances of late on the online battlefield. This has prompted calls for a counter-attack by Armenian Internet users. "Many nationalist activists here seem to think that Azerbaijan has gotten an upper hand in the online information war," commented Onnik Krikorian, a prominent Yerevan-based blogger and the Caucasus editor for Global Voices Online, an international network of bloggers and citizen journalists.
Based on Internet access statistics, Azerbaijan would indeed seem to be doing well in the battle over Karabakh spin. The country has experienced a 12,400 percent increase in Internet access since 2000, according to data portal Internet World Stats. Roughly 18.2 percent of the country's 8.2 million residents can now go online, compared with a mere 5.8 percent of Armenia's population of 2.98 million.
Given those numbers, there are signs that web warfare has become an important instrument in the Azerbaijani government's foreign policy toolkit.
Baku recently has scored several significant web-based victories. In its weather listings, for example, Microsoft's MSN.com indicated Karabakh as an entity independent of Azerbaijan, with the word "disputed" added in parentheses to define its status. Google, in turn, listed Azerbaijan's Nakhichevan exclave, which is surrounded by Armenia, separately from Azerbaijan in its map service.
After Azerbaijan's embassy in Washington demanded an explanation, both Google and Microsoft made changes to show that both territories belonged to Baku, adding the qualification "Azerbaijan" after both Karabakh and Nakhichevan.
Those virtual victories followed another gain over Armenia on Wikipedia, the user-generated online reference site. On August 24, the Azerbaijani online news site Day.az, an outlet reportedly close to President Ilham Aliyev's administration, issued a call to readers to help detect "errors" on Wikipedia. As an example of such errors, the outlet pointed to a Wikipedia statement that Armenia "borders with Artsakh to the southeast."
Armenians widely use "Artsakh" as the name for Karabakh. The Wikipedia entry in question now contains more neutral language, saying that Armenia borders Iran, Turkey, Georgia and Azerbaijan.
Emin Huseynzade, the Baku-based Caucasus project manager for Transitions Online, a media development organization and online journal, states that Azerbaijan's Ministry of Foreign Affairs has also used crowd-sourcing to respond to YouTube videos that are seen as having an anti-Azerbaijan message. Users either report the videos as abusing YouTube's terms of usage to trigger their removal, or post clips in response.
"Azerbaijan is catching up, thanks to the accessibility of information on the Internet and to its growing Diaspora, whose members are increasingly conscious of what they perceive as distortions and try their best to correct them," said independent media analyst Nikki Kazimova, who has long followed the two countries' online labors.
The Azerbaijani Foreign Ministry, which has recently encouraged attempts to organize Diaspora communities in order to counter Armenia's own well-financed Diaspora groups, could well have a role in promoting Azeri Diaspora responses, Kazimova believes.
Armenian officials are now looking for ways to use the Internet to bolster their diplomatic position. Armenian media outlets have reported that President Serzh Sargsyan's office has set up an email hotline to report online "anti-Armenian activity," according to Krikorian. Sargsyan's office did not respond to an emailed request seeking to substantiate the reports.
Meanwhile, with Facebook and Twitter's membership mushrooming, the Internet's role in both countries' information campaigns is likely to increase. "[The] [o]nline world ha[s] much more channels, than [the] traditional media [for information campaigns]," Huseynzade noted in an email exchange. "Especially for diplomatic issues it is vital? Printing some article in [The] New York Times is not [as] effective as forming greater, [more] effective communities in Twitter."
[Editor's Note: Huseynzade works for Transitions Online, which receives funding from the Open Society Institute. EurasiaNet operates under OSI's auspices. In addition, Onnik Krikorian has worked in the past as a freelance writer for EurasiaNet].
Both Huseynzade and Krikorian say that Armenian and Azerbaijani officials have largely overlooked public diplomacy opportunities available online.
Among the few exceptions is DOTCOM, a US State Department-sponsored program that selects 90 students from Armenia, Azerbaijan and the United States to provide coverage of issues of mutual interest, including the Nagorno-Karabakh situation, and to distribute it through international online networks.
But this appears to be a drop in the sea of blogs and online campaigns that seem to perpetuate the divisions between the two countries. Initiatives to collect signatures for both sides' opposing views on the Karabakh question are proliferating on Facebook, for instance. Meanwhile both Armenian and Azerbaijani bloggers admit they are using their blogs to offer opinionated analysis to Western audiences who, in their view, receive sanitized and inaccurate information about the countries of the South Caucasus.
Some observers see hidden benefits to all the online jousting. Before the advent of blogs and social networks, Armenians and Azerbaijanis rarely had opportunities to exchange views. Krikorian expressed hope that the changing means of communication might ultimately alter opinions. "The Internet keeps lines of communication open, even if there are those in both directly countries who would rather they didn't exist at all," he wrote in an April 2009 blog entry.
Giorgi Lomsadze is a freelance reporter based in Tbilisi.