A three-day exchange between Armenian and Azerbaijani journalists has concluded — the first exchange of its kind in almost two decades.
On 17-21 November, one journalist each from Armenia’s Shant TV and Mediamax, and one from Nagorno-Karabakh’s Public Television station visited Azerbaijan, while three Azerbaijani journalists, from Trend, 1news.az, and Vestnik Kavkaza, visited Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh.
The journalists met with their local counterparts, as well as representatives of local NGOs.
Similar exchanges have taken place in the past. One of the Armenian participants, Artyom Yerkanyan, himself has visited Baku in 1996 and 2001.
The exchange was organised by the OSCE with the support of the governments in Armenia, Nagorno-Karabakh, and Azerbaijan.
Over the past year, the concept of ‘preparing the populations for peace’ has been a prominent talking point in negotiations between Armenia and Azerbaijan. The leaders of the two countries confirmed their commitment to the idea during their meeting in Vienna in March 2019, it was an unprecedented move.
The Armenian delegation visited Baku and the cities of Guba and Ganja while Azerbaijani journalists travelled to Yerevan, the town of Dilijan, and to Nagorno-Karabakh.
News of the exchange was first reported by Azerbaijani news outlet Turan on 14 November, which stated the exchange would focus on building mutual trust.
However, details, including the dates of the exchange, were kept secret until after it concluded. There were no open calls for journalists to take part and the criteria on which they were chosen is unclear.
On 23 November, the Armenian and Azerbaijani foreign ministries both confirmed the exchange took place.
A significant visit
In an interview on Shant TV, Artyom Yerkanyan, a journalist at the channel, said the exchange was different to those in the past because it took place with the support of the Armenian and Azerbaijani leaders.
‘This visit also stood out because this time we had a representative from Nagorno-Karabakh, Edgar Elbakyan from Artsakh Public TV. It was also the first time that Azerbaijani journalists visited Nagorno-Karabakh.’
Yerkanyan said the visit was important for him because he hoped it would help facilitate peace and mutual trust.
Speaking to Azatutyun, he noted that there had been fewer casualties in the conflict over the past year. ‘If this is a result of similar initiatives, then I believe this is a good thing.’
In his article ‘Facing the Myths: Four Days in Azerbaijan’, Davit Alaverdyan from Mediamax, one of the Armenian participants, said the visit was significant because it was also co-organised by the government in Nagorno-Karabakh.
‘Moreover, the security of the Azeri journalists was ensured by local security services. The foreign Ministry of Artsakh [Nagorno-Karabakh] contacted Azerbaijani authorities directly through OSCE and discussed the details of the visit.’
Avaz Hasanov a human rights activist and director of the Society for Humanitarian Research in Azerbaijan, told OC Media that while academics and experts from the two countries had previously made such trips ‘in the name of public diplomacy’, this visit was more significant because of its public nature.
‘Now we need visits and meetings that are more dynamic and open to the public. Now you can go there and do interviews and skype conferences. That is, as technological capabilities of information transfer are increased, there is no longer a need for closed meetings with limited audiences’, Hasanov said. ‘That is why journalists are involved in this process so that journalists can report this information to the public sooner.’
All three journalists from the Armenian delegation shared some of their experiences following their return from the exchange.
In his interview with Shant TV, Artyom Yerkanyan said the visit was ‘very constructive’, though he expressed dismay at some of what he saw.
‘We visited an old Armenian church in Baku which is now a library storage. There is no cross on it anymore.’
‘They had organised an exhibition there, including pictures of “cultural genocide” by Armenians of mosques in Nagorno-Karabakh, which was refuted by our colleague Edgar Elbakyan. They also showed us some Armenian books dating back to the 18th century that they had in their collection.’
Yerkanyan said the church was special to him as his grandmother, who was from Baku, was baptised there.
In an interview with Azatutyun, Yerkanyan spoke of several stereotypes he said Azerbaijanis had of Armenians.
‘They are of the belief that if it wasn’t for the Armenian Diaspora, the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and any issues between the two populations would have been solved’, he said.
‘They think that the Diaspora invests money into the country only if Armenia makes no concessions in the Karabakh conflict. This, of course, is not true.’
Yerkanyan also mentioned that during their meetings, Azerbaijanis showed an interest in the Amulsar Gold Mine, a controversial multi-million dollar investment in Armenia which has now temporarily halted its construction due to environmental protests.
Yerkanyan said the Azerbaijanis believed that if the mine is completed Armenia would grow into an economic powerhouse in the region.
Edgar Elbakyan from Nagorno-Karabakh’s public TV made several Facebook posts following the visit.
In one he said the visit had convinced him that ‘the prospects of an Armenian state would not have been possible had we lost the war in the 1990s’.
‘Our very positive, productive and warm visit assured me of this one last time.’
In his article for Mediamax, Davit Alaverdyan said: ‘My impression was that ordinary citizens of Azerbaijan, like Armenians, do not want another war and hope a peaceful solution will be found sooner or later’.
‘On the other hand, military rhetoric is much stronger in Azerbaijan than in Armenia and the society lives in expectation of hostilities.’
‘The idea of a de jure independent Artsakh [Nagorno-Karabakh] makes people in Azerbaijan mad, be that journalists, ordinary members of society, or officials. Without an objective picture of life in Artsakh, Baku is guided by strange myths and legends.’
Alaverdyan also said he got the impression that the people they met in Azerbaijan were specifically chosen and prepared by the Azerbaijani authorities.
So far, only one of the Azerbaijani participants of the exchange, Elshan Rustamov from 1NEWS.az, has written about the experience.
In his first article, titled ‘ “I have never met an Azerbaijani in my life” — A report from Yerevan’, Rustamov said the visit was ‘one of the most interesting and important events’ in his life.
Speaking of their visit to the Blue Mosque in Yerevan, Rustamov lamented that there was ‘no mention of the history of my people’.
‘If the Armenian side really wants to achieve peace with Azerbaijan, then first, it must present its citizens with real history.’
Several times in the article he portrayed Armenia as being less developed, noting that ‘the chess school, where the chess player Levon Aronian welcomed us quite warmly, was remembered for the Soviet-era repairs, shabby carpets and an old TV, which I last saw somewhere in the 90s.’
He said that on the main road to Dilijan ‘we did not see a single decent restaurant or store […] which surprised us very much.’
‘We did not see any large-scale infrastructure projects being implemented in the capital or regions’, he said. ‘Which indicates the lack of financial opportunities for the state.’
Rustamov did note a large number of IT companies and employees in Armenia.
In his second article, titled ‘Such different Armenians: how the Armenians of Yerevan and Karabakh differ’, Rustamov lamented that the people in Yerevan with whom he met ‘were not particularly interested in resolving the conflict’.
In contrast, he said: ‘Armenians living in Nagorno-Karabakh… They are seriously concerned about the unresolved conflict.’
He also spoke of ‘widespread propaganda of a belligerent mood’ in Yerevan.
‘It seems to be unobtrusive at the household level, but on the walls, souvenirs, t-shirts — almost everywhere one sees photographs the “hero of Armenia”, in fact, famous terrorist, Monte Melkonian.’
Rustamov criticised articles written by the Armenian participants of the exchange. ‘What they wrote look more like political statements, and not travel reports.’
Reactions to the exchange
After news of the upcoming exchange broke on 14 November it was discussed widely in Azerbaijan.
Political commentator and journalist Azer Rashidoglu wrote on Facebook that he did not welcome the exchange.
‘I was one of the first to be offered a place after the project started, and my answer at that time remains unchanged — I can only go to Yerevan and the occupied Karabakh by tank.’
‘I do not accept any peace-loving visits or projects. If they do not liberate our lands, I support the war.’
Military expert Uzeyir Jafarov wrote on Facebook that he participated in such a mission in 2001 but criticised the Azerbaijani participants of this exchange.
‘More or less, 18 years later, you disrespect the graves of martyrs and participate in the games of Armenian-Russian thugs.’
Reacting to the exchange, political commentator Ilham Ismail said in an article for Moderator.az that in 25 years time, the conflict would still not be solved.
‘In this way, another 25 years will pass, the land will not return, and for our future generations, the lands of Karabakh will be understood as a controversial subject. and today, as Armenian journalists arrive in Baku, tomorrow [Armenian Prime Minister] Pashinyan's grandchildren will arrive.’
MP Agil Abbas told local media that he did not think positively of the Armenians’ visit to Baku.
‘We are in a state of war with Armenia. Could Germans go to Moscow or Russians to Germany during the Great Patriotic War? That’s why such trips are a game, they play a game called “peace”.’
On 16 November, several journalists attempted to hold a protest in front of the Foreign Ministry. They chanted slogans such as ‘Armenians leave Baku’.
The reaction in Azerbaijan was not entirely negative. Aflatun Amashov an MP and Chair of the Press Council, said the issue should be approached logically.
‘A search for peace is in progress and any initiatives that can push this process forward should be evaluated. We must take advantage of every opportunity to turn negotiations with the enemy in our favour.’
‘Yes, Armenia is an enemy for their occupation of our lands. But the name of our relationship today with the Armenians on the ground of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is the peace talks. Our state is working on this.’
MP Elman Nasirov told local media that it was good for Armenian journalists to see development in Azerbaijan.
‘Armenian journalists will see with their own eyes the development, stability and security in our country. They will visit Baku, one of the most beautiful cities in the world. Here people live in peaceful, safe surroundings. Armenian journalists will be sure that the Armenians have not been able to achieve the weakening and recession of our country by occupying a part of Azerbaijan's territory.’
In Armenia, the reaction was more muted. In an interview with 1in.am following the exchange.
My Step faction MP Tatevik Hayrapetyan did say the exchange was important, but added the caveat that ‘Azerbaijan still continues with its aggressive rhetoric’.
‘To say that the other side changed in 1-2 days or that the journalist exchange signifies change, I believe, is not possible’, she said.
Former MP Styopa Safaryan told Azatutyun that such visits were important. ‘If both sides continue to talk, not negotiate, on a state level, as well as between media and NGO representatives, then this means they are considering a solution to the conflict without war.’
‘There is a great wall between us,’ he said, ‘especially in terms of the policy conducted by Azerbaijani authorities, which includes anti-Armenian hysteria and hatred towards Armenians. It is important for us to understand what they are thinking and why.’
Safaryan said it didn’t matter if the Armenian side did not like what they heard in Azerbaijan or vice versa. ‘What’s most important is that both sides can avoid miscalculations and maintain this delicate peace’.
For ease of reading, we choose not to use qualifiers such as ‘de facto’, ‘unrecognised’, or ‘partially recognised’ when discussing institutions or political positions within Abkhazia, Nagorno-Karabakh, and South Ossetia. This does not imply a position on their status.