EVN Media Festival
May 26, 27, 28
The Artsakh blockade, which began with state-sponsored protests of Azerbaijani “eco-activists” and turned into a full-blown siege of Artsakh Armenians after the installation of an Azerbaijani checkpoint, is about to enter its fifth month. Due to Azerbaijan’s blockade of the Lachin Corridor, the only lifeline connecting Armenia and Artsakh, 120,000 ethnic Armenians have been trapped in the enclave. Since the start of this ongoing humanitarian crisis, various media outlets around the globe have covered the situation, including the Italian media. Although Italian-language coverage is not as extensive as it is in English or French, it plays an important role in informing Italian readers about the humanitarian crisis unfolding in Europe’s vicinity.
Armenia-Italy relations have a rich and deep historical background. The cultural contacts and connections between the two countries have spanned millennia and include an important Christian connection. Armenians have a visible cultural presence in Italy, with multiple Armenian churches located across the country, including on the island of San Lazzaro degli armeni in the Venetian Lagoon, and in Rome, Milan, Naples and Venice. Armenian leather craftsmen and jewellers have also made contributions to Italy’s world of fashion and luxury goods, with companies like Serapian in Milan and Tokatzian in Venice. The Armenian diaspora in Italy includes prominent Italian-Armenian public figures, such as writer Antonia Arslan, actor Paolo Kessisoglu, actress Laura Efrikian, and former Italian diplomat Laura Mirachian. During the 2020 Artsakh War, Antonia Arslan initiated an appeal for peace and democracy in support of Armenia and Artsakh, which was also supported and signed by famous Italian public figures of non-Armenian origin, including actor and director Carlo Verdone, conductor Riccardo Muti, and journalist Milena Gabanelli. Although Armenians in Italy constitute an important intellectual and cultural presence and are much loved by the locals, they are few in number. The Armenian communities in Italy grew somewhat in size after the Armenian Genocide, but the Armenian diaspora in Italy is not comparable to those in the U.S., France, or Russia, whether in terms of size or influence.
While the connection between Armenia and Italy is rich and of considerable historical, cultural and religious importance, the relationship between Italy and Azerbaijan is based primarily on strategic interests in the areas of energy and economy. Matteo Renzi’s government signed partnership agreements with Azerbaijan in multiple spheres, from the economy to culture, and since then the partnership has only deepened. As of 2021, Azerbaijan supplies gas to Italy and considers the country an important economic partner. Italy is the top export destination for Azerbaijan as of 2021, with Italian imports from Azerbaijan topping $23.3 billion in 2022.
Azerbaijan has gained notoriety for its “caviar diplomacy”, money laundering schemes, and extensive lobbying efforts. The Aliyev regime has even funded restoration work at Rome’s Imperial Fora and the Capitoline Museums, and has donated undisclosed sums of money to restore catacombs in The Vatican through the Heydar Aliyev Fund.
In 2016, the European Stability Initiative published an investigative report revealing Azerbaijani laundromat schemes and cases of bribing European politicians to whitewash the country’s image. One of the most high profile cases involved Italian politician Luca Volontè, who was charged with money laundering and accepting bribes. According to the prosecution, Volontè received 2.39 million EUR from Azerbaijani lobbyist Elkhan Suleymanov for blocking the vote on political prisoners in Azerbaijan at the Council of Europe from 2012-2013. In 2021, Volontè was sentenced to four years in jail, but in 2022 he was acquitted and the interdiction from public offices was lifted. Regardless of the verdicts of the Italian justice system, Volontè’s name is closely associated with the Azerbaijani lobbying schemes.
Azerbaijan’s efforts seem to have paid off: soon after the 2020 Artsakh War, an Italian parliamentary delegation paid a visit to Baku, being the first delegation from an EU member state to do so. Delegation members were taken to Agdam and Ganja, while the Azerbaijani president praised Italy’s stance towards his country and expressed interest in cooperating with Italian companies in the territories seized from the Armenians during the war. A few days later, another Italian delegation from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs visited the Azerbaijani capital. Military cooperation between Italy and Azerbaijan is a recent development. In January 2023, Italy’s Defence Minister Guido Crosetto visited Baku to discuss plans for future cooperation.
Italy also has an important business partner in Turkey, which is aligned with Azerbaijan. In 2003, the then Prime Minister of Italy, Silvio Berlusconi, was a witness at the wedding of Recep Erdogan’s son Bilal. In 2004, Berlusconi sent a Versace vase as a wedding gift to Erdogan’s daughter Sumeyye. Until recently, Turkish pressure was strong enough to silence voices speaking up about the Armenian Genocide, but the Armenian diaspora in Italy managed to achieve a symbolic victory when, in 2019, the Italian Parliament officially recognized the Armenian Genocide.
Despite its complexity, a number of Italian journalists have reported on the developments around Armenia and Artsakh. Among these are Roberto Travan, Simone Zoppellaro, and Daniele Bellocchio, who have written multiple articles about the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. These include reports on the 2020 war from Artsakh and Armenia.
Roberto Travan is a journalist and independent photographer specializing in documenting humanitarian conflicts and crises. He has worked in Afghanistan, Kosovo, the Central African Republic, as well as in the conflicts in Donbas and Nagorno-Karabakh. Travan has been working for La Stampa, a respected national progressive newspaper, since 1989.
Simone Zoppellaro is a journalist who spent years living and working between Iran and Armenia. In 2016, he wrote “Armenia Today” (2016). Zoppellaro collaborates with the Gariwo Foundation, and his articles have also appeared in BalcaniCaucaso and Il Manifesto.
Daniele Bellocchio is a journalist who has covered the conflicts in Sudan, Somalia, Nigeria, Congo, as well as the crisis in Burundi and the wars in Nagorno-Karabakh. His articles have appeared in OsservatorioDiritti, InsideOver, Famiglia Cristiana, and others.
Sharing their thoughts on the coverage of the South Caucasus, particularly Armenia, in the Italian media, all three noted that Italian society is mostly focused on internal issues and less engaged in global and international discourses and events. This is reflected in how the Italian media selects topics to cover and the amount of coverage given to them. As a result, the South Caucasus is quite marginal for the Italian media, and coverage of the region is generally limited. Travan, Zoppellaro, and Bellocchio noted that all eyes are currently on Ukraine and the massive humanitarian disaster happening on the EU’s borders. The journalists also noted that society at large, whether in Italy or in Europe generally, is considerably tired of war and is not ready to take in any more suffering than is already in their vicinity. Zoppellaro pointed out that it is more difficult to persuade people of a crisis when there are few casualties. “There is no smoking gun,” he says. When there is no bloodshed or deaths, it’s harder to grab the audience’s attention.
In general, these journalists agree that the region is mostly of interest for diplomats and researchers rather than the broader Italian readership. There is little coverage of the Artsakh blockade and almost no public discourse on the possible tragic fate of Artsakh Armenians, including the danger of ethnic cleansing and even genocide. This doesn’t mean that the troubled situation of Artsakh Armenians has gone completely unnoticed in the Italian media, however. According to Travan and Bellocchio, who have written several articles on the blockade, they have not encountered cases of censorship or obstacles to presenting this narrative. Travan’s articles were published in La Stampa, while Bellocchio’s report appeared in Famiglia Cristiana, a major Catholic weekly magazine. Unsurprisingly, the Azerbaijani ambassador to Italy sent a protest letter to Famiglia Cristiana denouncing Bellocchio’s article. As a side note, all three have been denied entry to Azerbaijan as a result of their journalistic activities. The list of Baku’s proscribed individuals also includes Milena Gabanelli, a leading investigative journalist and TV host on national Italian TV who covered the First Nagorno-Karabakh War and denounced Azerbaijan for its “caviar diplomacy”.
Armenian diplomacy should be aware of the ways in which different groups across the Italian political spectrum may instrumentalize the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict to advance their own agendas and various populist discourses. In October 2020, Matteo Salvini, the leader of the ring-wing political party Lega, participated in an Armenian protest against Azerbaijani aggression along with other members of his party. While expressing a clear narrative of solidarity with Christians abroad and emphasizing religious ties between Italy and Armenia, Lega is also known for having strong ties with Azerbaijani lobbyists and politicians. Party member Sergio Divina, was the former head of the interparliamentary friendship group between Italy and Azerbaijan. Italy’s transition from the previous technocratic government led by Mario Draghi to the current right-wing government headed by Giorgia Meloni has produced no noticeable change in the country’s policies and stance towards Armenia and Azerbaijan. The Armenian public and policy makers could benefit from a deeper understanding of internal European politics, particularly Italian politics, so that they do not become a tool in the contestation between various Italian political groups.
While there are no apparent obstacles for Italian journalists who wish to report on developments related to Armenia and Artsakh, the Italian media tends to be focused on the country’s internal issues, resulting in limited coverage of the South Caucasus in general.
Although Italy and Armenia have a long history of ties, Italy’s current economic interests and choice of strategic partners leave little room for maneuver in support of Armenia or Artsakh.
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