On March 11, 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the COVID-19 outbreak a pandemic. During these strange times, we found ourselves trapped at home and our lives put on hold. Social distancing limited opportunities for physical connection and the feeling of community as a whole. By way of appreciation, people in different countries came up with new and creative ways to show admiration and solidarity, especially toward the most vulnerable groups and the essential workers who took on additional risks, often with minimal resources. Innovative ways of activism emerged in our societies to overcome the limitations of physical distancing.
Organizations, initiatives and individuals from different parts of the world have been advocating in support of essential workers and medical staff who did not have the luxury of waiting out the storm at home. Institutions have been conducting research and looking for ways to provide fair pay for these workers. In the South Caucasus, however, the examples of activism we observed do not fall under these categories. The region is complex, with frozen conflicts fragmenting the political map. Armenia and Azerbaijan are still in conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh/Artsakh, while Georgia’s two breakaway regions, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, have oriented themselves toward Russia. Needless to say, the pandemic only flared the underlying bases for political activism.
Russia provided assistance to Abkhazia and South Ossetia during the pandemic without Georgia’s involvement, which raised tensions in the country. The relations between these two countries reached a new low in 2019, when Sergei Gavrilov, a Russian MP, addressed an assembly of MPs in the Interparliamentary Assembly on Orthodoxy (IAO) in Tbilisi in Russian from the Speaker’s seat. The situation ignited fierce anti-Russian protests in Georgia. In response, Russia temporarily banned Georgian airlines from flying to Russia, as a way to target the Georgian tourism industry, which makes up a sizable portion of the economy.
On June 20, 2020, thousands of protesters once again gathered in the Georgian capital to mark the first anniversary of the anti-Russian protests, despite the pandemic. The participants were encouraged to keep physical distance by putting stickers on the street with the image of Vladimir Putin, on which they were urged to step. Protesters wore masks and organizers distributed hand sanitizer. “Together against the occupation” was the slogan of the protest.
Georgia was least affected by the pandemic among the three South Caucasian countries. Nevertheless, they did not escape its economic impact, which may become an issue in the upcoming parliamentary elections scheduled for October.
Armenia’s and Azerbaijan’s healthcare systems were hit hard by the pandemic. While Armenia’s Government relied on public support, Azerbaijan leaned on its security structures to impose strict lockdowns. However, the pandemic is not the only crisis these countries faced, as Azerbaijan broke the ceasefire between them on July 12, 2020, resulting in several days of heavy artillery fire and drone attacks across their state border.
While peace demonstrations are common, the fighting actually sparked a massive pro-war demonstration in Baku on July 14, 2020, when it was revealed that a high-ranking officer, Major General Polad Hashimov, was among those killed. Approximately 30,000 Azerbaijanis—a figure with few equals since the country’s independence in 1991—chanted “Death to the Armenian,” “End the Quarantine, Start the War” and “Karabakh or Death.” The pro-war demonstration turned into an anti-government protest when riot police deployed water cannons and tear gas to disperse the predominantly male protesters. Some even broke into the Parliament building. Opposition parties stated that they did not take part in the protest. No face masks, physical distancing or other precautions were observed but the country’s official COVID-19 case figures, which many deem to be unreliable, did not register a resulting spike. In the aftermath, Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov was fired and several diplomatic staff have been arrested, ostensibly on corruption charges. It remains to be seen to what extent the episode will impact President Ilham Aliyev’s grip on power, as it is widely known that his family extracts massive financial benefits from both state-run and privately-owned institutions in the country. However, it was clear that the protesters were not seeking democratic reforms but rather an outright invasion of Armenia.
During and after the border skirmishes, digital activism became trendy in contemporary Armenian social media. Due to the lockdown measures, traditional forms of activism were substituted with new forms such as cyberwarfare, hashtag campaigns, fancams, donation drives and social media posts. While the clashes and escalations were taking place on the border, the information warfare (IW) was taking place on Twitter mostly. The main objective of IW is to achieve information superiority over the adversary. The quality of this information is highly questionable and both sides of the conflict conducted it. Fancam is a video close up filmed by an audience member during a live performance by a K-pop idol group. Armenian K-pop fans used this trend to popularize hashtags and to spread information about the conflict, as fancams are wildly popular on Twitter. This is by far not a unique case; the K-pop fandom has been very active for other humanitarian causes as well, such as the support for the Black Lives Matter movement. The campaign, #WordsNotSwords, started by the Armenian and Azerbaijani diaspora communities, challenged both sides to engage in peaceful activism after skirmishes on the border were echoed by interethnic clashes in Russia and elsewhere. Later, Armenians living in Armenia joined the statement. Dr. Katy Pearce’s analysis of the hashtag and the number of signatories proved it to be a success. Armenians from all over the world started different campaigns to donate for the reconstruction of border villages of Tavush, raising more than $300,000 through The Paros Foundation, Hayastan All Armenian Fund and individual GoFundMe pages to help rebuild the damaged homes and empower the border communities.
Since the pandemic, tensions also rose around the Amulsar gold mine proposal in Armenia. Lydian Armenia’s project has been opposed by environmental activists and local residents, who are concerned about its potential health and safety impacts and the risks it poses to water resources and tourism in the Vayots Dzor region. Frictions reached their peak on August 4, 2020, as the company’s new security contractor removed two protestor trailers. The Armenian Environmental Front announced a public mobilization, going live on Facebook and using the hashtag #SaveAmulsar on social media platforms to call on the government to take urgent action. Protesters were seen wearing masks but not keeping 1.5 meter distance from each other.
The pandemic and the lockdown made Armenian youth find new ways of activism and brought the local Armenian and the diaspora communities closer together through online discussions, filling the vacuum of communication. The Internet campaigns proved to be effective ways of alternative activism in the context of the pandemic.
The pandemic and the conflicts are crises that offer the possibility of long-required changes and should help reshape priorities in our societies. A more equal and sustainable future for the South Caucasus needs to be put on the agenda in the ways of civic education, strengthening human rights and democracy. The complexity of the South Caucasus requires governments, civil society organizations and individuals to be involved in the process of peace-building, but until the crisis is over, activists should continue advocating and being vocal, making use of alternatives to the traditional forms of activism.
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