Information War Rages over Karabakh
Disturbing reports of atrocities, and official claims and counterclaims continue to stream from the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict zone as fighting enters its third day. With no international media or conflict-monitoring mission apparently yet on the ground in the breakaway Nagorno-Karabakh region, it is next to impossible to glean frontline facts from the ongoing information war.
That lack of objective information could become even more critical in the coming days. Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan, a Karabakh native, pledged on April 4 that escalation of the fighting, the worst since the signing of a 1994 ceasefire, would prompt Yerevan to recognize Nagorno Karabakh as an independent state.
An Armenian investigative news service, Hetq.am, on April 4 published photos of two elderly residents they claim were killed and maimed by Azerbaijani troops when they overran the village of Talish in northeastern Karabakh on April 2. (Warning: graphic image) The Armenian government and the Karabakhi separatist forces it supports claimed they swiftly recaptured the village and nearby heights. Hetq.am said that their photographer, Hakob Poghosian, had then gained access to the village.
Azerbaijan, however, claimed early on April 4 that it is still in control of the area. One pro-government news website that published the information, APA, was not working later in the day. A group of Armenian hackers, Monte Melkonian Cyber Army, took credit for downing the site on April 2. A group of Turkish hackers appears to be responding for Azerbaijan, the site HackRead reported.
The causes for contention are growing. Baku published the names of civilians allegedly killed by the Armenian shelling of Azerbaijani-controlled territories bordering on the conflict-zone. The reported casualties include two men whose cars were hit by an Armenia-launched mortar. Azerbaijan’s defense ministry said one of the men was displaced from Karabakh along with the region’s entire ethnic Azeri population during the 1988-1994 war between Baku, Armenia and Armenia-backed Karabakhi separatists.
Military losses and tactical moves, though, are also difficult to track amid conflicting claims. Baku declared on April 4 that the Azerbaijani army “smashed into bits” an Armenian military command center in Nagorno-Karabakh. It said that three Azerbaijani soldiers had been killed, for an official military casualty list of 15. The same day, the Armenian side claimed they have crashed an advancing Azerbaijani unit, destroying three tanks and mortar-launchers. Yerevan's official tally of military deaths stands at 18.
The Russian, American and French co-chairs of the OSCE’s Minsk Group, the body overseeing Karabakh talks, are meeting today and tomorrow in Vienna to discuss ways to lesson the tensions, but, as yet, mum’s the word.
Watching the ongoing violence, Tbilisi, which has its own long experience with separatist conflicts, has presented itself as a possible mediator between Armenia and Azerbaijan. No sign yet that the offer has been accepted. Defense Minister Tina Khidasheli, however, took to Twitter to announce that she had spoken with the Armenian and Azerbaijani defense ministers. “Hope for immediate ceasefire and talks,” she tweeted in English. “Stability in Caucasus is of existential importance.”
Twitter has been the setting for a verbal barrage between the warring sides, complete with hashtags; among them, the more pro-Azerbaijani #KarabakhNow and # KarabakhPeace for more pro-Armenian/Karabakhi views.
The Twitter fight is largely between the Karabakh separatists and Baku, with the Armenian government taking a back seat.
The de facto Karabakhi authorities have used the outlet to disseminate what they claim is drone footage of supposedly 21 slain Azerbaijani soldiers – a number used to challenge Baku’s initial official report of 12 casualties. At the same time, Karabakh has attempted to dispel reports of growing violence by posting photos of local children playing soccer or smilingly attending class.
Baku's foreign ministry, meanwhile, has avoided videos and photos, but runs a steady stream of retweets and statements as well as reports from the official news agency AzerTag that blame the bloodshed on Armenia's decades-long occupation of Azerbaijani territory.
In his own last tweet, on March 31, President Ilham Aliyev advised that "The conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan must be resolved based on United Nations Security Council resolutions and the principle of territorial integrity." His reported words now focus more on supplying Armenia with an "adequate response."
For all its attempts to style itself as peacemaker, Russia on social media has avoided talk of Karabakh altogether.
Mainstream Russian media has not been so reserved, repeating Armenian accusations that link the fighting to Azerbaijani ally Turkey, now Moscow’s foe.
At an April 4 press-conference, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, however, shot that theory down, saying that Moscow does not blame Ankara for the fighting in Karabakh.
“I won’t undertake to judge what role Ankara played or didn’t play or continues to play related to Nagorno Karabakh,” he said.