Armenian and Azerbaijani journalists have visited each other’s countries for the first time in years as part of confidence-building measures agreed by their governments and facilitated by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.
The six journalists spent five days last week meeting with government officials, civil society members and their colleagues in Azerbaijan, Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh as well as touring historical and cultural sites and even businesses located there.
The Armenian delegation comprised Artem Yerkanian, a veteran journalist for the private Armenian TV station Shant, Davit Alaverdian, the editor of the Mediamax news agency, and Edgar Elbakian, a Karabakh state TV commentator. They visited Baku and the Azerbaijani cities of Gyanja and Quba. They were apparently the first Armenian journalists to travel to Azerbaijan in over a decade.
The Armenian Foreign Ministry officially announced the mutual visits at the weekend, after the delegation’s return from Azerbaijan. A ministry spokeswoman said the “exchange of journalists” was organized by Azerbaijani, Armenian and Karabakh officials and coordinated by Andrzej Kasprzyk, the long-serving head of a small OSCE mission monitoring the ceasefire in the Karabakh conflict zone.
“This project was prepared for six months,” Yerkanian told RFE/RL’s Armenian service on Monday.
Yerkanian said that just before entering Azerbaijan from Georgia he and his two colleagues had to sign an OSCE document saying that they realize that “the OSCE does not bear responsibility for our security” during the trip. “They wanted to make sure that we are conscious of what we are doing,” he explained.
Yerkanian, who had twice visited Azerbaijan in the past, said that he, Alaverdian and Elbakian were escorted by at least a dozen Azerbaijani security officers throughout the trip.
Armenian and Azerbaijani journalists had exchanged visits on a regular basis until the mid-2000s. The Azerbaijani government afterwards imposed a de facto travel ban on not only Armenia’s citizens but also ethnic Armenians from other countries. It regarded any Armenian presence on Azerbaijani soil as a security risk and an affront to the country’s territorial integrity.
Yerkanian described as “unprecedented” the fact that Baku allowed a Karabakh TV employee into the country and did not prevent the three Azerbaijani journalists from proceeding to Karabakh from Armenia.
According to the Karabakh Foreign Ministry, the Azerbaijani delegation toured the formerly Azerbaijani-populated town of Shushi (Shusha), met with Karabakh civil society figures in Stepanakert and visited two local plants, an information technology center and the 13th century Gandzasar Monastery on November 20-21.
“This initiative should be viewed as a pilot project within the framework of confidence-building measures aimed at creating favorable conditions for furthering the peace process,” the ministry said in a statement.
Another Azerbaijani journalist visited Armenia in February. He wrote a series of articles about his trip.
The U.S., Russian and French mediators co-chairing the OSCE Minsk Group discussed these and other confidence-building measures with Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian and Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev during a visit to the region in October. In a joint statement, they welcomed the “prospect of implementing specific humanitarian and security measures to prepare the populations for peace and reduce tensions.”
Yerkanian suggested that for the conflicting parties the main purpose of the journalists’ trips was to see domestic public reactions to them.“What matters is not what we were told there or what questioned we asked there but what kind of comments and reactions there will be after our visit,” he said.