Conflict over the mountainous Nagorno-Karabakh enclave has blocked borders, trade and contact between Armenians and Azerbaijanis. But late last year, journalists in Baku and Yerevan launched a television program designed to beam through the freeze on dialogue.
Every week on the show called "Front Line" guests from Armenia and Azerbaijan meet via satellite to discuss matters ranging from disputed territory to jazz. Two regular moderators, one in each of the South Caucasus capitals, also participate in the half-hour program, which is conducted in Russian.
"It is a little bit tricky, and we are aware that we have to be careful," said John Boit, Azerbaijan country director for Internews, an international media development organization that provides funding and technical assistance to the local journalists working on the project. "Having [guests] speak their own languages would be great, but there is the potential problem of misunderstanding right now it's one less thing to worry about."
Boit added that every detail must be carefully planned to reflect balance and avoid the danger of a shouting match "That is why we don't put the program out live we don't want to get into a situation where people are yelling on the air."
Over the past decade, Nagorno-Karabakh's status has elicited the strongest of passions in the two countries. In 1992, the territory's ethnic Armenian population proclaimed independence, triggering a war that saw nearly 35,000 killed. Although a cease-fire agreement in 1994 brought the heaviest fighting to an end and the enclave de facto independence from Azerbaijan sporadic flare-ups have continued between the Armenia-backed forces and the Azerbaijani army. Roughly 100 deaths were reported last year.
But recently, international observers have expressed optimism about a peaceful settlement, arguing that the parties are demonstrating a greater readiness for compromise. Armenian President Robert Kocharian and Azerbaijani President Heydar Aliyev have both pledged to reach a peace agreement before 2003.
Local journalists who first began working on "Front Line" in July said they thought this gradual shift in attitude meant that the public was ready for the discussion-format show, which they call a "space-bridge."
"Over the past 18 months, relations between Armenians and Azerbaijanis have improved somewhat," said Ilham Safarov, managing director for the program's Baku side, as well as Internews' Azerbaijan office. "The presidents of the two countries have met several times, and various government officials, NGOs and journalists were contacting each other as a result we thought it was the right time to launch the show."
"Everyone has to be a part of this process [of dialogue], and TV can help with that," said Nouneh Sarkissian, managing director of the Internews office in Yerevan. She also stressed that the show was not designed to change people's opinions, but just open the channels of communication so that people from both sides can express their opinions. "People should listen to each other. A problem in our region is that people don't listen."
Internews, which was founded in 1982, has administered similar projects both in the region and elsewhere. Currently, it also produces a weekly television show called "Crossroads," broadcasting news segments from Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan across the South Caucasus. The organization has set up "space-bridges" in the Balkans and, during the Cold War, between the Soviet Union and the United States. It has also been active here in Russia.
Media-development experts say it is difficult to assess to what extent a show like "Front Line" can achieve its goal. "A lot of projects designed to develop civil society don't have an instant effect," said Ann Olson of the Moscow-based Press Development Institute. "That is one of the hardest things to measure."
But, pointing to the organization's activities here, she added: "There are people who will tell you that without Internews, there wouldn't be more than 300 privately managed sustainable TV stations across Russia."
Currently, "Front Line" is not being broadcast in Nagorno-Karabakh, but people involved with the show say that a station located there has expressed some interest. In Armenia, the Prometeus television station carries the program and, in Azerbaijan, it is carried by ANS. The show is only meant to run for 24 installments, after which participants say it is difficult to predict what will happen.
Neither Armenia nor Azerbaijan is known for press freedom, but according to Internews representatives in both countries, few in government have spoken out against the show.
In Azerbaijan, "the official reaction has been fairly muted," said Boit. "We've received some calls from people in government who've said they really liked it; others have been more negative. But overall, so far so good we have to be cautious."
Nouneh Sarkissian, from Yerevan, said that Armenian officials offered no serious reaction a positive thing, she added.
People should listen to each other. A problem in our region is that people don't listen.' - Nouneh Sarkissian / Internews