Azerbaijan International

Autumn 2006 (14.3)
Pages 72-73
Savvy Tool for Making Azerbaijan Known to the World

by Adil Baguirov

This is an edited version of the speech that Adil Baguirov gave at the First Annual Azerbaijani American Youth Forum at the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) on October 21, 2006. Here Baguirov challenges Azerbaijani youth to get involved academically to make their country and culture known by writing accurate and credible articles on the popular online encyclopedia known as Wikipedia.

Read More by Adil Baguirov
1. "Media Watch: "Myths Related to the Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict," AI 6.1 (Spring 1998).
2. Letters: "Karabakh Historically Part of Azerbaijan," AI 10.3 (Autumn 2002).
3. "Science and the Academy: 85th Jubilee of Physicist Hasan Abdullayev," AI 11.3 (Autumn 2003).
4. "Presidential Elections 1998: Moving Ahead on the Road to Democracy Despite the Bumps,"
AI 6.3 (Autumn 1998).
5. Media Watch: "Caspian Oil Reserves," AI 6.2 (Summer 1998).
6. Letters: "Good Old Communism," AI 4.4 (Winter 1996).
7. Letters: "Azerbaijan International Like an Encyclopedia," AI 6.1 (Spring 1998).

Without a doubt, one of the greatest inventions of the 20th century is the Internet and one of its core components, the Web. Powerful, positive and promising, its unique potential is its ability to empower and educate, as well as to cross cultural boundaries and create global communities. The Digital Age has resulted in a genuine information revolution. New means of writing, editing, publishing, delivering and sharing information have evolved. The rise of electronic delivery and presentation of content has since solidified its place among what is considered "traditional media" - such as magazines, newspapers and dictionaries.

Even encyclopedias as a common treasury of knowledge and civilization have not been immune to these changes. For example, there are electronic-only versions for Encarta Encyclopedia and the Columbia Encyclopedia, as well as the early establishment of Web- and CD-versions of the venerable Encyclopaedia Britannica (EB), which is the oldest scholarly publication in the Western world (first published 1768-1771). In 2001 the world's second largest encyclopedia, the Great Soviet Encyclopedia (GSE), also went online despite the fact that it had been out of print since 1978.

But now, all of these encyclopedias, despite their formidable historical roots, scholarly peer review, and strong corporate or financial backing are being forced to make room for a very popular newcomer on the Web called Wikipedia. [Access the English version:]

Wikipedia is based on an entirely new concept of collaboration of world knowledge and defines itself as "the free encyclopedia that anyone can edit". It currently boasts more than 1.5 million articles in English [at the time we were polishing this article in November 2006]. English, by far, is the most developed version, but different versions of wikipedias exist in more than 100 other languages.

Azerbaijan Wikipedia
And yes, there is even an Azerbaijan Wikipedia ( It currently includes 3,864 articles. Its development is more complicated than most of the other language versions because articles are being written in two different scripts, which results in the content being different for each script.

First, there is the modified Latin script, which in December 1991 became the official alphabet after the Republic of Azerbaijan gained its independence from the Soviet Union. The Republic has an estimated population of 8 million.

The second script is the modified Arabic script, which is used by the 25-30 million Azerbaijanis living in Iran. Azerbaijan was separated into northern and southern regions by a treaty between Russia and Persian Empire (Qajar Dynasty) in 1828. Much of the northwest region of Iran used to be part of a larger Azerbaijan. To date, more articles exist on the Azeri Wikipedia in the Latin script.

The incredible popularity and rising importance of Wikipedia is easily attested by three facts. First of all, the golden standard of English - language dictionaries - Webster's - has included the root word "wiki" in their definitions, describing it as "a collaborative Web site set up to allow user editing and adding of content". Source: Webster's New Millennium™ Dictionary of English, Preview Edition (v 0.9.6). Copyright © 2003-2005 Lexico Publishing Group, LLC.

They suggest that the etymology for "wiki" can be traced back to the Hawaiian term - "wiki wiki" which means "quick". The term was first introduced by the U.S. computer programmer Ward Cunningham in 1995 when he called his Web site - the WikiWikiWeb.

Secondly, the popular U.S. weekly science journal Nature published a controversial special report at the end of 2005, comparing the two encyclopedias, Britannica (EB) and Wikipedia. They concluded that Wikipedia was superior (See Nature, "Internet Encyclopedias Go Head to Head" by Jim Giles, Vol: 438, pages 900-901, December 15, 2005). Such findings gave a severe blow to the venerable EB, which has since ridiculed and disputed the report. Yet, in a follow-up story, Nature defended its original position.

Third, Wikipedia's articles generally appear among the first search results returned by the Internet's most popular search engine Google. For example, search for the term "Azerbaijan" on Google and the first entry these days is usually "Wikipedia".

The problem with any publication covering such an obscure or relatively unknown topic as "Azerbaijan" is quite obvious: Azerbaijan's side of the story is rarely told without distortions, misrepresentations and bias. This is especially true when it comes to controversial topics such as the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict or topics that relate to the perspective of special interest groups, such as the Armenian lobby and the Armenian Diaspora.

Complicating the situation is the fact that solely ethnic representatives have often written articles that have already been published in sources deemed to be generally respected from special interest groups. For example, Professor Grigor Suny, an ethnic Armenian, has co-authored all three major articles about South Caucasus-Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan - for Encyclopaedia Britannica. Note that the article about "Armenia" is twice as long as either of the two other articles. In addition, more than half of the bibliographic references are from ethnic Armenian authors. One should also note that an ethnic Armenian sits on the Editorial Board of Advisors of Encyclopedia Britannica.

Great Soviet Encyclopedia
The same was true of the Great Soviet Encyclopedia (GSE) under the watchful eye of the First Deputy Editor-in-Chief, Lev Shaumyan.
1 The Editor was the 1964 Nobel-prize winning Academician A. Prokhorov (1916-2002) Soviet / Russian physicist born in Australia. However, since he didn't have time to edit the massive 30-volume, 18,000 page encyclopedia, he left the responsibility to Shaumyan, an Armenian.

In 1949, Shaumyan had started working at the Soviet Encyclopedia Publishing House. By 1954 he had been appointed as a Member of the Board. By 1959 he was First Deputy Editor, a position that he held until his death in 1971. In addition, there were two other Armenians on the board, but only one Azerbaijani.

This explains how a number of historians and poets became known as being ethnically Armenian instead of Caucasian Albanians that they were, and how articles beginning with the word "Turkic" were omitted, despite their great historic importance. The primary exception was the negative term "pan-Turkism". This concept was never treated lightly in USSR. If a person were accused of being "pan-Turkic" during Stalin's rule (mid-1920s to early 1950s), it often resulted in his being executed or exiled to Gulag labor camps.

Thus, despite all the checks and balances set in place in a peer-reviewed and scholarly publications, such as Britannica or the Great Soviet Encyclopedia, glaring errors and omissions routinely creep in and often become the accepted standard. Such errors and biases often require years to correct - if it is ever possible. Unfortunately, such misinformation gets repeated in countless other publications.

Disclaimers on Wikipedia
In the case of a free-for-all unscholarly online encyclopedia, these problems can become more acute. Wikipedia welcomes all knowledgeable persons to contribute to the body of knowledge in their encyclopedia. Other readers or reviewers can make revisions almost instantaneously. However, articles may be less reliable if they have not yet gone through this purging / purifying process of haggling out a true, unbiased, objective point of view.

Unfortunately, almost any topic related to the geo-political situation in Azerbaijan, has been attacked by constant edits and, in some cases, outright vandalism by various groups. In "wiki world", it seems that the person who prevails the most vigorously is the one most likely to win out.

Wikipedia is quick to make no claims as to the validity of its content. In fact they themselves spell out some of their obvious weaknesses, such as the following:

(1) That at any given time, because of the radical openness of the format which can be updated by anyone, the article could appear on the Web in a bad state, such as in the middle of a large edit, a controversial rewrite or a recent vandalization.

For example, on November 1, 2006, there was a "lock" on the term "Azerbaijan" which reads: "This page is currently protected from editing until disputes have been resolved. Please discuss changes on the talk page or request unprotection. (Protection is not an endorsement of the current page version.)"

(2) The editorial dispute resolution process can last for months before poor quality or biased edits are forcibly removed.

(3) No systematic process is in place to guarantee that "obviously important" topics are written about. This means that Wikipedia may contain unexpected oversights and omissions.

(4) Another weakness is what is termed "point of view" (POV) of the author and by implication the author's cultural and socio-economic background. While any article can theoretically be written or altered by anyone in the world, Wikipedia's demographics suggest that those who get involved with writing or altering the entries are more likely to be (a) younger rather than older, (b) male rather than female, (c) rich enough to afford a computer, rather than poor, (d) Christian or Jewish, rather than Muslim or from another religion. Thus, obviously, the entries will reflect a certain degree of implicit bias.

(5) Wikipedia also admits that contributors often do not comply fully with the key policies set forth in the guidelines and they often add information that is not from citable sources.

However, Wikipedia is gaining enormous recognition as it moves into the mainstream with its extraordinary generosity of a free online encyclopedia and with its adoption of a system of checks and balances to increase the reliance upon Wikipedia, especially by the younger generation.

Truthful, unbiased and the accurate presentation of information about Azerbaijan and its people, history, culture and society should be of concern to all of us, especially in resources as important as encyclopedias, and especially in one as promising as Wikipedia.

Azerbaijani users, especially those with fluent command of English and Russian should become actively involved in contributing and editing of online resources such as Wikipedia. Currently the number of Azerbaijani Internet users in the Republic alone is estimated to be anywhere between 300,000 to 678,800 (September 2006)

The beauty of the Internet is not just for passively collecting and processing information, but also for interactively sharing facts, and presenting analyses and scholarly conclusions to the general public. With the advent of the electronic media, it becomes critically important both in the national interest of the country and the erudition of people that the information about Azerbaijan in all popular and relied-upon sources, such as Wikipedia, is unbiased and correct.

Azerbaijanis realized that Lev Shaumyan was the son of Commissar Stepan Shaumyan (1878-1918). During the Bolshevik period, the title of Commissar described the top Bolshevik who had been delegated by the Communist Party to be in charge of a certain region.

For Azerbaijan, Stepan Shaumyan was a notorious figure as he simultaneously supported and acted on behalf of the Bolsheviks as well as the Armenian Dashnaks, which fought against the independence of Azerbaijan and its democratically elected government of the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic (ADR) which held power from May 1918 to April 1920 when the Bolsheviks took control of Azerbaijan. Under Stepan Shaumyan's leadership, the terrible massacres of March 1918 took place, which left thousands of Azerbaijanis dead.

To add insult to injury, under Soviet leadership in 1923, the Azerbaijani town of Khankandi (literally translated as "place of the khans or kings"), which served as the regional capital of Karabakh was renamed Stepanakert in Shaumyan's honor. Shaumyan himself along with 25 other Baku Commissars was executed by British forces in September 1918. It wasn't until 1989 towards the end of the Soviet era that the Azerbaijani government was able to successfully reclaim the original name of Khankandi for the city.

Today, Armenians occupy Khankandi in their quest to take control of Nagorno-Karabakh. They have again reverted to the name of Stepanakert.

2 The CIA World Factbook 2006 suggests that 300,000 individuals have access to computers. The International Telecommunications Union (ITU) offers the higher figure of 678,000 (September 2006).

Adil Baguirov has degrees from the University of Southern California (USC) and his Ph.D. in political science from Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO University).

Adil deserves credit for being the first person in Azerbaijan to create a substantial Web site about his country: Virtual Azerbaijan (VAR) at He was up and running in 1995 before many people in Azerbaijan were even familiar with Internet technology. He also was involved in the creation of the first Listserv news - Habarlar-L - and the discussion list - Yeni Dostlar (YDnet). Adil currently splits his time between Washington, D.C. and Houston, Texas, where he works for an international energy consulting firm.

Back to Index AI 14.3 (Autumn 2006)

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