Autumn 2006 (14.3)
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
1. "Media Watch:
Related to the Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict," AI 6.1 (Spring
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).
Elections 1998: Moving Ahead on the Road to Democracy Despite
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
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: en.wikipedia.org.]
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.
And yes, there is even an Azerbaijan Wikipedia (az.wikipedia.org).
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
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.
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
(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
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
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.
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
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 ZERBAIJAN.com. 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
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