Azerbaijan International

Spring 2001 (9.1)
Pages 20-24

Signals of Change
TV Debates Between Azeris and Armenians

Photo: Taping of the TV program, Firing Line, which aims to foster dialogue between Azerbaijanis and Armenians about the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Inside the Azerbaijani studio where Moderator Khayal Taghiyev (right) and guest view screen with Armenian moderator Artyom Erkanian. The weekly program is pre-taped and broadcast simultaneously in both Azerbaijan and Armenia.

Back in the 1980s when the Cold War was raging between the world's two superpowers - the United States and the Soviet Union - an experimental television program linked studio audiences via satellite in both countries facilitating dialogue. Talk show hosts Phil Donahue (U.S.) and Yuri Pozner (USSR) moderated the program. The impact extended far beyond the two studio audiences as millions of viewers in both countries began to see a human face on what their own countries had portrayed as "the enemy". Consequently, the program went a long way to ease tensions between two conflicting powers.

The legacy of this daring experiment can still be felt today in Azerbaijan and Armenia. The players have changed, but tensions and distrust between the two countries, recently at war with each other, is still high. The program called "Firing Line" ("Atash Khatti" in Azeri), is moderated by Khayal Taghiyev and his counterpart in Armenia, Artyom Erkanian.

The program brings together experts - artists, politicians, economists and others - from both sides to talk about issues related to the Nagorno-Karabakh war. We asked Khayal to explain how the program began and how it is fostering communication between the two countries.

The conflict that broke out in 1988 between neighboring Azerbaijan and Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh, a mountainous region inside Azerbaijan of which the majority of the population is Armenian, left thousands of military personnel as well as civilians dead. A cease-fire was declared in May 1994, but the conflict is far from over.

Left: Azerbaijani host Khayal Taghiyev. Photo: Arzu Aghayeva.

Three major issues have yet to be resolved: (1) the return of seven districts located outside of Karabakh, which Armenians militarily occupy, (2) the resettlement of nearly 1 million Azerbaijani refugees back into these regions that are currently occupied by Armenians, and (3) the status of Nagorno-Karabakh in relationship to political rule.

Amidst this atmosphere of waiting and delays has come a breath of fresh air - a TV program that links both sides in an ongoing discussion. In each program, well-known experts from both countries discuss issues related to Nagorno-Karabakh and the war. The program is conducted in Russian, the language common to both countries, which lived under Soviet domination from 1920 to 1991.

Left: Armenian host Artyom Erkanian.

In Azerbaijan, the program is broadcast by Azerbaijan News Service (ANS), the Republic's most respected independent TV station; in Armenia, it airs on Prometevs. Since its inception in October 2000, the show has aired simultaneously in both countries each Thursday from 10-10:30 p.m. The program is pre-recorded in Mir television studios in both Azerbaijan and Armenia. The funding for the six-month, 24-program series comes from the U.S. government via USAID, which funds Internews, the producer for the program. Internews is an international non-profit organization that supports open media worldwide. The company fosters independent media in emerging democracies, produces innovative television and radio programming and Internet content, and uses the media to reduce conflict within and between countries.

According to a recent public opinion poll, the program had a rating of 49 percent of ANS' potential viewers. "Personally, I call the program 'Telebridge'," says Khayal Taghiyev, Azeri host of the program. "But in my opinion, its official name 'Firing Line' is exactly on target because at present, there really is a firing line that is separating Azerbaijan and Armenia."
Even though the program is based upon a fairly simple concept, it's the first show of its kind there. "As far as I know, there have never been any TV programs like this in Azerbaijan," Khayal says. "There were several earlier attempts but all were short-lived."

Photo: Azerbaijani Moderator of Firing Line, Khayal Taghiyev (left), with Azerbaijani guest. Photo: Arzu Aghayeva.

Khayal says that the public's reaction to the program has been positive in both countries. You can overhear people discussing the issues openly in public transport - in buses, taxis, the Metro. "When we began this program, our goal was simply to give people a chance to speak - to express their opinions. As you can imagine, politicians are interested as well. They want to know the opinions of the opposite side. Azerbaijani politicians want to know what well-known Armenians are thinking and saying. I've heard it's the same in Armenia."

Khayal's role is to help choose topics, select guests and moderate the Azerbaijani side of the program. Guests must be fluent in Russian and recognized as experts in their fields.

Tense Debate
Since Azerbaijan and Armenia have such a complicated relationship, it's been difficult to reach a level of dialogue, especially between the intellectuals and political elite from both sides. No matter what topic is being discussed on the program, the two sides usually start blaming and attacking each other. "I doubt that we could find a single person in all of Azerbaijan who would not be critical of the Armenian side," notes Khayal.

"How can I not be critical of Armenia?" he admits. "These are the people who are occupying my country and have forced hundreds of thousands of my fellow countrymen from their homes and communities.

"Azerbaijan's viewpoint was shaped long ago," he continues. "In Azerbaijan, people are convinced that Nagorno-Karabakh is an integral part of our territory and that Armenia must give us back the land that they are occupying. Such a position is supported by four separate resolutions that were passed by the United Nations in 1993 and 1994, which identify the Armenian side as the aggressors in this war. The principle of 'territorial integrity' was also supported by the OSCE (Organization for the Security and Cooperation in Europe) at its Lisbon Summit in 1997. The release of occupied territory is provided by international law."

Photo: Firing Line Studio: inside the Armenian studio where Moderator Artyom Erkanian (right) and guest view screen showing Azerbaijani moderator Khayal Taghiyev.

Khayal describes how most program sessions develop. "Usually our guests talk to each other on this level: 'Azerbaijan suffers from this situation as a result of the war initiated by Armenia. You are the side that started the war, you are the side that thrust this war upon us.'

"But the Armenians counter by insisting that the people living in Karabakh want to determine and rule themselves, and that Azerbaijanis became aggressive toward them and organized events like the 'pogroms' in Sumgayit. In my opinion, I think that historical memory often impedes resolution on both sides."

Khayal admits that the hardest thing about moderating the program is never knowing what to expect from his Armenian colleague. "I never know ahead of time what the Armenian side is going to say," Khayal confesses. "Sometimes they put me in an awkward position. But I suppose there are times when I do the same to them as well."

Even if the conversation flares up into an argument, nothing is edited out. "From the beginning, the program organizers decided not to cut anything, even though the program is pre-recorded and aired later. The fact that it runs unedited creates a certain tension that we like," he admits.

And yet, as long as both sides have the chance to speak to each other, some form of dialogue is possible. "To tell you the truth, before getting involved with this program, I thought it was impossible for both sides to reach an agreement," Khayal says. "I hope I'm not too courageous to think this way. But I'm really convinced that it is possible to solve this conflict. I hope this program will help convince people that the two sides really can agree on certain principles.

"One thing that has emerged from our discussion is that so far all of the guests have agreed that this problem must be solved in a peaceful way," he continues. "It's just that disagreements arise when we try to figure out how to do that."

Controversial Topics
Each week "Firing Line" discusses a new topic related to the war. They've discussed the negotiations process; compromises that might be necessary to resolve the conflict; whether the war might be rekindled and, if so, under what conditions; women and conflict; the effects of the war on ecology; and even war and cinema; social psychology, military personnel, transportation and communications, and youth.

Photos: The conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh erupted in war in 1988 with a very tenuous cease-fire signed in 1994. The conflict has left tens of thousands dead and about 1.2 million refugees displaced from their homes in both Azerbaijan and Armenia.

The program that aired February 15, 2001, for instance, dealt with "Economy and Conflict." Heydar Babayev, chairman of the Azerbaijani State Securities Committee, debated former Armenian Speaker of Parliament Khosrov Arutyunyan. They discussed the possible benefits of reestablishing economic ties between the two countries, and whether such an action would promote a political settlement to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.

Babayev stated that although economic ties could definitely benefit Armenia - for the present, they were out of the question while nearly 20 percent of Azerbaijan's territory remained under Armenian occupation. Arutyunyan insisted that Azerbaijani goods were in high demand among Armenian consumers, and that there was a lively illegal border trade going on. He tried to show that Azerbaijan needed Armenia as an economic partner with its more than 3 million potential consumers.

Another topic that has been explored was the possibility of territory exchange - an idea fostered by American Paul Goble of Radio Free Europe in the early years when the conflict broke out. But both sides flatly refuse such a possibility. Neither side agrees to the possibility of giving Karabakh to Armenia in exchange for giving Mehri to Azerbaijan. Mehri is the strip of land that separates Nakhchivan (the noncontiguous part of Azerbaijan) from mainland Azerbaijan.

But the major obstacle is that Mehri provides the direct link between Iran and Armenia. Nor would Moscow, being a strategic partner with both Armenia and Iran, approve of this idea.

On the other hand, Azerbaijanis associate Karabakh with the town of Shusha and cultural heritage, homeland of mugham, music, poetry - so there are immensely deep emotional ties. Such a land swap or redrawing of borders might look feasible on paper, but it doesn't work because of moral, economic and political implications.

In fact, according to Khayal this was one of the few topics that both sides have agreed upon. Neither of them are willing to accept a land swap as part of a peaceful resolution.

Jazz and War
"Firing Line" has also addressed topics of less political import, such as the war's effects on jazz in both countries. "The topic of jazz may seem strange," Khayal explains, "but in Armenia and especially here in Azerbaijan, there is a special sensitivity toward jazz. We decided to invite outstanding jazz musicians from both Azerbaijan and Armenia to learn their attitudes about the war.

"I appreciated Javan Zeynalli's [Azerbaijani jazz musician] selflessness and civic courage when he could say: 'We are musicians, we can't speak in the language of force and violence. Let's speak in the language of jazz and music, the language that can bring us closer to each other.'

"It was one of only three programs in which we didn't mention the conflict at all," recalls Khayal. (The other two topics were earthquakes and football.) "We only talked about music and musicians. The Azeris wondered what had happened to some of the famous Armenian musicians who had previously been living in Baku. The participants talked about the current financial crisis that musicians are facing. Nobody blamed the other side, by saying: 'You occupied' or 'You didn't let us solve this problem in a peaceful way.'"

On another occasion, the topic of "Rights and the Conflict" came up with the ensuing discussion about the issues of territorial integrity (Azerbaijan's position) vs. the right of national self-determination (Armenia's position) and how these principles contradict each other.

When it comes to the topic of religion, Khayal is convinced there are two sides to this issue - propaganda and reality. Armenians seem to have been able to convince Western media that this is a religious conflict, pitting Armenian Christians against Azerbaijani Muslims.

But Khayal insists that the war stems from other motivations. "The reality is that both of our countries were governed under the umbrella of the Soviet Union. All Soviet countries were quite atheistic, as there was hardly any religious practice being carried out. When the conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia broke out in the late 1980s, the Soviet Union was still in existence and had not yet collapsed."

In other words, Khayal insists that the conflict has nothing to do with religion. Instead, it was related to territorial pretensions. Azerbaijanis believe the problem won't be solved until the true motivation for the conflict is identified. For them, any propaganda related to religious explanations does not contribute to solving this problem.

First in his Field
Khayal Taghiyev has had what seems like a whirlwind career in journalism. After studying at Baku State University, he began writing for one of the first independent newspapers in Azerbaijan in 1991, the year Azerbaijan gained its independence. In 1997, Khayal was hired by ANS to work as a TV correspondent. The following year, he started writing and editing for "Khabarchi" (News) TV program. "ANS has always been close to my spirit," Khayal says, "even before I worked there, because it's really an independent channel."

He never expected to be chosen to host "Firing Line". It came as a surprise. Khayal has never traveled to Armenia, though in the near future, he hopes he'll get to. He doesn't know many Armenians personally, though he served in the Soviet Army and developed a close friendship with an Armenian from Abhazia.

But when the opportunity presented itself to moderate the program, he was thrilled. He loves new challenges. "I'm always in search of something new. Such an assignment meant taking on a great responsibility. People had to trust me to be able to carry this off."

Actually, it was a daring experiment. "We didn't know how people would respond. I think it's because they have so much confidence in ANS TV that it really worked," says Khayal. "The founders of ANS - the Mustafayev Brothers - Vahid and Seyfulla, were very involved in the war. Their brother, Chingiz, a TV journalist, was killed while on assignment near Agdam. [See Azerbaijan International (AI 7.3), Autumn 1999].

Both moderators for the program are quite young. Khayal is 34 years old; his Armenian counterpart is only 30. "This is what is happening all across the former Soviet Union.

Rejuvenation is taking place. It's a new period for us. And young people are leading the way."
Khayal hosts two more TV shows. The first, called "Otan Hafta" (Past Week), is an analysis of current events, a show that he has hosted for the past two years. It airs each Sunday at 9 p.m, and is followed at 11 p.m. by his talk show, "Ahata Dairasi" (Field of Coverage).

Since this program appeared in April 2000, talk shows have become very popular in Azerbaijan. "ANS started this tradition in Azerbaijan," Khayal says. "Now there are many talk shows on other channels as well."

In fact, the high ratings of "Ahata Dairasi" helped Khayal garner the host position for "Firing Line," says Ilham Safarov, managing director of the Azerbaijani Representation of Internews.

"We chose Khayal based on how he looked in front of the camera, his intellectual prowess and his extensive television experience." It seems the public endorses their decision. At the end of 2000, a public opinion poll named Khayal 'Best TV Journalist of 1999', with 'Ahata Dairasi', the most popular TV program."

Future Programs
Khayal hopes to transform "Firing Line" into an even more dynamic and interactive program. "The two moderators would like to show a broader spectrum of viewpoints," he says. "Right now we present only the viewpoints of one guest from each side. We'd like to bring more guests into the studio, and stimulate more complex discussions."

Another innovation for future programs is that the hosts have decided not to make any comments of their own. "Before, we used to interrupt our guests to make comments," Khayal explains. "Now we see our task as only to ask questions and guide the discussion, not to express our personal opinions. We're there to keep the program on track and keep our guests from deviating or straying from the topic."

The Bigger Picture
When asked about his personal views on the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, Khayal says it's a problem that essentially must be solved between the two countries themselves with the international community providing guarantees for the safety of all peoples.

He sees the war as a legacy left over from the Soviet period. "In Azerbaijan, people are convinced that there are geopolitical forces that have certain interests in not resolving the problem, especially when it comes to the Russian armed forces that have, at times, supported one side, and then the other.

"Moreover, the leadership of the Communist Party and the Politburo also played a certain role in exacerbating the problem. The Communist ideology was based on the misconception that every nation has the right of self-determination, but at the same time, it denied individual human rights to all of its citizens.

"Let's suppose that there is a provisional state of Azerbaijan within the USSR," he says. "The vast majority of the population is Azerbaijani, but there is a certain enclave of Armenians. What should be done? The genuine solution is to guarantee that this minority be given all of the rights that Azerbaijanis have, according to the rights granted by the Constitution. There must be no difference between nationalities.

"But how did the Communists settle this problem? They separated this enclave and created artificial borders, naming it Nagorno-Karabakh. But the problem of self-government can't be solved like that," he insists. "In democratic countries, self-government is not solved by creating borders, but rather by the Constitution and the law. The Communists only created the appearance of self-government. Then, when everything that the Communists built started to collapse, Armenia stepped up and said: 'This territory belongs to us.'

"When we asked 'Why?' they replied, 'Because it has borders.'
"'We're sorry, but who created those borders?' we countered.
"And they balked: 'You can't guarantee the safety of our people.'
"And again we countered: 'We inherited this problem.' Safety is secured by giving civil rights.
The truth is that to a certain extent, every Azerbaijani in Baku is also deprived of certain rights. This is a problem that has carried over from the totalitarian regime.

"In my opinion, Azerbaijan must be one country that is divided into various provinces, not according to nationality principles, but territorial ones. Accordingly, relations with the territories that have a certain status of self-government must be established on a democratic basis."

Occupied Territories
Armenia must return all of the territories that it is occupying - Kalbajar, Zangilan, Lachin, Gubadli, Aghdam, Fuzuli and Jabrayil, along with a portion of the Tartar region - Khayal insists. "Only after that happens will it be possible to start a dialogue on the status of Karabakh. Once they give up their claim, we can agree with those conditional borders, accept their rules and say: 'This is our compromise.'

"As for a compromise before the release of those territories, I see no sense in making one when so much of our territory is still occupied." And as for the status that might be given to Armenians living in Nagorno-Karbakh, Khayal thinks there are too many problems to solve before such status is determined.

"If we could alleviate the difficult social conditions under which our refugees are living, then our psychology would change. The element of confrontation would be lessened." According to Khayal, the difficulty is compounded when Armenians insist that all of these problems must be resolved at the same time - the refugee problem, the issue of occupied territories, the status of Karabakh.

"No matter what you call it, the reality is that so many problems can only be handled gradually - one by one. Nor can the status be something that can be established in two or three days. This is how I feel about it." Of course, the Armenians have counter arguments, he admits.

Khayal believes that international guarantees will be important in carrying out an eventual solution. "Let's say that we start conducting negotiations on Karabakh and come to a certain conclusion within a year. All this must be carried out within the framework of international guarantees. This will provide a certain kind of compensation. For example, if the two sides don't trust each other, the guarantees may help to compensate for that suspicion and mistrust."

Khayal says that above all, communication between the two sides is crucial. "People need to communicate, regardless of their nationality. If people don't speak to each other, then they start shooting. I'm not a pacifist, I'm a journalist. And I consider this problem from a professional point of view.

"The main thing is not to give people the grounds for total disappointment, not to let them think that this problem has no other solution than waging war. I realize that some of our territory is occupied, and we must do our best to get it back. If there is any ray of hope, any chance to remedy this situation, we must reach out for it.

"We must show people that dialogue is possible, even in difficult situations. Not everything has to be solved on the battlefield. And yes, I'm optimistic. I do believe that we will be able to overcome the difficulties that hinder and impede us now. But it will take time."

Khayal Taghiyev
was interviewed by Editor Betty Blair and Editorial Assistant Arzu Aghayeva. Assistant Editor Jean Patterson also contributed significantly to this article.

Azerbaijan International (9.1) Spring 2001.
© Azerbaijan International 2001. All rights reserved.

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