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2.6.11

The New York Times Goes to Baku...

Vartan Matiossian
 
You are the government of this or that country, you cannot allow yourself to have direct access, but you desperately want to push your own story in the top echelon of national or international media. What do you do? You get a good public relations firm and send it to shop around. There is nothing that money cannot pay, especially with oil flowing to the West and petrodollars filling the coffers of Western companies. Money talks and... You know the rest. Even if this were a completely fictional scenario, the outcome could not be very different from the blissfully biased piece of Ellen Barry dispatched from Baku and published on June 1, 2011 in The New York Times.
Barry grounds her fairy-tale journalism on a sniping school reportedly filled with gun-toting teenagers and revenge-looking young women, and the plight of refugees from the Mountainous Karabagh conflict living in squalor and anxiously beating the drums of war, since Azerbaijanis are said to have lost their patience and getting ready to rekindle the flames after 17 years of a fragile ceasefire. 
If the bellicose discourse of the Azerbaijani government is being sustained on behalf of the 586,013 refugees “who have spent nearly two decades in limbo” (Barry keeps an appearance of fairness by giving an U.N. figure, instead of the inflated one million of the Azerbaijani side) and, according to some half-identified woman, “they cannot stand it anymore, they want war,” why “the cursed Armenians are guilty of this,” in this woman's misguided words? Fifteen-year-old boys are looking for sniper lessons and a career as cannon fodder. Had the oil money filling the pockets of the Aliyev dynasty and its cronies since the 90s been instead used for the benefit of refugees kept hostage to utter misery, such grim prospect would not be prominently displayed.
“Neither party has an incentive to fight,” writes Barry. “Armenia controls the territories, so it is interested in maintaining the status quo. Azerbaijan sees little way forward: though it could easily drive out Armenian forces, Russia could send its army to help Armenia, its ally in a regional defense alliance, just as it did in South Ossetia.” How sure you are? (Let’s not forget that it is not “Armenia” who "controls the territories," but that is a different story.) Soviet troops were sent in 1990, during the last days of the empire, to help Azerbaijanis drive out Armenian population from their villages in Karabagh. But Russian troops placed on the Turkish-Armenian border as a result of the Russian-Armenian alliance did not intervene in the conflict. The alliance is directed to protect the country from non-CIS aggression. .
The article points out that “both countries are engaged in a steep military buildup.” Indeed, if you have to defend yourself from a neighbor who in 1992 boasted that would go and swim in the waters of Lake Sevan (that was former Azerbaijani president Abulfaz Elchibey), and in 1993 did not hesitate to rain missiles over the unarmed civilian population of Stepanakert, the capital of Mountainous Karabagh, you are entitled to have a well-equipped army. Armenia would not dedicate a big chunk of its budget to defense if it did not had its eastern neighbor with the knife among its teeth and allied to a western neighbor playing games of “reconciliation” while blockading the country for almost twenty years. At least, the article had the decency of mentioning that Azerbaijan “has increased defense spending twentyfold since 2003,” while the silence about Armenia's increase seems to imply that it was far from being that much.
One wonders how Azerbaijan needs “peaceful coexistence,” as senior presidential aide Ali M. Hasanov tells Barry, if the same person talks of being “ready to give our lives for territorial integrity” and that “there is no guarantee that tomorrow or the day after tomorrow a war between Azerbaijan and Armenia won’t start.”
One also wonders if Barry or her editors do not know better than uncritically quote misguided talks of “genocide” by some Azerbaijani who probably does not even know what genocide is. They might take a glance to their own files and look into reports on the Sumgait and Baku (yes, Baku!) anti-Armenian pogroms of 1988-1990 which could serve them to keep an appearance of fair and balanced reporting. (Wasn't Bill Keller, Executive Editor of The New York Times for the past eight years--stepping down in September--chief of its Moscow Bureau at the time?)
One might expect this to be a first in a series, perhaps an initial report filed before or after visiting both capitals of the Caucasus, Baku and Yerevan, to give a balanced reporting of perceptions of the "boiling" of a "frozen conflict." But even if a second story with byline in Yerevan would follow (wait and see), there is nothing to believe that it would be less biased, even if it were from the Armenian side. You do not expect serious journalism to be built on a tit-for-tat basis.
From a distance, it is fair to say that Azerbaijan does not look good after reading this piece. Even if the usual "Muslim vs. Christian" coupling has been pushed aside, a country where people are basically reflecting a hysterical attitude of going into war any minute soon does not give the picture of reliability that business, and especially oil business, needs to thrive. Their message that neither America, nor Europe are listening to their concerns, as the last quote in the mouth of an Azerbaijani woman implies, is simply untrue. Otherwise, Karabagh would have become a precedent for Kosovo long time ago and not the other way around.
This is how "frozen conflicts begin to boil," as touted from the article’s title: when the newspaper of record publishes “pay-per-report” pieces that just give a voice to mindless warmongers without further probing into the facts and when Western reporters refuse to learn not to sell themselves to the best "buyer." (As a matter of fact, Ellen Barry happens to be the Moscow Bureau Chief of The New York Times, not some Jayson Blair-ish hack writer.) Sadly, this time journalistic standards seem to have been thrown to the bottom of the Caspian Sea. 

(Special for "Armeniaca")



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