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The anti-Azerbaijani campaign in Russian media

The war in Ukraine has encouraged Baku to pursue a policy of neutrality as it tries to maintain links with both Kyiv and Moscow. Despite this, parts of the Russian media have consistently characterised Azerbaijan’s actions as an attempt to gain at Russia’s expense.

April 13, 2022 - Murad Muradov - Articles and Commentary

Azerbaijani flags at a march for Ukraine in Toronto, Canada on February 27th, 2020. Photo: Can Pac Swire flickr.com

The scandalous threats made by some Russian political and media personalities against Azerbaijan, including those asserting the possibility of a tactical nuclear strike against Baku, came as a shock to Azerbaijani society. Though Baku has consistently opposed any kind of separatism and made careful but critical remarks about Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine, it has long positioned itself as Russia’s friend. Azerbaijan has shown respect to Moscow’s vital interests and abstained from integrating with western institutions. With its active role within the Non-Aligned Movement, Baku has made it clear that it does not seek NATO membership. Baku has also been generally careful about voicing its opinions regarding the behaviour of Russian peacekeeping forces in Karabakh. This was true even when these forces visibly violated the ceasefire agreement, causing a public backlash in Azerbaijan. As a result, anti-Azerbaijani narratives voiced on the Russian state TV channel Rossiya 1 and popular Telegram channels, came quite out of the blue.

Connections with Karabakh

The actively anti-Azerbaijani campaign in certain parts of the Russian media appeared during and after the 44-day war in 2020. It was primarily connected to certain Russian paramilitary structures, such as the notorious Wagner Group controlled by “Putin’s cook” Yevgeny Prigozhin. This figure projects his influence through various media outlets, including the Life News service, RIA-FAN portal and related Telegram channels. However, it seems that a significant part of the Russian siloviki with security service backgrounds has viewed Baku critically since the 1990s. Russia’s media often covered the war in Karabakh through military correspondents who are known for their strong views. While in Karabakh, they waged a vicious anti-Azerbaijani and anti-Turkish campaign, describing “unseen brutalities” conducted by Azerbaijani forces. They also discussed “thousands” of foreign fighters, including Syrian and Afghan jihadists, who had supposedly perpetrated mass beheadings and desecrated Christian monuments. In their narrative, Azerbaijan is nothing but a Turkish proxy focused on Islamic expansion in Russia’s sphere of influence and destroying Russia’s ally Armenia. While sharing an outspokenly far-right ideology, these propagandists also tried to appeal to left-wing western pacifists. For instance, they castigated “Turkish militarism” and praised the pro-Armenia Kurdish PKK fighters. One journalist even pretended to broadcast from Hadrut “where there is no Azerbaijani”, while in fact the town had already come under Azerbaijani control.

Another narrative was created about Azerbaijani-Jewish oligarchs in Russia and Moscow intelligence chief Sergey Naryshkin. Following information about an informal meeting between Naryshkin and prominent oligarch God Nisanov, sections of the Russian media claimed that an omnipresent Azerbaijani mafia in Russia is ensuring Moscow’s support for Azerbaijani interests. At the same time, endless political talk shows on Russian federal channels have regularly featured subtle anti-Azerbaijani statements. However, their hosts have usually tried to distance themselves from the most extreme claims. Russian “propagandist-in-chief” Vladimir Solovyov is particularly notable for his thinly-veiled threats, even though he was once invited to Baku by Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev. In his interview with the Russian channel RBK, Aliyev emphasised that the Russian media’s “vicious anti-Azerbaijani campaign” had damaged Moscow’s image in the country and may affect interstate relations as
well.

A long-term campaign

After the war, another figure from this circle called Igor Dimitriev came to prominence through his “Russian orientalist” channel. Dimitriev’s old-school imperialist views claimed that Turkey, despite strong partnership links, remains Russia’s mortal enemy. For people like Dimitriev, Azerbaijan’s independence is only the result of its equidistance between Ankara and Moscow. He subsequently viewed the Azerbaijani-Turkish alliance formed during and after the war as a direct reason for Russia to interfere militarily. His view is also influenced by notions of a strategic alliance with Christian Armenia against Muslims in the region.

While the bilateral media climate was generally calm last year, Prigozhin-affiliated media began to develop a fantastic new plot involving Azerbaijan. This time, it was built around St. Petersburg’s unpopular Governor Alexander Beglov, who was born and grew up in Baku. Beglov’s mismanagement of various facilities and services in Russia’s second city and Putin’s hometown was not merely unprofessionalism, but a sinister plan of “Britain, Turkey and their proxy Azerbaijan” to quietly destroy St. Petersburg and make it vulnerable to potential sabotage. They even wrote that British soft power agencies had until recently felt much more at ease in the “northern capital” than anywhere else in Russia. They also mentioned events concerning gender inclusivity and other left-liberal issues held by UK representatives in St. Petersburg. It is symptomatic that Baku’s role in this conspiracy theory is said to be directly connected to Britain’s anti-Russian strategy.

In this plot, Azerbaijan was also represented by an “ethnic mafia” allegedly controlling the city’s strategic businesses and public offices. These absurd accusations grew louder in the winter, when harsh weather caused discontent among inhabitants regarding the poor condition of snow clearing services and other related issues. This story echoes another media campaign last year that discussed the so-called “For the good of the common people” movement or VBON. This allegedly pan-Russian group unites ethnic Azerbaijanis in an attempt to achieve social, economic and cultural dominance through blackmail, intimidation and bribery. Evidence as to the existence of this movement was largely restricted to several archived social media chats (which could well be forged) and some controversial VKontakte groups. In any case, there was no evidence whatsoever that this organised network existed and talks about VBON quickly subsided after a short online campaign. Prigozhin’s media sharks pursue their goals by taking advantage of nationalism mixed with resentment towards the peoples of the Caucasus and anti-western besieged fortress thinking.

The consequences of Ukraine

Mainstream Russian media slowly warmed to Azerbaijan last year as Baku declared its commitment to the Russian peacekeepers’ presence and Moscow’s political and cultural influence in general. However, soon after the invasion of Ukraine, things started to change. Baku publicly declared its neutrality in the conflict and commitment to friendly relations with both Russia and Ukraine, alluding to the “Declaration of Allied Interaction” signed by Aliyev and Putin on February 21st.

At the same time, Azerbaijan has reiterated its firm commitment to the principles of territorial integrity and non-interference in states’ internal affairs. As a result, the country firmly supports Ukraine’s sovereignty over Crimea and Donbas. Baku’s leadership has been gravely concerned about Moscow’s growing neo-imperialism. It is subsequently natural that Azerbaijani sympathies largely lie with Ukraine. Since the war started, Baku has sent several cargo planes filled with humanitarian aid to Ukraine. The State Oil Company of the Azerbaijan Republic’s (SOCAR) Ukrainian branch also decided to provide petrol free of charge during the war. This decision was clearly approved in Baku. Baku’s crucial ally, Turkey, has also maintained its neutrality and refused to join anti-Russian sanctions. However, it has been providing Ukraine with equipment like the ultra-efficient Bayraktar drone. President Zelenskyy subsequently called Ankara one of Ukraine’s major friends. These developments very soon encouraged Russian media to once again embrace anti-Azerbaijani narratives. The aforementioned sources claimed that Baku hoped to benefit from Russia’s difficulties and pressure Moscow into withdrawing its peacekeepers from Karabakh.

Negativity towards Baku was even visible after some progress was made in talks between Aliyev and Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan at a December meeting in Brussels. This helped spearhead a series of careful moves regarding reconciliation and a peace treaty. However, such criticism took a much sharper turn after February 24th. Around then, the Azerbaijani military started to advance on Farrukh, a strategic height near the town of Khojaly controlled by Russian peacekeepers. This was done in response to supposed cooperation between Russian peacekeepers and Armenian forces regarding the building of trenches and other fortifications. This development resulted in a bitter exchange between both countries’ defence ministries. For example, the Russian side accused Baku of violating the ceasefire agreement by moving troops into the peacekeepers’ zone. Azerbaijan responded in kind by claiming that the peacekeepers had failed to prevent the Armenians from conducting military activities that violate the treaty. This exchange was also symbolic as while Russia used the Armenian toponym for the area (Parukh), Azerbaijan insisted on its own spelling (Farrukh).

Heated rhetoric

These events triggered an unprecedented escalation in anti-Azerbaijani rhetoric in the Russian media. Firstly, Dimitriev and another “patriotic” Telegram channel called “Atomic cherry” wrote that Baku’s behaviour could result in “the first tactical nuclear strike of the 21st century”. Since the incident in Farrukh was not the first in Karabakh since the 44-day war, it was clear that such a brazen threat was made in the context of Azerbaijan’s insufficient loyalty on the Ukraine issue. Similar statements were also made by Pravda journalist Sergey Mardan. While the opinions of allegedly independent bloggers can be somewhat overlooked, Russian MP Mikhail Delyagin claimed on Rossiya 1’s “60 minutes” talk show that “Azerbaijan openly rejects our MoD’s statements and behaves aggressively… They are not an independent state now, but Turkey’s proxy. The Azerbaijani oil industry is of no use to Russia, and it’s very fragile… So we can inflict irreparable damage on it. If they don’t understand words, they’ll have to understand actions. It’s a matter of survival for Russia.”

These statements triggered shock and outrage in Azerbaijan. Of course, they were clearly made in the context of fears the Kremlin must have about Europe’s successful substitution of Russian fuel with alternative sources. This includes oil and gas from the Caspian region that is transported through Azerbaijan. The day following Delyagin’s claims, the Russian foreign ministry officially distanced itself from such comments. Delyagin even had to record a video apology. However, this still sounded rather provocative. For example, he apologised for “making many people in Azerbaijan, Armenia and Russia fear” and added that “some circles in the Azerbaijani bureaucracy have understood me correctly”. This suggests that he indeed meant what he said previously. In doing this, he might have been guided by some higher circles in Russian politics eager to send Baku a warning. Quite tellingly, Baku has not accepted this apology. Azerbaijan’s prosecutor general office has launched an investigation against Delyagin, accusing him of calling for acts of aggression and terror and passing his case on to international authorities. This step demonstrates that Baku sees these threats as more than just bravado. Instead, the country believes that Delyagin speaks for a significant part of the Russian elite, which is hellbent on “punishing” Baku for its independent foreign policy. Moscow now cannot afford to make enemies of countries that did not join wider sanctions. Azerbaijan believes that Moscow cannot ask more of it given the current situation in the region. Despite this, the media campaign against Azerbaijan has crossed crucial red lines that Baku cannot tolerate even at the risk of further confrontation.

Murad Muradov is the co-founder and deputy director of the Topchubashov Center, a Baku-based think tank. His areas of expertise cover European politics, the politics of identity and nationality, and international political economy.


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