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Symbolic cultural elements and the restored territorial integrity of Azerbaijan

Azerbaijan’s fight to regain control of the disputed Karabakh region has included more than fighting on the frontline. Throughout the three decades between the main Karabakh conflicts, Baku has attempted to use various cultural elements to promote its cause both at home and abroad.

February 20, 2023 - Ismayil Fataliyev - Articles and Commentary

Martyrs' Lane in Baku. Photo: Bikomins / Shutterstock

In democratic countries, the shift to populism occurs after various hardships experienced by society. This was the case for some Eastern European countries after the 2009 global economic crisis, namely Poland and Hungary. In non-democratic states, populism is a cherished policy authorities are prone to use in order to secure their interests both domestically and internationally. In the contemporary history of Azerbaijan, one undoubtedly has to mention the resolution of the Karabakh conflict and restoration of Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity as a paramount issue. For this, the authorities have successfully exploited symbolic cultural elements that first appeared spontaneously, and later were timely complimented with new ones.

Religion as the first spontaneous cultural element 

It is no surprise that religion within a conservative society is widely used when addressing issues of national interest. Authorities refer to it in order to mobilise public support when implementing their political agenda. The traditional societal mindset in Azerbaijan, namely related to the majority group of Azerbaijanis, i.e. Turkic-speaking people, has always been dominant. For example, nowadays, Azerbaijan is the only country among the three South Caucasian states that is reluctant to develop closer ties with Europe. They leave aside the idea of importing or adapting to liberal western values, which are considered to be alien. Believing in clear cultural differences, a traditional mindset, and religious sentiments, the Azerbaijani authorities prefer to cooperate with the EU solely in the economic domain.

In the communist bloc, one of the major factors concerning public consolidation against the communist regime was religion. Although Azerbaijan shared the Soviet Union’s common atheist heritage with subsequent restrictions, religion initially played a secondary, complementary role. It manifested itself in some religious figures joining mass demonstrations in the late 1980s. In comparison, Catholicism played a vital consolidating role in the democratisation process of Poland. At the same time, in Azerbaijan, two bloody and iconic events defined religious elements as the first symbolic cultural elements of public consolidation. Though spontaneously occurring, these contributed to the rise of ethno-nationalist sentiments in society. 

The first event was the crackdown on the civilian population on January 20th 1990 in, at that time, Soviet Baku, by the Soviet military. It left more than 150 dead and hundreds wounded in a matter of one night. The second one was the 1991-94 war with Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh, an autonomous region within the Azerbaijan SSR with a mainly Armenian population. Those who died during these developments started to be called shahids (martyrs). A purely religious title derived from the Islamic holy book, the Quran, the term denotes people who die while fighting enemies on their land. While it was an obvious and typical title for, say, the fallen soldiers of neighbouring theocratic Iran during the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq War, it was originally an unusual shift for a supposedly atheist and secular Azerbaijan. Interestingly, during these developments, the title was initially applied only to those who resisted the Soviet troops in Baku or fought in the First Karabakh War. However, from then on, gradually even the victims of these events started to be described in this manner. For instance, the “Alley of Martyrs”, a mass graveyard in downtown Baku spontaneously founded to bury all who died on January 20th, includes the graves of both those who fought against the Soviet troops, and those who accidentally passed by Soviet tanks on that night. Nevertheless, all of them are referred to as shahids. When foreign top-rank politicians are in Azerbaijan on official visits, according to protocol, they pay tribute to all the dead buried in the alley. 

Until the conflict in Karabakh first turned into a full-scale war, religious symbolic elements were not used to the full extent in a secular but still predominantly Muslim Azerbaijani society. Thanks to the mass media, religious terminology such as Jihad, “the Holy War” and shahid would clearly inform public discourse in regard to the Karabakh issue while it was unresolved over the next three decades. Moreover, it would be these elements, first religious and later other cultural symbols, from which the contemporary collective identity of Azerbaijanis would gradually be forged. 

Introducing new cultural symbols 

As a result of the unsuccessful 1991-94 Karabakh War, Azerbaijan suffered an occupation of a fifth of its internationally recognised territory. It prompted subsequent negative humanitarian outcomes over the next three decades. The war was presented as the biggest challenge and obstacle to development and democratisation and, eventually, as an excuse for being unable to achieve long-expected positive political and economic goals despite the country’s immense oil and gas reserves. Thus, the restoration of territorial integrity was proclaimed the paramount goal of Baku’s domestic and foreign policies, the panacea for all social problems. Similarly, the government’s message was influenced by an unjust, biased international reaction towards the outcome of the conflict, and the huge damage suffered by the country’s economy due to the war. The authorities’ message was clear: without the restoration of territorial integrity, Azerbaijan cannot claim to be the leader of the South Caucasian region at least, or significantly increase its influence beyond the region at most. 

To mobilise public support, new symbolic elements started to be introduced up until the second, this time victorious, 2020 Karabakh War. Afterwards, they have been complemented by brand new ones aimed at strengthening the post-war gains. Simply put, it was the Karabakh conflict back in the 1990s that started the process of populism in Azerbaijan. And paradoxically, it was the turn to populism, according to the authorities, that would ultimately help to resolve the conflict.

Meanwhile, during the three decades of the interwar period, media outlets were extensively reporting on shahids during skirmishes on the contact line. Both veterans and families of martyrs were granted flats, cars, and their social welfare improved. Relevant media coverage and patriotic propaganda on martyrdom and holy war turned this topic into a sacred one. 

Azerbaijani internally displaced people of the First Nagorno-Karabakh War. wikimedia.org

On a grassroots level, attempts to express alternative opinions on the necessity of the war, peaceful resolution, and possible co-existence, were considered taboo. Those few who dared to talk about such ideas were immediately marginalised. Although the authorities were in favour of a diplomatic resolution, they never hid their willingness to reclaim occupied territories by force. They referred to the 1993-94 UN Security Council resolutions on the unconditional withdrawal of the Armenian occupying forces from Karabakh. Also, by doing so, the authorities pursued the aim of increasing social support and consolidating power. However, while the government was optimistic regarding negotiations at different stages, it enjoyed only the guaranteed pro-war support of Azerbaijani refugees from Armenia and internally displaced people from Karabakh. Overall, this group numbered about almost a million people, i.e. roughly ten per cent of the population. This population was hostile towards peaceful co-existence with Armenians given the tragic personal stories of exodus and atrocities they had experienced. Thus, many of them believed that it was only by force that the country could retake the lost territories. Each time the 25-year-long negotiation process came to a stalemate, populist sentiments ignited by means of various sensitive symbolic elements that were quickly gaining momentum. This was the case during and after the so-called 2016 Four Day War, when Azerbaijan managed to reclaim a tiny portion of its occupied territories.

Meanwhile, the authorities made further efforts to pursue a populist policy oriented towards the Karabakh conflict. Along with religious elements exploited for a long time, they intensified the process of bringing in new symbolic elements. Literature and music played a leading role in this respect. For example, one could mention mugamat or the mugami music, a compound musical style that embraces classical poetry and musical improvisation in a specific local manner. Interestingly, although back in the 18th century this music was spread in different parts of what is now Azerbaijan, namely in Shirvan and Absheron, it was Karabakh, and its main city of Shusha, which was designated as the centre for Azerbaijani mugami music and its performers. When promoting Azerbaijani culture worldwide, mugami music started to take centre stage, along with a clear indication of its geographical origin. For example, the most memorable part of the opening ceremony of the inaugural 2015 Baku European Games, a continental version of the Olympic Games, was dedicated to the performance of this music by a famous Azerbaijani singer.

Similar tangible symbols successfully exploited in the process of Azerbaijani consolidation around the Karabakh issue were the bullet-riddled metal busts of famous people born in Karabakh. These busts honoured the Shusha-born Uzeyir Hajibeyov, the founder of Azerbaijani-composed classical music and opera; Khurshidbanu Natavan, an Azerbaijani poet, philanthropist and the daughter of the last ruler of the Karabakh Khanate, a quasi-state entity that included Karabakh in the 18th and 19th centuries; and Murtuza Mammadov, better known as Bulbul (Nightingale), an opera singer and lyric-dramatic tenor. Before moving them back to de-occupied Shusha, they were exhibited at the Azerbaijan National Museum of Art in Baku. For the last three decades, when reporting on the Karabakh conflict, especially during the commemoration of the tragic events of January 20th 1990 and the February 26th 1992 Khojaly massacre (a massive killing of Azerbaijanis that claimed the lives of at least six hundred civilians that is recognised by dozens of countries and international organisations), pro-government Azerbaijani media outlets annually promoted these busts as an important national symbol.

The other successfully exploited symbol of belonging to Karabakh was the eponymous horse breed. For example, one horse of this world-famous golden red breed was gifted to the late Queen Elizabeth II. Its breeding dates back to the times of the aforementioned Karabakh Khanate. Between the two Karabakh wars, the mass media equated this horse with internally displaced people. Under the risk of extinction, it was widely believed that these horses must only be bred and kept in the highlands of Karabakh.

After the victorious 2020 Karabakh War, the military-political resolution of the conflict led to a substantial restoration of territorial integrity. The authorities have now further upgraded their populist politics. This time they have aimed to consolidate post-war gains through constant domestic and international awareness of the existential importance of retaken Karabakh for Azerbaijan. 

The old symbols have largely been used up and have not proven effective enough now. The new ones are therefore intended to mentally re-legitimise the country’s right over the region both domestically and internationally. In order to encourage the feel of belonging, the authorities have chosen the “khari bulbul” or the Ophrys caucasica, an endemic flower of Karabakh. The flower, as an appeasing symbol that calls for reconciliation, is aimed to make Armenians acknowledge the most recent fait accompli. Interestingly, this step resembles the Armenians’ decision to approve the “forget-me-not” flower as the worldwide symbol of commemoration for the 1915 mass killings of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire. The Khari Bulbul Music Festival, an international cultural event, once interrupted due to the first war, is now annually held in Shusha, while the city itself is proclaimed the cultural capital of the country. It is worth mentioning that since the regaining of independence in 1991 not a single city except for Baku has ever been called any kind of capital. Moreover, Shusha is also the 2023 cultural capital of the Turkic-speaking countries. All official domestic occasions related to Karabakh, such as commemorations and celebrations, take place with participants wearing chest badges in the form of the khari bulbul, while Azerbaijani ambassadors wear them when presenting their credentials to heads of state at the international level.

The Kamancha Ensemble, led by Elshan Mansurov , performs the folk dance melody “Uzundara” at the Khari Bulbul Music Festival in Shusha in 2021.

Every coin has two sides

It is true that symbols, signs, rituals, ceremonies and stories are all important parts of public culture. The last concept is closely related to ideas of “the glorious past”, “fatherland” and “holy land”. Authorities achieve set goals via the “materialisation” of these concepts through tangible objects. And this process results in benefits very quickly. On the one hand, even though it is problematic to argue for the positive impact of populism, for example, the aforementioned evolution of the exploitation of symbolic cultural elements in the context of the Karabakh conflict, one must admit that it has been partially effective. On the other hand, authorities must be prepared for the side-effects of populist politics. If, in democratic regimes, populism is visually represented in banners and posters or expressed through marches and rallies balanced by ones that are arranged by left-wing and liberal parties, in non-democratic countries with no alternative choice, the mainstream political line can define many important aspects of societal attitudes and well-being. This includes the potential peaceful co-existence of future generations. Although in general Azerbaijani territorial integrity has been restored, the populist politics applied to make this happen over three decades has made the nationalist sentiments of many ordinary Azerbaijanis skyrocket. As a result, they now actively side with Azerbaijani refugees and internally displaced people when expressing their hostile attitude towards Armenians. 

Ismayil Fataliyev is a multimedia journalist from Azerbaijan with about ten years of experience. Having been specialised in international relations, he is simultaneously working to develop civil society in his home country.

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