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In the beginning was the violence

Azerbaijan’s victory in the 2020 war over Nagorno-Karabakh has not led to any long-term solution to the dispute. This is in part due to the official narratives of Baku, which continue to promote the idea of a total victory on its terms alone.

August 9, 2023 - Bahruz Samadov - Articles and Commentary

Photo: Ink Drop / Shutterstock

Azerbaijani national identity is somehow unique in the post-Soviet space. In many regards, the country’s national consciousness was formed as a reaction to the conflict with the Armenians at the beginning of the 20th century. The deadly clashes in 1905-06 and 1918, back then described as Muslim-Armenian, or Tatar-Armenian massacres, left a specific, almost folkloric memory in the newly-forming nation. According to Italian historian and traveller Luigi Villari’s 1906 book, the liberal and reactionary early Azeri intellectuals were “furiously anti-Armenian, and have not been without Government backing.” After more than a century, little has changed in this local worldview.

In the following decades, both nations were a part of the Soviet Union. The Soviet leadership notoriously included the Armenian-populated Nagorno-Karabakh in Azerbaijan, while a considerable Azerbaijani minority lived in Armenia without autonomy. Official discourse promoted the idea of the “brotherhood and friendship” of Armenians and Azerbaijanis in literature and education and blamed the nationalist anti-Soviet parties of the Dashnaks and Musavat for the crimes of the past. However, the hidden memory of the bloody past remained alive in local folklore. Many Azerbaijanis, especially ethnic Azerbaijanis in Armenia, remembered the violence they faced in 1918 in contested areas like Zangezur. In other words, the sincere transformation of national antagonism between the Azerbaijanis and Armenians never truly happened in the Soviet period.

This memory was revived in full during the emergence of the independence movement in Azerbaijan. In 1988-89 many Azerbaijanis escaped Armenia and Armenians left Azerbaijan. The corresponding violence took place in different forms. For example, the Sumgait pogrom in Azerbaijan claimed the lives of dozens, while Azerbaijani refugees also faced violence. Rumours about the unprecedented violence that Azerbaijanis experienced in Armenia quickly spread at the beginning of the 1990s, recalling the memory of the bloodshed at the beginning of the 20th century.

Some Azerbaijanis, who were involved in the Sumgait pogroms, were arrested by the Soviet authorities. Conspiracy narratives about these “Armenian-organised pogroms” became widespread. According to these narratives, Armenians themselves organised pogroms to achieve their own goals. This represented the cornerstone of the view of the national self: ethnic Azerbaijanis faced violence and injustice in Armenia, while Armenians seemingly enjoyed impunity and wanted Azerbaijanis to suffer even more.

A quarter-century of humiliation

Two early Azerbaijani governments fell due to the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh. The footage of civilians killed in the Azerbaijani town of Khojaly was shown in the Azerbaijani parliament and on TV channels in 1992. This resulted in the fall of the government of ex-communists and caused a dramatic shift in national identity with a firm vision of victimhood. In 1993, a government made up of nationalist democrats also collapsed due to territorial losses in Karabakh.

The loss in the First Karabakh War, alongside waves of displaced persons and decades of fruitless negotiations, only strengthened these views of victimhood. Already present in popular and cultural discourses, one key narrative called for revenge and relied on the dehumanisation of the Armenian enemy, something that both the opposition and government agreed upon. For example, the government-sponsored “Justice for Khojaly” campaign, launched in 2008 and associated with the president’s daughter, not only served to popularise worldwide this war crime against Azerbaijanis but also internally legitimised the ruling Aliyev family as those faithful to the national cause. This means of presidential legitimisation reached a peak in 2012, when Ilham Aliyev “rescued” and publicly pardoned Ramil Safarov, who murdered an Armenian officer in Hungary during a NATO-sponsored training programme. Notably, Safarov was presented as a victim and hero in popular media sources long before he was returned home. Safarov’s “rescue” raised Ilham Aliyev’s popularity in Azerbaijan amidst a turn to full-fledged authoritarianism in 2013.

The victorious nation

The 2020 war had a profound impact on the Azerbaijani nation. Broad segments of society, from the de-politicised masses to self-proclaimed liberal civil society, were united in the celebration of war and the following victory. Some in the opposition even naively believed that after the victory, discussion would drift towards demands for democracy and human rights.

The post-war reality, however, was harsher: the political landscape became even more tightly controlled and the opposition lost any support. Aliyev’s legitimacy also peaked during this time. The government promoted a cult of victory and the idea of the “victorious nation” (qalib xalq). In the country, the war is officially called the “Patriotic War” (Vətən Müharibəsi). This warmongering cult promoted such elements as the “iron fist” (dəmir yumruq), associated with President Aliyev’s famous hand gesture, and the “great return” (Böyük Qayıdış) of Azerbaijanis to land in the Eastern Zangezur Economic Region – the formerly occupied region outside of Karabakh. “Iron fist” monuments appeared in many places in Azerbaijan, including the formerly Armenian-inhabited town of Hadrut in Karabakh.

This hegemonic discourse has successively denied the existence of Nagorno-Karabakh and any autonomy for the region. Many media outlets deliberately eliminate the term “Nagorno” even from the quotes of foreign officials. This denialism is morally justified through the narrative that after the quarter-century of humiliation, Azerbaijan has the right to control the territory without any international oversight or future autonomy. For the Azerbaijani national-statist narrative, triumphalism means that Armenians have lost their chance for autonomy. At the same time, international actors, which did not help Azerbaijan solve the conflict during the era of “humiliation”, do not have any moral right to tell Azerbaijan what to do. The target of this criticism is often the OSCE Minsk Group, which formerly had the mandate to solve the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Aliyev recently said that the group could not be revived as “we do not have very good memories about the Minsk Group activities,” and that “this group was established not to resolve the problem, but to perpetuate the fact of occupation.” For Azerbaijan, if the war “solved” the conflict, then the remaining goal is to “re-integrate” the Armenians of Karabakh.

According to Laurence Broers, the victory narratives “allowed the Azerbaijani elite to pivot its legitimacy formula from petrodollar paternalism to strongman nationalism”. Possible changes in this triumphalist narrative, such as the “de-demonisation” of the Armenian nation and a democratic peace process, are not in the interests of the ruling elites, which have legitimised themselves precisely through this antagonism before and after the war.

The ongoing blockade of Nagorno-Karabakh is an integral part of this triumphalist and dehumanising logic. The region’s continued existence frustrates Azerbaijan and does not fit into its master narrative of victory. As a new and final war is somehow not possible due to the Russian peacekeeping mission in the region and international pressure, Azerbaijan weaponises all other possible means to create a sense of constant fear and physical suffering for the inhabitants of Nagorno-Karabakh. Armenia has already accepted that the region should be a part of Azerbaijan but still demands protections regarding the rights of Armenians. Azerbaijan continues to claim that this is simply “Azerbaijan’s internal issue”. With such continued collective suffering, the future of Nagorno-Karabakh remains dark as the mandate of the Russian peacekeeping forces ends in 2025.

Bahruz Samadov is a PhD candidate in political science at Charles University in Prague. His field of interest includes national identity construction, hegemonic projects, and authoritarianism in Azerbaijan.

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