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‘A suicide mission’ Anti-war activists explain the challenges of protesting in Azerbaijan
Story by Bashir Kitachayev for The Beet. Edited by Eilish Hart.
Two and a half years ago, the decades-long conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh escalated into a full-blown war. Today, American and European officials are urging the two sides to seize upon recent diplomatic momentum and broker a lasting peace. Worryingly, however, international calls for Azerbaijan to offer security assurances to Nagorno-Karabakh’s mostly ethnic Armenian population have gone unanswered. Experts from Crisis Group warn that the unresolved Lachin Corridor crisis, which Meduza reported on in March, could not only be a potential flashpoint for “major violence,” but also put the entire peace process at risk. To wit, Baku’s recent decision to set up a checkpoint on the Lachin Corridor has renewed fears of ethnic cleansing. In Azerbaijan, meanwhile, the voices of those who oppose further aggression are all but drowned out. For The Beet, freelance journalist Bashir Kitachayev reports on Azerbaijan’s defanged anti-war movement.
The following story is from the The Beet, a weekly email dispatch from Meduza covering Central and Eastern Europe, the Caucasus, and Central Asia. Sign up here to get the next issue delivered directly to your inbox. A version of this article was first published (in Russian) by the online magazine DOXA.
In late September 2020, Azerbaijan launched attacks across Nagorno-Karabakh, reigniting a full-fledged war with neighboring Armenia. The hostilities lasted for six weeks and left nearly 3,000 Azerbaijani soldiers dead. But despite the large number of casualties, and the fact that Baku had declared a partial mobilization, popular support for the war remained incredibly high in Azerbaijan.
All major political figures praised the war. There were no anti-war rallies (in stark contrast to earlier pro-war protests), and people who openly opposed the fighting faced harassment and public condemnation. Even President Ilham Aliyev’s most uncompromising opponents had to refrain from holding demonstrations.
Among them was peace and human rights activist Giyas Ibrahimov, who became famous in 2016 for spraying protest graffiti on a monument of Heydar Aliyev, the ex-president of Azerbaijan and the father of the current head of state. For this, Ibrahimov was sentenced to 10 years in prison on a false charge of drug possession and spent three years behind bars. Following his release, Ibrahimov took part in anti-government rallies and even conducted solitary pickets.
During the 2020 war, however, he didn’t take to the streets. According to the activist, it was simply impossible, since society reacted negatively to any manifestations of pacifism. Had he gone out in protest, Ibrahimov said, he would have suffered not at the hands of police, but of ordinary people.
Nevertheless, Ibrahimov publicly spoke out against what became known as the Second Nagorno-Karabakh War: together with other activists, he signed an anti-war statement and expressed his opposition on social networks. In response, the Prosecutor General’s Office summoned him for an “educational talk.” “I was told that if I’m not a supporter of nationalism, then it’s better for me to leave, insinuating that people like me have no place in a society united by the idea of war,” Ibrahimov recalls.
Ibrahimov soon became the object of harassment and regularly received insults and threats in comments and private messages online. Though he considered them empty threats, he decided to leave the house as little as possible.
Murad (name changed) also opposed the 2020 war. In his words, he had no desire “to die for the sake of the ruling elites’ golden toilets.” But he didn’t dare take part in anti-war protests in person or online — primarily due to his ethnicity.
Murad, who belongs to Azerbaijan’s Lezgin minority, says that protesting openly would have meant risking not just harassment or a lecture from the security forces, but being arrested and tortured. “Protesting in Azerbaijan would be a suicide mission for me,” Murad maintains. “In my case, the conversation would immediately turn to ethnicity, and then I would be accused of separatism, treason, or terrorism. The authorities are still carrying out reprisals against ethnic activists [belonging to] the country’s indigenous peoples.”
Indeed, ethnic-minority activists have long been under pressure in Azerbaijan. The case of Talysh activist and historian Fakhraddin Abbasov (Aboszoda) is just one high-profile example. In 2019, Russia extradited Abbasov to Azerbaijan, where he was sentenced to 16 years in prison on treason charges. When Abbasov died in prison during the 2020 war, the Azerbaijani authorities declared it a suicide. Shortly before his death, however, Abbasov had released a statement warning that his life was in danger.
‘Karabakh is ours, and it’s worth dying for’
Even the main opposition parties in Azerbaijan, despite the consistent repressions they have suffered at the hands of the current government, have supported the fighting in Nagorno-Karabakh and continue to do so today.
“The majority of the Azerbaijani opposition consists of people who would be regarded as far-right in the West. Their rhetoric is almost the same as that of the authorities,” explains sociologist Sergey Rumyantsev, whose research focuses on the peaceful transformation of conflicts in the Caucasus.
Rumyantsev is convinced that a strong anti-war movement has failed to emerge in Azerbaijan because no one has come up with an alternative to the government’s militant rhetoric. With the peace process now ongoing for decades, many in Azerbaijan have grown convinced that talks don’t yield results. The Azerbaijani authorities, meanwhile, have been able to write off the country’s problems as consequences of the conflict and rally society around the cause of avenging the “humiliation” of the First Nagorno-Karabakh War.
“Ilham Aliyev very openly shared his ‘secret of success’ in the war at the recent Munich [Security] Conference. Aliyev said that it was necessary to educate the younger generation so that they would be ready to kill and die for the sake of their historical land. This is exactly what the Azerbaijani authorities did,” Rumyantsev explains.
According to the sociologist, the state’s war propaganda machine is all-encompassing and includes the education system. “History textbooks are written in a way that instills in children a belief that Azerbaijanis, as a nation, are much older than Armenians and have historical rights to these lands,” he says. The Azerbaijani media also portrays Armenians in a negative light, usually presenting them as Azerbaijan’s “historical enemy.”
The way Rumyantsev sees it, decades of active propaganda have borne fruit. “Citizens and politicians can argue over different topics, but they agree on one thing: ‘Karabakh is ours, and it’s worth dying for.’ And killing people is not an issue (although the government doesn’t say this openly), because they aren’t killing people, they’re killing ‘enemies,’” the sociologist explains.
“[When] a soldier is taught all his life about Armenian atrocities [against Azerbaijanis], he himself already comes to the conclusion that, for example, it’s not a crime to cut off an old man’s head,” Rumyantsev adds. “Dehumanization is an important component of conflict.”
‘We were also lied to’
The absence of anti-war protests in Azerbaijan doesn’t mean that supporters of a peaceful settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict have done nothing at all. In the 2000s, peace projects aimed to destroy the “image of the enemy” in Azerbaijan and Armenia, as well as in Nagorno-Karabakh. These projects were most often organized by researchers and independent journalists, with funding from international organizations.
Hamida Giyasbayli, an Azerbaijani journalist and rights activist, has been involved in such projects for more than a decade. In 2012, Giyasbayli began to collaborate with the Imagine Center for Conflict Transformation, leading its work in Azerbaijan. The initiative was created in 2008 as a platform where Armenians and Azerbaijanis could speak openly about the most sensitive issues without hiding their true feelings from each other. Giyasbayli helped organize meetings between Armenian and Azerbaijani youths in neutral countries, most often in Georgia.
“The most interesting thing for me was to hold dialogues between Armenians and Azerbaijanis. We talked about the history of the conflict, and about what events influenced the relations between peoples,” Giyasbayli recalls. “I saw how people [...] found the strength to say to each other’s face everything they felt, which of the conflict’s problems bothered them, and to discuss what could be done about it.”
According to Giyasbayli, these meetings changed people and helped them to look at the conflict in a new way. A former participant named Arpi agrees. “I remember when we were discussing the Sumgait pogrom,” says Arpi, referring to the 1988 ethnic riots in a city just outside of Baku (according to the Soviet authorities, at least 30 people were killed; other estimates put the death toll in the hundreds). “One of the Azerbaijanis said that the Armenians committed it themselves. I asked her: ‘What is the logic in this? Are you so exposed to propaganda that you don’t even doubt this absurdity?’”
“After some time, we started talking about the Khojaly massacre,” she continues, this time referring to the 1992 mass killing of Azerbaijanis by Armenian troops in the town of Khojaly during the First Nagorno-Karabakh War (according to Baku, more than 600 civilians were killed). “I said that in Armenia, we believe that the Azerbaijanis committed these events themselves. And then I realized the irony of the situation. In Armenia, we were also lied to about the conflict.”
According to Giyasbayli, many projects had to close due to a lack of funding after Azerbaijan passed a law in 2013 that tightened restrictions on foreign donors. (The Imagine Center was able to continue operating, however). Around the same time, Aliyev’s government unleashed a wave of mass repressions against opposition-minded individuals.
During the Second Nagorno-Karabakh War, Giyasbayli moved to Georgia to avoid potential persecution and to escape the widespread militaristic euphoria in Azerbaijan. She continues to hold meetings for Azerbaijani and Armenian youth in Tbilisi.
‘I spent 29 days in solitary confinement for advocating peace’
Despite the prevalence of militaristic propaganda in Azerbaijan and the ongoing conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh, more and more people appear to be getting tired of the war.
Azerbaijan is investing heavily in reconstruction projects in Nagorno-Karabakh, as well as in armaments, all while Azerbaijani living standards are falling drastically. According to official figures, food prices have risen significantly, and the real picture could be much worse. The population, meanwhile, is seemingly beginning to realize that the deaths of thousands of people haven’t made their lives any better.
The level of support for Azerbaijan’s attack on Armenia in September 2022 turned out to be much lower than for the Second Nagorno-Karabakh War. Some public figures and representatives of opposition parties who supported the 2020 conflict even spoke out against the attacks, which targeted Armenia’s sovereign territory. (Notably, the Lachin Corridor blockade, which brought about a humanitarian crisis in Nagorno-Karabakh earlier this year, hasn’t drawn similar condemnation.)
The center-left youth movement Democracy 1918 (D18, for short) also condemned the hostilities. D18 chairman Ahmad Mammadli openly accused President Aliyev of military aggression. “Someday, Ilham Aliyev will definitely answer before the international court for the crimes committed not only against the Azerbaijani people but also against the Armenian people. The first task of democratic Azerbaijan will be to punish those who sow enmity between peoples,” Mammadli wrote on social media at the time of the attacks.
The reaction from the authorities was not long in coming. “In the city center, I was attacked by five policemen in civilian clothes. They forced me into a civilian car. They wanted me to delete what I posted on social media. I refused,” recalls the politician.
A court sentenced Mammadli to 30 days in jail on charges of disobeying the police. “In the pre-trial detention center, they called me a ‘traitor to the motherland.’ I spent 29 days in solitary confinement for advocating peace,” Mammadli says.
After he was released, Mammadli learned that support for his movement had actually grown. D18 began to create working groups that cover problems in the regions, and it started developing a peace agenda, which they continue to broadcast on social networks to counter Baku’s aggressive foreign policy. The movement has even created a politics school that holds lectures and discussions on topics such as the peaceful settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, women’s rights, LGBTQ+ rights, and developing a green economy.
Mammadli remains optimistic about the future of the anti-war agenda and peace initiatives in Azerbaijan, but at the same time notes that society is not yet ready for mass protests. “We need to wait for people’s discontent to reach a peak,” he concludes.
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