One year after the Karabakh war, politics in Azerbaijan has come to an end
With the Aliyev regime still triumphant one year on from its military takeover in Nagorno-Karabakh, chances for dialogue - whether over Karabakh or inside Azerbaijan - are non-existent
One year has passed since the beginning of the war between Azerbaijan and the Armenian community of Nagorno-Karabakh, supported by Armenia. Already this description would cause dispute: Nagorno-Karabakh has never been accepted as a party to contend with in Azerbaijan. For many Armenians, there is only the Armenian community in Nagorno-Karabakh – while the suffering of Azerbaijanis from Nagorno-Karabakh and surrounding areas, who were forced to leave their homes during the first war, has been largely ignored.
Despite discontent over interpretation, a very real war took place last autumn, taking thousands of young souls to their graves. The winning side, Azerbaijan, confidently claims that the conflict is over (resolved through war) and that there is no such thing as Nagorno-Karabakh. In doing so, the Azerbaijani government not only rejects the existence of a separate region, but also any further dialogue over granting Nagorno-Karabakh some kind of autonomous status. Indeed, the Azerbaijani president, Ilham Aliyev, recently claimed that 25,000 ethnic Armenians live in Nagorno-Karabakh, while Armenia estimates that 120,000 Armenians currently live there. In either case, the Armenians living there do not see their future in Azerbaijan: there is nothing commonly shared for that to happen.
The contours of national identity in Azerbaijan have changed since the war: while the loss of Nagorno-Karabakh and surrounding regions during the First Karabakh War in the 1990s was perceived as a national trauma, now there is a national narrative of victory. In June, a monument of an ‘iron fist’ – commemorating Azerbaijan’s military operation to retake Karabakh – was erected in the town of Hadrut, previously inhabited by Armenians. In April, a military trophy park opened in Azerbaijan’s capital, Baku, complete with the helmets of Armenian soldiers and dehumanising wax figures depicting them.
Azerbaijan has also made direct and indirect territorial claims to Armenia, namely to the southern Syunik province, which have been articulated in both official and political discourses. Rivalries also continue as Azerbaijan aims to control roads that lead to Nagorno-Karabakh. The post-war discourse of the Azerbaijani government does not seek dialogue. On the contrary, it pushes the Armenian government to accept the victor’s position and deny the existence of Nagorno-Karabakh as an actor.
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To put it simply, there is nothing that would carry even a faint promise of reconciliation and co-existence. Victory has only deepened the antagonistic nature of Azerbaijani national identity.
The arrival of a Russian peacekeeping mission in Nagorno-Karabakh followed the Russia-brokered ceasefire on 10 November 2020. While the mandate of the peacekeeping mission is still unclear, its very presence should remind us of the region’s colonial past.
Once a part of Tsarist Russia, Azerbaijanis and Armenians fought previously, for example in 1905-07. Massacres took place in many cities of modern Azerbaijan, including the city of Shusha in Nagorno-Karabakh. Both communities were concerned with the aims of the Russian administration to privilege one group over the other. Battles took place again in 1918, in March and September respectively, in Baku and other regions of Azerbaijan. While March 1918 was more the result of an absence of any strong administration and the lack of representation of Muslim Azerbaijanis, the clashes in September 1918, when Armenians were the target, were provoked by the imperialist Islamic Army of the Caucasus of the moribund Ottoman Empire.
Neither before or after, communication with the Armenian population of Nagorno-Karabakh simply does not exist in Azerbaijan – neither at the state level nor via civil society
A few years later, when the dust had settled after the revolutions in the South Caucasus, the Soviet authorities decided that Nagorno-Karabakh should live within the borders of the Azerbaijani Soviet Socialist Republic as an autonomous region. When both countries were included in the Soviet Union, a new narrative of ‘togetherness’ began to emerge as part of the state socialist ideology. Authors, poets and musicians praised brotherhood between the two nations. Even when the hostilities started again in the late 1980s, popular singers from both sides continued to talk about ‘brotherhood’.
While the colonial nature of the Soviet Union can be discussed elsewhere, history shows that as soon as the Soviet administration weakened, old traumas and resentments were revealed: the Armenian community of Nagorno-Karabakh demanded unification with Armenia and ethnic Azerbaijanis were forced to leave their homes in Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh. Similarly, after anti-Armenian pogroms in Azerbaijan, Armenians no longer felt safe in Azerbaijan, which took the path of nationalism as an alternative to the dissolved Soviet ideology.
Now, after the war, the situation has not changed: Armenians would not feel safe in Azerbaijan, a country with a state ideology based on resentment and revenge. Hopes for a broader dialogue, which would include non-state actors, were destroyed after Aliyev’s authoritarian turn, which included not only internal repressions in 2013, but also a nationalistic turn.
One only has to look at the story of Ramil Safarov, an Azerbaijani army officer who murdered his Armenian counterpart, Gurgen Margaryan, during a NATO training in Budapest in 2004. When Safarov was extradited to Azerbaijan, after being sentenced to life imprisonment in Hungary, he was pardoned by President Aliyev and promoted to the rank of major. This increased Aliyev’s popularity and could be read as a nationalistic turn in the state ideology. This turn was needed to justify the increasingly authoritarian measures against the country’s opposition and civil society and changes in the constitution that now allow Aliyev to be re-elected more than twice.
It should not surprise anyone that Azerbaijan does not aim to integrate Nagorno-Karabakh. This process would require democratisation in Azerbaijan, the expansion of the public sphere and inclusive changes in national identity. Instead, the presence of the Russian peacekeeping mission is a consensus between the three sides: with all the colonial features, the mission at least guarantees the safety of ethnic Armenians. It could be argued that the end of war transformed the conflict from routine armed hostilities to an illiberal peace with colonial features. Neither before or after, communication with the Armenian population of Nagorno-Karabakh simply does not exist in Azerbaijan – neither at the state level nor via civil society. The latter enthusiastically supported the 2020 war and has remained silent about war crimes committed by Azerbaijani forces and the fate of Armenian prisoners of war.
Hopes for the democratisation of Azerbaijan have also dissolved, and many activists are simply disillusioned. President Aliyev remains triumphant, the opposition is even more nationalistic, and it feels as if the notion of democracy itself has no power. If before the war there were sometimes more or less vibrant independent political activities, now any concerted political activity would be a failure: it is simply impossible. While the mainstream opposition either tries to devalue Aliyev’s victory or criticise the Russian peacekeeping mission, populist parties make Azerbaijan’s political culture only more toxic.
To put it simply: the war has effectively put the political process in Azerbaijan to an end.
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