Conspiracy theories are no stranger to resourceful leaders. They can consolidate political power, cultivate the image of an external enemy and reduce their responsibility for the nation's ills. And in the ex-Soviet republic of Azerbaijan, conspiracy theories help keep incumbent president Ilham Aliyev in power.
According to these conspiracies, Azerbaijan has two main enemies: the Armenian lobby and the jealous west. As the former is often said to finance the latter, these two enemies become one: an omnipresent and all-powerful ‘Armenian lobby’. This powerful structure has become a commonly used weapon in the hands of the authoritarian leadership of Azerbaijan to crack down on dissent. By referring to all of its critics both at home and abroad as Armenian, pro-Armenian, and representing Armenian interests, the authorities have created a quick conspiracy formula for muzzling independent voices by labelling them as traitors.
Keep grievances close
Armenia wasn’t always used as a political tool in Azerbaijan—at least, not as much as today. Between 1988 and 1994, the two countries fought a bitter war over the mountainous area of Nagorno Karabakh. The ceasefire that ended the conflict in 1994 failed to maintain a buffer zone.
Casualties on the front line continue to this day, and the failure to reach an agreement between the two states to this day leaves the territory administered as an unrecognised state under Armenian protection. Thousands of civilians have been displaced. Warlike rhetoric has significantly increased over the years and, these days, it is the rubber stamped government policy in both Armenia and Azerbaijan.
Grim reminders of the Karabakh war remain to this day: a minefield at Meghvadzor, Armenian-controlled Azerbaijan. (c) Onnik Krikorian / Demotix.But conditions were different following the first years of independence. There was more dialogue and exchange following the 1994 ceasefire. Journalists travelled freely while non-governmental experts spent time on joint initiatives.
Shahin Rzayev, an Azerbaijani journalist, visited Armenia and unrecognised Nagorno-Karabakh seven times between 1997 and 2007. Over the years, permission to travel to the neighbouring state got harder to obtain.
‘During our first trips, our work schedule was much more open. We could freely plan our meetings, walk around Yerevan accompanied by our colleagues, and without any security. These days, every single move needs to be approved ahead of time, including 24 hour security, even to the toilets.’ Such demands made trips extremely irritating, recalls Rzayev.
Last year, I too was labelled a ‘traitor’
Rzayev says changes followed the death of independent Azerbaijan’s first president Heydar Aliyev. ‘There was antagonism towards these trips. But the attitude was positive overall. I recall even Heydar Aliyev saying he applauded such visits and he himself received Armenian journalists in Baku [Rzayev met Armenia’s then prime minister Robert Kocharyan]. Attitudes changed after Aliyev’s illness and death. People visiting Armenia were branded traitors, even on the ministerial level.’
Today one doesn’t have to visit Armenia to get branded a traitor. Last year, I too was labelled a ‘traitor’ shortly after news of my work with the Turkish-Armenian weekly newspaper Agos was made public. I was defamed and shamed for writing critically in the enemy’s paper. Death threats came shortly after.
...and conspiracies closer
Listening to people like Shahin Rzayev, one could say that it was the coming to power of Ilham Aliyev in 2003 that marked the birth of conspiracy theories in Azerbaijan. Throughout Aliyev’s leadership, branding someone ‘Armenian’ has become a common political tool—often used by government officials and state media as a sign of solidarity.
Naturally, any constructive criticism of government policies, harassment against rights advocates or crackdown on independent voices came to be seen as an act influenced solely by Azerbaijan’s enemies, funded through the Armenian lobby and whose sole purpose is to dismantle the ruling powers.
Just browsing through statements of MPs one sees a pattern in statements on various occasions, accusing an ‘Armenian lobby’ of plotting against Azerbaijan.
For instance, Musa Qasimli MP claimed in 2015 that all international rights watchdogs were sponsored by or created by the ‘Armenian lobby’. In response to a protest against BP’s sponsorship of the Baku games by activist organisation Platform London outside the oil company’s UK headquarters, Gasimli stated that ‘All of these organisations are backed by an Armenian lobby, Armenian diaspora and groups which are not interested in seeing Azerbaijan’s development.’ Platform London’s June report noted that ‘the Baku 2015 Games are a celebration of a marriage between the First Family of Azerbaijan, the Aliyevs and the oil corporation BP. These are not just the Aliyev’s games; they are also BP’s games.’ Since 1994, Azerbaijan has become one of BP's key investment markets and, so to speak, its fourth largest province.
Meanwhile, the hate continues. ‘There are certain organisations across the world whose main goal is to pour dirt on developing countries like ours. These organisations include Reporters Without Borders, Human Rights Watch, Freedom House and others. They publish fake reports about Azerbaijan, all prepared on the orders of the Armenian lobby,’ said Galib Salahzade, another MP, in the aftermath of a series of critical reports publishedon Azerbaijan’s deteriorating rights record.
The US 2015 Azerbaijan Democracy Act, a bill to deny visas to Azerbaijani officials introduced in December, has been deemed yet another example of the work of the Armenian lobby. The bill was drafted and proposed in the US senate as a response to ‘unprecedented attack on democracy, human rights and civil society in Azerbaijan’. Hikmat Hajiyev, Azerbaijan's foreign ministry spokesperson, was quick to call the draft bill the outcome of the Armenian lobby.
Lawyer Fuad Aghayev talks to the press after the sentencing of his client, journalist Rauf Mirkadyrov, to 6 years' imprisonment on 28 December. Mirkadyrov was charged with spying for Armenia.Similarly, Asim Mollazade, another Azerbaijani MP, accused the State Department of working with the Armenian lobby it released a report on the persecution of the family members of Azerbaijani activists. ‘This report was prepared by the Armenian lobby. They are closing their eyes to what’s going on in Armenia and are criticising Azerbaijan instead,’ responded Mollazade.
Even Secretary of State John Kerry was labelled Armenian. Rovshan Rzayev, another MP, said, ‘It is known all too well that Kerry has good connections with the Armenian lobby [citing Section 907, which bans any direct US aid to Azerbaijan]. But it would be good if Kerry re-evaluated US-Azerbaijan partnership agreements. State interests as opposed to personal interests should be a priority.’
Among other countries, the existence and presence of Armenian lobbies in the United States and France is no breaking news. For decades these groups have been pushing for the recognition of the Armenian genocide as well as a pro-Armenian position on Karabakh. The Armenian lobby slur can thus serve two purposes: maintaining the status quo in the Karabakh conflict, while undermining any tangible progress in the development of civil society in Azerbaijan, portraying all and any such NGOs as—at best—unnecessary.
In good company
The few examples of the inflated significance of the ‘Armenian lobby’ in Azerbaijan have parallels in other authoritarian states. In Turkey, president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan searches for scapegoats in wild conspiracy theories, accusing a ‘parallel lobby’ of plotting against Turkish statehood. In Putin’s Russia, ‘fifth columnists’ and ‘foreign agents’ carry a similar if not identical connotation.
In the case of Russia, conspiracy theories rose to the fore under Putin’s leadership. Serghei Golunov argues that the use of conspiracy theories isn’t new and that it was particularly common during the Soviet period. ‘What makes [conspiracy theories] so abundant during Putin’s time,’ writes Golunov, ‘[is] his affiliation with the security services.’ Their empowerment during Putin’s reign ‘made it more likely that the regime would employ conspiracy theories in its rhetoric and policy.’
Golnov's account bears striking similarities with Azerbaijan. There too, preventing ‘colour revolutions’ and later ‘Arab springs’ were the main priority of the government apparatus. Just as in Russia, NGOs receiving foreign funding became targets. Activists were accused of carrying out instructions of foreign enemies, and of being funded by the Armenian lobby or directly linked to Armenian lobby. All of this had a single aim—to delegitimise Aliyev’s opponents.
The real victims
While Baku excels at using the ‘Armenian lobby’ as the main driver of all criticism of the government, it also has a habit of instrumentalising the Nagorno-Karabakh war and its consequences in a most cynical way.
A long time observer of Azerbaijan in Brussels, who spoke to openDemocracy on condition of anonymity, says that Azerbaijani authorities do not shy away from using the Karabakh conflict as a shield. ‘Whenever there is a criticism of Azerbaijan’s human rights record, say, resolutions of the European Parliament, Azerbaijani authorities are quick to remind [the European Parliament] about the fate of the displaced Azerbaijanis from Nagorno Karabakh [and the adjacent seven territories]. So, they use it as a shield against human rights-based criticism.’
‘When there were meetings in the EP on the human rights [situation in Azerbaijan] before the Eurovision song contest, MPs from the Milli Mejlis [Azerbaijan’s National Parliament] were urgently shipped to Brussels to disrupt these meetings by constantly interrupting the speakers (among whom there were activists who are now jailed, such as Rasul Jafarov), making comments irrelevant to the subject and abusing the Nagorno Karabakh issue to sabotage the discussions.’
In the meantime, the Brussels-based observer reminds us, Baku ‘willingly ignored’ the resolutions adopted by the European Parliament ‘respecting Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity and the right of the IDPs to return to their homes.’
Azerbaijani scholar Arif Yunus was sentenced to 7 years' imprisonment. One of the many charges against him was espionage for Armenia.A more recent resolution adopted by the European Parliament in September this year and which called for the release of all political prisoners, human rights defenders, journalists and activists, attests to the tendency noted above.
Parliament members in Azerbaijan described the resolution as ‘biased’ and accused the EP of ‘double standards’. In her statement, parliament member Leyla Abdullayeva said, ‘Azerbaijan is just like many other Muslim states suffering from double standards policy […] we are the ones who are occupied and suffered aggression. But unlike Azerbaijan, Armenia doesn’t get any sanctions […] looks like someone cannot stomach our country’s free and independent policy. Behind them no doubt is the Armenian lobby and the world community of Armenians. Our President also said that they are our number one enemy’.
The observer calls these accusations ‘total nonsense’, adding that ‘Azerbaijan's propaganda portrays these people [members of the parliament] as “pro-Armenian”, “Islamophobic”, and “jealous of Azerbaijan’s successes [but] none of them has any connection to the Armenian lobby.’
As freedom of expression disappears, it becomes much easier for the regime to sell its argument
In fact, one of the MEPs of this information group is Ulrike Lunacek, an Austrian Green who is on the record as consistently supporting Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity and demanding the withdrawal of Armenian troops from the occupied territories. Yet Lunacek is also one of the most insulted and verbally abused, invariably in connection to her sexual orientation. This shows how much the regime’s hired guns really ‘care’ about Nagorno Karabakh.
‘The charge of Islamophobia is even more ridiculous. The pro-human rights MEPs often come from left-leaning and liberal groups. Those are the very people who advocate for multilateralism and diversity. They fight Islamophobia, not promote it. The regime’s propagandists don’t even realise how inconsistent they sound: they promote Azerbaijan as a pillar of secularism, yet at the same time use the religious factor when lashing out at their perceived enemies—by accusing them of being Islamophobes,’ comments the EU observer.
Golunov writes that, in the case of Russia, the heavy reliance on conspiracy theories succeeded thanks to the ‘regime’s overwhelming information superiority’. In Azerbaijan, while there are many critics of the government who can read between the lines, the public at large remains unaware of the real situation and often gets sucked into the very heart of the conspiratorial rhetoric. And as freedom of expression disappears, it becomes much easier for the regime to sell its argument.
What is left is only a glimpse of hope that, amid the information blockade, some will be able to see right from wrong. They may then start questioning how a supposed and shadowy ‘Armenian lobby’ became such a powerful influence in Azerbaijan in the first place.
Image two: (c) Aziz Karimov / Demotix.
Image three: courtesy of Thomas de Waal.