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With Turkey’s slide into authoritarianism, ‘one nation, two states’ rings truer than ever of Azerbaijan and Turkey. But below the politics, Turkey has changed for many Azerbaijanis — from a beacon of hope and gateway to the West to a symbol of their disenchantment.
Turkey’s crackdown on ‘terrorism’
On 25 October, a group of eleven human rights defenders stood at their first court hearings on what international rights watchdogs have described as trumped up charges and politically motivated prosecutions. The eleven include both Amnesty International’s Turkey director and chair, as well as two international experts. they face up to 15 years in jail if convicted.
In a statement issued the day before the trials, Amnesty said ‘the charges against the 11 include outlandish claims that standard human rights protection activities amount to assisting terrorist organisations. These include appealing to stop the sale of tear gas, making a grant application, and campaigning for the release of hunger-striking teachers’.
So far, the prosecution has failed to explain how the evidence collected from laptops and phones link them to terrorism. But this is a new Turkey, where in the aftermath of last year’s failed coup, scores have been prosecuted, persecuted, and linked to terrorist organisations with no proof. A Turkey where thousands have lost their jobs and over 100 journalists have been placed behind bars. In a piece published in the Guardian on the anniversary of the coup, the paper claimed 50,000 people have been remanded in custody, and 170,000 investigated for alleged links to the coup plotters.
For veteran Azerbaijani journalist Rauf Mirkadirov, this is nothing new. He says the distance Erdoğan’s Turkey is putting between itself and democracy has been growing for many years now.
Mirkadirov lived in the Turkish capital Ankara with his wife and child until April 2014, when he was extradited to Azerbaijan and charged with treason. He was sentenced to seven and a half years in prison, while his wife and daughter desperately tried to understand the circumstances of his arrest.
After being released in 2016, he left the country to join his family in asylum. He continues to cover relations between the two countries, writing commentaries for the Azerbaijani newspaper he has worked at for decades, Ayna/Zerkalo.
Speaking to OC Media from Switzerland, Mirkadirov shared his observations not only from four years as Ankara correspondent for the paper, but also as a long-time democracy proponent in Azerbaijan. Mirkadirov believes Turkey has failed Azerbaijan just as it has failed its other neighbours and Western allies.
Turkey used to be beacon for Azerbaijan, and many believed and hoped the country would help shape Azerbaijan’s democracy in the aftermath of the Soviet Union. ‘This never happened’, says Mirkadirov.
While living in Ankara, Mirkadirov realised Turkey was not interested enough in democracy. According to him, Erdoğan’s choices to align with ‘uneducated, backwards Islamists’ with aggressive populist support and anti-Western tendencies have become more visible in recent years.
Even if Erdoğan has genuinely tried to present Turkey as a ‘good empire’ by distributing aid in poverty-stricken African countries, Mirkadirov argues that this kindness was not extended to many in Turkey.
‘Erdoğan wanted to be first in the village, but never in the city’, Mirkadirov explains. ‘It’s so much easier to show oneself as a loving leader while distributing bread in Sudan. Now proving oneself to Europe, is not such an easy task’. It’s no surprise that as a result of Turkey’s turbulent foreign policy and at times erratic behaviour, it has lost most of its former allies, he says.
Business as usual
Unlike Mirkadirov, there are some Azerbaijanis in Turkey who continue with their daily lives untouched by political changes or unconcerned by the synergy between their two leaders. For many, it’s just business as usual.
Business as usual for the ruling classes of both countries includes a penchant for money laundering and shady business deals by officials through offshore companies. The recent Laundromat revelations as well as the Panama Papers proved the extent of such schemes in Azerbaijan, while the Malta Files exposed how the Turkish President received an oil tanker worth $25 million from wealthy Azerbaijani businessmen.
Both countries have been dismissive of such accusations. After the Panama Papers exposed a $2.9 billion slush fund, the Azerbaijani government used for lobbying and luxury shopping, government and pro-government media were quick to dismiss the revelations. Soon after, the website of the Organised Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, who worked on the investigation, was blocked in the country.
Not so business-friendly
Similarities in the upper echelons bringing the two governments closer has not, however, trickled down even to wealthy Azerbaijanis in Turkey, many of who flocked there years ago with an eye towards real estate investment.
And they are not the only ones struggling; after 14 months of emergency rule, Turkey’s economy is floundering. In an interview with Turkey’s Daily News, Economy Minister Nihat Zeybekci acknowledged as much, saying ‘this [state of emergency] is not a normal situation’ and what Turkey needs is a ‘return to normalcy’.
As a result of the emergency rule, Erdoğan’s grand economic reform plan has now been replaced with cronyism, nepotism, and graft. In one recent piece, Turkish anthropologist and opposition politician Aykan Erdemir wrote, ‘unless [Erdoğan] ends his disastrous meddling in Turkish markets, the country’s volatile economy may well become the next casualty of last year’s abortive coup’.
While Azerbaijani businessmen in Turkey were reluctant to comment on the record, in private conversations they say there is much disappointment with the current state of affairs and they are afraid of being accused of tax evasion and having their businesses confiscated. As a result, many choose to leave Turkey and move their businesses elsewhere with more political stability.
On the opposite end of normalcy is the local Turkey–Azerbaijan Solidarity and Culture Association, an NGO promoting ties between the two countries. ‘We stay away from domestic politics’, says the organisation’s director Sefer Karakoyunlu when asked about the state of freedoms in both countries. Instead, the organisation promotes Azerbaijani interests in Turkey — advocating for Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity and celebrating the culture.
A gateway to the West no more
Some Azerbaijanis in Turkey OC Media spoke with feel insulated from the political changes. ‘We live in our own bubble’, said one resident. ‘We go to work, then home, see our friends, and live a life away from persecution’. But there is certainly a degree of concern in the direction the country is headed.
Speaking to OC Media on condition of anonymity, one Istanbul resident said the political changes are worrisome, seeing the country change so much over the last couple of years. ‘It used to be a gateway to the West for us’, they added.
Jamal, an Azerbaijani student who’s lived in Turkey since 2005, told OC Media his original reason for leaving Azerbaijan was to get away from his family. Turkey was a good choice — it was close, he had many friends also going there, and the languages are not far apart. When Jamal arrived in Ankara he met other Azerbaijani students studying at his university. Since then, the number of Azerbaijani students in Turkey has septupled.
Vafa Jafarova moved to Istanbul to join her partner, singer-songwriter Azar ‘Jirttan’ Mammadov. But most of all, what brought people like Jamal and Vafa together, along with hundreds of other Azerbaijani students living and studying in Turkey, were similar political beliefs and hopes for Azerbaijan.
‘When students from Azerbaijan were coming for the first time to study in Turkey, they wanted Azerbaijan to be as free [as Turkey]. I remember when I saw for the first time the cover of one popular cartoon magazine, with Erdoğan’s head sitting on top of a donkey’s body, I was so surprised. I wanted this satire to exist in Azerbaijan too’, says Jamal.
But what really united Jamal and Vafa were the political events unfolding in Azerbaijan. These were the times that most likely set the tone for the difficult years to come. In 2009, two young activists, Emin [Abdullayev] Milli and Adnan Hajizada were arrested in Baku and charged with hooliganism for allegedly starting a fight in a local restaurant.
It soon turned out the real cause for their arrest, and later sentence, was a short satirical video the two men put together after local authorities purchased two donkeys at a cost of $41,000 each. 2009 was also a referendum year in Azerbaijan, through which President Ilham Aliyev, who had just secured a second term as president a year earlier, scrapped presidential term limits.
The campaign to free the infamous donkey bloggers spun from all continents and capitals in Europe and elsewhere. Their friends launched a campaign and created a committee advocating for Emin and Adnan’s release.
When Vafa arrived in Istanbul in 2009, she was a member of the committee. While in Istanbul she met Jamal. Her partner composed a song ‘Azad Edin’ (Free Them). Together with other Azerbaijanis living in Turkey, Vafa and Jamal became activists.
No longer a student haven
Majid Marjanli, who was among the hundreds of other Azerbaijani students who came to study in 2008, told OC Media the ‘arrest of Emin and Adnan was an icebreaker for people to get to know each other from all walks of life, including in Turkey’.
According to Marjanli, the timing coincided with a growing popularity of social media in Azerbaijan, as well as a growth in the numbers of independent activists in the country. He says this helped boost the solidarity that formed as a result of the arrest of the donkey bloggers.
In 2011, Jamal, Majid, and three of their student friends, created a band called Bulistan, an anagram of Istanbul. They decided to adopt an ironic approach to what they considered the most backward aspects of Azerbaijani culture and tradition, challenging notions of women’s rights, a woman’s place in society, boys wearing shorts, and so on.
Bulistan’s popularity quickly grew and all of a sudden ‘people wanted to meet us’, recalls Jamal. ‘But since we couldn’t meet all of them individually, we decided to organise a massive party and invited everyone who wanted to attend’, explains Jamal. ‘This was the first time I met so many Azerbaijani students sympathetic to the ideas we were expressing in our videos’.
Jamal’s journey soon took him back to Azerbaijan where on 12 March 2011 he joined thousands of Azerbaijani opposition activists in Baku for a major anti-government protest. He joined in the best way he knew how — performing a profanity-laced song critical of Aliyev. He was arrested, tortured, and sentenced to 15 days of administrative detention.
In an interview with the Guardian, Jamal recalled the police placing a bag over his head and beating him with a truncheon over the bottom of his feet. He left the country for good shortly after completing his time in detention. Vafa and her partner, who had a baby girl to take care of, also left Azerbaijan for good in 2011.
Two nations, many states
Today, Vafa lives with her family of four in the Netherlands, while Jamal has found refuge in Germany. Both still suffer the consequences of their activism. Vafa’s family have all lost their jobs and have written letters denouncing her. Jamal’s family was questioned by police in January after he released his new rap song, which was again critical of the authorities, calling for the release of two youth activists who have been sentenced to ten years for drawing graffiti on a statue of late president Heydar Aliyev, father of president Ilham Aliyev.
The change Jamal, Vafa and many other democracy activists hoped for in Azerbaijan never came. And with front row seats to Turkey’s failure, these democracy activists perhaps elevated its importance in the region and in the eyes of once-upon-a-time-young democracies. Now that the dust is beginning to settle, there are only traces left of the glory days of ‘one nation, two states’ — replaced only by crushed hopes.