As Azerbaijan becomes increasingly aggressive towards Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh, civil society must step up and propose a progressive alternative to Baku’s rule — one that challenges the nationalist militarism at its core.
Azerbaijan’s ruling regime has been described in various ways, often intensely contradictory. Its turn to authoritarianism in the 2010s has been accompanied by fierce nationalism and increased hatred towards Armenians, which some might argue was a populist move to gain legitimacy.
As a result, and after the Second Nagorno-Karabakh War, the regime appears to be determined to achieve its aims through military violence and the exclusion of Armenians and political activists within Azerbaijan.
Along with military violence, Azerbaijan has adopted a new irredentist campaign to push claims on Armenian territories that ‘historically belonged to Azerbaijan’.
Clashes, fighting, and mutual accusations of ceasefire violations have become routine between Armenia and Azerbaijan — the most prominent being the two-day war of September 2022, which cost hundreds of lives.
[Read more on OC Media: Week of ceasefire violations in Nagorno-Karabakh as tensions mount]
The September clashes led to widespread international condemnation, forcing Azerbaijan to instead opt for weaponising ‘eco-activist’ bodies on the Lachin Corridor, effectively blocking it since December 2022. These activists claim to be protesting illegal mining in the region, despite Baku obviously being the one pulling the strings behind the protest.
The Lachin Corridor is the only road leading in and out of Nagorno-Karabakh for its Armenian population.
This strategy is similar to that employed by Minsk in the Belarus–EU migrant crisis of 2021, in which Belarus used migrant bodies on its shared borders with European countries to further its agenda. In both cases, these performative authoritarian spectacles are deployed for the political necessity to avoid and deny the state’s interference legally.
In Azerbaijan, where any public demonstration is banned, and eco-activism almost does not exist, the spectacle of ‘ecological concerns’ pushes the authoritarian statist logic of territorial control instead of broader democratisation and track II diplomacy.
Many in Azerbaijan criticised these ‘ecological protests’, not for their potentially disastrous consequences on Nagorno-Karabakh’s Armenian population, but for their harmful effect on the Azerbaijani state.
Those who spoke out against the ‘ecological protests’ expressed concern over the damage they could have on Azerbaijan’s international reputation.
They also worried that the protest could increase the legitimacy of the Russian peacekeeping mission, which oversees the corridor as per the 2020 ceasefire agreement. However, those who spoke out against the blockade believed that the Lachin Corridor should be run by Azerbaijan instead.
Few of those who champion democracy and human rights in Azerbaijan have attempted to challenge and change the dehumanising, nativist, and near-fascist approach dominant in Azerbaijan towards Armenians.
Natig Jafarli of the Republican Alternative Party (ReAl) went even further, denying the closure of the corridor and justifying the recent escalation in Nagorno-Karabakh. The territorial integrity approach to the blockade makes them ‘forget’ the state of human rights in Azerbaijan.
Some Western-backed activists, such as Erkin Gadirli and Khadija Ismayil, appear to gloss over the human rights agenda of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. For example, Ismayil argues the region’s Armenians should have accepted Azerbaijan’s sovereignty in 1992 when it was a democratic country, ignoring the fact that Elchibay’s Azerbaijan was responsible for displacing many Armenians from Martakert (Aghdara) the same year.
The current regime adopts the worst elements of past Azerbaijani governments; it demands submission and punishes the refusal to submit, as can be seen in the blockade of the Lachin Corridor.
Against this background, the Feminist Peace Collective’s statement describes the events as neo-colonial state violence. The Azerbaijani government has pursued the rigid policy of making the constant ontological insecurity in Nagorno-Karabakh since the end of the war. But the state of insecurity is also shared by the regime’s enemies on the inside.
Militant nationalism, blackmail, and Bakhtiyar Hajiyev
The second issue that draws attention to authoritarian exclusion in Azerbaijan is the imprisonment of Bakhityar Hajiyev. This long-term political activist has been in pre-trial detention since December. Hajiyev went on a hunger strike for 50 days to protest his detention.
Like most of the Azerbaijani political spectrum, he wholeheartedly celebrated Azerbaijan’s victory in the 2020 war. That was a stark change of heart from when he was imprisoned in the early 2010s for evading conscription. However, in the 2020 war, he actively participated in the celebration of war as a patriot.
After the war, Hajiyev criticised the ceasefire’s outcomes; he argued that it was a ‘partial victory’ and that Russia could sweep up Nagorno-Karabakh as it did with Abkhazia and South Ossetia in Georgia. The activist criticised President Ilham Aliyev for not being harsh enough towards Russia over its use of Armenian toponyms in its communications about Nagorno-Karabakh.
Instead of condemning military violence, Hajiyev turned into a different kind of nationalist; a sincere pro-Western nationalist who rejects Aliyev’s sole claim to the Azerbaijani nation — he also subscribes to the dehumanising approach of Azerbaijani nationalism.
In the nationalist environment of Azerbaijan, it is these kinds of nationalist figures who are the targets of systemic punishment. Unlike a handful of anti-militarist activists, such figures try to contest the regime-linked aspects of dominant nationalism without challenging its exclusionary logic.
For this and many other reasons, faced with his long-term hunger strike, Baku has decided to discredit Hajiyev by leaking his intimate messages, photos, and videos on Telegram channels.
The regime has often used sexual blackmail to demoralise its opponents, and Hajiyev was not the first to be targeted in such a way.
Ironically, Hajiyev is actively defended by those who stand against militarism and do not share his nationalist values.
Two participants of a small protest in front of the Baku Court of Appeal building, Samir Sultan and Afiyaddin Mammadov of the anti-militarist Democracy 1918 Movement, were detained for 30 days for demanding Hajiyev’s release.
Every year in late February, Azerbaijanis and Armenians commemorate the Khojali massacre and Sumgait pogrom, respectively. Neither people remember the victims of the other side.
However, this year, Garo Paylan, an Armenian–Turkish MP, broke that rule by commemorating the victims of both tragedies.
Unsurprisingly, Azerbaijani society has yet to produce figures ready to mention events such as the Sumgait pogrom in public discourse.
Suppose we want to tackle nationalist violence and fantasies of destruction. In that case, we should accept the past and grasp the logic of Azerbaijan’s exclusionary authoritarianism project, which justifies its presence through the one-sided weaponisation and interpretation of its history.
Even after years of suffering, Azerbaijan’s mainstream opposition and civil society still do not understand this.
They do not propose a progressive alternative to authoritarian peace — one based on the democratic vision of togetherness, criticism of the narrative of the ‘victorious nation’ and state violence, and most importantly, the establishment of direct and transparent communication with Armenia’s civil society and political spectrum.
Without an alternative, Azerbaijani society is due for yet another spiral of violence in the South Caucasus.
The opinions expressed and place names and terminology used in this article are the words of the author alone, and may not necessarily reflect the views of OC Media’s editorial board.