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Opinion | How Azerbaijan uses ‘anti-colonialism’ to authoritarian ends

22 December 2023

Azerbaijan’s official statements have in recent months taken a new turn, using anti-colonial rhetoric to criticise Western countries for their involvement in the region. In doing so, discourse that originated in criticism of the oppressive use of power is being used to justify the country’s move towards even greater authoritarianism. 

Azerbaijan’s relationship with the West has long been unstable, with its occasional advances uneasily alternating with denouncements of Western criticism of Azerbaijan’s actions. France and the USA have been particularly demonised, the former for its close allyship with Armenia, the latter for its perceived attempts to constrain Azerbaijan’s human rights abuses.

Of late, the framework in which that criticism is situated has shifted, with Azerbaijan following a trend modelled by right-wing populists and idealogues internationally: using anti-colonial rhetoric as a means to reject Western liberalism and democracy. 

In Hungary, the ruling Fidesz party deploys anti-colonial rhetoric to present its anti-queer agenda as if LGBTQ+ rights were an invention of the West. In Turkey, the ruling AK party, arguably a significant source of inspiration for Azerbaijan’s ruling party, frequently uses post-colonial narratives to suggest that an anti-Western turn and increasing repression are a form of anti-colonial struggle.

Such ties are also on occasion more implicit — the afterword to the Russian translation of Edward Said’s Orientalism, a foundational text in post-colonial theory, was written by Russian nationalist intellectual Konstantin Krylov. Krylov and other Russian nationalists embraced Said’s work for its problematisation of Western views on the Orient, and use its post-colonial framework to present Russians as a nation oppressed by the West. 

Similarly, Russian far-right political philosopher Alexander Dugin often talks about decolonisation in his rejection of Western democracy, using a postcolonial framework to widen the scope of interest and reach audiences in China and India.  

Such an approach has recently been enthusiastically taken up in Azerbaijan, adding to the country’s existing anti-Western arsenal. 

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‘Against French colonialism’

In Azerbaijan, anti-colonial rhetoric has been developed together with nations with similar agendas. 

A significant factor in this has been Azerbaijan’s membership of the Non-Aligned Movement, a foreign policy forum established in 1961 for developing countries that refused to align with or against any major power bloc. However, autocrats quickly took leading positions in the movement: the list of previous chairs includes Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, Cuba’s Fidel and Raul Castro, Indonesia’s Suharto, Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, and Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Hassan Rouhani. Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev became the movement’s chair in 2019, taking the post from Venezuelan autocrat Nicolas Maduro. 

While the movement emerged after World War II with such values as self-determination and rejection of all forms of imperialism and colonialism in favour of ‘positive and constructive neutrality’, the leading countries in the movement have themselves rarely shown any commitment to democracy and human rights within their borders. Instead, despite formally declared pro-peace and anti-imperial stances, left- and right-wing authoritarian statehood models have united the member states in recent years.

Azerbaijan’s increased activity in the Non-Aligned Movement has gone hand-in-hand with Baku’s adoption of selective anti-colonialism, especially after the Second Nagorno-Karabakh War.  

Its main target has been France, due to the combination of its explicitly critical stance towards Baku’s authoritarian conflict management strategies, such as the Lachin Corridor blockade and September 2023 attack on Nagorno-Karabakh, and the country’s strong support for Armenia.

In July 2023, a ‘Baku initiative group against French colonialism’ was established based on a discussion that took place at a Ministerial Meeting of the Coordinating Bureau of the Non-Aligned Movement. The group’s stated aim is ‘to take the necessary steps to eradicate de facto slavery on the African continent and in various regions of the world’. 

Aliyev, in his opening speech, embraced Comoros’ claim over Mayotte, an island in the Indian Ocean under French control, and the independence movement in New Caledonia, a French territory in the South Pacific, as well as highlighting France’s colonial-era crimes in Algeria. 

References to Algeria are not new: in May 2021, Aliyev highlighted the presence of Algerian skulls in a French museum as an argument against critics of the dehumanising Military Trophies Park in Baku. On fact-checking, it became evident that Aliyev’s claims did not entirely match up to reality, as the skulls in question had either been returned to Algeria or were under restricted access. 

On 20 October 2023, Baku hosted another anti-neocolonial conference, this time targeting France’s ‘gross interference in the internal affairs of states in its former colonies’ and ‘gross violation of human rights in its current colonies’. Aliyev demanded that France apologise for the crimes of the colonial past, accusing France of xenophobic and Islamophobic state policies. 

The fact that Azerbaijan targets only France’s colonial history, leaving aside, for example, Great Britain, not to mention Turkey, makes the case a characteristic example of the selective, instrumentalised use of ‘anti-colonialism’ to pursue right-wing political goals. Ironically, Great Britain, Azerbaijan’s economic partner whose companies helped Azerbaijan to win the Second Nagorno-Karabakh War, was among the countries invited to the ‘neocolonialism’ conference.

An ‘ideological war’

Other, less friendly countries do, however, also get swept into Azerbaijan’s selective anti-Western agenda. 

In a 2019 speech, Aliyev used a typical homophobic trope, warning that a move towards Europe would mean integrating with ‘a place where there is no difference made between men and women’. 

Such criticism is also directed towards the US, with Azerbaijan accusing the country of attempting to interfere in its internal affairs. 

On 15 November, US Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs James O’Brien made comments about the events of September 2023 in Nagorno-Karabakh in which he condemned Azerbaijan’s use of force ‘to summarily assert control over the region’, and added that there could be no more ‘business as usual’ in America’s relationship with Azerbaijan. On the same day, the US Senate voted in favour of a bill restricting foreign aid to Baku in 2024 and 2025. 

Following this decision and O’Brien’s statement, Azerbaijan responded as it could: publicly rejecting peace talks on American soil, but also targeting its anti-Western angle specifically at the US. 

Three days after O’Brien’s statement, Azerbaijani state-controlled AzTV released a video report on the US’s ‘dirty games’ in Azerbaijan, accusing the US of sending spies, ‘spreading the LGBT system’, and harming national-conservative values — all ideas congruent with broader anti-colonial and anti-Western rhetoric. 

The report, called ‘US secrets in Azerbaijan are exposed: will “spy hunting” begin in the country?’, presented Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and Libya as countries destroyed by the United States’ actions, with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine also presented as an outcome of US policy. Current US policies in the South Caucasus were referred to as an ‘ideological war against Azerbaijan’, with the report calling for an investigation into USAID activities in the country. 

Days after the broadcast, the arrests of a number of prominent journalists and civil society figures began. A majority of those detained were employees of AbzasMedia — one of the last independent media outlets operating from within Azerbaijan — whom state media accused of ‘destabilising the country’ for US interests.  

[Read more: Azerbaijan detains seventh journalist in ongoing media crackdown]

Amplifying the idea that the crackdown was targeting Western intervention in the country, Azerbaijan summoned the French, German, and American ambassadors to the Foreign Ministry in relation to their funding of AbzasMedia. In the same days, Azerbaijan reportedly also terminated a number of joint projects with the European Union. 

While the US’s James O’Brien visited Baku at the beginning of December with little incident, leaving with promises of imminent Armenia-Azerbaijan peace talks in Washington, the nature of the collaboration remains uneasy, as those detained have still not been released. 

Selective anti-Western shifts serve only one goal — to legitimise the regime and clamp down on any democratic voices in the country. As reclaiming Nagorno-Karabakh is no longer an argument that can be used to silence dissent, anti-Westernism has been taken up as a new tool to discredit and oppress those who seek to question the established order. 

As the country moves towards what appears set to be another Aliyev victory in February’s snap presidential elections, it seems clear that things are only set to get darker for Azerbaijani civil society. 

The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s alone, and do not necessarily reflect the views of OC Media’s editorial board.

Read in Armenian on CivilNet.