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Opinion | The ignored, the unwanted, and the unforgiven

19 November 2021
Baku residents celebrate end of Second Nagorno-Karabakh War, 10 November, 2020. Photo: Toghrul Rahimli/Wikipedia commons.

Victory Day was a showcase for the new dominant state narrative in Azerbaijan and its widespread popular adoption. The recent burst of violence between Armenia and Azerbaijan, as well as other incidents, have revealed this narrative’s fragility. 

During a celebration on Victory Day, a new annual holiday meant to commemorate Azerbaijan’s victory in the Second Nagorno-Karabakh War last year, a crowd in downtown Baku was filmed cheering as they burned Armenian flags. The gathering of such a large and rowdy crowd in the centre of the capital is almost unimaginable in authoritarian Azerbaijan — but just as it was during the war itself, this form of mass self-expression was not only tolerated but encouraged. 

The creation of Victory Day as a public holiday was an attempt to capture and redeploy the public mood of wartime, in which the whole nation was intensely politicised against a foreign enemy. 

The holiday seeks to harness and maintain the intense focus on an external enemy, except this time in the frame of celebrating victory over it. Meanwhile, any narratives that don’t conform to the celebratory mood, are carefully pruned.

However, while the narrative surrounding Victory Day has been successful in dominating public discourse, it is not without its limits. 

Non-conforming, non-celebratory narratives are connected with real constituencies, with grievances that will not easily be forgotten. And while the government has successfully deployed the narrative to sideline the opposition, recent clashes between Armenia and Azerbaijan show it is less capable of using this narrative to mobilise the public for further military conflict.

Ignored

Victory in the Second Nagorno-Karabakh War vindicated an already popular belief that peace talks with Armenia were not adequate and that war was an unavoidable necessity. As a result, when it happened, the war was not something unexpected, nor was its human cost particularly traumatic for most Azerbaijanis. 

It shouldn't be surprising then that the relatives of those who died during the war have remained mostly invisible since the end of the war. The presence of bereaved parents, children, and spouses would provide much too an embarrassing contrast to all the state-sponsored public jubilation.

The dissatisfaction of veterans, common to post-war societies, has also been sidelined in the Victory Day narrative. These men, who are abstractly praised in songs, speeches, and public ceremonies often feel personally ignored and underappreciated both by the state and society at large. Indeed, there has been a deluge of videos, posted online and mostly shared on opposition pages, of veterans asking for donations and other material aid. 

One Victory Day video that went viral on TikTok is an archetypical example of this phenomenon. The video, shot by a bystander, shows a veteran in a uniform seated in his car and arguing with police officers who asked that he move his car as a gathered crowd watches on. 

After the video’s wide dissemination the State Traffic Police even issued an official statement on the matter, commenting that while they are ‘proud of our veterans’ in some behaviours, ‘they [the veterans] overshadow this status’. 

Unwanted

Even if the opposition continues to criticise the post-war settlement as an ‘incomplete victory’ because of the deployment of Russian peacekeepers in Nagorno-Karabakh, for the ordinary people the Victory Day narrative has won out. As far as the public is concerned, the war is over, and justice has already been restored. 

In the nationalist afterglow of this victory, there are no signs that the public has the desire for a continuation of military operations — despite the enduring hatred for Armenia. Precisely for this reason, the fierce clashes near the border did not receive even a fraction of the support of the war a year ago. Instead, the fighting caused incomprehension and only raised new questions. 

While the Azerbaijani government might flirt with wild irredentist narratives, such as claiming Yerevan or threatening to open a corridor through southern Armenia by force, one can find few echoes of this among the public. 

And so, even though broke out only a week after Victory Day, it was not met with patriotic fervour but instead with a great many voices speaking out against the possibility of war. Despite the spectacular and deeply felt celebration on Victory Day, much of the public has realised that the economic health has felt down following the war, and the institutional changes that the civil society hoped for did not happen.

That is not to say that these ‘anti-war feelings’ come from some new mass sense of humanism or empathy. Videos of recently captured Armenian soldiers being hit and berated elicited only silence from Azerbaijani ‘human rights defenders’. Azerbaijani society may be tired of war, but the Armenian still remains its hated ‘other’.   

Unforgiven

Excepting the state-sanctioned mass politics of victory commemoration, Azerbaijan has entered into a heretofore unprecedented state of public depoliticisation. 

Opposition parties, no matter how nationalist they may be, have never been weaker or less relevant. For instance, the ongoing hunger strike of Saleh Rustamli, a veteran of the First Nagorno-Karabakh War, a political prisoner, and an opposition Popular Front Party (PNFA) activist has elicited almost no public support or sympathy.  

Meanwhile, more and more opposition figures are ending up behind bars. At the beginning of November, Agil Humbatov, another PNFA activist, was sentenced to 10 years in prison on questionable charges of ‘armed assault’. A month before that, Niyammed Ahmedov, yet another party member and a committed supporter of PNFA’s leader Ali Karimli, was sentenced to 13 years for supposedly ‘financing terrorism’.

For now, the Azerbaijani government has reached new heights of popular legitimacy and power — but it is clear it fears that someday, maybe even someday soon that may very well change.

Ultimately, the Victory Day narrative is nearly suffocating in its widespread permeation of Azerbaijani society, but it is also fragile. The violence of the war it claims has ended, re-erupted within days of the holiday. Many veterans, abstractly lionized by the state, in reality, simmer with resentment. The public, content with a restoration of national pride on the battlefield, seems unwilling to sacrifice any more blood.  

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

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