Some Azerbaijanis believed that the Second Nagorno-Karabakh War would psychologically revitalise the country and would lift years-long feelings of oppression, and create a new civic pride and courage. But instead, all that has happened is that violence both real and symbolic has become ever more deeply ingrained in the country.
For many years in Azerbaijan, whenever you would criticise the government, despite the specifics of the social or economic question you often get the response, especially from supporters of the government that Karabakh comes first. They would say that human rights cannot be guaranteed in ‘situation of war’, or that once Azerbaijan retook Karabakh the spirit of victory would invigorate a tired public — suddenly people would have the courage and energy to demand their rights from the authorities.
As the war concluded, most felt that justice was served — they felt liberated from a self-image of the perennially oppressed. Many who criticised the opponents of the war, said that the war actually made coexistence between Armenians and Azerbaijanis more possible. ‘If this war didn't happen, if we did not take back the lands, the years of pain and suffering of the refugees from those lands would never allow them to live together with Armenians in the future’, they said. ‘But now it will be possible to live together.’
Despite the stated desire for coexistence, the reaction to the incendiary comments from President Ilham Aliyev revealed a less conciliatory attitude. When Aliyev said that ‘we will chase them out like dogs’ or ‘we will crush their heads’, these comments were well-met by the public. While he later made clarifying comments saying that they only applied to the occupying Armenian military and not the Armenian people — this was not heard, or perhaps not taken seriously, by the Azerbaijani public.
Indeed, the humiliating aspects of such statements were what many people desired. After seeing videos of Nikol Pashinyan dancing in Shusha in 2019, and reading his wife’s ‘invitation’ for Azerbaijan’s First Lady to come visit Nagorno-Karabakh — both of which they saw as mockery directed at Azerbaijan — much of the public wanted vengeance, which Aliyev, in their view, delivered.
This spirit of vengeance has only continued after the war. One of the most horrendous examples is the helmets of Armenian soldiers displayed in the Military Trophy Park, while those Azerbaijani youth who criticized it were subject to harsh public condemnation on social media, with some users stating that compared to atrocities such as the Khojaly massacre, the museum was quite humane.
Displaying the helmets of fallen Armenian soldiers in a park meant for the public, even for children, that is not an indicator of a society that has — through victory — been unburdened of its traumas, now finally ready to stand up for itself. No, such a thing only shows the growth of the image of violence in society, and of violence itself.
The case of controversial humourist and blogger Fuad Rasulzada is a prime example of this.
During the war, a video of Khudayar Yasifzade, a young Azerbaijani soldier, singing a patriotic song days before he was killed in combat, deeply affected many in Azerbaijan, and it became a symbol of the grief people felt over the premature death of young men at war.
In March, Rasulzada made a dark joke to a friend: ‘it’s been a while since Khudayar released a new song’. Who then published the joke on Twitter. A month later, Rasulzada was brutally attacked by a group of men in the street. After the beating, Khudayar Yasifzade’s mother came forward and said that she had asked her relatives to beat the young man. She even said she told them to break his fingers.
Many praised the grieving mother and justified their support of this extrajudicial violence as protection of the memory of a fallen soldier. But they forget that while protecting the memory of one of their own, they go out of their way to humiliate the memories of hundreds of soldiers from the other side. While trying to protect a mother who has lost her son on their side and justifying her outcry, they forget that they bare their teeth and laugh at other mothers who have also lost their sons.
Historical justice was not established in the war, instead it has reinforced a symmetry of hate. Each side continues to blame the other for their pain, as they mourn sons who they believe were martyred for their land. Both sides see their own soldiers as heroes, and soldiers of the other side as vicious devils.
But it is the war that killed their sons. Because war does not bring love nor peace, it brings death and pain and loss to everyone involved. There is no such thing as a ‘complete victory’ and the only inevitability in war is more death. If one day these two nations understand the power struggle their governments created based on their pain, then maybe this war would truly end.
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.