1 May 2011
Azerbaijani Domestic Politics and the Diaspora: (Mis)use of the “Armenian Factor” and its Implications for Conflict Resolution
“The best way of preserving a state, and guaranteeing it against sedition, rebellion and civil war, is to keep the subject with amity with one another, and to this end, to find an enemy against whom they can make a common cause”
Jean Bodin (1955, 188)
The conflict with Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh, being the largest external problem for Azerbaijan, plays a significant role in shaping domestic and foreign policies ranging from allocation of resources for persons displaced during the conflict to its energy policy. The conflict is also an important issue for the Azerbaijani public — a factor used to justify unpopular policies and to distract from social discontent with domestic issues. In the Azerbaijani Diaspora as well, the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is a priority issue and has influenced if not shaped the agenda of the organized Diaspora.
What I call the “Armenian factor” in this article can be overall characterized as the influence of the conflict with Armenia on Azerbaijan’s domestic political life, foreign policy, Diaspora activities as well as its influence on all levels of society, from politicians to regular citizens (and Diaspora members). The conflict impacts people and the political processes differently in Azerbaijan and throughout the Diaspora, so I discuss it separately outlining unique specifications for each. Despite the differences, one thing is common: not only does the conflict have impact on most if not all processes, but its importance and existence of the “external enemy” is used to manipulate public attitudes and justify unpopular policies domestically and to create a homogenous message and agenda in the Diaspora. This in turn has negative side effects, not just for the development of an internal debate on key issues but also from the conflict resolution’s point of view.
‘Armenian Factor‘in Domestic Politics
The Armenian factor in Azerbaijani society and politics plays out in two ways: one is the public’s shared attitudes and beliefs that the Nagorno Karabakh conflict and the continued threat of Armenia is the biggest unresolved challenge to the Azerbaijani nation. The second is how the existence of the conflict is used by politicians to manipulate public attitudes and delegitimize their competitors and enemies. On the attitudes level, many including political activists are divided over the approach to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict vis-à-vis Azerbaijan’s domestic problems. Most oppositional groups and activists consider the current status quo and Azerbaijan’s inability to change the situation to its advantage a direct result of the current and preceding administration’s policies. According to this thinking, Azerbaijan’s ability to emerge as a winner in the conflict is tied to overall democratic reforms and development, which are not currently happening. Those in the opposite camp view internal challenges to the current government as destabilizing and weakening Azerbaijan’s position, distracting from its main problem of conflict with Armenia. This background of divergent views, combined with the public frustration with the dead end in the negotiation process, and prevailing adverse attitudes towards Armenia create a fertile ground for the use of the external enemy to manipulate public attitudes, silence criticism on human rights violations, and distract from internal problems. Given that collaboration with Armenian individuals and organizations is equated with compromising Azerbaijan’s interest, it has also become a popular tool for public smearing, discrediting of one’s internal political enemies, and in some rare cases, prosecution. The actual prosecution of individuals as a result of “collaboration” with Armenians is highly disputable, and aside from reported cases of questionings by officials, no single case of imprisonment or even charges exist making this more of a perception rather than a reality. The only case that comes close is that of Eynulla Fatullayev, who was sentenced to eight and a half years on charges of terrorism and incitement of ethnic hatred, among others. But even in Fatullayev’s case, the charges are widely believed to be a justification but not the real reason for his imprisonment. The dropping of these charges by Azerbaijan’s Supreme Court in November 2010 showed just how these types of accusations can be used or dropped, depending on the circumstances. Whether a reality or not, even a perception that one can be questioned or detained by authorities creates a cautious environment regarding contacts, connections, or associations with Armenian organizations and individuals. This environment, combined with overall unfavorable public opinion on cooperation with anything and anyone Armenian, makes association with the enemy a convenient and effective tool for intimidating and discrediting individuals in the eyes of the larger public.
The Armenian factor came into play in the days leading up to March 11, 2011 — a day of protest against violations of freedoms in Azerbaijan named “Great People’s Day,” organized by youth activists on Facebook. What seemed to be an organized effort to bring ‘Armenian factor’ into the picture involved a number of interviews and publicly made comments by members of ruling political groups and media that linked the organizers of the Facebook protest to “external forces”, enemies and specifically ‘Armenian forces’ which seek destruction of Azerbaijan. On March 3, the pro-government Web site, Qaynar.info, published an article and posted pictures of well-known journalists, political activists, and academics that have Armenian friends on Facebook stating that the mentioned individuals are befriending enemies on Facebook[i]. Only a few days prior, the Executive Director of the ruling Yeni Azerbaijan party (New Azerbaijan party) said in an interview with Associated Press that there were a lot of Armenians signed up on Facebook to participate in the events and that “…the radical opposition is ready to work with Armenians against Azerbaijan.” Abel Maharramov, Rector of Baku State University, also said during the televised interview that those participating in the protest were lured into it by the Armenians via the Internet. Another affiliate of the ruling party, chairman of the Youth Union of New Azerbaijan Seymur Orujov, said in an interview to his party’s Web site that the campaigns on social media networks such as Facebook and Twitter are being backed by foreign-based forces that dislike Azerbaijan, which include first and foremost Armenians.
In reality, these accusations had little to do with the actual situation. For example, the number of Armenians who showed as “attending” on the Facebook page of “Great People’s Day” was insignificant among the 4,800 who signed up.[ii] Most of these individuals were most likely sympathizers with the human rights cause (also a problem in Armenia) that ‘liked’ the page to show support for the cause. Most youth movements in Azerbaijan and activists who speak up against violations of human rights have minimal contact with Armenian organizations and groups. The linkages made to Armenia, aimed to get the message across that those expressing discontent with the internal situation and challenging the current order, are those of the external enemy trying to weaken Azerbaijan and are not genuinely dissatisfied citizens of Azerbaijan. The accusations also aimed to discredit activists in the eyes of the public as well as to intimidate the youth who started the Facebook campaign and those planning to participate in street protests.
Thus, in internal politics, the Armenian factor, or in other words the external enemy, is used as a manipulative tool to suppress the voices that speak up or challenge the current government and order of things. Such misuse of this factor also has implications for conflict itself as it discourages emergence of new peace building initiatives.
Azerbaijani Diaspora and the ‘Armenian factor’ in the United States
The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict has been one of the most influential factors driving Azerbaijan’s foreign policy and organized Diaspora activities in Europe and the United States. In the last decade or so, Azerbaijan has made an effort to catch up with well-organized, strong Armenian Diaspora and lobby groups by improving its diplomatic corps and encouraging organized Diaspora-based activities. The passing of Section 907 — legislation that banned foreign aid to the Azerbaijani government in the early 1990s and desire to balance out the abundance of information on the conflict coming from Armenian diaspora organizations in the United States — made the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict a top priority issue in the Diaspora’s agenda to generate favor of the international community on Armenia. At a grassroots level, as many Azerbaijanis immigrated abroad for work and education since the early 1990s, the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict also became one of the motivators for the communities to organize and promote the Azerbaijani perspective on the conflict in the United States. Consequently, the goals and thinking of formal Diaspora-based groups and regular Azerbaijanis living abroad coincided when it came to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and Armenia. The commemoration events for Khojali; presentations; talks: discussions at universities, with international organizations, and on Capitol Hill; and petitions on various issues concerning Azerbaijan and Armenia, have been part of the routine Diaspora-based organizations’ activities in the United States.
In the environment where the majority of organized Diaspora-based activities are focused on legislative and information wars with the external enemy, the Armenian factor played out in two ways: First, up until the last few years, it led to a shortage or lack of outspoken criticism by Diaspora-based communities and victims of domestic problems, such as human rights and democracy violations in Azerbaijan. Second, the nature of the work discouraged Diaspora-based members in engaging in confidence building measures and conflict resolution oriented activities with Armenians. It should also be noted that the goals of Armenian Diaspora organizations, which are on the opposite end, equally contribute to the difficulties of initiating and organizing confidence-building measures in Diaspora-based communities.
Similar to views inside Azerbaijan and given the Diaspora’s more important role in the “information wars” with Armenia abroad, the predominant view has been that publicizing Azerbaijan’s internal problems, such as human rights violations, would undermine the agenda of generating support for Azerbaijan on the Nagorno-Karabakh issue. Yet so long as the Nagorno-Karabakh issue was not solved, the Diaspora could not afford to concern itself with internal problems. Recently, this picture has been changing. Although smaller in numbers, alternative voices have emerged from Azerbaijanis abroad that aim to bring attention to violations of human rights and lack of freedom in Azerbaijan. The referendum that lifted the limits on presidential terms and later the arrests of bloggers Emin Milli and Adnan Hajizada resulted in waves of protests by Diaspora members in Washington, DC, New York, and several cities in Western Europe, as well as organized petitions to politicians and international human rights organizations. These individuals and groups in the Diaspora place responsibility for lost territories and a stalemate in the conflict with the current government and see democratization as the path toward strengthening Azerbaijan, which will then put it in a better position to solve the conflict to its benefit. According to them, silence about lack of democratic progress and freedoms hurts Azerbaijan and its development in the long-run.
While the emergence of these alternative views has created a livelier debate on the internal issues vis-à-vis the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict among the Diaspora, critics of the government’s domestic policy still shy away from engaging in debate and/or activities about the conflict, resulting in limited or no confidence-building measures among Diaspora-based groups. The reasons for this are complex — among them are a lack of faith in the usefulness of confidence-building measures and harsh rhetoric from Armenian Diaspora-based groups. The environment itself is not conducive for collaborative efforts: joint events involving both communities are confrontational and full of positional harsh rhetoric from both sides. The events organized by one side usually come under the attack of numerous representatives from the other, which try to delegitimize the event and the presented information. Recent examples include the book presentation organized by the Washington Center for Azerbaijani Studies at George Washington University where German scholar Heiko Krueger, whose book “The Nagorno Karabakh Conflict: A Legal Analysis” book on the legal analysis of the conflict was not liked by Armenians, came under severe personal attack by Armenians in the audience. A few days later, Robert Avetisyan, a representative of the Armenian community of Nagorno-Karabakh was harshly questioned by a group of Azerbaijanis while presenting at George Mason University. Such an environment reinforced by both sides sets an exclusively confrontational tone and hinders emergence of a more civil debate that could be could be happening parallel to more traditional Diaspora activities with engagement of those members who are in academic and scholarly settings. But similar to the internal situation, a stigma of associating with the enemy is also present among Azerbaijanis abroad. This is reinforced by categorical, black and white views and attitudes as well as harsh language prevalent in a number of listservs by which Azerbaijanis abroad communicate. In a number of situations, those voicing alternative opinions have been ruthlessly attacked and silenced and any peace-building initiatives were renounced as compromising Azerbaijan’s interests.
The above-mentioned elements of the Armenian factor have a twofold impact: they discourage those with moderate views or alternative approaches from engaging in internal dialogue within the Diaspora on domestic issues and on Nagorno Karabakh conflict. It also stifles much needed internal debate preventing the emergence of new ideas and thinking on both of those issues
Implications for Conflict Resolution
Much can be said about the value of diverse opinions and internal debate on domestic issues and on the conflict with Armenia. The protracted conflict and external enemy, amid other factors, create a dynamic that hurdles such debate on the issue and creates pressure to have a united front that has negative implications for Azerbaijan.
From a conflict resolution perspective as well, the existence and misuse of ‘Armenian factor’ has negative implications. While one might argue about possible risk versus perception of risk in getting involved and maintaining contacts with Armenian individuals and organizations, the government’s use of the Armenian factor to discredit and intimidate activists and intellectuals also inadvertently affects cross-border processes, reducing the potential impact greater involvement of such youth might have on conflict transformation.
First, it suffocates the debate on the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict internally and between two societies and their Diaspora communities – a process that can contribute to improved analysis and understanding nuances of the conflict by the public in and outside Azerbaijan. Second, it undermines the emergence of larger scale and higher quality public diplomacy and Track II diplomatic efforts, which many experts have repeatedly said Armenia and Azerbaijan need in order to move towards a peaceful resolution.
Domestically, misuse of the Armenian factor steers away most talented and well-educated youth and intellectuals (though not all) from engagement in peacebuilding initiatives and projects. For example, most if not all youth movements in Azerbaijan (AN, Nida, OL, Dalga, etc.) do not have Nagorno Karabakh issue on their organizations’ agenda and stay away from the topic. While part of the reason is the lack of attention by the youth leaders to the issue, another reason is also the additional liability such involvement creates for those operating in already difficult environments. As a result, most youth movements outspoken and critical of government in other issues avoided opinions and criticism on domestic and foreign policies on Nagorno Karabakh conflict. In addition to human rights and youth political activists, amongst larger public, young people shy away from engaging in such programs as they fear consequences for future potential employment with the government or that it may impact family members.
There are negative implications in Diaspora as well – members are by large discouraged from participating in collaborative conflict resolution projects and initiatives that would involve civil discussions and joint problem solving among the Armenian and Azerbaijani communities. Changing the current discourse and allowing for a more tolerant environment to emerge that would accept and engage individuals and groups with agendas of engagement rather than confrontation could contribute to the conflict transformation process much needed between societies. While the agendas and activities of government-funded lobby groups or Diaspora-based organizations on either side are not likely to change, such an environment would allow for more civil debate between the two communities in neutral academic settings. Such initiatives and collaboration could greatly benefit both sides as more scholarship, research and thinking could emerge on the Nagorno Karabakh conflict.
[ii] Author reviewed the page of March 11 – Great People’s Day on Facebook. Number of attendees was at the shown number on April 28, 2011.