22 Apr 2015
Conflict and the Politics of Commemoration in the Azerbaijani Diaspora
In the 1990s, the first decade of the 21st century, ethnic Azerbaijanis living in France, England, Germany, or any other EU country started to organize themselves into a united ethno-national community – diaspora – with political, ideological and also financial support from the political leadership of the Azerbaijani Republic (i.e. nation state, which, then becomes an national homeland for all the ethnic Azerbaijanis, living outside it). A major component of the process of diaspora construction was the creation of a large number of diaspora organizations by ethnic Azerbaijani activists in the CIS, the EU and the USA.
In the context of this policy, special importance is attached to “the Azerbaijani Diasporas” in those countries, which, in the opinion of the authorities in Azerbaijan, play a leading role in the world political arena. Among the EU countries, particular significance is attached to building a diaspora in France, where according to official statistics currently reside 160 thousand ethnic Azerbaijanis. A further hope in France is connected with the establishment of a close contact and collaboration with the Turkish Diaspora.
The Azerbaijani political regime pursues various goals in its aspiration to influence the activity of diaspora organizations and networks. For example, the regime is trying to use the diaspora as a tool for the promotion of the Azerbaijani narrative of the Karabakh conflict. Thus ethnic activists and diaspora organizations in Germany, France, or England mobilize themselves to inform the public about ethnic cleansings carried out against Azerbaijani civilians in the course of the conflict. Various public events are held: rallies, pickets, forums, etc.
Influence is also exerted on diaspora organizations with the aim of getting them actively involved in the movement against the recognition by the governments of different countries of the events of the early 20th century in the Ottoman Empire as Armenian genocide. To this end in France, a country with an influential Armenian community, the Azerbaijani Diaspora activities are also directed at supporting the official position of the Turkish authorities, the Azerbaijani government’s key political and military ally. To support these events, the Azerbaijani authorities provide direct (including financial) support to the Azerbaijani organizations in France, Germany, and many others EU countries.
Special place in the diaspora policy is given to the holding of collective celebrations and commemorative events. In the context of the diaspora discourse, these events serve as unifying factor for the large community of the Azerbaijanis across the world. In addition to those connected with the Armenian-Azerbaijani confrontation, the diaspora events that are of particular interest to the Azerbaijani regime also include the symbolic dates associated with the establishment of an independent Azerbaijan as well as with the propagation of the deeds of the former president (and the father of the incumbent president) Heydar Aliyev.
Many historical events today are retrospectively reinterpreted in the light of the Azerbaijani-Armenian confrontation over Nagorno-Karabakh. These include, among others, the events of March 1918 in Baku, when pogroms took place in the Muslim neighborhoods of the city as a result of a political confrontation between Bolsheviks, who had attracted to their side troops controlled by Armenian nationalists (Dashnaks), and Musavatists (Turkic nationalists). As a result, about 10,000 people were killed. Considering the role of the Bolsheviks in the pogroms, they were not part of the official memory in the Soviet period, but resurfaced in the post-Soviet period. After Heydar Aliyev’s decree of 1996, the events of March 1918 started to be interpreted as genocide. Currently the authorities call on ethnic activists to hold collective events on March 31 as the genocide of Azerbaijanis, serving a type of a counter-discourse against the Armenian genocide in Anatolia in 1915-18. The events of the Black January, referring to January 20 1990, when according to official reports up to 132 people were killed by the Soviet troops in Baku following the Armenians pogroms of January 13, have acquired the greatest significance.
Ethnic activists and organizations of Azerbaijanis in the USA, the EU and the CIS countries are increasingly joining the commemorations and the celebrations. More and more often various holidays that have received the status of national ones (the Independence Day, the Day of Solidarity of the Azerbaijanis of the World, etc.) in post-Soviet Azerbaijan are held in these countries too. After 2003, when the president of Azerbaijan Heydar Aliev passed away, collective events (concerts, conferences, rallies, etc.) commemorating his activities gained an ever-increasing significance. After his death in 2003 he, similarly to Ataturk, became the symbolic “national leader” (the model politician and the model Azerbaijani) for the entire nation in the official discourse. Therefore, the anniversaries of his birth and death, and dates linked to his rule, such as “the Day of the Salvation of the Nation”, are of importance within the diaspora.
For all such occasions, conditions are created for the holding of various lectures, discussions, conferences, etc., with the participation of emissaries from the political homeland, and increasingly more actively various kinds of literature are disseminated; for example, history textbooks designed in post-Soviet Azerbaijan for secondary schools and universities gain particular importance.
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