Azeri War Rhetoric, Violations Continue Unhindered
Two days after the talks in Kazan, Russia, between the presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan failed to produce tangible results, the latter, Ilham Aliyev, renewed his war rhetoric, promising that the blood of Azeri soldiers killed in Karabagh “will be avenged.”
Money for war
In a speech delivered during a military parade on the 20th anniversary of Azerbaijan’s independence, Aliyev strung together praise of the “professionalism” and “high morale” of his armed forces, a list of acquired weaponry, and, most notably, threats against Karabagh and Armenia.
Weapons build-up is the primary focus of the Aliyev government, at the expense of social welfare programs. “We are buying modern arms, ammunition, military hardware, and this process will be continued,” he said. “In recent years our military potential has significantly increased. We are buying modern combat aircraft, helicopter gunships, troop-carrying helicopters. Artillery installations, armored vehicles, communication facilities, unmanned aircraft are being purchased, the military power of our army is growing.”
Aliyev further boasted about his country’s military budget, which he said totaled $160 million in 2003, $2.15 billion in 2010, and $3.3 billion in 2011. “Today, the money Azerbaijan is spending on the military exceeds the entire budget of Armenia by 50 percent. We live in a time of war. The war is not over yet, only its first stage is, and a country at war should first of all focus on building the army. Today, military spending ranks first in the state budget of Azerbaijan, and this will be the case until our land is freed from occupation,” he declared, noting that Azerbaijan’s state budget was ten times that of Armenia’s.
Last month, the New York Times ran a story describing the pathetic living conditions of Azerbaijan’s refugees, who lack proper housing and sanitation. Frustrated by their living conditions, they often seek hope in guns and guerrilla training; weapons training camps are quite popular among this group.
Aliyev’s government, however, seems to be solely fixated on the army, directing its oil revenues to military expenses. In his speech, Aliyev accused Armenia of occupying 20 percent of Azerbaijan’s lands, and of committing “ethnic cleansing.” He said Armenia is “founded on historically Azerbaijani lands.”
“Nagorno-Karabagh is native and historical Azerbaijani land,” he continued. “This has always been the case, and so is it [sic] today. It is simply occupied temporarily. However, this occupation cannot last long. I am absolutely convinced that Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity will be restored anyway.”
Most recently, Azerbaijan finalized a deal with the U.S. Export-Import (Ex-Im) Bank, a U.S. government agency, to fund a multi-million dollar satellite financing project that will allow it to purchase an advanced satellite, ground control equipment, and personnel training. Azerbaijan’s Communication Ministry claims that the satellite, called Azerspace, will be used for commercial telecommunications by one of its agencies, the International Relations and Accounting Center (IRAC). Armenian entities have expressed concern over its possible military use.
ECRI wary of anti-Armenian rhetoric
The Azerbaijani president’s warmongering rhetoric is often complemented by the anti-Armenian propaganda in the Azerbaijani media. Racism and discriminatory attitudes towards Armenia and Armenians is so toxic that the Council of Europe’s European Commission Against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI) gave extensive notes and recommendations to the government of Azerbaijan on May 31.
ECRI expressed concern that the small remaining Armenian population in Azerbaijan has been experiencing the real and psychological consequences of racism directed at Armenia and Armenians, and the discrimination they encounter in their everyday lives.
“The constant negative official and media discourse concerning the Republic of Armenia helps to sustain a negative climate of opinion regarding people of Armenian origin, who remain vulnerable to discrimination,” noted the report.
ECRI urged Azerbaijani authorities to adequately deal with cases of hate speech against Armenians. “It continues to be reported that the media are lacking in objectivity and help to spread a negative image of certain ethnic/national or religious minorities, in particular through the way they report on the conflict over Nagorno-Karabagh or their manner of presenting various religious groups,” it read.
ECRI further noted that there are a few hundred Armenians who failed to apply for an Azerbaijani passport when it replaced the Soviet passport, and who are today living in a state of “statelessness.” Those Armenians now lack their civil rights. “In addition, attempts to have the courts overturn administrative decisions refusing to issue these persons with identity documents have proved unsuccessful,” it read. The report also revealed that people born to Armenian-Azerbaijani marriages use the name of their Azerbaijani parent to avoid discrimination.
The ‘Armenian’ insult
Another issue of “deep concern” for ECRI is the “constant negative official and media discourse concerning the Republic of Armenia” which, it believes, feeds and sustains anti-Armenian sentiment in the country. “This prejudice is so ingrained that describing someone as an Armenian in the media is considered by some people—including by certain Armenians themselves—to qualify as an insult that justifies initiating judicial proceedings against the persons making such statements. ECRI underlines the seriousness of this situation, where it seems that persons belonging to the group discriminated against in this way may themselves have interiorised this discriminatory attitude.”
In Turkey too calling someone “Armenian” could be considered a grave insult deserving legal action. In late 2010, a Turkish journalist and publisher, Cem Buyukcakir, received an 11-month prison sentence for “insulting President [Abdullah] Gul” by approving a reader’s comment that “accused” the president of being Armenian on the news website HaberinYeri.net.
For the small population of Armenians living in Azerbaijan (and Turkey), such episodes are psychologically damaging. ECRI has questioned the number of people of Armenian descent that live in Azerbaijan. According to the last official census in 1999, 700 Armenians lived in Azerbaijani-controlled areas, although the government has claimed that up to 30,000 Armenians live in the country. Giving those claims the benefit of doubt, ECRI asks, “Why less than three percent of those concerned are prepared officially to declare themselves as belonging to this group?”
Azerbaijan’s ‘independent’ media
The Azerbaijani government rejected ECRI’s findings and recommendations. In its response, the government claimed that the media is “independent and nobody can interfere with the activity of [the] press.” It further stated that “there is not any fact” that points to the “negative impact” that anti-Armenian news coverage has had on the country’s Armenian population, adding, “The Armenians in Azerbaijan negatively regard the Republic of Armenia and its leaders, and therefore didn’t leave the country and move to Armenia.”
It went on to justify the overwhelmingly anti-Armenian rhetoric by arguing that the “negative position of the Azerbaijani media towards the Republic of Armenia is natural and understandable.”
“There is no need of preparing such recommendations,” it concluded.
Despite official Baku’s insistence that a free press exists in Azerbaijan, the 2010 U.S. State Department’s Human Rights Report on Azerbaijan reveals that the media is strictly controlled by the authorities, as evidenced by the numerous reports of beatings, detentions, and even killings of Azerbaijan’s journalists.
“Most print outlets in the country were organs of the ruling party, opposition parties, or were thought to be connected to prominent government officials,” found the report. “The government prohibited Voice of America, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, and the BBC from broadcasting on national FM frequencies and national television. Without these international broadcasters, the public did not have access to unbiased news on any widely available broadcast media.” Moreover, journalists who criticized the government were often assaulted and threatened. The authorities, on the other hand, “did not hold perpetrators accountable.”
Unfortunately, racism and discrimination seem to be the currencies of this state that devotes the overwhelming majority of its resources to military build-up. In such an atmosphere, it is highly improbable to inspire trust in negotiations for peace.