While Armenians have become accustomed to all manner of state-sponsored Armenophobia from their eastern neighbor, the intensity of the vitriol against them in recent months has been unprecedented. The online information war arguably became almost as important a front as the battlefield itself, consisting of a wide array of virtual weapons including a huge number of fake social media accounts posting identical anti-Armenian messages, cyberbullying of notable and vocal supporters of Armenians and staged propaganda videos and photos. Azerbaijan also employed what has been called a “mirror propaganda operation,” in which they baselessly accused Armenians of their own wartime tactics in what can only be called gaslighting. The sheer size and scope of the operation suggest advanced planning likely in tandem with that of the war itself. A number of notable Azerbaijani human rights activists have been complicit in this campaign and have not shied away from the use of hate speech. If this is the sentiment coming from “peace builders,” then what hope remains for peaceful coexistence between Armenians and Azerbaijanis?
For context, we must explore the experiences of these activists in Azerbaijan. Despite the multimillion dollar international sporting and cultural events that Baku has hosted amid its ultra-modern skyline, Azerbaijan has not been very successful in hiding the fact it is one of the world’s most corrupt dictatorships. In fact, such global events created a much larger platform for Azerbaijani activists to expose the injustice at home, e.g., the “Sing for Democracy” campaign surrounding the 2012 Eurovision Song Contest. Unfortunately, according to the OSCE, the human rights situation in Azerbaijan did not improve as a result but instead led to the arrest of the campaign’s organizers on false charges such as hooliganism, inciting discrimination and treason. To be a human rights defender, activist or independent journalist over the past few decades in Azerbaijan has no doubt taken a great deal of courage, as it often leads to threats against themselves and their families, prison and exile. Despite its horrendous record, Azerbaijan has managed to maintain its international standing and curry favor through a process known as ‘caviar diplomacy,’ by which it spends the billions of dollars it earns from oil and gas contracts on huge lobbying and bribery campaigns aimed at politicians and public figures worldwide. The Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP)’s enlightening investigation The Azerbaijani Laundromat exposed a highly complex money-laundering operation involving numerous offshore shell companies which serve as slush funds for buying influence and permission for the Aliyev regime’s corruption.
Azerbaijan’s authoritarian nature has long been a major hurdle to a fair resolution of the conflict over Artsakh. It implements racist laws such as banning anyone with Armenian blood from entering Azerbaijan, and extreme suspicion is put on those who might have contact with an Armenian. This makes it nearly impossible to bring together citizens from both sides to get to know each other and engage in dialogue; the lack of personal contact breeds mutual contempt. The situation has been further exacerbated by the authoritarian nature of Azerbaijan’s government and a nonexistent freedom of press; Azerbaijan ranks 168 out of 180 according to the 2020 World Press Freedom Index. This makes the government’s anti-Armenian propaganda much easier to spread and harder to speak out against. These facts are alarming because any lasting peace settlement requires co-existence, without which the region cannot be free from the threat of another war. The idea of them becoming equal citizens of Azerbaijan as is claimed is completely impossible under such conditions.
While the inhumanity of Aliyev and Erdogan’s military assault on Artsakh during a pandemic is horrifying, it is hardly surprising. What has been surprising, however, is the extreme militaristic fervor on display from Azerbaijani peace builders and human rights activists. It may seem odd that these figures who have long been persecuted by Ilham Aliyev would come to sound just like him, but that appears to be exactly what’s happened. Over the past decades, these activists from Azerbaijan were some of the only citizens with any degree of contact with Armenian, meeting them periodically in Tbilisi under the auspices of various international and NGO programs. Once the war began, Armenian peacebuilders were utterly shocked to suddenly see their Azerbaijani colleagues parroting the same dehumanizing language of the Aliyev regime.
It is to be expected that these activists support general Azerbaijani positions; this article is not a condemnation of them for that. However, there is the matter of our common humanity which should be able to transcend those different viewpoints. An antebellum rude awakening for Armenians which gave insight into the perceptions of their neighbor came during the clashes in July centered around the Tavush/Tovuz region on Armenia’s northeastern border. A truly fearful scene was broadcast from Baku of an unprecedented crowd numbering in the tens of thousands chanting “death to Armenians!” and demanding war. This rabid sentiment was extremely startling, and in the weeks that followed, Turkish forces arrived in Azerbaijan for joint military exercises and apparently never left. At the same time, Azerbaijan made huge weapons purchases. The stage was set for the surprise attack of September 27, and it was met with jubilance.
One of the most disappointing voices during this war has been that of Khadija Ismayilova, a human rights activist and journalist who has long been heralded as a leading advocate exposing the corruption of the Aliyev regime. She has been a determined journalist and advocate for political prisoners in Azerbaijan, making her a prime target when one of her investigative reports exposed several examples of state-level corruption leading right up to President Aliyev, his wife and children. In 2012, her house was broken into and personal property was stolen. She was even blackmailed with sexually explicit photos, yet she refused to yield to it. In 2015 she was convicted on bogus charges of tax evasion and abuse of power and was sentenced to seven years in prison. She was released after six months with assistance from Amal Clooney at the European Court of Human Rights, but was arbitrarily banned from practicing journalism and is still subject to a travel ban; Ismayilova is essentially a political prisoner in her own country. Even though she has displayed remarkable bravery in taking on the Aliyev regime, it has been extremely disheartening to see that her lofty ideals of human rights, just like her ability to travel, is restricted to within her country’s borders.
From the first day of the war, Ismayilova’s social media accounts served as mouthpieces for government propaganda—the same government which has threatened her for years. That afternoon, she posted her first and perhaps only specific reference to Armenian civilian casualties. She noted that Azerbaijan and Armenia had already both reported civilian casualties, but snidely pointed out that the Armenian deaths occurred in the buffer zone around Artsakh and questioned what those civilians were even doing in “occupied land” in the first place, as if living there somehow mitigated the tragedy of their deaths caused by Aliyev’s war. Not that it should make a difference, but the deaths of an Armenian woman and her grandchild which Ismayilova was referring to actually took place in the town of Martuni, a part of Nagorno-Karabakh and not the buffer zone. Multiple requests asking Ismayilova to correct this piece of disinformation were left unanswered. Instead, she continued posting numerous attempts to obfuscate or erase the humanitarian tragedy unfolding in Artsakh using contorted methods of justifying the ongoing war crimes.
On October 7, when a targeted rocket attack destroyed Shushi’s new Youth and Culture Center, Ismayilova responded by rhetorically asking “Is this the place where Armenian PM [sic] had his inauguration? Holding inauguration in occupied Azerbaijani city was one of the provocative actions leading to escalation,” in reference to the springtime swearing-in at the center of Artsakh President Arayik Harutyunyan to mark the democratic transfer of power from one leader to another, something yet to be seen in Azerbaijan. She ended her tweet noting “…[the] army should not miss military targets,” which she would later explain to critics was meant as a denunciation of bombing civilian sites.
Shouldn’t the targeting of a civilian structure which was sheltering many women, children and elderly at the time resulting in casualties, deserve a clear denouncement from any human rights activist worth their salt? Instead we see a vague statement about military targets following what appears to be a justification for the bombing due to the location of a ceremony she disapproved of. The next day saw another attack on a prominent civilian and cultural site: Shushi’s Ghazanchetsots Cathedral. It was purposefully bombed twice, injuring three journalists, yet requests for Ismayilova to speak out went unanswered. Two days later, in an address to the nation, President Aliyev elaborated on the matter, stating that he could have bombed the youth center during the inauguration, but did not despite many requests asking him to do so. Echoing Ismayilova’s tweet, he taunted Harutyunyan to “look at the building where he took the oath,” as he patted himself on the back for not committing mass murder during the inauguration while simultaneously hinting at having made a targeted attack on the civilian site.
Soon after Aliyev’s speech, Drew Sullivan—the co-founder of OCCRP, of which Ismayilova is a senior investigator—tweeted a reminder of the role of international corruption in enabling wars like this, noting that it was being waged by the two autocratic states of Azerbaijan and Turkey against democratic Armenia. Sullivan’s message offered important context that is often left out of the international portrayal of Aliyev’s battlefield victory. Ismayilova retorted with the nonsensical accusation that Armenia is a fascist state and that “corruption is less evil than fascism.” After a barrage of condemnation from his colleague, Sullivan responded by chiding Armenians who were now following his account in the wake of the first tweet, saying he doesn’t welcome nationalists; some replied they have long admired his work and that their ethnicity shouldn’t be an issue. In closing his rebuke, he affirmed his belief that “Azerbaijan, Turkey and Russia need to stop war mongering for profit.” Another tweet gave insight into his conflicted situation, where he again condemned Aliyev for starting this war while blaming Armenians for “wrongfully invading Nagorno-Karabakh” in the first place.
Alekper Aliyev is another high-profile Azerbaijani peace activist. Born in Baku, the Zurich-based author is known for his 2009 controversial and transgressive novel about Armenian and Azerbaijani reconciliation entitled Artush & Zaur—a gay love story that gets interrupted by the first Artsakh War. It boldly explores the enmity between the two peoples through the taboo lens of homosexuality. In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, Aliyev described his book as “a fight against stereotypes.” “In Azerbaijan there are two main stereotypes, the gay man and the Armenian,” he explained. “The worst thing you can be is gay or Armenian, or to have any relation to Armenia.”
Alekper, who has visited Yerevan multiple times as part of NGO peace-building programs, was outspoken on the need to end the conflict and enmity between the two peoples. In a 2016 interview, Aliyev condemned Azerbaijan for unleashing the recent attack and how that failed attempt at blitzkrieg further exposed the fact there is no military solution to the conflict, and that “sabre rattling is not suitable to our countries.” He expressed hope for a South Caucasus without borders in which its peoples could resume peaceful coexistence.
Four years later, Alekper Aliyev sounds like a radically different person. One of his most disturbing tweets is the polar opposite of his stance in 2016. Rather than seeing no land as holy, he writes in Russian that he is “waiting for the complete cleansing of Agdere [Martakert] of its occupants. This is my personal revenge…” What becomes clear in the discourse of these Azerbaijani “human rights activists” is that they don’t view the people of Artsakh as people at all. This is where decades of dehumanizing rhetoric by the Aliyev regime has borne fruit, wherein the idea of conquest, justified by the lack of international recognition of Artsakh’s independence, has become far more important than the people who live there. This is perfectly encapsulated by Ismayilova’s response to a tweet by Ambassador John Evans on October 7 in which he asked, “If people of Karabakh are citizens of Azerbaijan, what does it tell us that Baku is subjecting them to lethal bombardment? Is that any way to treat one’s people?” She superficially responded: “Because occupation Army of Republic of Armenia [sic] is deployed there and points of fire are mixed with residential areas.” Once again, in tune with Azerbaijani state propaganda, Ismayilova conflated the indigenous people of Artsakh with “occupiers” and again made the groundless claim of military positions throughout civilian areas. While the lethal bombardment of the Armenian civilian population was easily dismissed by these human rights activists, many were quick with one-sided condemnation of Armenians, calling them terrorists, occupiers and even “child killers.” Azerbaijani social media even developed a strange fascination with the notion of Kim Kardashian as Armenia’s leading terrorist.
The widely accepted sentiment on Azerbaijani social media during the war was that the incessant bombing of Armenians in Artsakh could be written off as their own fault for living there. By invoking the notion of territorial integrity based on often arbitrary borders drawn during the Soviet era, it gives a convenient shortcut to deem all of Artsakh as “internationally recognized” Azerbaijan and thus completely Azerbaijani, erasing the Armenian character and complicated history of the region. On the other hand, when Azerbaijani towns in the vicinity of Artsakh were occasionally fired at in return, as they were sources of the incessant aerial attacks on it, the response was that those civilians “outside the war zone” had been attacked by barbarian Armenians. This dichotomy is illustrated in tweets by Alex Raufoglu, an Azerbaijani journalist and press freedom advocate based in Washington, DC who covers human rights. His articles include in-depth looks into Azerbaijan’s multimillion dollar lobbying contracts. His tweet on October 17 speaks for itself: “I despise the war, but make no mistake: There is a mountain of difference between battling at a war zone (Khankendi) [Stepanakert] and cruelly attacking a peaceful city (Ganja) far away from Karabakh.” Stepanakert is only in a “war zone” due to Azerbaijan’s attacks, while Ganja is about the same distance from the front line as Stepanakert within a country at war. Not only are the war crimes on Stepanakert essentially justified or at least mitigated in Raufoglu’s statement, but the lives of “peaceful Azerbaijanis” are portrayed as more worthy than those of Armenians. The death and destruction inflicted upon the people of Artsakh is seen as an acceptable cost for their greater goal of “liberating” territories. War is a bloody and ugly thing, and the revulsion one feels at civilian deaths whether in Stepanakert or Ganja should not require an ethnic qualifier in front of it, least of all from human rights activists.
Self-described human rights and anti-racist activist Fuad Alakbarov of Scotland had one of his tweets go viral for its own hypocrisy. On October 23, Alakbarov said that he hopes Stepanakert’s iconic “We Are Our Mountains” monument will be destroyed by a bulldozer when Azerbaijani forces capture it. He went on to note that “he has never been in favor of the destruction of cultural monuments,” but makes a special exception for this one as it is the symbol of the Armenians of Artsakh. While the original tweet was deleted, as presumably the negative attention was not good for his humanitarian image, it lives on in screenshots. This sentiment is not unique, as Papik and Tatik became the focus for many such aspiring vandals, bringing back memories for Armenians of the destruction of Julfa Cemetery in Nakhichevan and “Albanization” of Armenian churches that aren’t similarly demolished. One animation that made its rounds on social media even depicted the kindly Armenian grandparents as terrorists concealing a bomb. The narrative is clear: the existence of indigenous Armenian culture in Artsakh is a threat akin to terrorism in the minds of many.
There has been an extreme loss of hope among Armenians for any possibility of future interactions with a nation that generally doesn’t see them as human. Hope dies last, however. I recently had a private conversation with an Azerbaijani human rights activist a generation younger than Ismayilova and her cohort. According to him, his fellow peace activists are now extremely marginalized and forced into silence, but they are there. He doesn’t want all activists to be painted with the same brush and is worried that targeting notable activists for their hypocrisy only serves to deepen the extremely difficult position of true peace activists in Azerbaijan. However I would argue that this hypocrisy must be exposed. These figures have received international acclaim for valuing human rights, thus they must be held to a higher standard than the general populace on either side and have an obligation to push back against the ongoing dehumanization process. That said, we shouldn’t overlook the fact that the English-language public discourse examined here is only a sliver of the broader conversations that might be happening throughout Azerbaijani society in their native tongue and in private. It is easy for the average Armenian to see all Azerbaijanis as hateful, and vice-versa, to overlook their valid feelings of pain and injustice from this multi-generational conflict steeped in tragedy. We must be introspective enough not to fall into the same traps in how we assess the situation and move forward. Despite all the hatred, we would do the same injustice to those apprehensive, idealistic Azerbaijanis who want peace by discounting their existence, especially since they’re already being silenced at home.
While the situation is extremely difficult for Armenian activists as well, there is little evidence, at least publicly, that they have forsaken their own peaceful ideals for abject hate. It goes without saying that the war has had a chilling effect on the already extremely difficult work in the field of building bridges and making peace. For many of them, the narrative has gone from one of peace to “no justice, no peace.” As Dr. Jenny Paturyan, associate professor at the American University of Armenia specializing in civil society and democratization, stated in October at the height of the war:
In terms of the NGO sector, one of the things I find very sad is that many of those good NGOs who were trying to do peace-building are now under immense pressure to stay quiet, and even now in Armenia even most reasonable humane messages are hard to say. It’s a terrible loss and that’s something we have to resist, we have to resist losing our souls in this war… Thankfully, it’s the state institutions now that give the message of understanding to the people, such as Ministry of Defense Spokesman Artsrun Hovhannisyan, who speaks about war but still talks about humanitarian values.
Arpi Bekaryan is one peace activist who has also spoken out. In an opinion piece, she describes her personal dismay at having failed as a peacemaker. She describes how for years she practiced self-censorship and chose her words carefully when sharing her desire for peace to avoid becoming a target or getting labeled a traitor: “Our voices have not been heard, because we did not speak, we have only whispered… Our [Armenians and Azerbaijanis] tragic similarity in seeing each other as fundamentally different comes from a lack of education and a lack of knowledge, and from our mutual inability to see that lack.” The dehumanization of “the other” is accelerated by every painful image and casualty and has made the call to hate ever more seductive. The way to peace and eventual co-existence as neighbors becomes ever more blocked, which is almost a guarantee of yet another war.
While the situation is certainly grave, as I was concluding this article I saw a tweet by another peace activist who seemed to be bucking the trend I described here. Emin Huseynov is a journalist, human rights activist and former chairman of the Institute for Reporters’ Freedom and Safety (IRFS), reporting on police brutality against peaceful protesters. Huseynov was detained and beaten in 2008 and attempted to flee Azerbaijan during a 2014 crackdown on journalists, going into hiding at the Swiss embassy. Like Ismayilova, he was charged with tax evasion and abuse of power. Facing a 12-year prison sentence, he was aided by the Swiss embassy, which facilitated his escape from Azerbaijan. While he posts much less frequently than Ismayilova and undoubtedly has more freedom living outside the country, his tweets continue to focus on ways President Aliyev is utilizing the war to strengthen his “cult of personality.” Huseynov has condemned Aliyev for his hate speech and xenophobia against Armenians, especially his description of Azerbaijan’s new drones as “dog-chasers,” which is a clear reference to Aliyev’s October speech in which he said Armenians would be chased out of Artsakh like dogs.
There are still Azerbaijani voices who have not sold out and live up to their title of human rights defender, with no doubt more forced into silence by their conditions. As long as they are persecuted on the margins of their own societies, and their existence is ignored by our side, the hope for a just peace remains elusive.
Editor’s Note, August 9, 2021: This article was edited to reflect Alekper Aliyev’s multiple visits to Yerevan.