Armenians of Artsakh, Armenia targeted in Azerbaijan’s 2023 ‘Year of Heydar Aliyev,’ 44-day war state media campaigns

Ilham Aliyev visits statue of Heydar Aliyev in Sumgait, July 20, 2022 (Photo: Official website of President Ilham Aliyev)

On September 29, 2022, Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev’s personal public relations machine – otherwise known as the Azerbaijan State News Agency – announced his order deeming 2023 the “Year of Heydar Aliyev” in Azerbaijan.

Less than two months into 2023, the son has already used his father’s upcoming 100th birth anniversary on May 10 to secure Heydar Aliyev as Azerbaijan’s modern-day savior; embellish his own image as the savior’s successor; and use Azerbaijan’s “only source of government news” as a tool to rid Azerbaijan of the 120,000 Armenians living in Artsakh and seize more Armenian territory by any means necessary.

The “Year of Heydar Aliyev” announcement issued by the State News Agency is stuffed with adjectives and propositions that glorify the former Azerbaijan president, promoting a narrative that the man “successfully took his people out of the complex historical and political trials of the time and led them to independence through constant struggle.” The people are told that it was Heydar Aliyev who “in the light of his brilliancy” led “the people of Azerbaijan” into “the new century and the new millennium.”

The announcement’s broad timeline outlining Heydar Aliyev’s leadership frames the First Artsakh War as a time when the Azeri nation “faced the threat of being erased from the political map of the world and losing its statehood due to Armenian aggression, external pressure and internal strife.”

In short order, the announcement moves from the “great leader” father who created the “masterpiece” of the “powerful state of Azerbaijan” in the international community to the inheritor son who is given his own place in Azerbaijan’s history as protector of that country’s “sovereignty and independence by winning a glorious Victory in the 44-day Patriotic War” against Artsakh and Armenia.

Instability, ideology and dangerous speech are among the hallmarks of oncoming genocide according to the US Holocaust Memorial Museum’s Holocaust Encyclopedia. Ilham Aliyev’s order gave the ministers of his regime’s various agencies two months to present him a “plan of actions” for the “Year of Heydar Aliyev,” and the state media’s plan to burnish the images of both Heydar and Ilham Aliyev while breeding hatred, resentment and “othering” of Armenians in and outside of Artsakh is on full display at the State News Agency’s website.

In a special section dedicated to housing the Heydar Aliyev birthday propaganda, entries showcase the elder Aliyev’s political trajectory and promote ceremonial events held in his honor. For the years 1970 to 1987, the State News Agency provides short annual time capsules titled, “Moments of life given to the people” focusing on “the outstanding political and public figure” of Heydar Aliyev and his years as a Soviet Azerbaijan leader and later Soviet Union Council of Ministers first deputy chair. Each entry is meant to provide a “chronology of the thorny and glorious path traveled by the Great Leader of the Azerbaijani people.” In fact, information consists of dates of events including speaking engagements, meetings, appointments and the occasional election or political power play. 

There are no “Moments of life given to the people” for 1988 and 1989, likely because in addition to Heydar Aliyev’s forced 1987 resignation from his council position by Mikhail Gorbechev, he suffered health problems to add to his political woes during this period which sent the “great leader” to Nakhichevan to lick his wounds and find a way back to power.

Reference to the First Artsakh War is not made until a 1992 entry, where numerous instances of Heydar Aliyev’s interactions with Turkish government officials are listed centering on the “defense of Nakhichevan,” “Armenia’s military provocation” and later “Armenian aggression.” The entries covering the years 1992 and 1993 are devoted to establishing Heydar Aliyev’s rise in political prominence and eventual election as Azerbaijan president. They highlight interactions with students, soldiers and families without specifying the First Artsakh War, as well as meetings with Turkish and other government representatives, and State Oil Company of Azerbaijan Republic (SOCAR) employees.

The 1994 entries refer to Heydar Aliyev “address[ing] the nation over growing Armenian military aggression against Azerbaijan” and “meeting over new attacks of Armenian armed forces.” The chronologies are meant to remind readers that a country that was embarrassed by Armenia’s wins during the First Artsakh War was able to overcome adversity through the “genius personality” of Heydar Aliyev, and his “unforgettable contributions to preserving the statehood and strengthening independence of Azerbaijan” through his avid solicitations of Turkey and exploitation of the oil fields of Baku for the country, and for himself and his family.

A shift in tone is noticeable in entries that are not part of the Heydar Aliyev “Moments of life given to the people” series. That content is less chronological and more bellicose, crafted to gin up suspicion and aggression against Armenians in general and the Armenians of Artsakh in particular.

On December 11, 2022, a day before the start of Azerbaijan’s blockade of Artsakh’s Armenian population, an entry about “national leader Heydar Aliyev” being commemorated in Moscow appeared. While the event was held to honor father Heydar, Azerbaijan’s Russian Federation Ambassador Polad Bulbuloglu chose to pivot and heap accolades on son Ilham for winning the Second Artsakh War and “fulfill[ing] the dream of Heydar Aliyev and all the world Azerbaijanis by liberating the lands of Azerbaijan from occupation, and thereby inscribed his name in the history of the country in golden letters.”

The son was again featured in an entry that was purportedly about the father announcing the momentous news that a Moldovan news portal had published an article by an Azerbaijan State News Agency correspondent about “national leader Heydar Aliyev.” Echoing prior releases, the entry starts by acknowledging Heydar’s “exceptional services in the history of national statehood of Azerbaijan” but turns to Ilham’s prowess as a leader who is “the worthy successor to Heydar Aliyev.”

In another example of the State News Agency manufacturing its own news, an entry posted on December 12, 2022 – the first day of Azerbaijan’s Artsakh blockade and perhaps not uncoincidentally the 19th anniversary of the death of Heydar Aliyev – reports that State News Agency employees laid flowers at Heydar’s grave and remembered those “who sacrificed their lives for the territorial integrity of the Motherland.” Attention soon turns to current President and “Supreme Commander-in-Chief” Ilham Aliyev, whose leadership is credited with “crush[ing] the enemy in the 44-day Patriotic War” to “end the 30-year occupation of its lands.”

By the next entry posted on January 14, 2023, a headline reveals that Azerbaijan’s army will observe the “Year of Heydar Aliyev” by “further increasing the combat spirit of military personnel.” While the report acknowledges a moment of silence in honor of Heydar Aliyev and those who “sacrificed their lives for the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan,” most of the entry focuses on the “Supreme Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces” Ilham Aliyev.

The reader is also advised that all military units are on alert with “combat readiness at a high level” to be “constantly ready to suppress any possible provocation” by the Armenians. The article highlights military attention to training on new weapons and overcoming supply and transit issues in mountainous locations in winter conditions, as well as “activities aimed at ideological work and moral-psychological support.”

Speaking of the military, the State News Agency’s website also features a “special project” entitled “Strategy of Victory” about the Second Artsakh War with a cover photo of camouflage clad Ilham Aliyev, surrounded by Azeri soldiers and the center of attention with a fist in the air. Fittingly, the photo is adorned with the Ilham Aliyev quote, “We must not defend, but attack politically, from a propaganda point of view.”

The “special project” is a collection of Ilham Aliyev’s quotes, including those from the time he assumed the Azerbaijan presidency to the present. The quotes reject Armenian self-determination, highlight Armenian “otherness” from the majority Azerbaijan population, mock Armenia’s sovereignty and confidently predict Azerbaijan’s takeover of current Armenia’s ancient territory – from the “Irevan khanate and the Zagazur district” because they are “all Azerbaijani lands.”

Also featured is a series entitled “Armenian vandalism in photos,” purportedly showing pictures of structures located in territories lost in the Second Artsakh War that were destroyed or damaged by Armenians. The first post is dated February 16, 2022, with new content posted nearly every day since then. At first, the entries consist of only a series of photos claiming to be representative of damage caused by Armenians in the featured area, with most photos taken from a long distance, no context provided and mostly no damage apparent.

The official State News Agency amped up the propaganda starting with the June 27, 2022 entry by adding text to a photo dump about “Dilagharda village of Fuzuli district,” described as having been “occupied by the Armenian army in 1993 and liberated by the Azerbaijani Armed forces on 9 November 2020.” A June 28, 2022 post about “Guzeychirkin village of Kalbajar district” notes that the “village was occupied by Armenia in 1993” and was “handed over to the Azerbaijani Armed Forces” in an “act of capitulation” after Armenia was “[d]efeated in the Patriotic war that broke out on September 27, 2020.”

The June 27 and June 28 entries are both posted to show the “Armenian vandalism” which occurred in that village “during the years of occupation.” Interestingly, the three posts that follow return to the photos-only model, then resume with boilerplate narrative slightly massaged to state that the “Armenian vandalism” occurred during “the times of occupation.” Apparently “years” was too direct and a potential reminder to Azerbaijan’s citizens and other readers of the series that Armenians held the territory for three decades under Heydar and Ilham Aliyev’s watch.

Other tweaks to text accompanying these photos include adding “glorious” to describe the Azerbaijani Army and the “victory of Azerbaijan in the Patriotic War.” Time modifiers to describe the “Armenian occupation” are removed by July 25, 2022. By August 15, the rhetoric heats up and it is not “Armenia” that was “defeated” in the 2020 war, but rather “the enemy” that was “severely defeated” in Azerbaijan’s “Patriotic War.” By August 20, 2022, new reference is made to Armenia signing “an act of capitulation” on November 10, 2020 with Azerbaijan and Russia to “hand over” the territories captured during the First Artsakh War.

A September 6, 2022 entry adds a new phrase that is included in all future posts stating, “[during] the occupation, Armenian vandals destroyed the village and turned it into ruins.” By September 8, 2022, the Azerbaijani Army is described as “valiant” in “deal[ing] a heavy blow to the enemy in the Patriotic War.” The Azerbaijani Army is elevated to having “inflicted a crushing blow to the enemy” by September 14, 2022. An October 4, 2022 post expands the “Armenian vandalism in photos” series to include two entries regarding the discovery of skeletons of Azeri servicemen in Khojavand, whose “massacre” during the First Artsakh War is deemed perpetrated by Armenians who have “committed unprecedented massacres against the Azerbaijani people throughout the history.”

As the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum’s Holocaust Encyclopedia explains, “[b]efore and during genocide, there is often widespread hate speech. Such hate speech promotes the idea that members of a certain group are evil and dangerous. When this speech comes from influential leaders and is spread through government propaganda or popular media, it can condition listeners to believe that violence against the group is justified. It may also incite some people to commit violence against members of that group.”

Similarly, the Holocaust Encyclopedia specifies that dissemination of ideology by government leaders is another precursor to genocide when that ideology promotes the belief that “some people in the country are inferior or dangerous because of their race, religion, or national or ethnic origin.” 

In a January 4, 2023 State News Agency infographic – produced on day 23 of the blockade – Ilham Aliyev is pictured looking straight into a camera with Azerbaijan’s flag to his right accompanied by the quote, “We have further secured our historic victory achieved two years ago on the battlefield on a political level too. Over the past two years since the war, we have strengthened our military potential. As a result of the border clashes, Azerbaijan has gained a foothold in many strategically advantageous positions. In 2023, we will ensure the return of the people of Lachin to their native lands. The natives of Zangilan returned to their homeland and this is a historic accomplishment. The Great Return program is being successfully implemented.” In a second infographic released on the same day using the same graphics, Ilham Aliyev announces that “the Zangezur corridor will definitely be opened, whether Armenia wants it or not.”

Instability is “one of the strongest signs of the potential for genocide” according to the Holocaust Encyclopedia. “Instability can result from armed conflict or developments that threaten a regime’s power. Leaders may feel threatened, citizens may feel insecure, and the law may be suspended or neglected. In such environments, leaders and citizens may be more willing to consider violence to protect themselves and what they value.”

A November 10, 2022 post on the second anniversary of the end of the Second Artsakh War shows Ilham Aliyev in side-by-side photos wearing camouflage and standing in front of Azerbaijan flags. The post recounts “the heroism of our servicemen” who “fought under the slogan ‘we would rather die than retreat,’” resulting in the “people of Azerbaijan united as a fist” who “fulfilled their historic mission” against the Armenians.

These more recent posts are rather tame compared to posts created for dissemination during the Second Artsakh War, when the infographics appeared and began to be posted almost daily. A post titled, “We will drive the enemy away to the very end” was posted October 25, 2020. Another was posted on October 22 declaring that Azerbaijan’s “fist is there not only to smash the enemy’s head. Our fist is a fist of unity, the unity of our people.” That post also mocks, “We have brought the Armenian leadership to their knees. We have shown them the place they deserve.” Several posts titled “Armenia’s fascist soul” were also posted during this period.

In the December 6, 2022 Carnegie Reporter article “How Do Dictatorships Survive in the 21st Century?,” Sergei Buriev and Daniel Treisman compare dictators of the 20th and 21st centuries. They propose that the last century’s dictators were “dictators of fear” who used their power to keep power “by repressing any opposition, controlling all communications, punishing critics, (often) imposing an ideology,” among other strategies, while today’s dictators have “schmoozed with the global elite” and “hired pollsters and political consultants, staged citizen call-in shows, and sent their children to study at universities in the west.” Buriev and Treisman posit that the western veneer worn by these dictators is really meant to help “dictators today conceal their true nature” to “monopolize political power.”

“Today’s strongmen realize that in current conditions violence is not always necessary or even helpful,” Buriev and Treisman say. As for Ilham Aliyev, his official State News Agency is used to maintain the “one fist” of Azerbaijan’s Azeri citizens both inside and outside the country, consistent with what Buriev and Treisman say is the new dictator’s way to “control [citizens] by reshaping their beliefs about the world” and “fool[ing] people into compliance and even enthusiastic approval.”

In the meantime, the “official news” on the State News Agency website showcases an Ilham Aliyev-directed reality, filled with successful state visits and meetings that elevate his and Azerbaijan’s stature on the international stage, advance stability and growing strength in the energy and military sectors, and highlight both the danger Armenians in Artsakh and Armenia pose to Azerbaijan and at the same time the Armenians’ weakness and eventual erasure by Azerbaijan to expand west toward Turkey.

While Buriev and Treisman write that Western nations are “linked to dictatorships of the world by multiple capillaries” and should work together to advance “the idea of liberal democracy” to overcome the negative influence of the 21st century dictator, even assuming their theory is right, Ilham Aliyev will continue to “spin the news to engineer support” against the Armenians of Artsakh as a “spin dictator” as long as world powers like the United States allow his current and future genocidal actions to continue unpunished.

Georgi Bargamian

Georgi Bargamian

Georgi Bargamian is a former editor of the Armenian Weekly. After 10 years working in community journalism, she attended law school and is an attorney, but she remains committed to her first love journalism by writing for the Armenian Weekly.

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