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Azerbaijan’s difficult road to reconciliation after victory in the Nagorno-Karabakh war

How nationalist euphoria in the country could rapidly tip into disillusionment. 

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Arriving in Azerbaijan, the oil-rich nation wedged between Russia and Iran on the Caspian Sea, my plane touched down at Heydar Aliyev Airport, renamed in 2004 after the country's former president. On the way to my hotel in the capital Baku, my driver zipped along Heydar Aliyev Avenue, the main road leading to the city, past the Heydar Aliyev Museum, an undulating white shell designed by the British-Iraqi starchitect Zaha Hadid. The driver pointed out the Heydar Aliyev Palace, a Soviet-era music venue, next to Heydar Aliyev Park. 

That’s the kind of state Azerbaijan is. Heydar Aliyev ran the South Caucasian country for a decade soon after independence from the Soviet Union. After his death in 2003, his son Ilham Aliyev took over and has been the country’s president since, winning elections always with around 80 per cent of the vote. In the process, he amassed vast wealth and created a cult of personality around his family. In 2017, he even named his wife, Mehriban Aliyeva, vice president. Freedom House, a watchdog, ranks Azerbaijan the joint 11th least free country in the world, below Yemen and Russia. 

I’m here on the invitation of the government which, in September, directed a spectacularly successful campaign to regain the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, a majority-Armenian enclave that had been controlled by separatists since the early 1990s. In 44 days of fighting, Azerbaijan ended almost three decades of perceived national humiliation, capturing swathes of Nagorno-Karabakh, as well as surrounding districts historically populated by Azerbaijanis until their expulsion by Armenian forces during the first Nagorno-Karabakh war. Only a Russian-brokered ceasefire deal put an end to the brutal conflict, which killed more than 5,000 soldiers on both sides. 

Territorial changes in Nagorno-Karabakh (approximate)
The self-declared Republic of Artsakh has lost significant territory under November's ceasefire deal

Aliyev’s regime now enjoys an unprecedented level of public support in a country gripped by national euphoria. Banners reading “Karabakh is Azerbaijan!” or “Victory is ours!” outnumber actual commercial advertisements on the streets of Baku. Azerbaijani flags fly from balconies and hang on Stalin-era buildings, always accompanied by Turkish banners, in recognition of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s political and diplomatic support. At my hotel, the water bottle in my room declares its contents to contain a “taste of victory”. It doesn’t taste of much. 

Yet for all the jubilation, limited access for foreign journalists combined with credible reports of war crimes committed against Armenian soldiers and civilians have dented the country’s cause abroad, though the military campaign was waged to recapture territory recognised as Azerbaijani under international law. So the government decided to run press tours to showcase their efforts to preserve Armenia’s cultural heritage in Nagorno-Karabakh and resettle Azerbaijanis forced to leave the territory nearly 30 years ago. 

Along with a few French and British journalists, I was invited to tour what are officially termed “liberated territories” and hear Azerbaijan make the case for its rule. It quickly became apparent, however, that the regime is still not fully comfortable with openness and transparency – boding ill for the future of Nagorno-Karabakh’s Armenian population, which is now in serious doubt.

***

The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict originates in the 1920s, when the South Caucasus – today, the independent states of Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan – had just been joined to Soviet Russia. Majority-Armenian Nagorno-Karabakh was included within the borders of Azerbaijan by Stalin, then responsible for the USSR’s nationalities policy. 

When the Soviet Union collapsed in the early 1990s, Armenia and Azerbaijan fought a brutal war over the territory which ended in Nagorno-Karabakh, internationally recognised as Azerbaijani territory, gaining de facto independence. Crucially, Armenian separatists also occupied majority-Azerbaijani areas surrounding Nagorno-Karabakh and expelled their inhabitants. 

Over the past 30 years, support for the Nagorno-Karabakh cause has permeated all levels of society and has threatened to fell more than one leader in both countries, Anar Mammadli, a dissident lawyer previously jailed by the government, told me. After front line skirmishes in July this year led to protests in Baku calling for war with Armenia, “the regime was under pressure to go to war”, he adds.

The displacement in the 1990s of around 600,000 ethnic Azerbaijanis, ethnically cleansed from Armenia proper as well as separatist territory, remains a raw wound. (A smaller number of Armenians were also expelled from Azerbaijan.) Internally displaced persons (IDPs) still represent close to 10 per cent of the population. They moved into tent cities, student dormitories, or just about anywhere they could find. Some have been resettled into dignified accommodation, but some have not – and all are angry. 

Our minder takes us to a Soviet-era school in central Baku inhabited by IDPs. The entrance is grimy; the sky-blue corridors are crammed with drying laundry and cupboards. I manage to slip away from the ever-present government minder and am invited to speak with Hafiza Bayramova, 66, who has lived in the school since 1993. Her flat is pristine, decorated with photos of relatives and Turkish and Azerbaijani flags, a new addition, still in their plastic wrapping. 

“We lived in Zangilan [near the border with Iran]. We fled our homes with nothing. We crossed the Aras river into Iran and came to Baku,” Bayramova says. “It was difficult to live here – at first, we had no water or electricity. But I always believed that the occupied lands would be returned to us from the Armenian bandits. I dream of returning.” 

Could she live alongside Armenians, even civilians who had no part in the ethnic cleansing? “If they can live without anger, they can live with us and we can live with them. But they must accept that this is our country.” About the president, she is effusive. “Our leader is very prepared in all fields: political, military and cultural.” 

And does Bayramova feel any sympathy for Armenians who fled the recent Azerbaijani advance, who will now live in exile from their homes, mirroring her own experience? “No,” she replies in a soft voice, shaking her head. She is silent. Then our minder arrives with the other journalists and she repeats what she told me in almost exactly the same words. 

***

The drive to the mountainous Nagorno-Karabakh is a dreary four-hour trip along perfectly flat, monotonous landscapes, our jovial driver speeding at 175kmph on roads with a 60kmph limit. We pass Caspian oil rigs and refineries marked with stirring quotes by Heydar Aliyev. 

Azerbaijan, at times, produced two-thirds of the USSR’s oil during the Second World War. Capturing the Caucasian oil fields was a key military objective of the Nazis, who were beaten back with difficulty by Stalin’s forces. Today, the Caspian's oil fields are the source of Azerbaijan’s fabulously unequally distributed wealth, and have allowed the country to fund a massive military expansion that ended with its crushing victory over Armenia a month ago. 

Value of Turkish arms sales to Azerbaijan by month ($)
Arms sales jumped 120-fold between July and August
Source: Turkish Exporters’ Assembly

Azerbaijan’s spending on military equipment from Turkey surged 120-fold from July to August, figures from a Turkish industry group show, doubling again the following month. Fighting with Armenia broke out on 27 September. 

But, in many ways, gaining territory was the easy part. Azerbaijan must also deal with the people, both in the territories it controls and in those it claims, still under separatist control (though now with Russian peacekeepers on the ground under the terms of the November ceasefire). 

Azerbaijan “acknowledges [Nagorno-Karabakh Armenians] as our citizens. We are ready to provide all constitutional rights to people who want to live together with Azerbaijan and accept an Azerbaijani passport,” Hikmet Hajiyev, an adviser on foreign policy to President Aliyev, told me during an interview in an imposing Soviet-era government building. 

But few Armenians, scarred by pogroms in the 1990s and hearing reports of war crimes during the latest conflict, believe the official line. “No one can be sure that we can live together [with Azerbaijanis] in security,” Armine Januts, an Armenian who fled the Azerbaijani advance, told me.

Our press trip was organised on the premise that the media would show what the Azerbaijani government is doing to protect the cultural heritage of Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh. For Azerbaijan, this issue matters hugely for its international legitimacy. 

We therefore expected to visit Armenian monasteries, such as Dadivank, which was handed over to Azerbaijani control in late November as part of the ceasefire agreement. Yet our requests for visits are repeatedly rebuffed by the government. As a result of clashes, we are alternately told the military situation is too unstable, or that there could be mines, or that there is too much snow on the road for our large 4x4s to navigate. Requests to visit the “liberated city” of Shusha (called Shushi by Armenians) are similarly rejected. 


The view of the ruins of Agdam from the mosque (photo: Ido Vock)

Instead, we are brought to more comfortable territory for the Azerbaijani government. 

The city of Agdam, located in a historically majority-Azerbaijani area surrounding Nagorno-Karabakh, was ruined in the 1990s after its capture by Armenian troops forced its population to flee. The only building still standing is the town’s handsome mosque, built in 1868. A climb up to the minaret offers a bleak panorama of the devastation. Hundreds of ruined homes stretch for miles, with barely a single wall intact among the rubble. 

The government has arranged for those expelled in the 1990s to join us. Two arrive, the mother and brother of Hidayet Rustamov, killed in 1991, carrying his portrait. They say this is the first time in 27 years that they have been back to their village. “Everything around has been destroyed. Even so, we are overjoyed to be here. We have seen this day thanks to our government, our military and God,” says the soldier’s mother, 78-year-old Shafiqa Rustamova.

When it becomes apparent that the government will not allow us to see any towns or villages with any more recent history, we head back to the capital. 


Shafiqa Rustamova, 78, and Arzu Rustamov, 55 (Photo: Ido Vock)

***

The paradox of Azerbaijan’s war is that the wounds from the 1990s run so deep there are virtually no anti-war voices in the country, even among dissidents who have suffered extensive harassment from the government. The most prominent volte-face has been from Khadija Ismayilova, an award-winning investigative journalist who has been the subject of years of intimidation from the government, which at one point installed a spy camera in her home and leaked a video of her having sex in an attempt to humiliate her. It didn’t work. 

Yet, since the start of the war, Ismayilova has at times seemed to act as a de facto spokesperson for the government. Her social media feeds echo the official line on a conflict which, if anything, has made the government she used to loathe more popular than it’s ever been and likely entrenched its power for years to come. Some of the journalists on the press trip make plans to meet her in her home. 

Somehow, our minder hears of our plans. Two other journalists are told that I am not around, so they leave without me. They are driven around in circles, before being told they must urgently return to the hotel. Our minder, by now chain-smoking cigarettes, informs us we are not allowed to take taxis anywhere if he hasn't been informed about it, and that such journeys would be “against protocol”. 

Rasul Jafarov, a human rights lawyer jailed by the government in 2015, manages to sneak in past our minder to meet us. Though he opposed the methods, he agreed with the aim of the war. “Peace in the region is not possible without reclaiming the [formerly majority-Azerbaijani] surrounding regions of Nagorno-Karabakh,” he told me. He is level-headed about the possibility of Armenians living as citizens of Azerbaijan: “It may take ten or 20 years… and will not happen without leadership from the government.” 

***

Azerbaijan won the war. Winning the peace may be tougher. Nationalistic euphoria could rapidly tip into disillusionment once the arduous process of resettling hundreds of thousands of Azerbaijani IDPs into Nagorno-Karabakh, one of the most heavily mined regions in the world, begins. “It will take time. Let's be realistic,” Hajiyev says. 

The challenges Azerbaijan faces in reintegrating the Armenians it claims as its citizens are even more daunting. It will have to overcome three decades of ethnic hatred its government is largely responsible for stoking. Baku will need to come up with mechanisms to guarantee the physical security and cultural autonomy of Armenians, a point on which officials are light on details. 

Such proposals will have to be more than whitewashing for international consumption, as they will be judged on whether the roughly 40,000 Armenians who fled the recent fighting view them as trustworthy. Any hope of eventually peaceably integrating the rump of separatist-controlled territory into Azerbaijan will likewise hinge on how the newly gained areas are governed. 

The regime has begun arresting alleged perpetrators of war crimes against Armenians, a stark contrast with the hero’s welcome given in 2012 to Ramil Safarov, an Azerbaijani officer who murdered an Armenian soldier with an axe in Budapest. But the extent to which such moves are merely symbolic gestures meant to placate international outrage remains to be seen. 

The question of whether Armenians can ever live under Azerbaijani control illuminates a wider point. Without democratisation in Azerbaijan, few Armenians are likely to be convinced to move to a country where citizens of any ethnicity enjoy few constitutional protections, civil society organisations are suppressed and opposition leaders are barred from running for office. 

Mehman Huseynov, a journalist who has exposed government corruption, says it is impossible to conceive of peaceful coexistence in Nagorno-Karabakh if the Aliyev regime does not respect human rights and freedom of speech. “They say I am Armenian because I criticise the regime. How, then, can Armenians expect to live in Azerbaijan?”

Ido Vock was a guest of a press trip organised and paid for by the government of Azerbaijan. The New Statesman retained complete editorial independence throughout.

[See also: Watching the war in Nagorno-Karabakh, I think of my Armenian ancestors fleeing their home]

Ido Vock is international correspondent at the New Statesman.