Op-ed: Wars end controversy and societal unrest
Comparing 2016 and 2020 Karabakh wars: intimations and public response
The emotional shake-up was so strong that this moment stayed in my memory forever. I was in the library, re-reading newspaper articles dating back to 1998. I read and re-read an article reporting that on the eve of the presidential elections in Azerbaijan, trade union of teachers, in protest against the meager wages, threatened the government with a mass strike. I couldn’t believe my eyes. This would never be possible in modern Azerbaijan.
I believe that an obedient civil society is the result of propaganda. An Italian philosopher Antonio Gramsci wrote about how ideology can neutralize the negative consequences of an economic crisis, preventing it from growing into a political one. The core of this ideology in Azerbaijan has always been Karabakh, which has levelled out all the irregularities and contradictions. Consequently, following the results of the first Karabakh war, an identity based on total opposition to an age-old and irreconcilable enemy had been created.
Any forms of protest turned out to be powerless before this topic. In addition, each time military actions in Karabakh led to the strengthening of the position of the authorities. It is enough to recall and trace the parallels between the 44-day war and the April 2016 war.
Tense environment amid the outbreak of 2016 and 2020 Karabakh wars
When the authorities devalued the manat twice in 2015 while simultaneously holding pompous European Games before the eyes of the bankrupt population, the outrage was so strong that it resulted in a series of major protests in many cities. To disperse the dissatisfied, the authorities used military equipment, internal troops and rapid reaction forces.
In 2020, the authorities barely managed to hold early parliamentary elections before the beginning of the Covid-19 induced lockdowns. Although there were no significant changes in parliament, there were many independent candidates, as well as unprecedented activity of observers who recorded various violations.
Not long before that, the same activity was observed in the municipal elections and in one of the constituencies, the feminist Vafa Nagi was elected.
The preconditions for all this unusual activity were the expectation of a devaluation of the manat due to the fall in oil prices, followed by tough quarantine measures which angered the usually politically passive part of the population.
Both 2016 and 2020 wars countered societal tensions
In 2016, the result of the war was not only the marginalization of its opponents, the blocking of opposition sites and the unprecedented consolidation of society, but also the turning of supporters of peaceful settlement of the conflict into militarists and the absolutization of presidential power.
In 2016, a referendum was held to extend the presidential term from 5 to 7 years, the age limit was also removed and the posts of first and second vice presidents were introduced, all while giving president the authority to dissolve parliament and call early elections. This was followed by a drift towards the Russian political regime, accompanied by the president’s increasingly aggressive rhetoric against Western institutions and the persecution of activists (not only the political ones).
In 2020, thanks to the post-war euphoria, no one noticed the continuing rise in prices for all food products, gasoline and an increase in utility costs. As in the aftermath of the April war, commemorative practices of triumph were adopted, which were intended to replace the mourning that had previously dominated the national discourse. The president’s rating had never been higher.
At the same time, the opposition appeared weak both in 2016 and in 2020. Usually their rhetoric was based on dissatisfaction with the government, and the main argument has always been the government’s inability to return Karabakh. In 2016, the opposition supported the government, but when the hostilities ended, they were once again able to make claims that Karabakh was not completely conquered. However, in 2020 they had no choice but to officially “stand with the leader during this difficult time for the country”.
Life after the war
In general, the discourse within society regarding the prospects for peaceful coexistence has not changed – it is considered impossible. The “enemy” image disseminated by the media has not softened. President Aliyev, in his speeches addressed to a foreign audience, presents a picture of the world where Armenians are ‘rightful’ citizens of Azerbaijan, while domestically consumption he preserves the old discourse, where Armenians are presented as alien people with no roots or history in the Caucasus.
In a recent speech in Hadrut, he stated that historians need to write more about the history of the arrival of Armenians in the Caucasus, draw up accurate maps, return the original names and establish historical justice for the global community and the younger generation.
Nevertheless, it is worth noting some positive moments. For instance, for the first time in many years, civilian aircrafts began to make regular trips to Nakhchivan via the territory of Armenia, dummies and helmets of Armenian soldiers were removed from the War Trophy Park, and political blogger and emigrant Khabib Muntazir said on social media that Aliyev would soon be signing a decree on the program for the integration of the Armenian population.
I remember how spectators began to boo the Armenian athlete during the awarding ceremony of the first European Games in Baku in 2015, but the president’s raised hand stopped the hum at once. Now Aliyev’s rating is several times higher and in his hands are political institutions and all the resources of civil society with numerous agents of power. In the same way, with a single wave of his raised hand, he can influence public opinion by changing the existing narrative – distrust and hatred towards Armenians. Whether he wants to do so, however, is another question.
Trajectories is a media project that tells stories of people whose lives have been impacted by conflicts in the South Caucasus. We work with authors and editors from across the South Caucasus and do not support any one side in any conflict. The publications on this page are solely the responsibility of the authors. In the majority of cases, toponyms are those used in the author’s society. The project is implemented by GoGroup Media and International Alert and is funded by the European Union