Voices on the Karabakh conflict - Yalchin Mammadov: Why young Azerbaijanis are disappointed at the West's approach

As part of its long-standing commitment to promote dialogue and better understanding among the people of the South Caucasus, commonspace.eu continues to offer a platform for Armenian and Azerbaijani thinkers, activists and opinion shapers to present their perspectives on the Karabakh conflict and its resolution.

In this article, Yalchin Mammadov discusses the perceptions of young Azerbaijanis on the Western attitude towards the ongoing conflict.

Views and opinions expressed are those of the author, and not necessarily those of commonspace.eu or its partners.

For many young people in Azerbaijan the last few weeks have been the moment they encountered the realities of war, and also the moment they became acutely aware  of the global community's attitude towards their country and culture.

On 27 September 2020, Armenia and Azerbaijan resumed the Karabakh war that was put on hold in 1994. Although the war is the same, its methods, resources deployed to it, and particularly actors, are considerably different. At stake are not only human lives and the fate of these historical lands claimed by both sides, but also the confidence and hope that the younger generation place in Western political values and culture.

On both sides, for many of those involved in military operations or intense information war today, the memory of past active confrontation is largely limited to the "four-days war" of 2016 and the July 2020 clashes in the border towns of Tovuz/Tavush. For many young people in Azerbaijan this has been the moment they re-discovered the realities of war, and also the moment they became acutely aware  of the global community's attitude towards their country and culture.

Many opinion leaders in Azerbaijan claim that the most important facts that underpin the Azerbaijan's viewpoints are overlooked by the global media. They denounce the indulgence of the international community towards Armenia's continued occupation of part of Azerbaijani territory and the existance  of 800,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs) forced to leave Karabakh between 1991 and 1993. The younger generation's disappointment is even more noticeable, given their high  regard for the West, and subsequent expectations of what comes from it.

The West is generally associated with progress and even the Azerbaijani ruling elite exploits the "European" element abundantly in its identity-building and nation-branding discourse. European aspirations became part of the national narrative among Azerbaijani intellectuals in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Europe is often presented in the progressive discourse of civil society as an identity solution and not as a historical identity. As an example, the op-ed "Europe and Us" by the writer Rafiq Tağı, which provoked lively debates in Azerbaijan and beyond its borders because of its anti-Islamic character[1], denounces the obscurantism of the Muslim East and claims that belonging to the East adds nothing to the value system of Azerbaijanis[2].

In post-soviet Azerbaijan this tendency has grown at the expense of competing cultural poles. The pro-independence movement of the 1980s and 1990s in Azerbaijan flourished on an anti-Russian rhetoric, which dominated the entire post-soviet period. This was reinforced by the killing of civilians in Baku by the Soviet army on 19-20 January 1990, as well as Russia's political and military support to Armenia during the "First Karabakh War" in the early 1990s. In addition, the attractiveness of Russian cultural soft power waned once it came in competition with the now accessible Western world.

Among the alternative cultural alternative epicenters, the Muslim world and the Far East are not as popular among young Azeris as Western culture:  the Muslim world does not represent any modernity or propose any viable model for Azerbaijanis, and the Far East is poorly promoted among the young people of Azerbaijan . Although the Turkish model used to be very popular in the 1990's and 2000's, it is no longer a great source of inspiration in Azerbaijan either despite the intense feeling of cultural proximity.

Consequently, the West has been enjoying the luxury of cultural lodestar for the younger generation of Azeris for the past three decades. However, the "New Karabakh war" had a shock effect on this very generation who espouse liberal values inspired by the West. Declarations of European leaders in favour of Armenia, celebrities supporting puppet separatist regime in Karabakh and the Western media outlets covering the conflict through the prism of a £clash of civilisations", among others,  clearly disappoint them.  This disappointment is noticeable when one analyses the social media activity of young opinion leaders.

For the older generation this disappointment is not entirely new. Western newspapers' one-sided coverage of the conflict in 1990's was not much different from that of today. This is well-evidenced in the historical archives, where the pro-Azerbaijan voices remain inaudible. This had already caused disappointment among the older generation who were fighting for both independence from the USSR and against Armenian occupation of Karabakh. One should bear in mind that the vast movement of protests in the early 1990's was pro-Western, subsequently quickly replaced with a feeling of abandonment. Something similar is happening now.

Western media outlets' and political actors' strong pro-Armenian positions may have serious consequences in the longer perspective. Growing anti-Western sentiments may damage the appeal of Western public and private actors in the eyes of Azeris, especially among the secular and well-educated part of the population. Once the on-going military operations stop, the West might realise that it is no longer perceived as an honest broker or the promoter of liberal values. Positive signals and initiatives coming from their side, which have indeed been the case throughout the past decades, might be immediately rejected or easily classified as hostile to interests of the population of Azerbaijan.

To avoid such a bleak outcome, Western political and opinion leaders, including mass media, should do two things: Firstly, politicians across Europe and North America should resist the dangerous and irresponsible electoralist temptation of framing this conflict as a "clash of civilisations". Azerbaijan is a multi-ethnic and multi-religious nation and the war it fights is not driven either by religious beliefs or ethnic animosity. Azeris see it as a classical war against the foreign aggressor. Secondly, the West should espouse the role of a genuinely neutral, honest and solution-oriented broker. It should demonstrate its willingness to assist the sides in finding a peaceful resolution of the conflict and act on it. Only this way can the West hope to maintain its soft power in Azerbaijan and its cultural, political and institutional appeal among young Azeris. Old ways won't cut it anymore, something has got to give.

Notes

[1] HARASZTI, Miklos. « In God's Name ». Index on Censorship 38, no 2 (1 mai 2009): p.111

[2]  Article accessed on 8 October 2020 - It is important to note that Rafiq Tağı was imprisoned for "incitement to hatred" and murdered following the fatwa of an Iranian ayatollah after his release from prison: "Journalist critical of Islam dies four days after being stabbed by attacker", Reporters Without Borders, November 23, 2011 - Updated on January 20, 2016, accessed on 8 October 2020

Source: Yalchin Mammadov is a PhD candidate in political science at Université Libre de Bruxelles.

photo: Young Azerbaijanis admiring the Baku skyline (picture Delaram Bayat on Unsplash)

 

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