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Fences adorned with the helmets of dead enemy combatants. Wax figures of Armenian soldiers that the creators proudly admitted to having intentionally made “freakish.” These are familiar scenes in Baku’s so-called “ethnic hatred theme park,” which opened in April 2021. 

Such scenes may connect to the long-standing animosity between Azerbaijan and Armenia over the ethnic Armenian enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh, which is within the internationally-recognised borders of Azerbaijan. Yet these scenes also seem to be a part of a wave of anti-Armenianism that Azerbaijan’s dictator Ilham Aliyev has been relying on to maintain power.

Azerbaijan and Armenia: The Background

Armenia and Azerbaijan have had an uneasy relationship, especially after both states gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. Immediately after their independence, conflict erupted over Nagorno-Karabakh. The war resulted in Armenia’s victory, with ethnic Armenian forces occupying around 20% of Azerbaijan for the next 25 years. Over 30,000 people were killed and nearly 1,000,000 people were displaced in the war. 

The region then saw repeated clashes until 2020, when another all-out war broke out between the two sides, ultimately resulting in Azerbaijan’s victory. In the aftermath, Armenia retreated from all territory that is internationally considered part of Azerbaijan, including Nagorno-Karabakh. The 2020 war alone killed thousands and caused “severe socioeconomic damage.”

Tensions between the two nations remain high, with the most recent short conflict breaking out in September last year after Azerbaijan attacked Armenian targets on their shared border. Notably, Azerbaijan has become significantly more aggressive in the past few years. While previously both sides used equal force, the fight has become uneven after the war of 2020. In 2021, Azerbaijan began occupying territory that is internationally recognised as part of Armenia, and recent attacks near the Armenian-Azerbaijan border were strongly encouraged by Azerbaijan. These unprompted attacks on Armenia are proof of Aliyev’s anti-Armenian rhetoric. 

Weaponizing Racism: How the Aliyev Regime Has Promoted Anti-Armenian Sentiment

President Aliyev’s rhetoric against Armenia and ethnic Armenians has been steadily strengthening in recent years. He has made comments calling Armenia a “territory artificially created from ancient Azerbaijani lands” and describing it as Azerbaijan’s “main enemy.” He has denounced the so-called “Armenian fascism” and called for the “return” of “Azerbaijan’s historical lands,” such as Yerevan, the capital of Armenia, and other legal Armenian territories. Aliyev’s views reveal that he is not content with the withdrawal of Armenian troops from the ethnic Azeri territory or even from Nagorno-Karabakh, but also demands ethnic Armenian territory that is internationally considered to be part of Armenia. 

Aliyev has backed up his rhetoric with action. For example, the Azeri government pardoned an officer convicted of killing an Armenian counterpart while in training and declared him a “National Hero of Azerbaijan.” Armenia has also accused the Azerbaijani government of blocking the only road between Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh, which interrupted the supply of basic necessities. 

Furthermore, the ethnic hatred park is another example of how Aliyev’s regime has propagated anti-Armenian sentiment through action. Experts have described the park as only being “a spectacle meant to keep society mobilised and focused on the war, and not other issues.” The park was poorly received by Armenians, who viewed it as an insult.

Why is the Aliyev Regime Pursuing An Anti-Armenia Agenda?

So, why are these actions being pursued by the Azerbaijani government? Because Aliyev wants to stay in power. Aliyev’s regime in Azerbaijan is not democratic; he has suppressed the free press, bent election rules, and elevated his wife to serve as the country’s first vice president. During his time in office, Aliyev and his family have also suspiciously accumulated breathtaking amounts of wealth, amounting to hundreds of millions of US dollars. Many believe it was acquired through corruption, aided by a network of shell companies. 

Aliyev’s actions can only be explained through the lens of deliberate distraction. Azerbaijan has already gotten all its land back through the 2020 war, so the Aliyev government’s “fight for land” argument does not work. In fact, Aliyev has seemingly intensified his rhetoric against Armenia after conquering all de jure Azerbaijani land. Therefore, Aliyev’s anti-Armenian rhetoric can only be explained as a deliberate ploy to distract the public from his corruption, for example, with a war against a country that he artificially props up and antagonises, as Armenia is no longer occupying any Azerbaijani territory. Experts on the topic have called “anti-Armenianism” “one of [Aliyev’s] strongest arguments as a leader.” Aliyev’s government is also clearly not interested in peace – Azerbaijan has continued participating in peace talks but keeps cancelling and denying these same discussions.

To appease the public, hide his corruption, and consequently remain in power, Aliyev has resorted to distracting the public through conflicts with Armenia, whether culturally or physically. The success of this tactic could be seen in Azerbaijan’s military parade after their victory in the 2020 war with Armenia: cheering crowds waving flags and singing the national anthem. As this 2021 report states, “success in the Karabakh war earned Aliyev enormous popularity which he never previously enjoyed. Victory has provided him with a chance to use nationalism to chase his goal of cementing a nationalist monarchy even more zealously and confidently.” Nationalism and xenophobia are tools often used by dictators to strengthen their hold on power, and Aliyev is no exception.

Lessons for the Rest of the World

Worst yet, the West is largely ignoring Aliyev’s actions, due to Azerbaijan being a major oil and natural gas producer and exporter. Fossil fuels make up almost 90% of Azerbaijan’s exports. In light of the ongoing European energy crisis stemming from the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the European Union (EU) has been increasing its dependence on Azerbaijani fossil fuels, planning to increase the import of natural gas from the country by at least two and a half times before 2027. Many Western oil companies also operate within Azerbaijan. 

Due to these economic interests, Western democracies have tolerated the increasing Armenophobia propagated by the Aliyev regime. Their lack of response is dangerous, as the South Caucasus region has been trapped in a cycle of war for decades; the aggressive attitude from Aliyev’s government will only worsen the situation. Failed attempts at dialogue have only highlighted the difficulties in reconciling the differences between both sides, which were inflamed by the damage, loss of life, and terrible actions inflicted by both nations’ armies from past conflicts.

Ultimately, we should all be concerned about the increased militarism from Aliyev’s Azerbaijan. Other dictatorial powers, such as Russia and China, have pursued ultranationalist and xenophobic policies in recent years, with Russia embracing irredentist views in its invasion of Ukraine. Their pursuits should be a warning sign for all of us, as irredentism and xenophobia will only stir up more hatred and conflict. If the South Caucasus leaves this decades-long circle of violence behind, old wounds might heal in the region. However, this can only happen if Aliyev’s regime stops promoting irredentism and anti-Armenian racism as official state policy.

Edited by Osama Alshantti

Jonathan Chan

Born in Hong Kong and living in Vancouver, Canada since 2016, Jonathan (he/him) is currently a first-year student in the Faculty of Science at the University of British Columbia. He is passionate about...