Betwixt and between: the reality of Russian soft-power in Azerbaijan


The power of Russia’s disinformation campaign via the media and Kremlin-financed and/or supported NGOs have been clearly seen in the West with the Ukraine crisis. However, for the post-Soviet republics, these tactics are familiar. To varying degrees and using a range of different tools, Russia’s disinformation campaign has been at work in this space since the dissolution of the Soviet Union. հայերեն

Teaser Image Caption
The graffited wall of a school in Baku showing the hodgepodge of lingual and cultural influences.


For Azerbaijan, the developments around the dissolution of the Soviet Union seriously damaged Russia’s image. Moscow was negatively perceived as an imperialist force in public memory due to several events -notably the Soviet regime’s intervention and use of force against civilians in Baku in January 1990- as well as Moscow’s role in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. This image limited any potential impact of Russian outreach to the Azerbaijani public, the primary means of which were language and education. Furthermore, the Azerbaijani government’s foreign policy was “Westernized” in the 1990’s, distancing itself from dependency on Russia, while the de-Russification of the education system and tight control over media has limited Russia’s use of ‘soft-power’.

In addition, Russia’s main pressure tools for Azerbaijan were political issues such as the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, the legal status of the Caspian Sea, and the necessity of soft power tools became secondary. However, after 2012, Moscow’s strategy changed, and Russia’s language and educational tools, as well as information tools, were seen as essential.  The shift was visible in Azerbaijan: there were increasing numbers of educational and other exchange programs, and clear investment in Russian media tools to promote the Russian worldview.  The Russian version of soft power is far from the notion of persuasion without power. On the contrary “soft power’ serves as another form of persuasion, without offering a value system as the West does; all of these various iterations of persuasion and coercion are being deployed as additional tools to help strengthen Russia in the face of opposition to the so-called Eurasian Union initiative and all that would entail for Moscow in terms of radically increased regional influence. The last few years show that during the post-2012 period, Russian efforts towards developing soft power tools in Azerbaijan are flourishing.

Russian Language & NGOs as tools of Moscow’s ‘soft power’

The Russian language has lost its power as Azerbaijan’s lingua franca among the majority in parallel with the growth of an anti-Russian narrative which became part of Azerbaijani national identity. The majority of the Azerbaijani public and sometimes political elites openly blame Moscow for the ongoing Nagorno-Karabakh war – not only for instigating the conflict, but also for delaying its resolution. The other reason that the Russian language has lost influence is that only a small number of ethnic Russians remained in Azerbaijan after the collapse of the Soviet Union, especially in comparison with other former republics – notably the Central Asian countries. The number of ethnic Russians in Azerbaijan fell from 392,000 in 1989 to 120,000 in 2009. Thus in the 1988-1989 academic year, only 45% of pupils in Baku schools were taught in Azerbaijani compared to 78% in the 1995-1996 academic year.[i] The appeal of the Russian language also diminished as part of the post-Cold War outlook; the younger generation were turning towards English as a way of reaching the West.

Since 1991, Russia’s image has deteriorated across the post-Soviet space. Crises like Russia’s war in Georgia in 2008 and the ongoing conflict with Ukraine have played a major role. However, the impact of these crises has been mitigated in Azerbaijan due to the large number of Azerbaijani labor migrants in Russia. Nearly two million Azerbaijanis live in Russia. Most of them are working migrants and seasonal workers whose extended family connections and network are a very good channel for Russian propaganda. They see Russia as a key job market, and they push the new generation to attend language courses, and which also served to strengthen the influence of the Russian language.  

Russia’s ‘Achilles heel’ was that unlike the West, it was largely inactive in the Azerbaijani civil society sector. In 2012, of the 107 branches of foreign NGOs and/or foreign funded NGOs operating in Azerbaijan, only one was Russian. This wasn’t seen as a major problem by Moscow, which viewed Western donor programs as limited or elitist in their impact – the West was focused on educational exchange programs, from which only a tiny minority of already privileged people would benefit. Russia saw trade and labor migration (and the resulting remittances sent back to Azerbaijan) as a much more efficient and effective way of influencing Azerbaijan and Azerbaijanis. The room for Moscow to set up Russia-financed NGOs was also limited due to the tight government controls over civil society. Instead, the Russian government facilitated language courses, opening the Russian Information & Cultural Centre in Baku, which was not seen by Baku as a political threat. Nonetheless, the Baku authorities were wary of the emergence of pro-Russian forces, and the political climate was not conducive to promote anti-US, pro-Eurasianist  views- i.e. the promotion of the Eurasian Union, a Moscow-led alliance.

However, Russia’s position has shifted. Moscow is now sponsoring pseudo NGOs as well as funding increasing numbers of educational and professional programs in Azerbaijan. Since Russian President Vladimir Putin’s third term, Moscow has been building up its arsenal of soft power tools in order to build public support for the Eurasian Union project across the post-Soviet space. This goal has led to the establishment of Russian media tools and organizations since 2012. This strategic shift has been facilitated by Baku’s intensifying crackdown on Western-funded NGOs, including restrictive new laws on civil society activity, which has created a more flexible space for Russia. This includes, for instance, the Caspian School for young experts, financially supported by Russia’s Alexander Gorchakov Public Diplomacy Fund which was established by Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 2011, and the establishment of NGOs such as the Slavic-Turkic Union (in 2013), and a branch of Russia’s Lev Gumilev Center (in 2012). The latter promotes Eurasianist ideas with a distinctive focus on Muslim and Turkic identity in the wider geopolitical context of Eurasia as a ‘home of civilization’. This angle has attracted more support among Azerbaijanis than the neo-Eurasianism idea promoted by Kremlin mouthpiece Alexander Dugin, who does not hide his imperialistic vision of Russia. 

While there are only a small number of Russian sponsored NGO and education- professional programs, the major focus of Russian ‘soft power’ is the media and education, based on larger strategic influencing plan.

Russian soft power tools: A focus on Education

The primary language of media in Azerbaijan is in the native language, Azerbaijani. With the rise in the number of online media outlets since 2000s, overtaking traditional print media, more Russian-language publications emerged, mainly pro-government Azerbaijani media published in Russia. There was not yet any formal regulation of online content. From the Azerbaijani government’s point of view, it was necessary to increase the number of Russian language media outlets to extend the reach of the government agenda across the post-Soviet space, where Russian language remains relatively widely understood. The primary purpose in this regard was to strengthen Baku’s position in the information warfare with Armenia on the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. However, this approach meant that Azerbaijani media was undermined; Azerbaijani journalists began to feed their news agencies with information/data from Russian language sources and by default, the language capabilities of Azerbaijani journalists led them to take news and information from Russian language sources, which indirectly influenced what they published.  This has helped spread Moscow-manipulated information into Azerbaijan’s information space, where the Russian media outlets were an alternative resource for the Azerbaijani middle classes, among whom Russian is widely spoken, and still more than English. This in part because Russian language media is much higher quality; even the Russian influenced propaganda is much more sophisticated and better written.

Until 2015, Moscow had never staked a claim in the Azerbaijani information space, in contrast to the other major regional actor Iran, which sponsored several media outlets. But May 2015 saw the launch of the Russian Sputnik News Internet portal in Azerbaijan, available online in both Azerbaijani and Russian. The Sputnik news outlet had been established a year earlier in Russia, in order to counter what Russian officials call “the aggressive propaganda of Western media”.  The introduction of Kremlin propaganda machine in Azerbaijan has not significantly increased impact of Russian propaganda, because this small number of outlets does not reach a majority of the population. The Open Neighbourhood “EU Neighbours East” project found that the role of Russian channels as sources of information was significant in Eastern Partnership countries like Belarus and Moldova, while in Azerbaijan, only 39% of respondents relied on Russian channels. Of this 39%, 61% said they preferred non-Russian media outlets.[ii]

However, Russia’s tactics differ from Iran’s. The latter sponsored both online media and radio channels in Azerbaijani, and the editorial line reflected Tehran’s official views, with criticism  of the Azerbaijani government and the country’s secular values.[iii] This position has little traction with the majority of Azerbaijanis, and at times is actively antagonistic. But the Russian-sponsored channels are not interested in criticizing Azerbaijani government or its policies; on the contrary, with the rise in Baku’s anti-Western rhetoric during 2013-2015, Russia took the opportunity to promote anti-Western, and anti-American sentiment, portraying and dramatizing the US/Western stance on Ukraine issue as interference in internal affairs. Even though Baku openly supported Ukraine – based on the principle of territorial integrity pursuant to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict- Russian disinformation still had an impact in Azerbaijan. This was confirmed in the survey of the Comparative Housing Experiences and Social Stability in 2015, which showed that the majority of Azerbaijanis buy the official Russian narrative on the Ukraine issue since 2013 due to exposure to Russia-based media; this group demonstrated a greater tendency to accept the Russian narrative blaming the US government and West for the Ukraine conflict.[iv]

While the Russian influence via the mass media remains fairly limited, and a relatively new phenomenon as described above, influence through the educational system is flourishing – both in schools and universities. While the number of schoolchildren studying in Russian has more than halved in Azerbaijan since 1990 (from 250,000 students to 94,700), this decrease tapered during the second decade of Azerbaijan’s independence (from 107,500 to 94,700).[v] In the last five years, Russian language education has gained impetus. In Baku schools, the number of pupils taking the Russian language curriculum increased from 42,868 pupils in 2013 to 55,809 in 2016. [vi]In terms of quantity, the number of public Russian-only schools has not decreased sharply; today, similar to 1989, there are 16 Russian schools in Azerbaijan and 380 schools which offer both Azerbaijani and Russian streams.[vii] However, especially in Baku, the number of pupils who choose to study in Russian has been increasing over the last four years. Regardless of any political concerns, Russian-language education is seen as much higher quality than what pupils are taught in Azerbaijani schools.

Recent programs introduced by the Azerbaijani government - such as the “Intensive Russian Language Training" project currently implemented in 50 high schools – are aimed at increasing the availability of Russian language education.

Bringing Azerbaijani university students to Russian universities is a priority for Moscow. The now much-diminished support for Western education via various US-led programs and the Azerbaijani government program (State Program on education of Azerbaijan youth abroad in the years 2007-2015) had been highly effective in increasing and bringing Western-educated professionals into public affairs work. One consequence was reduced interest in Russian universities. Turkish universities have traditionally been the best alternative for Azerbaijani students. But when the US government’s Muskie Program was shut down by Congress in 2012-2013, and the Azerbaijani government shut down its scholarship program for higher education abroad in 2015, the opportunities were dramatically reduced. During 2007-2015, more than 3000 Azerbaijanis studied abroad, mostly in Western countries. Since 2013 the government was increasingly concerned about Western-educated Azerbaijanis who, upon returning home, sought to change the value system, bring about open discussions of public problems.[viii] By contrast, the Russian education system was not tied to a liberal value system, and graduates did not seek to challenge the political status quo.

The lack of scholarships for study in the West – after the government ended its state program in 2015 - revitalized interest in Russia. Recent data shows that 72,000 international students were based in Russia; 69 percent of these students came from Azerbaijan, Belarus and other members of the Commonwealth of Independent States.[ix] Of that 72,000, 20 percent is Azerbaijani, approximately 14,000.

Various Russian universities have established branches in Azerbaijan since 2007, in addition to the Russian cultural and language centers in many of Azerbaijan’s universities. In the longer term, Russia looks set to be the second alternative after Turkey for Azerbaijanis seeking an international university education. 


Over the past two decades, Russia has made effective use of its hard power tools, such as Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, status of Caspian Sea, etc., to try to keep Azerbaijan in check, but Azerbaijan’s economic independence has protected Baku’s political autonomy. With the focus on hard political tools, over the years, Russia has underinvested in its soft power tools both by default and design. By default, the basis for strengthening soft power tools was low in the post-independence period because of the small number of Russians living in Azerbaijan. Moreover, the negative image of Russia during the dissolution of the Soviet Union limited Moscow’s ability to gain more influence in Azerbaijan. The Azerbaijani government’s ‘de-Russification’ education and language policy and its focus on nationalistic rhetoric reduced the power of Russian soft outreach tools.

However, since 2012, Russia has increased its soft power efforts across the post-Soviet space, including Azerbaijan, which has seen greater numbers of Russian media and education projects.  Moscow found more of a vacuum in the Azerbaijani context, because of the weakening Western role. But Russia’s increasing role in media and education projects in Azerbaijan is partly the consequence of the Azerbaijani government’s policy, which saw the dismantling of Western education programs, and also suffocated the Westernized part of civil society.

In sum, the Russian education programs in universities and Russian language schools are also the product of market demand – bearing in mind the non-competitive environment which enables them to flourish. The role of pro-Kremlin media in monopolizing the information space of Azerbaijan is perceived in government as a remote possibility- however, in the long term it can gather momentum. Accordingly, the increasing number of students being educated in Russian, plus the draw of Russian universities and the reduced prospects for gaining a Western education will have two long-term impacts. First, the Russian language information space will be enlarged, as the number of Russian speakers increases. Second, Russian university education will give graduates a Moscow-oriented worldview. Representation of these graduates in public affairs and government will ultimately influence policy-making process.


[i] Гюльшен Пашаева. Мировые языки как составная часть публичной дипломатии. SAM Коментарии. №16, 2016, p.44

[ii] Open Neighborhood- Communication for A stronger Partnership: connecting with citizens across the Eastern Neighborhood, July 2016, 

[iii] Azerbaijani Audience Gets A Taste Of Iranian 'Soft Power’, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, July 09, 2008

[iv] Theodore P. Gerber & Jane Zavisca (2016) Does Russian Propaganda Work? The Washington Quarterly, 39:2, 79-98, DOI: 10.1080/0163660X.2016.1204398, p.94.

[v] Aynur Ramazanova, Knowledge in Russian in Azerbaijan, CRRC Blog, April 2014.

[vi] Azərbaycanda rus dilində danışmaq "problemi”, BBC Azerbaijan, 3 March 2016, 

[vii] "Rus dili Azərbaycanın ikinci dilidir”, March 2016,

[viii] Mina Muradova,  Azerbaijani Authorities Close Opposition University, CACI Analyst April 2013

[ix] Jack Grove, Emphasis on soft power leads to focus on those from former Soviet states, Times Higher Education, March 2017