Azerbaijan update: From COVID-19 to the New War in Nagorno-Karabakh

The content of this article is the sole responsibility of  the author and can in no way be taken to reflect the views of the Heinrich Boell Stiftung Tbilisi Office – South Caucasus Region.

Women with red coat and a face mask


The developments from March to November 2020 in Azerbaijan are significant for the modern history of the country and for the South Caucasus region as whole. From the outbreak of COVID-19 to the recent war in Nagorno-Karabakh, the country has experienced a series of events that will have implications for future of the country. 

First, the COVID-19 outbreak has been marked by a new crackdown on the “old” opposition in March-April. Throughout this period, more than 20 oppositional activists, mainly members of the Popular Front Party of Azerbaijan (PFPA), were convicted and subjected to administrative arrest.

On September 3, the court sentenced prominent oppositional figure Tofiq Yagublu to 4 years and three months in prison. He went on a hunger strike to protest the court’s decision. Despite the differences between the “old” opposition and young activist groups, an unexpected unity has emerged: feminists and left-minded activists have enthusiastically supported Tofiq Yagublu and have organized a small protest in the center of Baku. After a 17-day hunger strike, the court transferred Yagublu to house arrest.

More long-lasting changes to the entire history of the region occurred in July and September.  July clashes on the border between Azerbaijan and Armenia resulted in the loss of Major General Polad Hashimov. Following the news, an unexpected demonstration was held on the night of July 14. A small group of demonstrators broke into the parliament. The July rally clearly showed the importance of the conflict with Armenia for Azerbaijanis, especially for segments of society which do not have a political affiliation. However, the protest resulted in an increasingly severe wave of repression against the Popular Front Party: President Aliyev explicitly blamed the party for trying to take advantage of the situation and attempting to seize power.

The outbreak of war between Azerbaijan and Armenia over the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic in late September changed the entire socio-political situation in the country. Not only did the conflict lead to the unification of the nation and increased support of the government on the national level, it is possible the conflict also brought about a quasi-totalitarian turn. Unlike the passive acceptance of authoritarian hegemony that existed prior to the war, the politically passive majority shifted to fully endorsing the government and especially President Aliyev during the war.This quasi-totalitarian turn has constructed the “People-as-One versus the external Other” (Lefort, 1988) situation, making political opposition impossible.  

After 44 days of war, on November 9, both sides agreed to sign a ceasefire agreement, which involved a Russian peacekeeping mission in Nagorno-Karabakh. “The return of Russia” has been widely criticized by the domestic opposition in Azerbaijan. Despite the post-colonial character of the Russian presence, the peacekeeping troops act as a guarantor of the ceasefire regime.

A New Wave of Repression and #FreeTofiqYagublu

Azerbaijan authorities declared a special quarantine regime on March 24. In his speeches in March and April, President Aliyev sharply criticized the opposition and used such labels as “fifth column” and “the enemies of the nation”, while rejecting any possibility of dialogue with them. In his speeches, President Aliyev was referring to the Popular Front Party of Azerbaijan and the Musavat Party, both of whom are viewed as part of the old opposition, and which last held power in 1992-1993. Both parties rejected a proposed meeting with Adalat Valiyev, the Head of the Department for Relations with Political Parties and Legislative Authority of the Presidential Administration. They declared that a meeting with Valiyev could not be considered a “dialogue process.” During the period spanning March-April, more than 20 members of the Popular Front Party were sentenced to 30 days of administrative arrest.

Things were different for the Republic Alternative Party (ReAl). Following the acquittal of the party’s chairperson Ilgar Mammadov on April 23, the party gained official registration. With ReAl declaring that it is in dialogue with the government, its “pro-dialogical” stances have been widely criticized by the “old” oppositional parties and activist groups.

On March 22, former political prisoner Tofig Yagublu was detained and charged with attacking a married couple with a screwdriver following a car accident in Baku. However, Yagublu claimed that the car deliberately tried to hit him and that after the couple attacked him.

Yagublu’s hunger strike campaign gained significant support within the country, showing that the opposition still has support and the ability to mobilize people. Yagublu, a prominent member of the Musavat Party, is famous for his close ties with the Popular Front Party (despite the disagreements among the leadership of the two parties). A veteran of the First Nagorno-Karabakh War, Yagublu could be described as a progressive figure within Azerbaijan’s political class. This fact has made him a valued figure among critical youth groups. Despite these activists act as non-partisan and critically assume the existing opposition, they have an audience and may influence the agenda.

Yagublu’s hunger strike gained significant attention on social media beginning in early 2019. His   campaign was promoted by pro-opposition Facebook and Instagram pages using the hashtag  #FreeMehmanHuseynov. As a result, hundreds changed their profile pictures on Facebook with the frame that called for the release Yagublu.

On September 9, the group Free Left Alliance, which generally included leftists, called for a protest to support Yagublu in Baku’s city center. The protest was quickly shut down by the police and arrests were made. However, the activists that were arrested were released the same day.

Surprisingly for Azerbaijan, some celebrities and MPs supported Tofiq Yagublu and also called for his release. After a 17-day of hunger strike, the court reduced his sentence to house arrest.

The event marks the second time a successful campaign was achieved through a hunger strike. In the case of Mehman Huseynov, a sentenced video blogger who went on a similar hunger strike in December 2018, social media played a crucial role in social mobilization. Th popularity and support of both men might be explained by Azerbaijan’s lack of liberal democratic political culture and the lack of participation among broad segments of society in political mobilization (e.g. elections, oppositional party membership) in Azerbaijan.

July Skirmishes

Clashes on the border between Azerbaijan and Armenia began on July 12. Intense skirmishes were also observed from July 12-15 and continued sporadically. Both sides accused the other in the first attack.

The crucial distinguishing feature of the July battles is the fact that the exchange of fire occurred directly between the Armed Forces of Azerbaijan and Armenia, on the border of the Tovuz and Tavush districts. According to official sources, Azerbaijan lost 16 soldiers, among them Major General Polad Hashimov and Colonel Ilgar Mirzayev, while Armenia lost five soldiers. After a short transition to drone-type warfare, the escalation at the border began to subside by July 22.

Skirmishes between the two countries outside the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region, took place several times over the last decade (2012, 2014, and 2018). However, the July skirmishes resulted in a significant loss for Azerbaijan: for the first time since the Nagorno-Karabakh War (1988-1994) a high-ranking Azerbaijani general had been killed.

This fact had a significant psychological effect on Azerbaijanis resulting in mass mobilization and public anger. On the night of July 14, a crowd without a particular leader or political affiliation rallied in the center of Baku and demanded revenge. A small group of protesters even broke into the parliament. The rally quickly ballooned to over 10,000 people, which was not characteristic for authoritarian Azerbaijan. Notably, police did not interfere until the small group broke into the parliament building.

During the clashes, Ali Karimli, the leader of the Popular Front Party of Azerbaijan (PFPA), supported the government and stated that “we postpone our tensions for better times.” (Kucera, 2020a)

Although the target was an internal audience, President Ilham Aliyev’s recent speeches are of great importance in gaining a comprehensive picture of what was transpiring. The next day, after the pro-war rally, Aliyev declared “another victory over the enemy”, and indirectly condemned the protesters, declaring that “this is no time for populism.” A week later, on July 21, he stated that whereas the crowd was celebrating victory, “the members of the Popular Front Party tried to organize riots, they broke into the parliament building.” (July 15, Eurasianet, 2020).

After this speech, more than 30 active PFPA members were arrested. Fuad Gahramnali, a  member of the Presidium of the Popular Front Party of Azerbaijan, was charged under Article 278 (committing acts aimed at the violent seizure of power or change of the constitutional order) of the Criminal Code of Azerbaijan.

Overall, the July skirmishes and the rally in Baku demonstrated that the periodic escalation of conflict between two nations keeps alive nationalistic sentiment and nourishes the high degree of mutual distrust on both societies. This increased level of hostility has made a mutual co-existence narrative unimaginable in public discourses. The pro-war protest in Baku proves that the conflict is still one of the most critical values for the people of Azerbaijan, with the death of the Azerbaijani general sparking a re-awakening of the trauma suffered from the loss of Nagorno-Karabakh.

In addition to Baku, rallies also took place in both the US and Europe. In cities like Los Angeles and Brussels, violent scuffles between Azerbaijanis and Armenians have been observed, leading to several Azerbaijanis being injured. Similar cases with even more violence happened in Moscow and Kyiv on July 24-25 (Eurasianet, July 27, 2020).

For the authoritarian government of Azerbaijan, the nationalistic rally on July 14 was a worrying sign, and demonstrated the mobilizing potential of nationalism from below. Although the current regime has a long history of depoliticizing state nationalism as a part of its hegemonic ideology, the rally served to remind the government that if this showing of popular nationalism marries the oppositional discourse, it could present an existential threat to its rule. In response, the regime, despite the PFPA chairman’s statement of support, launched a new wave of repression against the party members, with President Aliyev calling the party an enemy of “people-state” unity.

However, while the Aliyev regime blamed the PFPA for the politicization of the “supportive” rally, only a few members of the party participated in it. The repressive behavior of the regime thus, might be explained by taking into consideration its long flirtation with nationalism. The last sudden mobilization shows that any significant loss at the front will potentially lead to inner chaos.

At the international level, the July clashes affected the relations between Azerbaijan from one side, and Russia, Serbia and, surprisingly, Jordan, from the other. Pro-government media reported that Armenia used Serbian and Jordan-made weapons during the clashes (July 21, Haqqin. Az, 2020). Azerbaijan does not recognize the independence of Kosovo, and the fact that Armenia used Serbian-made weapons worsened relations between the two countries. Azerbaijani Embassy in Serbia issues statement on this, and the chargé d'affaires of Serbia and the ambassador of Jordan were summoned to the Azerbaijani MFA.

President Aliyev openly criticized Russia’s arms sales to Armenia during a phone call to Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, which is not ordinary for the official discourse in Azerbaijan. (Kucera, 2020b). Armenia, which is a member of the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization, had not been supported during the July clashes by this organization. Many observers had believed that Russia was a close ally of Armenia, while Turkey supported Azerbaijan. But in fact, Russia’s position is more complicated. While Russia is a member state of the OSCE Minsk Group, it sells weapons to both sides. However, armed conflict in the region does not serve Moscow’s interests. Simultaneously, Armenia’s recent EU-friendly policy under Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan and the imprisonment of former president Robert Kocharyan, who has close relations with President Putin, has irritated the Russian government. Aliyev’s open demarche against Russia’s arms shipments was a sign of confidence facilitated by Turkish support.

The New War and the Future of Nagorno-Karabakh

Late September was marked by the beginning of a full-scale armed conflict between Azerbaijan and the non-recognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic. Throughout the conflict, Azerbaijan has enjoyed the full support of Turkey, while the EU and United States have largely observed from the sideline. Despite the bellicose statements made by Azerbaijani authorities, the OSCE Minsk Group countries (USA, France, and Russia) maintained a passive role during the July skirmishes.

As the conflict escalated in July, it had become clear that the popular demand to “take back the occupied lands” had reached a peak. Apart from that, certain statements made by Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, such as his call for the unification of Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh in August 2019, were assumed as highly provocative by Azerbaijani society and its leadership (August 7, 2019, OC-Media).

Overall, peace negotiations between the two countries had reached an impasse, and relations between Aliyev and Pashinyan were more reminiscent of hostility on an interpersonal level. The debate in Munich between the two leaders in February 2020 demonstrated that negotiations had already stalled. Another example of this ideological hostility is the fact that President Aliyev accused the Armenian government of serving the interests of investor and philanthropist George Soros. This narrative had been repeated during the escalation that took place in October. According to the narrative, the 2018 Armenian Velvet Revolution had been organized and sponsored by George Soros. By articulating this idea, President Aliyev ideologically differentiates the existing liberal Armenian government with his authoritarian government. In his interview to Turkish media, Aliyev stated, “Soros came to power in Armenia today, but failed.” (October 16, Report, 2020). The repetitive articulation of this argument not only underscores Aliyev’s differentiation from Pashinyan but also signals to Moscow the ideological incompatibility of modern Russian statist anti-liberal ideology and the post-revolutionary Armenian government’s stances.

In his speeches related to the conflict, President Aliyev used highly offensive rhetoric towards the Armenian side. In numerous addresses to the nation, he used a dehumanizing metaphor: “We are chasing them like dogs.” (October 4, BBC, 2020). This particular metaphor has gained popularity in Azerbaijan, showing the degree of hostility and hate speech within Azeri society.

In his speech on October 9, Aliyev stated that Azerbaijan accepts only the full restoration of Nagorno-Karabakh. (October 9, Daily Sabah, 2020). In a recent interview with Russia’s RIA news agency, he added that only “cultural autonomy” could be granted to the ethnic Armenian enclave in Nagorno-Karabakh. (October 22, Al Jazeera, 2020). However, according to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, at the beginning of November, 90,000 inhabitants, which makes up the bulk of the ethnic Armenian population of Nagorno-Karabakh, have fled their homes and settled in Armenian territory (UNHCR, 2020).  The complete absence of communication between communities, the existing traumas and the recent war, make the idea of mutual co-existence within the borders of Azerbaijan unfeasible.

Between October 10th and 25th, Azerbaijan and Armenia signed three ceasefire agreements; all of them were broken shortly after being announced.

Aliyev’s popularity reached its peak during the war; the oppositional leaders stopped their criticism, while Aliyev’s actions were perceived as a just and victorious war. The active support of Turkey during the conflict inevitably led to the re-articulation and dynamic perception of Turkey as the “big brother”.

The Armenian missile attacks on the city of Ganja and the district of Barda resulted in the deaths of civilians, raising the level of hostility within Azerbaijani society.

The escalation of conflict revealed deeply rooted ideological problems within civil society and among the opposition in Azerbaijan. Many prominent members of civil society and oppositional politicians supported the war and explicitly praised President Aliyev. Republican Alternative Party’s Ilgar Mammadov and pro-Turkish right-wing AG Party’s Tural Abbasli were invited to broadcast TV programs, which is quite unusual for Azerbaijan. Both party leaders expressed their support for President Aliyev and the Azerbaijani army. Conversely, the Popular Front Party and Musavat Party supported the military, and were careful to avoid offering their explicit support to Mr. Aliyev.

On November 8, the capture of Shusha was announced. This was an event that had great historical significance for Azerbaijan (and Armenia), 0and one that has been celebrated at the national level. 

Only a few activists, mostly feminists and left-wing progressives, joined the #NoWar campaign. As a result, many of them faced online harassment and public condemnation. Despite the virtual public attacks, these activists were not seriously targeted by state security services.

After 44 days of war, the sides agreed to sign a peace deal, which included the deployment of Russian peacekeeping troops in Nagorno-Karabakh. The end of the war was widely celebrated in Azerbaijan and perceived as a victory. The city of Shusha remained under the control of Azerbaijan, while ethnic Armenian refugees from Stepanakert will be able returned to their homes. All the remaining territories outside of Nagorno-Karabakh will be returned under the rule of Azerbaijan, and Russian peacekeepers will separate the two sides and prevent violence for at least the next five years. There are remaining questions. But one thing is certain: the peace deal significantly increases Russia’s influence in the region.

Conclusion: Life After the War

At the end of his speech about the peace agreement, President Aliyev mentioned that the opposition “supported the state’s interests” throughout the war (November 10, President.Az, 2020).

While during the first wave of a pandemic, the opposition had been a target of government repression, the case of Tofig Yagublu demonstrated that the old parties have an audience and support in society. However, the national idea that has been built around the loss of Nagorno-Karabakh has prevented the creation of multi-ideological oppositional groups with a focus on non-nationalistic narratives. At the start of the conflict, it had become evident that the opposition either has no option or sincerely supports the existing regime as a “defender of national interests.”

As a result of the conflict, it is likely that Ilham Aliyev’s legitimacy will grow in strength. If before the war, the regime’s hegemonic grip on power relied on the passive acceptance of the de-politized majority, now ordinary Azerbaijanis enthusiastically identify themselves with President Aliyev.

All three mainstream oppositional parties (Musavat, ReAl, PFPA) expressed dissatisfaction with the deployment of Russian troops in the region. This dissatisfaction is connected to the anti-Russian stances that are rife within the Azerbaijani opposition. For the ReAl Party, the agreement does not imply a “full restoration of Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity.” For the Popular Front Party, the Russian presence may potentially lead to political interference, while Turkey will play the balancing role in favor of Azerbaijan (Həzi, 2020).

Overall, a counter-hegemonic discourse based on European integration in post-war Azerbaijan cannot be considered as a promising mobilizing strategy. The passive role of Western actors makes the EU an outsider in the current socio-political situation in Azerbaijan. Simultaneously, the victory narrative will dramatically influence national identity, playing a de-politicizing role by equating Aliyev’s government with the people. The consequence of the victory may bring “national reconciliation” and the legitimization of some opposition parties. In his recent speech, Aliyev again blamed the Popular Front government of 1992-93 for the loss of Nagorno-Karabakh (November 22, APA, 2020), making the legitimization of the old opposition in the new sociopolitical reality less likely to happen. However, statist unity and the “People-as-One” narrative have totalitarian overtones, making any hopes for a liberal democratic turn unrealistic in the near future.



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