20 September, 2017 13:28

Nationalist Rhetoric on the Rise in Armenia and Azerbaijan

By  Joshua Kucera, the article was published on Eurasianet.org

A new report has detailed how nationalist rhetoric has become more widespread across the societies of both Armenia and Azerbaijan since the two fought a brief war last April.

The April war and subsequent clashes "not only spur up tension and violence, but are also accompanied by significant ideological and discursive changes within the countries," the report, in the journal Caucasus Edition, said. "They contribute to the growth of militaristic and revanchist sentiments within the societies."

In Armenia, the political opposition to the government was neutered, as "[t]he aftermath of the hostilities saw a patriotic mobilization and hardening of attitudes toward the other side of the conflict," wrote the author of the Armenian section of the report, Mikayel Zolyan.

This was particularly noticeable in this year's parliamentary elections: "[T]he opposition’s rhetoric significantly softened in the aftermath of the April war. Even during the election campaign for the 2017 parliamentary elections, most opposition parties refrained from such attacks on the ruling government," Zolyan wrote.

And Azerbaijan saw a similar dynamic, albeit in a space with even less room for dissent; the report quotes one patriotic commentator who criticized liberal voices for peace on social media: "Referring to the role of intelligentsia, particularly writers, he stated that “they would be making a greater contribution to the common victory if they did not behave as women writing statements about humanity for getting ‘likes’"

Both countries also saw an increasing role of the military in society. In Armenia this was formal, in the government's "Nation-Army Concept," a controversial Defense Ministry program to increase the military's role in society. 

In Azerbaijan, the identification of the military has been more rhetorical. The author of the Azerbaijan section called attention to an increasingly common trope among officials, identifying the people, state, and military. For example, President Ilham Aliyev eulogized a fallen Azerbaijani soldier using this formulation: "This once again demonstrates that a citizen of Azerbaijan, Azerbaijani youth, and Azerbaijani soldiers will never resign themselves to the current situation," he said. "In this phrase, one can trace the main thesis summarizing the outcome of the “April War”— In turn, the state also appears in the form of a triad—'state-government-president,'" wrote the Azerbaijani section of the report, Jafar Akhundov.

Akhundov adds: "This rhetoric gave an impetus to the already militarized official discourse and its 'all or nothing' ideology. The militaristic propaganda targeted everyone, including elementary school students. Students dressed in military uniforms marched publicly repeating the popular slogan, 'Our homeland is indivisible; our martyrs are immortal.'"

There have been some countervailing trends. In Armenia, while mainstream discourse has emphasized intransigence in negotiations over Karabakh, "the escalation also led to a more active discussion in Armenia over the necessity of compromise."

Zolyan identified former president Levon Ter-Petrosyan as "the most vocal voice within this [compromise-oriented] discourse." But it didn't turn out well for him:

Not only did Ter-Petrosyan defend the need for compromise, as he had done numerous times before, but he also made it the key message in the 2017 parliamentary elections campaign. However, as the election results show, this discourse remains largely marginal in Armenian society: the Armenian National Congress-People’s Party of Armenia bloc received only 1.5 percent of the vote, the lowest result a political force led by Ter-Petrosyan has ever shown in any election.

In Azerbaijan, Akhundov notes, the war -- in which Azerbaijan took back a small slice of territory-- allowed Baku to shift from a narrative of victimization to one of triumph. 

"Before April 2016, the central events in conflict commemoration were January 1990 [when Soviet troops massacred protesters in Baku] and the Khojaly massacre of 1992," Akhundov wrote. "After April, the discourse of pride and triumph came to replace the discourse of tragic losses. Statements about high public solidarity, mass readiness for sacrifice, the heroic army, and the liberation of some parts of the occupied territories fed these discourses."