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A Growing Spectre of Azerbaijani Irredentism Hangs Over COP29

Technically a diaspora rights organisation, critics say the Western Azerbaijan Community has become one of Baku’s key instruments for domestic radicalisation

Azeri President Ilham Aliyev, listens to Russian President Vladimir Putin, before the start of a bilateral meeting on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization Summiton July 3 in Astana, Kazakhstan. Photo: Kremlin Pool / Alamy
Azeri President Ilham Aliyev, listens to Russian President Vladimir Putin, before the start of a bilateral meeting on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization Summiton July 3 in Astana, Kazakhstan. Photo: Kremlin Pool / Alamy

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Leaving a Tbilisi cinema one evening in December last year, Alexander Thatcher turned on his phone to see a series of missed calls from his panic-stricken roommate. Someone had broken into their apartment.

Returning home, the US writer and graduate student found the burglars had shunned valuables, but moved furniture about, and has taken his passport, a tablecloth and about 50 GEL (£13.99) left on the coffee table. 

“I immediately thought there was something very weird about it, but then the notifications started coming through on Twitter and Instagram saying there’d also been attempts to hack into my social media accounts,” he told Byline Times.

It felt so strange. Nobody in Georgia’s expat community had ever heard of anything like this happening before – the general feeling was just, what the f***

Alexander Thatcher on the break in

Coming just a day before an Azerbaijani dissident journalist was threatened with a knife at a bar in the Georgian capital, Thatcher believes the break-in was carried out by Azerbaijani ultra-nationalists who’d targeted him over a story he’d published in October 2023 on the Western Azerbaijan Community (WAC). 

Over the years, Thatcher has faced significant online harassment from pro-Baku accounts over his critical writing, he told VAO News in January.

Technically a diaspora rights organisation, critics say WAC group has served as a key cog in the authoritarian Ilham Aliyev regime’s propaganda apparatus, stoking ethnic hatred by peddling racist and conspiracy-laden narratives designed to legitimise deepening aggression toward neighbouring Armenia, with whom Azerbaijan has been in a continual state of either frozen or active conflict since both South Caucasian countries’ independence from the Soviet Union. 

This spectre of mounting Azerbaijani irredentism casts a tall shadow over COP29, due to be held in Baku in November, which the oil-rich Aliyev regime has already been accused of using to greenwash its woeful record on fossil fuel consumption, as well as rampant corruption and long-running human rights violations that, amid the most recent crackdown, have seen at least 25 journalists and opposition figures arrested in the past year alone. 

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Last September, the ongoing conflict’s latest chapter saw more than 100,000 ethnic Armenians forced to flee a lightning assault on Nagorno Karabakh, a previously autonomous mountain enclave within Azerbaijan’s borders, following a ten-month blockade that had pushed the region’s inhabitants almost to the brink of starvation.

Emboldened by Russia’s now all but defunct historic role as security guarantor between these two long-warring nations, preoccupied as the Kremlin is by executing Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, Baku has in the months since the fall of Nagorno Karabakh, doubled down on further claims to large swathes of sovereign Armenian territory. 

Of particular focus has been the so-called ‘Zangezur Corridor’, which would carve out a clear path to the ethnically Azerbaijani exclave of Nakhchivan in Armenia’s south west and, through it, to Azerbaijan-allied Turkey. 

The concept of ‘Western Azerbaijan’ traces its roots back to colloquialisms, referring to ethnic Azerbaijanis forcibly expelled from Armenia, used by diaspora and refugee organisations set up in the late 1980s amid the First Nagorno Karabakh War, during which present-day Azerbaijani ultra-nationalist philosophies were also beginning to take shape as the Soviet Union spun toward terminal collapse. 

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Among intellectual figures of the period, however, philologist Aziz Alakbarli would remain fairly unknown until, plucked from relative obscurity, he was appointed to head up the Western Azerbaijan Community after it was formally set up in August 2022. 

The organisation has been fairly upfront about its mission and purpose. “Western Azerbaijan [i.e. Armenia] is our historical land, which is established by a number of historical documents, historical maps and our history itself,” President Ilham Aliyev told a gathering of the group’s members in December of that year. “The devastation committed by the Armenians in Western Azerbaijan must be communicated to the rest of the world, [and] I am sure that the Western Azerbaijan Community will do it with the support of the Azerbaijani state.”

As an MP of the ruling New Azerbaijan Party, Alakbarli currently participates in the European Parliament’s regional forum, while one of the group’s youth leaders, MP Kamal Jafarov, similarly serves as a delegate to the EU and the Council of Europe, as well as a member of the working groups for inter-parliamentary relations with the US, the UK, Australia, Italy, Luxembourg, Hungary and Romania, among others. 

Alexander Thatcher explains that while the organisation’s operations generally assume a palatable diplomatic tone in international fora, often appealing to the UN charter-assured “right of return” for refugees, the tenor of their activities differs drastically when observed in domestic contexts.

“If you listen to them talk on Azerbaijani TV, they speak in very explicit terms like ‘the land knows the blood of its true owners’,” he says.

There’s no ambiguity to Alakbarli’s statements – it’s not warmongering, its genocide-mongering. He’s talking expressly about the expulsion and killing of ethnic Armenians in Armenia

Alexander Thatcher, journalist

Azerbaijani ultra-nationalists have long pushed historically inaccurate characterisations of Armenians as barbaric nomads, late arrivals originating from Syria or Italy or even as far afield as India, and therefore lacking an authentic claim to any lands in the South Caucasus.

However, since the fall of Nagorno Karabakh last year, and the flight of ethnic Armenians who had inhabited the enclave since the 1990s, these narratives have undergone a wholesale shift from portraying Azerbaijan as the victim of occupation to focus entirely on promoting the kind of territorial expansionism previously condemned as a perceived threat from Armenia. 

According to Thatcher, the dissemination of these ideas through the Western Azerbaijan Community and other GoNGOs serves a dual purpose. Firstly, the portrayed need to rectify historic injustices perpetrated by a common enemy acts as a unifying cause for society at large, a call to rally behind the Azerbaijani government while also deflecting from its endemic corruption and deep-seated authoritarianism. 

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And it also effectively affords the state a means of exerting centralised control on the spread of domestic radicalisation. In particular, mitigating the risk of Pan-Turkic ideals, with their emphasis on the cultural and political brotherhood of peoples from Turkey and Azerbaijan through to Central Asian states like Kyrgyzstan and Turkmenistan, potentially forming a basis from which opposition figures might challenge the Aliyev regime. 

“The role of groups like the Western Azerbaijan Community within this system is basically to make sure all of this happens within approved channels. What they’re scared of is the influence of Turkish right-wing ideas coming into Azerbaijan’s regions, and hypothetically being used by elements of society to critique power,” Thatcher explains. “If everyone buys into the Aliyev-approved narratives of Western Azerbaijan and the return to ancestral homelands, then they’re not going do bow down to masters who’re the Turkish radical right, they’re going to maintain loyalty to the president.”

Mounting irredentism in Azerbaijan has not gone unnoticed by the international community. In 2021 and 2022, the European Parliament issued two resolutions expressing concern over statements from Azerbaijani authorities which had “appeared to raise territorial claims, threaten the use of force [and] thereby undermine the efforts toward security and stability in the region.” 

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The US State Department was also explicit in its condemnation of last September’s assault against Nagorno Karabakh, with Secretary of State Antony Blinken stating “the use of force to resolve disputes is unacceptable and runs counter to efforts to create conditions for a just and dignified peace in the region”.

Against the backdrop of Russia’s dwindling role as a mediator between Azerbaijan and Armenia, the US has admittedly sought a firmer role in facilitating peace talks, most recently inviting representatives of both nations to participate in a NATO summit scheduled for next week. 

Overall, the Western response to ongoing tensions can perhaps be described as mixed. While France has lately strengthened defence ties with Armenia, providing training and materiel to the country’s military, it follows the EU signing a memorandum of understanding to effectively double Europe’s gas supply from Azerbaijan as part of efforts to divest from Moscow amid the war in Ukraine. 

The UK, meanwhile, has drawn criticism over its lack of robust response to the fall of Nagorno Karabakh, with a leaked recording of a meeting with business representatives even appearing to show Foreign Office officials promoting Azerbaijan’s seizure of the territory as an opportunity for British firms to provide assistance on reconstruction. 

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“Behind closed doors, the UK government is calling Azerbaijan’s ethnic cleansing of Nagorno-Karabakh a ‘great opportunity’,” one campaigner told the Guardian in February. “What century are these officials living in? It’s not a great opportunity for the UK, nor for the people who were displaced.” 

As Azerbaijan continues to press ahead with its crackdown against opposition voices ahead of COP29, it remains an open question whether increased international attention during the climate summit will result in any kind of reckoning for the Aliyev regime, or whether the event will effectively serve to greenwash Azerbaijani authoritarianism and the increasingly irredentist track being taken by the country’s government.

But for Thatcher, it’s all too clear what the likely end game to all this will be. “They’re creating this new, fashy epic battle narrative of eternal conflict – it’s all heading in a very ‘blood-and-soil’ direction,” he says. “‘Western Azerbaijan’, that’s how they’re aiming to achieve it. Within the next two or three years, there’s every chance they really will try and take Southern Armenia.”


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