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Azerbaijan's whims and fancies

By Vilen Khlgatyan

In late March a conference was held in Baku with the covert support of the Aliyev regime, titled ‘Tomorrow of the Contemporary Southern Azerbaijan’. The conference was organized by the so called South Azerbaijan National Liberation Front (SANLF), a rag-tag group of Iranian Azerbaijanis who are adherents to the ideology of Pan-Turkism. The participants made irredentist claims against Iran. Specifically they claimed that the dire political and economic situation inside Iran caused by Western sanctions will inevitably lead to destabilization, at which point, the SANLF would be ready to take control of ‘South Azerbaijan’. Attendees to the conference included Pan-Turkism activists, academics, and former Azerbaijani government officials. The conference also served to highlight the hypocritical foreign policy of Azerbaijan, where on the one hand Baku claims Armenia is an irredentist state, yet via proxy organizations like the SANLF, makes territorial claims on Iran.

Expectedly, the Iranian government reacted harshly to Baku’s provocations, which indeed are just another segment in a long series of tense exchanges between the two states. Disputes over the Caspian Sea have been ongoing for two decades now, while just last year news broke that claimed Azerbaijan had agreed to allow Israel the use of Azerbaijani airbases to land and refuel Israeli bombers in the event of an attack against Iran. Also indicative of the worsening relations are the continued oppression of Muslim activists within Azerbaijan. The well known Azerbaijani cleric, Taleh Bagirzadeh, was arrested in March on trumped up charges of heroin possession. This was a political decision made by the Aliyev regime in order to tamper the growing popularity of Islam among its citizenry, particularly the young. For example, in a 2010 poll conducted among the youth, 48% of young Azerbaijanis expressed support for Sharia law. Naturally, Iran being a theocratic Muslim state, seeks to encourage the spread of Islam. Aliyev and his cohorts are seen as apostates in the eyes of official Tehran.

Bagirzadeh’s arrest caused several hundred protestors to take to the streets in his hometown of Nardaran and demand his immediate release as well as other ‘prisoners of the hijab’ who have similarly been targeted for their religious convictions. Azerbaijan has seen a wave of protests over the past few months, beginning with the incidents that occurred in the Ismayilli region in January, as well as the anti-solider abuse movement, running from January through March, coinciding with both the Ismayilli, and Nardaran protests over the arrest of Bagirzadeh.

While clamping down on domestic opposition both of the secular as well as the religious sort, Aliyev’s regime has also targeted Western pro-democracy outlets. Late last week the operations of the Azad Fikir University (AFU) were suspended with no official explanation given. The University had been supported by the American and British embassies in Baku, USAID, and other international organizations. This should come as no surprise given that Aliyev has another election to steal this year, therefore he must stifle all sources of discontent. More importantly, Baku is rapidly coming to the conclusion that the West considers Azerbaijan primarily in terms of its broader strategic interests in the region, which are shifting due to the up-coming pull out from Afghanistan, as well as Azerbaijan’s ever declining oil reserves. Therefore, Azerbaijan is a dispensable ‘ally’ whose importance is likely to decrease.

Baku’s irredentist and anti-democracy schemes coincided with the first radio broadcast of the Voice of Talyshstan from Shushi. The show is designed for ethnic Talyshes residing in Azerbaijan as well as in other former Soviet republics. While the program was not initiated by the Armenian government, it nonetheless should be incorporated into a wider public diplomacy campaign that ought to be driven by the Armenian MFA, and include not only Azerbaijan’s ethnic minorities, but all Azerbaijani citizens. So long as Azerbaijan lacks a free and fair press that can present accurate descriptions of Armenia and Armenians, public diplomacy and strategic communication will serve as useful instruments to present Armenia’s position to the Azerbaijani public in an accurate manner.

Vilen Khlgatyan is the Vice-Chairman of the Political Developments Research Center (PDRC)

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