ZOiS Spotlight 23/2023

State Dominance and its Discontents among Azerbaijani Youth

Young Azerbaijanis are expected to reproduce the state ideology centred on Karabakh/Artsakh. A tiny minority of them has persistently resisted it and the dominant discourse around self-victimhood and just revenge. In the face of growing state repression, these alternative youth discourses have been all but silenced.

Citizens of Baku hold an Azerbaijani flag as Azerbaijani soldiers parade in Baku on 8 November 2022. © IMAGO / Aziz Karimov

Azerbaijan’s state ideology revolves around the loss of Karabakh to Armenia in the First Karabakh War, which lasted from 1988 to 1994. The war claimed up to 25,000 lives on both sides, an estimated 350,000 Armenians and 750,000 Azerbaijanis were displaced, and around 15% of Azerbaijani territory was lost to Armenian forces.1 Since then, the Azerbaijani state ideology has been underpinned by a narrative of one-sided victimhood and antagonism towards the Armenian Other. This narrative has become a sedimented part of Azerbaijani national identity. And through its reproduction in textbooks and museums, the state ideology has been absorbed by young Azerbaijanis, many of whom were not alive when the war was fought. Indeed, Azerbaijani state policies like the Youth Development Strategy for 2015–2025 aim to instill feelings of patriotism and national belonging in the country’s young people. In the words of Azerbaijan’s president Ilham Aliyev:

During my tenure, I have tried to make sure that more is done to educate young people […]. Because we have raised such a generation that even young people who did not see Karabakh and who did not experience that bitter history were ready to die for Karabakh, for the Motherland, for national dignity, to become martyrs, to become wounded but raise the glory of our victorious Army.

Youth as a mirror of hegemonic ideology

A survey conducted by ZOiS in 2022 highlights the success of such youth policies, from the government’s point of view, in sustaining antagonism towards Armenians. When respondents in the 16–29 age group were asked to what degree they would be willing to accept different categories of people, a clear majority (more than 60%) stated that they would not permit a person from Armenia to enter the country, while only 25% stated that they would accept an Armenian as a close friend. Moreover, a 2023 survey conducted by the Azerbaijani independent think tank Agora shows how only 19% of Azerbaijanis younger than 35 believed in the possibility of peaceful coexistence between Armenians and Azerbaijanis in Karabakh. These surveys show the extent to which Azerbaijani youth has adopted the hegemonic state ideology. Unsurprisingly, the vast majority of Azerbaijanis supported the Second Karabakh War in 2020. And a survey by the Social Research Center showed that at least a relative majority of people supported further military operations throughout 2022 and 2023.

Resistance and repression

Still, the Second Karabakh War in autumn 2020, launched by Azerbaijan to retake control of Karabakh, brought new ‘no-war’ subjectivities to the fore, mostly among young Azerbaijanis. For example, on the third day of the war, the Azerbaijani Leftist Youth, a loose formation of 17 individuals, issued an anti-war statement calling for an immediate stop to military and political hostilities. One prominent passage reads:

It is long overdue that we, Azerbaijani and Armenian youth, take the resolution of this outdated conflict into our own hands. It should no longer be the prerogative of the men in suits, whose aim is the accumulation of capital [...] and not the conflict’s resolution. We should shed […] this ugly cloak of the nation-state, which belongs in the dustbin of history, and imagine and create new ways of common and peaceful coexistence.

However, this tiny minority of no-war subjectivities drew the ire of the Azerbaijani public, which responded mainly with online harassment, threats and shaming. The activists were labelled ‘nation traitors’ (vətən xainlər), ‘Armenians’ (ermənilər), and ‘Armenian lovers’ (ermənipərəstlər). Moreover, some of them were contacted by the Azerbaijani Secret Security Services (Dövlət Təhlükəsizlik Xidməti, DTX) and told to remove their anti-war posts on social media. As one no-war activist interviewed by us elaborated:

The DTX called me and told me to go to their office, without telling me the reason […] I was scared, and went there with my lawyer […] They had a lot of screenshots of my [anti-war] posts on Facebook […] They asked me if I was an ‘Armenian traitor’ […] and told me to stop writing posts about the war. That they would be watching me.

After less than two months of fighting, a ceasefire agreement, brokered by the Russian Federation, was signed on 10 November 2020. As well as claiming over 7,000 lives, the Second Karabakh War led to the forced displacement of thousands of Armenians, mainly from the Hadrut province in Nagorno-Karabakh, and allowed Azerbaijan to retake control of most of Karabakh. Many of those who had expressed anti-war sentiment continued to call for peace, while others became more silent and gave up their political activism altogether. Particularly remarkable was the formation of the group Feminist Peace Collective and the activism of the Democracy 1918 Movement (D18). During the blockade of the Lachin Corridor (the only road connecting Nagorno-Karabakh to the Republic of Armenia), the Feminist Peace Collective called for radical solidarity with Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh. Ahmad Mammadli, the leader of D18, openly criticised Azerbaijan's president Ilham Aliyev and his bellicose foreign policy on social media.

The final blow to the young no-war subjectivities came in summer 2023. After the arrest of a number of its members and collaborators, the D18 movement announced that it would cease its activities, reasoning that activism was currently ‘senseless in Azerbaijan’s political environment, and that young students were now afraid to become part of the movement for fear of being arrested. The Feminist Peace Collective has also come under attack by pro-government media, who accuse the movement of ‘supporting Armenia’s interests’ with their calls for peace.

This wave of repression came shortly before Azerbaijan launched the one-day war on 19 September, which led to the forced displacement of almost the entire Armenian population of Nagorno-Karabakh. Compared to the Second Karabakh War of 2020, the government was now swifter and harsher in its repression of opponents to its hegemonic ideology. Out of fear and a general, at least momentary, loss of hope – both emotions were expressed in our interviews with activists – the reactions of no-war youth in Azerbaijan to the 2023 one-day war have been more muted. Aside from a few critical subjectivities, the Feminist Peace Collective is one of the only movements in Azerbaijan that keeps openly advocating for peace and articulating alternative discourses. Currently, the state ideology seems stronger than ever, and opposition to it at its weakest.

1 Thomas De Waal (2003). Black Garden: Armenia and Azerbaijan through Peace and War. New York: New York University Press, p. 285.

The authors would like to thank Varvara Ilyna for her assistance in creating the survey graphic.

Veronika Pfeilschifter is an affiliate researcher within the Youth and Generational Change Research Cluster at ZOiS and a PhD student at the Institute for Caucasus Studies in Jena. Her doctoral project examines left-wing ideologies and concepts (justice, solidarity, hope) among young adults and youth in Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia.

Cesare Figari Barberis is a PhD student at the Graduate Institute of Geneva and a fellow at Civil War Paths. His doctoral research focuses on conflict-related trauma, emotions and ideology in Georgia and Azerbaijan.