Strong emotions are not unconventional in military conflicts, and the one over Nagorno-Karabakh is not an exception. For the last three decades, violence, devastation, and collective traumas have fueled anger and resentment among Armenians and Azerbaijanis. These sentiments are often considered circumstantial byproducts of a tragic geopolitical conundrum. Having such a perspective made some hopeful that the hatred would recede once the underlying issues are resolved. Since Baku won the war and currently controls the territories where Azerbaijanis used to live, one might expect to see some changes in the attitude towards Armenians. The persistence of the hate-induced discourses and practices shows a different picture and is indicative of the structural role of hatred in the political order created by the Aliyev regime.
President Ilham Aliyev of Azerbaijan has been very open about hate being the force behind the ideological disposition of the Azerbaijani state in regard to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. The structuration of this ideology is not a conceptual operation that can be challenged and dismantled by questioning its logic and relevance. Its foundations are rhetorical and affective that take the shape of an elusive fantasy of pursuing a “stolen” wholeness. The destination of the ideology cannot be precise, because achieving it would render that very ideology obsolete. Therefore, the target floats around and takes different discursive shapes, such as “Karabakh,” “Zangezur,” “Western Azerbaijan,” and “Great Return.” The demands and values that are assumed to be the pillars of the ideology have dissimilar and even contradictory attributes, such as insisting on territorial integrity and simultaneously elevating new irredentist claims. The parts of the ideological whole are not structured coherently but bundled together by an affective grip and embodied by empty signifiers, such as “liberation,” “justice” and “restoration”.
The elusiveness of these expressions is compensated by the specificity of the enemy/other – Armenians. Specifically, the ideological mission materializes in the form of fighting this other. This struggle is narrated in varying ways, but there is one consistent attribute: Azerbaijan is the victim that punishes and humiliates Armenia, the perpetrator. The ideological construct not being logico-conceptual but rhetorical is what makes this paradoxical narration possible. For official Baku, the enemy/other (Armenians) is very weak and pathetic, yet strong enough to be extremely dangerous, while the self (Azerbaijan) is powerful, glorious and secure, yet vulnerable and threatened. Here, the affective charge of hate (in the shape of belligerent rhetoric and violence) plays a crucial role in keeping the ideological structure intact despite its contradictory aspects.
The operationalization of this ideology and the centrality of hatred become visible when the mentioned self-other dynamic is questioned. The total blockade of the Lachin Corridor and the humanitarian catastrophe that it has created are illustrative in this regard. In particular, using starvation as a bargaining tool stands in striking contrast against the above-mentioned victimhood narrative. One might assume that the “victim” forcing the “aggressor” into submission with such inhumane tactics would shatter the above-mentioned understanding of self-other relations. Yet, it does not.
First, they deny the reality that questions the ideological construct, claiming that there is no blockade. If this tactic does not work, they opt for whataboutism. It is a coping mechanism that validates the status of victimhood, keeps the old wounds open, and, in doing so, summons the affective force of hatred to shield the ideology from the narratives challenging it. The space for showing empathy to the other (whom you have forced into starvation) shrinks when revisiting the memories of the previous war and reproducing the other-aggressor link. In this way, the frontier of hatred blocks any perception of Armenians other than them being the enemy, and the inhumane behavior is normalized in a twisted sense of retributive justice.
When this method is not effective either, the “so what” mechanism kicks in. This is when hate stands proud in its nakedness. It becomes fully self-referential and does not need justification. Aliyev’s belligerent speeches are a prime example of it. He often claims that Azerbaijan is strong, it will achieve what it wants, and Armenia cannot do anything about it. He threatens the civilian population of Armenia proper by stating: “They must not forget that Armenian villages are visible from here.” These statements are not followed by any reasoning: Aliyev does not care to explain why it is okay to threaten civilians. His jingoistic speeches have turned the regime a caricature of itself. They are not arguments with which one can engage. It might have been funny if it weren’t so cruel and dangerous.
Aliyev has solidified his legitimacy by offering the nation opportunities to “enjoy” its hate. Committing acts of violence and humiliating the enemy are what those opportunities look like. They are ritualized performances that feed into the affective force behind the state ideology, exploiting the grievances of the Azerbaijani people. Aliyev has manufactured a demand for such resentment and has positioned himself as the leader who can deliver it. Since this “enjoyment” is never fulfilled, the economy of affect keeps the ideological machinery going. In other words, hating the enemy has a functional role of perpetuating a certain political order. This is how the regime maintains its grip over a community. Sara Ahmed’s words on how hatred functions are very illustrative of this situation: “Together we hate and this hate is what makes us together.” Considering this situation, it is hard to imagine that the government of Azerbaijan will be willing to part ways with it for the sake of genuine peace.
One might claim that such tendencies are seen in all nationalistic ideologies; however, the extent of totalization in the case of Azerbaijan stands out and is highly alarming. Baku’s rhetoric has made it nearly impossible to have any alternatives to the antagonistic binary. It has become very hard to draw ethical red lines within this ideological context. But those lines are necessary, more than ever, if we want to have any plausibility of a peaceful future. Not starving children should be one of them.
Ontological Security and Azerbaijan’s Aversion to Peace
The security context in December showed that regardless of negotiations or the general contours of a potential peace treaty, actual and sustainable peace with the Aliyev Government will remain elusive. This month’s security report introduces the concept of ontological security.Read more
Examining the Context
EVN Report’s Editor-in-Chief Maria Titizian speaks with political scientist and international security expert Dr. Nerses Kopalyan, author of the monthly series “EVN Security Report” discussing the December, 2022 security report, which introduces the concept of ontological security. Dr. Kopalyan points out, “For states like Azerbaijan, where identity construction is incoherent, revisionist, and conflict-driven, it must constantly engage or initiate conflict to establish agency. In the case of Azerbaijan, its state identity is constructed on the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and some configuration of anti-Armenianism. Without these two factors, Azerbaijan loses agency, for it deepens its identity crisis and enhances its ontological security dynamics. Thus, concepts such as ‘intractable conflicts’ or ‘enduring rivalries’ become cornerstones of state preferences.”