On 5 September, Azerbaijaini president Ilham Aliyev addressed the Nato summit at the Celtic Manor golf resort in Newport, Wales.
It was an unspectacular speech from an unspectacular autocrat. As he often does, he talked about the amount of money Azerbaijan was spending abroad, Azerbaijan’s rapid economic development, Azerbaijan’s role as a bridge between east and west, and Azerbaijan’s continuing dispute with Armenia.
The dispute between the two countries over the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, which has gone on pretty much since the break-up of the Soviet Union, flared as recently as this summer, when fourteen Azerbaijani troops were killed in clashes with their Armenian counterparts. It was easy to miss this, considering events in other parts of the former Soviet Union. As seems usual in international conflict now, neither side made any gain and both sides claimed victory.
A few weeks after that skirmish, and just before his Nato address, Aliyev met recently-elected president (formerly prime minister) Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey. Aliyev is keen to build an alliance with Turkey, and clearly sees common cause in a shared dislike of Armenia. After the meeting, the Azerbaijani leader tweeted that “Turkey has always pursued an open policy on the issue of the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh, has always stood by Azerbaijan, stood by truth, justice and international law.” He went on:
Turkey and Azerbaijan work in a coordinated manner to dispel the myth of the “Armenian genocide” in the world.
— Ilham Aliyev (@presidentaz) September 4, 2014
We will continue to make joint efforts with the countries close to us in order to expose the Armenian lies. — Ilham Aliyev (@presidentaz) September 4, 2014
This was interesting, in that Erdogan did not seem to mention any discussion of the Armenian genocide in his press briefing after the meeting. In fact, the Turkish president has been perceived as attempting to soften the Turkish state’s hardline denial of the incidents of 1915, when one million Armenians suffered deportation and death at the hands of the Ottoman Empire, the predecessor of modern Turkey.
In April, on the 99th anniversary of the beginning of the ethnic cleansing of Armenians, Erdogan released a statement saying: “Millions of people of all religions and ethnicities lost their lives in the first world war. Having experienced events which had inhumane consequences – such as relocation – during the first world war should not prevent Turks and Armenians from establishing compassion and mutually humane attitudes towards one another.”
The Justice and Development (AK) party leader went on to express condolences to the descendants of people who had died “in the context of the early 20th century”.
Now, this isn’t quite an apology; it’s barely even an apology at upset caused. It’s closer to the “mistakes were made” formulation, which is designed not so much to pass the buck as fire the buck into the heart of the sun in the hope that no one will ever have to deal with it again, particularly not the person whose buck it is in the first place.
But in the context of Turkey, where not long ago talking about the Armenian genocide could get you killed, it’s as good as you’re going to get for now.
So why would Aliyev raise the genocide issue this month? Perhaps he is nervous that Turkey, a major ally in the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute, is going soft on Armenia. This year’s detente between Turkey and Armenia continued when Armenia’s foreign minister Eduard Nalbandian attended Erdogan’s presidential inauguration at the end of August.
Nalbandian, in return, formally offered Erdogan an invitation to Armenia’s genocide commemorations next year, repeating an invitation first extended a few months ago by the country’s president Serzh Sargsyan. Any newfound good relations between Armenia and Turkey would severely weaken Azerbaijan’s territorial argument, or more accurately, weaken its ability to make the argument forcefully in the international arena. Turkey’s dispute with Armenia, after all, is mainly historic, and Erdogan, having seemingly consolidated his own power base outside of both the secular “deep state” and the Islamic Gülen movement to which many assumed he owed his success, now has a free hand on shaping foreign policy. Azerbaijan’s dispute with Armenia is current and, Aliyev hopes, immediate.
And so Azerbaijan has chosen to try to reignite the issue for its own ends. Meanwhile, in his own country, human rights abuses continue, with reports last week that Leyla Yunus, Director of the Institute for Peace and Democracy, was in ill health after prison beatings.
In spite of all this, Azerbaijan will continue to attempt to buy respectability. Next June, Baku will hold the first “European Games”, backed by the European Olympic Committee, featuring such irrelevancies as three-a-side basketball and beach soccer. It is not exactly the real thing, but then, post-Soviet Azerbaijan is a country built of facades; facades of modernity and wealth and progress and “democracy”. Facades that hide an underlying ugliness.