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Azerbaijan's Post-War Iron Grip: Crushing Dissent Under the Guise of Victory



On November 20, the Azerbaijani police launched a brazen assault on AbzasMedia, a rare independent news outlet in a country where state control over media is pervasive. The director, Ulvi Hasanli, was detained, and his deputy, Mahammad Kekalov, has been missing for over 48 hours—a worrying sign of potential torture during interrogation. Meanwhile, journalist and chief editor of AbzasMedia Sevinj Vagifqizi was promptly arrested upon her return to the country.


Anticipation lingers within civil society and media circles for more oppressive actions, as the government-controlled media unleashes a smear campaign, labelling independent groups as US-backed agents bent on destabilizing united Azerbaijan and Azerbaijanis in the aftermath of the “glorious victory”. Thus, it is not surprising that Ulvi Hasanli, undergoing interrogation, is confronted with inquiries about why AbzasMedia prioritizes corruption coverage over topics like Karabakh.


The post-war political landscape, supposedly granting President Aliyev an unchecked political mandate after the 2020 victory, raises critical questions. Despite overwhelming public support, why does Aliyev persist in suppressing dissent and resorting to oppressive tactics? Is radical feminism genuinely a threat to his regime, or is there a deeper agenda at play? Another important question in this never-ending saga, what's the role of the US? Are disloyal civil society and media as such indeed a tool in the hands of the US?


Let's start with the so-called West, US, democracy, human rights and newly emerged word in the vocabulary of Azerbaijan — radical feminism. The main accusation of the government is that the civil society in Azerbaijan is instrumentalised by the US. How come the US cares about destabilising Azerbaijan through democracy and human rights and at the same time remains silent and turns a blind eye to the same Aliyev regime crashing civil society and democracy in 2014? The United States never seriously pressured the Azerbaijani government for any internal human rights violations or breaches of democracy such as shredding the Azerbaijani Constitution with several referenda, weakening the separation of powers and turning into a consolidated authoritarian regime. The US considered Azerbaijan as a reliable ally during their campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq. Azerbaijan later supported the US not only with fuel but also shared intel, gave landing rights for military planes on its territory and joined its troops in Afghanistan. US companies play an important role in the oil industry and in developing offshore oilfields. Aliyev mentioned many times how he appreciates the support of the US and even met with the same Samatha Power, a demonised head of USAID, just recently.


Out of the blue, overnight, the old ally became interested in destabilising the country by using its weak and almost bulldozed civil society? The answer is obvious. The notions of democracy, human rights, and in current days feminism are instrumentalised by governments as soon as their relations worsen, or they want to silence the internal opposition. Western powers never happened to care about the same values they preach, but only used it as a tool to pressure certain governments they happened to be at odds. But at the same time, states like Azerbaijan, or any right-wing governments (i.e. Hungary, India, Russia, Bolsonaro's Brazil, Poland, Georgia we can continue the list, but let's stop here) use the rhetoric of democracy, human rights, feminism and other ideas for the same reasons. They are part of the same game they so much imitate attempts to denounce. They bend and corrupt the same ideas in order to suppress political dissent disagreeing with them.


The seemingly contradictory narrative unfolds: while Western powers opportunistically leverage democratic values to pressure adversarial governments, right-wing regimes, including Azerbaijan, adopt the same rhetoric to suppress dissent. This cynical game exposes the exploitation of democratic ideals for political gain, both by global powers and the states they criticize.


The paradox deepens as Aliyev, despite securing significant victory and widespread support, clings to a posture of oppression. If victory granted him sovereign power, the oppressive dominance over civil society raises concerns about the true motives behind his actions. The post-war era, initially perceived through the lens of triumph, reveals a darker reality of continued repression, leaving the populace to question Aliyev's insatiable appetite for control.


Following the war, the triumph that initially adorned the collective consciousness with the clarity of victory slowly loses its lustre when confronted with the harsh realities of the post-war landscape as the “victory glasses” slowly lose their clarity. President Aliyev, empowered without bounds, wields an authoritative "iron fist" against those who dare to challenge his hegemonic narrative. The aftermath of war, marked by violence, losses, and shared emotions tinged with anger and sorrow, poses the risk of evolving into sustained violence if not addressed through either domination or pacification. People’s anger either has to be rechannelled or punished.


We observe this rechannelling in the form of masculinized violence, as women and queers became mere targets of this societal aggression. Over the past three years, a disturbing surge in violence against women has unfolded, with women becoming pawns once again in the political arena. President Aliyev, in his address to the Non-Aligned Movement's conference on "Development of Women's Rights and Empowerment,” (another agenda that the Azerbaijani government is trying to hijack) proudly attributed the historic victory to the patriotic spirit of Azerbaijani women. However, a closer examination reveals a stark contrast, as women, predominantly engaged in professions such as teaching and healthcare, also find themselves toiling in low-income, exploitative production roles, thereby bolstering both state and individual profits.


The hands of women, swollen from labour, the bereaved who lost loved ones in the war, and those compelled to care for disabled family members on a daily basis depict a grim reality of a post-war society living on the edge. This war, without the rose-tinted glasses of victory, paints a bleak picture of precariousness and desperation.


Simultaneously, those attempting to unveil this obscured reality emerge as formidable adversaries in the government's narrative. Individuals seeking to shed light on the less-than-ideal aspects of the victory are labelled as traitors, hindering the populace from fully enjoying the triumph. This victory, tainted by the absence of belonging for the people of Azerbaijan, internally displaced persons from Karabakh, and men who sacrificed their lives or health in the conflict, is appropriated by President Aliyev and his family, with the accompanying "iron fist" extending its reach to Karabakh.

Presently, the arrest of civil society members like Gubad Ibadoglu, held on baseless charges for over three months, alongside the detention of Ulvi Hasanli, Mahammad Kekalov, Sevinj Vagifqizi provides a telling glimpse into the post-war scenario. While these events may not resonate strongly with the local audience, they must raise concerns in Western policy circles, responsible to some extent for the repressive actions in Azerbaijan. Accused of directly working for the United States, these activists fall victim to a post-war atmosphere characterized by discipline and fear-mongering.


In the wake of Azerbaijan's declared victory, the facade of triumph obscures a sinister reality where dissent is met with iron-fisted suppression. The instrumentalization of democratic values by both global powers and authoritarian regimes, like Azerbaijan, exposes a cynical game that sacrifices human rights for political expediency. The plight of Azerbaijani women, whose contributions are exploited while they endure precarious circumstances, further underscores the dark underbelly of the proclaimed victory and its biggest enemy-radical feminism. As the international community grapples with these alarming developments, there is a pressing need for Western policymakers to go beyond mere concern and actively demand the protection of activists in Azerbaijan.


The arbitrary arrests and baseless charges against individuals striving for transparency and justice demand a robust response, urging the international community to hold the Azerbaijani government accountable for its actions.


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