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  • Sevinj Samadzade

Covert weaponizing of LGBTQI+ rights in Azerbaijan amid geopolitical shifts



In recent weeks, the discussions surrounding feminism and LGBTQI+ rights has resurfaced amid escalating tensions between Azerbaijan and the United States. This resurgence started by a series of actions, including the targeting of USAID and its financial partners, considered as threats to Azerbaijan's national security.


Consequentially, members of Abzas Media and other independent journalists have been arrested, and individuals who studied in the USA were labelled as networks of agents. These new wave of crackdowns against the civil society are not isolated incidents but are intricately linked to the regime’s paranoia of power loss and broader geopolitical shifts in the region followed by the passage of Section 907 in the US Senate. However, what's novel is the heightened instrumentalization of LGBTQI+ rights within the government's rhetoric as a strategy to counter perceived external interventions and uphold domestic security.


Section 907 of the Freedom Support Act, in effect since October 24, 1992, stems from Azerbaijan's blockade of Nagorno-Karabakh. These restrictions specifically impact direct US military and economic aid to Azerbaijan. In 2001, the Senate introduced an amendment allowing the President to waive Section 907. However, the relations shifted significantly on November 15, 2023, when the US Senate passed a bill terminating all military aid to Azerbaijan, effectively adopting the Section 907 waiver of the Freedom Support Act. This move historically linked to the Nagorno-Karabakh blockade in the early 1990s by Azerbaijan is now reapplied after regaining total control over the enclave itself in September 2023.


These foreign policy changes, while seemingly sudden, reveal a deeper connection to the longstanding Karabakh issue. Yet, of particular interest in this geopolitical dynamic is the deliberate targeting of the so-called “LGBT agenda”. Already a year ago in 2022, discussions surfaced about the potential application of Section 907 to Azerbaijan by US President Joe Biden’s administration, citing the oppression faced by the LGBTQI+ community in the country.


As a reaction to this call back in 2022, the state-affiliated news site Milli.az used the opportunity to target queers as tools of the US foreign policy. Offering a plethora of conflicting arguments, the author initially acknowledges that LGBTQI+s as “sexual minorities” exist in Azerbaijan and that homophobia is bad. However, the discourse takes a U-turn as the author expresses disdain for what he terms the "glorification of sexual minorities," linking it to a perceived Western agenda. This prevalent narrative, along with the use of the label "sexual minorities," has been strategically wielded in Azerbaijani media to demean queer individuals, portraying them as devoid of political influence and destined to remain invisible.


Nevertheless, questions emerge: Is there a genuine connection between queer politics and the foreign policy objectives of the United States? Furthermore, what relevance do LGBTQI+ issues hold in the context of the strained relations between the United States and Azerbaijan? To critically examine these questions, it is imperative to explore the historical weaponization of rights within both foreign and domestic political realms.

 

Between foreign and domestic exploitation

Imperial states have historically sought to extend their agendas to the peripheries, often resulting in the subordination of local authorities and peoples through neocolonial tools and soft power. Notably, the use of LGBTQI+ and women's rights serves as a strategic camouflage, diverting attention from the true essence of these policies.


Examining the examples, such as the US invasion of Afghanistan in the name of women's freedom, the invasion of Iraq purportedly promoting human rights, and attempts to justify Israel's apartheid against Palestine under the banner of protecting the rights of Palestinian queers, reveals the intricate ways in which identity politics has been manipulated to further geopolitical interests. However, the affected groups, whether women and queers in Afghanistan, Iraq, or Palestine, have consistently asserted their opposition to being used as instruments in these political manoeuvres saying: “Not in our name!”.


The protection of LGBTIQ+ rights in foreign policy, therefore, emerges as a tool with the potential to further oppress postcolonial peoples. On the other much darker side of this instrumentalization, peripheral peoples often find themselves subject to their local authoritarian, traditionalist, or right-wing rulers, becoming instruments in the hands of their political elites while seeking refuge in the purported universal liberal values of the West, limited to receiving reactions rather than genuine support.


On the global stage, Azerbaijan seeks to project sovereign power and assert its position within the global order, navigating the space between the collective West and East, or more specifically, the United States and Russia. Yet in reality, Azerbaijan selectively embraces rhetoric from both ends, simultaneously adopting discourse and tactics from other authoritarian regimes. 


Azerbaijan on the other hand, consistently aligns itself in accordance with geopolitical conflicts of interest, presenting its foreign policy as balanced while engaging in cautious maneuvers, particularly with the West. Despite rhetoric suggesting a desire to "punish the West," President Aliyev's true intent of cracking down the civil society lies in fortifying internal control and pursuing regional hegemony. Domestically, this is justified by framing it as a defence against perceived Western threats, such as coloured revolutions, the LGBT agenda, and radical feminism, aimed at dismantling civil society through the fabrication of cultural conflicts.


Today, the utilization of gender and LGBTQI+ rights as a tool by the Azerbaijani government, particularly during the strained relations with the US following the acceptance of Section 907, is a direct outcome of these political dynamics. Azerbaijan seems cognizant of its ability to manipulate the discourse surrounding the historical weaponization of LGBTIQ+ rights by the US to its advantage under the banner of “decolonialism”. This is coupled with a cultural strategy that positions queer issues as foreign and alien to Azerbaijani society, and a securitization{1} strategy that presents LGBTIQ+ rights as a national security issue.


 

LGBTIQ+ as a national security issue

Last few days in the midst of new attacks against civil society, participating fervently in the ongoing smear campaign, Azerbaijan’s state-run AzTV, consistently interweaves discussions on the “LGBT agenda” connecting to America and the West. It alleges that the United States supports colour revolutions by incorporating the LGBTIQ+ framework into local politics.


The channel depicts LGBTIQ+ as a byproduct of "radical feminism" imported from abroad, with the purported objective of eroding the foundations of the family institution. The narrative suggests that this influence seeks to promote homosexuality while branding national consciousness as regressive. This portrayal not only underscores the accusatory tone toward the West but also highlights a nationalist perspective on the perceived implications of introducing LGBT discourse into the local political landscape.

Pro-government news agency APA also published an article against USAID's policy in Azerbaijan providing insights into the state's agenda. It instructs a constant focus on issues related to feminists and LGBTQI+ people, framing them as atypical for Azerbaijani society:

"Another instruction is to constantly focus attention on issues related to feminists and LGBT people that are not typical for Azerbaijani society and to form an opinion in the local and international community about the alleged "discrimination" against these people in the country".

All these rhetoric perpetuate a narrative that fosters a sense of cultural conflict between the West and Azerbaijan, framing queerness as foreign to the nation in addition to securitizing LGBTQI+s to present them as a perceived “threat”. The escalation of LGBTQI+ issues to the level of national security unveils a well-calculated strategy by the Azerbaijani government. Following the successful achievement of national unity after the victory over Karabakh, a new level of nationalism requires the identification of other imaginary threats to maintain this unity. In this pursuit, the government strategically deploys nationalism and religious sentiments to depict LGBTQI+ activism, along with feminism, as a threat to Azerbaijani traditions and Islam.


This strategic manoeuvre aims to manipulate cultural and religious values to delegitimize the queer community's demands for equality and rights. It purposefully conflates nationalism and religious conformity with liberal individualistic freedom, reinforcing the conservative agenda employed by right-wing authorities globally. The current shift towards conservatism in Azerbaijan's cultural politics serves the dual purpose of marginalizing dissent against the regime and attempting to rally a unified Azerbaijani public around what is framed as "traditional, conservative values."


This shift is not haphazard but intricately tied to discourses promoting morality and "traditional values," inherently positioned against Western ideals, particularly gender equality, reproductive rights, sexuality education, and the acceptance of diverse sexual identities. Then it becomes rather easy to promote their conspiracy theories, labelling activists and genuine efforts for LGBTQI+ resistance as Western-funded and directed.

As part of a broader strategy to unify the Azerbaijani populace, there is a concerted effort to celebrate traditional gender roles. The body assumes a central role in these mechanisms of control, serving as both a nationalized symbol and a tool for enforcing heterosexual norms. Through discourses defining "appropriate behaviour," collectively formed in the name of the nation, these mechanisms seek to regulate and reinforce traditional values.


Restrictions on sexuality and women's rights are strategically framed as defenders of "traditional values" rather than the state’s disciplinary power and politics. By labelling these restrictions as "traditional values," the state seeks to legitimize its control over personal choices and behaviours, presenting them as essential components of national identity. This tactic not only reinforces conservative ideologies but also functions as a means to consolidate power by suppressing dissent and opposition under the facade of protecting not only traditional norms but also national security.


Navigating crossroads

Looking forward, the value conflict between traditionalism and modernity in Azerbaijan is rooted in substantial material foundations. In this oil-rich country where a significant portion of the population lives in poverty and precarious conditions, the issue of values often takes centre stage to divert attention from pressing political and economic problems. This tactic, a familiar one adopted by states globally, serves as a capitalist-patriarchal reproduction mechanism. Its primary aim is to distract people from core issues and attribute their discontent to external factors, fostering a blame culture against "others."


A noteworthy parallel is drawn with policies targeting migrants in Europe, where a similar strategy has managed to portray migrants as a threat and foster widespread Islamophobia. The Azerbaijani authorities, having adeptly adopted right-wing rhetoric from the West, present a veneer of broad modernity extending from Western education to the expression of sexuality. However, when this modernity reaches the common people, it is often masked under the cloak of traditionalism. Intriguingly, even traditionalism operates under control, with religious communities and groups facing significant suppression.


In the current landscape, the central target is the strategic use of the queer community as a political instrument while turning a blind eye to the deprivation of their fundamental rights, such as health, life, and work. When necessary, control is exerted through robust biopolitics, such as conscripting them into the military and subjecting them to the perils of war. The queer-feminist resistance movement emerging against this oppression is, in essence, standing against the government's apparatus of control and oppression.


In the context of Azerbaijan, a balanced foreign policy in the post-Soviet era necessitated a delicate equilibrium between military and strategic cooperation with Russia and strong economic ties with the West. However, the regime, ostensibly embracing modernity facilitated by the neoliberal economy of the West, strategically conceals this under the discourse of national modernity – a narrative that selectively adopts elements deemed beneficial from the West. This approach facilitates the exploitation of labour, both of women and the queers, allowing Azerbaijan to participate in global politics and economy without robust verification and accountability mechanisms.


While strategic relations with Russia are acknowledged for their security implications, Azerbaijan has been discerning in its adoption of certain legislative measures seen in Russia, such as the "Anti-gay propaganda" law. Despite applying Russia's "Restriction on Foreign Funds" law since 2014, Azerbaijan has been hesitant to enact the more stringent "Anti-gay propaganda" law and the recent categorization of LGBTQI+ people as an "extremist group" in Russia. However, this strategic restraint does not diminish the potential for using rights as a disruptive tool against queers in the future in Azerbaijan. Not completely adopting what is in Russia perhaps might be seen as a part of a balanced foreign policy decision, while in reality Azerbaijan simply does not require that much effort to harmonize its legislations to use rights as dynamite. The absence of legal constraints does not deter the regime from enforcing repression through other means.


Nevertheless, last year, this topic made an appearance in the political discourse, as the views of MP Javanshir Pashazade and Afsar Sadigov, a Law Faculty professor at Baku State University, regarding the potential adoption of a law similar to Russia's gay propaganda legislation in Azerbaijan, have been reported.  Meanwhile, the government is not rushing for this agenda, but opts for subtler means, implementing restrictions on LGBTQI+ groups through legislative acts shadowed by concerns over state security.


At the intersection of queer and feminist resistance groups, new strategies must be considered, especially amid diminishing funding from the West and a lack of significant political pressure against the Azerbaijani government. As safe spaces and social services dwindle in an already constrained environment, the choices made by these movements, both ideological and practical, will shape their tactics. The Aliyev regime, driven by an appetite for absolute power, seeks to either completely eradicate or co-opt civil society, surpassing existing limitations. Nevertheless, this challenging period also presents possibilities for the emergence of autonomous struggles that transcend the binary framework of the Global West and Global East.


Azerbaijan's nuanced foreign policy dance between Russia and the collective West exposes a deeper exploitation of labour, with rights also becoming a weapon. The escalation of LGBTQI+ issues to national security, therefore, reflects a deliberate strategy to silence dissent. As traditional gender roles are celebrated, bodies become nationalized symbols enforcing heterosexual norms, and the LGBTQI+ community becomes an instrument in the midst of raising right-wing and authoritarianism in Azerbaijan and globally.

 

Note:

[1] Securitization can be observed in various contexts where political powers frame certain groups as security threats, thereby justifying violent measures to address perceived dangers.



References


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LGBTQNation. (2022, May 12). Biden’s bold pledge on LGBTQ rights is being tested by Azerbaijan. What will he do? Retrieved from LGBTQNation: https://www.lgbtqnation.com/2022/05/bidens-bold-pledge-lgbtq-rights-tested-azerbaijan-will/


Milli.az. (2022, December 1). “Azərbaycanda da LGBT təbliğatını qadağan edən qanun qəbul olunmalıdır”. Retrieved from Milli.az: https://news.milli.az/society/1088784.html


Qafqazinfo. (2023, November 25). ABŞ bu hoteldə Azərbaycandakı agenturası ilə görüşəcək - Fotolar. Retrieved from Qafqazinfo.az: https://qafqazinfo.az/news/detail/abs-bu-hotelde-azerbaycandaki-agenturasi-ile-gorusecek-fotolar-419503


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This article was supported by QueeRadar's Mentoring Program.

 

 

 

 

 

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