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Memes in the Battle between Armenia and Azerbaijan6 min read

 In Analysis, Caucasus, Civil Society
In a flareup of the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan in July 2020, the fighting extended well beyond the South Caucasus. Armenian and Azerbaijani diaspora communities brawled in the streets of London, Los Angeles, Toronto, and Brussels. In Moscow, diaspora from both sides vandalized each other’s restaurants and even boycotted or attacked apricot sellers.

The fighting also took place online with memes taking center stage. The conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan may have started in an age without widespread computer usage, but the battle over the contested territory of Nagorno-Karabakh has, like everything nowadays, become ripe material for memes.

Instagram accounts dedicated solely to memes made by Armenians and Azerbaijanis are plentiful. Each side generally creates posts poking fun at or celebrating their rich cultural histories, foods, and traditions. From joking about which type of dolma is the most preferable to the strictness of their parents, both Armenian and Azerbaijani meme pages look and feel similar. But when it comes to each other and the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, the memes morph into modern day political propaganda posters.

According to social media specialists, political memetic content can make one more susceptible to hardliner arguments. Political or nationalistic memes often use humor to make their message more palatable because however distasteful, “it’s comfortable, it speaks to peoples’ values and also their cultural upbringing.”

In an entrenched conflict such as the one between Armenia and Azerbaijan, memes help to normalize uncompromising positions.

Meme warfare over Karabakh

These inflexible attitudes have already had over thirty years to forment. As the Soviet Union imploded, Armenia and Azerbaijan fought a full-scale war over Nagorno-Karabakh. The territory is internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan but has been under the control of Armenian separatists since the war. Despite negotiation efforts from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) Minsk Group, the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan remains “frozen.”

The clashes in July 2020 took place on the states’ internationally recognized border in the north; however, it didn’t take long for meme creators to bring it back to the conflict over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh.

Anti-Azerbaijani meme / Instagram

The Armenian narrative of the conflict concentrates heavily on the self-determination of Armenians, the survival of the Armenian people and their innocence. As shown in the meme above, many Armenians believe that Armenia is never the provocateur and only acts defensively, even in the face of evidence to the contrary.

In Armenia and its diaspora, many have knowledge only of the crimes committed against their own ethnic group but little to no awareness of the hundreds of thousands of Azerbaijanis who were forced to flee their homes in Karabakh or of the brutal civilian massacre committed in Khojali. This demonstrates a lack of knowledge of the history of their neighbor and the enclave they covet but the meme is apparently humorous enough to garner over 7,000 likes.

Anti-Armenian meme / Instagram

The Azerbaijani narrative focuses on its own territorial integrity and the alleged weakness of its neighbor. In the above satirized map of Europe according to Armenia, you can see Azerbaijan questions why Armenia would invade their country as Baku considers Shusha to be the birthplace of Azerbaijani culture. It labels Russia as Armenia’s “sugar daddy” to emphasize that without Russia’s continued military and economic backing, Armenia would not be in a position to continue its annexation.

Moreover, the meme denies the Armenian genocide and lamentably depicts Armenian victimhood as a “lie,” painting Azerbaijan as the true victim. One might not expect enlightened political discourse in internet memes and they would be correct in that assumption.

Know your meme

Where do the ideas for meme material stem from? A perfect example would be the 2020 Munich Security Conference. A historic event took place at this year’s conference, a public debate between Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan and Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev.

What could have been a chance for open conversation unseen between the two sides rapidly delved into a highly uncomfortable situation. Largely unmoderated, the two heads of state employed unfounded historical claims, biased narratives and even after the debate ended both fought to get in the last word.

Each side’s justifications of their rightful claim on Nagorno-Karabakh differ; however, like the Munich tussle between Aliyev and Pashinyan, both sides use memes with narratives to push their argument as the legitimate one. The other side always starts the conflict and each side declares to want the fighting to stop using hashtags like #stoparmenianagression or #armeniawantspeace on social media. The opposing side is always painted as the aggressor or spoiler and their own side innocent.

Both factions’ memes dig back hundreds of years to prove whose people are the most ancient and who were the most powerful, which supposedly cements their deserving of Karabakh. Sometimes these accounts use even the same meme template to illustrate similar ideas.

Same meme template, conflicting narratives / Image adapted from Facebook and Instagram
Information warfare

This online war of words didn’t stop at memes. Following the July 2020 flare-up of the conflict, Armenian and Azerbaijani hackers attacked each others’ websites to exhibit nationalistic messages and images. Cyber attacks were numerous as well, with Azerbaijan launching coordinated DDoS strikes, creating more than 500,000 bots and spreading disinformation in Armenian by asking for blood donations for hundreds of alleged injured Armenian soldiers. Even the popular meme account Lavashlife found itself in the crossfire as it was purportedly hacked by Azerbaijanis.

Neighborly conversations are more necessary than ever but neither side is backing down. Armenia and Azerbaijan’s capacity to conduct information warfare has increased in recent years. If it’s easy enough for Russian teenagers to master the art of disinformation via meme, it isn’t going to be long before the governments in Yerevan and Baku catch on, if they haven’t already. The memes made by the accounts above may play a role in laying the groundwork for further propaganda campaigns as they show there is an audience more than willing to consume and share polarizing material.

A picture is worth a thousand words

Due to the closed borders and lack of contact, only the diaspora communities of Armenia and Azerbaijan have a real opportunity to connect. The nationalism exhibited in these street clashes and on the internet demonstrate the need for increased dialogue.

Online campaigns initiated by diaspora members calling for peaceful discussion like #WordsnotSwords have not been met with official responses by the governments of Armenia and Azerbaijan, another sign that the highest levels of the governments are not willing to prepare the populations for peace, preferring to continue supporting perpetuated enmity.

Nationalism is updating its packaging, both the propaganda tools of yesterday and the memes of today are used as political rallying tools. With the increasing role of technology and memes in the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan, even those far away from the situation on the ground may risk being pulled into bouts of violence as the discourse featured in these memes is made in an ever louder echo chamber. While they may serve as a form of entertainment, they do more harm than good by hardening positions and shaping prejudices.

What’s next for the conflict is fraught with difficulty. Mediating the fragile peace will certainly be a challenge but stopping the polarization of Armenians and Azerbaijanis will make this feat even more unattainable if both factions continue emulating the worst tendencies of their leaders off and online.

Featured image: Meme on the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict / Con-Tru
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