“We often scream to a wall and no-one hears us”: Activists struggle for justice in post-war Azerbaijan11 min read
“I have been kidnapped twice this year,” Azerbaijani activist Bakhtiyar Hajiyev said during a civil society conference in Warsaw last fall. Though well-accustomed to false imprisonment, none of the attendees, nor Hajiyev himself, thought his life would soon be in grave danger. Only weeks later, he was arrested in Azerbaijan, where he began a hunger strike in protest. Hajiyev spent 51 days without food, and at times water, only stopping on 28 February after desperate appeals from relatives and friends. Although the EU and the US have called for his release, his arrest was recently extended until April. The case of Bakhtiyar Hajiyev represents a turning point in Azerbaijani civil society since the Second Nagorno-Karabakh War, crushing any hopes for increased openness as talks with Armenia progress.
Five activists protesting Hajiyev’s detention were arrested on 20 February. Two of them, members of youth movement Democracy-1918 (D18), remain behind bars; one was threatened with rape by police forces. Hajiyev’s case presents a rare moment that unites various parts of Azerbaijani civil society, which are otherwise at odds over issues such as the Second Nagorno-Karabakh War. Earlier, at the end of 2022, Hajiyev’s detention also sparked an opposition demonstration. At least 35 protesters were arrested, including D18 activists as well as well-known Azerbaijani opposition activist Tofig Yagublu. Yagublu was released on 22 January 2023.
Azerbaijan’s human rights situation has deteriorated sharply, and pressure on activists has soared, especially since 2021. In 2022 alone, three journalists were brutally arrested while covering a demonstration by mothers of fallen soldiers; blogger Rashad Ramazanov and religious activist Shahin Gadirov were detained on drugs-related charges; and Rovshan Mammadov, member of the Popular Front Party, was arrested at an opposition demonstration. These are just a few examples of unlawful arrests. Irrespective of the activists’ political stance, the most common legal charges relate to drug trafficking, resistance to the police, and so-called hooliganism.
Mounting repression takes place against a background of geopolitical tensions. “The recent year was not good enough for the regime, as it did not get what it wants: Zangezur corridor, Lachin corridor, Nagorno-Karabakh,” says Bahruz Samadov, a doctoral researcher at Charles University, Prague. “The September clashes did not end well for the regime, as it received international and domestic criticism. All these factors irritate the government, and it punishes those who still have the ability to challenge it.”
Visible cracks in the nationalist consensus
The detentions of well-known activists such as Bakhtiyar Hajiyev or Tofig Yagublu, who have large audiences and a long-standing reputation in both Azerbaijan and the West, are alarming for Azerbaijani civil society. “They represent an alternative kind of nationalism that shares the basic premises of Azerbaijani nationalism and hostility towards Armenians; however, it does not praise Ilham Aliyev and questions the legitimacy and reasonability of his acts,” explains Samadov.
Whether liberal, ethnicist, or statist, different articulations of nationalism have long dominated Azerbaijani social and political discourse. However, the escalation of September 2022 — which killed hundreds of soldiers on both sides and saw Azerbaijan advance into strategic areas on the Armenian side of the international border — was not only criticised by the left-leaning activists like Ahmad Mammadli (D18) or staunch liberals like Altay Göyüshov, but also by opposition figures who had been generally supportive of Azerbaijan’s war effort in 2020, such as Azer Gasimli and Ali Karimli.
“Before the September escalation, I would say that civil society was really pro-war and pretty much nationalistic except for some anti-war people,” says Lala Darchinova, co-founder of the Feminist Peace Collective. “After the 2022 September escalation, I saw quite a change. A lot of people who supported the war during 2020 [questioned] what we are doing right now on the territory of Armenia, why our people are dying there. For me it was very unexpected.”
Influential vs. radical: what is the pragmatic approach?
Azerbaijan’s civil society is “transforming,” says Najmin Kamilsoy, PhD researcher and co-founder of the Agora Analytical Collective. He has noticed a trend away from the NGO paradigm and towards “more informal, more flexible, and less hierarchical” grassroots initiatives. Likewise, Samadov predicts that Azerbaijan will witness the emergence of more “radical but marginalised civil society groups who openly condemn war and militarism, nationalism, and the entire political spectrum.”
Many grassroots activists are distancing themselves from the term ‘civil society,’ as it carries certain liberal connotations. Given the mistrust and scepticism vis-à-vis (liberal) NGOs, which some see as easily side-lined or co-opted, young activists have increasingly turned towards informal networks rather than formal organisations. As a consequence of such tactics, it becomes difficult to speak of a clearly structured civil society in Azerbaijan.
Nonetheless, independent activists and their loosely organised collectives manage to continue their work outside of state control, and contribute not only to a diversification of political discourse but also make ‘civic space’ (for lack of a better term) more inclusive and community-based in nature.
Democracy-1918 and the Feminist Peace Collective are two of the most prominent examples of the new Azerbaijani activism. Both are openly ideological and stay distant from the traditional opposition. Not only is D18 unusual in its efforts to help poor university students and organise precarious platform workers into autonomous trade unions, it is also becoming increasingly active in the regions, which, according to party leader Ahmed Mammadli, is what the regime in Baku perceives as particularly threatening. Feminist Peace Collective, meanwhile, advocates for radical alternatives to the mainstream politics of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.
The recent growth of informal and radical initiatives is neither entirely surprising nor novel in Azerbaijan. Nijat Eldarov, a doctoral student in Copenhagen, explains: “This emergence of certain activist groups reminds me of the situation in the early 2000s.” Back then, government repression also forced the youth movements that sprang up after the protest wave of 2003 to go underground. “In the last couple of years, all these leftists and feminists stem from a similar situation, [where] they see neither the government nor opposition as an escape from the current situation.”
Differences in how activists organise and how attached they are to a particular ideology or agenda, overlap to a large extent with generational divides. Marginalised rather than formalised, the radical social work and anti-capitalist research publications of the new generation contrast sharply with the profile of figures like Anar Mammadli or indeed Bakhtiyar Hajiyev. While many representatives of Azerbaijan’s ‘veteran civil society’ have embarked on a highly antagonistic anti-regime course, young activists often prefer to carve out behind-the-scenes social justice niches and to tread carefully around classical pro-democracy agendas.
The most stark intergenerational cleavage, however, remains the issue of war and national identity. “The younger generation,” says Samadov, “clearly sees the parallels between regime stability and the external enemy as a factor of legitimacy and consolidation.
The boundaries of activism: detention, cooptation, trolling
Indiscriminate arrests, abductions, and detentions remain the Aliyev government’s go-to tool to crack down on grassroots activism, civil society organisations, and political opposition parties alike. Family intimidation is another effective coercive technique. But the government has become increasingly creative in finding new ways to exert pressure on the ‘civic space’ of activists, journalists, and human rights defenders.
While the imposition of restrictive laws in 2013–15 on (independent) NGOs deprives them of vital connections and resources, the establishment of GONGOs undermines and blurs the line between state and civil society. The ongoing episode of quasi-activism on the Lachin Corridor, which aligns perfectly with the government’s foreign policy objectives, fits into this context. Many of the activists and organisations blockading the road have received government grants or are otherwise linked to the state.
In response to financial and organisational limitations, grassroots activism has deinstitutionalised and organised itself online, which, in turn, has spurred a diversification of repressive methods, including trolling, digital attacks, and leaks.
Beginning in the 2010s, Azerbaijan shifted the repression of dissent to the online sphere by expanding troll networks, which target specific activists, newspapers and, since the Second Nagorno-Karabakh War, are increasingly involved in disinformation and ‘patriotic’ campaigns. Such tactics have long-term consequences: as a recent analysis has shown, foreign outlets can receive fake or misleading news based on information taken from Twitter bots that promote sympathy for Azerbaijan.
Following the two-day war and increased public disapproval of Azerbaijan’s actions towards Armenia, government-linked media accounts launched a social media campaign. The photos and names of individuals who condemned the government’s aggression were circulated with the hashtag “Recognise the Traitor” on Facebook and Twitter. The people who were singled out are not marginal anti-war activists but rather prominent opposition figures, who the government sees as a greater threat.
“There is also a gendered pattern to this phenomenon,” says Dr Laura Luciani, a postdoctoral researcher at Ghent University. “Women human rights defenders, female investigative journalists, and human rights lawyers who are critical of the authorities are particularly targeted by smear campaigns and personal attacks.” Journalist Arzu Geybullayeva confirms: “If you’re a vocal woman opposed to the authorities, the harassment is limitless.”
When a feminist march was allowed to be held in Baku in March 2022, the event became the first peaceful protest in a very long time. But shortly afterwards, Azerbaijani TV channels showed footage of the march, denouncing its participants for spreading immoral behaviour and fighting inappropriately for women’s rights. To undermine the feminist movement, the regime has shifted from outright bans to broadcasting live commentary by pro-government quasi-feminists.
Between 2020 and 2021, a series of leaks of information about dissident women’s private lives occurred. The victims were prominent opposition activists advocating against domestic violence, femicides, and other grave forms of gender-based violence. More than thirty women suffered organised online government-linked harassment. This month, Bakhtiyar Hajiyev was targeted by similar leaks of intimate materials, a move activists have denounced as not only an invasion of privacy but also the government’s weaponisation of women for the sake of political revenge.
Leaks are widely used to severely discredit an individual. Following Hajiyev’s arrest in December, his Facebook account was hacked and Messenger conversations dated 2019 with a journalist working for pro-government media were published. This correspondence allegedly suggested that Hajiyev was cooperating with the Minister of Emergency Situations, Kamaladdin Heydarov.
While the leaks contained accurate information, Bakhtiyar Hajiyev noted in a statement that numerous fake additions were made to discredit him and stir up conflicts. Regardless of whether all the leaked correspondence is real, it has already succeeded in aggravating distrust of Hajiyev among grassroots activists.
This variety of repressive methods further reinforces the fragmentation of civil society, as no-one knows what might happen next or who can be trusted. It corresponds to what scholars Kurowska and Reshetnikov have framed as “neutrollisation” in their analysis of pro-Kremlin trolling in Russia. “Neutrollisation both presupposes and functions through the critical faculties of citizens, making them doubt everything and, hence, withdraw from public discourse with a dejected shrug,” they write. Counterfeit internet activism and semi-forged leaks serve to foster or maintain a sense of meaninglessness, indifference, and depoliticisation within Azerbaijani society.
From fragmentation to cooperation?
In Azerbaijan, opportunities for solidarity between activist groups are sparse. Some say that unless there is an acute problem, it is impossible to bring organisations and people together. “There is a certain level of fragmentation between traditional and new civil society actors, between co-opted and independent organisations; between those who have more radical and anti-militarist sentiments; but these cleavages are trivial because civil society, in general, is very marginalised and weak,” claims Kamilsoy.
It is not always helpful to conceive of Azerbaijani civil society as divided into these dichotomous parts. “This view overlooks the pragmatic ways in which civic actors navigate a repressive environment,” warns Luciani. In certain situations, liberals and radicals are diametrically opposed. But in other cases, activists find grey zones where they can cooperate by refraining from open criticism or strict ideological positioning.
In this sense, the solidarity of radically different activist groups against the detention of Bakhtiyar Hajiyev may be a cause for optimism. “If you are pro-democracy, you should protest his arrest. People may have different ideologies, but democracy should treat everyone equally,” says writer and anti-war activist Samad Shikhi. Such views, shared by members of D18 and Feminist Peace Collective, demonstrate that Azerbaijani activists can muster a remarkable willingness for non-ideological cooperation against authoritarianism – a kind of anti-systemic and pragmatic unity.
Azerbaijan’s post-Soviet history has demonstrated that its authoritarian rulers are unable to weed out political alternatives. But to do more than just spreading discourses and ideologies, grassroot activists and civil society organisations may need to work together more, echoes Eldarov. “Creating this political discourse is important, but I feel like [activists] often scream to a wall and nobody hears us.” Cooperation can be further fostered if international actors raise the costs of state repression – if not by imposing targeted sanctions and scrapping dubious energy deals, then at least by means of vocal support to Bakhtiyar Hajiyev and his lawyers.