After Winning Back Nagorno-Karabakh, What Will Azerbaijan’s Authoritarian Leader Do Next? – Analysis

Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev stood in the main square of the conquered capital of the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh on October 15. He raised the Azerbaijani flag up the pole, a symbolic completion of the country’s long-awaited victory over Armenian occupation.

Aliyev was being filmed but was entirely alone in the frame. “All the promises I made during the last 20 years and all the tasks I set before myself have been fulfilled,” he said into the camera.

It raised the question: If all the tasks have been fulfilled, then what now?

The quest to recapture Nagorno-Karabakh from the Armenian forces that occupied it since the early 1990s has represented the guiding light of Aliyev’s entire presidency; it is the issue to which all other priorities were to be subordinated.

“The struggle to restore independence, territorial integrity, and sovereignty has been the main motive in the last, more than 20 years, ever since our lands became occupied,” Elchin Amirbayov, a senior Aliyev envoy for special assignments, told RFE/RL. “Now the issue is over. We restored our pride. We also restored historical justice.”

But many observers are not sure that the issue is over. For decades, rallying the nation against the Armenian enemy and the injustice of the occupation was a surefire method to mobilize a population even as economic and social discontent rose. Giving that up, many say, will be difficult.

In his speeches, Aliyev still devotes considerable time to Armenians’ past misdeeds. At the flag-raising ceremony in October, he spoke of “Armenian savagery” and gloated over the fates of the former de facto leaders who are now sitting behind bars in Baku.

“The one unifying mobilizing ideology in the country is that the Armenians are the enemy. You’ve mobilized people and there’s no sign of demobilizing people on that. So, there is a temptation just to keep on pushing,” said Tom de Waal, an analyst at Carnegie Europe. “It’s a serious issue.”

There remain many levers on which to push. Armenia and Azerbaijan are still negotiating over a peace agreement that would demarcate their shared border and establish transportation routes connecting the two countries. Azerbaijan has also been raising the issue of ethnic Azerbaijanis who used to live in what is now Armenia, arguing that they should be allowed to return. All those issues are centered in the Armenian province of Syunik, which Azerbaijanis know as Zangezur, and has local Armenians concerned that Baku has further designs on their territory.

“They say ‘peace’ but all day long on TV, in parliament, they are talking about Zangezur,” said Altay Goyushev, the head of the Baku Research Institute think tank. “This hate toward Armenians, it could be diminished at least a little bit but I don’t see that, it keeps on going.”

Baku and Yerevan were locked in a conflict over the region of Nagorno-Karabakh for decades. Armenian-backed separatists seized the mainly ethnic Armenian-populated region from Azerbaijan during a war in the early 1990s that killed some 30,000 people. Diplomatic efforts to settle the conflict brought little progress, and the two sides fought another war in 2020 that lasted six weeks before a Russian-brokered cease-fire, resulting in Armenia losing control over parts of the region and seven adjacent districts.

In 2022, the two countries began to negotiate an end to the conflict. But the process did not go quickly enough for Baku, and, in September, Azerbaijan launched a military offensive that resulted in the capitulation of the ethnic Armenian de facto Karabakh leadership and the exodus of nearly the entire population of the territory.

Negotiations for a peace agreement are still continuing, though the momentum has slowed.

The diplomatic process “is not over because Aliyev doesn’t want it to be over, he wants to keep this sentiment alive,” Goyushev said. “As long as Aliyev is in power there is always going to be war, because he understands that this war rhetoric is the only thing that brings him public support.”

Aliyev and other senior officials frequently warn Armenians against “revanchism,” which has become a post-2020 buzzword in Baku. While this revanchist sentiment is strongest among Armenia’s political opposition, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian dabbles in it as well, Amirbayov argued.

France, Armenia’s closest ally in Europe, is preparing a resolution for the United Nations Security Council. French Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna said the “deportation” of the Armenians of Karabakh was a “serious crime [that] cannot go unanswered.” Amirbayov, the Aliyev envoy, said that Pashinian was “misusing” France’s seat as a permanent member of the Security Council. “They are not going in the right direction,” he said.

“The first step which would send us a signal [that Armenia has given up revanchism] would be a clear expression by Pashinian — not only in declarations but in real actions — that he does not consider the outcome of the latest military confrontation as something that he has to contest,” Amirbayov said.

A New Ideological Vacuum
In the vacuum that has emerged after the Karabakh victory, it will be tempting for the government to continue to rely on nationalism, said Shujaat Ahmadzada, a nonresident research fellow at the Baku-based Topchubashov Center, which focuses on international relations and security.

“There is no clear answer about how to reconstruct the national identity, which had been centered around the (once utopian) dream of ‘the day that Karabakh will be free,’” Ahmadzada said in a text interview over WhatsApp. “Now Karabakh is ‘free,’ and the identity is somehow a mix of shock/denial of reality, as well as joy.”

Azerbaijani nationalism could turn to the issue of the return of ethnic Azerbaijanis to Syunik in the south and other parts of Armenia, or on agitating for the rights of Iran’s substantial ethnic Azerbaijani minority, Ahmadzada said. But neither could mobilize the same level of public support as Karabakh, which most Azerbaijanis felt acutely, he said.

Instead, according to Ahmadzada, it is more likely that Baku will rely on an approach combining “continued commemoration and celebration of the [Karabakh] victory, an increase in statism (similar to some Central Asian republics), and the evolution of the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict into a long-lasting (but low-intensity) rivalry, akin to the India-Pakistan rivalry that almost never ends,” Ahmadzada said.

But it remains unclear whether that mix could be a reliable mobilizing factor in the face of persistent economic and social discontent in the country. That discontent had been rising, but the 2020 war tamped it down, rallying the public and restoring Aliyev’s popularity, Baku-based analyst Goyushev said.

The currency of victory depreciates rapidly, though, and the euphoria of 2020 “didn’t last long,” Goyushev said. Even this year, public attention was again focused on social problems such as the protests in the village of Soyudlu over pollution, which faced a heavy crackdown by security forces.

Many Azerbaijanis have also become wary of Azerbaijan’s continuing pressure on Armenia, which has spilled over the border from the formerly occupied territories into Armenia itself. A September 2022 offensive against targets inside Armenia led to public complaints that Azerbaijan was “changing from the country which tried to restore its territorial integrity to the country, which is actually an invader, an occupier,” Goyushev said.

And the public reaction to this September’s offensive and the Karabakh leaders’ capitulation was much more muted than three years ago, he said: 2020 “was a game changer, and this was something which was expected.”

Political science shows how authoritarian leaders maintain power by balancing three “pillars”: repression, co-optation, and legitimacy, said Laurence Broers, an associate fellow at the London-based Chatham House’s Russia and Eurasia Program.

Azerbaijan’s abundant resources have foregrounded co-optation as the main pillar, but they are finite and the dynastic succession in 2003 — where Ilham Aliyev took over from his late father, President Heydar Aliyev — had always left lingering doubts about legitimacy, he argued.

But the 2020 war “rebalanced the system by providing a massive buy-in for the population on the country’s standout consensus issue,” Broers said. “So, we are seeing the rebranding of the elite’s legitimacy formula — or rather Aliyev’s, since this is very much about him.”

“But the question now is whether he can let go of that, or whether Azerbaijani citizens are going to have to celebrate victory over peace for years to come,” Broers continued. “If Azerbaijan does go down that route, it’s very hard to see a landing zone for an agreement with Armenia because that would require a new equilibrium of equality with Armenia incompatible with the hierarchy of winner and loser in the victory narrative.”

The Fourth Republic
One of the few official articulations of a new national idea has been put forward by a pro-government member of parliament, Zahid Oruc.

With the raising of the flag in Xankendi (which Armenians call Stepanakert), Azerbaijan is entering the period of the “Fourth Republic,” Oruc wrote in an article on the website Moderator.az. (The first three republics were the pre-Soviet Azerbaijan Democratic Republic, the Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republic, and post-1991 independent Azerbaijan.)

“The era of tragedy and loss has come to an end,” he wrote. Oruc’s vision of the new era for Azerbaijan was largely centered around foreign policy and geopolitics.

“The Great Eurasian Project — a new alliance of Turkey, Russia, Iran, Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Georgia — will be realized, the world will be reorganized in the wake of the wars in Russia-Ukraine and the Middle East, and a transition from a multipolar (in fact Western-centric) world to a new architecture is taking place,” he wrote. “It is the first time in history that Azerbaijan controls its own destiny, rather than being divided at the negotiating table.”

Another rallying point could be the return of the Azerbaijani population to Nagorno-Karabakh.

In the first war between the two sides, over 600,000 ethnic Azerbaijanis were displaced from the territories that Armenians seized. The Azerbaijani government is now spending billions on demining and rebuilding those areas to make them ready for the return of their former residents. That should serve as a unifying force for Azerbaijanis now, Amirbayov said.

“I think now the idea of Azerbaijan, the national idea which will be pursued by the government would be to try to consolidate peace, try to live as a country which is independent but which has never had a chance to live in possession of all of its territories,” he said. “The most important challenge for the decades to come would be to inject normal life back into those liberated territories.”

President Aliyev has spoken in these terms as well. In another post-offensive speech on September 29, Aliyev described the return of the displaced people as “the number one task for us.” Within three years, he said, 100,000 of them would be resettled.

But Aliyev also spent more than half that speech recounting a long litany of what he referred to as Armenians’ past crimes in the territory and added a warning against revanchism. “The Armenian leadership, those who stand behind them, and those who may think about some unacceptable plans against Azerbaijan — my advice is not to test our patience again,” he said.

Focusing on the return of the displaced holds risks as well as potential. One Azerbaijani media outlet recently reported that of 1,200 former residents of Karabakh’s Lacin region (also known as Lachin) who had returned to great fanfare from the government, about half had left because of poor conditions. The story was discussed widely on Azerbaijani social media, Goyushev said, an indication of public skepticism about the prospects for large-scale returns to Karabakh.

“Everybody understands that the government is going to face a big problem now, because there is no infrastructure [in the retaken territories], nothing,” he said.

And talk of victory is likely to remain the most reliable way to rally people, Goyushev said.

“So I think we are going to see more criticism of the government due to social issues, economic issues,” he said. “And the government is going to try to divert the public. I don’t know if he will attack Armenia or not. But I do know that he will continue this military rhetoric.”

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