By all intents and purposes, the latest stage of the Karabakh war seems to be over for now: Russian peacekeepers have moved in; Azerbaijan has announced reconstruction plans for the territory it now controls.
But I fear a more dangerous stage of the battle is still underway.
As an Azerbaijani expat and anthropologist, I experienced and observed the dynamic of this war from a distance, which provides space for me to cultivate a different point of view. From my perspective, the fighting ignited an unholy mix of toxic propaganda and nationalism on social media, polluting both the Armenian and Azerbaijani populations and threatening the peacebuilding efforts and cross border relationships that existed before the September war.
I left Azerbaijan several years ago and my birth country normally plays a nominal role in my daily life. So I was shocked when I opened my Facebook on September 27—what had seemed like a normal, lazy Sunday morning in Prague—to headlines of war.
My first reaction was to call my mother, but I couldn’t get through: the Azerbaijani government had shut down the internet. News and reports were still streaming through social media, however: The war already filled my news feed and penetrated into my social circle. It quickly became clear that the danger and violence was not limited only to the battlefield.
As the fighting continued, the intensity of the battles online and on the frontlines started to seep into my life in the Czech Republic. I worried constantly about the family (it took four days to reach my mother) and I became increasingly concerned about the direct impact the intense propaganda war was having on my friends and acquaintances. The flames of nationalism spread as quickly as bullets, it seemed, as members of progressive communities in both countries succumbed to hate speech and disinformation.
For me, both professionally and personally, the turning point came in mid-October, when it became clear that even vulnerable groups, like the LGBTQI+ community, were engulfed in the growing nationalistic sentiment. The Armenian and Azerbaijani LGBTQI+ communities, who were not well accepted by either nation before the fighting, had started developing ties prior to the latest war. But by the middle of October, I noticed a sharp uptick in the national rhetoric—and hate speech—used online by my fellow Azerbaijani and Armenian queer, peacebuilder and women activist acquaintances.
As an anthropologist, I had previously studied gender; I knew from my work that the toxic male culture in both countries sidelined women and made sustainable peace more difficult. It was my current area of interest, queer masculinities in the Caucasus, however, which provided the most insight into the real impact of propaganda on peaceful communities on both sides of the conflict.
I started monitoring the social media comments of member of queer communities from Armenia and Azerbaijan as they responded to the fighting. Even as I tried to observe the trends from the sidelines, I quickly became overwhelmed by criticism and online bullying from both sides.
Armenian queer acquaintances attacked and accused me of supporting the Azerbaijani leader, Ilham Aliyev. Azerbaijani queers accused me of being a ‘traitor’ for not supporting the war and Azerbaijani army. Activists started to un-friend me as each perceived my comments as support of the ‘enemy.’
For me, one of the most troubling new trends was a radicalization of groups in the LGBTQI+ community. One example was the treatment of two queer Azerbaijanis who voluntarily joined the army and died in the war. There was an outpouring of support for their families from Azerbaijani queers and allies but it appeared to be driven as support for their martyrdom, which was a major break with the universal understanding of humanity and queer values.
This campaign underscored the impact the propaganda had on even progressive individuals of LGBTQI+ community in Armenia and Azerbaijan. In the long-term, this brings more harm and division to queer activists in these countries, undermining the achievements of the queer activists, academics and human rights defenders of Caucasus. The negative effects of this war are not limited to social media: Queers who were against the war now will face double discrimination because of their different gender identity and so-called ‘anti-nationalist’ sentiment.
Many well-known peacebuilders and mediators also started using more nationalistic rhetoric during the war. Instead of promoting peace, these pseudo peacebuilders started to fan the flame of nationalism. People, who had once been role models for millions of ordinary citizens of Armenia and Azerbaijan to foster peace, instead became beacons for stronger anti-Armenian/Azerbaijani sentiments.
These attitudes, expressed so fervently online, did not change anything on the battlefield. But at home, they further eroded trust between these two nations and eventually that will put lives in danger in communities on both sides of the conflict.
The Russian peace deal was as unexpected for me as the outbreak of the war had been. As a generation of war, I, like many of my peers, considered this war as one of the ‘curse’ of our lives.
But if the fighting online and on the frontline has made one thing clear, it is that as long as Azerbaijani and Armenian people do not actively discuss their problems and challenges, the conflict will continue.
Taking into consideration the role of Russian imperialism and male dominance, this conflict cannot be considered as resolved. Without empowering different groups of society, male dominance cannot bring an everlasting solution to the region. An intersectional approach to peacebuilding is vital, especially since working-class IDP and refugee women—as well as LGBT/queer peacebuilders/mediators and minority ethnic groups from Armenia and Azerbaijan—are still persistently excluded from peacebuilding processes.
We need to overcome all of these challenges. We need to prepare these communities to live together and accept our weaknesses and strengths as we are. Most importantly, we need to fight against Armenophobia and Azerbaijanophobia in these societies. Otherwise, there will be no future or prosperity for the upcoming generations.
In the end, as an expat, I would like to go back to my native region and live there without borders. I would like to see people do not label themselves as ‘Azerbaijani’ or ‘Armenian’ or ‘Muslim’ or ‘Christian’ or ‘Jew.’ I believe we need to fight against all the oppressive ideologies which divide human beings into different groups.
This conflict has been a great example of how small misunderstandings can cause a war between two small states. I believe future generations will succeed in changing the future of Caucasus. But we are responsible for raising the next generation, which means we need to change ourselves and become peacebuilders for a better future at home and around the world. Peace should not remain a theory; it should become a manifestation and we should practice this ideal every day.