Azerbaijani Diaspora Can Help Fight Disinformation and Shape Effective Engagement

Azerbaijani Diaspora Can Help Fight Disinformation and Shape Effective Engagement

On July 12, Armenia, without provocation, attacked the Tovuz region of Azerbaijan neither Armenian-Azerbaijani border and leading to ensuing clashes and escalation in the ongoing conflict between the two countries. As a result of the attack and consequent skirmishes, at least 11 Azerbaijani soldiers and one 76-year old civilian were killed; others were wounded, and civilians living in the border area remain in the zone of danger. Armenia and Azerbaijan have been in a state of hostilities since the early 1990s, when Armenia illegally occupied approximately 20% of internationally recognizzed Azerbaijani territory in the Nagorno-Karabkh region, expelling Azerbaijanis from its own territory and overall causing a massive refugee crisis of over one million Azerbaijani refugees and IDPs.

Despite multiple UN resolutions over the following decades, Armenia has not shifted its territorial claims, and instead increased aggression and furthered its attempts to occupy strategic hilltops and other territories, eventually being repelled from Çocuq Mərcanlı in 2016. The international community up until this point has put no political or diplomatic pressure on Armenia despite the various resolutions.

Instead, thanks largely to the efforts of the well-established, politically organized, and influential Armenian lobby in the United States, France (an important member of the Minsk Group of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE)), and others, bans have been placed in the US on any kind of direct aid to Azerbaijan to Azerbaijan’s government, and the conflict is discussed as a result of bilateral tensions and violations, rather than as a result of a Russia-backed act of aggression and occupation. Eventually, the Section 907 of the United States Freedom Support Act was amended to allow the President of the United States to waive this ban, which has been done since its passage in 2001, but the lobby efforts to damage the relationship between the US and Azerbaijan have not ceased.

Faced with impunity, Armenia is now escalating along a different portion of Azerbaijani territory, aside from the Nagorno-Karabakh territories. Armenia’s actions come in the middle of the raging COVID-19 pandemic, which its government has been struggling with containing. Due to the geopolitical dimensions of the conflict, with Armenia being entirely dependent economically on Russia, and with Iran lending fuel to the fire, the conflict threatens to drag in Russia, Azerbaijan and other countries into a wider regional conflagration. It also complicates relations between Israel, Azerbaijan, and Armenia. Armenia, while it has full formal diplomatic relations with Israel, has focused the brunt of the relations as acting to counter Azerbaijan’s separate and distinct relations. Its lobby ANCA in the United States has also placed ethnic & religious card to gear up support among conservative Christians and even some Jewish audiences. ANCA recently even attacked Israel’s Ambassador to Azerbaijan on these grounds.

Using its lobby as a blunt attack instrument, Armenia and its apologists have engaged in an effective disinformation campaign, playing on religious and ethnic bigotry, popular ignorance of the region, and domestic political tensions in Western countries over other geopolitical issues. For instance, they made a claim, which spread like wildfire, that in fact Azerbaijan “provoked” the attack or otherwise targeted Armenian civilians. Aggressive rhetoric by Armenian Ministry of Defense, pointing to the contrary, was effectively ignored or downplayed.

Where Armenia is weaker militarily, it compensates with successful information warfare techniques borrowed from Russia and Iran. It played up international concerns elsewhere, creating a perception that Azerbaijan and Turkey, which are in fact trade lies, and culturally connected, are essentially one country with one history and one foreign policy, which is grossly inaccurate. Azerbaijan has been linked to Turkey’s policies, despite wide-ranging historical and political differences, and now the lobbyists have propagated the false notion that Azerbaijan is Turkey’s proxy against Armenia, and that Turkey’s offers to assist Azerbaijan with weapons are tantamount to joint intent to commit war crimes.

Having succeeded in starting a massive media campaign to demonize Azerbaijan and to whitewash Armenia’s role, the lobbyists jumped on the opportunity to cause further damage by proposing a bill that would ban sales of advanced weapons to Azerbaijan. But let’s look at what’s really going on here. Yes, Armenian lobbyists have their ground game in order and have been buiding relationships with the “Armenian caucus” and pliable members of Congress for years and decades. That alone, however, does not explain the strange timing of events in question. Why did Armenia choose to escalate along a new swath of territory? How was the draft bill prepared and brought up before the relevant committee vote so quickly? Was it just a matter of opportunism? Or was this a natural end to an operation that was in development for some time prior to its eruption?

Indeed, in retrospect, red flags pointed in the direction of something brewing. There was the matter of the Iran’s growing presence in the vicinity and more direct assistance to Armenia for weeks prior to the attack. A few weeks prior to that, Iran and Armenia reinstated a visa-free regime, perhaps contributing to Armenia’s poor handling of the corona. In June, Russia and Armenia were engaging in talks about running biological labs. Also in development, is the commitments of the two countries to develop joint military forces. Not only is Russia completely running the show, but increasingly it is erasing any semblance of Armenia’s independence and asserting its own military presence in the region in a way that can only be discussed as menacing. All of these factors independently of each other should have been causes for concern, but the fact of all of these occurrences happening as the United States is struggling with internal crises and a beleagured foreign policy in a hotly contested election year points to a planned operation to help push a political agenda.

A bill being proposed by ANCA needed a military provocation to get on the lawmakers’ radar, much less agenda with so much else going on. Iran, stretched thin by sanctions, scrutiny, and increasingly pushback and internal explosions, may need a nearby diversion. With only a few months before elections, the Armenian lobbyists in the US are not so much hoping for a quick victory as for planting seeds that could be exploited with a new Democratic administration in office, likely to be more favorable to ANCA’s claims.

This manufactured crisis was, of course, exploiting other regional conditions, but it is also serving the long-term purpose of making Russian-Armenian incursions on Azerbaijan land more acceptable to the public; this crisis, more than any such escalations in the past, was aimed at information warfare and a political outrage and outcome in the West. Where in the past, most Americans and Europeans would have been happy to continue sleeping through whatever was going on, the general polarization, the “woke” climate, the French tensions with Turkey, and internal fissions within the REpublican party over foreign policy made this a perfect political climate to stir the pot.

The informational response to the crisis by Azerbaijan’s supporters has been so far limited, at least in part due to the fact that its diaspora in Western countries is fairly new, young, consists of immigrants focused on making a living and getting ahead, and has not yet established a political foothold. However, there is evidence that the diaspora approach is starting to shift and there is increasing interest in greater social, cultural, and political engagement in other countries. Indeed, the recent meeting organized by The State Committee on Work with Diaspora of the Republic of Azerbaijan, which I was honored to moderate, points to the growing concensus on an organized, deliberative, pro-active, and forward-looking approach to outreach, especially among the young people.

During this meeting which started with Vugar Mammadov’s opening remarks and introduction to the tragedy of the ongoing crisis, I had the opportunity to join many others from a variety of professional backgrounds and different countries, in offering condolences to the victims of this one-sided and unprovoked aggression by Armenia, and underscored the importance of the international community and the United States holding Armenia politically and diplomatically accountable for its repeated violations of UN resolutions in general and its either malevolent or completely reckless targeting of Azerbaijani civilians, which is in violation with international law, as well as all civic norms. I was outraged for the State Department comment on the issue which engaged in false moral equivocations and treated the two sides as equally liable for the escalation, as if a unilateral bellicose act was in any way equivalent to acts of mutual aggression. Such rhetoric, and treating countries like children who can just take their marbles and go home, is not only disrespectful, but will only enable and encourage further violations. I explained in brief my personal experience of traveling to Çocuq Mərcanlı two years ago, being diverted from the direct route by the escalating aggression by the Armenians, learning the stories of civilians killed and injured by sniper fire in the vicinity, seeing the civilian houses being shot out due to sniper fire, and having to move away from the area due to visible and aggressive Armenian forces movement. All of that was particularly striking due to the rest of my experiences traveling around Azerbaijan, which struck me as well integrated, very tolerant, respectful, welcoming, and friendly. I encouraged the future gatherings to invite experts, counterparts, politicians, academics, journalists, activists, and influencers from various areas and professional backgrounds to engage and discuss with the diaspora members the potential for cooperation in various areas, and expanding the conversation and education about the reality behind the headlines beyond the few usual suspects prevalent in these fields.

Abbas Babayev, the Youth representative of Azerbaijan, shared his personal experience and diverse exposure to engagement with the global community and encouraged young Azerbaijanis in the diaspora to engage in global networks, to work hard to reach out to others, and to become an integral part of various communities, which can then be engaged with and educated about issues related to Azerbaijan, the region, and the relations with those communities and countries.

Dr. Samuel Kliger, American Jewish Committee’s Direcot of Russian and Eurasian Affairs, was very concerned about what is happening at the Azerbaijan-Armenia borders. American Jewish Committee has very good relations with Azerbaijan and expresses solidarity with Azerbaijani people. Peaceful resolution is the key. Mr. Kliger calls for immediate ceasefire and deescalate the conflict, as UN Secretary General said. Samuel Kliger read an article of Nazim Agayev, Consulate general of Azerbaijan in California, with whom he agrees that there is a need in peaceful resolution of this long-going conflict. AJC will do it is best to help in any possible way. AJC expresses its condolences to families of those soldiers who were killed.

Adela Naibova underlined that she was the youngest speaker. She mentioned that yesterday (on July,14), while celebration independence day of France (when two centuries ago French people stood for their independence and justice), she felt dually because all the pictures/videos of current situation in Azerbaijan showed her that Azerbaijani people also now stand for justice. She was glad that State Committee arranged this kind of meeting. She also expressed her condolences to Azerbaijani nation. She sees herself as a humanist and does not get why innocent civilians should die for no reason. She mentioned that it is not normal that the conflict lasts for 3 decades and UN Resolutions are not implemented. It is time for Azerbaijanis to speak up and to make things move by ourselves. She said that she lives in France where Armenian lobby is strong and that is why French politicians took their side. Even though we are not many, if each of us will do something, we can make a change.

Ulviyya Taghizade also expressed condolences and thanked international guests for taking part at the conference. Peace is what we need, we do not want to lose children, families. However, until the territories are back to Azerbaijan, it is impossible to talk about peace. It is not about hatred; Azerbaijan even still has Armenian church at the center of Baku. Azerbaijan was always multicultural and tolerant country. We have so many nationalities in Azerbaijan who peacefully live here, including Armenians.However, it is hardly to find Azerbaijani who lives like that in Armenia. Azerbaijan gives opportunity to gain education in English, French, Russian. In Armenia, it is other way around. People should visit Azerbaijan and see how tolerant our nation is and how many Armenians live here. 20% of our territories are under occupation for 30 years. We cannot speak about peace, until it is back, she said

Abulfaz Bahaduri, Azerbaijani artist and graphic designer gave some thought-provoking advice.

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You don’t have to be a citizen to reach out to your local congressman. They know if you are not a citizen, you are a legal resident with the potential to become a citizen. Once you tell them where you live, they will know you are under their constituency and your opinion matters—even if you can’t currently vote, you are in contact with the local population and your neighbors. So, you have an influence. And this is extremely important too; talk to all your colleagues and neighbors, especially if they are from Armenian origin. We are all human beings. No two nations should be enemies even at the time of war. History is our witness.

The United States and European Union and all the democratic countries around the world are strongly criticizing the occupation of Ukraine and Georgia by the Russians. NATO members are putting all sorts of sanctions on Russia, but when it comes to Karabakh, even though none of them have recognized the illegitimate occupation of Azerbaijan, they kind of shrug their shoulders and call it “a complicated situation.” We all know the reasons; Armenia being a tiny Christian enclave itself among the Muslim nations and the fact that there are more Armenians living abroad than in Armenia. But what is really amazing and gives me a lot of hope about our future is that our youth both in the Azerbaijani Republic and the Southern Azerbaijan (Iran) are very active on social media. The recent unfortunate events have started a wave of reactions on all social media. Young Azerbaijanis have responded to the Western politicians’ posts who have unfairly supported the Armenian side while they were attacking our civilians. We need to keep doing that.

When you are educating your representatives, shed some light on the geopolitical risks of ignoring the Armenian aggression:

Iran is under the U.S. and international sanctions for the nuclear development. There are all sorts of restrictions on Iran for receiving military equipment and the nuclear fuel from Russia. The Caspian Sea is under the surveillance for any trafficking of weapons and material. However, recently for no clear reason, Iran built a water reservoir on the Aras river and several bridges to the occupied regions of Azerbaijan. The local Azerbaijani population of Iran who live near the bridges report constant traffic of massive trucks over the bridges. Without delving into any conspiracy theories, doesn’t this new traffic between Iran and the occupying Armenian military ever concern the representatives of the countries we live in? When I mentioned this to my congressmen and senators in Virginia, I could feel the shock on their face from the long silence over the phone. And of course, they ask for facts and my answer always is, “use your satellites.”

The big question is this: How long can this uncertainty be safe for the global community? How long can you trust an illegitimate invader who has already ignored all international rules and regulations to obey the sanctions imposed on a neighboring country which is in turn the occupier’s lifeline?

Finally, Lala Iskandarova, the Senior Adviser of the International relations and protocol department, concluded with the following important factual note:

Nagorno-Karabakh is vulnerability of every Azerbaijani. I once again remind all of the listeners that on July 12 Armenia committed another military provocation in the direction of Tovuz on the Azerbaijani-Armenian border. As a result of their next provocation, several military personnel were killed and wounded. May God have mercy on our martyrs, and I pray to God to heal our wounded soldiers.

I am sure that our compatriots living abroad and our foreing friends convey the realities of Azerbaijan to the world community. We must all work together to ensure that all countries contribute to this issue.

The demands of the Azerbaijani nation are very simple and natural in its essense:

1) UN Security Council Resolutions 822, 853, 874 and 884, adopted in connection with the expansion of Armenian aggression against Azerbaijan should be implemented;

2) Armenian military units should be withdrawn from Azerbaijani territories, IDPs should return to their homes;

3) International organizations and the UN Security Council should recognize Armenia as an aggressor state.

4) The status of Nagorno-Karabakh should be determined within the territorial integrity of the Republic of Azerbaijan.

We are fed up with this war.

Many of the speakers noted the importance of engagement, and addressing the security and other interests and concerns of their audiences rather than merely the personal concerns and pain of the diaspora. In that sense, diaspora can play an important bridge from the particularist to the global, and the State Committee has laid an important foundation on which much more can be built. It can help provide valuable resources to counter disinformation and develop best practices and effective techniques, for education, outreach, engagement, and long-term relationship building that can help undo decades of damage done by Armenian lobbyists and their supporters.

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