Russian propaganda and Disinformation in Azerbaijan
Dr. Ahmad Shahidov
Head of Azerbaijan Institute for Democracy and Human Rights
The Republic of Azerbaijan, a constituent of the former Soviet Empire, has continued its neighborly relations with the Russian Federation since gaining its independence in 1991. Today, the length of the state border between Azerbaijan and the Russian Federation is 328 km, part of which is the land border and the other part is the water border in the Caspian Sea.
The Russian Federation, the world’s largest state in terms of land area, is trying to implement the principle of “control” in Azerbaijan, often applied to the post-Soviet countries. Therefore, the two countries have signed agreements on cooperation in various areas of life.
Relations between the two countries in political, economic, cultural and humanitarian spheres are developing at a high level. Thanks to these relations, the Russian Federation brings Azerbaijan closer and keeps under control. Azerbaijan is also pursuing a balanced policy in its external engagement, and in addition to its integration with the Europe, it also maintains a friendly neighborly relations with Russia.
Taking all of this into consideration, we can note that Azerbaijan, as a geographical and political factor, is of great importance to Russia, and the Kremlin is always trying to keep Azerbaijan in its sphere of influence.
The Russian Federation operates in several directions in Azerbaijan. Promoting its public and political figures in the country, training new Russian-oriented officials, supporting the Russian-speaking press, expanding the Russian language in Azerbaijan, increasing Russian-speaking populations, and promoting Russian culture are parts of this policy.
In October 1991, during a vote in the Milli Mejlis (Parliament) on the state independence of the Republic of Azerbaijan, 26 people protested against the independence of Azerbaijan and wanted to keep Azerbaijan within the USSR. Over the past 28 years, all of these individuals have been held in state and government positions, some of whom have died, while the survivors are still in governmental positions and have strong administrative capacities. This is part of Russia’s influence in Azerbaijan. Through these individuals, the number of Russian-oriented personnel in state and government agencies is increasing. And, the Russian Federation supports the careers of those in state and governmental positions in Azerbaijan.
The biggest weapon of Russia in Azerbaijan is the Russian language. Also Russia is promoting Russian language and literature under the name of cultural ties between the two countries, expanding education in Russian language, the number of Russian sectors in the secondary schools, supporting the upbringing of a new generation who will be able to speak in Russian language in the border areas with Russia, and supporting the activities of the Baku Slavic University.
There is a negative tendency in the Azerbaijani society to assume that Russian-speaking citizens are perceived as more intellectual, cultural and competent. This tendency provokes greater interest among Azerbaijan’s citizens towards to Russian language and Russian education. Parents are more willing to send their children to Russian-language schools.
Of course, Russian-educated young people who study Russian language and literature prefer Russian-language resources in libraries, on the internet, open sources, and their literacy and knowledge begin to develop in this direction. From time to time, these young people listen to Russian music, watch Russian films, and their worldview is based on sympathy for Russia and, as an adult citizen, they begin to sympathize with Russia and, on the contrary, fight against the Western values. In this regard, the Russian language has a great influence on the formation of the public opinion in Azerbaijan.
There are currently three million Azerbaijanis living in the Russian Federation. This is a very big number and this plays an important role in Russian propaganda. Hundreds of thousands of young Azerbaijanis are born in Russia, live there and become Russian citizens. These Azerbaijanis grow up in Russian society, get education there and go to Russian school. In the future, they will become potential Russian-oriented people who might represent Russia’s interests.
Russian media in Azerbaijan
Russian-language press and Russian media are also widely used in Azerbaijan and have considerable influence in the information space. So, after gaining state independence, the Azerbaijani media created a lot of newspapers, magazines and news sites, including Russian-language press. Although the majority of these Russian-speaking media represent the national interests, there are also media outlets that emphasize the relations with Russia and promote it.
However, the Azerbaijani side often uses Russian-language media in the information war with Armenia regarding the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.
In recent years, the prestigious Russian Sputnik Information Agency has also entered the Azerbaijani media environment, and as of today, Sputnik Azerbaijan is very active. This press body officially serves the interests of Russia in Azerbaijan, criticizes the Western policy and ensures Azerbaijan’s rapprochement with Russia. A number of state and independent news agencies in Azerbaijan have signed official cooperation agreements with Russian news agencies and are conducting daily information exchange.
Russia-oriented political parties
After gaining its independence, Azerbaijan experienced a very difficult time – The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict together with the civil confrontation and social problems have plagued the country. Along with the national political parties, Russia-based communist-socialist political parties functioned in these difficult times, and today they remain as active political parties. Although there is no serious social base in the country, leaders of the Russian-based political party occasionally make statements in the social networks and the media contradicting national interests, criticizing Azerbaijan’s integration into the West and openly shouting slogans in favor of Russia. Some of these politicians are represented in the National Assembly (Parliament), where they act as defenders of the Kremlin’s official position.
Considering all these factors, we can see how serious Russia’s supporters in Azerbaijan are. Using all these tools, the Kremlin has been steadily promoting its propaganda in Azerbaijan, strengthening influence and carrying out a series of provocative campaigns from time to time. Russia’s propaganda tool has been pushing for an idea regarding the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, which is the most sensitive issue for the Azerbaijani people: “Without the official Kremlin’s request, the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict will not be resolved”. And this idea has been in people’s minds both in Azerbaijan and Armenia for 30 years.
Russian-oriented local media outlets and Russian-speaking politicians say that Azerbaijan is not yet fully prepared for the Western democracy and that Azerbaijan may lose its lands if the democracy will be established here. By propagating this view, Russia is also trying to blackmail Azerbaijan – trying to create separatist sentiments, with minorities in the country claiming their right to self-determination. It is no coincidence that in the border areas with Russia there are people of Lezgi, Avar, Tat, Sakhur and other people, and the Russian propaganda machine finds it easy to outreach these audiences.
In addition, the Kremlin is trying to distract Azerbaijan from the West with every possible opportunity, every time before any deal with the EU, provocative incidents occur on the front line – the ceasefire is being violated, the soldiers are killed, thus, there is some tension within the country and official Baku is distracted.
Azerbaijan has hosted many international projects in the recent years, including transport, energy and logistics initiatives, which have led to Russia’s dissatisfaction. There are Baku-Tbilisi-Jeyhan, Baku-Tbilisi-Kars, Baku-Tbilisi-Akhalkalaki, Baku-Tbilisi-Erzurum, Nabucco, “One Belt, One Road” and other global projects that go through Azerbaijan and result in official Moscow’s discontent. The key countries in these projects are Azerbaijan and Georgia. The bilateral relations between the two countries are at a very high level.
In this regard, the Russian propaganda machine has been trying to undermine the Azerbaijani-Georgian relations in recent months, supporting provocative actions in the border area of the two countries and trying to create another dispute in the South Caucasus region.
Russian Federation focuses more on Azerbaijan among post-Soviet countries and can never reconcile with the failure in this region. In this regard, Russia tries to keep the country in the sphere of influence by any means possible. The only way to reduce Russia’s influence is through awareness-raising, promotion of the national interests of Azerbaijan, and supporting the independent, socio-political figures, patriotic, and intellectual young people. To show the real Russian policy, it is necessary to organize events and conferences on the history of Azerbaijan, to show the policy aimed at dismantling Azerbaijan throughout history, this will be an effective way to expose Russian aproach towards Azerbajan and South Caucasus region.
There is a need to detect in time the provocations of the Russian forces in social networks and the local media, analyze the purpose of their distribution and raise awareness that provocative messages should not be widely supported.
In addition, it is important to organize joint seminars, conferences and meetings of the democratic civil society activists of countries suffering from direct and indirect occupation of the Kremlin, in particular Moldova, Georgia, Ukraine and Azerbaijan. It will be effective tool in fighting against Russian propaganda to hold regular meetings and presenting the common solutions to a common problems. It is necessary to for those countries to join their efforts.