Perspectives | Augmented Azerbaijan? The return of Azerbaijani irredentism
For decades Azerbaijan denounced Armenian irredentism. Now it is advancing expansionary territorial claims of its own as it seeks to impose peace on its terms.
The second Karabakh war may have ended in November, but the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict continues. Post-war relations between the two states have remained utterly polarized around a slew of issues, from Azerbaijan’s ongoing detention and trials of Armenian prisoners to persistent Azerbaijani casualties due to landmines.
In the military sphere, the dynamics that previously characterized the line of contact between Armenian and Azerbaijani forces around Nagorno-Karabakh are now being replicated along the internationally recognized Armenian-Azerbaijani borders. In July, a new round of ceasefire violations claimed the lives of five servicemen, four Armenians and one Azerbaijani, and Azerbaijani drones have reportedly been shot down in Armenia’s airspace.
The political context for these developments is Azerbaijan’s effort to enforce peace on its terms following its victory in the 2020 war. Baku is seeking to avoid repeating Yerevan’s experience in the 1990s, when the militarily victorious side – then Armenia – was unable to consolidate victory into a favorable peace from a position of strength. With Armenia still militarily and politically in disarray, and the OSCE’s Minsk Group still marginalized, there will never be a better time than now for Baku to impose its vision of peace. Hence its calls to open negotiations on a peace treaty.
Azerbaijan’s vision of peace, however, precludes a comprehensive treatment of the issues contested by Armenians and Azerbaijanis. Calls to negotiate, accompanied at the same time by applications of coercive pressure, indicate that Baku wishes to determine not only the shape of the table – as narrow as possible and excluding the Minsk Group – but also the agenda. Crucial for Azerbaijan is that the issue of the status of Nagorno-Karabakh – the problem at the heart of the conflict – be taken off the table, and that Baku exercise unmediated control over the entire territory.
These developments provide the backdrop to a set of Azerbaijani territorial claims that have been articulated with increasing intensity since May. These focus first on pockets of Armenia’s territory in areas along the international border between the two states, to which Azerbaijani troops have been deployed since May. These dynamics can be seen as a variant of “borderization”: the transformation of a line of actual control into an international border, or a future concession in a coercive bargaining game. Another set of claims concerns a number of Soviet-era exclaves – three Azerbaijani exclaves in Armenia and an Armenian one in Azerbaijan – which were de facto incorporated into the surrounding state during conflict in the 1990s.
Beyond these micro-territorial claims, recent weeks have seen the revival of a historical territorial designation, Zangezur, as a lost Azerbaijani ethno-space. Zangezur was the name of a district (uyezd) established by the Russian Empire in 1868 as part of the Yelizavetpol guberniya (governorate), covering an area including what is today the southern part of Armenia. It was one of three areas, along with Nagorno-Karabakh and Nakhichevan, that the first republics of Armenia and Azerbaijan both sought to control in 1918-20.
In January 1919 Britain, at that time holding a mandate over Azerbaijan, approved Azerbaijani jurisdiction over Zangezur. But embedded Armenian resistance outlasted both Azerbaijani military pressure until Azerbaijan’s sovietization in April 1920, and then a Bolshevik military campaign later that year. Armenian rebels in Zangezur were finally pacified by the Bolsheviks in June-July 1921, and the region was allocated to Soviet Armenia. After that, Zangezur disappeared from the map, lingering on as an informal placename used in both Armenia and Azerbaijan. Syunik, the Armenian name for southern Armenia, is a far older term dating back to antiquity.
Since the November 2020 ceasefire, the term “Zangezur” has been increasingly prevalent in Azerbaijani discourse. The right of transit across southern Armenia conceded by Armenia in that agreement is widely referred to in Azerbaijan as the “Zangezur corridor,” which Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev has threatened to take by force if it is not opened willingly. Then, on July 7, Azerbaijan announced a reorganization of its internal economic regions which included a new region, bordering Syunik, named “Eastern Zangezur.” The implication is that there is a “Western Zangezur” – that is, Syunik. This intent was confirmed by President Aliyev in a speech a few days later: “Yes, Western Zangezur is our ancestral land […] we must return there and we will return.” Key spokespersons associated with the ruling elite have amplified this message across social media with tweets and posts evoking Zangezur as a lost fragment of a wider Azerbaijani homeland.
From “wide Azerbaijanism” to “augmented Azerbaijan”?
Ironically, Azerbaijan’s advance – physical and rhetorical – into Armenia involves two consequential reversals. The first is Azerbaijan’s apparent transformation from a defender to a challenger of the norm of territorial integrity. For decades, Azerbaijan has positioned itself as a victim of territorial injustice resulting from the occupation and ethnic cleansing of its lands in 1992-1994 – which Azerbaijan attributes to Armenian irredentism. Yet now the tables are completely turned, as Azerbaijani think-tankers now disseminate the same kinds of territorially expansionist imagery and irredentist tropes that they have spent years condemning.
The second reversal concerns the retreat from the foundational national doctrine of Aliyev-era Azerbaijan: “Azerbaijanism.” Azerbaijanism was introduced by former president Heydar Aliyev in the mid-1990s as a doctrine defining the framework of the Azerbaijani nation to be citizenship within the borders of the Republic of Azerbaijan. Azerbaijanism therefore foregrounded territorial integrity as a response to Armenian secessionism. By defining Azerbaijani nationhood in terms of citizenship rather than ethnic identity, Azerbaijanism also assuaged regional discomfort with the irredentist imagery and rhetoric about a “Greater Azerbaijan” spilling over into Iran, an idea associated with Heydar Aliyev’s predecessor, Abulfaz Elchibey. As such, Azerbaijanism recognized the potentially hugely destabilizing impacts of Azerbaijani irredentism given the size of the Azerbaijani community in northern Iran
Azerbaijanism has nevertheless come under increasing pressure over recent years. Since the late 2000s, the idea of Azerbaijan as a nation defined by the citizens living on its territory has been increasingly challenged by a political discourse laying claim to the territory of the Republic of Armenia as Azerbaijani “ancestral lands.” These claims deemphasize the country’s modern map as the definition of its nationhood, suggesting instead a much wider ethnic Azerbaijani homeland extending laterally under Armenia.
This is reflected in an Azerbaijani historiographical tradition that portrays the Russian conquest of the region between 1813 and 1828 as the start date for the presence of Armenian population and culture in Azerbaijan, and a cartographic tradition depicting an underlayer of Turkic names beneath Armenian place names in modern Armenia. These traditions prepare Azerbaijani citizens to see not only the situation in Nagorno-Karabakh, but a modern Armenian state in its totality, through the lens of the illegitimate occupation of primordial Azerbaijani land. In my book Anatomy of a Rivalry I called this tendency “wide Azerbaijanism.”
Until 2021, expressions of “wide Azerbaijanism” purported to an air of plausible deniability as playing to nationalist sentiment or as the construct of émigré groups. Recent rhetorical and policy moves suggest, however, that we may have crossed a line into the emergence of a new iteration of Azerbaijani territoriality – “augmented Azerbaijan,” which focuses its acquisitive gaze not to the south into Iran, as did the Greater Azerbaijan of Elchibey, but to the west on Armenia.
Attractions of the irredentist imagination
Why would Azerbaijan, having positioned itself as a victim of irredentism for so long, replicate the very same politics so soon after its victory in 2020?
In the current context, Azerbaijan’s claim-laying on Zangezur is first and foremost a bargaining strategy to induce Armenia to renounce its role in the fate of Armenians living in Karabakh. Mirroring the Armenian discourse on Nagorno-Karabakh, Azerbaijan’s Zangezur discourse similarly interrogates early Soviet decisions on the allocation of territories. It can also point to a 19th-century Muslim majority, a local Azerbaijani community that remained demographically vibrant through to the 1980s and the role of the forced displacement in eventually reconstituting southern Armenia as an almost exclusively Armenian space in the modern era.
This is consequently a retroactive irredentism, focused on returning “irredenta” displaced in the late 1980s. Yet Zangezur Azerbaijanis are only one part of the Azerbaijani community of Soviet Armenia displaced in a reciprocal mutual expulsion that also saw the eviction of the Armenian community of Soviet Azerbaijan living outside of Nagorno-Karabakh, involving more than half a million people of both (and other) nationalities.
Juxtaposing Karabakh and Zangezur in this way implies an equivalence between two distinct, richly storied places with their own multivocal histories and thus a crude geopolitical transaction: Renounce Karabakh, and we’ll drop our claims on Zangezur. For years, Azerbaijan has marshalled international legal arguments in the context of Nagorno-Karabakh and accused Euro-Atlantic actors of hypocrisy in picking and choosing whose territorial integrity really matters. The elevation of Zangezur directly contradicts those arguments and implies instead that territorial integrity is in the eye of the beholder.
In the longer term, as Azerbaijan’s political elite approaches its fourth decade in power, growing ethnonationalism can also be interpreted as a bid for nationalist legitimacy to buttress its continued rule. If so, then it is unlikely that we will see any lessening of Azerbaijan’s antagonistic narratives towards Armenians. Ethno-nationalism needs “others” against which to define itself, and conflict narratives around which to shape legitimacy and structure societal mobilization. As such, ‘augmented Azerbaijan’ is a vision totally at odds with scenarios – which Azerbaijan and Turkey have been promoting – of an unblocked South Caucasus re-integrated by opened borders and new transit routes.
Finally, irredentist imagery that keeps the eye and the mind on Armenia also serves to maintain a conceptualization of the conflict as an interstate conflict concerned with the regulation of a border between two states. While this was arguably the dominant aspect to the conflict in the two decades preceding 2020, the outcome of the war has effectively eliminated the Armenian irredentist aspect. This was largely confirmed by the Armenian election result in June 2021, which can be read as a rejection of revanchism by the Armenian electorate.
Without the irredentism, what is left is the conflict’s secessionist aspect, foregrounding in new ways the issue of majority-minority relations within the same state – namely, the future relationship between Karabakh Armenians and the Azerbaijani state. In the 1990s and 2000s Karabakh Armenians often struggled to make their case for self-determination resonate, since it evoked complex legacies of Soviet rule in which Azerbaijan’s agency was debatable. It also was overlaid by the territorial outcomes of the first Karabakh war, namely the occupation of the Azerbaijani districts around Nagorno-Karabakh. The Armenian case for self-determination will now be articulated under rather different conditions: Azerbaijan’s agency in the 2020 war is not in doubt, and the occupation has in effect ended.
Azerbaijan’s revival of Zangezur seems to anticipate this by leveraging a mirroring set of claims, preserving the spotlight on inter-state rather than majority-minority relations and keeping irredentism, rather than self-determination, in play as the focal point of the conflict.
Laurence Broers is the Caucasus program director at Conciliation Resources, a London-based peace-building organization and the author of several books on the region including Armenia and Azerbaijan: Anatomy of a Rivalry.