Baku’s Hostility Has Not Abated since the Fall of Nagorno-Karabakh

After the return of the breakaway territory to Azerbaijani control, a lasting peace in the South Caucasus remains far from view.

A family from Vank village in Nagorno-Karabakh rests near the gates of Syunik monument after fleeing their homes. On September 19, 2023, the Azerbaijani government launched a military attack on Nagorno-Karabakh, which resulted in the return of the breakaway territory to Azerbaijani control. (Photo: Scout Tufankjian)

A family from Vank village in Nagorno-Karabakh rests near the gates of Syunik monument after fleeing their homes. On September 19, 2023, the Azerbaijani government launched a military attack on Nagorno-Karabakh, which resulted in the return of the territory to Azerbaijani control. (Photo: Scout Tufankjian)


On September 19, the Azerbaijani government launched a military attack on Nagorno-Karabakh, the self-governing territory known as Artsakh to its population of ethnic Armenians. The assault came after a nearly 10-month blockade that deprived residents of access to essential goods, and it led to the swift capitulation of local armed forces and a week-long exodus of more than 100,000 ethnic Armenians from their homes in what is widely considered to be a case of ethnic cleansing.

Azerbaijan’s authoritarian leadership had already won back much of the country’s internationally recognized territory from ethnic Armenian forces in 2020, when it instigated the Second Nagorno-Karabakh War. With this final offensive, Baku has brought about the complete dissolution of the breakaway state.

The return of Nagorno-Karabakh to Azerbaijani control may mark the end of a dispute that began in the last years of the Soviet Union, and government officials from both Azerbaijan and the Republic of Armenia, currently a nascent democracy that long supported Nagorno-Karabakh’s de facto independence, have hinted at progress toward a broader peace. But the societal conditions for a successful settlement—trust, empathy, and the absence of fearhave been thoroughly undermined by an ongoing pattern of hateful rhetoric and aggressive actions by the Azerbaijani regime.

State propaganda exacerbates a bloody history

The current animosity between Azerbaijanis and Armenians dates at least to the First Nagorno-Karabakh War, which lasted from 1988 to 1994. In 1988, ethnic Armenians living in what was then known as the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast (NKAO) within Soviet Azerbaijan voted to join Soviet Armenia. The subsequent collapse of the Soviet Union cleared the way for a full-scale war, and the conflict ended with a tense cease-fire after ethnic Armenian forces established control over the NKAO itself as well as seven adjoining regions in Azerbaijan. 

It is important to remember that before the war, ethnic Armenians and ethnic Azerbaijanis lived in intermingled communities spread across Armenia and Azerbaijan, including in Nagorno-Karabakh. According to Thomas de Waal’s 2003 book Black Garden: Armenia and Azerbaijan Through Peace and War, some 30,000 people were killed in the fighting, with some 686,000 Azerbaijanis expelled from their homes in Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh and 350,000 Armenians driven out of Azerbaijan. The memory of this bloody period haunts survivors on both sides to this day.

But the very real effects of past conflict have been deliberately amplified and exacerbated by Baku as a matter of state policy. Just as Vladimir Putin’s regime in Russia has actively stoked anti-Ukrainian sentiment in state-controlled media and the education system in recent years, Azerbaijan’s authoritarian government has spent three decades employing the very same tactics to instill in its people a hatred and fear of Armenians, which has fueled public support for its military offensives against Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia. Azerbaijani writer and researcher Bahruz Samadov has stated that “Armenians would not feel safe in Azerbaijan, a country with a state ideology based on resentment and revenge.”

The propagation of this hatred starts at a young age, as state-approved history textbooks use negative qualifiers to dehumanize Armenians as “evil,” “faithless,” and “treacherous” “occupiers” of “historical Azerbaijani land.” The Azerbaijani government has cited the restoration of its territorial integrity in Nagorno-Karabakh as the main condition for potential peace with Armenia, yet President Ilham Aliyev himself has called modern-day Armenia “Western Azerbaijan,” laying claim to the entire country on the grounds that the land, according to government-approved textbooks and documents, belongs to Azerbaijan. In the same speech, Aliyev added, ironically, that “we should never distort our history.” Meanwhile, Azerbaijani forces show no signs of retreating from positions secured during an incursion into Armenia proper in September 2022. In fact, they are fortifying these positions.

No matter the state of military affairs, however, Aliyev’s regime will have an incentive to maintain its hostile propaganda so long as it continues to suppress democratic freedoms. Such dehumanizing rhetoric works to unify citizens against a common, scapegoated enemy and distracts them from the fact that they have virtually no access to political rights or civil liberties at home. Azerbaijan receives a score of 9 out of 100 in Freedom House’s 2023 Freedom in the World report, and 1.07 on a scale of 1 to 7 in the 2023 Nations in Transit report, which designates the country as a “consolidated authoritarian regime.”

One war’s end does not guarantee peace

Baku has been emboldened by past military victories, responding with even more demonizing propaganda. The Second Nagorno-Karabakh War of 2020 featured war crimes committed on both sides, with soldiers tortured and mutilated, civilians killed or injured, and civilian infrastructure targeted. But adding insult to injury, in 2021 Aliyev unveiled Baku’s Military Trophies Park, a sprawling facility featuring captured Armenian military equipment, an enclosure decked with the helmets of dead Armenian soldiers, and an exhibit of mock bunkers and barracks populated by grotesque wax models of Armenian soldiers, deliberately depicted as less than human. Despite international criticism, the park remains in operation today.

There is also little reason to believe the Azerbaijani government’s claims that it is willing to “reintegrate” any ethnic Armenians who choose to stay in Nagorno-Karabakh—particularly given that nearly all residents have already fled, and did so precisely because they feared Azerbaijani rule. Azerbaijani officials stated that the September 19 offensive only targeted military sites in the territory, but Armenians cited damage to civilian infrastructure, violence and threats against civilians, and substantial civilian casualties. The United Nations office in Azerbaijan reported that, in the areas its investigators visited, “there was no visible damage to public infrastructure.” The team added that “they did not hearfrom either locals interviewed or othersof incidences of violence against civilians following the latest cease-fire.” But by then there were few local civilians to consult. The fact that the mission was authorized by Baku should prompt skepticism regarding its objectivity and highlights the need for an independent investigation.

Another sign of the Azerbaijani government’s intent can be found in its treatment of cultural landmarks. From 1997 to 2011 the regime engaged in the systematic destruction of Armenian cultural heritage sites in the Azerbaijani exclave of Nakhchivan, whose ethnic Armenian population had begun relocating to Armenia after the Soviet Union transferred the territory from Soviet Armenia to Soviet Azerbaijan in 1920. Today, Baku maintains that there is no history of Armenians living in the exclave. Unsurprisingly, institutions dedicated to the preservation of cultural heritage sites are now voicing their concern for the fate of Nagorno-Karabakh’s vast Armenian cultural legacy.

As the Azerbaijani government restores services in Nagorno-Karabakh, some of those Azerbaijanis who fled the territory decades ago will have the opportunity to return. Yet this comes at the cost of the new mass displacement of ethnic Armenians. By ending the dispute through violence and maintaining hostility through a variety of state policies, Baku has demonstrated what Samadov calls a “dangerous example of coercive conflict management.” 

In light of its successes to date, and the need to continue justifying its domestic repression, the Azerbaijani government seems likely to look for additional military victories and territorial gains. The pattern will not change until the world’s democracies recognize this threat to peace and freedom, and clearly articulate the coordinated penalties they will impose in response to any further aggression. Only then can the two sides move toward a settlement based on the negotiated reconciliation of interests rather than the exploitation of fear and hatred.