Oil Cash, New Media and Kardashian Take Karabakh Fight to Masses

As fighting rages between Azerbaijan and Armenia, an intense propaganda war is also being waged for the moral high ground, boosted by Azerbaijani oil revenues, new media and Armenia’s large and vocal diaspora.

Within hours of hostilities reigniting around the Armenian-occupied enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh, the two sides’ efforts to recruit governments and public opinion went into overdrive — including from Hollywood’s reality TV star Kim Kardashian West, who is of Armenian extraction.

“Please share the news,” Kardashian wrote in a series of tweets to her 67 million followers on Sept. 27, the day fighting broke out. “Armenians in #Artsakh have been attacked,” she said, using the Armenian name for Nagorno-Karabakh, and including links to a petition for Congress to “Sanction Azerbaijani War Crimes.”

Azerbaijan’s border guard service deployed onto the social media battlefield the same day, posting a slickvideo of a heavy metal band in military uniforms singing a patriotic anthem, “Ates” or “Fire,” against a backdrop of tanks, jets, rocket launchers and “Apocalypse Now”-style helicopter attacks.

Since then, each side has produced videos of uncertain provenance to support claims that the other had either bombed civilian targets or enlisted “terrorists” to fight for them. In Azerbaijan’s case, the alleged militants were sent by Turkey from Syria’s war zone to aid the campaign against Armenians. Within Armenian ranks, supposedly, were ethnic Kurds from northern Syria, regarded as terrorists by Turkey.

News reports and a monitoring group in Syria have since provided support for the presence of Syrian mercenaries in Azerbaijan, and of casualties among them. There has been less evidence to support Turkish claims of Kurdish involvement.

Alongside more traditional lobbying of governments in Paris, Moscow and Washington by advocates for the warring parties, a range of lawyers, graduate students and businessmen have waged email campaigns to try to influence commentary.

The competing narratives have created a poisonous environment in which any middle ground is simply drowned out, according to Thomas De Waal, a London-based senior fellow and Caucasus expert at the Carnegie Europe think tank. He has found himself under siege on Twitter, after a carefully balancedinterview produced the headline: “Azerbaijan Moved In First.”

“There’s a very toxic information war going on, particularly on social media that I think is aimed not just at the other side but also at intimidating anyone with a message that favors peace,” or indeed more nuanced histories, says De Waal. “That’s obviously dangerous because it makes it harder to find compromise.”

In statements and interviews since the fighting began, Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev has stressed the nearly 30 year Armenian occupation of the disputed territory. He says there can be no cease-fire until Armenia agrees to a time line for withdrawal.

Armenian forces took control of Nagorno-Karabakh, a mainly Armenian-populated enclave within Azerbaijan, and seven surrounding districts in a war that ended with a Russia-brokered cease-fire in 1994, having cost 20,000-30,000 lives and displaced about 1 million people.

Armenia’s Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan has sought to focus international attention on Turkey’s involvement, telling Sky News on Oct. 5 that the renewal of hostilities represented “a policy of continuing the Armenian Genocide and a policy of reinstating the Turkish empire.”

Turkey denies it’s involved in the fighting, though it has offered full-throated support for Azerbaijan. Both houses of the U.S. Congress in 2019 recognized the mass killings of as many as 1.5 million Armenians in Ottoman Turkey starting in 1915 as a genocide.

The historic tragedy may be one reason why the propaganda war between Armenians and Azerbaijanis can appear lopsided today. Armenian survivors fled in large numbers, particularly to France and the U.S., where they and their descendants have campaigned for decades for worldwide recognition of the slaughter as a genocide. That has led to the establishment of a highly organized Armenian lobby in Washington, rivaling those of Israel and Greece.

Azerbaijan’s lobbying network appears weaker by comparison. While Baku might once have benefited in Washington from alliance with Turkey, Ankara’s influence has waned recently amid tensions with the U.S. over Syria and defense purchases from Russia. Even so, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan retains a personal bond with U.S. President Donald Trump.

Azerbaijan has its supporters abroad and revenues from oil and gas have allowed the country to raise its profile among governments and the wider global public, pushing back against its image as an autocracy with a poor human rights record. In 2013, the government scored a sponsorship deal with Spanish soccer teamAtletico Madrid, which emblazoned “Azerbaijan Land of Fire” on the team’s shirts.

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