In a Facebook post, Altay Goyusov, a historian from Azerbaijan, wrote: “I am not interested in Zangezur or Yerevan.” His reference to the Armenian capital and a part of Armenian territory where Azerbaijan seeks a transport corridor to reach its exclave of Naxcivan was enough for him to be targeted and tagged on Facebook as a traitor.
Goyusov is not alone. After the recent military clashes on the Azerbaijan-Armenia border, Azerbaijani opponents of the government’s military campaign are being targeted on Facebook and Twitter in what opposition activists claim is an orchestrated campaign.
Beginning on September 13, the two countries, which have been locked in a conflict over Azerbaijan’s breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh for years, traded artillery and mortar fire, and Azerbaijani forces targeted sites within the borders of Armenia itself. Azerbaijan announced the deaths of 79 of its servicemen, while Armenia said more than 200 of its troops have died.
The Armenian side has accused the Azerbaijani side of an invasion and asked for the immediate withdrawal of Azerbaijani armed forces from Armenian territory. The Azerbaijani side said that “Azerbaijan is not interested in destabilization” and stressed Baku’s efforts to rebuild and resettle territory formally under the control of Armenia.
The hashtag #Khainitaniaq — an Azerbaijani word meaning to “know who is a traitor” — has been used to target those speaking out against the war.
Tural Sadiqli, an Azerbaijani journalist living in Germany, received similar treatment. He had said on social media that “the Azerbaijani Army crossed the Armenian border” and that “Zangezur is internationally recognized territory of Armenia.” For that, he, too, was branded a traitor.
Another target of the social media campaign, Tofiq Yaqublu, a leading member of the opposition Musavat party, said that he is not worried about being called a traitor for voicing what he considers to be the correct opinion.
“Those who speak the truth are considered traitors. In fact, it is a dangerous trend. It’s the 21st century, but the atmosphere of repression of the 1930s is coming,” Yaqublu told RFE/RL’s Azerbaijani Service.
“Traitors are found only in dictatorial states…. I think that the feet of Azerbaijani soldiers should not have touched Armenian soil. What business do we have being in Zangezur or Goycha?”
Yaqublu added that no campaign against him will distract him from speaking what he believes to be the truth. In December 2021, Yaqublu was detained after an unsanctioned opposition rally in the capital, Baku. He emerged from custody with severe bruising on his face and body, the result, the authorities said, of him punching himself.
Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev has ruled the oil-producing former Soviet republic with an iron fist since shortly before his father, Heydar Aliyev, died in 2003 after a decade in power. The president regularly refers to the opposition as “enemies.”
Azerbaijan has been repeatedly criticized by rights groups, international watchdogs, and Western governments for jailing dissidents on trumped-up charges and abusing power to stifle dissent. Dozens of journalists and members of the political opposition are still in prison on politically motivated charges. Others are hit with travel bans or constant harassment from the authorities.
Giorgi Gogia, an expert on human rights issues in Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia at the New York-based Human Rights Watch, believes that such a campaign, regardless of who started it, is a threat to freedom of expression.
“According to international law, Azerbaijan and other countries have an obligation to observe freedom of expression. International law considers freedom of expression a fundamental human right essential for democracy,” Gogia told RFE/RL.
“The European Court of Human Rights has repeatedly stated that Azerbaijan has an international obligation to allow the expression of all kinds of opinions, including critical and shocking ones.”
It isn’t clear who is responsible for starting the #Khainitaniaq campaign, although many in Azerbaijan, especially among the opposition, blame the government.
A pro-government deputy, Fazil Mustafa, who is a member of the human rights committee in Azerbaijan’s largely rubber-stamp parliament, shared a “know who the traitors are” video on his Facebook page.
Speaking to RFE/RL, he said all opinions should be treated the same — up to a point — and denied that the campaign is conducted by the state.
“There is someone who thinks, ‘I want peace, I condemn both sides, I do not want any fighting’ — this is an opinion and it should be treated normally. But to say that ‘Azerbaijan entered and occupied the territory of Armenia’ is to repeat what [U.S. House of Representatives Speaker Nancy] Pelosi said. It is an opinion aired to get a grant from foreign intelligence,” Mustafa said.
During a visit to Armenia on September 18, Pelosi strongly condemned and blamed Azerbaijan for the latest attacks.
“We have a million refugees in Azerbaijan, and they have the feeling of being a citizen,” Mustafa added. “This is a campaign conducted by an Azerbaijani citizen. It is a public process, so it is not right to link it with the name of the state.”
Armenian-backed separatists seized the mainly Armenian-populated region of Nagorno-Karabakh from Azerbaijan during a war in the early 1990s that killed some 30,000 people. Diplomatic efforts to settle the conflict brought little progress over the years, and the two sides fought another war in 2020 that lasted six weeks before a Russia-brokered cease-fire was agreed.
Under the cease-fire, parts of the breakaway region and seven adjacent districts were returned to Azerbaijani control. An estimated 2,000 Russian troops have been deployed to keep the peace. Nagorno-Karabakh is internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan.
With the exception of a few activists calling for peace, many Azerbaijanis, including members of the country’s opposition, were euphoric and supportive of the 2020 war, seeing it as a righting of historical wrongs.
According to Mehman Aliyev, a media expert and head of the independent Turan news agency, the popular mood is different now to how it was in the aftermath of the 2020 war because society’s expectations from the government after the war have not materialized, and people’s livelihoods have not improved, and there are perceptions that veterans of the war have not been looked after by the state.
“If this [campaign] is happening, then it is organized by someone, and in the present case it must be organized by the government,” Aliyev said.