5. Russian Soft Power in Azerbaijan
The steps that Azerbaijan has taken to pacify Russia in recent years and reassure it of its loyalty have helped strengthen the latter’s soft power. Moscow is trying to fill the vacuum that emerged after many Western institutions left Azerbaijan following the restrictions imposed by the government from 2013 onwards. Its main tools consist of politically engaged movements and pro-Russian media outlets. This soft power is underpinned by two main Soviet legacies in Azerbaijan: the Russian language and the education system.
The Russian language has always been Azerbaijan’s principal channel of engagement with Western culture, and it retained its importance after independence. Nevertheless, at independence, the country gained direct access to the West and pursued a relatively Western-oriented foreign policy. Russia’s influence at that time was curtailed. The appeal of the Russian language also diminished in line with the post-Cold War outlook of many Azerbaijanis, as the younger generation turned to English as a way of reaching the West. Russian was declared a foreign language without official status. The other reason why the Russian language lost its privileged place was that only a small number of ethnic Russians had lived in Azerbaijan in Soviet times; few of them remained in the country after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Their number fell from 392,300 in 1989 to 119,300 in 2009.
The shift was also evident in the increased role of the Azerbaijani language in the education system. While 45 per cent of pupils in Baku schools were taught in Azerbaijani in the 1988/89 academic year, that proportion rose to 78 per cent in 1995/96. The number of students learning Russian in elementary and higher schools declined, after it having been a compulsory subject for over 70 years. In 2013/14, learners of Russian as a foreign language in elementary and high schools in Azerbaijan accounted for 21.8 per cent of students, while those studying English made up 83.5 per cent of the total. While Russian is taught as a foreign language in 2,292 out of 4,194 schools in Azerbaijan, English is taught in 3,651 of them. According to 2014 figures, Russian is the language of instruction in only 7 per cent of elementary and high schools in the country. By way of comparison, however, English is the medium of instruction in only 0.1 per cent of schools.
In the past five years, Russian-language education has regained some impetus. For example, the number of pupils in public schools in which Russian was the medium of instruction in Baku was 55,809 in 2015/16, up from 42,860 in 2013/14. (The equivalent numbers for those studying in Azerbaijani were 279,616 and 246,250 respectively.) In Azerbaijan as a whole, the number of pupils studying in public schools in which the language of instruction was Russian was 130,000 in 2017/18, up from 90,234 in 2010/11. There remains a prevailing popular belief that Russian-language education is superior in quality to Azerbaijani-language education. Although the curriculum is similar in both languages, and accredited by the Ministry of Education, most educational materials from Russia are believed to be of better quality. Russian-language literature is rich, and the teachers in Russian-language schools tend to be better-trained. Lack of reform means that Russian-language materials continue to dominate the curriculum. The Ministry of Education nominally oversees and checks the quality of Russian-language materials for educational purposes, but it mostly accepts them as is, only raising queries about content with the Russian authorities in isolated cases. Crucially, a Russian-language education is free, as is an Azerbaijani-language education, whereas most English-language schools charge tuition fees far beyond the means of the majority of families.
The lingering ‘natural’ influence of Russian also supports the presence of a number of Russian-language media outlets in Azerbaijan, mainly online. This does not automatically imply that they are actively controlled by Russia. In fact, in many cases their ‘political language’ or messaging is controlled by Baku, and even sometimes results in their taking an anti-Russia stance. The increase in the number of such outlets is partly a function of public demand, and reflects the presence of a language barrier for many people in accessing non-local and non-Turkish media outlets. It also reflects the ongoing information war with Armenia, which is played out in Russian. The state-controlled Azerbaijani-language media also follow the government line as it pertains to criticism or approval of Russia and/or Western countries.
Since its war with Georgia in 2008, Russia has refined its soft-power tools in Azerbaijan. The Russian government has focused on introducing more centralized mechanisms such as Russkiy Mir and Rossotrudnichestvo, both propaganda instruments to different degrees. Russkiy Mir is a government-funded organization aimed at promoting the Russian language, and commissions projects for the advanced study of Russian in Azerbaijan’s schools. Rossotrudnichestvo is an autonomous Russian government agency, under the jurisdiction of the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, that supports long-term humanitarian aid programmes. Several Russian universities have opened branches in Azerbaijan, and a number of institutes that serve as propaganda channels (including several projects conducted by Russia’s Institute of Eurasian Studies Development Fund) have opened. A Russian Information and Cultural Centre was established in Baku in 2011. In order to strengthen the position of the Russian language in the school curriculum, the Russian embassy in Baku signed a cooperation agreement with the Ministry Education of Azerbaijan to teach Russian in 50 schools (35 in Baku and 15 in regions) in 2009/10 in which the language of instruction was Azerbaijani. This pilot project remained ongoing until 2017, when the Ministry of Education signed a decree adopting the programme on a permanent basis for the 50 schools.
Bringing Azerbaijani students to its universities is also a priority for Russia. Until recently, it had lagged behind Western countries and Turkey as a destination for those seeking undergraduate and graduate education abroad. However, the support available for Western education via various US-led programmes and the Azerbaijani government has been significantly reduced. This has had an important impact on education choices. The government had been increasingly concerned about Western-educated Azerbaijanis who, upon returning home, have sought to change the value system and bring about open discussion of national problems. Limitations on these programmes were imposed from 2009 onwards, and much more markedly in 2013, as young people who had studied abroad began to advocate for political freedoms and introduce new projects to mobilize the population to ask for their rights. Even these small civic initiatives were seen as politically dangerous, with the government perceiving them as a potential pathway to major societal and political mobilization – as occurred in other post-Soviet states. By contrast, the Russian education system is not tied to a liberal value system, and its graduates do not seek to challenge the political status quo; they are easily integrated into the system. For this reason, the government does not oppose Russian university education. Recent data show that approximately 14,000 of the 72,000 international students in Russia are Azerbaijani. In addition, the Russian Ministry of Education through Rossotrudnichestvo has been providing full scholarships for Azerbaijani students in Russian universities. The quota for scholarships has risen from 151 in 2014/15 to 208 in 2017/18. The popularity of Russian education programmes among Azerbaijanis, and of Russian-language schools in the country, also reflects their status as the products of market demand – bearing in mind the non-competitive environment that enables them to flourish, and the paucity of other educational options in the country.
One of the main goals of Putin’s third term has been to build public support for the EAEU project across the post-Soviet space by using soft-power tools. The implementation of this strategy, in place since his first presidential term, has seen the establishment of Russian media tools and organizations in the post-Soviet space, including in Azerbaijan, since 2012. An important element of this project has been the establishment of NGOs such as the Eurasian Club, which focuses on uniting students from universities in Azerbaijan with the aim of promoting Eurasianist ideas. There are also various programmes for young experts (such as the Caspian School), financially supported by Russia’s Alexander Gorchakov Public Diplomacy Fund. The establishment of NGOs such as the Slavic-Turkic Union (in 2013) indicates that Russia’s promotion of Eurasianism is based on emphasizing the Caspian region as the centre of a wider Eurasia – and as the junction between three great civilizations. This is likely to gain traction because it supports Turkic and Muslim identities, and differs from the neo-Eurasianism promoted by Aleksandr Dugin. Dugin’s main argument is the need to thwart what he perceives as the conspiracy of Atlanticism, led by the US and NATO, that aims to contain Russia within rings of newly independent states. This strong anti-Western and pro-Russian narrative is not well received in Azerbaijan. On the other hand, Eurasianist propaganda has gained traction in the universities, with Russian or Slavic cultural centres offering seminars and workshops on Russian culture and history, financially supported by Russia.
Russia’s soft-power insertion into the country has been helped by the creation of the Eurasian Movement, an Azerbaijani organization run by people directly connected to Russia’s military and political establishments. This clearly political manoeuvre, supported by Russia, was originally announced soon after the annexation of Crimea in 2014. The organization was then officially relaunched in 2015, when Azerbaijan’s ongoing crackdown on civil society, Western institutions and supporters of democracy had created a conducive social and political environment for Russia to develop its soft-power profile.
Until recently, the missing element in Moscow’s soft-power matrix had been the presence of a pro-Russia media outlet in the Azerbaijani language, backed by the Kremlin and tolerated by Azerbaijan’s authorities. However, this changed in the wake of the events in Ukraine in 2013–14. Not only did the Ukrainian revolution prompt a crackdown in Azerbaijan on Western-funded NGOs and limits on foreign aid to independent institutions, it also saw an increased trend of Russian investment in pro-Russian Azerbaijani-language media/news agencies. The availability of the Sputnik News internet portal since May 2015 is a prime example. Its content includes anti-Western rhetoric, and it takes a line supporting Azerbaijan’s government. In particular, Sputnik shares the administration’s view that the West supports revolutionary change through NGO funding and infiltration, echoing fears about the threat of a ‘fifth column’. Since July 2015, the Sputnik Azerbaijan radio station has broadcast on the Araz FM frequency, which is owned by the family of Ali Hasanov, a top aide to Aliyev.
The influence of Moscow-sponsored Russian-language media over public opinion has often been perceived as limited. However, a 2015 survey showed that, due to their exposure to it, the majority of Azerbaijanis believed the Russian narrative blaming the US and the West for the Ukraine conflict. The Russia-based media effectively used the Azerbaijani government’s anti-Western rhetoric for its own purposes. Even though Azerbaijan ostensibly supported Ukraine – based on upholding the principle of territorial integrity in connection to Nagorny Karabakh – Russian disinformation still had an impact. Although the Azerbaijani government considers the possibility that pro-Kremlin media could monopolize the information space inside the country to be remote, in the long term such efforts could gather momentum. Russia now openly provides official financial support for Russian-language programmes broadcast by Azerbaijan’s media outlets. It is likely that the number of Russian soft-power instruments aimed at media manipulation will increase.
Azerbaijan does not have the capacity to fully prevent Russian soft-power efforts. However, Russia’s attempts to improve public perceptions of itself have had a limited impact. This is partly due to the fact that the media is strictly supervised by the Azerbaijani government, which pursues a careful policy of neither promoting nor prohibiting the few outlets that serve Russian interests. A second reason has been the presence and activities of Western-funded NGOs, at least until the crackdown against them in 2013–14, which have provided a counterbalance to Russian influence. There has been a visible trend in Azerbaijan of pro-Russian actors creating quasi-NGOs using names such as ‘Eurasia’, ‘Slavic Studies’ and ‘Slavic-Turkish World Union’. Such groups are strengthening their voice in Azerbaijani media: never crossing the line in terms of provocative argument or antagonizing the government of Azerbaijan, but nonetheless steadily injecting a Russian narrative into the public discourse. Overall, there is evidence that Russia has been improving its use of soft-power instruments in Azerbaijan, especially in recent years. Ultimately, the success of such efforts will depend on how much Russia is able to invest, and the extent to which the Azerbaijani authorities will tolerate its intrusions.