Who are the Azerbaijani eco-activists who have come to Shushi “to stem the environmental disaster” and now for the third day are blocking the only road connecting Nagorno-Karabakh with Armenia known as the Lachin Corridor?
Who are the people who have come out for what authorities in Baku describe as a spontaneous rally in a country where hundreds of oppositionists are in jail and activists get detained for protests within minutes?
RFE/RL’s Armenian Service has identified a group of Azerbaijani protesters who appear in the front rows of the ongoing protests and who chant environmental slogans the loudest, but haven’t been known for their interest in environmental issues before. Moreover, data available in open sources proves that what many of them have in common is their love and support for the presidential family and pride in Azerbaijan’s military successes.
Among the demonstrators is, for example, Telman Qasimov, a former Azerbaijani soldier who presents himself as a military expert in the pro-government media. According to reports, he is a reserve army captain and speaks Armenian.
The activist posing as an environmentalist has hundreds of photos on Facebook, but on the battlefield rather than in the lap of nature. In these photos Gasimov wears a military uniform and holds a weapon in his hands.
In one of the photos he poses next to Ramil Safarov, an Azerbaijani officer who axed to death an Armenian officer while on a NATO-sponsored training in Budapest, Hungary, in 2004. During the Lachin Corridor protests Qasimov makes appeals in Armenian, calling for peaceful coexistence of the two people. On social media, however, he actively spreads bellicose statements and threats made by Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev. He even has a special album on Facebook where he keeps photos of soldiers trampling and burning the flags of Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh.
Military personnel can be seen among dozens of demonstrators, the sign of the Turkish nationalist “Grey Wolves” organization, which is banned in a number of European countries, can be seen several times in the videos. Protesters spend the night in tents that have been provided by the Azerbaijani government. The logo of the state water company of Azerbaijan, AzerSu, can be seen on the jacket of one of the protesters.
Ruhiyye Memmedova is also actively sharing videos from the Lachin Corridor.
The image of President Aliyev and his wife, Azerbaijan’s Vice President Mehriban Aliyeva, is placed prominently on her Facebook account and dwarfs the picture of herself. Memmedova, who presents herself as an environmentalist, has not made any post on Facebook about environmental protection. Instead, she actively disseminates President Aliyev’s speeches, including the Azerbaijani leader’s belligerent threats to Armenia.
Among the Lachin Corridor protesters is also Nezaket Hesenova, who came to fight against the “environmental disaster” wearing a fur coat.
Judging from the Facebook account of another protester Zulfiya Nuriyeva, the woman has a wide range of interests, but environmental protection is not among them. The image of President Aliyev with his fist raised menacingly features prominently on her page, and Nuriyeva dutifully congratulates the country’s leader on his birthday, wishes him a hundred years’ of life and writes: “We love you.”
On the day the woman left Baku for the environmental protest hundreds of miles away, it wasn’t the environment that was on her mind, but rather her love for national leader Heydar Aliyev: “The powerful leader is always in my heart,” she wrote before blocking the Lachin Corridor.
Among those posing as eco-activists is also Naile Ismayilova, who has more than 10,000 followers on Facebook, but has not made a single post on environmental issues. Instead, she does not miss any opportunity to show her support for President Aliyev and his wife. Recently, for example, she told her followers “good news” that “soon with the efforts of the Azerbaijani authorities, Ukraine will release Misir Gasimli and Subhan Guliyev”, two Azerbaijanis whom a court of law in Kyiv has sentenced to eight months in prison for violence against an ethnic Armenian. The convicted criminals, according to Azerbaijani media, are veterans of the 2020 war in Nagorno-Karabakh. In the photos published by Ismailova, one of them wears a T-shirt with the images of Aliyev and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on it. “I personally believe in President Ilham Aliyev and Vice President Mehriban Aliyeva. Let’s stand by them,” wrote the woman who now poses as an eco-activist.
According to the information available in open sources, the protester Qamze Yusubova, who, according to her Facebook account, works in the “Environmental Awareness and Monitoring” NGO (“Ekoloji Maarifcilik ve Monitorinq IB”) has a certain relation with the Greens. By the way, two years ago after the war in Nagorno-Karabakh that nongovernmental organization publicly congratulated President Aliyev on the victory in the Second Karabakh War and emphasized: “We are sure that in a short time, thanks to your decisive will and your iron fist, with which we crushed the enemy’s head, thanks to our army’s heroism and bravery our tricolor will fly in Khankendi, Khojavand, Khojalu, Agdere, Lachin, Kalbajar, Agdam.” The heartfelt letter was published on Ilham Aliyev’s official website.
Suspicious cases of “eco-activism” have also been singled out by some independent Azerbaijani websites, which are few to find. Berlin-based opposition Meydan TV, for example, said that the Azerbaijanis who have gathered in the Lachin Corridor are protesting against the exploitation of mines for the first time whereas leading watchdogs have published dozens of facts about mineral deposits being illegally operated by the Aliyev family in Azerbaijan.
“Numerous investigations have proven that the mining industries in Dashkesan and Gedabek are completely under the control of the Aliyevs. Until now, however, no activist has protested against it,” the Azerbaijani media outlet said.
Journalist Khadija Ismayilova also recalled Azerbaijan’s Chovdar deposit, where a media investigation had revealed not only huge corruption risks, but also environmental problems. “Nobody listened to us. Had these activists protested then, their voices would have been more vocal today,” Ismayilova wrote on Facebook.
In a conversation with Meydan TV human rights activist Anar Mamedli reminded that Azerbaijan has one of the world’s poorest records not only in terms of human rights, but also in terms of environmental protection. “And when residents of such a country demonstrate in Karabakh, it will not be taken seriously,” he stressed.
Natig Jafarli, an expert on economic and political issues, meanwhile, put the question more bluntly. “Don’t you know that environmental protection is not the only reason for that protest action?” he said. “The goal of the process is to expel the Russian forces from our lands, and every step towards this goal, including environmental slogans, deserves support.”
Azerbaijani political analyst Shujat Ahmedzade spoke even more openly about the matter. “It is naïve to think that the events of the recent days are only caused by environmental concerns,” he wrote on Twitter, explaining that “taking advantage of the weakness of Russia, which is suffering serious tactical losses in Ukraine, Azerbaijan is trying to extract concessions and for this purpose it is raising the stakes day by day.”
By the way, hours before Ahmedzade made his post, the State Service for the Protection of Cultural Heritage of Azerbaijan announced that just like the eco-activists, they were, too, ready to go to Karabakh for monitoring purposes and were waiting for instructions from the authorities.