Thursday, June 28, 2012

Azeri "Public Diplomacy" in DC

You might or might not have heard of the Smithsonian Folklife Festival held annually on the National Mall. I'll be honest, having lived in DC for three years now, it is the first time that I actually made it there, and that was not as much for the festival itself (which is bad, I admit, because it was actually great!), but because I was promised a George Clinton performance.

In short, I was going to spend the evening there and I had heard that there will be some food. It was perhaps due to this initial ignorance that I was absolutely shocked (and honestly, pleasantly surprised - at first) to see "Azerbaijani food" among other concessions (such as barbecue and comfort food). Putting the exclusive "Azerbaijani" label on dishes such as dolma or kebab was a little too politically incorrect, I thought (OK, they even had Efes, which is perhaps the one thing everyone will agree is not Azerbaijani). But if others do it, why can't Azeris do it, too... right?

When I got to the Mall, I was curious to check out their food stand. The lines were pretty big. And yes, I was actually impressed, at first.

Then, I saw the T-shirts.

Apparently, the Karabakh Foundation is also sponsoring two evening Azerbaijani concerts - Mugham performances - which, although are not yet labeled as being related to "Karabakh", will surely be used for related informational ends, as well.

Nothing wrong with a political statement?

The thing is, the Festival is supposedly about culture,heritage, and history, and with such a politically loaded statement and the promotion of the local region's culture as exclusively Azerbaijani, the Karabakh Foundation might have overstepped the bounds. And not just "a little bit". The region has been very diverse for centuries (if not, millennia), even if one forgets the current de facto status on the ground. So, presenting it as "Azerbaijani" at such an event actually defeats the very purpose of the festival (and of the Foundation itself), supposedly aimed at celebration and preservation of cultural heritage.

All this within an environment where very few, if any, know about the issue at all, much less about the complexities involved. This, therefore, goes beyond the traditional public (or cultural) diplomacy, and easily crosses the line into manipulation and propaganda.

However, I do not (and cannot) forget that there is the other side to it all, too: the Armenian propaganda side, taking similar (the same?) steps, just - perhaps - within a different context.

In short: Yes, it is that. All over again...

1 comment:

  1. Not quite sure what exactly are you griping about. For example, the dolma prepared at the Festival is uniquely Azerbaijani style (kelem dolma), and the very word dolma is Turkic.

    Likewise, the mugham music is also uniquely Azerbaijani. And it happens that a large number of mugham performers are from the Karabakh region of Azerbaijan.

    Finally, what "de facto" status do you refer to? Firstly, the region is fully de jure recognized part of Azerbaijan. Being temporarily occupied does not change its legal status, or the fact that 600,000 Azerbaijani refugees/IDPs are from there (and 120,000 Armenians are from there and live there).

    Secondly, Azerbaijan continues to have a portion of Karabakh, including Nagorno-Karabakh, under its "de facto" control. Not just Aghdere (Mardakert), but parts of Fuzuli, Aghdam, as well as Terter, Goranboy, Barda, etc.

    Finally, for "millennia", the only people that lived there were Caucasian Albanians (mostly Caucasian-speaking), who, according to Armenian professor Ronald Grigor Suny, were ancestors of modern Azerbaijanis (not Armenians).

    Before them, in very ancient times (before 3rd century BC) the Scythians and other non-Armenian people lived there. It was never part of ethnically Armenians-ruled Armenian dependent kingdoms/principalities (it might have been part of Tigranes the Great's empire for 20 years or so, but Tigranes was Persian ethnically, which many ordinary Armenians don't know and Armenian historians try not to talk much about - read the "Father of Armenian history" about it, Movses of Khorene, for confirmation, as well as modern scholars, like Prof. N. Garsoian), but it was part of the Great Atabek State of Azerbaijan in the 12th century, as well as the states of Qara Qoyunly, Agh Qoyunly, Safavid (16-18 centuries), Afshar (18th century), and later independent Azerbaijani Karabakh Khanate (until 1823).