In late December, a group of men from a nationalist organization broke into a high school in Baku and accosted a teacher, who had become a social media sensation for posting a photo of one of his students dressed in traditional Armenian attire.
“They humiliated me in front of my students. They called me Armenian,” the teacher, Rovshan Azizov, told Eurasianet. “They said I am an Armenian agent, that I came to Azerbaijan to destroy this country under orders from Armenia. I just wanted to show that peace is possible, and that we cannot solve this conflict by killing each other, that’s all,” Azizov said.
Azizov said that school officials had pressured him even before the nationalists stormed the school. “They told me: ‘You better go. If you stay, you put our life and the life of kids in danger,” Azizov said. “Teachers told my students that I was Armenian and that they had to stay away from me.”
Days later, on December 28, Azizov was fired. School officials say it wasn’t because of his pro-Armenian positions, but his unorthodox teaching methods.
But the episode highlights the delicate balance that the Azerbaijani government is trying to maintain in its ongoing struggle with Armenia: the two states are locked in a stalemated process to determine the future of Nagorno Karabakh, a territory seized by Armenian forces from Azerbaijan in a war in the early 1990s.
Azerbaijani government officials insist that their dispute is with the government in Yerevan, not with the Armenian people, and they take pains to emphasize its dedication to multiculturalism and inclusion.
In an interview last year, Azerbaijani First Lady and Vice President Mehriban Aliyeva said that she “will never let the Azerbaijani people form an enemy image of Armenians. There was a time when these peoples lived together, drank their wine at the same table. We should go back to that time.”
At the same time, Azerbaijani school textbooks portray Armenians in highly negative terms to children who, for the most part, have no firsthand knowledge of Armenians. One 2012 study found that terms like “Armenian terrorist, Armenian fascist, Armenian bandit, Armenian separatist, Armenian barbarism, enemy and adjectives such as nasty Armenian and fascist Armenian are widely used in those textbooks.”
“For 25 years the government has developed ideas of revanchism and an image of the enemy, without putting forward any plan for peace,” said Orkhan Nabiyev, a peace activist. “Unfortunately, Azerbaijani society was poisoned with this, as were Armenians. So our conflict is transforming from politics to ethno-politics and we – Armenians and Azerbaijanis – have to stop it.”
The controversy over Azizov began in November, when he posted a photo on facebook of one of his high school students, in front of Baku’s shuttered Armenian church, wearing the traditional Armenian outfit known as the taraz.
The photo was seized on by government-supported nationalist groups like the Female Karabakh Veterans Association and the Karabakh Liberation Movement, and spread rapidly across Azerbaijani social media.
Users pored through his previous social media posts, and found that he had a long record of promoting peace with Armenia. He had posted a photo with the Armenian and Azerbaijani flags flying together, with the caption “I live in Azerbaijan. I don’t want war. I want peace. We don’t have to shed blood,” in both Armenian and Azerbaijani. And the photo of the student was part of a larger project in which he made a series of videos with students role-playing both sides of the Karabakh conflict.
His videos, heavy on stage-fighting – including lots of gunplay – put off some would-be supporters. In one Facebook discussion of the issue, Novella Jafarova, head of the Association for the Protection of Women’s Rights, called one video “a disturbing lesson where kids are hitting girls with guns.”
An official statement, provided by the Baku City Education Office, said Azizov was fired because the videos were “inappropriate for education and the moral-psychological development of the students.”
Others have found that explanation unconvincing. Every year, on the anniversary of the Khojaly massacre – an incident in which Armenian forces killed hundreds of Azerbaijani civilians in Karabakh — students across Azerbaijan reenact the event using elements just as violent as those in Azizov’s video, according to Zamira Abbasova, the co-founder of Tbilisi-based Neutral Zone radio, a program dedicated to building peace in the Caucasus. “If Azizov is fired from his job because of this video, then the directors of almost every school should be fired for the Khojaly skits,” Abbasova told Eurasianet.
Akif Nagi, the head of the Karabakh Liberation Movement, confirmed to Eurasianet in an interview that his group sent representatives to Azizov’s school to confront him because of the pro-Armenian nature of his projects.
“We tried to explain to him how his position works in Armenia’s favor,” Nagi said. “But he could not understand. He was trying to defend his views, as if he is a pro-peace person and that he will continue until the society understands him.”
“Who speaks of peace means he wants our territories to remain under occupation, which is unacceptable,” Nagi said.
Nagi also said that in December he spoke with the school’s director, Tural Mirzeliyev, who promised that he would fire Azizov. Mirzeliyev declined to comment to Eurasianet.
In an interview at the Boho tea house in central Baku, Azizov wore the traditional Azerbaijani arakhchin cap. But he acknowledged that he may, in fact, have Armenian roots.
He was adopted as a baby by an Azerbaijani family, and grew up believing that his birth parents were most likely Russian. But after his adoptive mother died in 2014, he started investigating, and people who knew his adoptive mother when she was younger believed she had adopted him from an Armenian family, though he has yet to confirm this.
“This is one of the reasons that motivated me to promote peace and reconciliation,” he said. “Many think I am enemy of my nation. They think I am dangerous. But I have never betrayed my country … I just promoted peace. Calling for peace is not a crime.”
Azizov said he still has faith in the government to make his case right. “If they really believe Armenians and Azerbaijani people can live side by side in peace they should support me,” he said.