After living in Armenia for some time I learnt to speak of Azerbaijan in hushed whispers. Many will know that the two countries have not seen eye-to-eye since the fall of the Soviet Union and the resultant war in Nagorno-Karabakh. Today every symbol of Azerbaijan feels almost offensive to Armenians. But no symbol has the power to evoke more disgust and vitriol than the country’s president, Ilham Aliyev.
The conflict between these two countries is as much a battle of propaganda as it is anything else. Both sides accuse the other of constant misdemeanors and the truth is sometimes blurred behind a wall of authority spin. It is a worrying state, but one that has produced one of the most baffling joys that I have on the internet: the English-language Twitter feed of President Aliyev.
Public image is one of the most important tools for a world leader. Especially when it comes to the ‘Cult of Personality’ style of leadership that Azerbaijan is used to. However, when it comes to President Aliyev, and more specifically his online presence, the idea of statesmanlike behaviour is completely disregarded.
Much of the Western media first became aware of this phenomenon after Aliyev seemingly hinted at war with this controversial tweet:
The ‘occupied cities’ that Aliyev refers to are those in the breakaway region of Karabakh. The region declared independence from Azerbaijan in 1988 and is currently supported by the Armenian military and an internationally enforced ceasefire.
News outlets from the US, UK, France and Germany pointed to the tweet as a provocation for war. Journalists were quick to analyse the meaning behind the veiled message. But they were all wrong. As an avid reader of Aliyev’s work I can tell you this: if you think that Aliyev (or at least his PR team) are capable of being this subtle then you are giving him too much credit.
And if bad-mouthing neighbours is enough to make the headlines then how about this:
Or perhaps even less subtly, this:
At times, I will admit, his military boasting doesn’t specifically mention Armenia. Though most of the time you get the sense that it was cut from an earlier draft in order to fit with the 140 character limit:
But it’s not just the size of his army that Aliyev likes to talk about. When he’s feeling down he likes to cheer himself up by openly claiming that the Armenian genocide of 1914 never happened:
Aliyev’s Twitter feed is a bizarre mixture of government propaganda, incredibly boring statistics, out-and-out lies and the occasional personal opinion. Reading it gives the same sort of ‘car crash’ morbid pleasure that staring at any horrible thing on the internet for long enough can evoke. You grasp the idea quickly, you begin to interpret the context too – but the more you see the more difficult it is to just look away.
Projecting this sort of message to subjects of your regime seems understandable – but the lack of foresight and the amount of effort required to publish an English-language newsfeed without a single person questioning if it was a good idea is still what draws me to this corner of the internet again and again.
There are gems such as this lofty claim:
There is this humble boast – either a textbook example of Google translate failing to do its job, or a child-like fascination with battleships; which as we all know, are the coolest kind of ship:
Perhaps the President looked upon his marvelous fleet with awe and wonder, and in a brief moment of weakness entertained the idea of giving it all up in exchange for the open seas and the chance to act all his hidden pirate fantasies.
And then there are the occasional moments of existential crisis in which President Aliyev looks at his oil-rich regime and wonders why he manages to get away with it all without any sort of international sanctioning:
“Am I a bad person?” he thinks to himself. “All I ever wanted was for Europe to pay attention to me”. He turns sadly to his collection of Eurovision memorabilia and wanders how many more political prisoners it will take to hill the hollow void of loneliness.
This, of course is conjecture. None of this happened. Probably.
Trying to view the human side behind this propaganda machine is another strange pleasure. There was, for example, the historic moment in which Aliyev briefly experimented in the world of hashtags, but after two tweet decided against the idea:
Like much of Aliyev’s rule, it was never mentioned in public again.
Tom Ana is a Paris-based activist and blogger with an interest in human rights and LGBT issues. He is the editor of Euroclash!. You can follow him on Twitter here! (Ilham Aliyev has yet to follow back)