The British monarchy came under fire earlier in May for featuring cavalries and dance troupes from such authoritarian regimes as Oman, Bahrain and Azerbaijan at the Royal Windsor Horse Show during the celebrations for the Queen’s 90th birthday. While this time it created headlines, the Queen’s encounters with Azerbaijani horses actually go back six decades, and included performances in the same show four years ago.
That a national symbol like the Karabakh horse breed would appear in the British royal show was a source of pride for many Azerbaijanis, and an opportunity to remind the world of the disputed status of the region where the breed originated, Nagorno-Karabakh. For in recent years, the ancient and almost extinct breed has become a fixation for domestic cultural policies in the Caucasian country and a tool for propaganda abroad, to reassert the country’s right over the breakaway region through peaceful means.
Those in attendance at the Royal Windsor Horse Show on May 10-14 could be forgiven for missing the subtle connection between the horses and Azerbaijan’s long-standing conflict with Armenia over the Nagorno-Karabakh region, which saw 30,000 killed and 1mn internally displaced in the 1990s. But former MP Lord Kilclonney, a veteran lobbyist for Azerbaijan, made sure to remind them of it. “I have visited Azerbaijan several times and been to every corner of this beautiful country... The only place that I couldn’t see is the Armenian-occupied Nagorno-Karabakh region, which is considered the cradle of Azerbaijani culture. Therefore, watching the performance of the Karabakh horses for the first time is of special importance to me. Unfortunately, it did not take place in Nagorno-Karabakh itself, but here in the UK,” he was reported as telling journalists at the event.
Karabakh horses are one of several breeds originating in the Caucasian country, where they became central to the local culture as early as the 17th century thanks to influences from Central Asia, Iran and the Arab peninsula.
To Azerbaijanis the horses symbolise freedom, agility and stamina – symbols entrenched in popular consciousness by the numerous cultural references to the animals. For instance, in the 1937 novel “Ali and Nino”, published under the pseudonym Kurban Said and regarded as a masterpiece of Azerbaijani literature, the protagonist Ali races on the back of a “red-golden miracle” – a Karabakh horse – after an Armenian who has kidnapped his wife-to-be.
But the number of pure-breed Karabakh horses began to decline in the 19th century, and continued to shrink during Soviet times as modernity and rapid urbanisation took their toll on rural life and horse breeding. The Nagorno-Karabakh war of the late 1980s and early 1990s was the last straw that almost decimated the species. Reports claim that were it not for the efforts to rescue some 285-odd mares from a farm in the Agdam region close to Nagorno-Karabakh in 1993, the breed would now be extinct.
Some of the rescued horses perished in war-torn Azerbaijan following the conflict, until the agriculture ministry launched an initiative in 2007 to identify whatever mixed and pure breed specimens remained in order to preserve them. In parallel, the culture ministry initiated efforts to have Azerbaijan’s horse-related traditions like chovqan, a horseback riding game similar to polo, recognised as a Unesco cultural heritage. As a result, the game was added to the list of Unesco intangible cultural heritage in need of urgent safeguarding in 2013.
The oil major, the Queen and a disputed territory
But cultural efforts to promote the breed as Azerbaijan’s cultural patrimony have intensified this year, just as a four-day conflict broke out in Nagorno-Karabakh in early April, resulting in over 100 deaths and in Azerbaijan reconquering a 20 square kilometre piece of land in the region.
Since signing a ceasefire agreement with Armenia in 1994 to end the war over Nagorno-Karabkh, Azerbaijan has pulled out all the stops to recoup its territory, which is internationally recognised as part of the country but is de facto autonomous. Throughout the years, oil-rich Baku has sought to get into the good graces of foreign governments by sponsoring sporting competitions, lobbying groups, cultural activities and humanitarian causes in Europe, the US, the Middle East, Central Asia and Turkey. The goal of such efforts has been to garner as much international support as possible for Azerbaijan, in order to give it increased leverage in the ongoing peace negotiations with Armenia.
But the lobbying, sports sponsorship and charity work have proven largely ineffective, particularly in Western Europe and the US, where a backlash over Baku’s human rights record has overshadowed the government’s public relations campaign. In response, a frustrated Baku has resorted to subtler ways of rallying support for its claim over Nagorno-Karabakh.
A week after the April clashes ended, the Azerbaijani culture ministry premiered a documentary called “Sarylar – a journey to the Karabakh horse”. Sponsored by oil major BP, the largest foreign investor in Azerbaijan, the documentary is ostensibly a human interest story about the quest to find the descendants of a Karabakh horse gifted to Queen Elizabeth II in 1956. This shows how far back the Queen’s history with Azerbaijani horses go, almost to the beginning of her reign.
But the timing of the documentary’s release, that it was made in English so intended for an international audience, as well as the takeaway message that, according to the official website, “horses need a home country, a place where they originally came from and where they developed their unique nature” make the cinematic effort an unmistakable attempt in cultural propaganda.
The horses’ appearance at this year’s event is just the latest in a series of attempts by Baku to reaffirm its ancestral rights over Nagorno-Karabakh by strategically promoting the Karabakh horse breed internationally as a central part of its cultural heritage.
Making sure that the horses would take part in the event was no small feat for The Europe Azerbaijan Society (TEAS), the London-based Azerbaijani lobbying group that facilitated the participation of the horses in the event, or indeed for the animals themselves, which spent two months traveling from Azerbaijan to London via Russia.
The decline in oil prices since 2014 has dented Baku’s ability to finance its lobbying activities abroad, with its US lobbying operations falling victim to the economic recession in March. That Azerbaijan would find the money to participate in the Royal Windsor Horse Show speaks to the importance it attaches to cultural propaganda activities related to Nagorno-Karabakh.
But for all of Baku’s efforts to promote its cultural legacy internationally, the status of the breakaway region will only realistically be settled at the negotiating table, where peace talks are overseen by France, Russia and the US. Wasting oil money on PR abroad has done little to endear the Azerbaijani government to Westerners throughout the years, or to rally support for their claim over Nagorno-Karabakh. Why would it be any different this time around?