Azerbaijan’s authoritarian president, Ilham Aliyev, is an unlikely champion for the victims of French colonialism.
But as chairman of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), that is precisely how he is positioning himself.
Of course, he has his own grievances against France, namely Paris’ allegedly pro-Armenian stance in the Azerbaijan-Armenia peace talks that have followed the Second Karabakh War of 2020.
In a speech on July 5 at the Ministerial Meeting of the NAM Coordinating Bureau in Baku, Aliyev criticized France at length and said some NAM members are still suffering from its continuing practice of “neocolonialism.”
NAM was established during the Cold War as a forum for states not formally aligned with or against the major power blocs of the time. It now has 120 members and is the largest congregation of states worldwide, after the United Nations. Azerbaijan joined NAM in 2011 and has been chairing it since 2019.
“Azerbaijan is very much concerned by the rising tendency towards neo-colonialism. NAM, which was created as a result of the decolonization process, should vigorously combat this shameful legacy of the past and contribute to its full elimination,” Aliyev said in his speech. “French-administered territories outside Europe are nasty remains of the French colonial empire.”
He then backed Comoros’ claim of sovereignty over the French-administered Island of Mayotte and appeared to support the independence movement in New Caledonia.
He said France’s colonial-era atrocities in Algeria amounted to “genocide”, echoing a claim made in 2011 by Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the president of Azerbaijan’s closest ally, Turkey. Paris does not accept the claim.
Aliyev called on France to “apologize for its colonial past and bloody colonial crimes and acts of genocide against NAM member countries in Africa, South-East Asia and other places.”
France needs to do so now more than ever in the aftermath of unrest in the country following the killing of an Algerian teen, he said.
Aliyev visited Algeria in November 2022 and paid a visit to the Martyrs’ Memorial, which was built to commemorate Algerians who died fighting against French imperial rule. He said then that “France conducted a terrible war against the Algerian people for more than 130 years which resulted in the deaths of more than one and a half million Algerians,” but stopped short of using the word “genocide.”
Azerbaijan has long been critical of France over its pro-Armenian stance in the Karabakh conflict, especially during the peace process that followed the 2020 war between Armenia and Azerbaijan.
In a television interview in October 2022, French President Emmanuel Macron blamed Azerbaijan for launching “a terrible war” against Armenia in 2020 and again “attacking” the latter in September 2022. In response, the Azerbaijani president said that France should have no place in mediation efforts between Armenia and Azerbaijan.
“I had the opportunity to communicate quite closely with President [Jacques] Chirac, President [Nicolas] Sarkozy and President [Francois] Hollande, and our relations were quite balanced, quite friendly,” he said at an October 14 CIS summit meeting in Astana. “We always perceived the activities of previous French presidents, despite, of course, a certain factor of the Armenian diaspora in France, as balanced. However, the current French leadership has effectively crossed out all this.”
France was one of three mediating countries comprising the OSCE Minsk Group for the settlement of the Azerbaijan-Armenia conflict that was set up in the mid-1990s. The format still exists on paper but has not been active since the 2020 war.
Most recently, on July 7, France’s Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna reaffirmed her country’s support for an international mechanism guaranteeing the rights and securities of Karabakh Armenians in the Armenia-Azerbaijan peace process in a phone call with her Armenian counterpart Ararat Mirzoyan.
The Azerbaijani president and his government, meanwhile, find the French stance hypocritical given France’s history of colonialism and “neocolonialism.”
“Unfortunately, France is trying to impose the same ill practice in the region of the South Caucasus by supporting Armenian separatism in the Karabakh region of Azerbaijan and by means of geopolitical rivalry, foreign military presence and colonial policy of ‘Orientalism,'” Aliyev argued in his July 5 speech.