At Slate, Joshua Kucera examines a particularly clumsy piece of Azerbaijani public diplomacy. The Azerbaijani government financed the renovation of two parks in downtown Mexico City, spending a bit more than five million US dollars in the process. In one park, the Azerbaijani government placed a statue of the country’s first president, Heydar Aliyev; in the other, a monument to the dead of the Khojaly Massacre, killed in the Armenian-Azerbaijani war. The statues were initially missed by a Mexican public caught up in other issues, but recently much public discontent has built up surrounding the placement of one statue to a dead foreign dictator and another to Azerbaijan’s denialism of the Armenian genocide in the Mexican capital.
Until recently, Azerbaijan had been making good progress in advancing its agenda in Mexico. Mexico’s Senate in 2011 passed a resolution calling Khojaly a “genocide,” one of only a handful of governments in the world to do so. (Mexico has never formally recognized the events of 1915 as such.) The same year, Mexico City’s Museum of Memory and Tolerance hosted an event commemorating Khojaly.
But Azerbaijan seems to have overreached with the Aliyev statue. The monument initially drew little notice—as early as April, four months before it was erected, the Azerbaijani Embassy said it wanted a monument to Aliyev in the park. But the controversy only began in early September, a couple of weeks after the statue’s inauguration.
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Mexico City’s intelligentsia is sensitive to such practices, having only recently emerged from a decades-long dictatorship itself. Moreover, Mexico’s capital is a liberal oasis; in 2009 it legalized gay marriage. “This is a city that prides itself on its liberty, and we don’t like the symbolism of having Heydar Aliyev in Chapultepec,” he said, referring to the park. “The monument is appalling—in bad taste and in a very strategic position,” on Mexico City’s stateliest avenue, near statues of Gandhi and Winston Churchill.
The controversy grew and soon became a cause célèbre among the city’s chattering classes, leading to a steady stream of opinion articles and talk-radio debates. A three-member commission of prominent intellectuals (Osorno being one) was formed to study the matter and in November issued recommendations to remove the Aliyev statue and to change the wording on the Khojaly monument from “genocide” to “massacre.”
Azerbaijan’s ambassador to Mexico, Ilgar Mukhtarov, tried to defend the statue—unsuccessfully. In an interview, Mukhtarov claimed that the silent majority of Mexicans was behind him, though he wasn’t able to provide evidence of supporters other than the handful of Azerbaijani expats living there. He claimed that the controversy was ginned up by the country’s Armenian community, a standard Azerbaijani government trope. (Mexico’s Armenian community is tiny and diffuse but well-connected: The former rector of the country’s top university, Jose Sarukhan Kermez, is of Armenian descent and has campaigned against the statue. Still, his role was hardly decisive.) He also claimed that the city of Cleveland has a Heydar Aliyev park (not true) and acknowledged that Aliyev’s record wasn’t perfect, but neither was that of many Mexican presidents who have statues in the city. Aliyev “is our national hero, not Mexico’s, and it’s our right to recognize our national leader,” Mukhtarov told me.
The Aliyev statue did end up being removed.