The posts, which have since been removed, came amid the worst outbreak of fighting since the 1990s over the contested Nagorno-Karabakh region, a breakaway ethnic Armenian enclave within the internationally recognized borders of Azerbaijan. Fighting there left some 30,000 people dead and more than 1 million displaced before the sides agreed to a cease-fire in 1994, but flare-ups have broken out since.
The enclave functions largely as an independent state, controlled by political factions linked to Armenia. But Azerbaijan sees it as occupied territory.
“Every inch of the homeland is one and indivisible,” one Instagram post on a verified McDonald’s account read, alongside a map showing Nagorno-Karabakh within Azerbaijan.
“Victory is with you, Azerbaijani Soldier!” a Burger King branch posted. “Karabakh is Azerbaijan.” The account, while not officially verified by Instagram, appeared to host promotional materials dating back years, to its opening.
In a statement Tuesday to The Washington Post, a McDonald’s corporate spokesperson confirmed that a franchisee in Azerbaijan had removed the social media content in question but would not respond to questions about the company’s policies on political speech on the part of local stores.
Burger King did not respond to a request to confirm that the account in Azerbaijan belonged to a local partner. But shortly after The Post contacted the corporation, the posts — some of which had been online for weeks — became inaccessible. The McDonald’s posts disappeared as well.
“Franchises are set up in order to give freedom to a franchisee to respond to very local market needs,” said Daniel Korschun, an associate professor of marketing at Drexel University. But “this is very clearly a situation where this statement in this very local market can reverberate all through the franchise network.”
In a statement Tuesday, the Armenian National Committee of America-Western Region said it was “shocked and appalled by the recent statements made by McDonald’s” and called “upon the Armenian diaspora to #BoycottHate until action is taken by McDonald’s on this matter.”
An international audience unused to seeing major brands weigh in on fraught regional conflicts reacted with incredulity. But analysts say many international businesses have begun to see similar situations more often.
Like other U.S. corporations with large global footprints, McDonald’s and Restaurant Brands International, which owns Burger King, mostly rely on local franchisees to operate restaurants. While most global corporations have contract clauses that allow them to terminate contracts or take other actions against local partners for causing reputational harm, the language often focuses on food standards — not, conventionally, the risky political territory that some businesses have found increasingly challenging to navigate in recent years, Korschun said.
“We’re going to see more and more franchisees pulling franchisers into controversial political issues,” said Korschun, citing tensions in Hong Kong and between China and Taiwan.
In 2018, the local owner of a hotel in Taiwan cut ties with American hospitality company Marriott after it changed the hotel’s listing to “Taiwan, China,” Agence France-Presse reported.