Karabakh: The big debate
Commonspace.eu today publishes the 14th in a series of twenty interviews with key personalities from Nagorno-Karabakh. The interviews give a vivid, even if sombre picture, of the attitude of Armenians and Azerbaijanis from Karabakh whose lives have been deeply affected by the conflict, and whose destiny will be at the heart of any future conflict settlement. Those interviewed sometimes use harsh language. Their opinion is almost inevitably controversial, as are sometimes their biographical notes. However it is through listening to these opinions that a path through the labyrinth that is the Karabakh conflict can be found. A full editorial policy of commonspace.eu is available at the About Us section. The next interview in the series will be with Hayk Khanumyan, Chairman of the European Movememnt in Nagorno-Karabakh.
Interview with Anar Usubov
Anar Usubov was born in 1981 in Khojaly in Nagorno-Karabakh. He majored in International Relations and got his Masters degree at Baku State University in Political Science. He has been representing Khojaly of the Nagoro-Karabakh Community and has been a board member of the Nagorno-Karabakh Azerbaijani Community since 2003. He started his career in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Azerbaijan Republic and then served as Host Family Coordinator in the Peace Corps. He is a peace activist and has been actively dealing with conflict prevention and dialogue between the two Communities, and currently works as a Political analyst at the Effective Initiatives Center. He was an eye witness to the Khojaly massacre committed on 26 February, 1992 by joint Armenian-Russian military forces against civilians and is temporarily settled in Baku.
Biographical notes are provided by the interviewees themselves.
Can you summarize your overall position on the Karabakh conflict and the conflict resolution process:
I am one of many others that had to leave their hometown, and spend their childhood and many valuable years living in tent camps in very poor conditions, in squalor. Not having adequate education resources, medical care systems, social status and other things because we were forced to leave our homelands. When the protests started in 1988 in Nagorno-Karabakh, I was a small child of 8 or 9 years and I was trying to understand what was going on around me and what the demonstrations were about, and what was going to happen. In my hometown the majority were Azerbaijanis, when the conflict started Armenians began firing missiles at us from Khankendi (Steparnaket) and we fired back - it was actually mutual action/reaction behavior - life could not go on as it did before. I stopped going to school due to the security situation, there was a threat to our lives. My high school study was disrupted and this continued until 1994, until 14 I didn't have a normal education.
I'm not an expert on conflict or a political analyst, by in my opinion and according to the politicians the conflict started as an ethno-religious conflict and then transformed into a regional conflict - from Azerbaijani/Armenian conflict and then to a post-Soviet era conflict including Russia. This in turn drew in other members of the international community, Europe and the US for example, who played a key role in the conflict resolution process. As an inhabitant of Nagorno-Karabakh - where I spent my childhood and where my father and grandfather were born - I became a part of the conflict without choice.
Both sides have their arguments and try to justify their stance on the conflict, and try to argue that they have the right to the territory. But the reality according to objective analysis is that until 1991 Nagorno-Karabakh was part of the sovereign territory of the Azerbaijani Republic, but as the result of aggressive Armenian actions it was occupied - not only Nagorno-Karabakh, but also the seven surrounding territories - despite the fact that Armenia claims they have nothing to do with Nagorno-Karabakh, and it is the Nagorno-Karabakh Army Volunteers who occupied those areas. This is not a plausible idea, because when you think about the power balance between the NKAV and the Azerbaijani army, its just absurd. If you need say 4,000-5,000 volunteers to take Nagorno-Karabakh alone, but then also take the seven adjacent districts against a bigger Azerbaijani army, this is just an unacceptable claim [that they did it alone] and is not logical. The third factor to understand therefore is that the Armenian Republic took active part in battle against Azerbaijan, and their plan was to occupy the lands - displacing hundreds of thousands of people.
The ceasefire was reached in 1994, both sides tried to show their commitment to a peaceful resolution of the conflict, negotiations are still going on. Unfortunately we have not succeeded in finding common ground for a solution of the problem - sometimes they blame each other of being destructive and not having a positive attitude for a solution - but we are still refugees after 19 years and this is a very difficult existence. The third generation is now growing up as refugees and they have no idea of their homelands and cities, they only know them from stories - this is really dangerous. Sometimes I think that Armenia is prolonging the conflict so that the third generation will forget about their homelands, perhaps like the Palestinians. My grandmother died last year, and maybe in 10 years my father with pass away, and I was just a small kid when I left my home - my own kids of course don't have any memories of their homeland and its hard therefore for them to have an emotional connection.
In the long term do you want to see Nagorno-Karabakh as (a) an independent state, (b) as part of Armenia, (c) as part of Azerbaijan, (d) none of the above but in an as of yet undefined status. Comment on your choice:
(c). My answer is clear. We used to live under the sovereignty of Azerbaijan, we lived together and were glad to live together until the war broke out. Why do I want Nagorno-Karabakh to be a part of the Azerbaijan Republic? Firstly, because its historically part of the Azerbaijan Republic. Secondly, because the country is getting richer day by day, from petro-dollars as we have a huge amount of oil and gas reserves and other things such as large investments from famous trans-national companies. Every person wants to live in good social conditions, with a welfare system and good living conditions. If you compare the living conditions, or GDP or average salary or whatever, I would prefer to live in Azerbaijan and benefit from the social care system which this country provides. I'm not blaming Armenia for being a poor country, but if we compare the living standards and social welfare systems, they are much better here - this is not my own view, but also the indicators of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund - so why live in a poor country when you have the opportunity to live in a rich country.
What is your biggest objection/concern to Nagorno-Karabakh being independent or part of Armenia or under some as of yet undetermined status that is not part of Azerbaijan:
First of all I would not benefit from the same benefits I am entitled to as a citizen of Azerbaijan. Secondly, there would be no guarantee for my security and safety - I've already been tortured, made to leave my homeland, and been threatened and intimidated by the Armenian armed forces. This is the main reason.
Were you directly involved in the armed hostilities between 1989-94? If yes in what capacity?
I was directly involved in 1992 when my hometown was totally destroyed, there was massive killings and I lost 17 relatives, all between their 20s and 30s, some of whom are still missing. I lost my home, my classmates, childhood friends, neighbors - everything that is considered valuable for human beings. I was lucky not to be killed - this was not my Kismet [destiny, fate] - maybe so I could be here to tell you about those horrible things that happened 19 years ago. We had to flee from our home through the woods at night. Eventually after being displaced for a year, moving from place to place, we arrived at the Soviet-era sanitarium which was used for housing IDPs in Naftalan in 1993 and stayed there for six years until 1999. There in the camp at Naftalan were Turkish and Arab charities which provided rudimentary services. Everyone there was suffering a lot due to the poor living conditions. I didn't go to school until I was 14, and had to borrow books from my friends to study by myself. My childhood was very disrupted as we had to move continually from place to place to find adequate living standards. This happened to all the refugees and IDPs, and this hurt us a lot, especially because we didn't have consistent and adequate education.
How do you evaluate the work of the OSCE Minsk Process?
From 1992 the Group became deeply involved in the conflict resolution process, and they have been engaged for a peaceful resolution of the conflict by offering three main package solutions, step-by-step and common state solutions, for the resolution of the problem. The Co-Chairs of the Group - France, the US and Russia - are looking for a resolution to the problem. I do appreciate their efforts and know that the OSCE organisation is deeply concerned about regional security and regional cooperation. Unfortunately their great efforts have not borne fruits yet , but they are now experts on the Nagorno-Karabakh issue and if we seek out other another institution to resolve the problem, even if it is higher in the international hierarchy - the UN Security Council for example - we would need another 15 or 19 years for them to understand the situation by sending their ambassadors and lawyers to the region to become familiar with what happened here. Also the OSCE is more closely concerned with the interests of the region, for its security and cooperation, as they are interested in opening up this region and its possible future integration into Europe, as well as with its democratization and development.
The format that the Group offers today is satisfactory, but the IDP and refugee community is really angry that they have not done anything. Where are the results? How long are we expected to wait? We cannot wait another 10 years. Our people are passing away, and we are spread out all across the country, making it difficult to keep a sense of community. My relatives' graves are scattered all across the country. Our community is losing its sense of identity, some are forgetting about their background, and are marrying and starting new lives with the local people and integrating with them. In other places we are marginalized and alienated. It really hurts my heart when people call me a refugee. They accuse me of being a coward and say that I could not defend my hometown and ask me 'why are you living here, you have no right to live here - you were supposed to struggle and die there - you are not a brave man, you are a coward'. I try to explain to them that I was a small kid of 11 years old, how was I supposed to do it? But I know that when they blame the elders of this, it is very hard for them to find an answer.
Do you have a publicly expressed position on the Madrid Principles?
My personal position on the Madrid Principles is that it doesn't matter if its the Madrid Principles, the 'Prague Format', 'Moscow Principles' or whatever - the name doesn't mean anything to me - but there are some stipulations that are important. First, that I can return to my homeland, this is the number one issue for me and all the other IDPs and refugees. Also, that there must be a peaceful solution to the problem - this is very important - I don't want to lose another 17 relatives, I don't want any more bloodshed, I don't want any more killing because I lived through this. Maybe people who are living in Baku and other regions, they don't know about being a victim of violence, but I know it, and I don't wish to be involved or for anyone else to be involved in a second conflict. So the Principles' commitment to a peaceful settlement satisfies me. The other thing is the commitment to dialogue and mutual understanding and the peaceful coexistence of Azerbaijani and Armenian Nagorno-Karabakhis - which is very important. So as long as all these principles are included in the Madrid Principles, I am in general satisfied with them.
Do you think that it is important/appropriate that the de facto authorities of the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic be part of the peace process facilitated by the Minsk Group? If yes should they be there instead of the Armenian Government?
This is a very interesting question and I would say that it must be a fully agreed process. So its not just the Nagorno-Karabakh Armenian authorities which are supposed to represent Nagorno-Karabakh during the negotiations. First of all, both communities of Nagorno-Karabakh - I'm talking about the Azerbaijani and Armenian communities - must find agreements between themselves, and I'm pretty sure we can and we will. We have to find an agreement, and then we can together decide if we will represent Nagorno-Karabakh in the negotiations or not. But today I am sure that the current de facto Nagorno-Karabakh authority is a puppet authority which is controlled and governed by the Armenian Republic, and whatever they decide the Nagorno-Karabakh high-ranking Officers just obey their rulings. So its not about the decisions of the de facto authorities of Nagorno-Karabakh but the Armenian Republic which wants them to be a third party in the negotiations. But the reality is that first of all they are not entitled to be a third party, as we are also Nagorno-Karabakh's settlers and inhabitants. So we have to be a third party together if it is considered that there must be a third party. The second thing is that it was not the de facto authorities which started the war but the Armenian Republic and Armenian armed soldiers, they helped and they intervened and they occupied the lands and they started the war. If negotiations firstly between the two states can at some stage lead to agreement on the key issues for a final settlement, then why not? But as a second part of the negotiations the Nagorno-Karabakh Armenians and Azerbaijanis, who are supposed to live together in the future - and the peaceful coexistence of these communities is essential - they should take part and be a third party, as it is their destiny which is the subject of the negotiations and they must eventually be part of the negotiations. This is my stance.
Sometimes the possibility is mentioned that the territories around Nagorno-Karabakh under Armenian control since 1994 should be returned to Azerbaijan as part of an interim peace agreement, leaving the issues of the status of Nagorno-Karabakh to a later date. Do you have an opinion on this issue?
This is about displaying goodwill on both sides. Who violated the equilibrium in 1988? We didn't invade a single meter of the Armenian Republic, but they invaded approximately 16-17% of our territory and they violated the status quo between 1988-1994. So they should be expected to make the first step to show their goodwill. What can we do now? We are just waiting for the other side to show their goodwill because we didn't invade any region or any land of the Armenian Republic. After they show their goodwill with the liberation of at least three of the occupied regions, it will show that they are ready and willing to make compromises. Then on the Azerbaijani side we will see that they are eager and serious to leave the region and seek a peaceful solution of the problem, and then we will do our turn and do what we are required to do - maybe opening up communication or involving Armenians in regional projects, like pipelines, or make other possible compromises - whatever is required. Then we will have mutual trust and understanding, and both sides will see that there is no threat against each other or hatred and animosity. After that Armenians will start the second stage, liberating the other regions including Nagorno-Karabakh and allowing the return of IDPs and refugees to their homelands. We will open our borders and allow all Armenians who used to live in Azerbaijan before the conflict to return, and say that we are ready and invite them and accept them. This is a stage-by-stage solution and a long process, but the ball is in their court, and we are expecting their first goodwill action and then we will show our reaction - because they are the ones expected to make the first move.
Today I am traveling a lot around Azerbaijan and I am meeting with IDPs and refugees, and its really hard to see a villager who has been suffering - living in tiny, small dormitories for 19 years, seven or nine people in a small place, and they are still expecting a solution to the conflict. Its very hard to persuade them that we are trying to find a peaceful solution, because they don't believe anything. Their reality is that they are living there and suffering there and dying there. The government is helping with tent camps but it is still very hard, in the winter it is very cold and the summer very hot, without adequate health care and education systems. It is not living, just dying and suffering. The government spends around USD$800 on one refugee per year, and the first oil dollars are spent for restoring the social conditions of the IDPs and refugees, but despite all these things the UN High Commission on IDPs and refugees doesn't really appreciate the efforts of the Azerbaijani government for the resolution of refugee problems. There are still huge problems for us to deal with and our budget is limited. Without our petro-dollars can you imagine how we would live? So its a very tough issue. Our community also suffers from post-traumatic stress disorders, some are physically handicapped, some mentally handicapped - its a really serious issue.
What is your opinion with regards to the role of Turkey, Russia, Iran, the United States, the European Union or any other country or international organisation, or the international community in general, with regards to the Karabakh conflict and its settlement:
When the conflict broke out in the 1990s the active participants were Russia, Iran and Turkey. The Iranian mediating role did not succeed as Shusha was occupied, and we have problems with Iran because 30 million Azeris are living in northern Iran. Turkey, unanimously and unambiguously, do support justice - I would not just say the Azerbaijani position, but justice - they support our territorial integrity and UN resolutions on the conflict which must be implemented (which state that all occupied territories must be liberated, and that all IDPs and refugees must return to their homelands), and Turkey also supports the EU parliament resolution on Nagorno-Karabakh as well as the European Council resolution. So I think that Turkey always plays a fair role, and Turkey reiterated again in 2009 that they are ready for good regional cooperation with regards to Armenia, but that they must first withdraw from their occupying position, and that after that they can start cooperation, goodwill and joint relations.
Russia was the main, active key participant when the war started and until now we cannot feel any positive participation from Russian mediation. It is my personal opinion that they tried to take both countries under their own control by using this conflict, its just a control mechanism for Russia to apply pressure on both countries. Its just a tool, an instrument for Russia to keep this region under its control. They just play with both sides, giving real support to Armenia and offering "support" to the Azerbaijani side, it's just a game. They are not interested in a solution to the conflict, but maintaining the status quo and freezing the conflict. As long as the conflict is frozen, it means that the Russian control will continue. They sell munitions and arms to both sides, although they help Armenians more because Azerbaijan is richer, and they want to maintain the balance between the struggling powers. Russia has a negative role in the resolution of the conflict.
We believe that the EU and the US have a sincere approach to the conflict and that they are trying to play a positive role in the conflict resolution, they are trying to be impartial and fair actors. The US held meetings in Key West in 2001, and then Secretary of State Colin Powell took part in these negotiations. They are also a Co-Chair of the Minsk Group, and I believe in their sincere thoughts. But in the US there is a strong Armenian diaspora which has influence over US commerce and decision making bodies, and this damages US-Azerbaijani relations. But ultimately they accept and recognize the territorial integrity of the Azerbaijani Republic and they are serious and eager to reach a resolution of the conflict. We can't feel the efforts of the EU because we only see France, which is a key player actively involved in the negotiation process. We would like to see other EU states get involved in the resolution process and apply the EC and EP resolutions.
How do you evaluate the role of informal, NGO-level contributions to the peace process? Do you believe that informal contacts have a useful role to play prior to or after a formal agreement?
I really appreciate them. In February I took part in meetings at the International Student Festival in Norway, where I met with Nagorno-Karabakh Armenians and Armenians from Yerevan, and saw that we can talk and share our opinions. If we can do it there, why not in Nagorno-Karabakh? It would increase mutual trust and reliability, and allow us to see that there are no differences and that we have many common things to share and to agree on. I think that it would be good if we invite Nagorno-Karabakh NGOs to Azerbaijan, organize common round tables here and discuss the issues, show them our developments. We have to stimulate grass-roots diplomacy and establish a good foundation for trust and reliability.
Do you have a position on the desirability or not of free movement of Armenians and Azeris between their two countries before a final peace agreement?
I think this is also part of NGO activity, so why not? If we talk about peace, peaceful coexistence and friendly relations, Armenians must have access to come here and we to go there, to see the real situation - to see that there is no hatred, there is no antagonism, no clash against each other. So its highly important I think. We have to provide for the security and safety of each other, this is also a key factor.
Do you think that Armenians and Azerbaijanis will ever be able to live together peacefully in Karabakh again in the future?
I do believe that, like we did until 1991. So if we lived together for many years before that, and the last 19 years we had some problems, then surely we can do it in the future. We are neighbors, we are living in the same region in a common house. We must see the Caucasus as a shared region which can combine us, like the EU, and not let it be divisive. It must be collective and we must think on the things which can combine us not divide us.
What is your opinion on the issue of return of refugees/IDPs to Nagorno-Karabakh?
As a member of the IDP and refugee community I can say that we all are expecting and looking forward to the great day when we will be able to return back to our homelands and live there. We are counting the days. We cannot think of anything else, it is impossible for us to think of dying here. We were born there and we will get back there and spend out lifetime there, I'm sure of that, there is no other way. We have the right to choose where we want to live, and I want to live in my hometown Khojaly - no one has the right to violate this. This is what all the Azerbaijani IDPs and refugees are thinking.
Read previous interviews in this series:
The public debate between the leaders of Armenia and Azerbaijan in Munich on Saturday was not there to be won or lost, but was itself a confidence-building measure, argues Dennis Sammut in this week's Monday Commentary