Karabakh: The big debate
Commonspace.eu today publishes the 16th 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 Garik Grigoryan, Member of Parliament in the National Assembly of the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic.
Interview with Vagif Jahangirov
Vagif Jahangirov graduated from primary school in Tug village, Khojavend district of Nagorno-Karabakh, Autonomous Province, Azerbaijan. He got his major in therapy at the Azerbaijan State Medical University in 1978. In 1979-93 he worked as chief doctor at the medical ambulatory in Domu village, Edilli Regional Hospital, Out Patient department in Akhullu village of the Khojavend district. In 1993-95 he worked as a doctor at the First Aid Hospital in Sumgayit city. From 1998 until 2008 he worked as a trainer/ coordinator in the “Human Rights Education” Project by the Norwegian Refugee Council, “Peace and Tolerance” Project by Relief International in Baku and frontline regions and as a training officer at the International Rescue Committee.
Biographical notes are provided by the interviewees themselves.
Can you summarize your overall position on the Karabakh conflict and the conflict resolution process:
I was born in Nagorno-Karabakh, I grew up, studied and worked there. My family had lived there for around 200 years. When the conflict started I was the medical director of the hospital there, half of my employees were Azeri and the other half Armenians. I mention this because I want you to understand that I know the a-z of the conflict – how it started and then developed. Briefly, I would say that I only see a peaceful resolution to the conflict, and that I don't think peace can be achieved by violent means. I understand that all conflicts eventually end in peace, there is no other way, violence can never achieve lasting peace in the end. As far as I understand, the mission of the OSCE Minsk Group and their efforts are bringing a resolution to the conflict closer. But of course there is still a lot of work to be done and I am not satisfied by the speed of the process. I understand that the process is a time consuming process, but at the same time I observe that the speed is very very slow.
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). I am Azerbaijani and at the same time part of the IDP community of Nagorno-Karabakh, so when I make a conclusion on this issue at the same time I must take into consideration the destiny of my community. I wouldn't say that Nagorno-Karabakh must be part of Azerbaijan without any special status, of course this wouldn't be a correct answer and fair approach to the issue, and I understand that if there is a problem you must find common ground on which to agree. So that’s why I think that the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan must be assured, and within that framework the region and community of Nagorno-Karabakh all together can be given an autonomous status – like the Quebec model in Canada for example, or even with greater autonomy than that, in order to satisfy the Armenian community of Nagorno-Karabakh with a broader autonomous status. So this would be a good option for reaching peace in the region, but again I would like to stress that this will be a time consuming process and not easy and will need a great deal of time spent on it.
I think it would be good to facilitate round-table discussions between representatives of the Azerbaijani and Armenian communities in Nagorno-Karabakh, between the ages of 40-60 years old – since they would know the background of the issue, but not be so old as to be intransigent – in order to discuss to possible status of Nagorno-Karabakh in a constructive way, and reach a conclusion which would contribute positively to the process. I think that this would be an important step and this format could make a positive contribution to the process. Usually it is difficult for the ordinary people to accept the decisions made by the high-ranking officials with regards to the resolution of the conflict, so it is very important that with the help of the NGOs we understand and make known the views of the sincere ordinary people at the grass-roots level who want to find a real solution to the conflict – this is the best means for progress in the process.
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:
This is a very interesting question actually. First of all no region can be independent via invasion with broader support by an external power applying torture, massacre and ethnic cleansing, a community must have a historical right to such an independence. In the Nagorno-Karabakh case I see all the above-mentioned atrocities, but unfortunately no such right of the very small Armenian community for independence. Nagorno-Karabakh being part of Armenia is not acceptable to Azerbaijanis living here nor the IDP community, but I think also nor to the Armenian community living in Nagorno-Karabakh. To my understanding Nagorno-Karabakh could not survive as an independent state, they are very weak and it is illogical to image them as an independent state. Of course I don't rule out the fact that there are very small states in the word, but Nagorno-Karabakh would flourish economically as part of Azerbaijan with an expanded status of autonomy. Nagorno-Karabakh is a very small region, so taking into consideration the economic development going on in Azerbaijan at the moment, Nagorno-Karabakh stands to really gain from this development and to really increase their social and living conditions. But due to external influences the Armenian community of Nagorno-Karabakh may want their own independence rather than a status of greater autonomy within the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan - but since they cannot survive as an independent state, they must understand that it would be very good for them to be a part of Azerbaijan with an autonomous status and to benefit from the development of our country. Our direction is integration and social and economic development towards democracy, and they can see this rapid development and can understand that it is better for them to be a part of Azerbaijan.
Were you directly involved in the armed hostilities between 1989-94? If yes in what capacity?
I was the head doctor at the hospital in Khojavend, so my work was humanitarian and I was trying to help the people, and was not fueling the armed hostilities there. So during that period whilst working as a doctor in the hospital, I often had conversations with the Armenian residents and tried to explain to them that this war won't bring any happiness to any of us, and they were agreeing with me and complaining about the conflict because they believed that being united with Armenia would not bring them happiness. As you know after the conflict Azerbaijan lost several regions, and after 1992 I decided to get involved in politics and founded the local branch of the New Azerbaijan Party in Fizuli, because according to my political views I also started to support President Aliyev and thought that he was the only person able to rescue the nation from our deep crisis. I started to follow his foreign policy also, which aimed to get Azerbaijan integrated into the international community and Europe.
How do you evaluate the work of the OSCE Minsk Process?
I evaluate the role of the OSCE Minsk Group as a mediator in the peace process as average, because they cannot do more than they are doing now. They usually come to Armenia and Azerbaijan to meet the Presidents and engage at the state level, but they don't come close to the level of the ordinary people, so the ordinary people don't have any access to the OSCE Minsk Group representatives. So I suggest that they engage with the local people to hear their ideas, concerns and problems as this would be a positive factor which would positively contribute to the whole process.
Do you have a publicly expressed position on the Madrid Principles?
I think that the Madrid Principles are a normal document which should be accepted by the parties. I don't know why the Armenians don't accept it, but of course it has not been made pubic in its entirety, so I don't know what other kind of details are written in that document. But although the text is not public we know more or less what kinds of principles are embodied in the Madrid document. Only one thing is an issue of concern for me, and that is the referendum. This is the one issue on which the two Presidents cannot agree, and if they could reach an agreement on that issue, probably the other clauses of the document would be followed. In general the Principles are not against the national interests of Azerbaijan, and I think that the referendum issue can also be settled.
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?
Of course its a reality that the Azerbaijani government doesn't recognize the authorities of Nagorno-Karabakh. But since we consider the residents of Nagorno-Karabakh as citizens of Azerbaijan, we must listen to their concerns, try to understand them and try to see them as part of this process – not by giving the de facto authorities a part in the peace process – but by representing our Armenian citizens in Nagorno-Karabakh, we must listen to their problems and find a common language with them. But of course even though we don't recognize the de facto authorities in Nagorno-Karabakh (know that it is Armenia who occupied Nagorno-Karabakh and the surrounding regions and that the de facto authorities are an instrument in the hand of Armenia) it will also be necessary to have negotiations and discussions with the leaders of the Armenian community of Nagorno-Karabakh – this is very possible and there is no problem with this. But the Armenian community in Nagorno-Karabakh would also be disappointed and upset if the Armenian government was excluded from the peace negotiations process, because they consider the Armenian government as a support to them and force standing behind them.
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?
I think that Armenians are anxious with regards to the final status of Nagorno-Karabakh if they returned the occupied seven surrounding regions, because they probably think that if they return the regions – which have nothing to do with Nagorno-Karabakh – Azerbaijan will get an advantage and the final status will be further delayed so that Azerbaijan would be a winner and Armenia a loser. So that’s why it’s a very complicated issue and they are always discussing the date for the possible referendum, and there will be an ongoing puzzle for how the parties will determine the final status and succeed in getting the surrounding regions liberated. But Armenia must understand that they cannot keep the occupied Azerbaijani lands including Nagorno-Karabakh for a longer time as it is against international law and they must withdraw from there as soon as possible. This would also be in favor of Armenia since that step would significantly change the aggressor, Armenia’s, image into a positive one and increase the hopes for a real peaceful solution to the conflict.
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:
In my opinion the international actors which you mentioned in your question are very self-interested parties in the conflict, as they have their own national interests as superpowers, so I would prefer to see the involvement of other post-Soviet countries - such as Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Ukraine - in the resolution of the conflict rather than just giving power to those international superpower actors. I think that the post-Soviet countries I mentioned would be more sincerely involved in the peace resolution process.
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 think this is a really important issue since the NGO-level contributions would be really positive to the whole process, but unfortunately most of the NGOs are pro-governmental or controlled by the government, so their opportunities and resources are restricted. But I would say that we should give more room and opportunities to the independent NGOs, as they can really positively contribute to the peace building process. These NGOs must take an active part as we really need them as tools of public diplomacy, otherwise we can't reach anything out of this process. Unfortunately I have seen decreasing NGO activity in this process over the last couple of years and this is undesirable, I want to see the NGOs being more active.
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 that before signing a peace agreement it would be impossible. This is of course a different issue from round-table discussions and NGO-level meetings, which are quite possible, but for the ordinary people at the grass-roots level its not possible at the moment.
Do you think that Armenians and Azerbaijanis will ever be able to live together peacefully in Karabakh again in the future?
Yes of course. There have been conflicts between our two communities several times provoked by the Tsar Empire and Soviet leadership through the Dashnaksutyun para-military party in this region, and unfortunately under the political and military pressure of the Russian leadership, which has been always fostering Armenians, we lost our historical lands called Zangazur in 1918. That constitutes half of the current Armenian territory, then up to 1.5 million ethnic Azerbaijanis were evicted from their homeland in one century and the historical names of Azerbaijani settlements, villages, districts and cities were changed to Armenian. But again Azerbaijan showed a high tolerance and some years later they found a common language and managed and succeeded to coexist again and live together in the region. Now the world has more or less changed, we can explain the historical and actual reality to the international community, so, this time Azerbaijanis will unambiguously not give up its historical and juridical lands. The two communities of Nagorno-Karabakh understand well that all these conflicts happened due to political reasons stirred at the top, so thats why they understand that time will heal this wound and they will be able to coexist and again live a peaceful life together.
What is your opinion on the issue of return of refugees/IDPs to Nagorno-Karabakh?
I think that it will be very difficult to again mix the communities over-night where they used to live in mixed villages, cities and settlements. But there shouldn't be any problem for Azerbaijanis to live separately in their own villages – in those villages which were pure, Azeri settled villages within Nagorno-Karabakh – but of course time will allow them to step-by-step and from day-to-day find a common language and again begin to live mixed together in those villages which had both Azeri and Armenian communities as a united community. People will always find a way to communicate with one another, so I'm sure that this formula will work out in the future.
Read previous interviews in this series:
Benyamin Poghosyan reflects on ongoing domestic developments in neighbouring Georgia and Azerbaijan in this op-ed