Karabakh: The big debate
Commonspace.eu today publishes the fourth 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 Vahram Atanesyan, Member of the National Assembly of the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic and Chairman of its Foreign Affairs Committee
Interview with Rovshan Rzayev
Rovshan Rzayev was born in 1962. He firstly got his major in history and then in law. He started his career as a translator in court and was promoted to an official position in the Ministry of Justice. He was elected as a board member of the Nagorno-Karabakh Azerbaijani Community in 2009 as a result of support by members in the first congress of the Nagorno-Karabakh Azerbaijani Community. He was elected to the Parliament of Azerbaijan Republic in October in 2004. In the last parliamentary elections held in 2010 he was elected for his third term as a member of parliament. He is a vice-chair of the Parliament Legal Policy and State Building Committee. He is a member of the Germany-Azerbaijan and Baltic States Parliamentary friendship group. He has been dealing with the Nagorno-Karabakh Azerbaijani Community board member and represents the Community's political views within and out of his country. He is married with three children.
Biographical notes are provided by the interviewees themselves.
Can you summarize your overall position on the Karabakh conflict and the conflict resolution process?
As a member of the IDP community my main wish is to return to my homeland. What do I expect from the international community? First, I'm looking for justice. We are victims of Communism, I want to see a clear distinction between the approach of the Communist-era and the developed democratic countries of the international community. In the 20th century Azerbaijan was the victim of Communism, first with the cutting of our lands and their being given to Armenia. Then during the 70 years of Soviet rule the problem was made more complicated and not resolved, and so now Armenia claims that the Soviet-era borders are its genuine borders. Then when we got our second independence in 1991, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, we encountered the very big problem of maintaining the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan. In my opinion this was a result of the political games going on at the time around the issue, as well as the political structure and political hierarchy of the Soviet Union, and at the same time ongoing problems with the prevalent political thinking of the era on how to resolve such problems. We witnessed the invasion policy of Armenia during that time, the first massacre occurring on 17th February 1992 in Garadaghli village and the second bigger one occurring in the Khojaly district on the 26th of February 1992. After that we witnessed the occupation of Shusha city, where ethnic cleansing happened against Azerbaijanis. During these events, with the military support of Russia - namely military Unit 366 - those districts, cities and villages were occupied by Armenia and Russia (who greatly supported the Armenian armed forces).
Azerbaijan seeks the way of EU integration, and we are doing our best to accelerate this process and contribute positively towards it. We would like to see the fruits of our efforts, not just a process without any fruits. I also would like to stress that we wish to see fairness and justice, the Communist method is not the way to solve the issue with a fair end. That's why I believe in and rely on the policy which is carried out by the international superpowers, and the resolutions and other decisions made by the international governmental organisations. I believe in the mechanisms of implementation by those decisions made internationally according to international legal norms. I believe also that Europe must strive to eliminate the hot-beds and flash-points between its borders and its neighborhood. I also see a significant role for international legal norms in building and normalizing international relations between the conflicting parties. Without a strong role for international legal instruments and norms, what is the point of having international relations with one another?
The IDP community must be allowed to go back to their homelands, this process must be guaranteed. I say this as a member of the community. We cannot deny and ignore the existence of such a large number of people [regarding the refugee and IDP community]. Who is responsible for guaranteeing the return of IDPs and refugees to their homeland? Of course the international community, not only the parties. Its already been 20 years that we are awaiting a moment of real change. In August 2009 I was able to visit Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh - Yerevan, Khankendi (then Stepanakert) and Shusha - so I observed the situation in these regions, and I know what the situation on the Armenian side looks like.
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). Historically Nagorno-Karabakh was part of Azerbaijan. The biggest value for the nation of Azerbaijan is the independence of Azerbaijan, there is no other greater value. If we talk about taking away Nagorno-Karabakh from our territory, we are talking about going back to the situation of the 1980/90s when we lost our lands to occupation. Azerbaijan is a victim of this Armenian occupation, which was a medieval method of invading neighboring countries. On the other hand I would also like to mention that it was not only Armenia that attacked and occupied Azeri lands, they also had the help of Russia. That's why Nagorno-Karabakh must be an integral part of Azerbaijan and remain within our borders.
How we see the future of the Armenian community in Nagorno-Karabakh, and whether they will wish to stay there, is another question. In my opinion we must be committed to the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan based on the international principles and international law which guarantee the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan. But we must think about the fate of the Armenian community in Nagorno-Karabakh and the status of that community, and we must be able to give them a special status within the borders of Azerbaijan. To my mind both communities, the Armenian and Azerbaijani Communities of Nagorno-Karabakh, have to live peacefully together and they have to utilize the same from the status of this region equally.
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:
I have already answered this in the previous question.
Were you directly involved in the armed hostilities between 1989-94? If yes in what capacity?
On the 15th November 1991 my father was taken hostage by Armenians in Khankendi (then Stepanakert), and within 24 days, due to our efforts, we were able to secure his release. We were staying in Aghdam, and me and my brother, with the help of the Russian Commandant there, were able to enter in negotiations and mediations to get him released. So this is what I was involved with.
How do you evaluate the work of the OSCE Minsk Process?
As a member representing the Nagorno-Karabakh Azerbaijani Community I have had a meeting with the OSCE Minsk Group Co-Chairs once. The reality is that the Group is the sole serious body dealing with this issue, if they put aside the double standards, of course we can rely on them. I do have a deep respect for their activity, so I do really hope that the Group's activity is able to bear some fruits and I am against changing the format of mediation for the resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh problem. Quite a long time has passed already, and within this framework we can reach a stage to finalize the process. If the framework is changed, we will probably need more time to reach a final stage. The Group is already an experienced body, they are professionals, they know what is what in this conflict management and resolution process. Within this format we can find a fair solution. But it is still very unclear and foggy for me what exactly happens within the Minsk Group framework. France is officially representing the EU position, however in reality it is more taking into consideration its own interests - France does not properly represent the position of the whole EU. France is not the whole EU. Each international super power has its own economic and political interests in their management of the whole world, for example through NATO and the OSCE. Why do the other eleven founding countries of the OSCE not invite us to express our position and views? I think that more urgent action and a positive approach to these issues might lead to a better and easier solution to the problem. But in general I am satisfied by the framework.
Do you have a publicly expressed position on the Madrid Principles?
I unanimously support the Madrid Principles because there is a provision in that document which provides, without any precondition, for the return of the members of the Azerbaijani community evicted from Nagorno-Karabakh to their homeland. The right of return of the IDPs to their homeland must be guaranteed without any precondition. This is very important for me as many members of the IDP community are still suffering.
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?
It is very clear for us that the conflicting parties are Armenia and Azerbaijan. However as it has been a long time since the end of the armed hostilities, it may be possible to have Armenian-Azeri Nagorno-Karabakh Community meetings to build confidence between the two Communities, without engaging in the political peace process or decision making process. This may bear some fruit and have a positive impact. Regarding the involvement of the 'authorities' of the Nagorno-Karabakh region, it is my unanimous opinion and that of others that that criminal group which is now running Nagorno-Karabakh cannot be accepted as a party into the peace talks and peace negotiation process, as this is against everything - against humanity and against the international law. The communication between the communities [Azerbaijani and Armenian] is very important as everybody knows that it is mainly these people who will be living together and coexisting in Nagorno-Karabakh as neighbors - so it is very important to start such communication now between the communities, to exchange views and overcome stereotypes.
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?
When the conflict grew more intense in 1992, that was actually a completely different period. Today the situation is different. Taking into account that at that time Azerbaijan was not that well known within the international community, but now we have a very serious and well designed foreign policy, and we have good relations with the international community and superpowers - politically, economically and in other terms of relations. In 1992 there was an information blockade, Azerbaijan was incommunicado with the international community, whilst Armenia, with the help of its international diaspora, was trying to cheat the international community and justify its occupation of Nagorno-Karabakh and the surrounding territories, by claiming that it needed a buffer-zone for its own protection and to keep danger away form the border of Nagorno-Karabakh. But everybody knows that with modern weapons now, which have a long range, it is not sufficient to have a 50km buffer-zone, this cannot prevent a long range military weapon from hitting you. No one now believes that kind of bull-shit.
In my opinion the Armenian government and leadership would be smart to take a step forward by withdrawing their troops from the seven surrounding regions, in order to contribute positively and constructively to the negotiation process and to show the international community that they want real peace and that they are making real positive efforts. At the moment there are 70-75,000 Azeri community members of Nagorno-Karabakh, but including the occupied territories altogether the number of the Azerbaijani IDPs is 750,000 - this is a huge number. So to my understanding the international community cannot just play with the destiny of all these people. To keep this large number of people in their current circumstances is a real source of danger, and that is why the seven surrounding territories must be returned without any preconditions.
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:
I would like to remind you of a historical fact from the Karabakh war. In 1992 the Azerbaijan leadership was invited to Iran at that time, and the next day on the 8th May 1992, Shusha was occupied by Armenians. So Iran's role cannot be more than this, we see Iran's role as negative and it cannot be part of the process - this is not possible at all. The only country that I would rely on is the US, because the people in the US will understand the distinction and difference between Communism and developed democracy. Turkey is a noble country, and always together with Azerbaijan. The same character of relations exists between Iran and Armenia as we have with Turkey. Today Iran is giving grants of ten of millions of dollars to Armenia, and has provided them with a new gas pipe line and oil. There are also many Armenian members of parliament in Iran, and the two have meetings between their Presidents, Prime Ministers and Economic Ministers very often. Armenian and Iranian soldiers are moving freely across the borders between the occupied territories and Iran, and there is no official control of those forces. So you can imagine how Iran can fulfill its aim of enrichment for nuclear weapons by using the Nagorno-Karabakh region, as well as using it for drug trafficking. So these are our problems, the problems of the IDP community which I represent, which also impact the interests of other states. These are huge human rights problems also, as it has been 15 years since these people have not been able to participate in municipal elections.
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?
The real essence of this type of visits and research is to make our voice heard by the international community. This is my struggle and I will do my best in this struggle to achieve peace in the region by peaceful means. Only peaceful means. I am very supportive of such kinds of informal meetings and contributions at the NGO-level to the process. So I would even ask you to organize regular meetings between the Azerbaijani and Armenian communities, not outside the Nagorno-Karabakh region, but within its borders. These types of communications and informal meetings would help to accelerate the peace process, and to contribute to reaching a peace agreement very soon. I would also like to mention that a couple of months ago (8 March 2011), a 9-year-old Azerbaijani school boy was killed by Armenian sniper fire in Aghdam, and in Tovuz district a couple of days ago a 13-year-old girl was killed by a bomb hidden in a toy which arrived along the river flowing from Armenia. So informal meetings between the communities may take such incidents into consideration and also play a role to prevent these types of incidents from happening. So I think that this is very important and I really appreciate these kinds of efforts and ask you to encourage these types of initiatives.
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?
Of course its possible. For instance when I was in Nagorno-Karabakh as a group member, I didn't witness any aggression from any Armenian there. We had breakfast there in a public square outside of our hotel and all the people passing by did not saying anything bad to us. We were 300 meters from the headquarters of Baku Sakian [leader of Nagorno-Karabakh region], and as we were walking to the building we were approached by journalists from the newspapers operating in Nagorno-Karabakh, asking us to arrange a mutual exchange of journalists - allowing Azerbaijani journalists to go to Nagorno-Karabakh and write something, and arranging for Armenian journalists from Nagorno-Karabakh to visit Azerbaijan. So that was the reaction of the ordinary people at the grass-roots level. In Armenia, when I was having lunch there the waiters were asking us to visit again very often, and saying that they were at our disposal and were waiting to give us a very good service. In my opinion that was a reaction which showed the sincerity of the ordinary people at the grass-roots level. There are Armenians living in the district which I represent in parliament, and we don't have any communication problems with them. Therefore I think that we will be successful in bringing some warm weather to the process and driving it forward. This doesn't mean that there won't be any problems between the communities, as this is just as possible as it is in any society. However we must deliver correct messages to the societies. Even though we have a memory of ethnic cleansing and war on both sides, if we start communication between the communities now, we will ease the process of overcoming the stereotypes and solving the problems more concretely.
Do you think that Armenians and Azerbaijanis will ever be able to live together peacefully in Karabakh again in the future?
Yes, unanimously. The former Armenian President made a speech in Moscow at the Diplomatic Academy in 2003, stating that the Azerbaijanis and Armenians cannot fit each other ethnically and that is why they cannot live together. But of course its not like this. When I was in Shusha, I looked for my father's old Armenian friend and I found him there. We had a very good conversation and lunch together and we recalled the memories of my childhood, and he sent kind regards to my family after. My father was held hostage by Armenians in 1991, and tortured, but when I went to Shusha I didn't seek revenge - I had a good conversation and good lunch - which shows that the belief that we cannot live together and coexist is not true. We usually don't encounter or experience problems with Armenians anywhere else in the world - in Russia, in Ukraine or further abroad.
What is your opinion on the issue of return of refugees/IDPs to Nagorno-Karabakh?
I would like to deliver to you the opinion of our community members. Each of them wishes to return to their homeland, to go back to their homeland. I believe that we will get the final peace agreement by peaceful means, and I believe that we will be able to witness the return of IDPs to their homeland. I believe that as an MP able to voice my suggestions in the parliamentary sessions I will be able to contribute to that process to some extent, but ahead of me the Azerbaijani state is employing all means - in economic and other capacities - to make it happen.
Our one million IDPs and refugees are currently receiving financial aid from the government, but after the return of IDPs and Refugees to their homeland they will be given the opportunity to work and create revenue for their own state through income taxes. These people will also take part in the economic development of their state, as when the IDPs and refugees return to their homeland their daily life with restart. I believe that the Azerbaijani government will help them with this and work in partnership with the residents to achieve this. I also believe that the international community will work with us to restore the daily life in Nagorno-Karabakh, through projects and financial and rehabilitation programs. These are very important. The IDPs of Azerbaijan are not ordinary citizens, these people have very deep psychological and physical traumas from the war. These people have not had access to normal education or medical services, or other social services, so these people have been greatly negatively impacted. That's why I believe the international community will come to help us with the rehabilitation of Nagorno-Karabakh.
Finally, I would like to kindly ask and call Bako Saikyan as the leader of Armenian community of Nagorno-Karabakh to start dialogue and meetings between the two Armenian and Azerbaijani communities of Nagorno-Karabakh.
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