Hikmat Hajiyev: Karabakh is an existential issue for Azerbaijan too, but we are ready to discuss how to resolve it
14 July 2019

Speaking at London think-tank Chatham House the head of the Azerbaijani Presidential Administration Foreign Relations Department expressed his frustration at lack of progress in the Karabakh peace talks.

On Thursday, 11 July, the Head of the Foreign Relations Department at the Azerbaijan presidential administration, Hikmat Hajiyev exchanged views on Azerbaijan's foreign policy priorities in a frank and open discussion with experts at London's Chatham House. The Karabakh conflict, relations with Georgia, EU-Azerbaijan relations and the geo-political context were some of the issues raised during the "on the record" discussion. Hajiyev expressed frustration with the conduct of the current Armenian authorities, saying  that Baku had hoped Pashinyan's coming to power was going to be a game changer but what they saw was one step forward and two steps backward. He denied that there were any serious problems between Azerbaijan and Georgia, describing the relationship as "romantic". Hajiyev was upbeat on the current state of relations between Azerbaijan and the European Union, saying that negotiations on a new agreement was progressing, and that two of the three chapters had already been agreed, and there were only a few issues outstanding in the third chapter.

In opening remarks at the start of the meeting Hajiyev said that Azerbaijan was marking the 100th anniversary of the establishment of its diplomatic network. Its foreign policy was defined by its historical experience, its geographical position, and the geo-political context. Its three core foreign policy objectives are strengthening Azerbaijani independence, restoration of territorial integrity and regional co-operation and it pursues this through three sets of tools, which he described as energy diplomacy, Transport diplomacy and "Good-Offices" diplomacy.

Karabakh is an existential issue for us too

Speaking on the Karabakh conflict, Hajiyev said that the informal meeting between president Ilham Aliyev and prime minister Nikol Pashinyan in Dushambe set the scene for strengthening the cease fire, the setup of hot lines and the start of substantive and constructive talks. At the meeting between the foreign ministers in Paris it was agreed to "prepare the people for peace". But since then Armenia has had "an unconstructive attitude" - and this has continued in other meetings in Davos, Vienna and Washington and a return to what Hajiyev described as the Sargsyan/Nalbandian style of negotiations.

Hajiyev said that Baku had hoped that the coming to power of Nikol Pashinyan would be a game-changer. Instead what they have seen is one step forward and two steps backward. The Foreign Minister and Defence Minister of Armenia were playing a game of good cop-bad cop, whilst Pashinyan himself will say one thing one day and the completer opposite the following day

In reply to a question by Laurence Broers, Hajiyev said that Armenia was trying to drag out the negotiation process as much as possible with the use of fine words, but with no substance, whilst trying to change the line of contact into a border. Azerbaijan was insisting that there should be substantive talks that would include discussions on step by step withdrawal of Armenian troops and return of lands to Azerbaijan. Armenian security concerns can be addressed simultaneously with this. Azerbaijan is ready for this, but the Armenian side keeps bringing up synthetic issues in order to avoid discussion on the substantive issues.

Answering a question from Tom du Waal about what was the Azerbaijani offer to the Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh, Hajiyev said that territorial integrity for any country was sacrosanct and that Azerbaijan could not let the creation of a state within its state. However Azerbaijan  was also ready to talk about how the Armenian community of Nagorno-Karabakh could exercise its right of self-determination within the Azerbaijani state. He said there were models in the European Union that could be looked at, including Alto Adige/Sud Tyrol and the Aaland Islands. Within the constitution of Azerbaijan there was also the model of Nakhichevan. He said constitutional experts from other countries could be asked to help develop the right model.

Hikmet Hajiyev said that the Armenian Foreign Minister had recently described the Karabakh issue as an existential issue for Armenia. Hajiyev said that Karabakh was also an existential issue for Azerbaijan. Azerbaijan did not want to deny the right of the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh for a secure and prosperous life. "We are ready to discuss the modalities", he said.

Azerbaijan-Georgia relations are "romantic"

Dennis Sammut asked about the state of Georgia-Azerbaijan relations, and concerns that Azerbaijan had mishandled the issue of the David Gareji Monastery on the border. Hajiyev said that Georgia-Azerbaijan relations were good, one could even describe them as romantic. "We respect one another" and we understand that we depend on each other. Azerbaijani businesses are the biggest tax payers in Georgia and 1.6 million Azerbaijani tourists visit Georgia every year. We have mutually beneficial projects such as BTC and TANAP. On the question of the David Gareji Monastery, Hajiyev said "I don't think we have a problem". There are issues around the demarcation of the border and a commission  with legal experts had been formed to resolve it based on the historical records and maps that exist. Issues like this even existed between the Netherlands and Belgium, Hajiev said. The Azerbaijani official admitted that there were what he called "emotional voices"  on this topic, but he thought these have now calmed down, and both Georgia and Azerbaijan understand the strategic value of their relationship.

Azerbaijan and the European Union

Dennis Sammut, Max Fras and Murad Ismayilov, asked several questions on EU-Azerbaijan relations, the Eastern Partnership and the EU's position on the Karabakh conflict.

Hikmet Hajiyev welcomed the recent visit to Baku of EU Council president Donald Tusk, which he described as extremely fruitful and positive. He said good progress had been made in the negotiation of a new agreement between Azerbaijan and the EU and the Political and Sectorial chapters had been closed, and now the only "couple of issues" remaining were on Trade. Hajiyev noted that the EU supports the territorial integrity of all Eastern Partnership countries, including Azerbaijan.  He said he did not want to anticipate the negotiation process on the new agreement, but in the EU-Azerbaijan partnership priorities document, the issue of the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan  was highlighted, "and it will not be a surprise" if this is also reflected in the new agreement. Hajiyev said he hoped that the position of the EU in its relations with Azerbaijan  will not change once the new EU leaders take over later in the year.

Talking on the Eastern Partnership Hajiev said the one size fits all approach needed to be avoided. Different countries had different economic potential. Azerbaijan was not going to ask for economic aid from the EU.

Azerbaijan's foreign policy

Tamara Dragadze, Jakub Csabay and others asked questions about relations with Russia, China, UK, and the Global South.  Hajiyev said that there was a strategic dialogue between president Putin and president Aliyev and Azerbaijan had established a good relationship with Russia, including through solid economic relations. On China's "Belt and Road" initiative Hajiyev said that it fitted in the transport strategy of Azerbaijan. Hajiyev hailed the relations with the UK and said he was sure they will continue after Brexit. He reminded of the support of the UK in the early days after Azerbaijan regained its independence in 1991, emphasising that friends in need are friends indeed.

Azerbaijan was pursuing good relations with all its neighbours through bilateral and trilateral formats. Armenia was the exception because of the current conflict, but Armenia was losing out. Hajiyev hailed the report published by the consultancy Berlin Economics earlier this year on the economic benefits of peace, and said this clearly showed the heavy cost the conflict had on Armenia. Hajiyev said that Pashinyan's vision for a prosperous Armenia could only be achieved if there was peace in the region.

Again on Armenia

Oxford scholar Andranik Israyelian challenged Hajiyev on a number of points, including on Karabakh, Azerbaijani  governance issues, Armenians right to live in their ancestral lands, the right of self-determination of the Karabakh people and the destruction of Armenian cultural heritage in Azerbaijan. Hajiyev said that he was disappointed that young Armenians were not ready to adopt a fresh approach to their relations with Azerbaijan. Hajiyev said that every country's prosperity depends on good relations with its neighbours. He believed that there should be an Armenia that was prosperous, but this was only going to be possible if there was peace in the region.

The Chatham House meeting was chaired by Lubika Pollikova from the Russia and Eurasia Programme. Also present for the event was Taher Taghizadeh, the Azerbaijani Ambassador in London.

Hikmat Hajiev later tweeted: