Karabakh: The big debate
Commonspace.eu today publishes the second 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, to be published on Thursday, 15 September, will be with Mr Masis Mayilyan, Chairman of the Foreign Policy and Security think tank and former Deputy Foreign Minister of the Nagorno Karabakh Republic.
Interview with Mr Bayram Safarov
Can you summarize your overall position on the Karabakh conflict and the conflict resolution process:
Bayram Safarov was born in 1951 in Shusha city. He graduated from the Baku branch of the Finance-Economics Institute in Leningrad named after I. Voznesenskiy and started his employment career in Shusha. In 1987 he was elected as a chairman of the Consumers' Society in Shusha and as a member of the Managing Board of "Azerittifag" and was nominated to the membership of the Council of Cooperatives Union of the USSR. From November 1991 to March 1992 he worked as deputy head of the Shusha district Executive Power. The invasion of Shusha city by Armenian military forces on May 8, 1992 forced him to be an IDP and he was temporarily resettled in Baku. On February 27, 2009 he was appointed the head of Executive Power of Shusha district with the decree of Ilham Aliyev, the president of the Republic of Azerbaijan. At the 1st Congress of "Azerbaijani Community of Upper Garabagh" Public Union he was elected the chairman of the Managing Board and the leader of the Community.
First I would like to point out that we, the Azerbaijan side are not the aggressors in any conflict as we have not occupied any territory. Also, all relevant international organisations have confirmed in their documents that Nagorno-Karabakh is an integral part of Azerbaijan, and that Armenia has occupied Nagorno-Karabakh and the seven surrounding regions. Armenia has no link to Nagorno-Karabakh. Up to one million Azerbaijani people of the occupied territories have lost their homes and also the heritage of their ancestors.
We used to be friendly nations [Azerbaijanis and Armenians] under the Soviet period, living together in the same region. At that time there was a great mutual respect between the nations. At the moment there are several ethnic minorities living in Azerbaijan, including Armenians - more than 35,000 - due to mixed marriages. We don't make any distinction between them and the other minorities in Azerbaijan. The only wish of us and our President is that the territories are liberated so that we can go back to our homeland.
The wish of all Azerbaijani people, as with any other country, is for a high level of social welfare - which the President is providing, as he takes care of all the people of the country, including the IDPs. We completely support the President's policy. We only accept peaceful means for regaining our occupied lands. But the Armenians are making this difficult by wasting time and trying to destroy the negotiation process. We will not give up our territories, and if we cannot get them back by peaceful means we will think about other means for the solution of the problem.
I want to go back to see the grave of my father and my brother - for twenty years I have been unable to put a single flower on the grave of my father - this in intolerable. The democratic countries of the international community don't think of this.
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 indefinable status?
(c). The territorial integrity of the Republic of Azerbaijan is not subject for discussion. This is the clear policy of the President and we completely support it. Every last person in Azerbaijan may die before this may be a subject for discussion. I used to live with Armenians in Shusha, so I know their mentality well. I even still receive messages from some Armenians who are friendly with me – when I was appointed to my current position I even received some congratulations from them. Until 1992 we didn't have any problems with the Armenians living in Nagorno-Karabakh because all of these people were citizens of Azerbaijan.
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:
Our main objection and concern is that Azerbaijani territory has been occupied. When the people of Azerbaijan return to their Nagorno-Karabakh homeland, coexisting and living with the Armenian community, it will be up to the Armenian community in Nagorno-Karabakh to decide if they want a separate status within Nagorno-Karabakh. I would also like to highlight that the Armenian residents of Nagorno-Karabakh are also citizens of Azerbaijan and therefore have a right to benefit from the economic development of Azerbaijan – to have a good life, to earn more money and to benefit from the economic growth in our country – we don't make any ethnic distinction between the citizens of our country, all have a right to benefit from this process.
Were you directly involved in the armed hostilities between 1989-94? If yes in what capacity?
At that time I was the Chairman of the Trade Union, I was responsible for providing the residents of Shusha with consumer goods as Armenians had stopped selling goods to Azeri people. The situation was very complex at that time, we even had to borrow military BTRs [Russian Armored Personnel Carriers] and helicopters to provide the grain to the people, as this was the only option available to us. We had to bargain with the Russian officers to help us with these logistics to deliver the goods to the people, we did this by selling the Russians our goods at very cheap prices and even giving them for free. They helped us out of their own self-interest, not out of humanity. I tried to do my best for my people in Nagorno-Karabakh in this capacity.
How do you evaluate the work of the OSCE Minsk Process?
Despite the fact that Armenia is an aggressor and Azerbaijan a victim, they put them on the same level – this is the first problem – and I don't know if the OSCE does this unfair thing intentionally. Secondly, despite spending a long time and coming here and saying things, there is no final product to their efforts or fruits out of the process. It is also a very irritating situation for me that the USA is providing financial aid to Armenia and at the same time the Russians are supporting Armenia with military equipment and munitions in excess of USD$1 billion (this is the official figure recognized by Russia, but there is probably more we don't know about). This is the issue of most concern for us. There is also a double standard with the UN Security Council, although they issued resolutions 19 years ago for Armenia to withdraw its troops from the occupied territories they are still here, but as we have seen, in Libya when the Security Council passed a resolution it was immediately implemented. So we ask ourselves - what is the respect of the international community to democracy and human rights? There is a double standard – when they want, they do, when they don't want, they don't do. I would also like to mention that from time to time, the Presidents of the three superpowers – France, the USA and Russia – issue joint statements about the Nagorno-Karabakh settlement process. I ask myself who the Armenian government thinks they are to ignore these statements and decision of the superpowers and not liberate the territories? I don't say that they are not doing anything – they visit Armenia and Azerbaijan and visit the parties – but they don't take a tough enough position and ask what Armenia is doing in the territory of Azerbaijan.
Do you have a publicly expressed position on the Madrid Principles?
In general as a community we accept the Madrid Principles as the Azerbaijani Ministry of Foreign Affairs is dealing with this issue and accepts them in principle. Also because the President is heading the process and it is under his control. The key principle for us is the provision which would allow us to go back to our homeland and ensure the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan including Nagorno-Karabakh.
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?
What kind of authority can there be in Nagorno-Karabakh at the moment? There are only about 25,000 people living there at the moment. I know the economy of Nagorno-Karabakh by heart – there is no way that they can survive. For a piece of bread they will have to go abroad. What kind of government can they have there? Even the people of Armenia are leaving their country to find a better life abroad. If you look at the attitude of the President of Armenia, you can see that he is not an independent person - to make a public statement at any event or ceremony, he needs to get the approval of the relevant elites. What authority does he have in Armenia? All the highly valued infrastructure in Armenia has been put there by the Russians – they have invested a lot – for example there is no Armenian railway, it is Russian, everything belongs to Russia. But in Azerbaijan, we have our own national railway. What independence does Armenia have? However it is understandable that Armenia should be part of the negotiation process as Armenia is the one occupying the territories.
No one in the world recognizes the status of the Nagorno-Karabakh authorities, not even Armenia – they are not courageous enough to do that. So, I would ask you not to say Nagorno-Karabakh 'authorities' in your question – you know that it is a fake puppet. At the moment Nagorno-Karabakh is only surviving financially by the transit of illegal drugs through it, like Afghanistan. This is how they make money for their daily life and it plays a big role in the financial provision of the territory. All these illegal substances are being sold in European markets, and you are seeing with your own eyes the tragedy it is bringing to the European people. The European governments are letting this issue destroy the future of their own people.
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?
There are many international documents already calling for the withdrawal of Armenian troops from the territories around Nagorno-Karabakh, but unfortunately they are not being implemented. This is a disgrace and sign of disrespect by Armenia towards the international superpowers. First of all the surrounding regions must be liberated – Armenia is responsible for this. Azerbaijan has increased its military capacity and is capable of liberating its own territories, our young people are ready to join the Azerbaijani army and liberate our territories.
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:
We never want the international community to merely imitate helping and assisting in the settlement, we only want them to work earnestly and honestly for justice. We need only justice from the international community. If you look at the foreign policy achievements of Azerbaijan you can see that most of the international superpowers consider Azerbaijan as their partners in different sectors and directions. What is the problem with Armenia, why don't they want Azerbaijan as a partner? The position of the Azerbaijani people is consistent between words and deeds. In all countries peoples are free and independent to choose where to live in the country, but this doesn't necessarily mean that they should eventually have the right to make a claim on the territory of the country.
The only thing we expect from the countries you mention is for them to care about us and to take a fair stance for justice in the process. I know that the EU is represented by France in the OSCE Minsk Process, but there are other countries in the EU. However they just rely on the position of France and do not express their views publicly. There are eleven countries in the Group, but only the three Co-Chairs are running the group. I would not say that any one country is our friend – any country which is taking a just stand on the concrete issues is our friend – we don' make a special distinction between the countries as 'friends' and 'enemies' as this would be prejudiced. I would say that peace in the South Caucuses would mean peace for the whole European continent, so that’s why European organisations and the UN must take firm decisions.
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 am ready and the Azerbaijani people are ready at any time to engage in such contacts, and we stand by the statements that we make. But frankly I would say that all the negotiations that are going on now are of a formal character, and if the mediators take a fair position on the issues, there will be a smooth peace agreement. My assessment of the usefulness of NGO-level contributions lies in whether the organizations are taking a just position and trying to find the real truth, if so, of course such contributions are very positive to the whole process. Otherwise, they are useless. Also if NGO missions say one thing here and something else in Armenia during their meetings with the people there, of course it will also be useless – in that case such organisations would only serve to discredit themselves, their image and their reputation among the local and international community.
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?
Such movement is desirable, peace can be achieved through contact between the peoples. The ordinary people don't know about the real details of the situation. Once ordinary Azerbaijanis go to Nagorno-Karabakh and the surrounding regions they will see the occupied, destroyed, burned-out houses and yards. If Armenians come here they would see new constructions, new buildings, schools, hospitals, Olympic complexes in Baku and other regions, brand new cars – BMWs and Mercedes – they would see that there is some real development going on here. They would see this as a real fact with their own eyes once they come here and would understand that this country is developing and that they, as citizens of Azerbaijan, also have a right to benefit from this process. This would be very attractive to them, especially in comparison to the destroyed regions.
Do you think that Armenians and Azerbaijanis will ever be able to live together peacefully in Karabakh again in the future?
Don't the English people leave in peace with the Scottish and the Irish people? The French with the German? In reality the Armenian people really want to live with the Azeri people, they are in dire of help and really need Azerbaijan. The ordinary Armenian people living in Nagorno-Karabakh are scared by the propaganda of the military leadership, the region is a completely militarized zone and they are a small people – no alternative option is available to them, they are in an isolated and blockaded position – they can only stay there or go to Armenia. They are scared and cannot express their own views. Our President has publicly stated that the Armenians from Nagorno-Karabakh can stay here and live together with the Azerbaijani people in Nagorno-Karabakh and we don't see any problem with this. This is our destiny. Forever we will have this fault line and we must learn to live together, we are neighbors. The Armenians only must accept the ID cards of the Azerbaijan Republic and we can live together in peace. Those who don't wish to have the option to go to Armenia, even though historically the lands of Armenia are actually the lands of Azerbaijan.
What is your opinion on the issue of return of IDPs to Nagorno-Karabakh?
The only thing to be done is the withdrawal of Armenian troops from the territory, that is the key thing, and then to clear the border area of mines and bombs. The President is taking care of all people, including IDPs, and if we get back our territory he will not allow us to encounter any problems. With our own wealth and the financial assistance of friendly countries we will be able to again rebuild the liberated territories so they look better than before, and we will restore all the infrastructure so people can get back to their daily lives. Azerbaijan is the only country which has a dedicated Ministry to deal with the affairs of IDPs, and they have built many new settlements. They are very experienced in this, and it would be no problem for the government to rebuild the territory and move the people there.
Read previous interviews in this series:
In this article, Yalchin Mammadov discusses the perceptions of young Azerbaijanis on the Western attitude towards the ongoing conflict.